Magic During the Renaissance
Salt Lake Community College
July 26, 2007
Magic During the Renaissance
Nearly 600 years ago between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries European society came out of what historians
call Medieval Times and entered the Renaissance. One thing was constant– people could scarcely believe what was happening
in and to their world:
printing press was already working at full speed
. The Crusades had brought the East closer to the
its mysteries now seemed less impenetrable, as
trade reached across the Mediterranean.
with the discovery of America, the equilibrium of
was disturbed. The social revolution implicit
the Peasants’ War in Germany, the Reformation,
political expansion by the House of Hapsburg, the
marasmus aggravated by inflation, caused
by the abundance of gold imported from America,
the constant threat of Turkish invasion, created an
of instability. (Seligmann, 1997, pp. 206-7)
Renaissance society was changing at a greater rate than traditional social institutions could keep up with. Experiencing
cultural lag, such institutions were in need of reform to meet the needs of a people feeling dislocated and unsure of their
A revitalization movement was started to reconcile and answer such feelings of anomie. The movement was toward
reformation, which relied heavily upon magic and various interpretations of magic. Magic during the Renaissance was an ideology
used to explain phenomena otherwise unexplainable. People believed what was unexplainable was supernatural, and by manipulating
the supernatural, that is by practicing magic, supernatural forces could be channeled into people’s lives. How magic
was interpreted as “divinely” or “demonically” inspired is what gave credence to its practice. Magic
became a functional equivalent of religion, as it was never wholly recognized as a religion itself but fulfilled similar needs.
Renaissance magic elevated an individual’s control over present needs and conditions and provided a kind of spiritual-intellectual
refuge in a constantly changing world. Once properly allied with changing societal concerns, magic and its ideology could
re-define values and ease a shift toward secularization. This paper will discuss how changing interpretations of magic
influenced Renaissance gravitation toward reformation and secularization and its subsequent affect on gender stratification.
Experimenting with Magic
During the Renaissance, people came to understand natural forces in their environment via experimentation. Experimentation
in various “scientific” fields was rooted in magic and continued to produce otherwise unexplainable results at
an accelerated rate. Answers and implications stemming from magical experiments were frequently contradictory and threatening
to prevailing scholastic and religious ideology, bringing attention to a fallacy in Medieval knowledge. Reformation thus took
place outside traditional social institutions, leaving ideas about magic’s role in society up for individual examination.
Magic was a double edged sword– imperative to studying and understanding life while also destroying what people previously
believed to be true.
Magic itself was what needed reformation so it could provide justification for the reformative dynamic it was helping
to catalyze. Before magic could be reformed, it had to change its former status. Medieval demonic magic was broadened and
transmuted into reformed, classically inspired religious magic by allying itself with changing attitudes and perspectives.
Renaissance attitude was against Medieval scholasticism and prevailing cultural context, that is methods and
instruments, of attaining and transmitting knowledge. Unhindered by accumulated degradation of what previously passed as knowledge,
a revival of classics accordingly meant a return to and hope for a pure, golden culture. New vernacular translations and study
of Greek and Christian works shifted “authors” and “authorities,” providing a new, more accessible
framework for reforming Renaissance culture (Garin, 1997, p. 134). Where rigid Aristotelianism formerly reigned, Stoicism,
Platonism and Pythagorianism, often leaden with magic, created a return to topics of immortality and everlasting fame (Kristeller,
1979, p. 187). Popularity of such secular philosophies even prompted the Lateran decree of 1513 whereby the soul’s immortality
was established as Catholic dogma (Kristeller, 1979, p. 191).
Perception became more “human” and secular, people’s activities and behaviors became central,
and intellectual pursuits became “an investigation of man’s action in the world and of his destiny”
(Kristeller, 1979, p. 167; Garin, 1997. p. 129).
Renaissance man was a universalist, someone who’s knowledge and actions spanned various fields and disciplines,
but specifically someone “deeply involved in the problems of contemporary society, the city, and the family . . . [and
someone who had] an awareness of the dramatic nature of the human condition” (Garin, 1997, p. 143). Fields oriented
to aid humanity, like medicine, were at once praised and celebrated, including their magical overtones and undertones “for
what physician and what patient would not try all means [whether magical or not] to determine an accurate prognosis?”
(Hall, 1994, p. 168).
Magic and its alignment with such attitudes and perspectives on humanity couched itself in a kind of spiritual
elitism where “knowledge became an ethic and a ritual as well”(Albanese, 1981, p. 185). Those with social
and financial ability to access education became the sociopolitical leaders of reformation.
Magic and its practice was no longer a bizarre underground phenomenon barely visible or hardly advocated
during the Renaissance, but infiltrated nearly all aspects of European society. Magic found itself participating in political
culture where self-proclaimed magicians collaborated with princes and cardinals, elevating the status of Medieval magicians
to Renaissance Magus. Financial backing from prominent families such as the Medici’s allowed magicians a higher degree
of social networking and a vast audience via new institutions from which they could teach and practice, all while keeping
small circles to work on “secret,” more radical ideas, technologies and experiments (Garin, 1997, p. 142).
Each magician pursued different metaphysical systems, all with an intent to elevate individual free will. Greater latitude
was gained by people in regard to what teaching or teachings they followed, befitting a constantly changing world and demonstrating
the degree to which magic and its proponents increased social mobility and paved the road to reformation and secularization.
Reformed magic had to give meaning and necessity to the social changes happening in society. What helped reform
of Medieval magic to Renaissance magic was an atmosphere created by new interpretations and translations of classic works,
justifying a grassroots or “natural” magic. The new atmosphere was one in which linguistics were of extreme importance,
where relations between words and objects came under extensive examination. The use of language in such a relation to natural
phenomena and objects led to nature being seen as a kind of book, which could only be translated with new or reformed technology
(Garin, 1997, pp. 131, 151).
New interpretation of the Bible meant it was still an icon or talisman, “as the physical manifestation of
the word of God,” only the power to use it, to read and understand it, was open to more people, diffusing interpretation
from ecclesia to secular or more profane people (Simon, 2007, p. 29). New interpretation of the Old Testament “indicated
the superiority of man over all other creatures . . . although on account of Adam’s fall, he had lost much of his natural
dignity” (Kristeller, 1979, p. 170).
Emphasis on the superiority of man was taken to mean man should exert by his natural, divinely ordained dignity,
control over nature in pursuit of attaining his original dignity. Man’s dignity was linked inherently with his immortality
and everlasting fame, hence a stress on individuality and adherence to works of individuals possessing an everlasting fame.
Enter natural magic with its practical methods to understand and manipulate forces of the physical world to attain a wisdom,
a fame and immortality of Genesis and Platonism, hindered by Medieval scholasticism and orthodox religious practices.
Leading a transition to natural magic was Marsilio Ficino (1433-99). Ficino was strongly influenced by the Hermetica,
a group of treatises on magical ideology and practice, attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. Hermes was believed to be an Egyptian
priest imbued with ancient and secret wisdom of the universe. Although Hermes’ authorship was disproved around 1588,
it shed much light on why the Hermetica was looked upon so highly for so long (Yeats, 1991, p. 399). The Hermetica was written
around the third century, where Renaissance readers found themselves returning “to that religion of the world, strongly
tinged with magic and oriental influences, . . . the refuge of weary pagans seeking an answer to life’s problems other
than that offered by . . . the early Christians” (Yeats, 1991, p. 2). Ficino was careful, however, with his use of Hermetic
magic and his Neoplatonic justification to avoid what ecclesiastics deemed pagan heresy. Pursuing a universal truth
so idealized during the Renaissance, Ficino claimed “all other religions are based on man’s fundamental desire
for God, that they all aim . . . at the one true God, [being] species of the same genus religion of which Christianity constitutes
the most perfect” (Kristeller, 1979, p. 204). Ficino’s interpretation of Hermetic magic was reformed or rather
re-Christianized by aligning its Platonic and Gnostic ideas with traditional Christian theology.
Ficino’s magic was based upon “degrees by which the reflections of the Divine Ideas descended into
the world here below” (Yeats, 1991, p. 66). Higher forms of such degrees could essentially alter lower ones and with
Ficino’s magic, man came into position to manipulate and control nature by use of talismans and talismanic images (Yeats,
1991, pp. 64-5). All natural objects were endowed with a sort of divine virtue and by knowing which virtues corresponded to
which objects or talismans, a practitioner could channel certain “good fortune” into their life. Ficino’s
magic and Neoplatonic ideology was a way of elevating philosophy to theology, creating a religious natural magic. Ficinian
magic was a manifestation of understanding the language of the world and putting it to use in physical reality where man,
by virtue of his divine dignity, was given a distinct position and destiny in the universe. Talismanic power confined to priests
was now in the hands of many, which was very appetizing for people who wanted security, control, and identity in a quickly
A step further was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s magic (1463-94). Uniting Cabala with Ficinian magic, Pico
established Hermetic-Cabalist magic and religion (Yeats, 1991, p. 86). Pico’s Cabalist extension of Ficino’s natural
magic allowed practitioners to go beyond the realm of natural cosmos, reaching angels, archangels, and even God via manipulation
of Hebrew letters. Hebrew, as the Biblical language of God, was instilled with divine power and magic. Cabalistic magic, involving
Pythagoriansim, used numerical values of Hebrew letters to contact and channel “good” spirits, angels and God,
separating Pico’s “pious” magic from Medieval demonic magic, as it was divinely reformed and inspired (Yeats,
1991, pp. 98-9).
Pico’s magic, although deeply religious, complex and artistic came under intense heat from theologians
and ecclesiastics, unseen with Ficino’s natural magic, precisely because Pico’s magic gave individuals direct
access to God without need of ecclesia (Yeats, 1991, p. 104). Heat came from a fire for purification of religion which questioned
whether magic should be and if magic already was involved in religion. Largely instigated by John Wyclif and the Lollards
around 1395, allegations of “ecclesiastical magic” branded rituals such as the Eucharist, blessing of bells, and
use of blessed wax lambs as demonically influenced by magic (Greenwood, 2001, 138-9). By Pico’s time, such claims were
defended, although not always accepted, as wholly separate from demonic magic and invested with power solely by God (Yeats,
1991, p. 113). Pico asserted, however, by similar linkage with Godly power, his reformed magic helped lead practitioners to
greater spiritual awareness and confirmation of Christianity’s truth (Yeats, 1991, p. 106).
Expounding on the benevolence of his magic, Pico’s Oration on the Dignity of Man disagreed with Hermetism
on one point– what ecclesiastics considered gnostic heresy whereby man was capable of becoming a “divine being.”
Pico rather allowed man to only become a “divine man.” Man was not equal with God on account of his having no
clearly defined essence or nature, being given, upon his creation, every gift associated with every other terrestrial being
(Yeats, 1991, p. 111; Kristeller, 1979, p. 174). Man’s ambiguous position was congruously oriented with his burgeoning
secular lack of identity and strive toward universalism. By man’s own will he could become whatever he wanted, but ultimately
his goal was to reach his individual divinity (Kristeller, 1979, p. 175).
Pico’s popularity laid in his Stoic stress of man’s dignity being focused on and measured by man’s
free choice of leading a better moral and intellectual life. Having no specific place in a metaphysical hierarchy of powers,
man was ranked and judged according to his choices alone (Kristeller, 1979, p. 176). It is not difficult to see why Pico’s
notions were considered threatening to orthodoxy, especially with his emphasis on secularization and individuality. Pico’s
writings on magic and Cabala were condemned as heresy in 1487 by Innocent VIII. Pico’s work was not kept in silence
long, however, and his Dignity of Man was absolved and published in 1493 by Innocent’s successor, Alexander VI, as a
valuable aid to Christianity which all interested in should accept as unimpeachable orthodoxy (Yeats, 1991, p. 114). Pico’s
work doubtlessly influenced subsequent popular reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin when they joined the debate
regarding free will in their works The Bondage of the Will and Free Will and Predestination, respectively.
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), another self-proclaimed magician, added to Pico’s magic a role of
priestly magic and performance of miracles. Agrippa claimed miracles could be performed by priests on account of “divine
magical religion,” which was based on faith, and to a lesser extent, “superstitious religion,” based on
credulity (Yeats, 1991, p. 138). Agrippa’s priests, performing priestly magic including religious services and miracles,
were to lead a new society– a pure and golden theocracy based on divine magical religion (Yeats, 1991, p. 142). Agrippa’s
magic, miracles and clergy was the most radical attempt at reformation magic attained. Agrippa’s rationalization was
displayed by a letter sent in 1535 to officially recognized professors and theologians of Cologne: “these filthy hogs,
are in the habit, when [they dislike or fail to understand something], of going about grunting about heresy, scandal, spells,
superstition, and evil influences, condemning as pagan perfidy all classical philosophy except their pestilential Aristotle”
(Garin, 1997, p. 147).
Agrippa’s apology for magic explained how magic was now well beyond mere spells and conjuring, being a complex,
highly intellectual and religious matter, greatly evolved from pagan and Medieval Times. Agrippa as one of the strongest,
most radical proponents of reformed magic also tried to reform the status of women on similar religious grounds.
Magic’s Affects on Gender Stratification
As already hinted at in this paper, the Renaissance was a time for exaltation of man, not woman. Renaissance revival
was oriented toward Christian classics, especially the Bible, where works were only viable if they advocated Christianity
or in some way heralded it (Kristeller, 1979, p. 70). Many Christian texts revived did not include Gnostic feminist ideas
like those found over 500 years later at Nag Hammadi, which sharply contrast traditional Christian ideas of women’s
roles, identities and self-expression (Pagels, 1989, pp. 48-69). Reformation of magic in many aspects was really revival of
third century male hegemony, casting a shadow of traditionalist ideology in Medieval magic’s reformation. It is also
why many books and treatises on reformed magic did not even mention women, addressing men and male audiences only.
Agrippa was one of the few exceptions. He defended women’s rights to practice magic and participate in secular
society in his treatise De nobilitate et preaecellentia sexus foeminei. Agrippa’s statements were groundbreaking
as he saw the only difference between male and female was anatomical. Created for the same end, women and men equally posses
the gifts of spirit, reason, and words. Adam, not Eve, had been the greater sinner . . . and thus Jesus chose to come as man,
not woman, for the redemption of the race. (King, 1997, p. 246)
Other leading reformers, although not self-proclaimed magicians, fully supported Agrippa’s Biblically sanctioned
feminism. Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) saw education as far more valuable and useful to women compared to domestic chores
and other such pursuits holding women back from the public sphere (King , 1997, p. 246). Sir Thomas Elyot (1490-1546) followed
up with The Defence of Good Women, asserting women’s rationality as beyond men’s with women as fully capable of,
if not better at, being sociopolitical leaders (Jordan, 1987, pp. 247-50).
Such work was not enough and had too few followers to sanction women’s participation in magic’s reformation
despite women’s financial or social power. Women were persecuted much more often, especially for suspicion alone of
practicing magic because ecclesiastically and secularly it was acceptable for women to “receive divine inspiration and
share divine compassion, [but not] to define doctrine or guide new institutions” (King, 1997, p. 231). Women could gain
some power and freedom of expression in religious organizations, but only under ecclesiastic and social order which held women
responsible for male fallacies. Women who assumed traditional male roles were admired by few, but generally distrusted by
those challenged simply by their presence. Such women were labeled “Amazonian” and were not only perceived, but
viewed themselves as “masculinized, fierce and grotesque,” escaping such “deformities” only by adopting
strict traditional female regulations of chastity, silence, and obedience (King, 1997, p. 244).
Women became scapegoats of mounting resentment to reformed magic’s pervasiveness and power. Although it was
men at the forefront of reformed magic, women received the stigma of “witch” far more often, suffering physical
punishment and even death while men who openly practiced magic were usually only criticized. “From 1480-1700 more women
were killed for witchcraft (usually by burning) than for all other crimes put together . . . [and] 70-90 percent of all persons
accused and convicted of witchcraft were female, usually widows or spinsters” (King, 1997, p. 230). Women lacking ties
to the domestic realm or women entering the public sector were especially targeted for practicing demonic magic. Medieval
magic’s reformation had many of its adverse affects manifested here in gender stratification, corporally reinforcing
traditional gender roles.
The role of gender in magic’s interpretation and reformation was further strengthened by a handbook for witch-hunting
published in 1487– the Malleus Maleficarum. Malleus intended to prove the existence of witchcraft, how more witches
were female than male, hence the feminine noun malefica, and how witches were to be handled judicially (“Malleus Malificarum,”
n.d.). By forgery of papal approval alone Malleus Maleficarum experienced popularity, greatly enraging the Inquisition since
they condemned the manual for its unethical and illegal judiciary procedures (Gibbons, n.d.). Such evidence suggests the manual
was not as influential as legend would yield, but its labeling of women stigmatized any who dared challenge traditional norms,
regardless of revival of feminist works or other writing, exalting women in secular, political and religious roles.
Magic of Ficino, Pico and Agrippa is nothing short of addressing the unfulfilled needs of subscribers to the Church.
People wanted hope for a peaceful future society, ensuring security and stability, but ecclesia failed to provide such hope
or rather the miracles to inspire and foster hope. Renaissance magic took Christianity back to its cultic roots “of
Jewish occultism and mysticism as well as practices and beliefs . . . [of] the Gnostics and other Middle Eastern sects and
cults” (Simon, 2007, p. 24). It provided miracles and answers people needed in Christian terms, essentially reviving
magic already present in Christianity. Christian symbols were re-defined and brought to new use or rather used in new conditions
of Renaissance society. Such symbols became part of talismanic and finally priestly magic, promising a chance to grasp immortality
and fame of people like Plato, Seneca, and Hermes Trismegistus. Intermediaries between secular society and supernatural powers
went from ecclesia to individuals, or rather filtered to those with education in diverse disciplines who would help reform
society and the status quo. As knowledge and education expanded, although not to everyone, it permeated society, leaving hardly
any discipline unscathed and unravished by magical means. Such conclusions speak to the dynamic of reformation, secularization
and gender stratification of European society and its additional connection to modern day society. How and where exactly such
connections exist, much like magic’s role during Renaissance society, is still largely up for individual examination.
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