Sunday 12 May 2019

Blurred Boundaries: magic, graffiti, and the medieval church

"Two householdsboth alike in dignity, in fair Verona, where we lay our scene, from ancient grudge break to new mutiny, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean."

Well, to be totally honest, it was Waterstones cafe in Norwich rather than Verona, and the two households were a pair of forty-something mums, accompanied by two teenage girls who may, perhaps when I was looking elsewhere, have looked up from their phone screens. They were probably messaging each other about the horrors of having to be seen in public with a 'parent'. We've all been there.

I was only there by accident anyway, my favourite coffee venue - the Little Red Roaster* -  being stuffed to capacity, so I fell back on a Waterstones pot of tea for one, and their rather good cake selection. See, I can be civilised. The mums and teens were on the next table, so I do have an excuse for overhearing their conversation. Not many of us on the tables in that vicinity had much of a choice as it turned out.

What followed was a discussion. I use the term 'discussion' in this context rather loosely. The discussion became, at times, almost heated - or at least animated enough to make at least one of the teenagers briefly glance up from their phone. It had begun in the teenage literature section of the store, with one of the mums finding fault with the popularity of fiction that appeared to involve vampires, werewolves, and the supernatural. She wasn't even keen, it transpired, on Harry Potter. It would, she appeared to firmly believe, send the wrong message to the young adults reading such books, and legitimised the occult and ideas of magic. It was definitely not the message she wanted to send to her daughter (slight raised eyebrows in front of a phone screen). The other mum was of the opposite opinion. Anything that got young people reading, and away from their phones, was a good thing. Anyway, she argued, it was all harmless, and none of it was real. However, the discussion only really got intense when she pointed out that Christianity was pretty much the same. It was just another form of 'magic' and 'superstition', and the fact that it was seen as acceptable by mum number one, whilst Supernatural and Harry Potter were not, was just a matter of perspective.

The actual shock and outrage of mum number one was palpable, and I get the feeling that the rest of Saturday's shopping trip may have been 'strained'. It may not have been an 'ancient grudge', but 'new mutiny' was most certainly not far from the surface.

So really it is all down to the definition of what does and does not constitute 'magic'? Not a new argument I'll admit. Just about everyone who has ever written about the areas that sit outside the orthodox beliefs of the medieval church has felt the need to try and define exactly what magic really is. That this is the case is really perhaps fundamental to any analysis of magic in the pre-reformation era. The exact definition of what constituted magical activity is by no means set and standard, and varies greatly depending upon which area, era, or which evidence, you choose to study. And the same that is true now was also true at the time. Cases that found themselves before the church courts dealing with what we may generically term 'magical activities' were often there, not to bring down the might of the medieval church and hand out just retribution, but were rather brought before the learned authorities of the church to decide whether any wrongdoing had actually taken place? Had the activities of the individual brought before the court actually crossed the boundary between what was theologically acceptable, and that which was not? It was most certainly the argument of many a defendant that their activities had been lawful within the eyes of the church, and that they had been acting not against the church or the will of God, but, if not with His overt blessing and collusion, at least within the loose frameworks of theology and belief accepted by the Church.

For the early Church the definition of magic was, at least on paper, fairly straightforward, and typically hostile. As Ronald Hutton makes clear, the church authorities regarded 'all attempts to wield spiritual power to achieve material ends as demonic unless deployed by its own accredited representatives'. The situation would appear straightforward, giving, in the simplest of terms, a complete monopoly on spiritually influencing the material world to the church and its appointed officers. If such activities lay outside the church then they were coming, not from God, but from the devil. This overriding position encompassed all forms of magical activity - from formal ritual magic, to charms, scrying and divination - at least technically. However, whilst the 'official' position of the Church as an entity was exceedingly clear, the realities of the day-to-day, particularly at a parish level, were often very different.

Whilst all levels of the church may condemn 'maleficium', essentially the acts of witches and witch craft, what might be considered less harmful acts, such as healing charms and divination, were clearly tolerated at a parish level. Although this undoubtedly altered from parish to parish, and there were unquestionably instances when even the most benign wise woman or cunning man found themselves facing accusations or inquisition from the church authorities, it creates a deep seated ambiguity when examining medieval attitudes towards magic. All magic was formally condemned, and yet some magic was tolerated, but there were no definite forms or guidelines that would indicate when the line had been crossed from one to the other, and a realism that, even were there clear lines of demarcation, they could shift from one time or place to another.

The situation became more ambiguous still when these acts of what might be termed petty magic were discovered to have been carried out by the priests and officers of the church itself. Where records do survive, and they are admittedly relatively few and far between, it is clear that one of the main categories of individual who find themselves facing inquiries into their magical activities are actually parish priests and other members of the clergy. Those who should have been staunchly upholding the official church position that all forms of magic were unlawful, were the very people being accused of carrying out such acts.

The gatehouse of St Benet's Abbey. Watercolour by David Killick.

In some cases the misdemeanours of those in holy orders was on a scale far beyond the casual and everyday charms and incantations, and may relate specifically to the act of summoning demons and spirits. The case of William Stapleton in the early sixteenth century is perhaps one of the most complete and enlightening. A full account of Stapleton's activities, and 'all things committed and done by me', were detailed in a long letter that he wrote to Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII. Stapleton was, by his own admission, a monk of St Benet's Abbey in Norfolk. Whilst residing at the abbey Stapleton was brought two books relating to the summoning of spirits, the Thesaurus Spirituum and the Secreta Secretorum, by one 'Denys of Hofton', who had had them in turn from the vicar of Watton. From the other instruments supplied by Denys it is clear that Stapleton was intent on undertaking a campaign of 'treasure hunting' with the aid of spirit guides. Such activities were not wholly uncommon in the period, and usually involved digging into ancient sites, barrows, and burial grounds in the hope of finding precious metals.

Stapleton was obviously not wholly happy with his vocation as a monk, having fallen foul of his superiors due to his tardiness and general failure to carry out his duties in the church. He therefore applied to buy his freedom from his vows, possibly becoming a solitary hermit instead, but was refused due to his poverty and inability to raise sufficient funds. However, the Prior was not wholly without sympathy, or perhaps just desiring to see the back of such a lacklustre example to his fellow monks, so granted him a six month leave of absence in which he could attempt to raise sufficient funds to buy his freedom. If he failed to raise the money, at the end of the six month period Stapleton was to return meekly to his cloistered life.

Stapleton's next few months were characterised by what can be termed feverish activity. In association with a number of ever changing individuals he set out on numerous expeditions across Norfolk and Suffolk, working for himself or a variety of patrons, to search for hidden treasures. He was almost wholly without any form of success, with the exception of his earning a rather lavish reward of £46 for carrying out an unspecified act that he did not care to talk about - but appears to have been not directly related to his treasure hunting activities. However, Stapleton's abject failure to locate hidden treasures is perhaps of less interest than the community of magical practitioners that it brought him into contact with, and which he documented in detail to Thomas Cromwell. Whilst Stapleton's account is at times fragmentary, and obviously glossing over areas that he would rather not discuss, what is very clear is that a large number of those individuals involved in his immediate circle of practitioners were in holy orders. These included the parson of Lesingham, the parish priest of Leiston, the parish priest of Gorleston, and the parson of Wanstrowe, several of whom were clearly already engaged in these activities, and had access to further magical volumes.
Stapleton's account is by no means alone. I could talk of the reverend John Betson who, in 1564, was ordered to hand in to the church authorities books which he had used in ceremonies to help his parishioners recover stolen goods. The three Norfolk priests who, in the same year of 1586, were all accused of 'conjuring'. The list goes on. However, what makes Stapleton's account so informative is that it goes beyond just the, never dry, accounts of the church courts. It isn't just a list of who did what, with whom, and which animal was involved, but gives a glimpse into the diversity of these networks that sat upon the fringes of the church. The men of religion who dabbled with things that sat outside what might be thought of as their own realms. They didn't delve deliberately into the dark arts, but they most certainly tried their luck in a good variety of grey areas. They operated on the boundaries, in more ways than one.

These boundaries between the formal teachings of the church, and the informal beliefs of the medieval parish, are an area I have become familiar with. It is my area of study. The ritual protection marks, taper burn marks, concealed items, of the late medieval and Tudor church. The 'ritual' of the medieval parish that sat outside anything you will find in the Bible or Book of Common Prayer. The actions, ceremonies and rituals for which evidence will be lacking to historians who study only the formal texts, but evidence for which is writ large on every church and cathedral that survives from the Middle Ages. The acts of the 'other'. The evidence is carved into the stones, the glass, the timber, and the lead - all there to be read by anyone who cares to look. However, these areas of ritual - or worship - do not sit outside the confines of the church, they are not separate from the prayers of the parish priest, but rather a physical manifestation and reinforcement of those prayers and offerings. They are complex, they are nuanced, they are sometimes indecipherable, but they are most certainly no more outside the beliefs of the church than Stapleton's prayers to God before he attempted to summon spirits to his aid. They are not even superstitions, but rather what happens when orthodox theology meets lay piety and tradition head on. The result is not a chaotic crash, and violent mangling of beliefs, but rather a pragmatic compromise and assimilation. A mingling of beliefs. The early church should at least be familiar with THAT concept. Waterstones sells books on the subject.

*shameless plug in the hope of a free cup of coffee