When you first start reading the medieval fencing manuals, one of the curious things you keep running into is magic. As with so much about these strange and fascinating books, this is hard to know what to do with. Like most people I basically skipped over it. But as time went on, I was drawn deeper and deeper into trying to understand the context of the fencing manuals, and the world from which the fencing masters emerged. As curiosity grew, it bothered me more to skip over anything, as every detail seems to be important.
In addition to fencing and to historical research, I write game books for RPGs, so this year with a little extra free time on my hands, I decided to really take a deep dive into the subject of late medieval magic, and see if I could introduce it to gamers and thereby some small corner of the popular culture. This article is meant to share some of the same research with the historical fencing community.
Medieval history in general is a very complex subject and one which people in our own era are generally ill-prepared for, since so little accurate information about this period has made it into our popular culture. Most educated people today know more about Ancient Greece or Rome than they do about medieval societies, and typically assume this is because we have more written records from the Classical world, when in fact the opposite is true by a wide margin. In fact, most of what we know about the Romans and Greeks was discovered by busy late medieval scholars, who are also the ones who coined the terms “Dark Ages” and “Middle Ages” – referring to earlier periods for which they, as avid antiquarians and students of the past, could find relatively few records.
Instead of even a vague perception of the realities of the world of Talhoffer or Fiore, we have comical tropes, as if someone somewhere was running a propaganda campaign against the people of this time and place. We have funny characters like “the medieval caveman”, unkempt, illiterate and lumpen, and always inexplicably speaking with a Cockney accent. We have plenty of medieval filth, incompetence and crude, inept artifacts (meanwhile actual medieval artifacts and architecture generate billions of dollars in tourist revenue in Europe every year). And then of course we have the medieval witch trial, the superstitious zealot persecuting the equally superstitious would be sorcerer.
In order to understand anything about the various phenomena we call “magic” in the middle ages, assuming you want to do so, you’ll have to let go of some of these preconceptions about the medieval world.
Why should I care about magic?
“You don’t have to believe in Santa Claus to receive Christmas presents”
The main reason to care about magic is that it was part of the world and mindset of the fencing masters, and it made it into their writing. Magic in the sense of spells, rituals and talismans, is found in the Bellifortis (described by one scholar as “Saturated in astrology”) which heavily influenced almost all of the subsequent Kriegsbücher tradition (intertwined with many of the Fechtbücher), in the 3227a, in Talhoffer and in many other manuals. This stuff is interesting, perhaps more than you might expect (and I’ll get into some examples later in this essay). But perhaps what matters more for understanding fencing is what you might call the “magic mindset” of the period.
So put your “medieval caveman” furs in the rubbish bin, put away your Holy Hand Grenade and all your other Monty Python props, we are going to take a little detour in the strange but real world of medieval superstition and sorcery. First, we’ll have a brief description of the medieval mindset with more Astrology than you can shake a Pisces ankle bracelet at, then we are going to explore a fascinating article by Professor Ann Tlusty about swordsman’s magic in the Early Modern period, and then I’m going to briefly go over the four types of magic that might have been most often encountered by a peer of Talhoffer or Fiore. Finally, we’ll take a look at magic charms, the most ubiquitous representative of this peculiar type of superstition, and I’m going to share a link to a long list of grimoires and magical treatises (with a special focus on three wonderfully illustrated examples), and a copy of a short but pretty good bibliography on this subject.
The ‘magical’ medieval mindset: Astrology, Mnemonics and Numerology
Magic was part of the lived experience in medieval Europe, for both the educated elite every bit as much as for the superstitious commoner. In the words of one scholar on the subject of medieval magic, “Astrology permeated almost every walk of life” in the Middle Ages. Physicians, lawyers and jurists, and basically anyone trained in a University studied astrology. It’s hard to overstate its importance in medieval life. It was illegal in many municipalities in the Holy Roman Empire for physicians to perform surgeries without first determining the position of the moon through astrological calculations. We have seven days of the week to this day, one assigned to each of the 7 planets known to medieval astrology. Sunday is the day of Sol, the Sun. Monday is the day of Luna, the Moon. Tuesday, called ‘mardi’ in French, is the day of Mars. Wednesday, called “mercredi” in French, is the day of Mercury. And so on.
Astrology, inextricably intertwined with astronomy in this period, also connected Latin medieval Europe to Greek (Russian and Byzantine) medieval Europe, and tied Christian Europe more generally to the vast and diverse Muslim world. And it linked them both to the Classical World of Aristotle, Plotinus and Pliny. Both Christian and Muslim scholars practiced astrology derived largely from the same Greek and Roman sources, who in turn were heavily influenced by Egyptian mysticism and so on back to Babylon.
Today most people look at astrology as something mildly ridiculous. But the horoscope in the newspaper or the psychic friends network on TV have little to do with the complex and sophisticated practices of the pre-industrial world. This was not entirely superstition. The sky is a calendar, the position of the stars do indicate the time of year. The positions of the planets, the phases of the moon, and events such as eclipses, could be (mysteriously to the uninitiated) and were routinely and reliably predicted in advance by scholars through the application of mathematics, even if they didn’t understand the physics behind the math. All of this lent weight to ancient books that disseminated the hidden knowledge, but those books carried with them mythology and systems of magic that seem absurd to modern readers.
You could look at it this way – people in period knew that some astrology and related subjects were superstitious or fanciful. This is a certainty, because many of the authors they relied on for the information were from other times, other cultures, and of other faiths. The Church itself typically described magic as a form of superstition in the Medieval period. But they also knew that some of it was quite real. The phases of the moon for example have real effects on the earth, including in the physiology of people, animals, the tides and so forth. The positions of the stars correlated with the changing of the seasons, and the migration of birds and animals. For many, the difficulty lay in knowing precisely where what we would consider today Science left off, and superstition took over.
But of course that doesn’t matter too much either for a modern fencer. What matters is how an educated person in 1400 or 1500 incorporated astrology into their daily life, into their ideas of science, and into their literature, including fencing manuals. Similarly, mnemonics, the sophisticated systems for memorizing and recalling information, which was taught as a subset of Rhetoric in medieval schools, was of critical importance to the educated stratum of society, and not just the rare few who were fully literate in Latin. Today the Ars Memoria, or art of memory has been rediscovered and is now an increasingly popular sport. In the medieval period, elements of basic Aristotelian physics, such as the four humors, were incorporated into mnemonic techniques.
Numerology and astrology together formed the “sacred geometry”, which while again grounded in concepts we would today consider rather… ephemeral, were the basis of the construction of the very real Cathedrals, some of which have stood for over 700 years, and also of swords (as explored so eloquently by Peter Johnsson), crossbows and firearms, fortifications and castles.
Military magic and swordsman’s charms
Though the specific spells and talismans are less important for fencers than the overall mindset is (in helping to understand fencing literature) some of these were directly related to the life of soldiers and the risks faced by fencers. Professor Ann Tlusty of Bucknell University recently wrote an interesting paper entitled “Invincible blades and invulnerable bodies: weapons magic in early modern Germany.” In it she explores several examples of what you might call martial magic, largely as revealed in witch trials and other criminal trials in the 17th Century.
During the medieval period criminal investigations into witchcraft were fairly rare, but this was destined to change. The Dominican Friar Heinrich Kramer, one of the authors of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, tried to promote one of his first Witch Trials in Austria in 1485, and none other than the fencing master Johannes Paulus Kal was a witness to the proceedings. They decided, correctly, that he was a dangerous nut and exiled him from the region. Unfortunately, his work went on to find a much wider and more receptive audience in other places and in later years. Especially after the religious wars started breaking out all over Europe, the Witch Craze and the Witch trials started to become a kind of collective madness. By the 17th century it was commonplace for people (women in particular) to be prosecuted for witchcraft alone, as well as in conjunction with other serious crimes.
Tlusty’s paper derives largely from court records from those types of prosecutions during this period, which includes testimony extracted under torture as was common at that time, so they have to be taken with a grain of salt. However, all of the specific practices she describes are also corroborated by many other sources including grimoires, so we can be reasonably confident that they did in fact exist in the period (and long before it).
The Passau Wolf
The spells and talismans in Tlusty’s article include several interesting examples of Early Modern Necromancy. The Passauer Kunst typically references a specific scheme hatched by a hangman named Kaspar Neidhart some time around 1615, which involved magic symbols inscribed on a sheet of paper, combined with some trace of the body of a hanged man (clothing or a bit of bone or fat) which was then either eaten or folded up and worn in a pouch to be worn around the neck (this was sometimes called a “Passau pille”). The talisman was supposed to protect against bullets, blades, and fire on the battlefield. It became extremely popular with soldiers in Bavaria and Austria, and then spread throughout Central Europe.
This goes a bit deeper though than Dr Tlusty mentioned in her paper. Passau was a major center of sword production in Central Europe, known for the quality of their blades, even rivalling Solingen in their reputation as far back as the 13th Century. As early as the 14th Century, Emperor Charles IV granted an armorer named Springenklee the right to a coat of arms, a running wolf. In 1349 the Archduke Albrecht III (Hapsburg) granted the red wolf coat of arms to the towns armorers guild.
The cutler’s guild adopted the wolf coat of arms shortly after, and the blade making industry became so important to the town that the town council adopted it for the city. This was approved by the Bishop of Passau in 1350 and again in 1368, but it became the cities sole coat of arms in 1432.
By the late 14th Century swords stamped with the maker’s mark of Passau, the Passau wolf accompanied by some talismanic symbols, were prized possessions of many soldiers, militiamen and knights. This sign was quickly copied by cutlers in Solingen and other sword making centers around the Holy Roman Empire. The symbolism of the wolf and other characters took on a magical or talismanic connotation and the term “Passauer Kunst” was already being widely used by the early 15th century. Kaspar Neidhart’s “pill” was just a new twist on an old tradition.
Sword oaths and magic wafers
Another type of sword magic mentioned in the article is called (in some other sources) the Schwertschwur or “Sword oath”, a kind of incantation made over a blade wet with the fresh blood of a recently slain man. The purpose was to mark your sword more lethal against a named enemy, which could be an individual person, a family, or a larger group of people. Like the “Passau Pill” this was considered necromancy, which was frowned upon in the medieval period but could get you prosecuted and possibly tortured and burned alive in the late 16th or early 17th century, at the height of the witch craze. So whatever it’s presumed efficacy, it was a risky experiment.
Another similar but in some ways more daring trick was to use a thunderstone (more on that in a moment) and hide it under the altar in a church before Mass. Once Mass has been said over the altar, the thunderstone is charged with (divine) magic power, and could then be used to make one invulnerable to swords and bullets, and if incorporated into the pommel of a sword, would cause it to break others (which one man is accused of having done in the article). The thunderstone was an ancient Neolithic stone tool like a stone axe, which until the 18th Century were widely believed to have been a natural phenomena, created by lightning strikes. They were considered potent magic and were used for all kinds of talismans and spells going back into Antiquity.
A rather macabre variation on harnessing divine power for martial ends was the Einheilen, ‘healing in’. This was a technique whereby either the Holy Host (if one could be obtained) or a simple communion wafer, was smuggled out of church after being used in a Mass, which again, charges it with power. The would be necromancer is supposed to then make a cut in their skin, insert a small piece of the wafer into it, and sew it up, while reciting prayers and incantations. This was again, supposed to protect the recipient from harm. Finally, we also see the instrument of death being made into a talisman. A bullet, arrowhead or the head of a crossbow bolt which had caused the death of a man in battle could also be made into a protective charm.
One comment about the article about weapons magic linked above. Rather than ‘hypermasculine performances’ as the professor describes, perhaps these examples of weapon-necromancy are showing us desperate people just trying not to get killed or maimed in circumstances where they were very likely to be severely hurt. The 30 Years War killed roughly 8 million people, it was one of the most devastating conflicts in history until WW II, entire regions of Germany were basically depopulated. Any soldier taking part in that war, and any civilian likely to be affected by it, is likely to be scared enough to try almost anything to survive. Just as people get religion in a fox hole, they can acquire superstition the same way.
The Types of Magic found in late medieval Europe
Backing up in time again to the late medieval period of Fiore and Talhoffer, one of the challenges in understanding the spells and talismans, as well as the general mindset of their day vis-a-vis the supernatural, is that there were several distinct magical traditions each of which followed a different internal logic, were disseminated and practiced differently, and were treated differently by the law. To understand the phenomena, it helps a lot to recognize its various forms. I break these down into four categories: Holy Magic, Learned Magic, Cunning Magic, and Clandestine Magic.
Holy Magic means magic deriving from traditions of Christian mysticism, the invocation of saintly miracles and so on, as known within the spiritual doctrine of the Christian Church. These are disseminated both from living traditions and carefully codified doctrine passed down through spiritual literature. This can range from the very simple things like making the sign of the cross to something a bit more complex such as performing an exorcism, to the very intricate and fraught ‘celestial’ rituals meant to allow someone to ask direct questions of an Archangel.
Cunning Magic is magic derived from living traditions, which in this document means largely from pagan or Shamanic origins in Central, Southern, and Northern Europe and also to some extent in the Middle East and Central Asia. This type of magic, which generally has a more ‘Fey’ sensibility, overlaps with herbalist ‘proto-pharmacological’ healing techniques and so forth which aren’t magical necessarily (and some of which we know today actually work), and was focused largely on healing or protection. Assisting women in childbirth, curing sick animals, and helping keep the crops growing were common goals, but this also includes some bizarre Faerie tale enchantments which can be both perilous and very strange. In spite of the pagan overtones, this type of magic, as practiced by so-called cunning women or cunning men (German Kräuterhexen, Italian Benandanti) remained widely tolerated throughout most of Europe through the medieval period and well into the Early Modern, and only began to die out in the 19th and 20th Century.
Learned Magic is the type of magic practiced by highly educated scholars, often people literate in Latin and therefore frequently members of the Church. This type has origins almost always of a literary nature (i.e. it was learned from books) and is based on philosophical systems from a wide variety of ancient spiritual or philosophical traditions- ranging from Ancient Greek and Roman texts (or far older), to Arabic and Persian treatises and ideas gleaned from Holy or Pagan magic systems from pre-Christian Europe. It also draws heavily from Christian and Jewish traditions.
Ideally, Learned Magic focused on “Natural Magic”, or consultation with celestial spirits, thought to be angels or other benign beings associated with the Judeo-Christian God. Some rituals focused more on entities of Greek or Roman mythology, while some did also call upon demonic spirits, but sought to control them by invoking the names and symbols of God and the Angels, and ostensibly (at least in theory) only for good purposes. Learned magic also overlaps closely with more scientific endeavors such as alchemy, metallurgy, mnemonics and rhetoric, geometry, navigation, and so forth. Generally speaking, in part due to the status of the typical practitioner, and in part due to the climate of tolerance for anything associated with Classical culture, Learned Magic was rarely prosecuted or severely punished, at least during medieval times.
Many ‘Learned Magic’ practitioners such as Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, whose De Occulta Philosophia libri III is considered the epitome of the art, were also literate in Hebrew and practiced in the art of Kaballah.
Clandestine Magic is the magical tradition, or mix of traditions, which consists of tidbits from the various other types of magic, and almost always the ‘naughtier bits’ gleaned by whatever method and used by often semi-literate practitioners and often though not always for nefarious ends. This includes spells like the Hand of Glory and so on, as well as the various examples of weapon-necromancy described above. Of all types of magic, this is the type which got people in trouble the most. In the late medieval period, as I’ve already noted, prosecutions for magic were rare, and typically only took place in the midst of some kind of social disturbance or when used as part of a crime. For example, if a ‘love potion’ poisoned someone, or if necromancy was involved in a murder. However, by the mid-16th Century prosecutions for magic linked by authorities to the Devil, and especially when practiced by poor or vagrant people, (especially poor women), were routinely prosecuted and punished severely.
Magical Charms – personal magic
Though there were many practitioners; those who cast spells, brewed potions and dabbled in alchemy, by far the most common way that most people experienced magic on a daily basis was through charms. Charms, meaning usually talismans and amulets, as well as apotropaic marks and some other things, were worn on hats or as pendants around the neck, carried in the purse or the pocket, engraved into armor or sword blades, and painted on houses, homes and doorways. Talismans and amulets were and still are extremely common all over the pre-industrial world and medieval Europe was (and is) certainly no exception. Talismans are usually small objects which can be carried around or worn as a pendant or a ring. A talisman is distinct from an amulet in that a talisman usually gets its power mainly from an abstract symbol of some kind, whereas an amulet is based mainly on the substance – usually the stone or the metal – it is made from. Both types also derive power from who it represents such as a saint, a planet, the spirit of an animal or a place, or a pagan deity.
The symbol on a talisman could be an alphabetic letter, a word, an abstract symbol such as a pentacle, pentagram, hexagram (star of David), a pictogram or sigil, a religious icon, or an artistic image. The symbol, image, word or slogan is meant to represent a concept or invoke a spirit, power, saint or deity of some sort. The colors of the talisman and materials used to make it also have meaning, but for a talisman the image itself is the most important thing.
The character(s) or image are usually called an imago, or ymago, sometimes written in magic texts as i or o. Other terms used include sigil or sigillum, meaning a type of seal, (the character often a letter from an archaic alphabet or an astrological symbol), or the figura (meaning a geometric form or character such as a pentagram). The imago is usually though not always surrounded by the annulus, a circle or a ring.
The material of a talisman is also important and is described in magical texts based on the power or spirit represented. It is also helpful that they be made at a specific time and under specific rules, sometimes involving suffumigation or other rituals of questionable legality in the Latin medieval world. Certain words must be said during the inscription of the image.
The use of talismans was very widespread in antiquity, but became less respectable in the early Christian era due mainly to the association with pagan religion. In the High to Late Medieval period however, renewed interest in the Classical world contributed to the rehabilitation of talismans, notably as associated with healing and protection, as they are mentioned in the Classical works of such respected auctores as Galen, Avicenna and Hippocrates and there was a widespread revival of interest in their use among the educated and powerful as well as the poor and superstitious.
Obviously this is a very superficial ‘primer’, which just begins to scratch the surface of this vast subject. I hope you found it interesting and somewhat entertaining. If you want to learn more about this, you can pick up a copy of my new game book Codex Superno. For more serious research, I’ve compiled a long list of medieval magic literary sources, and I have arranged a closer look at some of the beautiful and fascinating artwork from De Sphaera Mundi, The Kitab al Bulhan, and the Splendor Solis. Look into the sources listed above, read the academic work on the subject and as we do with the fencing manuals, go to the primary sources. I have also included a short bibliography below which can make for a pretty good starting point.
The following short bibliography includes sources were used in the writing of my new book.
Secondary and Academic Sources
These are the books used to provide context on pre-industrial esoteric practices from a modern academic perspective.
Manuscripts of learned magic in the medieval libraries of Central Europe – Benedek Lang, Pennsylvania State University, 1974
Magic in the Middle Ages – Richard Kieckhefer, Cambridge University Press 1989 (2018)
The Art of memory – Francis Yates (1966)
Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition – Francis Yates (1964)
The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age – Francis Yates (1979)
Ritual Magic – Elizabeth M. Butler, Penn State University press (1998)
Teutonic Mythology (Deutsche Mythologie – Four Volumes) Jacob Grimm (1835)
Invincible blades and invulnerable bodies: weapons magic in early-modern Germany, European Review of History: Revue Européenne d’Histoire – Ann Tlusty (2015)
Forbidden Rites a Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century, Penn State University Press, Richard Kieckhefer (1997)
Astrology in Medieval Manuscripts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Sophie Page. (2002).
Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar, Robert Lebling, Counterpoint (2011)
The Occult Encyclopedia of Magic Squares: Planetary Angels and Spirits of Ceremonial Magic, Nineveh Shadrach, Ishtar Publishing (2009)
The following are sources from works written in the 16th Century or earlier.
Three Books of Occult Philosophy (Complete and Uncensored Version) Henrich Cornelius Agrippa, translated by J. Freake in 1651, this version published 2018 by Monadic Deva Press.
The Autobiography of Johannes Butzbach, A Wandering Scholar of the 15th Century, Translated by Robert Francis Seybolt and Paul Monroe, published 1933, Edward Brothers Inc., Ann Arbor
De Septem Secundieis*, Johannes Trithemius (2016) Tarl Warwick
The Art of Drawing Spirits into Crystals*, Johannes Trithemius (2016) Tarl Warwick and Francis Barrett
Three Works on Alchemy*: The Immortal Liquor Alkahest, Everburning Lights, and Philosophic Fire, Johannes Trithemius (2016) Tarl Warwick and John Pontanus
Corpus Hermeticum, Marsilio Ficino, George Robert Stowe Mead (translator) (1906 / 2016)
The Sworn Book of Honorius / Liber Iuratus Honorii, “Honorious of Thebes”, translated by Joseph Peterson, Ibis Press, (2016)
The Orphic Hymns Apostolos N. Athanassakis and Benjamin M. Wolkow (Translators) Johns Hopkins University Press, (2013)
The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation: Including the Demotic Spells, Hans Deiter Betz (Editor), University of Chicago Press (1996)
The Complete Picatrix: The Occult Classic of Astrological Magic, John Michael Greer and Christopher Warnock (Translators) (2018)
The Book of Abramelin: A New Translation – Revised and Expanded, “Abraham von Worms”, Georg Dehn, Ibis Press, (2015)
The Kalevala, Oxford University Press, (2008) edition
Asclepius: The Perfect Discourse of Hermes Trismegistus, Bristol Classical Press, (2007)
*These are short pamphlets
Philosophia Sagax – Paracelsus
Magiae Naturalis – Giambattista della Porta
Liber Officiorum Spiritum – (anonymous)
Naturalis Historia – Pliny the Elder
Five Books of Mystery – John Dee
De vita libri tres – Marsilio Ficino
Clavicula Salomonis Regis – (anonymous)
De Umbris Idearum: Giordano Bruno
Ars Reminiscendi- Giordano Bruno