Esotericism, magic and sorcery (Seminar Quests)

The study of esotericism in the Middle Ages remains an open field for researchers in medieval studies. In 2009, an international seminar was held at the ENS d’ULM entitled “Science and magic from the Middle Ages to the 17th century”, organized under the aegis of Jean-Patrice Boudet and Nicolas Weill-Parrot. The varied program proposed to take an interest in witchcraft as well as in herbal medicine and the magico-religious practices of Christianity, underlining the richness and openness of such a field of investigation. Such a project resonates with contemporary society where scientific works are multiplying, but also works for the general public on modern esotericism, often inspired by medieval representations and myths. We can indeed think of Mona Chollet’s book published in 2018, Witches, the undefeated power of women, which conveys a set of received ideas about witches to build a mystical image of women, compatible with a new age esoteric sphere that convenes, among other currents, the sacred feminine and eco-feminism. We can also think of recuperations, in esoteric spheres,

works by Chrétien de Troyes and his successors or the writings of Hildegarde von Bingen for symbolic and religious purposes. Finally, it is appropriate to mention astrology and alchemy, medieval practices which traditionally aim to know the world and which become, in modernity, the instrument of a new esotericism.

Therefore, it seems urgent to us to bring our stone to the building by proposing, on the occasion of three seminar sessions, to be interested at the same time in medieval esotericisms and their modern recoveries. In this perspective, we propose to orient the reflection around the three objects which make up the title of our seminar: esotericism, magic and sorcery. Esotericism, first of all, from the Greek “esoteros”, designates any doctrinal teaching – religious or spiritual – reserved for a caste of initiates. The definition is vast since it designates both, in the Middle Ages, religious teachings authorized or not by the religious authorities (Christian, Islamic, Jewish mysticism, but also dissenting or competing doctrines) and popular knowledge (superstitions, knowledge of plants, of the body) or knowledge deemed occult (alchemy, astrology, magic, witchcraft, divination). The field of investigation is extensive, but we can reduce it by studying the following terms: magic and witchcraft, both of which fall within the domain of occultism.

In his Etymologies, Isidore of Seville conceives magicians as magicians who, by their incantations, endanger the minds of men and cause disorder on earth. From the Middle Ages, therefore, magic has been seen in the Christian West as a destructive, even demonic force. However, the etymology of the term, which comes from the Greek “mageia” and from an Iranian word which designated the art of the priests of ancient Persia, already indicates to us the plurality of points of view with regard to this practice. Magic, and its transversal disciplines such as astrology, alchemy or even medicine, are sometimes perceived as acceptable knowledge in that they fit into a dynamic of interpretation of the world. However, it would be simplistic to stick to a dichotomy of magic that would oppose good and evil. This seminar could be an opportunity to explore and/or question this in-between.

Generally speaking, witchcraft, from “sortiarum” which means to read a person’s destiny, designates, as for it, a magic practice intended to spread evil or to improve the fate of a person. Unlike magic, the prerogative of scholars and scholars, witchcraft concerns a more popular public, from cities and countryside and most often not knowing how to read or write. The phenomenon of witchcraft underwent many changes throughout the Middle Ages. If during the High Middle Ages the practice was relatively tolerated (bad spells and magic formulas had been condemned for several centuries, but did not lead to the stake), the end of the period saw the development of legal, dogmatic and doctrinal action which led to a movement of criminalization and repression of witchcraft.

Lines of research :

– Contemporary receptions, between information and deformation

– The field of medievalism

– Axiology of esotericism, magic, witchcraft

– Historical linguistics and epistemology

-The political question and justice

– Practices and rituals

– Social perceptions and individual constructions of mages, wizards and witches

– From center to margins, from dogma to heresies

– Iconography, illumination, representation

– From science to occultism

– Diachronic perspective and diatopic reflection

– Treatises and theoretical sources

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Esotericism, magic and sorcery (Seminar Quests)

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