Magical Entanglements: Producing and Consuming Magic at Late Medieval English and French Courts

“Thus the knight held this prophecy [of King Arthur] to be true, and attached thereunto great faith and credit; for such is the nature of them [the English] in their country that they very thoroughly believe in prophecies, phantoms, and witchcraft, and employ (have recourse to) them right willingly,”[i] observed an anonymous French knight in the entourage of the English King Richard II in 1399. Although the author distanced himself from such beliefs and customs, magic was not only produced and consumed at the fourteenth-century English court, but almost all court societies in the Middle Ages, especially in the late Middle Ages, were fascinated by magic.

Image 1: Charles V of France studying books with astrological instruments (Oxford, St. John’s College, MS 164, fol. 1r.). The image was provided with the permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College Oxford.

Researchers often divide magic into a learned and a ‘popular’[ii] field. While the former was mainly practised by clergy and, with the establishment of universities, by scholars, the ‘popular’ sphere is very difficult to track, since there is a lack of self-testimony. The surviving written sources mostly contain criticism of these practices. Therefore, the ‘popular’ rites and beliefs are often related to women such as healers, sorceresses, and potion makers. Courtly magic can be seen as a third category, including courtly epics, astrology, potions, poisons, ritual magic, spells to gain power or to destroy someone else, fertility rites, and automats. It combined the female (‘popular’) and masculine (learned) spheres of magic and existed through and with the other categories of occult practices.

Contemporaries thought that with magic and the belief in magic, you can gain power over humans and demons. The court was a place of instant rivalry between individuals or groups. Magic accusations and trials more often appeared in times of trouble like famines, wars or politically unstable reigns.[iii] For example, when the French King Charles VI became mentally ill in 1392 and could not properly rule for most of his reign, people hoped to cure the king with the help of magic, because they believed that Charles was made sick through maleficii (to harm with magic) and sortilegii (sorcery).[iv] However, the fear of the King’s life was also entangled with the political rivalry between the Dukes of Burgundy and Orléans. Both magnates ordered ritual magic or other occult procedures to heal the King. Still, the party around Burgundy accused Orléans of harming Charles VI with magic.[v] But who are these magicians? The sources often mention (apostate) monks, well known for their practices. Kieckhefer names this group underworld clergy.[vi] These men hoped to gain wealth and power by offering their occult skills to nobles. Also, poisons and assassination through magic were offered by a group of experts. Often Lombards, Italians or Navarrese people – foreigners – were related to occult attacks in French sources.[vii] The wife of the Duke of Orleans, Valentina Visconti, is said to have harmed Charles VI with the help of her father Gian Galeazzo, the Duke of Milan. Rumours were spread, that she tried to poison the Dauphin with an apple to become Queen of France.[viii]

Image 2: Horoscope of Charles V of France (Oxford, St. John’s College, MS 164, fol. 158v). The image was provided with the permission of the President and Fellows of St John’s College Oxford.

Because of the fear revealing God’s plan with the help of demons by reading the future through the stars, Astrology was very controversial in the Middle Ages. Despite all criticism, it was legally practised at court and often seen as an art. The payrolls of the Duke of Burgundy reveal that astrologers were often scholars, mainly physicians, and they held various other functions as counsellors, diplomats, and ambassadors. Their academic education made them suitable for all these tasks. The analysis of the backgrounds of these scholars reveals that they were all from the bourgeoisie or the lesser nobility. Thus, such a position could mean an enormous career leap.[ix] These men fit into Frank Klaassen’s concept of learned masculinity. He sees it as a self-representation of scholars in a world in which a group of academics and clergy wanted to be part of the noble world. To achieve this, they used their strengths: scholarship, fraternity, self-control, and the clerical ritual magic.[x]

At the court, there was a great demand for love potions, amulets, and fertility rites as well, an economic branch that was also served by women. When the Duchess of Gloucester, Eleanor Cobham, wanted to become pregnant, she knew who she needed to consult: Margery Jourdemayne, already known to the English justice system, since she had been imprisoned for witchcraft already.[xi] Also, Mathilda of Artois wanted to save the marriages of her daughters and called for Isabel of Feriennes in 1314. Isabel was famous for her love potions, and she had relations with Mathilda and her family for over five years. Late medieval criminal records show that these women, who offered magic as a service, were often of dubious reputation. It seems that these women wanted to earn a little extra money with their magical offerings and were still entangled with the court in a wider context. For example, Isabel stated in front of the royal commission that she had received the large sum of 70 Parisian pounds (septuaginta libras parisienses) for a love powder.[xii]

Because courtiers were regularly involved in occult practices, people who would otherwise be excluded could entangle with the court such as apostate clergy, specialists for poisons, and astrologers. Also, women could participate through female connoted magic like love potions, sorcery, and fertility rites. Among, these persons were suppliers such as chandlers, pharmacists, smiths, and merchants benefitting from the court’s demands for magic. It is difficult to find out more about these people except their names, but it seems that they were often locally known and had already contacted with nobles. In other cases, they travelled to courts to try their luck and gain power. As for women, it seems that occult practices and their illegal aura allowed them to be part of that unregulated economic system.

By Olivia Mayer, University of Klagenfurt, Austria.

From 2013 to 2019, Olivia Mayer studied History and German at the University of Heidelberg and Trinity College Dublin (BA) and Global History at the University of Heidelberg (MA). Afterwards, she started a museum apprenticeship at the Reiss-Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim until 2021. There she was involved in the exhibitions “The Emperors and the Pillars of their Powers” (2020–2021) in Mainz and “The Normans” (2022–2023) in Mannheim. Since 2021, she is holding a teaching position at the University of Klagenfurt. Her PhD project examines accusations and charges of magic against noble women in late medieval England and France.

[i] John Webb, ‘Translation of a French Metrical History of the Preposition of King Richard the Second, Written by a Contemporary, and Comprising the Period from his Last Expedition into Ireland to his Death, from a MS. Formerly Belonging to Charles of Anjou, Earl of Maine and Mortain; but now Preserved in the British Museum’, Archaelogia, 20 (1824), pp. 1-423 (p. 170).

[ii] The term ‘popular belief’ is not free of criticism and suggests an uneducated, pagan, and superstitious form of magic. A concept of magic that is very much influenced by modern times and the popular image of witch hunts. The use of the term refrains from these interpretations and only serves as a differentiation to learned magic.

[iii] Cf. Andrea Berlin, Magie am Hofe der Herzöge von Burgund: Aufstieg und Fall des Grafen von Étampes (Spätmittelalterstudien 6) (Konstanz/München: UVK Verlagsgesellschaft, 2016), pp. 30-31; John G. Bellamy, The Law of Treason in England in the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge: University Press, 1970), pp 106-107; Francis Young, Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England. A History of Sorcery and Treason (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2018), p. 23; Jan R. Veenstra, Magic and Divination at the Courts of Burgundy and France: Text and Context of Laurens Pignon’s Contre les Devinerus (1411) (Leiden/New York/Köln: Brill, 1998), pp. 22-23.

[iv] Chronique du Religieux de Saint-Denys contenant le règne de Charles VI de 1380-1422, in M. L. Bellaguet (ed.), vol. 1-2 (Paris: Éd. du CTHS, 1842, reprint 1994), p. 404.

[v] Cf. Tracy Adams, ‘Valentina Visconti, Charles VI, and the Politics of Witchcraft’, Parergon,30(2) (2013), pp. 11-32.

[vi] Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: University Press, 2000), pp. 151-153.

[vii] Peter Gorzolla, Magie, Politik und Religion. Theologische Magiekritik als politisches Handeln im Frankreich Karls VI. (Geschichte History 166) (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2019), pp. 201-217.

[viii] Œuvres de Froissart. Chroniques, in Kervyn de Lettenhoven (ed.), vol. 15 (Osnabrück: Biblio Verlag, 1876-1877, reprint 1967), pp. 260-261.

[ix] Martin Kintzinger, ‘Phisicien de Monseigneur de Bourgoingne: Leibärzte und Heilkunst am spätmittelalterlichen Fürstenhof’, Francia, 27 (2001), pp. 89-116.

[x] Frank Klaassen, ‘Learning and Masculinity in Manuscripts of Ritual Magic of the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 38(1) (Spring 2007), pp. 52-53.

[xi] Jessica Freeman, ‘Sorcery at court and manor: Margery Jourdemayne, the witch of Eye next Westminster’, Journal of Medieval History, 30 (2004), pp. 343-357.

[xii] For the whole court case cf. Godefroy Menilglaise, ‘Mahaud Comtesse d’Artois: Accusation de Sortilége et d’Empoisonnement Arrêt d’Absolution Confédération des Nobles du Nord de la France’, in Société Nationale des Antiquaires de France (ed.), Mémoires de la Société Impériale des Antiquaires de France, vol. 28 (Paris: Au Secrétariat de la Société, 1865), pp. 181-230 (pp. 195-218). To keep the value of the love powder in mind, just a small comparison of the tax rolls of Paris in 1313 will be drawn: The Parisian John of Vauves paid a maximum tax rate of 30 livres (pounds) in 1313 (; 13.09.2023).

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courtstudies (October 18, 2023). Magical Entanglements: Producing and Consuming Magic at Late Medieval English and French Courts. The Court Observer. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from

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