In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Necromancy, Theurgy, and Intermediary Beings

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews Older than Fifty Years
  • Recent Overviews
  • Miscellaneous Resources
  • Intermediary Beings: Demons, Angels, and Ghosts
  • Linking Medieval to Early Modern Magic

Medieval Studies Necromancy, Theurgy, and Intermediary Beings
Claire Fanger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 December 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0006


A relatively recent boom in scholarship on texts of ritual magic in manuscript is in the process of overturning much that was previously known or thought about the topic. As the history of magic itself is reconfigured, scholarship in this area is recovering data likely to color the intellectual history of adjacent areas too; it connects most directly to the areas of angelology, liturgy, private devotion, monasticism, and interreligious relations. In another direction, it connects to the history of science. Here, the broad term “ritual magic” is understood to cover private rites, different from the liturgies of the Catholic Church (though in many cases derived from them), aimed at interacting with different kinds of spirits that, collectively, may be seen as intermediary between the human and divine realms. I will refer to the spirits as “intermediary beings” because of their often-indeterminate status. Medieval theologians worked to dissuade people from private contact with all intermediary beings, which was viewed as dangerous and illicit; they argued that the spirits engaged by these rites were demons, no matter what the texts (or the spirits) claimed to the contrary. Such ongoing persuasion was necessary because the magical sources are often ambiguous about the nature of the conjured entities: some were explicitly demonic, but others were indeterminate, neither saved nor damned; ghosts could be conjured, as could fairies. Sometimes contact with angels was directly sought. Texts conjuring angels are generally oriented to the pursuit of knowledge, whether local (e.g., recovery of stolen goods), global (e.g., the liberal arts and philosophy), or visionary. I will refer to these texts, in accordance with recent usage, as “theurgic texts.” Demonic magic might have a variety of uses beyond gaining knowledge, including creation of illusions, revenge, compulsion of favors, and love; these texts will be referred to, in accordance with long-term usage, as “necromantic texts.” A third category, that of astrological magic deriving from Arabic sources, here referred to as “image magic,” is also important because a different spiritual cosmology is in play. The powers in these texts do not always manifest as entities; when they do, the entities do not always break down neatly into angels and demons. In practice these genres often blended with each other, since magical liturgies are adaptable to multiple uses, just as normal Catholic liturgies are. The ambiguity, flexibility, and varied utility of such rituals contribute to their interest.

General Overviews Older than Fifty Years

Many of the works listed below focus primarily on Renaissance magic, but all of them in a sense enabled the work on medieval ritual magic to begin; all broke new ground at the time of publication, connect to medieval thought and practice, and remain interesting to read. A caveat: because so many texts of medieval ritual magic did not have the benefit of scholarly editions until recently, and because the ongoing process of excavating these texts reveals so much more than could have been guessed at even in the early 1990s, there are numerous problems with the accuracy of representation of medieval magic texts and genres in scholarship in all earlier works. Nevertheless, there are some classic studies that remain important. For novices to the area, Walker 1958 and Yates 1964 remain the friendliest access to the area of philosophical or high magic in the Renaissance, while Butler 1949 enables a look at darker aspects of ritual magic in the same period. Delatte 1932 is a useful though more specialized resource. Thorndike 1923–1958 is still an important reference for all levels of access.

  • Butler, E. M. Ritual Magic. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1949.

    Focused on early modern works, but with chapters on earlier periods, this is the second in Butler’s trilogy on the Faust legends. A Germanist, Butler worked mainly with printed materials, little with manuscripts, yet many texts treated are important for the Middle Ages too. Republished as recently as 1998 (University Park: Penn State University Press).

  • Delatte, Armand. La catoptromancie grecque et ses dérivés. Bibliothèque de la Faculté de Philosophie et Lettres de l’Université de Liège 48. Paris: Librairie Droz, 1932.

    Catoptromancy (“mirror divination”) is the ancient and widespread art of visualizing spirits in reflective surfaces; the technique links broadly both to theurgy and necromancy. Delatte was a classicist, but despite this fact, and the book title itself, this book deals at length with the Middle Ages.

  • Thorndike, Lynn. A History of Magic and Experimental Science. 8 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1923–1958.

    These massive volumes contain useful introductions to many areas of the field. The manuscript information remains indispensable to medievalists even now, though Thorndike often replicated cataloguers’ errors in describing content and details of texts in manuscript. Republished as recently as 2003 (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger).

  • Walker, D. P. Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella. Studies of the Warburg Institute 22. London: Warburg Institute, 1958.

    Primarily focused on early modern magic but deals with seminal issues for the medieval period. Walker introduced ideas and terminologies still in use, influencing many later scholars in addition to Frances Yates. Republished as recently as 2003 (University Park: Penn State University Press).

  • Yates, Frances A. Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

    This book had a major impact in making possible the study of magic within the history of ideas. It puts together many aspects of the prehistory of Bruno’s thought and configures a new picture of Bruno’s thought and work in the process. Republished as recently as 2009 (London: Routledge).

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