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Over time and across space, scholars have been interested in the distinctions between what constitutes science and what does not. Specifically, they have been interested in the sources of knowledge and the basis of what people do. As a result, there have been several ideological conflicts between religion and science. However, there is a need to understand that religion in the olden days was not practiced that way it is today. During the medieval times, religion was made up of systems of beliefs, superstition, and magic, among other aspects. This is well evident in the historical as well as literary writings. By closely scrutinizing medieval literature, it becomes apparent that the old religion was comprised of conflicting phenomena. One of the most intriguing issues was the emergence of magic and witchcraft. Although both are aspects of human transcendence, they are principally different. In Medieval times, magic contributed to the well being of the society, while witchcraft was retrogressive. This write up seeks to demystify the differences between the two, to analyze the nature of the medieval conceptions of religion and science, and to provide examples of magicians and how they differed with sorcerers.


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Before analyzing the conception of magic, witchcraft, and science in the medieval period, there is a need to understand what is meant by this period. In general terms, the medieval ages, popularly known as the middle ages, was the period in Europe that began from the 5th century and ended in 15th century. This period came immediately after the fall of the Roman Empire. For the sake of the topic, it is important to note that the Middle Ages were followed by the Renaissance, which is known for having preceded the Modern Era, which was an era of prolific scientific discoveries. Therefore, magic and witchcraft were contemporaneous with early forms of science. Most authorities agree that the Middle Ages were filled with witchcraft and magical practices. To some, witchcraft was seen as mere superstition, and, from a Christian perspective, witchcraft was considered as a heresy or a wrong teaching to the public and the then strong institution of the church could not allow it. Towards the end of the middle Ages and the beginning of early Modern Era, witchcraft and magic were not very reliable sources of knowledge. Science was emerging. This is well evident in much of the literature of the time. Moreover, there is a need to distinguish between the two concepts: magic and witchcraft.

The concepts of witchcraft and magic have remained sources of confusion for most academicians. To some, there is no difference between the two; yet in terms of the nature and intention of the act under investigation, there exists a massive difference. Most scholars agree that magic was contributed to the well being of the societies living in the medieval times. Moreover, due to the evolutionary effects and gradual differentiation of science, the use of magic decreases from early medieval times towards the late medieval times and early modern times, which ushered in science. As a result, it is more evident in literature of the earlier times than the later times. According to Kieckhefer, the role of magic in medieval times was to foretell the future and to heal people. However, when science came about, these phenomena became concerns of the modern meteorology and astrology and medicine respectively.

Magic and witchcraft are different. Most of the stories, such as those in the Norton Anthology, related magic to trickery. Moreover, most of the things that were performed through magic are real things which could be scientifically explained. For instance, some of the short stories and poems, which depicted people floating on water, could be scientifically explained through concepts of relative density. In Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays, what appeared to be miracles could be explained in the real life. Thus magicians occupied a very important locus in their society. However, some people, especially in the literature emanating from the earlier times, were depicted as seeking to benefit economically from ‘manipulating’ the nature. Yet others could misuse magic. At this point, that is in situations where selfish individuals wrongly used magic, witchcraft was evident.

The phenomenon of witchcraft can be variously explained. Firstly, it was not done for the good of the society. It instilled fear, as seen in some of the stories in the Norton Anthology. Witchcraft is presented as a skill that was at the disposal of only a few people who, out of their evil mindedness, sought to scare others with misfortunes. They simply misused the magical powers that were like the link between the spiritual and the natural worlds; that is spiritual intuition and nature. During the medieval times, and even nowadays, it was possible to distinguish the different types of practitioners of witchcraft especially on the basis of the biological sex. As a result, most pieces of literature exhibit characters that are either witches or sorcerers; women or men.

There were many magicians in the medieval times, as seen in most of the poems, short stories, and plays.  The exact ways in which they went about procuring their trade made them conspicuously different, thus bringing out the difference between magic and witchcraft. As seen earlier, while magicians were for the common good, witches and sorcerers were against the common good. For instance, Morgan le Fay was a magician who contributed to the common good of the societies in German in the medieval times. She would not only foretell the future but also heal the sick. On the contrary, an example of a medieval times magician who used it in a bad way was Roaz of Glois. He did things that were contrary to the expectations of priests.

It is crucial to demonstrate how the concepts of magic and witchcraft relate to science. Having explored the major tenets of each of the subsets of the old religion, it is imperative that their connectedness with or divergence from science are explored. According to Neusner and Frerichs, both science and magic have a commonality. This commonality is found in the sense that both seek to expound natural laws. In other words, there is a constant way in which things are ordered and work. Therefore, in order to explain why things work the way they do, one reverts either to science or magic. However, the only major problem is that while scientifically it is easy to measure something, there is no empirical measure for magical things. They just happen. Moreover, there is an important role for all students and practitioners of literature to examine how the two fields are expressed in literary work. Specifically, there is a need to explore how the Middle Ages literature has evidence of science and magic.

In literature, there is more evidence of magic than science. This is perhaps because science is more abstract for many people while magic directly appeals to the bodily senses such as sight and hearing. This led to existence of more magicians than scientists. In any case, science was not well proliferated until the periods of renaissance and modernity. Therefore, it was obvious that literature of the time recorded more magic than science.

The fact that the historical periods that followed Middle Ages were encroached by science does not mean that magic was phased out. On the contrary, magic continues to flourish even in scientific societies of present-day time. In fact, with technological advancements, magic has been seen to adopt scientific methods to present its case. Put in other terms, magic and science exist in same societies. However, magic does not influence a lot of public life as science does. Although the latter may have been untrue in the Middle Ages, today magic is seen as a backward way of life. Science has encroached literary works of our times and there is a lot of scientific fiction; something that would not have been possible in the past. In this case, for instance, the Norton Anthology records more magical literary pieces than scientific literary works; primarily, as explained, because there was more magic than science in the medieval times.


This write up was geared towards differentiating between magic, witchcraft and science. It was seen that while the first two belonged to the old religion, science was a more objective approach to the knowledge acquisition. With regard to witchcraft and magic, the former was geared towards instilling fear, while the latter was geared towards restoring life among the medieval societies. In most of the literature, it could be concluded that science existed exclusively at the same time with the old religion, especially at its early stages. However, after the Middle Ages and till the Renaissance, more importance was attached to scientific discourses as opposed to magic and witchcraft. Moreover, the two are so critical that, even today, they play an important role in informing some societies. Today, literature records more science than magic. In the same way, magic and witchcraft have reduced a great deal. Therefore, magic was not always bad, but witchcraft was.

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