In the medieval world, necromancy was known as a form of divination magic that allowed a practitioner, also known as a necromancer, “…to raise the dead from the earth in order to speak on occult matters…” (Bailey, 2010: 40) or to predict future events. Necromancy was not a widely practiced form of magic, though it was practiced and studied within a Church that condemned it.
Described as “…an elite art involving complex rituals and invocations…” (Bailey, 2010: 36) by Church authorities, necromancy was a learned form of magic, similar in this aspect to alchemy and certain forms of astrology, often requiring knowledge of Arabic or Latin in order to learn from magical texts such as the Picatrix, Key of Solomon, and the Sworn Book of Honorius. As education in early medieval europe was the exception, rather than the norm, it was often “…clerics above all others who stood accused of necromancy.” (Kieckhefer, 2003: 153) It is important to note that a cleric could be anyone “…who had been ordained, for example, as a door-keeper, a lector, or an acolyte.” (Kieckhefer, 2003: 153) and that “…anyone who went to a university would obtain ordination and thus qualify as a cleric.” (Kieckhefer, 2003: 153) Bailey further suggests that necromancy was “…primarily the province of the clerical elites…” (Bailey, 2010: 39) With these points in mind, it is clear that few people had access to the education and resources required to learn and practice necromancy and that fewer still were willing to risk imprisonment or execution in the pursuit of supposed preternatural powers. Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that those without the educational background required to learn and practice necromancy would choose to pursue necromancy over one of the more accessible forms of divination magic such as flock movements, through animal entrails, pyromancy, or “…ceremonial folk magic that involved shorter rituals, spells and charms performed by people who may not have been literate…” (Gilchrist, 2008: 122).
As with other forms of magic, the Church viewed necromancers as people who “…‘bound themselves to demons’ and ‘made a pact with hell’…” (Bailey, 2010: 37) At one point, necromancy even “…came to be called ‘nigromancy’: black magic and the invocation of the devil.” (Schmitt & Fagan, 2007: 11) by the Church. Though necromancy was condemned by the Church, there were still clerics that had a “…fascination with the occult that was purely theoretical or speculative.” (Kieckhefer, 2003: 22) and some who even “…experimented with necromancy in order to verify certain aspects of their faith, such as sacraments and purgatory.” (Iles, 2014: 809) Two such clerics were William of Auvergne, Bishop of Paris, and Nicholas Eymerich, the Inquisitor General of Aragon, who both “…studied works of magic in the interest of analysing them, refuting their assumptions, and condemning them more effectively…” (Kieckhefer, 2003: 22) One other prominent clergyman, Prior Caesarius of Heisterbach, is also recorded as substantiating “…the reality and effectiveness of necromancy.” (Jolly, Raudvere, and Peters, 2002: 63) Not only were clerics interested in necromancy, but there is evidence that necromantic texts were even produced by them. One specific example is the Munich Handbook of necromancy in which “…there is a characteristically clerical form of magic, using Latin texts and presupposing knowledge of mainstream ritual.” (Kieckhefer, 1997: 13)
In conclusion, necromancy was a learned form of magic, often requiring knowledge of Arabic or Latin in order to learn from magical and necromantic texts, whose practitioners were primarily clerics ranging from monks and priors to Bishops and members of the Inquisition. These clerics often worked to validate Christian beliefs through the experimentation and study of necromancy. Because necromancy was thought to have involved, and worked through, demonic pacts that allowed necromancers to harness demonic power, the Church viewed necromancers as people who “…‘bound themselves to demons’ and ‘made a pact with hell’…” (Bailey, 2010: 37) Due to the Church’s condemnation, the study and experimentation of necromancy remained hidden in a clerical underworld for fear of persecution, imprisonment, and execution. With such learned requirements, necromancy was out of reach to the uneducated masses who could more easily practice accessible forms of divination or “…ceremonial folk magic that involved shorter rituals, spells and charms performed by people who may not have been literate…” (Gilchrist, 2008: 122) and so necromancy remained an art of the clerical elite.
- Bailey, M. D. (2010). Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages.
- Rankine, D., & Barron, P. H. (2014). The Complete Grimoire of Pope Honorius.
- Illes, J. (2014). Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World. New York, NY: Harper One, an imprint of HarperCollins.
- Honorius, P. (1999). The Great Grimoire of Pope Honorius (1st ed.) (J. Scheible, B. Ch'ien, & M. Sullivan, Trans.).
- Kieckhefer, R. (2003). Magic in the Middle Ages.
- Gilchrist, R. (2008). Magic for the Dead? The Archaeology of Magic in Later Medieval Burials. Medieval Archaeology, 52(1), 119-159. doi:10.1179/174581708x335468
- Schmitt, J., & Fagan, T. L. (2007). Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society.
- Kieckhefer, R. (2003). Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century.
- Jolly, K. L., Raudvere, C., & Peters, E. (2002). Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages (Vol. 3).