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Lives of the Necromancers, Part VIII: Papal Sorcerers and Technocrats in Medieval Europe

Godwin surveys the history of papal sorcery and finishes his discussion of European contacts with the Middle East during the Crusading era.

Editor’s Note

For the remainder of Lives of the Necromancers, our author roots his encyclopedic treatment of all things occult in High medieval and Early Modern Europe, especially Britain. In our current selection, Godwin explains the impact of Western-Islamic contact on European witchcraft and proceeds to survey the long history of papal dabbling in magic. In the crusading era (ca. 1090s-early 1500s), many westerners wholeheartedly embraced the knowledge and technology open to them through sustained networks with the Near, Middle, and Far East. Even a century before the Crusades, “The more curious and inquisitive spirits of Europe,” including Pope Silvester II, “by degrees adopted the practice of resorting to Spain for the purpose of enlarging their sphere of observation and knowledge.” Godwin’s selections on three popes illustrate well a larger shift in his treatment of occultism throughout the book.

Silvester II seems to have studiously learned science and technology in the non-western world and translated his knowledge into a reputation for mystical power. What appeared supernatural was in fact technological power. Benedict IX supposedly engaged in witchcraft as part of his overall lifestyle of “debauchery,” reaping the very worldly pleasures of sorcery. Pope Gregory VII, whose pontificate was consumed by the Investiture Crisis, posthumously stood charged by his enemies with a variety of necromantic activities. Interestingly, however, Godwin believes Gregory’s relentless pursuit of papal power reflected “genuine enthusiasm,” rather than mere huckstering or trickery.

Magic could serve many different social purposes, not all of which were the result of ill-will toward others. Our final item relays the Muslim tale of a miraculous tub of water. When a man plunges his face into the water, he is transported to an entirely new life, which he then lives day after day, struggle after struggle, joy after joy, to the end of his days. When the lifetime-long vision abruptly ends, the protagonist emerges from the water tub mere moments later.

During the late medieval period, elite and learned Europeans became increasingly aware that knowledge and technology represented the power to transform the world according to one’s own visions.  Through exceeding cleverness, ingenuity, inventiveness, scrupulousness, and mechanical skill, men of cunning and vision were often able to become men of power—and we all know what they say about power.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

Lives of the Necromancers:  Or an Account of the Most Eminent Persons in Successive Ages, Who Have Claimed for Themselves, or to Whom Has Been Imputed by Others, the Exercise of Magical Power (Excerpts)

By William Godwin.  London: Frederick J. Mason, 1834.

Communication of Europe and the Saracens.

It appears to have been about the close of the tenth century that the more curious and inquisitive spirits of Europe first had recourse to the East as a source of such information and art, as they found most glaringly deficient among their countrymen. We have seen that in Persia there was an uninterrupted succession of professors in the art of magic: and, when the followers of Mahomet by their prowess had gained the superiority over the greater part of Asia, over all that was known of Africa, and a considerable tract of Europe, they gradually became awake to the desire of cultivating the sciences, and in particular of making themselves masters of whatever was most liberal and eminent among the disciples of Zoroaster. To this they added a curiosity respecting Greek learning, especially as it related to medicine and the investigation of the powers of physical nature. Bagdad became an eminent seat of learning; and perhaps, next to Bagdad, Spain under the Saracens, or Moors, was a principal abode for the professors of ingenuity and literature.

Gerbert, Pope Silvester II.

As a consequence of this state of things the more curious men of Europe by degrees adopted the practice of resorting to Spain for the purpose of enlarging their sphere of observation and knowledge. Among others Gerbert is reported to have been the first of the Christian clergy, who strung themselves up to the resolution of mixing with the followers of Mahomet, that they might learn from thence things, the knowledge of which it was impossible for them to obtain at home. This generous adventurer, prompted by an insatiable thirst for information, is said to have secretly withdrawn himself from his monastery of Fleury in Burgundy, and to have spent several years among the Saracens of Cordova. Here he acquired a knowledge of the language and learning of the Arabians, particularly of their astronomy, geometry and arithmetic; and he is understood to have been the first that imparted to the north and west of Europe a knowledge of the Arabic numerals, a science, which at first sight might be despised for its simplicity, but which in its consequences is no inconsiderable instrument in subtilising the powers of human intellect. He likewise introduced the use of clocks. He is also represented to have made an extraordinary proficiency in the art of magic; and among other things is said to have constructed a brazen head, which would answer when it was spoken to, and oracularly resolve many difficult questions. The same historian assures us that Gerbert by the art of necromancy made various discoveries of hidden treasures, and relates in all its circumstances the spectacle of a magic palace he visited underground, with the multiplied splendours of an Arabian tale, but distinguished by this feature, that, though its magnificence was dazzling to the sight, it would not abide the test of feeling, but vanished into air, the moment it was attempted to be touched.

It happened with Gerbert, as with St. Dunstan, that he united an aspiring mind and a boundless spirit of ambition, with the intellectual curiosity which has already been described. The first step that he made into public life and the career for which he panted, consisted in his being named preceptor, first to Robert, king of France, the son of Hugh Capet, and next to Otho the Third, emperor of Germany. Hugh Capet appointed him archbishop of Rheims; but, that dignity being disputed with him, he retired into Germany, and, becoming eminently a favourite with Otho the Third, he was by the influence of that prince raised, first to be archbishop of Ravenna, and afterwards to the papacy by the name of Silvester the Second.

Cardinal Benno, who was an adherent of the anti-popes, and for that reason is supposed to have calumniated Gerbert and several of his successors, affirms that he was habitually waited on by demons, that by their aid he obtained the papal crown, and that the devil to whom he had sold himself, faithfully promised him that he should live, till he had celebrated high mass at Jerusalem. This however was merely a juggle of the evil spirit; and Gerbert actually died, shortly after having officially dispensed the sacrament at the church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, which is one of the seven districts of the city of Rome. This event occurred in the year 1008.

Benedict the Ninth.

According to the same authority sorcery was at this time extensively practised by some of the highest dignitaries of the church, and five or six popes in succession were notorious for these sacrilegious practices. About the same period the papal chair was at its lowest state of degradation; this dignity was repeatedly exposed for sale; and the reign of Gerbert, a man of consummate abilities and attainments, is almost the only redeeming feature in the century in which he lived. At length the tiara became the purchase of an ambitious family, which had already furnished two popes, in behalf of a boy of twelve years of age, who reigned by the name of Benedict the Ninth. This youth, as he grew up, contaminated his rule with every kind of profligacy and debauchery. But even he, according to Benno, was a pupil in the school of Silvester, and became no mean proficient in the arts of sorcery. Among other things he caused the matrons of Rome by his incantations to follow him in troops among woods and mountains, being bewitched and their souls subdued by the irresistible charms of his magic.

Gregory the Seventh.

Benno presents us with a regular catalogue of the ecclesiastical sorcerers of this period: Benedict the Ninth, and Laurence, archbishop of Melfi, (each of whom, he says, learned the art of Silvester), John XX and Gregory VI. But his most vehement accusations are directed against Gregory VII, who, he affirms, was in the early part of his career, the constant companion and assistant of these dignitaries in unlawful practices of this sort.

Gregory VII, whose original name was Hildebrand, is one of the great champions of the Romish church, and did more than any other man to establish the law of the celibacy of the clergy, and to take the patronage of ecclesiastical dignities out of the hands of the laity. He was eminently qualified for this undertaking by the severity of his manners, and the inflexibility of his resolution to accomplish whatever he undertook.

His great adversary was Henry the Fourth, emperor of Germany, a young prince of high spirit, and at that time (1075) twenty-four years of age…

Gregory was no doubt a man of extraordinary resources and invincible courage. He did not live to witness the triumph of his policy; but his projects for the exaltation of the church finally met with every success his most sanguine wishes could have aspired to. In addition to all the rest it happened, that the countess Matilda, a princess who in her own right possessed extensive sovereignties in Italy, nearly commensurate with what has since been styled the ecclesiastical state, transferred to the pope in her life-time, and confirmed by her testament, all these territories, thus mainly contributing to render him and his successors so considerable as temporal princes, as since that time they have appeared.

It is, however, as a sorcerer, that Gregory VII (Hildebrand) finds a place in this volume. Benno relates that, coming one day from his Alban villa, he found, just as he was entering the church of the Lateran, that he had left behind him his magical book, which he was accustomed to carry about his person. He immediately sent two trusty servants to fetch it, at the same time threatening them most fearfully if they should attempt to look into the volume. Curiosity however got the better of their fear. They opened the book, and began to read; when presently a number of devils appeared, saying, “We are come to obey your commands, but, if we find ourselves trifled with, we shall certainly fall upon and destroy you.” The servants, exceedingly terrified, replied, “Our will is that you should immediately throw down so much of the wall of the city as is now before us.” The devils obeyed; and the servants escaped the danger that hung over them. It is further said, that Gregory was so expert in the arts of magic, that he would throw out lightning by shaking his arm, and dart thunder from his sleeve.

But the most conspicuous circumstance in the life of Gregory that has been made the foundation of a charge of necromancy against him, is that, when Rodolph marched against Henry IV, the pope was so confident of his success, as to venture publicly to prophesy, both in speech and in writing, that his adversary should be conquered and perish in this campaign. “Nay,” he added, “this prophecy shall be accomplished before St. Peter’s day; nor do I desire any longer to be acknowledged for pope, than on the condition that this comes to pass.” It is added, that Rodolph, relying on the prediction, six times renewed the battle, in which finally he perished instead of his competitor. But this does not go far enough to substantiate a charge of necromancy. It is further remarked, that Gregory was deep in the pretended science of judicial astrology; and this, without its being necessary to have recourse to the solution of diabolical aid, may sufficiently account for the undoubting certainty with which he counted on the event.

In the mean time this statement is of great importance, as illustrative of the spirit of the times in general, and the character of Gregory in particular. Rodolph, the competitor for the empire, has his mind wrought up to such a pitch by this prophetic assurance, that, five times repulsed, he yet led on his forces a sixth time, and perished the victim of his faith. Nor were his followers less animated than he, and from the same cause. We see also from the same story, that Gregory was not an artful and crafty impostor, but a man spurred on by a genuine enthusiasm. And this indeed is necessary to account for the whole of his conduct. The audacity with which he opposed the claims of Henry, and the unheard-of severity with which he treated him at the fortress of Canosa, are to be referred to the same feature of character. Invincible perseverance, when united with great resources of intellect and a lofty spirit, will enable a man thoroughly to effect, what a person of inferior endowments would not have dared so much as to dream of. And Gregory, like St. Dunstan, achieved incredible things, by skilfully adapting himself to circumstances, and taking advantage of the temper and weakness of his contemporaries…


One of the most curious particulars, and which cannot be omitted in a history of sorcery, is the various achievements in the art of magic which have been related of the poet Virgil. I bring them in here, because they cannot be traced further back than the eleventh or twelfth century. The burial-place of this illustrious man was at Pausilippo, near Naples; the Neapolitans had for many centuries cherished a peculiar reverence for his memory; and it has been supposed that the old ballads, and songs of the minstrels of the north of Italy, first originated this idea respecting him. The vulgar of this city, full of imagination and poetry, conceived the idea of treating him as the guardian genius of the place; and, in bodying forth this conception, they represented him in his life-time as gifted with supernatural powers, which he employed in various ways for the advantage of a city that he so dearly loved. Be this as it will, it appears that Gervais of Tilbury, chancellor to Otho the Fourth, emperor of Germany, Helinandus, a Cisterian monk, and Alexander Neckam, all of whom lived about this time, first recorded these particulars in their works.

They tell us, that Virgil placed a fly of brass over one of the gates of the city, which, as long as it continued there, that is, for a space of eight years, had the virtue of keeping Naples clear from moskitoes and all noxious insects: that he built a set of shambles, the meat in which was at all times free from putrefaction: that he placed two images over the gates of the city, one of which was named Joyful, and the other Sad, one of resplendent beauty, and the other hideous and deformed, and that whoever entered the town under the former image would succeed in all his undertakings, and under the latter would as certainly miscarry: that he caused a brazen statue to be erected on a mountain near Naples, with a trumpet in his mouth, which when the north wind blew, sounded so shrill as to drive to the sea the fire and smoke which issued from the neighbouring forges of Vulcan: that he built different baths at Naples, specifically prepared for the cure of every disease, which were afterwards demolished by the malice of the physicians: and that he lighted a perpetual fire for the refreshment of all travellers, close to which he placed an archer of brass, with his bow bent, and this inscription, “Whoever strikes me, I will let fly my arrow:” that a fool-hardy fellow notwithstanding struck the statue, when the arrow was immediately shot into the fire, and the fire was extinguished. It is added, that, Naples being infested with a vast multitude of contagious leeches, Virgil made a leech of gold, which he threw into a pit, and so delivered the city from the infection: that he surrounded his garden with a wall of air, within which the rain never fell: that he built a bridge of brass that would transport him wherever he pleased: that he made a set of statues, which were named the salvation of Rome, which had the property that, if any one of the subject nations prepared to revolt, the statue, which bore the name of, and was adored by that nation, rung a bell, and pointed with its finger in the direction of the danger: that he made a head, which had the virtue of predicting things future: and lastly, amidst a world of other wonders, that he cut a subterranean passage through mount Pausilippo, that travellers might pass with perfect safety, the mountain having before been so infested with serpents and dragons, that no one could venture to cross it….

Miracle of the Tub of Water.

This story affords an additional example of the affinity between the ancient Asiatic and European legends, so as to convince us that it is nearly impossible that the one should not be in some way borrowed from the other. There is, in a compilation called the Turkish Tales, a story of an infidel sultan of Egypt, who took the liberty before a learned Mahometan doctor, of ridiculing some of the miracles ascribed to the prophet, as for example his transportation into the seventh heaven, and having ninety thousand conferences with God, while in the mean time a pitcher of water, which had been thrown down in the first step of his ascent, was found with the water not all spilled at his return.

The doctor, who had the gift of working miracles, told the sultan that, with his consent, he would give him a practical proof of the possibility of the circumstance related of Mahomet. The sultan agreed. The doctor therefore directed that a huge tub of water should be brought in, and, while the prince stood before it with his courtiers around, the holy man bade him plunge his head into the water, and draw it out again. The sultan immersed his head, and had no sooner done so, than he found himself alone at the foot of a mountain on a desert shore. The prince first began to rave against the doctor for this piece of treachery and witchcraft. Perceiving however that all his rage was vain, and submitting himself to the imperiousness of his situation, he began to seek for some habitable tract. By and by he discovered people cutting down wood in a forest, and, having no remedy, he was glad to have recourse to the same employment. In process of time he was brought to a town; and there by great good fortune, after other adventures, he married a woman of beauty and wealth, and lived long enough with her, for her to bear him seven sons and seven daughters. He was afterwards reduced to want, so as to be obliged to ply in the streets as a porter for his livelihood. One day, as he walked alone on the sea-shore, ruminating on his hard fate, he was seized with a fit of devotion, and threw off his clothes, that he might wash himself, agreeably to the Mahometan custom, previously to saying his prayers. He had no sooner however plunged into the sea, and raised his head again above water, than he found himself standing by the side of the tub that had been brought in, with all the great persons of his court round him, and the holy man close at his side. He found that the long series of imaginary adventures he had passed through, had in reality occupied but one minute of time.

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