The idea of natural magic (an alternative explanation for the operation of unseen forces formerly attributed solely to the intervention of divine or demonic agencies) first emerged in the philosophical writings of a thirteenth-century bishop of Paris named William of Auvergne, who was strongly influenced by two unconventional sources for theologians of his time: the ethnography of contemporary and pre-medieval popular beliefs, and Islamic natural philosophy, particularly that pertaining to magic, astrology, and alchemy. His theory of natural magic initiated an important shift in Western thought that played a crucial role in medieval natural philosophy, generating models of causality which did not rely on supernatural agents (divine, demonic, etc.). This dissertation will provide substantial new primary resources for historical study through archival research into William, and will provide a much-needed analysis of his writings on magic and unseen forces in nature.

Intellectual Merit: A critical study of William's writings and their role in the academic debates of the thirteenth and fourteenth century will be a crucial contribution to an improved understanding of the historical struggle between scientific and religious paradigms in Western thought, and may prove a useful recovery of philosophical and rhetorical strategies for managing these conflicts. The research will yield original work that will improve our understanding of William and his influence on later natural thinkers. From this base of archival study, answers to the following key questions can be derived: How did theologians who were also natural philosophers (and hence scientists of the Middle Ages) negotiate the creation of distinct epistemological categories for science and religion? How did William's ethnographical investigations and sensibilities enable him to break free of existing doctrine? In what ways did his unconventional approach of treating "high," "low," and non-Western cultures of knowing (e.g., university, ecclesiastical, popular, fabulous, Islamic) as viable sources of data provide an advantage in his innovation of an explanatory account of hidden forces in nature as causal mechanisms for phenomena previously attributed to the action of spirits?

Broader Impacts: The study will examine social ramifications of William's innovations by addressing these questions. How did he navigate the perils of intellectual transgression--namely, courtly disfavor, accusations of heresy, and possible expulsion from his ecclesiastical or university post--during a time of tremendous upheaval where such ramifications were hardly rare? How does the separation of magic, science, and religion begin to take shape in the context of the formation of secular universities in the late Middle Ages, and in what ways should we begin to revise common beliefs about the assumed longevity and nature of the historical "war" between science and religion as a consequence? What are the ramifications of a better understanding of the rhetorical strategies and the gradual social adoption of new locutions and categories in debates over natural magic in the late Middle Ages for modern intellectual culture?

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Frederick M Kronz
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Indiana University
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