Almost by way of a disclaimer, it is stated here at the outset that this article is not directly related to the Order of St Augustine, yet it deals with the general fifteenth-century climate in which Augustinians in Europe had to live, preach and minister.
It was the spiritual, political and legal milieu of their existence as citizens, clergymen and participants of religious community life.
Furthermore, although the mid-fifteenth century example used herein is of England, the historical influence of the human acceptance of evil spirits in medieval Europe was not restricted to England by any means, but was a universal phenomenon.
It is impossible to understand the true and inner lives of men and women in Elizabethan and Stuart England, in the France of Louis XIII and his son successor, in the Italian Renaissance and in the Catholic Counter-Reformation without accepting the part that witchcraft – or, more often, the accusation or even the mere suggestion of witchcraft – had in the lives of people at all levels of society.
(Witchcraft is here interpreted broadly as any attempt to bring evil spirits allegedly to influence the course of human events or of the lives of people or other creatures.)
To an extent that today – with greater understanding of psychology and of other sciences - is considered almost incredible, Medieval Europe (and other parts of the world as well) maintained a thorough and fearful belief in a spirit world. It also held that these spirit forces could know the future and be inimical to human outcome.
Thirdly, it could go so far as to be convinced that these spirits could be contacted to share their knowledge of and influence over future events. In such a society, those who professed to deny such influences were generally regarded as doing so at their own peril.
Astrology was accepted as a part of mathematics, a derivative of astronomy, i.e., seeing an indication of present and future events in the movement of the planets and stars and, further, in weather patterns and even in the behaviour and activity of nature generally.
Even the Bible suggests that at least on some occasions natural catastrophes such as floods, plagues and droughts were God’s agents of wrath and retribution on sinful human beings. Furthermore, God allowed Satan to tempt the just man, Job.
For a medieval European, to believe ardently in the possible influence of evil spirits on the course of human events was almost universal, and in that medieval milieu it would certainly have seemed foolish or daredevil (literally!) not to have done so.
In the Middle Ages, Satan and other evil spirits were used to fill the explanation gap in events and matters that people were disinclined to attribute directly to the hands of God, and could not see as having been caused by humanity, e.g., the Black Death, or the inexplicable sudden death of a healthy child or of a herd of animals or of a field of grain.
(Continued on the next page.)