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. Pre-Christian animism still exists in South America, Africa and Asia – and probably, in fact, on all continents – even among Christians. For example, the slitting of the throat of a rooster and using its blood to make the protective Christian sign of the cross on the forehead of a child on his or her birthday anniversary is still practiced in some Christian homes in the Philippines.
It would not be unusual for a medieval European to ask an astrologer, for example, to discern signs that a pregnancy would be successful, especially at those levels in a society where both inheritance issues and infant mortality generated serious concern. This particular article will focus on one woman, Eleanor Cobham, whose husband was second in line for the English Crown. She wished to discern whether her husband would ever be king, which would require the present monarch to die.Yet for her or members of her household to announce abroad that the king would experience poor health in the following year could legally be construed as an attempt to alienate the populace from the king – that is, an act of treason. To go further than to discern the king’s future by invoking evil spirits to bring about his death was a further crime – that of necromancy (invoking death). The charge of necromancy was not unheard of in England. For example, at Coventry in 1324 there had been a major scandal when it was discovered that a number of rich and influential townsmen had long been consulting a professional necromancer, and paying him large sums of money to use his arts to cause the death of King Edward III and some of his nobles.
And again in 1419 Queen Joan, the second wife and widow of King Henry IV, was arrested on an accusation of necromancy but, after examination, she was not sent to trial. And then, just over twenty years later, there was another scandal involving the accusation of necromancy in London. Even though probably in fact it was not as serious as was alleged, these series of events certainly became the most scandalous episode in England during the mid-fifteenth century.
One of the protagonists in this unfolding mid-fifteenth-century drama was Thomas Southwell, who was a priest who was also a physician. (In medieval times, the distinction between being a physician and a surgeon was considerable; a physician focused on the "bloodless" administration of herbal remedies and ailments.) Southwell had graduated in medicine from Oxford in 1423. The Church was striving to stop priests from practicing medicine of any form, but had not totally succeeded in doing so. The first step taken by the Church had been to forbid priests from practising surgery, even if henceforth they chose to study medicine solely for the knowledge of herbal remedies. (In earlier times when monasteries were a venue for medical assistance, some of the monks were akin to “physicians.” Noblemen with education sometimes practised surgery - especially on the field after battle. In the cities, barbers performed simple surgery.)
As a physician rather than a surgeon, Southwell probably would not have performed operations, but would have dispensed herbal medicines akin to the monastic practices. Southwell had helped to establish the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1423, which was founded to exclude barbers from undertaking surgery. He was appointed as one of the two masters (examiners) of surgery. The College was soon circumvented by the barbers, it ceased its role within eighteen months.
This situation for Southwell may have been an inconvenience, but what followed in 1441 was actually life-threatening. At that time King Henry VI, who in 1421 at the age of one year had become King of England (and also subsequently king of part of France, and the victim of bouts of lunacy), had as a potential rival his powerful uncle and guardian, Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester. During the minority of Henry VI, his uncle Humphrey had administered England in the name of Henry VI as the Lord Protector.
By her marriage in about 1430 Eleanor Cobham (born circa 1400) became the Duchess of Gloucester and thereby one of the most prominent women in English society. She married Humphrey three years after his first marriage was declared invalid. She had been an attendant to Jacqueline, Countess of Hainaut, the first wife of Humphrey, and had also been Humphrey’s mistress during his first marriage.
As the second wife of the Duke of Gloucester, Eleanor was often been described as ambitious and arrogant, but whether in fact she was thus or just typecast thus by historians would now be difficult to determine. Other commentators have commented that Eleanor was ambitious and gullible, and that she allowed malicious and manipulative persons to tempt her and her household sufficiently along the path of necromancy and treason so as to quash the political influence of her husband – an influence that, in fact, was eventually quashed, whatever were the combination of factors involved.
(Continued on the next page.)