Inciting a Literary Riot: an Interview with Professor Richard Kieckhefer

Hello Rioters! I am Vinna, your new Literary Maven here at the Riot, and we are beginning our book blogs with a very special interview. Today I am thrilled to introduce you to one of the most exciting researchers in the field of academic religious studies: Professor Richard Kieckhefer. Professor Kieckhefer's research focuses on the history of witchcraft and magic, as well as church architecture in the late Middle Ages.  He is currently employed as a Professor of Religion and History at Northwestern University in Illinois. Professor Kieckhefer if also the author of several books including European Witch Trials (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976), Repression of Heresy in Medieval Germanyi (Pennsylvania, 1979), Unquiet Souls (Chicago, 1984), Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1989), and Forbidden Rites (Sutton and Penn State, 1997).  His most recent book is Theology in Stone (Oxford, 2004), although he currently has several projects underway for possible publication in 2016. We may be over a year away from reviewing his latest book, but I would like to present to you my short interview with Professor Kieckhefer as a literary amuse-bouche to give you just a bit of his work.

Vinna: You are currently a Professor of History and Religion at Northwestern University with research focusing on late medieval religious culture. What initially drew you to this field of study?

Professor Kieckhefer: When I was a freshman in college, my history teacher lent me a copy of Elliott Rose, A Razor for a Goat, the latest historical study of witchcraft and the witch persecutions.  I was fascinated.  Later I read Johan Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages, which helped focus my interest specifically on the period 1300-1500.  In any event, my interest was aroused by my readings.  Of course it helped that I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church at a time when it was still preserving many aspects of medieval culture—not just the Latin, but the devotions, many of which originated in late medieval Europe.

Vinna: In an interview you did with Anne Ford of the Chicagoan you admitted that you are not a "practicing magician" but an historian, yet many readers seem to use your books as a magical how-to guide. How do you view such uses of your research?

Professor Kieckhefer: I once got a phone call from a man in India who has read Forbidden Rites and had tried twice the conjuration to get a flying horse.  It hadn’t worked for him, so he was calling to see what I did to make it work.  When I told him I was merely a historian of magic, not a practicing magician, he was crestfallen.  I expect other people have had similar experience—in fact “magic that doesn’t work” is itself a theme in the history of magic.  So mostly people who take my writings and try to make use of them are going to waste their time.  But there are worse ways to waste time, like television.  I’ve been told Forbidden Rites gets a lot of orders from prisons.  I have no idea what guys in prison are doing with a book on demonic magic, but I haven’t published any magic that would help them escape.

Vinna: I agree that Forbidden Rites, while interesting reading to pass the time in jail perhaps, would hardly aid in a prison escape! Is your writing at all affected by the knowledge that, like the man in India, many individuals may try to replicate the ceremonies and spells you describe? The historical spells in your book often involve actions or ingredients that would be deemed inappropriate in modern society (swallowing animal hearts, using human bones, etc). Do you find there is a sense of personal culpability for providing the spells in your books?

Professor Kieckhefer: If you check closely, you’ll find that I don’t actually translate any of the conjurations in their entirety—so to some extent people are on their own.

Vinna: While your books may contain magical rituals and descriptions of spells, your true focus seems to be on the individuals who were practicing witchcraft. What do believe accounted for the popularity of witchcraft in the Middle Ages, despite the stigma against it?

Professor Kieckhefer: The popularity of magic seems hard to explain if you begin with the premise that it can’t work, but the common assumption among medieval people was that it can work, and the real question was how it works.  If it exploits hidden powers within nature, it was seen as in principle legitimate.  If it exploits the aid of demons, that’s something else again.  Of course some people were drawn even to the demonic form by the allure of the forbidden, which is a powerful motivator then as now.  For most people, though, asking why magic was popular is a bit like asking why cold medicines are popular today.  Maybe they work, and maybe they don’t, but the people who take them assume at least that they may work, and the risks are small.

Vinna: You noted in your last answer that if people using magic "assume at lease that [the magic] may work, and the risks are small," how would that account for the popularity of witchcraft and necromantic practices being utilized by clergy members, as found in your book Forbidden Rites?

Professor Kieckhefer: The clerical necromancers were presumably in it either because they expected it to work or because they took glee in being transgressive.

Vinna: Aside from Elliott Rose's A Razor for a Goat,  what other resources would you suggest for readers interested in the history of witchcraft and witch persecutions?        

Professor Kieckhefer: Elliott Rose’s book is now a bit of a period piece.  For witch trials generally, Brian Levack’s book is standard.  (I got him interested in the history of witchcraft when he was a new faculty member and I was a graduate student!)  And check out the article I’m attaching.

Vinna: Finally, do you have any current book projects underway that our readers can look forward to? (Here Professor Kieckhefer sent as article via email. I cannot share the article with you out of respect for Professor Kieckhefer's privacy, but needless to say it has made me even more excited for his upcoming publications!)

I hope you have enjoyed this brief interview with Professor Richard Kieckhefer. If you are interested in obtaining any of his books for your personal library, they can be found on his Amazon Author page at . I would personally recommend Magic in the Middle Ages and Forbidden Rites.

Until next time Rioters,

Vinna Harper


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