The dissolution of the monasteries in England (1536–1540) forced hundreds of former inmates of religious houses to seek livelihoods outside the cloister to supplement meagre pensions from the crown. Among the marketable skills these individuals possessed were Latin literacy, knowledge of liturgy, sacramental authority and a reputation for arcane learning: all qualities desirable in magical practitioners in early modern Europe. Furthermore, the dissolution dispersed occult texts housed in monastic libraries, while the polemical efforts of the opponents of monasticism resulted in the growth of legends about the magical prowess of monks and friars. The dissolution was a key moment in the democratisation of learned magic in sixteenth-century England, which moved from being an illicit pastime of clerics, monks and friars to a service provided by lay practitioners. This article considers the extent of interest in magic among English monks and friars before the dissolution, the presence of occult texts in monastic libraries, and the evidence for the magical activities of former religious in post-dissolution England. The article considers the processes by which monks, friars and monastic sites became associated with magic in popular tradition, resulting in a lasting stereotype of medieval monks and friars as the masters of occult knowledge.
This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited