I commented in an earlier post about Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991, dir. Kevin Reynolds) that one of the biggest anachronisms in the film is Mortianna the witch and what appears to be a Satanist coven. The problems with it are big enough that I decided to give it its own post.
Medieval Notions of Witchcraft
One of the persistent notions about the Middle Ages is that people were constantly terrified about witches and that witch hunting was a common phenomenon in the period. The reality is quite different. The average medieval person probably did have a vague belief in witches and some fear that he or she could be a victim of witchcraft, probably the way that many modern Americans have a belief in serial killers and some vague fear that they could become a victim of one. But the surviving evidence from the medieval period suggests that this wasn’t a serious fear that obsessed people, the way films and tv shows typically present it.
Many communities probably had a small number of men and women that I will call ‘cunning folk’. The term is not really medieval (it’s mostly used in the period form the 15th to the 20th centuries), but it’s one of the terms modern scholars of witchcraft have adopted. Cunning folk were men and women who had unusual knowledge of semi-magical matters, such as the medicinal uses of plants, contraceptive and abortifacient techniques, the making of poisons and love charms, faith healing practices, how to find lost objects or predict the future, how to manipulate the weather, how to curse people and protect against curses, and so on. Different cunning folk appear to have specialized in one or two of these matters, and accepted payment in exchange for their assistance. These folk magical practices were used to help people deal with problems that were out of their direct control (such as medical problems and the weather). Such practices were not, by and large, illegal in the medieval period.
What was illegal, however, was using such practices to inflict harm on another person, for example by causing crops to fail or making someone fall down a flight of stairs. Employed this way, folk magic could be charged in court as maleficia, the causing of harm by magical means. The issue here is not that using magic is inherently evil, it’s that harming a person is evil. Magic is simply understood as the tool through which evil was done. (If I kill you with my car, I may have commited vehicular homicide, but driving a car isn’t evil in itself.) So periodically, down into the 15th century, we find secular courts charging people with maleficia. But in the surviving records, it’s not a common charge; I know of only a tiny handful of such cases across the entirety of medieval English history.
Nor was the medieval Church particularly worried about witches. As I noted in one of my posts on Salem, for much of the medieval period, the prevailing view among theologians is that witchcraft wasn’t really possible. If people thought they had performed magic, they were actually deluded. In particular the idea that old women could perform malevolent magic was discounted. That doesn’t mean that medieval clergy had no belief in magic at all; they often had a strong belief in astrology, in alchemy, in the hidden (‘occult’) properties of plants and minerals, and in the communication with spirits, who might have knowledge beyond what humans had. These forms of magic were seen as educated, and therefore more legitimate than folk magic.
However, in the 14th and 15th centuries, the ecclesiastical position on witchcraft began to change, for reasons that historians have still not managed to completely pin down. Intellectuals began to embrace the argument that magic was only possible through the assistance of the Devil, so that all forms of witchcraft were a form of Satanism. This led to an idea that witches were not simply cunning folk with specialized knowledge but were actually in active collusion with Satan. Whereas a cunning man or woman might commit maleficia for specific human reasons like envy or revenge, a Satanist witch was simply malevolent as a person (rather the way Hollywood presents serial killers as just figures of motiveless violence). This meant that any magic cunning folk employed could be evidence of Satanism, even if it wasn’t maleficia. And increasingly there was an assumption that witches did not operate alone; they taught other witches and operated in covens that periodically assembled to worship the Devil, fornicate, and plan evil.
But this evolution took about 300 years to happen, so that its major manifestations took place in the 16th and 17th centuries, not in the Middle Ages. It is not the Middle Ages that was obsessed with witches and witch hunting, it is the Early Modern period. The 15th century was a transitional period, in which the number of witchcraft accusations began to climb, but there is no evidence of a ‘witch hunt’ during that period.
In RH:PoT, the witch is Mortianna (Geraldine McEwan), who is presented as a classic Early Modern stereotypical witch; she is an ugly old hag with a milky eye who lets toads and snakes roam freely in her rooms within Nottingham Castle. She’s Nottingham’s mother, so presumably she’s minor nobility. She mostly seems to predict the future, rather than performing curses or whatever. She also covers the altar of the castle’s chapel with magical paraphernalia, including a pentacle, knives, and, bizarrely, cobwebs. Early on in the film, the Sheriff of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) confronts Robin’s father as part of a group of white-robed, torch-carrying people. This looks a lot like 20th century cinematic depictions of Satanist covens, but this group is never mentioned again and the film basically drops this plotline after that scene. So I think the audience is supposed to assume that Mortianna and Nottingham are part of a coven of witches who worship Satan, even though the film never directly explains this.
But as I’ve already explained, this is entirely out of place in late 12th century England. The concept of Satanist witches and covens won’t even begin to emerge until the early 14th century, and they are entirely fantasies anyway, with no evidence that anyone actually did such things. Given that Robin Hood is an entirely fictional character made up well after the 1190s, I suppose it’s no more egregious to depict the Sheriff of Nottingham as working with a Satanist witch, but it’s a pretty glaring anachronism.
However, the film does unintentionally suggest that Martianna has some pretty impressive magical powers. In the finale, Nottingham drags Marion (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) into the chapel, where the evil bishop of Hereford is waiting to marry them so Nottingham can legally rape her. Mortianna is with him, and he bars the door of the chapel. Robin (Kevin Costner) and Azeem (Morgan Freeman) get to the chapel but are unable to get in, and try unsuccessfully to batter the door down with a statue. So the film seems to establish that there is only one door between the chapel and the hallway outside.
Eventually Robin goes out a nearby window and manages to swing through one of the chapel’s windows. About the same time, Mortianna magically appears in the hallway where Azeem is still trying to get the door open; she comes charging down the hallway at him and stabs him in the leg with a spear. Then she notices he’s black and briefly thinks he’s the Devil. She runs away, Azeem successfully impales her with the spear, and she falls out the window. Later, after Robin has just killed Nottingham, Mortianna suddenly appears behind the altar, having magically teleported there instead of falling to her death. She tries to stab Robin with the spear, but Azeem miraculously kicks the door in (the one he’s been unable to open so far), and kills her by throwing his scimitar at her (apparently his scimitar is aerodynamically balanced for throwing, despite the absurdly wide head). So apparently Satan has given Mortianna the ability to teleport at will. Either that or the film’s ending is just nonsense. You’ll have to decide which is more likely.
Want to Know More?
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves [Double Sided]is available on Amazon.
One of the best studies of the shift from the folk magic model to the Satanic model of witchcraft is Richard Kieckhefer’s European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500. He documents the shift in the accusations at trials. It’s a bit old, but it’s worth a read if you’re interested in medieval witchcraft.