Call for Papers: Magic, divination, astrology and justice, from Antiquity to the present day

Justice: tarot card (15th century) Gallica/BnF


Hélène Ménard (CRISES E.A. 4424, université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3) and Diane Roussel (ACP – EA 3350, université Gustave Eiffel)


Historical research has mainly focused on magic, astrology and divination as objects of progressive criminalisation – particularly in the case of witchcraft, until such time as these crimes are considered to be imaginary and relegated to the rank of cunning petty crimes (e.g. LIEBS 1997; RIVES 2003; RIVES 2006; SOMAN 1977; 1992). However, neither linear nor absolute, the process of disenchantment with the world and the secularisation of judicial culture does not suddenly erase incantatory and divinatory social practices (PORRET, 2008). This is borne out by the long history of magic trials, which have been studied from Antiquity to the modern or even contemporary period, particularly in other civilisational areas (DE ROSNY 2005; FANCELLO, BONHOMME 2018) for contemporary Africa, or the case of voodoo in colonial areas (PLUCHON 1987; HOULLEMARE 2019).

The aim of this dossier, published in the online journal Criminocorpus, is to look at the issue from a different angle and to see how magic (or what is described as ‘magic’), astrology or divination, which constitute fields of knowledge that are more or less lawful depending on the period, interfere with justice. Depending on the social and cultural context, these relationships bring into play the relationship between justice and science and religion, varying conceptions of judicial rationality and the role of society and, increasingly, public opinion with regard to so-called magical practices. There are three main strands to the discussion:


1st axis – How magic, astrology or divination become auxiliaries to institutional justice, by making it possible to uncover crime or punish a guilty party (e.g. as evidence)

As a controversial instrument for creating knowledge and making decisions, divination can be read as a practice of power and domination (LUDWIG 2019): does this manifest itself in the exercise of judicial power, and in what ways? The porosity between magical ritual and justice, through the use of legal procedures or terms, has been highlighted (ROUFFET 2016; KERNEIS 2014). Ancient practices in Mesopotamia (GLASSNER 2012), Egypt (MENU 2013) and the Celtic world (KERNEIS 2005) come to mind. In the Tibetan Empire, between the seventh and mid-ninth centuries, local magistrates used dice and divination manuals to settle disputes (DOTSON 2007). The wider problem of the judgments of God and ordination is now well known in the early Western Middle Ages (BARTHELEMY 1988). But magic – or other practices and knowledge considered to be licit or not – was sometimes intended as an auxiliary or alternative to institutional justice: this is what we would like to document.

Some traces of the use of knowledge, whose licit character varied according to the time, are present in later sources: we might think of Laurent Pignon, Contre les devineurs (II.2.3) published in 1411 (in VEENSTRA 1998, p. 276). As the presence of ghosts became a recurring topic of civil law in the 16th-17th centuries, it was accepted that spectres acted as intermediaries between judge and God, and that justice could have recourse, exceptionally, to supernatural evidence to bring out the truth (CALLARD, 2019). The persistence of appeals to the corpse (cruentatio or accusatory bleeding) seems to run counter to a ‘rationalisation’ of the judicial process (AKOPIAN 2021).

The case of Jacques Aymar, who, at the end of the seventeenth century, found murderers using a divining rod, gave rise to debates about the art of dowsing (or rabdomancy) during the Age of Enlightenment: it was analysed by Michael R. Lynn from the angle of the history of knowledge, but could be taken up again from the more specific angle of the history of justice (LYNN 2001). The ‘false sorcerers’ targeted by the Paris police in the eighteenth century still claimed to contribute to the revelation of truth through judicial divination and astrology (KRAMPL 2012). In this respect, divination resembles judicial ordeal when a “diviner” identifies thieves through magical tests of truth. Although institutional justice is increasingly basing its authority on the system of evidence, the popular divinatory imagination is vigilant and restorative (PORRET 2008).

2nd axis – How does magic or other forms of knowledge considered to be occult try to influence the justice system, in particular by intervening in the judicial process, to circumvent a representative (judge, lawyer) or the opposing party, or to divert a trial

Can magic be used to win a case? Do people ever accuse their opponents of using magic to suborn witnesses, disguise evidence or even influence the magistrate’s decision?

From Greece in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. (PAPAKONSTANTINOU 2021; LAMONT 2023) to ancient Rome, the category of defixiones iudiciariae includes texts that target opponents in legal proceedings. Prayers for justice constitute another category, targeting thieves or slanderers, whom ordinary justice seems unable to find or punish. Another example can be found in fictional literature: Apuleius (Metamorphoses I, 9) recalls the transformation of a lawyer into a ram by the magician Meroe, who punished him for having pleaded against her.

Scholarly theories and popular beliefs underpin a culture of divination and magic that has survived the centuries. In the Liber prestigiorum, a treatise on astral magic translated by Adélard of Bath in the twelfth century, winning a court case is one of the aims of talismans, at the heart of a precise ritual (BOUDET 2006). Manuals on demonology refer to the demonic body, which has the ability to resist torture and even to “curse the law” (MUCHEMBLED 1991). The sources of judicial practice make it possible to grasp social usages that are nevertheless condemned by the growing scepticism of magistrates with regard to Satanic determinism (THOMAS 1971). Although the aim here is not to study witchcraft trials per se, do the sources that record them nevertheless allow us to identify cases of supernatural intervention during trials, admitted by the accused themselves to explain their acts or denounced by social pressure?

3rd axis – How magic uses the bodies of the convicts

In modern times, the bodies of the sentenced persons could be used for practices somewhere between magic and medicine, both to acquire anatomical knowledge and for pharmacological purposes (LE BRETON 2008). In Book 18 of his Natural History, Pliny the Elder mentions the use of a crucified man’s hair and a nail taken from the cross to combat quart fevers. The legend of mandrake also originated at the foot of the pillories (PORRET 2006; MENAPACE 2018). Sorcerers and poisoners used the nails and flesh of hanged men recovered from the gallows, or used their magical power (COLLARD 2003). Similarly, popular rumour attributes to the executioner gifts of “divining” lost or stolen objects, or of thaumaturgic healing that relieves sick or bewitched men. The blood and remains of those executed, the rope and the “executioner’s grease” all feature prominently in superstitions in the Germanic world, and in France too (PORRET 1998; BASTIEN 2011). To what extent, despite changes in rituals and methods of execution (e.g. the guillotine, TAÏEB 2011), have these beliefs survived into the modern era?

The relationship between magic, astrology and divination, and justice will be studied from Antiquity to the present day.

In addition to France and Western Countries, colonial areas will be of interest in terms of the confrontation between judicial practices considered to be magical and colonial justice. Other cultural areas may also be included.

Contributions may take the form of either historical articles or more detailed studies of original documents.


Proposal submission deadline: 30 June 2024. They must include a short presentation of the author and a summary of no more than 3,000 characters.

Article submission deadline after proposal is accepted: January 2025.

Publication date: autumn 2025.


Contacts: and



Akopian Astrid, « Le cadavre accusateur dans le procès du XIIIe au XVIIIe siècle en Occident : de la preuve révélée à la preuve raisonnée », Droit et cultures, 82, 2021/2.

Barthélemy Dominique, « Diversité des ordalies médiévales », Revue Historique, 280, n° 1, 1988, p. 3-25 [En ligne sur Jstor]

Bastien Pascal, Histoire de la peine de mort. Bourreaux et supplices (1500-1800), Paris, Le Seuil, 2011.

Boudet Jean-Patrice, Entre science et nigromance. Astrologie, divination et magie dans l’Occident médiéval (XIIe-XVe siècle), Paris, PUPS, 2006.

Collard Franck, « Veneficiis vel maleficiis. », Le Moyen Age, 1 (t. CIX), 2003, p. 9-57.

De Rosny Éric, « Justice et sorcellerie en Afrique », Études, 9 (t. 403), 2005, p. 171-181.

Dotson Brandon, « Divination and Law in the Tibetan Empire. The Role of Dice in the Legislation of Loans, Interest, Marital Law and Troop Conscription », dans Contributions to the Cultural History of the Early Tibet, Brill, 2007, p. 1-77.

Fancello Sandra, Bonhomme Julien, « L’État et les institutions face à la sorcellerie », Cahiers d’études africaines, 231-232, 2018, p. 573-591.

Hébert Séléna, « Méroé, magicienne criminelle des Métamorphoses d’Apulée, ou l’exercice d’une justice de la vengeance », Camenulae 16, 2017.

Houllemare Marie, « Marie Kingué et la subversion de l’ordre colonial (Saint-Domingue, 1785) », Clio, 50, 2019, p. 155-164.

Kerneis Soazick, « Les ongles et le chaudron : pratiques judiciaires et mentalités magiques en Gaule romaine. », Revue Historique de Droit Français et Étranger, 83/2, 2005, p155-181.

Kerneis Soazick, « Magie et droit dans l’île de Bretagne IIe-IVe siècles », in Transmission des savoirs magiques de l’Antiquité à la renaissance (V. Dasen & J.-M. Spieser dir.) ; actes du Colloque international tenu à Fribourg les 17-19 mars 2011), Micrologus’Library 60, SISMEL, Edizioni del Galluzzo, p. 25-42.

Krampl Ulrike, Les Secrets des faux sorciers. Police, magie et escroquerie à Paris au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, Éditions EHESS, 2012.

Lamont Jessica L, In Blood and Ashes: Curses Tablets and Biding Spells in Ancient Greece, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2023.

Le Breton David, « 3. Le corps humain entre “matériel anatomique” et remèdes », dans La Chair à vif, in Le Breton D. (dir.), Paris, Éditions Métailié, « Suites Sciences Humaines », 2008, p. 119-175.

Liebs, Detlef, « Strafprozesse wegen Zauberei: Magie und politisches Kalkül in der römischen Geschichte », in Manthe U., Ungern-Sternberg J. von (eds.), Grosse Prozesse der römischen Antike, München, Beck, 1997, p. 146-158.

Ludwig Ulrike, “Divination”, in Heike Paul (Hg.), Critical Terms in Futures Studies, Cham 2019, p. 99–104.

Lynn Michael R., « Divining the Enlightenment: Public Opinion and Popular Science in Old Regime France », Isis, 2001, 92.1, p. 34-54.

Menapace Luc, « La mandragore, iconographie d’un mythe botanique », Revue de la Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 1, n°56, 2018, p. 41-49.

Menu Bernadette, « Maât au cœur des justices de l’Invisible et la question de l’ordalie par le crocodile », in Nathalie Kálnoky, Soazick Kerneis et Raymond Vedier (ed.), Les Justices de l’Invisible. Actes du Colloque « Puissances de la Nature. Justices de l’Invisible : du maléfice à l’ordalie, de la magie à la sanction », Université Paris-Ouest, 2-3 déc. 2010, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2013, p. 181-196.

Muchembled Robert, « Le corps magique à la Renaissance », dans Actes des Congrès de la Société française Shakespeare, 1991, 9 “Shakespeare et le corps à la Renaissance”, p. 125-136.

Papakonstantinou Zinon, Cursing for justice: magic, disputes, and the lawcourts in classical Athens, Stuttgart, Steiner, 2021.

Pluchon Pierre, Vaudou, sorciers, empoisonneurs, de Saint-Domingue à Haïti, Paris, Karthala, 1987.

Porret Michel, « Corps flétri-Corps soigné. L’attouchement du bourreau au XVIIIe siècle », dans Michel Porret (éd.), Le corps violenté, du geste à la parole, Genève, Droz, 1998, p. 103-135.

Porret Michel, « Chap. 1 : Magie et superstitions : le « menu peuple » abusé », Sur la scène du crime : Pratique pénale, enquête et expertises judiciaires à Genève (xviiie-xixe siècle) [en ligne], Montréal, Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2008, DOI :

Rives James B., « Magic in Roman law: the reconstruction of a crime. », Classical Antiquity, 22.2, 2003, p. 313-339.

Rives James B., « Magic, religion and law: the case of the ‘lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis’ », in Religion and law in classical and Christian Rome, Ando C., Rüpke J. (eds.), Stuttgart, Steiner, 2006, p. 47-67.

Rouffet Frédéric, « Le rituel magique égyptien comme image du tribunal », Droit et cultures, 71, 2016, p. 163-178.

Soman Alfred, « Les procès de sorcellerie au Parlement de Paris (1565‑1640) », Annales ESC, 2, 1977, p. 790‑814 ;

Soman Alfred, Sorcellerie et justice criminelle : le parlement de Paris, 16e‑18e siècles, Aldershot, Variorum, 1992.

Taïeb Emmanuel, La guillotine au secret. Les exécutions publiques en France, 1870-1939, Paris, Belin, 2011.

Thomas Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic. Studies in Popular Belief in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England, Londres, Penguin, 1973 (1971).


Citer ce billet
Sophie Victorien (2024, 12 février). Call for Papers: Magic, divination, astrology and justice, from Antiquity to the present day. Criminocorpus. Consulté le 25 février 2024, à l’adresse

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