On the Shelf: Religion, Science, and the Transformations of Magic – Manuscripts of Magic 1300-1600

As a warning, this is actually the doctoral dissertation of Frank Klaassen, so you won’t be able to run down to the store and get it. Some of the material within was published in his article in Claire Fanger’s Conjuring Spirits, so you can go there to get the highlights. Or, just read on.

Most people tend to associate such grimoires as the Key of Solomon, the Lemegeton, and the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses with the medieval era. Most of these works actually came to prominence in the Renaissance and the rise of print. The territory with regard to medieval magic was somewhat different.


Klaasen’s work splits medieval magical works into two groups. One on hand, we have the image magic texts, which were mostly translated from the Arabic and focused on imbuing pictures with astrological energy from the planets, the zodiac, or the mansions of the moon. These were acceptable to orthodox theology, so long as they didn’t use anything that could be perceived as offerings to the stars or foreign words that might secretly contain demonic prayers. They were seen as what we might call “scientific” treatises, and often appeared with books on theory, virtues of the various parts of nature, and other works.

I’d link to one of these works, but I don’t think any of these has been reprinted in an easily-accessible form lately. That alone should illustrate how magical beliefs have changed since that time.

On the other hand, you had ritual magic texts, including such works as the Ars Notoria – the pious medieval equivalent of a diploma mill – and the Sworn Book of Honorius. These attempted to circumvent the restrictions on “demonic” magic by presenting themselves as works aimed at religious devotion and the achievement of contact with divine or celestial forces. Unlike the image magic texts, these were more fluid in nature, as a magician’s experiences were recorded and alterations in the texts were perpetuated as they were copied and passed on.

At first glance, it might seem that Renaissance magicians such as Ficino and Agrippa had embraced the image magic tradition through their own astrological magic systems and shunned the ritual magic. What Renaissance magic represented, however, was the subsuming of image magic into a broader system that shared the goals of ritual magic. This new breed of magus seems to have accepted the basic tenets and procedures of the ritual magic genre while dissociating themselves from the particular texts that came before. It was this particular mixture that powered the ceremonial magic traditions that came to prominence in the nineteenth century, and that are perpetuated even today.

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Published in: on July 16, 2006 at 6:34 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] I am simply having an awesome time.  For example, I went to dinner one night with this group of people.  (This was not due to any great merit on my part, I should add, but that I applied late to the […]

  2. dear sir
    hi i will to ask if you have manuscript for buyment
    please send to me the list of manuscripts name if you have
    sincerly:kasem

  3. On the off chance you spot this comment on a 5 year old post, you may like to know that Klaassen’s expanded thesis will appear (some time in the near future) as ” The Transformations of Magic: Illicit Learned Magic 1300-1600″ (University Park: Penn State University Press).


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