On the Shelf – Magic in Medieval Manuscripts

The University of Toronto Press has a wonderful series of “medieval manuscript” books, small books providing a scholarly overview of a particular topic in medieval times accompanied with gorgeous full-color illustrations. I’ve previously enjoyed their books on monsters, the church, and astrology, and I’ve just picked up a recent one on magic.

In the text, Sophie Page provides us with an introductory yet insightful look at magic in the Middle Ages. This was when learned magic was trickling in from points east into the newly-burgeoning universities, and when itinerant clerics, unable to find an office, dabbled in mystical arts. Some scholars railed against all varieties of magic, while others took care to distinguish between natural magic, which drew upon the qualities inherent in certain substances, and demonic magic which called upon the powers of Darkness. Those familiar with Kieckhefer’s Magic in the Middle Ages will know this at greater length, though Page does highlight different elements than Kieckhefer does.

The illustrations, however, are what truly sets the book above the rest. They are not only beautiful, but incredibly informative. It’s not uncommon for even scholarly editions of magical texts to omit pictures and other elements, presenting only the bare text, and those few we see are usually in black and white. We only see the smallest pieces of works such as the Sworn Book of Honorius and the Ars Notoria in Page’s book, but these are portrayed in the most vivid color. For anyone who doubts why such inclusions are effective, I can say that just one illustration allowed me to trace a 13th century manuscript’s influence on Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Occult practitioners will need no convincing.

Ordinarily, this would be a nice introduction to the topic of medieval magic, but the colorful art raises this to a book suitable even for scholars.

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Published in: on March 19, 2008 at 7:13 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] Papers Falling from an Attic Window Dan Harms: Barber, Dentist, Purveyor of Fine Curios, And Official Franchisee of ‘Abramelins World Famous Cobra Oil Elixir’ « On the Shelf – Magic in Medieval Manuscripts […]


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