Before I begin my review of Benedek Láng’s Unlocked Books, I’d like to make one clarification of some unfortunate wording in the blurb for this book. When you read, “Láng gathers magical texts that could have been used by practitioners in late fifteenth-century central Europe”, it doesn’t mean that he’s actually reprinting them for your benefit here as is suggested. He’s gathered them so he can write a book about them.
Nonetheless, the book does make for a solid read, as it covers the study of occultism – including natural magic (dealing with the properties of items in nature), image magic (usually pictures consecrated at a particular astrological time), divination, alchemy, and ritual magic – in the countries of Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland in the fifteenth century. The field is less broad than that in Western Europe, due to the late start and tumultuous history of the universities that elsewhere were hotbeds for the circulation of magical texts. Likewise, Láng finds a number of titles that should be familiar to blog readers – the Picatrix and the Ars Notoria being prominent among them.
Those interested in spirit summoning and other ritual magic – which I assume most who’ve read this far are – will be disappointed, as little such material has turned up in the manuscripts dating from that area. One especially interesting piece is a manuscript of crystal-gazing to call up a spirit attributed to King Wladislas – or, rather, one of the many King Wladislases. A few other details, such as sketches of magic mirrors, might also attract the interest of ritual magic scholars. For the most part, the primary areas of interest seemed to be natural and image magic, astrology, and alchemy – especially the latter, with many original works on the subject, not to mention an entire preserved laboratory, cropping up from this region.
Láng moves on to describe the cultural context of these works. Though practice of sorcery was occasionally punished with death, little of the zeal for such prosecutions as existed in Western Europe had moved eastward, with the result that many practitioners were allowed to practice their beliefs with only minimal interference. The intellectual clime was very much predicated on the moods of the monarchs, but when properly cultivated, universities and courts became fora for intellectual engagement and the debate – and usage – of topics such as magic.
I have some qualms about recommending this book, largely because of its limited scope. For example, if you haven’t heard of Wladislas’ prayer book or the Liber Visionum (introduction here), I’d highly recommend you read Conjuring Spirits first. Nonetheless, this is a great book if you’re interested in occultism from this particular time and place.