Review – Transformations of Magic: Illicit Learned Magic in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance

I doubt I will ever forget Frank Klaassen’s new book Transformations of Magic:  Illicit Learned Magic in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance.  This has nothing to do with its contents, I’m afraid.  I left my copy in a library’s locked folio room over the weekend, wondering where I might have put it.  Since I wanted to read it for the upcoming conference, I purchased a Kindle copy and finished it on my iPhone before going back to recover it today.

That’s not to denigrate the book, mind you.  It’s really an excellent piece of scholarship covering books of magic from 1300 to 1600 – not the period of the grimoires with which most readers are familiar, but the period leading up to them.   Most of Klaassen’s structure derives from his doctoral thesis, so I suggest you read my review of that to see the basic argument.

The new version offers two major advantages.  First, it’s much easier for most people to read now that it’s been published.  Second, Klaassen seems to have fleshed out more of the arguments to provide additional insight into the manuscripts themselves.  For instance, we learn that some magical books had their contents written in cipher, not to disguise the contents, but to make them look more impressive to any potential audience.  Likewise, the possibility of a book of magic from this period being forged is discussed (not likely; nobody thought they were worth much).   Transformations also provides in-depth looks at particular magical manuscripts; although quotes thereof are infrequent, there’s quite a bit of information on the texts themselves.

My only caution about recommending this book to people interested in grimoires is the price – but if you have a Kindle reader, the e-book is only $10, and you should probably buy a copy before the publisher wises up.   It’s an excellent work on a period of medieval magic of which most authors know very little.

Published in: on February 25, 2013 at 11:07 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. The thesis version is still available online in PDF via

    Looking forward to your Folger Mss book — living in the DC area, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the Mss behind glass as part of a couple of the library’s exhibits.

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