Review: Lecouteux’s The Book of Grimoires

What the field of grimoires lacks – and may lack for some time – are comprehensive studies of the large number of operations that exist in manuscripts across the world, to identify how they influence each other, and are influenced by the broader culture.  To do so, however, the first stage must be to make as much of this material available as possible, in as scholarly a form as possible, so that a broader audience can examine them and begin to draw the connections.  Within this project, Claude Lecouteux’s The Book of Grimoires:  The Secret Grammar of Magic, is a welcome addition to the popular side of the enterprise.  The book, which has appeared in three editions in France, is now translated into English for the first time.

This is not to say I am completely fond of Lecouteux’s approach to the topic in the introduction to the book.  Sometimes I question his sources – for example, is it useful to include Paracelsus’ listing of the various types of magic, or would his own be more suitable?  When Montaigne writes of the ingredients used by sorcerers, is he being facetious or serious?  We also have some minor items of confusion – a failure to distinguish between the different books attributed to Raziel, or to accept that all printed grimoires listed as being from the 16th century truly are.  It is telling that the most recent edition of this book in French is from 2008, as it appears that the author has missed almost a decade of studies on these topics that might have informed this material more fully.  He does, however, include much interesting information, which one can (in most cases) follow via the footnotes back to the sources, which is greatly appreciated.

The true strength of the book is in the chapters that follow.  After a short preface to each, Lecouteux might provide us with translations of charms for love, healing, general magic operations, rings, the properties of stones, etc.  As this list shows, some chapters cover spells for a particular outcome, and others a specific element of an operation.  Near the end, we get two chapters that include operations from particular book, and another dedicated to “extracts from various grimoires,” a confusing title which I take to mean “written and printed grimoires of a later date.”  Also, the amount of material in each chapter can vary considerably.  The reason for such variation in the chapters is never established.

And yet, the book is highly impressive nonetheless.  Each of those chapters includes examples of the rites in question culled from manuscripts in nearly twenty different libraries, many of which are unknown to English-speaking readers.  The general time period is approximately the fifteenth century, taking a few centuries on either side.  Some of them will be familiar, such as those deriving from the Picatrix, but there are also many which I cannot recall having seen anywhere else,  I have some skepticism as to whether each one of these can be found in approximately fifty sources, as he states, but nonetheless it is an impressive collection.  These include a good number of reproductions of talismans, magic circles, seals of spirits, and magical characters and objects for various purposes.  We are also provided with references leading back to the manuscripts for each one.

Much as I dislike doing so, my reflection on the book continues to raise parallels with Waite’s The Book of Ceremonial Magic, which is known under many different titles.  Both were the work of men of strong opinions and not always accurate erudition who did not practice the material in question and whose editorial selection processes are sometimes murky.  Both works have value to one new to the field and with limited budget, although those readers should approach those books with some reservation.  The parallels are not perfect, however; Lecouteux’s commentary and notes are of higher quality than those of Waite, and his emphasis on manuscript works instead of printed ones means that it provides new material for advanced students and researchers.


Published in: on December 12, 2013 at 1:28 pm  Comments (11)  

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  1. I think your take on this book is pretty good you hit some good points. I would like to add this book really cries out for an index. The illustrations could have been considerably improved upon most look like bad downloads from google books. In addition there are a lot of omissions and mistakes. On page 16 he says that magicians used secret writings… known as the “notorious art (Ars Notoria”). I only place came across Ars Notoria referred to as notorious art was ironically in the 1676 and later English translations of Agrippa’s de Vanitate (p 120); the 1569/1575 translation has ars notoria (two different translators). Later on the same page Lecouteux in the paragraph beginning, “Because magic compelled…” he cites figures corresponding to the number of angels and demons of “every hour of the day and night…different for each day of the week which gives a total of 168 angels and 168 demons!”, yet does not give a source. At the end of the paragraph he says “…God, whose true name is concealed…, most often a total of seventy-two”. This is not true generality while I agree seventy-two has a cabalistic significance, apart from the Shem HaMephorash the only list of spirits that totals exactly seventy-two are the six lemegeton mss and the only ms of that group that attempts to make a cabalistic connection is the Harley Smart-Rudd version, and we know how rickety that is. But I digress. Let me note one last mistake on page 63. Lecouteux has a chart delineating an association of the letters of the alphabet with their so-called number equivalent. The most obvious error is he has 26 letters but numbers them from 1 to 27 without explanation, omitting 11 (this may not be entirely the author’s fault). I found many more examples like these. While interesting in some ways I thought that for all his academic background the author could have offered better insights into the material, not just a litany of spells.

    • Thank you for the comment – I did pick up on some of the errors, another being the “thirty-eight mansions of the moon” mentioned in the introduction. It’s especially tricky to bring up when it could be an error on the part of the author or the translator, and especially when the third edition (from which I assume this was taken) is not available in US libraries.

      I do think that the 168 angels and demons are included in the Hygromancy of Solomon later in the book, although he does not reference it there. (The passage also displays the lamentable tendency of many authors to imply that all ceremonial magicians followed a set of procedures when those procedures are specific to a particular textual tradition.)

      As an addendum, if he had found multiple copies of the same operation, I really wish he would have referenced a few. I still think the “fifty” examples seems an odd statement, given that he only lists nineteen in the bibliography. This is not to say a manuscript might not have multiple copies of the same operation – I’ve seen that repeatedly – but it does stretch the author’s credibility.

      That doesn’t change my overall assessment of the book, mind you, but it should make readers cautious. And it’s certainly not helping with the Waite comparison.

  2. Regarding the Ars Notoria reference, I don’t know the english rendering of this sentence, but in the french 3rd edition, it’s more something like “magicians used secret writings in order to keep the monopoly of this science called “Notory Art” (Ars Notoria), of which necromancy is only a branch”. Although I don’t agree with this assertion either, I don’t think he meant the the Ars Notoria is the art of secret writings. Otherwise, I agree with you that there are some flaws in this book, but it’s still a very impressive collection of generally unknown manuscripts.

    • Philalethe: Thank you. I am glad someone is on top the French ed, good catch. I did not mean to imply “Notory Art is the art of secret writing”, nor did I mean to imply that was the author/translator’s intent. Anyone who has examined an early Ars Notoria ms would probably agree that the handwriting of the period would be enough to conceal it from modern eyes. But I would like to mention that Ars Notoria was pretty much the exclusive domain of medieval students seeking a short cut through their studies. The only full scale study I have come across is Julien Veronese’s critical edition, L’Ars notoria au Moyen Age, 2007, I can give you a better reference if you want. Veronese’s book may not have been available to Lecouteux.

      • Dear Josiah

        Sorry if I misinterpreted your post. I agree with you regarding the Ars Notoria, although Lecouteux seems to use it as a synonym for magic in all its forms.
        You’re right, Veronse’s study is probably one of the most comprehensive on the subject. I don’t have his book, but I do have it’s Ph.D. thesis “L’Ars notoria au Moyen Âge et à l’époque moderne. Étude d’une tradition de magie théurgique (XIIe-XVIIe siècle)” from 2004.

        By the way, one of the MS he is drawing several experiments from, Firenze Plut089.supp038, is available here:

        It’s a massive collection of image magic and necromantic experiments (Frank Klaassen briefly mention some of its content in his list on the Societas Magica website). It contains several of the experiments also found in Munich’s clm849. Too bad Kieckhefer didn’t know about it, because among other, there is the very first experiment of clm849 in it’s complete form. And In fact, it was in Lecouteux’s book that I recognized the magic circle for this experiment, which lead me to the manuscript (as well as the Leipzig’s Cod.Mag. recently discussed here).

        Oh, the Firenze MS also contains an invocation of Oberion 🙂

  3. Hi Dan and Philalethe

    I tried Philalethe’s link, but ran into java problems. So I did a Google search on the shelf mark of the Florence ms and came across this link to the ms: Internet Culturale which links to several Italian libraries. The whole link line is pretty long and the site has some other interesting material. The site is in Italian but the site maybe still under construction the language buttons did not work.

    This will get you to the search screen. I entered the shelf mark:
    Plut.89sup.038 (literally) and retrieved the ms, then I did a search for Plut.89sup.034 and pulled up that ms. Both mss are really long (each 660 and 590 pages respectively); it’s good to have a fast connection. I managed to pull pdfs of both mss. I had to experiment a little. Attempting to pull the ms in its entirety did not always work, but once I figured the page count I entered page 1 to page 660 (for example) and pulled the entire ms as a pdf. Other material is fragmentary, but still found use for it. The resolution on the two mss seems ok, but other scans are lower resolution and higher contrast, still ok but not as sharp as the German and Swiss efforts.

    Another site that maybe of interest is

    This will link to Berengarius Ganellus: Summa sacrae magicae manuscript. Unfortunately there no easy PDF, so it can be slow going even a fast connection is not that fast.

    • Hi there

      You need the latest Java update to display the images MS, or just use the link you provided. the PDF are of the same quality, and at least you can save it as pdf (I downloaded it manually a while ago one image by one!). While you’re at it, have a look at these other MSS from the same collection : Plut.44.33 (Liber secretorum Razielis), Plut.89sup.035 (especially the experiments between ff031r and 076r, with another experiment of Oberion at ff073r-076r), and Plut.89sup.041 (virtues of the Psalms between 093r and 122r).
      The Summa sacrae magicae is about 150 pages long, ie 300 images to download manually, which I have already done!

      There are many MSS out there on the net, but finding them needs patience and a fast connection. I managed to gather some over the years, but I’d be happy to discover more (anyone interested in trading can contact me).
      By the way, does Lecouteux’s english edition contains the Herpentilis? It is in the french book as an appendix to the third edition, but without the seals which is quite infortunate.

      • Dan and Philalethe:
        No the English tr ends with a chapter called “Extracts from Various Grimoires” and has no appendix as such, but that being said, if you do not already know of it there is the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek website, which has Goethe’s collection, including many print books of magic including Eberhard, Horst, and some Scheible, there are also many mss collected by Goethe and the Duchesse who was his patron for a while, including this one by Herpentil. It is a long link:

        This is the link to the search page for the digital monographs, sorry it’s all German, but very intuitive

        Hope you are having a good holiday,

        There you will find an excellent scan of the Herpentil ms

        Herpentil, J. G. Liber Spirituum potentissimorum, seu Compendium Magiæ innaturalis nigræ Continens. J. G. Herpentilis: […] Der dre¨yfache heimliche und unerforschliche und approbirte Doct. Johann Fausts Höllen Zwang genannt nebst Cabula Nigra sam[m]t Schwartzer Mohren Stein oder Pentaculum Nigrum. Circa 1700.

  4. Dan and Philalethe,

    Sorry about that the Herpentil line ought to read:

    The other link is to Das Kloster v5, close but no cigar.


  5. Thank you very much Josh.

    Yes, I am aware of this version of the Herpentil and other MS of the Hollenzwang family in the HAAB. I just find it strange that Lecouteux, who obviously spent a lot of time gathering illustrations throughout his book did not included the seals for this particular book.

    Have a nice holiday too.

  6. By the way Josh, going back to your first comment about the Ars Notoria and reading it a bit more carefully, I realized I completely missed your point. However calling it the “Notorious Art” is probably the translator’s mistake, as Lecouteux calls it “l’Art Notoire” in french, which is the usual term for the latin Ars Notoria.

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