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.