Review – Magic and Masculinity: Ritual Magic and Gender in the Early Modern Era

Apparently it’s cheaper to order Frances Timber’s Magic and Masculinity from a seller in England than it is to purchase it here.

I was glad to hear that this book was coming out, as the question of how English ritual magic during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reflected the broader historic and societal aspects of the period is one that is of much interest.  In particular, I was looking forward to a book that might take some of the threads from Frank Klaassen’s article “Learning and Masculinity in Manuscripts of Ritual Magic of the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance” and develop them.

Instead, what we have here is a book that leaps through multiple topics, never focusing for long on any particular one.  We have a chapter on ceremonial magic, true, and one on its interaction with societal ideals of masculinity therein.  One of the immediate difficulties is that Timbers looks to one model of masculinity from the period:  that of the merchant who was the head of a household of family and servants.  If you’ve read even the list of the spirits from the Goetia, you know that these needs and the procedures in these magical texts – learning the trivium and the magical properties of nature, invisibility, causing love of women, treasure hunting, etc. – don’t really seem to match up, at least not directly.  (To turn to a different milieu, I’d say that The Long-Lost Friend is a better example of a text for a successful head of the household.)

After this initial examination, each chapter presents a different aspect of contemporary spirituality – Freemasonry, John Dee’s scrying experiments, spells involving fairies, the visions of the minister John Pordage, the magical experiments of Goodwin Wharton, and others.  As the list reveals, some of these are interesting aspects of ritual magic, while others have a questionable overlap therewith.  The discussion of different rituals involving fairies taking their cues from gender differences is an interesting one, as is the discussion of Edward Kelley’s construction of masculine identity by using the comparatively passive role of a medium.  Sadly, the length of these chapters allows for little development or elaboration on any of these themes.

For those intrigued by the above, Timbers’ book is one that might be sought out through your local libraries.  I’m not sure I’d suggest making the plunge to purchase it without having viewed a copy.  Some will find it useful, whether as an examination of these issues in a particular area of inquiry, or as an introduction to the role of gender in sixteenth and seventeenth-century British magic.

Published in: on July 22, 2014 at 4:32 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] International Library of Historical Studies series, from I B Tauris, may be of interest. Dan Harms posted a review over on his […]


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