A Review of The Cambridge Book of Magic, translated by Francis Young

As with The Long-Lost Friend and The Friend in Need, I once again have a situation in which two works of magic very similar in time and place are published in quick succession.  In this case, one of the volumes is our Book of Oberon, while the other is Francis Young’s translation of Cambridge University Library Additional MS 3544, entitled The Cambridge Book of Magic:  A Tudor Necromancer’s Manual.  Having taken the time to read it, my opinion is generally favorable, although I do have some caveats that I wish to express.  Nonetheless, let me say up front that I think that getting as many of these magical manuals into print is an important goal and a real boon to scholarship in the area.

The book’s introduction lays out what we know about the manuscript, including its provenance before arriving at Cambridge (murky), the physical aspects of the manuscript, and the contents thereof.  Most of this is quite admirable, and it highlights some areas that I wish I’d covered more thoroughly in our introduction to Oberon (too late now, Dan).  Nonetheless, there are some caveats.  For example, Young claims that the book contains no fairy experiments, although the work contains “an experiment of Sybilla,” whose nature is not described but who is listed in such works as Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft as being a fairy.

Probably my chief beef with the introduction is Young’s insistence that, despite paleographic evidence that the book dates to about 1560, that it must date to the 1530s instead.  The reason he gives is that this was the time in which the monasteries were being dissolved, and as such the references to Catholic liturgy, relics, and other aspects of that denomination date it to that period.  Having dealt with a magical manuscript dating circa 1580, I can assure you that the use of such topics did not abate, even in a period in which Catholic priests were being martyred.

The text of the manuscript itself includes much of interest, mainly of a ritual magic nature, but also extending at times into herbalism and natural magic.  We have not only the invocation of Sybilla into a candle, similar to that in the Folger MS., but also a conjuration of the spirit Mosacus, which appears to differ in several regards from the one in our book.  I also noted other interesting rituals, including some rites to consecrate wax images for love, a rite to acquire a magical bone from an unsuspecting mole (which the author notes as being similar to the toad-bone ritual), and a ceremony in which the magician is ceremonially wedded to a valerian plant to acquire its virtues.   Young employs a two-column format, one with the Latin and the original spelling, and the other with the translated and modernized text.  He also notes interesting passages through footnotes.

For the most part, this section is well-handled.  There are points where I think one rite needs to be split into two, but a reader knowledgeable about the ceremonies can pick these out easily.  More problematic are the illustrations.  Young states that the focus here is the text, and he employs computer renderings of many of the seals for the casual reader’s benefit while insisting that the original be consulted for more information.  Having just finished such a project, I know that they can quickly become a time-consuming part of the project, but that does not mean I do not want to see those in the MS. reproduced in a larger size.  Also, three pages of magical seals are omitted entirely, which is much to be regretted.

Overall, however, I do believe that those interested in Renaissance and early modern magic should seek out this book, as it does have much to offer.

Published in: on March 7, 2015 at 4:42 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Out of curiosity, how do you know that 3 pages of seals are missing? Do you have a copy of this?

    • No – he admits it openly in both the introduction and the text as a deliberate choice. I think one such page is reproduced as the frontispiece, so maybe it’s better to say only two pages are omitted.

  2. Very welcome addition to the literature. I found his expertise in Church history valuable. Impressive job of copy editing for a lulu book. There are a couple of places where I think a different interpretation is justified. One example off the top of my head is that the expression “luna crescente” (frequently found in the genre) should be “moon increasing” i.e. between new moon and full moon, not “crescent moon”. Another is his rendering of “artavus” as the new-wicca term “athame” where Du Cange and others show it is simply “quill knife”, also seen by context. Hope to see more of his work.


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