A Review of Medicine, Magic, and Art in Early Modern Norway: Conceptualizing Knowledge

I just finished a book that I know most of you will not want to read. But if you’re interested in grimoire manuscripts, you definitely should give Ohrvik’s Medicine, Magic and Art in Early Modern Norway: Conceptualizing Knowledge a look through your local library. (This was a purchased copy, and I’ve got a chapter appearing in an upcoming release from the same publisher.)

Note that I didn’t actually say you should purchase this book. This is for two reasons. First, it’s $100 retail, which is quite expensive.

Second, there’s the binding. As you may have noticed, although I do appreciate a beautifully bound work, I don’t go into raptures about such things. My appreciation of a book as an art object is mitigated by my desire to read it, stack it up, carry it around in my laptop bag for weeks, etc., all of which is made more difficult if it’s nice. But I draw the line when a publisher is asking $100 for a book in which you can hear the glue cracking as you read it. (I’m talking to them about it right now.)

The irony of this is that Ohrvik’s work is dedicated to various aspects of the black books of Norway. Given the censorship prevalent in the Norwegian and Danish press, magic typically traveled through oral transmission or handwritten works. Ohrvik examines many different exemplars of the latter, emphasizing their physical appearance, titles, attributions, and textual organization.  These are aspects of grimoires often overlooked when contemporary occult scholars study such works, so her perspectives on these issues are quite valuable.

Let’s take the size. From the opprobrium directed against these books, one might expect that the compilers would seek to keep them in the smallest size possible. If the surviving books are any indication, however, the most common sizes were the larger quarto and octavo formats. This, along with the wear placed upon them, suggests that the black books of Norway were kept secreted away in households for use, rather than carried on the person to be consulted in other settings.

Another section is devoted to those responsible for such books – whether we define them as authors, copyists, compilers, or the figures to which they are attributed. This brings us to St. Cyprian, and there is considerable discussion of this figure as relates to the attribution of these works and his purported areas of expertise.  There’s only so far that manuscript titles and introductions can take us when assembling a picture of Cyprian, and Ohrvik supplements it through discussing similar traditions in the rest of Europe – although she misses the Iberian examples, for some reason.

Yet it’s not perfect, as setting content analysis aside doesn’t always provide the entire picture. For example, Early Modern Norway has an excellent discussion of claims many black books make to originate in Wittenberg – yet it is silent on the question of how much of the content of these works might actually have their origins from that city, or other German sources. Likewise, Ohrvik elsewhere hypothesizes that the authors’ inclusion of elements more common in prestigious printed books shows a recognition that private works might eventually become more public. If we consider the content of the manuscript, however, as an expression of and adjunct to the magical efficacy of its owner, we might see that imitating a prestigious format of publication may be a strategy of legitimizing both the contents and one’s own magical practice.

This is not to say that this work is not valuable, but that future collaborations between those examining the physical aspects of the books and their contents might yield even more fruit.

I would have appreciated it if Orhvik had included a lengthy catalogue of the manuscripts covered in the book. This is only a minor concern, however, as most of them are fully digitised online by the University of Oslo.

Thus, if you’re interested in learning about what we know about books of magic beyond the charms and incantations therein, this one may be for you, although you should note my concerns about price point and quality above. If you prefer the magical formulae itself, please feel free to give it a pass.

 

 

 

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Published in: on May 5, 2018 at 9:39 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This sounds absolutely fascinating! Shame about the binding, but it sounds like a really interesting read. I’m definitely going to see if I can get the library to buy a copy…

  2. Wittenberg = Dr. Faustus I suppose? It might be that the Faust legend had reached Scandinavia by that time?

    • I don’t have the book in front of me, but that is part of the reason. I think a stronger case could be made for the fact that Wittenberg was a major center of learning and theological training for the clergy of that area for sometime, before local seminaries were open.

      Of course, content analysis could also reveal whether particular operations and charms came from Germany. This book doesn’t get into that, though.


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