Review – The Magic of Rogues

Penn State University Press has recently supplemented its excellent Magic in History series with a Magic in History Sourcebooks series, dedicated to publishing primary texts on magic in relatively cheap editions. (This is somewhat confusing, as texts published in the long-standing main series might also fall under that format.) The first work in the series that provides ritual magic texts is Frank Klaassen and Sharon Hubbs Wright’s The Magic of Rogues. It won’t be released in print until April 15, but the electronic version has been out for at least a month. I wish I’d known about it when finishing up my last article.

This relatively short work provides two early sixteenth-century case studies of magicians who ran afoul of legal troubles. The first deals with the Worcestershire nobleman William Neville, who consulted numerous cunning folk in order to gain influence over powerful people and determine whether he would gain his father’s lands. The second concerns a conspiracy of local clergy and secular individuals to treasure hunt near Mixindale. As can be expected, neither of these went well – although those new to the material might be surprised at how light the penalties were and how little interest the authorities had in pursuing their investigations beyond the immediate situation.

For both such cases, Klaassen and Wright provide both legal and magical documentation. The legal documents include the indictments and the testimony of multiple individuals for each of the cases. Following these are segments from magical texts that cover operations with similar purposes. It would be better to magical texts used by the participants, but it’s rare to find anything like this in Britain, in my experience. Both include translations from the Latin (although the Latin itself is not provided), with modernized spelling and some changes to wording for modern sensibilities. The latter can be questionable sometimes, but in this case, each instance is footnoted, and I completely agree with each one of these editorial insertions.

I’m not the best person to comment on the magical texts, as much of the material for the second part comes from Bodleian e Mus. 173, which I published as Of Angels, Demons, and Spirits. What appears here are not so much entire manuscripts as illustrative examples of particular aspects of magical practice. Your tastes may vary, but what I found of interest are instructions for the creation of talismans of Jupiter, with a list of several usages for different purposes, and a fifteenth-century procedure for calling up the four demonic kings. Another reader might find some answers here. The presentation is excellent and thorough – I can see the solution to at least one unresolved question from my own text – and the editors have even made sure to include the illustrations, which other editors might pass over.

I do have a few small quibbles with the text. For starters, Folger V.b.26 is repeatedly referred to as V.b.28. Also, at one point Oberion is referred to as a “demon.” This is not always the case; I have instances in which Oberion is referred to as a spirit, a fairy, or an angel, but not as a demon, save in the legal articles of accusations against Sir James Richardson presented here. (In fact, the term “demon” is little used in the material I’m examining at all, with the more neutral term “spirit” being preferred.) This is largely a question of interpretation rather than fact, however.

This text admirably succeeds in its task of providing a window for non-specialists into primary texts detailing the lives of early sixteenth-century necromancers and their practice. As for those who want magical texts, this does not include a large number, but the texts chosen are of interest and probably worth it for the price.

Published in: on March 13, 2021 at 11:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

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