Review: Ars Notoria, The Method – Version B, Medieval Angel Magic

Although the second volume of Dr. Stephen Skinner’s Ars Notoria was delayed slightly, it’s now come into my possession, and I’m prepared to talk about it.

(I will not be diving into the Ars Notoria’s history and purpose. If you want to learn more, read my post here. You can also read my review of Volume 1.)

First, I want to address how I’m approaching this book. Skinner explicitly states in the introduction that this work is intended for practitioners, and not as a scholarly work. I think this is a perfectly fine approach, and my intent here is not to hold it to those standards. Nonetheless, those people who want to practice a months-long medieval ritual will probably be interested in the sort of details I’m covering, so I feel it’s useful to analyze in that light.

The second volume has gone through some interesting changes as Skinner worked on it. In his scholarly edition of the Ars Notoria, Julien Véronèse separates the major textual traditions into two categories, Recension A and Recension B. Skinner’s first volume is mainly oriented around Recension A. This new volume was first intended to be a translation of Recension B of the Ars Notoria, as portrayed in Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS. Latin 9336 (not currently available in digitization). (UPDATE: Girordano Paradros encouraged me to check again; you can find it digitized here.)

According to Skinner’s account of what happened next, he examined Véronèse’s transcription of the manuscript. He found it to be highly disorganized, and what content was added compared to Recension A was lengthy glosses that added little to the text’s practice. (You can find an example in his appendices.) With this in mind, he revised his concept of the book to make it a guide to those wishing to practice the Ars Notoria. I do wonder if another manuscript would have been chosen if that were the plan when starting the book.

With that caveat, Skinner accomplishes what he set out to do. The description of how exactly to perform this work – which usually takes four lunar months – is clear and methodical. Skinner provides us the different objectives that the magician may pursue, then walks through every step of the process, even providing a table of the proper timing for pursing various goals. Some of the material, such as the schedule for the various prayers and orations.

The text itself is a reorganized version of the Latin text. It begins with the general bringing together all the sections that cover a particular topic – grammar, rhetoric, geometry, theology, or even virtues such as chastity and taciturnity. For each one, Skinner gives us the nota, or illustration to be examined in the fourth month; the orations, or lists of magical names, to be said; and the prayers, more orthodox Christian devotions.

The sourcing of the three categories is somewhat odd. The notae are reproductions of the pages from the French manuscript. The orations are taken from the same manuscript transcribed in Véronèse, and the prayers are presented as English translations taken from Robert Turner’s 1656 edition, without the Latin.

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this approach, mind you. I’m also incorporating seventeenth-century English translations in the Book of Four Wizards, for passages with corrupted Latin taken from other works, e.g. Agrippa and the Arbatel, with the Latin in footnotes. Interested parties can find less corrupted Latin texts online and better modern translations of these works in English (Purdue and Peterson, respectively). I think it can be a respectable choice when publishing a text. Yet it would be nice to see some more explanation as to why the prayers weren’t transcribed or translated from the French manuscript. Skinner states that he found the method can be practiced without them, so perhaps this accounts for it.

It is very much to Skinner’s credit that he provides enough notes and commentary that he is transparent about where each piece of the book originates, while clarifying some of the language and order of the text. The appendices provide lists of the various notae, the order and usage of the prayers and orations, the calculation of ecclesiastical and planetary hours, and the origin of the divine names in the manuscript. The index is brief and covers the table of contents and the author’s book list, so I’m not sure how much I’d rely upon it.

A potential practitioner might be able to make it with just Volume 2. Still, the notae given in Volume 2 are smaller than the full-page ones given in Volume 1, and I think being able to view the larger ones would be more satisfying. I could see a practitioner with both books open, viewing the nota in the first while saying the prayers relating to it in the second. If you want the Latin, you might have to check out Véronèse’s book.

Advising potential purchasers on this book is going to be complicated. If you just want the full text of the manuscript involved, without a desire for practice, I’d definitely go for Volume 1 and Véronèse’s edition. Practitioners will find a system that is accessible and easy to follow, given the inherent complexity of the Ars Notoria. Yet I wonder how many of the people who would practice the Ars Notoria will also want to read the prayers in the original Latin, or to dive into the marginal glosses. (Really – I don’t know how much of the audience who buys the book would want such things.) I feel as if this book could have included at least some of that material, to open up some alternatives for those who wished to practice in that manner.

Published in: on October 5, 2021 at 11:16 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS. Latin 9336 has been available on line since June 2019. The question remains is it complete? Still the ms is very impressive and well written. I would take anything Sikiner has to say about Ars Notria cum grano salis. Trust but verify. My (Girordano Paradros) review on amazon barely touches on the problems with the first volume. He has a tendency to rearrange his sources to suit his opinions. Be that as it may I will probably spring for a copy and if I have enough time post a review. While Julien Véronèse’s book edition is impressive, his dissertation is more impressive and better nuanced.

    • Thank you for the correction!

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