Review – Bellingrandt and Otto’s Magical Manuscripts in Early Modern Europe

In 1710, a huge collection of magical, cabalistic, and alchemical manuscripts, part of the collection of medical professional Samuel Schröer, came up for sale. In that climate of official censorship, pulling off such an exchange would seem remarkable – but the agent put out a small catalog, most likely circulated face to face, and a buyer was located for the bulk of the books.

This large collection, mostly intact, now rests at the Leipzig University Library – if you’d like to see it yourself, Mihai Vartejaru has provided a list of the digitized copies with convenient links. What the new book Magical Manuscripts in Early Modern Europe, by Daniel Bellingradt and Bernd-Christian Otto, provides is not the text of these works, but a history and description of the collection.  The work is released as part of the Palgrave Pivot series, dedicated to releasing shorter pieces of scholarship than what might usually appear in book format.

The main portion of the book provides a brief discussion of manuscripts of ritual magic, the details of the collection’s sale, and its significance within the book trade, the intellectual climate, and the legal system of the time.  All of this is interesting – save for the background on magical books which is available through other sources – but it is also very brief.  By my count, it covers about thirty-five pages, not including references – the length of a long-form journal article.  I hesitate to mention this, but given the book’s price, I think it deserves to be mentioned.

The real meat of the book, however, is in the first appendix: a detailed list of the 140 books in the collection, most of which still survive and are available. For each one in which the information is known, we are told the title(s), ascribed authors, size and pagination, languages, and contents.  The latter are quite diverse.  We have treatises on astronomy, Kabbala, and numerology, along with a few different versions of the Key of Solomon. We also have manuscripts attributed to Abramelin and Faust that are printed elsewhere, and a wide variety of works dedicated to all manner of talismans, consecrations, and other procedures.  Collections have been dedicated to love, hate, military matters, treasure hunting, invisibility, and other purposes.  A number of brief operations of note are also present. Two will conjure the infamous Baron, while another calls for bringing a pizza to the crossroads. No doubt everyone in the occult hipster community will be talking about the magical crossroads pizza in a few years…

Anyway, the authors give us seventy pages of this material, which will be the major draw of the book for most of you. The work is rounded out with a reprint of the original 1710 catalog and a brief index.

What would have really driven this book over the top would have been a discussion beyond the context of the collection, diving into its contents. What do the contents tell us about its owners? What were their areas of particular interest? Were they practitioners or collections? (At least one owner seems to have been using these works, a notice buried in the endnotes tells us.) Is it missing any notable period works? Given the sheer amount of material, any analysis would have to be lengthy and detailed, but with the length of the main text, I think there could certainly have been room.

In brief, the discussion of the collection’s milieu is interesting but brief, the modern catalog of the manuscripts is amazing and thought-provoking, and all of this deals with a collection of manuscripts of which we will be hearing a great deal in the future. No, I don’t know of anyone else working on them, but there definitely will be soon.  I should note that it contains no actual transcripts of particular rites, lest anyone seek them out.  Nonetheless, the book is a preview of the next stage in grimoire scholarship and publishing, and you should definitely get it if that interests you.

UPDATE, 11/11: That lengthy appendix detailing the contents of all the books has been posted on Academia.edu.

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Published in: on October 8, 2017 at 12:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review – Kurlander’s Hitler’s Monsters

We’ve seen a great number of books written about the influence of the occult upon the Third Reich.  Of particular interest are such works as Goodwin-Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism and Staudenmeier’s Between Occultism and Nazism, which deal with the roles Ariosophy and Anthroposophy, respectively, played in Nazi Germany.  The latest offering, Hitler’s Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich, is written by Eric Kurlander of Stetson University and published by Yale University Press.

The word “supernatural” is key to understanding Kurlander’s objective.  Althoughprevious authors have attempted to deal with different aspects of Nazi occultism, Kurlander seeks to survey the influence of the “supernatural” on the Third Reich, with that term remaining largely undefined save to map it in some respects to the German idea of “border science,” which in itself seems rather vague.  This allows him to cover racial pseudo-science, astrology, dowsing, folklore, mythology, runes, werewolves, vampires, the Grail, the Tibet Expedition, Wewelsburg Castle, World Ice Theory, anti-gravity, and all sorts of other topics about which you, having read this far, probably want to learn more.  On the other hand, the specificity of his definition makes his insistence that Nazi Germany was considerably different from other countries at the time, with regard to similar beliefs, difficult to prove.

Nonetheless, this book is a fascinating work.  Kurlander is rarely able to delve into any topic at length, but what he provides is a useful survey of the scholarship on many different matters coupled with illuminating archival research.  Previous works have often emphasized the eccentric and sometimes horrible intellects who proposed many of the unusual beliefs that became part of Weimar German culture.  Kurlander does acknowledge them, but he sets out to describe specifically what Hitler, Himmler, Hess, and other prominent members of the Nazi party believed and were willing to support with the Reich’s resources.  The goal here is to establish what was of import to the leadership and what has been romanticized, although the latter is usually dealt with by omission than discussion.

Considerable debate has surrounded the Nazi leadership’s interest in the occult.  Was it the heart of their dark designs? Or were German occultists victims of an ideology that eventually turned their countrymen against them, especially after Rudolf Hess fled for Great Britain?  This is not a simple answer, Kurlander tells us.  Some beliefs were largely outside the Nazis’ ingenuity to assimilate into their system; little is said of ritual magic in this book, for instance.  Nonetheless, proponents of many of these beliefs who followed party orthodoxy – or gained the sponsorship of high-ranking members – survived and even throve in Nazi Germany, even if some elements of the government were keen on silencing them.

I feel that this review has come across as more negative than I desired.  I had hoped for a more comprehensive perspective on these issues – but if nothing else, it has convinced me that a work would have to be colossal to accomplish that task.  Hitler’s Monsters is a necessity for anyone who wishes to know the role of the supernatural in the Third Reich, and who wishes to put aside much of the dross that has accumulated on that subject.

 

 

Published in: on August 6, 2017 at 7:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review: Petit Albert, Ouroboros Press Edition

Ouroboros Press has released its latest work, an English language translation of the Petit Albert, the famous French grimoire and book of remedies.  As with many other Ouroboros releases, this has been put out as a small book, attractively bound in black.

As it happens, another English-language translation of this work appeared not so long ago, Hadean Press’s unfortunately-named The Spellbook of Marie Laveau, which I’ve already reviewed.  The same comments as I’ve given there may apply to the overall value of an English translation of the book.  Yet how do the two measure up?

The Ouroboros Press edition does not have much beyond a short introduction, and the Hadean Press edition does the same.  Neither work possesses an index or an extensive critical apparatus.  A question might be asked, then, as to the quality of the two.  I would not consider myself an expert at either French or translation, but I have made a few notes, based on some dictionary work, on some matters I find to be interesting.

Let’s take the formula for the Hand of Glory.   The 1752 French text from Google Books gives the ingredients to be placed with the hand as “du zimat, du salpêtre , du sel & du poivre long.”  The Ouroboros edition translates this as “vinegar, saltpeter, salt, and black pepper,” the Hadean as “some green vitriol, saltpeter, salt, and long pepper.” I can’t find “zimat,” but it does appear that “poivre long” is long pepper, which is different from black pepper.

What else? We have an experiment to make a “bâton” for travelers.  Hadean has “staff,” and Ouroboros has “stick.” (Both are technically correct, but I prefer the first.)  The elder wood for this must be picked “le lendemain de la Toussaints,” which Ouroboros renders as “the day after Halloween” and Hadean as “the day after All Saints’ Day,” which is  correct.  On the other hand, if you want the magic stones that help you to tame a horse, you’ll need to go to Mount “Sénis.” The Ouroboros edition turns this into “Cenis,” a mountain in France near the Italian border, while the Hadean transforms this into “Säntis,” a prominence in northeast Switzerland.

I’d be very interested to hear what people more proficient with French, especially those who have read more of the book than what I have examined, would have to say about these works.

Which one should you get?  It depends.  If price is a concern, the Hadean Press edition is half the price of the Ouroboros.  If you’d like a well-bound book, the Ouroboros edition is probably the best for your money.  Either one will provide an interesting collection of remedies and folk magic that should enrich anyone’s knowledge of folk magic.

Published in: on May 24, 2017 at 1:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review: A Compendium of Unnatural Black Magic

We’ve already discussed the Mexican publisher Enodia Press‘s previous work, their translation of the most famous Faustian grimoire, Magia naturalis et innaturalis (review). Their latest effort, A Compendium of Unnatural Black Magic – a wonderful title – was funded successfully by an Indiegogo campaign, and is now available for purchase.

The Compendium is a lovely little book, with a pretty green cover and embossed seal on the cover. At occasional points, the typesetting is not quite up to snuff.  Nonetheless, this is a huge step forward for Enodia, and it’s clear that they’re learning and adapting to raise the quality of their offerings.

Within, we have seven short, related magical texts translated from different German and Latin language sources.  Each is a brief set of instructions for summoning up spirits, including admonitions to the magician, prayers and invocations – mostly in voces magicae – and seals for the spirits.  These texts are attributed to a number of different figures – Johannes Kornreuther, Joseph Herpentil, Michael Scot, and Gertrude of Nivelles.  The original texts are included in an appendix after the translations, as is a brief comparison of some of the pseudo-Arabic text in the texts attributed to Scot. A brief set of endnotes follows.  The book bears no index, which  makes any efforts to compare elements between the texts more difficult.

I did very much like the introduction, although I think that some additional material from Stephan Bachter’s dissertation and his other works. Based on what I’ve read, it seems that the profusion of these similar manuscripts might have occurred due to a intensive market, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, aimed at providing grimoires for a market of collectors and users. It’s certainly a possibility that I’d like to see explored more.

In short, this is an excellent small collection of short magical texts in a genre – that of Faustian literature – which remains largely untranslated.  I’d suggest that grimoire collectors who can afford such a work pick it up soon, especially if they’re in the US and want to avoid any surprising international tariffs.

 

Published in: on February 6, 2017 at 1:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review: Jake Stratton-Kent’s Pandemonium

Many readers will be familiar with the list of seventy-two spirits that constitutes the Goetia section of the Lesser Key of Solomon.  Some may know of other such lists – published in Johann Weyer’s De praestigiis daemonum, Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, the Grimorium Verum, and even in The Book of Oberon itself.  Until now, however, no comprehensive examination of these spirits and how they might relate to each other.  Jake Stratton-Kent’s new book from Hadean Press, Pandemonium: A Discordant Concordance of Diverse Spirit Catalogues, is the first attempt to do so.

The book begins with a new English translation of “Le Livre des Esperitz,” a French treatise held at Cambridge’s Trinity College O.8.29, by Mallorie Vaudoise.  The inclusion of this document, which describes forty-six spirits in a manner similar to the Goetia, makes the book an important resource for anyone interested in these spirit hierarchies.

Jake then moves to an examination of various parts of the spirit hierarchy, first dealing with the trinity of spirits that oversee the rest, the spirits of the seven days of the week, the kings of the four directions, and the multitude of other spirits that follow them.  At the minimum, each of these spirits receives a chart showing their appearances in a number of different sources, their Goetic seal (if any), their illustration in de Plancy’s Dictionnaire infernal (if any), their description in Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, and notes regarding their appearance.  Many of these spirits merit a greater amount of treatment, however, and the author does not disappoint.

Before I discuss my concerns, which are relatively minor, I should extend considerable kudos to Jake for all of this work.  This is the sort of in-depth examination that desperately needed to be done, in order to start charting out more of the history of magic, and that requires considerable patience and access to texts to carry out.  He makes a number of discoveries and raises hypotheses that can be checked as new texts are discovered and compared to this work.  So this is a major step forward when it comes to charting the spirit world of late medieval and early Renaissance magic.

It does bear noting, however, that this book is aimed at practitioners and not scholars, which leads to some choices that favor one group over another. I can’t necessarily fault the book for doing so, but it does bear mentioning.

For instance, the spirit listings, after the initial trinity of rulers, weekly spirits, and four kings, follow the order in Weyer’s Pseudomonarchia daemonum. Nonetheless, the charts list the spirits based upon their appearance in Weyer’s work, but the text quoted in the entries is from Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft.  Then we often have the seal from the Goetia.

From a practitioner’s point of view, it makes sense to put everything together in this way, so all the information about a spirit is in one place.  From a scholarly perspective, it conflates these sources in ways that are not always helpful.  For example, Scot’s text is quite similar to Weyer’s, but there are certainly differences between the two.  (Given how conscientious Jake is, I’m guessing that swapping Scot for Weyer’s work was only done in extremis.)  Further, the inclusion of Goetic seals may give the impression that these are common elements of such spirit lists, when we have examples both with the seals and many without.  If you want to understand what’s in the original manuscripts, this approach elides the differences between them and – ironically – pushes the Goetia into a prominence that the book as a whole seeks to take away from it.

It should also be noted that the spirit lists are not necessarily the only material in ritual magic texts that discusses the names and offices of spirits.  Some are full-fledged rites to summon particular ones, while others are brief notes, sometimes only of names, but at other times giving additional information about purposes or planetary or elemental attributes.  Indeed, a short list of the queen of fairies and the seven fairy sisters occupies a point in The Book of Oberon between two items discussed in the book.  This does not diminish the importance of Jake’s work, but noting it is important in terms of understanding these books in their entirety.

Readers should note that Jake does assume a certain amount of familiarity with a good number of ritual magic texts, most of which have been previously printed.  If you’ve regularly purchased the books I recommend here, for instance, you’ll be well on your way.  I wonder if a few pages devoted to discussing the history and significance of the main texts with which he deals might have made for a book that was accessible to more people.  For example, I had to find the collection and manuscript number for the translated work myself.  Then again, this is not a mass market book by any means, nor should it be expected to be one.

Still, the specialized nature of this work narrows the market of potential buyers.  I can see it of particular interest to those who want to see how various published grimoires fit together in terms of their shared spiritual universe, or practitioners who want to understand the context of their operations.  Both groups should be quite happy with what Pandemonium offers.

 

 

Published in: on January 27, 2017 at 2:49 pm  Comments (2)  

Review: The Infernal Dictionary

Having looked at the False Hierarchy of Demons from Abracax House, we turn to their publication of the Infernal Dictionary (link via Amazon).  I believe this is now out of print, but I managed to get a copy of it at Treadwell’s before leaving England.  I think it’s fair to note that I did pay a good price for it – though well below that listed on Amazon – and hauled it back in my suitcase for England, which might affect my review.

The Dictionnaire Infernal by Collin de Plancy, with different editions released from 1818 to 1863, is perhaps one of the most famous reference works of the occult.  I discussed it in my Spirits in the Library posts, and I’ve wanted to see a full – not partial – translation from the French for some time now.  Thus, I was happy to see the Abracax edition, especially since I missed the initial print run.

The publication is an attractive two-volume work, slipcased and bound in imitation leather.  We have not only translations of de Plancy’s original articles, but also reproductions of the original woodcuts, footnotes – both those of de Plancy and the editors – the texts of the various introductions to the book over its history, the approval of the bishop of Paris, a biography of de Plancy, an index, and other items.  Many of the demons are illustrated in full color by modern artists.  This does make for a magnificent book.

Nonetheless, this comes with a few caveats.  We are not given the French text, although this is readily available online.  I have a greater concern:  the editors’ decision to update and correct the text along with the rest of the process.

I can understand the impulse that compelled them to make the decision, Nonetheless – and I speak here as an author of an encyclopedia – simply updating the entries in a reference book, without also considering the shape of the work, what entries should be added and deleted, etc., is not really a sufficient way to update a work.  Further, the places where changes have been made do not seem to have been noted consistently.

To me, there are two options with a work such as this.  One of these is to build upon the previous one, revising the whole, adding and subtracting and rethinking until it becomes a fully modernized work.  The other is to preserve the original as closely as possible, with some modernizations in terms of spelling and arrangements, to bring a work that provides us with insights into a particular time and place to today’s readers.  To be clear, this would be my preference.

For me, the Infernal Dictionary ends up being a book that fulfills neither of these potential purposes.  I’m reluctant to say so, because the editors did a great deal of work to make the book the way it was.  I’m also aware of how sometimes you make an editorial  decision with a book that is nigh-on irrevocable, simply because it’s so much work to go back and change, and I wonder if that was ever the case here.

Nonetheless, this book has many admirable qualities that should not be overlooked.  Is it worth $180?  Those interested in an artisanal book to grace their shelves will likely find it so.  If you can read French, there are many cheap untranslated copies available in print or online that you can consult.  As a reference work, I wish it could have been less expensive – although you could say the same for many of the expensive reference works for sale by much larger publishers.  What works for your collection?

Published in: on August 31, 2016 at 3:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review: The False Hierarchy of Demons

Today’s offering is a relatively new offering from Abracax House – a translation of Johann Weyer’s Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, a list of demons taken from his work De praestigiis daemonum.  So, how does The False Hierarchy of Demons measure up?

For those who aren’t familiar with this, Weyer (1515-88) was a former pupil of Agrippa who set out to write against beliefs in the witch-hunts and false magicians.  This particular work is a compilation of spirits taken from a manuscript that he read.  His goal in publishing it was to reveal the falsity and fraud of the magicians of the time.  The list has a great deal of similarities to others in manuscript form, especially that which was eventually published as the magical manual the Goetia.

The book itself is quite beautiful, slipcased and bound in red and black, with plentiful color illustrations included.  Each entry for a spirit consists of the name of the entry, the Pseudomonarchia‘s text in the original Latin and English translation, any relevant illustration from the Dictionnaire infernale, and the seals from the Goetia (and possibly other works, although I haven’t looked at all of them).  All of this is quite attractive in presentation.

In my other reviews, I often say that I don’t feel confident enough in my grasp of other languages to critique a translation.  My Latin could always be better, but having taken a brief look at some entries, I can make specific comments on some usages.

The spirit Marbas answers questions “plene,” which is translated as “truly” when “fully” would be better.  Buer provides “optimos” familiars, translated as “good” instead of “the best.”  The term “praeses” is translated in one entry as “president” and another as “master.”  The entry for Gusion says he appears “in forma zenophali,” which the translator follows other readings in rendering “cynocephali.”  Nonetheless, she states that the literal translation is “wild man” or “baboon with a dog-face,” when it should actually be “dog-headed [one].”

I won’t have time to check through the book comprehensively.  Many readers won’t care about this sort of problem, but I’d suggest that any translated herein be double-checked before being quoted or used.

The English is also problematic at some points.  For example, the English sentences are sometimes missing a subject, when the Latin clearly contains one.  Sometimes articles are missing in the sentences as well.  None of these obscures the meaning, I should hasten to add.

Also, it should be noted that the spirit seals are not present in the Pseudomonarchia, which might not be entirely clear from the introdcution.

If you’re looking for an impressive looking book for your bookshelf, this work certainly fits the bill.  The text itself is not bad, but it might have benefited from the same meticulous attention that was put into the rest of the project.

 

Published in: on August 11, 2016 at 1:51 pm  Comments (2)  

Review: Doctor Johannes Faust’s Magia Naturalis et Innaturalis

You might recall an article from a month ago in which I discussed the appearance of the first translation of the classic Faust-attributed grimoire  Magia naturalis et innaturalis, translated by Nicolás Álvarez Ortiz and published by Enodia Press.  I had some trepidation about ordering from them – apparently the Mexican post office is not as diligent about updating its tracking notices as it could be – but I now have both a print and electronic copy of the book.  So, what do we have?

What we have here is an English translation of the German book, along with a brief introduction, some notes, and numerous full-color illustrations collected at the end.

For those who aren’t familiar with the book, it serves primarily as a collection of incantations and pacts for spirits of various orders and elements to fulfill the will of the magician.  They range from grand princes of hell such as Marbuel and Aciel, to sets of seven spirits corresponding to all manner of social statuses, from counts to peasants to fools, to pygmies. A large number of full color illustrations portray these beings, along with the seals necessary to compel them.  These are conducted for various purposes, ranging from fast travel via flying coat to bringing birds and flowers to the magician, but the foremost would seem to be the discovery of buried treasure.  There’s a great deal in here that should be of interest to many readers of ritual magic.

Álvarez’s translation seems well done to me, being coherent and legible.  Even though I quibble at some points with his word choices, I’ve been able to see where he was coming from.  Perhaps those more conversant with German will have different views, however.

In terms of a scholarly apparatus,  Álvarez does provide some notes to define particular concepts, Biblical passages, and notable figures, as well as transcriptions of the wording in the color plates.  We do not have the German text, although that is readily available online.  Key elements missing are any table of contents, beyond the most rudimentary, or an index.  This makes finding any particular section of the book an unnecessary exercise in paging through over 150 pages.

The introduction is notable, although it does sometimes combine very old sources and up-to-date ones in ways that make it unclear why some topics merited more work than others.  (One innocent mistake seems to be the usage of a nineteenth-century German scholar to discuss Jewish culture, when there are more recent studies of the origin of the demonic pact.)

I should also make some notes about the presentation.  The layout is cramped, with little space between lines and sections.  The font in my copy was considerably faded in some places, not enough to be illegible, but certainly enough to make for difficult reading.

If you’re a grimoire completist, I’d say this is definitely for you.  It’s in a limited edition of 100 copies, if that helps you make a choice about whether you want to deal with the Mexican post office.  Frankly, what I’d really like to see is the next edition of this book, which – I hope – will include a more detailed table of contents, index, and reformatted layout.  The book as it stands is both fine and important, but I think those changes would make it into a top priority for many interested in ritual magic.

 

Published in: on July 27, 2016 at 2:05 pm  Comments (2)  

Recent (Or Not So Much) Releases

I’m happy to announce that we’ve had a couple of important grimoire releases that – in what may come as a shock to Papers readers – I have not actually found the time to read.

First, there’s Joe Peterson’s edition of the Liber Iuratus, or the Sworn Book of Honorius , the high medieval book of magic which features as its centerpiece a mystical procedure to gain a vision of god.  For those who were wondering if it expands upon the version on Peterson’s website – yes, it certainly does, with much material going beyond what’s on the website.  For those who wonder if the Latin is translated, the work has parallel Latin and English texts, which is definitely more than I expected.  I’m making a slow go of it – long segments of voces magicae have that effect – but any review I write would be simply, “This is wonderful,” so I don’t really feel compelled to expand upon that.

Another item that’s been out for longer is Claire Fanger and Nicholas Watson’s critical edition of John of Morigny’s Liber florum celestis doctrine:  The Flowers of Heavenly Teaching.  This is the fourteenth-century monk’s reinterpretation of the Ars Notoria, which in turn is the most complex version of the “God, please get me through this test!” prayer ever  created.  Although the price tag and the Latin text might scare off potential purchasers, it is a comprehensive and scholarly work and another step on the path to make critical editions of many key magical texts available.

That also reminds me that Claire Fanger’s book-length commentary, Rewriting Magic:  An Exegesis of the Visionary Autobiography of a Fourteenth-Century French Monk, was released well before that last book.  It deals with her own encounters and explorations with the book, as well as with the figure of John of Morigny.  It also makes it clear that we have much to learn about the Liber florum – especially with regard to the diagrams omitted from all the known copies.  As with other PSU books, there’s a cheaper e-book option that curious but cost-conscious consumers could consider.

Published in: on May 19, 2016 at 1:22 pm  Comments (1)  

Review: The Magical Adventures of Mary Parish

I was asked to review the new book from Frances Timbers, The Magical Adventures of Mary Parish: The Occult World of Seventeenth-Century London for another publication.   Given the space provided, I couldn’t cover the book to the extent that I’d wish, so I want to continue that discussion here.

To bring everyone up to speed, Mary Parish was a seventeenth-century cunning woman engaged in the usual activities of that profession – detecting thieves, healing maladies, and hunting treasure.  Despite her talent at her vocation, Parish would have sunk into obscurity save for her meeting a former (and future) member of Parliament and the disreputable scion of a noble line – Goodwin Wharton.  Wharton became her patron, then her friend, and then her lover.  According to Mary, this was a fruitful union, yielding over a hundred pregnancies, although Goodwin would only meet one of his children.

Their partnership, both professional and personal, was based upon a series of spiritual encounters with ghosts, fairies, demons, and angels.  Parish served as a medium, and Wharton rarely witnessed anything without her present, save for a series of divine visions that happened later in his career.   He was a careful chronicler nonetheless, writing over half a million words on his spiritual encounters that he could pass on to his first-born – and likely imaginary – son, Peregrine.

As you can tell, this situation poses some problems for anyone who wants to write about Mary Parish’s life.  Almost everything we know about her is filtered through the writings of Goodwin Wharton.  Given that Mary seems to have been fabricating and exaggerating to some extent, and that Wharton might not have been the most objective observer of the situation, we have serious problems for any biographer.  The first attempt was made by J. Kent Clark in his biography Goodwin Wharton, and next, over thirty years later, is Timbers’ book.

It’s difficult to be able for me to talk about this book, for a few different reasons.  First, I feel it’s unfair because I have not read Wharton’s length treatises on the topic.  Second, there’s a great deal that I agree with in the presentation of this book.  The troubling aspects of her approach are the nuanced ones, and part of that might come from my perspectives on dealing with people who are not entirely on the up-and-up.  Mary Parish certainly wasn’t.  Even an account written by the man who loved her  couldn’t make her appear that way.

Timbers and I both agree that Mary Parish’s story, which is questionable not just for its supernatural arguments but also for its frequent oscillations between great fortune and misfortune, may be treated as narrative.  The bulk of the book, however, does not take this approach, instead concentrating upon the historical basis and context for the incidents she discusses.  This approach can be insightful, but if not combined with reminders that it is based on a second-hand narrative or extensive footnotes, it can lead the reader to conclude that much of it is validated, when in fact we have no one’s word but Mary’s that much of it occurred.

This is particularly a shame because I feel there’s a great book lurking here that does deal with the narrative of Mary Parish – an intelligent, independent, and resourceful woman living at a time when such women had to find creative ways to work within a patriarchal system.  Mary’s tale of her life, with its powerful men, mysterious magic, and numerous phantasmal pregnancies, seems to take many concerns of Elizabethan women, especially those of the lower classes, and exaggerates them to what would be a parody if not for the pathos lurking behind them.  That’s a book that I am unequipped to write, but I would love to read.

I would also argue against Timbers’ key assertion – which is also partially held by Clark – that this arrangement was a beneficial one because it gave Wharton a positive worldview and led to his reconciliation with his father.  I think it is quite likely that genuine affection did spring up between Mary and Goodwin.  Nonetheless, I find it hard to argue that a belief system that kept Goodwin impoverished and isolated from society, spending weeks waiting in the middle of nowhere for the Queen of Fairies, or commissioning a ship to sail out based on technologies promised by angels who failed to deliver in the middle of the ocean, was not a serious detriment to his physical, financial, and emotional health.  I do think it did have its good aspects, but these should be noted along with the problematic ones.

Overall, I think Timbers’ book does provide some interesting and thoughtful insights into Parish’s life and times.  One key piece of information, for example, is that multiple simultaneous pregnancies were not beyond the bounds of seventeenth-century medical thought.  Nonetheless, I would encourage anyone who wishes to read it to start with Clark’s book, which concentrates more on the substance of the diary, before beginning The Magical Adventures.

 

 

 

Published in: on May 12, 2016 at 2:36 pm  Comments (1)