Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Transformations of Magic: Illicit Learned Magic in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Transformations of Magic: Illicit Learned Magic in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance

Article excerpt

Frank Klaassen, The Transformations of Magic: Illicit Learned Magic in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance (University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013). x+ 280 pp. ISBN 978-0-271-05626-5. £53.95.

This book offers a valuable new approach to the history of magic, and yields many important conclusions. While the study of medieval magical texts has flourished in recent years, Frank Klaassen focuses not just on texts but on their means of circulation. He is interested in what works were copied together, and with what other kinds of works they were most often collected. Surveying English manuscripts from the late medieval period, he identifies two distinct traditions that circulated quite separately. One consists of texts of image magic, which generally travelled along with works of astrology, astronomy, and other kinds of naturalia. The other features texts of ritual magic, which entailed more explicit invocations of spiritual powers rather than putatively natural ones.

Both kinds of magic were regarded as demonic and were roundly condemned by critical authorities. This joint condemnation did not, however, make bedfellows of those who studied these rites. After careful searching Klaassen finds almost no instances in which texts of the two traditions were collected together in medieval manuscripts. Moreover, whatever joint castigation they faced, devotees of each tradition saw themselves as facing rather different issues and problems. Those interested in image magic firmly saw themselves as exploring a branch of natural philosophy. Given the strength of theological arguments for regarding image magic as demonic, and given what he admits is the surface-level similarity of some imagistic rituals to demonic invocations, Klaassen is impressed at how completely copyists kept image magic separate from demonic necromancy (although he notes that simply because a work of image magic was copied alongside works of legitimate naturalia does not mean copyists or readers necessarily thought of it as legitimate as well). …

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