Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe

Article excerpt

Sophie Page, Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe (University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014). xi + 232 pp. ISBN 978-0-271-06033-0. $79.95.

During the past decade, Sophie Page has established herself as one of the very small number of British experts on medieval ceremonial magic, and her new book confirms and extends that reputation. It is concerned with the impressive collection of more than thirty works on magic, donated by individual monks to the library of the Benedictine abbey of St Augustine at Canterbury between 1200 and 1350. Many survive, making this probably the largest selection of such texts which can be identified from the library of a medieval British monastery. The obvious question posed by its existence is how monks of the period managed to justify, to themselves and their community, the possession of texts which their Church considered to be of at best dubious theological legitimacy. This book amply answers it. In part their success was due to avoidance of texts which explicitly sought to conjure spirits and contained the apparatus of consecrated circles and tools associated with contemporary necromancy. Instead, the books collected could be related to more orthodox works of scientific enquiry, especially medical, and of piety, and were indeed generally shelved with those, which would both have emphasized the similarities and concealed the more risqué aspects of the texts on magic. The latter were chosen for a concentration on the occult properties of the natural world and of celestial bodies and emphasized the importance of asceticism and Christian devotion to those using them. Sometimes controversial passages were omitted from the versions of texts donated to St Augustine's. …

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