Cover image for Unlocked Books: Manuscripts of Learned Magic in the Medieval Libraries of Central Europe By Benedek Láng

Unlocked Books

Manuscripts of Learned Magic in the Medieval Libraries of Central Europe

Benedek Láng


$41.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03378-5

352 pages
6" × 9"
30 b&w illustrations

Magic in History

Unlocked Books

Manuscripts of Learned Magic in the Medieval Libraries of Central Europe

Benedek Láng

Unlocked Books demonstrates the rich possibilities of research in this field. . . . the unknown plains of Central European medieval science are truly exciting territory.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
During the Middle Ages, the Western world translated the incredible Arabic scientific corpus and imported it into Western culture: Arabic philosophy, optics, and physics, as well as alchemy, astrology, and talismanic magic. The line between the scientific and the magical was blurred. According to popular lore, magicians of the Middle Ages were trained in the art of magic in “magician schools” located in various metropolitan areas, such as Naples, Athens, and Toledo. It was common knowledge that magic was learned and that cities had schools designed to teach the dark arts. The Spanish city of Toledo, for example, was so renowned for its magic training schools that “the art of Toledo” was synonymous with “the art of magic.” Until Benedek Láng’s work on Unlocked Books, little had been known about the place of magic outside these major cities. A principal aim of Unlocked Books is to situate the role of central Europe as a center for the study of magic.

Láng helps chart for us how the thinkers of that day—clerics, courtiers, and university masters—included in their libraries not only scientific and religious treatises but also texts related to the field of learned magic. These texts were all enlisted to solve life’s questions, whether they related to the outcome of an illness or the meaning of lines on one’s palm. Texts summoned angels or transmitted the recipe for a magic potion. Láng gathers magical texts that could have been used by practitioners in late fifteenth-century central Europe.

Unlocked Books demonstrates the rich possibilities of research in this field. . . . the unknown plains of Central European medieval science are truly exciting territory.”

Benedek Láng is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and History of Science, Budapest University of Technology and Economics.


List of Illustrations



Introduction: In Search of Magician Schools

Part One: Magic

1. Definitions and Classifications

Part Two: Texts and Handbooks

2. Natural Magic

3. Image Magic

4. Divination with Diagrams

5. Alchemy

6. Ritual Magic and Crystallomancy

Part Three: Readers and Collectors

7. Magic in the Clerical Context

8. Magic in the Courtly Context

9. Magic in the University Context

Conclusion: Seven Questions

Epilogue: When Central Europe Was Finally Close to Becoming a Center for Magical Studies


Selected Bibliography

Description of Selected Manuscripts


Introduction: In Search of Magician Schools

There is a rather curious handwritten note in the first page of the British Library’s copy of a printed reference book that was widely read in the sixteenth century, the Locorum communium collectanea by Johannes Manlius, “In this interesting book the first authentic notice of the Magician Dr Faustus is to be found at p. 43.” On page 43, following a report on Abbot Trithemius (who, according to the author, was a great magician), there are indeed a few paragraphs on the famous figure whose legend soon became a popular literary topic. There it states that Faustus, “when he was a student in Kraków, studied magic, as this art was at the time widely used and publicly practiced there.” This statement appears in Manlius’s book as part of common knowledge, and it soon became in fact generally accepted. Another, slightly later source relying heavily on Manlius, the Dies caniculares by Simon Maiolus, repeats the claims that a Johannes Faustus studied magic in Kraków, where—according to Maiolus—it was publicly taught.

The general approval of a proposition, however, is not necessarily related to its truth value. This sentence, for example, has a number of untrue implications. It asserts, first of all, that the man who was to become the archetype of human dealings with the devil did exist and was called Johannes. Now, philological investigations have established that the historical Faustus did indeed exist, but he was not called Johannes at all, but rather Georgius. Second, Manlius says that he studied in Kraków—at least for a time. Again, this seems to be false, for there is no historical evidence that Faustus was ever in Poland. Finally, Manlius explicitly states that Faustus went to Kraków to study magic because this art was publicly practiced—in Maiolus’s words, even instructed—in the famous university town.

It is widely known that according to certain popular beliefs, magicians were wandering students who learned magic from books by great intellectual effort in special schools. Such schools were located, for example, in Salamanca and Toledo. It is quite understandable why these Iberian towns had such a reputation: they were located at the meeting point of three—the Arabic, the Christian, and the Jewish—cultures, and it was through them that the Latin Middle Ages imported the new learning. This was where the Western world had been confronted with—and started to translate—the Arabic scientific corpus. This cultural import included at least as much astrology, talismanic magic, and alchemy as mathematics, philosophy, optics, and physics. It is not surprising, therefore, that a whole tradition of topoi had presented Toledo as an international center of the black arts, divination, and demonic magic, ever since the first scientific and magical texts were translated. This conviction was so strong that the “notory art,” described in a widespread text of medieval ritual magic, the Ars notoria, was also called the “art of Toledo.” To give another example: a source pertaining to the same genre of learned magic, the Liber iuratus Honorii (Sworn Book of Honorius) purports to report a general synod of magicians arriving from three cities: Naples, Athens, and Toledo. Even as late as the sixteenth century, François Rabelais wrote of a “faculté diabologique” functioning in Toledo.

However, why Kraków had a reputation as a center of magic is far from being so obvious. While it might have been a commonplace in Manlius’s times that Kraków had once been a center for magical studies, it is far from evident today what the source of this conviction was. Did Kraków really possess a particularly magical milieu?

My book has succeeded if, by its end, its readers feel that they have received sufficient information to answer this question. More precisely, I will focus on not only Kraków but all of Central Europe, as seen through contemporary manuscripts. Even though I cannot promise to identify a public school for the black arts functioning in the medieval territories of Poland, Hungary, or Bohemia—as magic was never instructed officially and openly in any medieval school or university in Europe—a large number of instructive cases will compensate the reader for the frustration caused by the lack of a department of necromancy: among them, a king summoning angels and peering into a crystal ball in order to learn the hidden intentions of his people and the secrets of the material world; an engineer designing terrifying siege-guns and powerful catapults, whose military manual contains the first medieval depiction of the Archimedes’ screw, but also various magical methods to occupy castles (one of which requires the fat of a hanged man); an executioner and torturer who starts collecting handbooks on magic and reeducates himself as a magician; an alchemist of a royal court who finds the text of the Christian Mass the most convenient model for describing the secret process of transmutation; and a medical doctor educated in the best schools of Montpellier, on whose advice princes and peasants collected snakes and frogs with their bare hands and consumed them for medicinal purposes. Nevertheless, the main focus will be the university masters whose libraries include—besides a large number of scientific treatises—some surprising items pertaining to the field of learned magic: handwritten notes scattered in the blank pages of the codices on how to learn about the outcome of various enterprises or illnesses; human hands drawn with great care indicating the main lines of fate for the purposes of palmistry; texts of natural magic which include various recipes using animal substances used for magical purposes; the earliest surviving version of the great handbook of talismans and ritual magic, the Picatrix, which is in fact the only copy containing the illustrations of the half-animal half-human creatures described in the text; and finally the Liber runarum (The Book of Runes) containing the names of angels transcribed in Scandinavian runes, which bear special powers and are supposed to be engraved on talismans in order to activate their benign or malign influence. Thus, although Faustus probably never studied magic in Kraków, Prague, or Buda, it is possible to compile a bibliography of the texts he would have used if he had.

For the sake of clarity, the texts under investigation will be classified into certain categories. The first comprises the relatively innocent practices of natural magic, which operate through the secret correspondences of the world and the hidden properties of objects. Then come the more manipulative methods of image (in other words, talismanic or celestial) magic, which work with names and figures engraved in specific stones and metals. The last is that of ritual (or ceremonial) magic, which relies on the invocation of angels and demons, and which is somewhere on the borderline between magic and religion. These categories, with which I will operate throughout my study, will be carefully defined in the Chapter 1. For the moment, it is enough to emphasize that although the threefold distinction of natural, image, and ritual magic is a helpful framework for the classification of medieval magical texts, the borders between these subcategories will not always be clear.

It is much harder to account for the inclusion of two further categories, the divinatory material (including geomancy and palmistry) and the alchemical sources. These arts share with magic the characteristic of being frequently condemned; nevertheless, they were not necessarily seen as branches of magic, and—as it will be argued in due course—were condemned for reasons different from those marshaled against talismanic and ritual magic. But as the borderlines in the field of magic are fuzzy, I tended to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Therefore, divination is also incorporated in this study, considering the fact that texts on divination often traveled together with texts on natural and image magic. Evidence of alchemy, as provided by a couple of Central European sources, will also be presented, first because it seems to supplement the picture on the readership of magic in that era, and second because I—like most modern readers—am somewhat imprisoned in the modern categorization of magic, which undeniably includes alchemy. It is important to always bear in mind that the modern and medieval categories of magic, science, and religion do not necessarily coincide.

No similar admission is made in this book regarding purely astrological texts, even though nowadays astrology might also seem to be a part of magic. It is of primary importance to remember that there is no necessary link between the two fields Astrology was taught in certain universities, magic never, or at least not as part of the curriculum. Even though certain elements of astrology provoked serious theological debates, such as the concept of the Great Year (which implied that earthly history is fundamentally periodical, which contradicted the teaching of the church) and the effect of the stars on particular events and on human free will, general astrological principles in a more innocent form were relatively well accepted as a part of medical training, and as functional elements of natural philosophy. The idea that the incorruptible, perfect, and divine celestial regions exercise an influence over the corruptible earthly bodies was supported not only by the arguments of Aristotle and Ptolemy—the two main authorities of antiquity in the field of celestial sciences—but also by empirical evidence. Celestial causal superiority is evident in the influence of the sun on temperature, rain, and the cycle of seasons; or the power of the moon on the ebb and flow of the tides; not to mention that a sophisticated system had been worked out relating the sections of the zodiac, the planets, and the various parts of the human body. In addition, experience—understood in the medieval sense of the word—suggested that celestial virtues influenced metals (think of the behavior of the magnet, which was a frequent subject in the discussions of natural philosophy), and the association of planets with metals (the sun with gold, the moon with silver, and so on) was regarded as valid in general, not just in alchemical considerations.

Second, astrology is excluded for regional reasons: although the readers and scribes of magical texts in Central Europe were often concerned with the celestial sciences, and are to be found among the circle of university professors, students of astrology, and courtly astrologers, this correlation does not work in the other direction: the majority of these astrologers were not involved in magic. In brief, astrology was a fully fledged discipline in its own right in the fifteenth century, but magic was never officially studied or practiced, and if certain philosophers (who will be introduced in the next chapter) proved tolerant of some of its forms, magical texts never entered the university curriculum. Therefore, I will frequently touch upon the issue of astrology while looking at the use and the codicological context of magical works, but I will not, however, include astrological sources in the textual analysis.

Further limitations to this study are linguistic. The focus of the research is predominantly on Latin texts. This is not due to the complete lack of vernacular sources. Although no such examples have been found in Hungarian, the fifteenth century no doubt witnessed the translation of divinatory and natural magic texts into German and Czech. Again, these sources will not be ignored completely; however, proper research into the vernacular texts of learned magic (finding the Latin original, identifying the additional elements coming from local sources, and so on) would require a separate study.

Nevertheless, the presentation and close reading of basic texts form only the first objective of my investigations. Once the examples of magic have been collected, and their codicological contexts examined (to determine which texts travel alone in the manuscript tradition, and which ones occur together with other genres), the main concern of the book is to explore and characterize the circle of people who wrote, copied, collected, used, and read these manuscripts to the extent that the evidence will permit. The historian’s work is then to identify which texts travel independently in the codices, and—provided two or more magical texts find themselves bound together regularly—what characteristics of theirs made the collector believe that they belong together.

While only in some exceptional cases are the specific owners known, it is often possible to identify the social stratum to which they belonged. Richard Kieckhefer calls the owners and users of manuscripts of magic the “clerical underworld”; others attribute this practice generally to the lower clergy. William Eamon speaks about the rise of an “intellectual proletariat, a group composed of university-educated laymen who had failed to find useful or permanent employment.” An “underworld of learning,” clerics, medical doctors, and members of universities could have been the real necromancers and practitioners of magic, or at least the readers of occult texts. Their curiosity in experimental and occult studies, their education, profession, background, convictions, and wishes can be inferred from the books they collected. And then, reconstructing the university careers, training, interests, and libraries of the compilers and owners of the given texts helps us understand the role of the magical books that lined their shelves and the place of magical beliefs in their conceptual schemes.

Similar questions are to be raised in a Central European context. What is known about the people who wrote, copied, and used magical texts? Did Central Europe have its own magicians, or was the presence of sources on magic nothing more than the result of simple incidental curiosity of well-known intellectuals at the universities and the courts? In other words, in what stratum of the social hierarchy should one look for the readers: among the anonymous clerics and ordinary masters, or in the group of highly respected scholars? Did the scribes add their own inventions to the field of magic, or did they merely follow Western practices? Did they belong to the local “clerical underworld”? (And on a more general level: what are the boundaries of this underworld?) Furthermore, were the compilers and the collectors educated at Polish, Bohemian, or Hungarian universities? Did they possess such handbooks for personal use or out of pure curiosity?

Throughout this study, “Central Europe” will designate the geographical and political entity that lies beyond the limits of the first expansion of the Western barbarian peoples, the Carolingian Empire, but which did not belong under the direct sphere of Byzantine influence, and could therefore join Western Europe around A.D. 1000. (This happened simultaneously with the process of the North’s inclusion in the enlarged notion of the West, while Southeastern Europe found itself under the aegis of Byzantium.) Central Europe comprises the countries of three Christian states, whose political developments show genuine resemblances: Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary. Strictly speaking, the territory covered here should be referred to as “East-Central Europe,” since what is usually understood as “Central Europe” is supposed to include Austria, Italy, and—partially at least—Germany as well. In the following, however, for the sake of simplicity and brevity, I will refrain from operating with such difficult expressions. I will apply the simpler term “Central Europe” when referring to Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary, not denying the fact that this notion has been the subject of long theoretical debates. Since my research is related to the medieval emergence of courts, institutions, and libraries, by and large I will concentrate on Kraków, Prague, and Buda, not neglecting of course towns of lower political significance, insofar as ecclesiastical formations and book collections can be associated with them.

As far as manuscripts are concerned, the eastern boundary of Central Europe is very clear: beyond this region sources are written in a different language; they belong to a different manuscript tradition, even though occasionally this border is permeable. The southern borders are more cultural than political: while the history of medieval Croatia is closely associated with that of Hungary, and consequently falls under the scope of the present inquiry, Istria and Dalmatia had a separate history in the Middle Ages, dominated by Italian influence. Therefore, the famous alchemical text Pretiosa margarita novella, composed in Pula by Petrus Bonus, a native of Ferrara, will not be treated together with Bohemian, Polish, and Hungarian sources on alchemy.

The western boundaries of my region are somewhat less clear, and defined according to different, rather practical considerations. Eastern Germany, Austria, and Italy are historically and politically closely related to Hungary, Bohemia, and Poland. Culturally, these countries formed an organic unity; Polish, Bohemian, and Hungarian students frequently studied in German and Italian universities, while German and Italian humanists and professors often came to Central European institutions. Apparently, political boundaries did not present any obstacle. However, the source material provided by Italy, Austria, and Germany are substantially different both in quantity and quality. In the present study, I intend to rely on a well-defined and delimited Polish, Bohemian, and Hungarian sample. It follows that I will not present a systematic survey of the magical manuscripts of Vienna or Erfurt, for example, because such an attempt would go beyond the scope of a single book, but whenever the traces lead to the West, I intend to follow them naturally, and I will include occasionally material from beyond the western limits of my area. The reason for this is that Central European universities were founded at much the same time and in much the same way as the universities of the German-language area (Heidelberg, Cologne, Leipzig, and Erfurt), and that political boundaries did not stop the wandering students of the fifteenth century. Their “homeland”—the university—was an international formation, and they traveled freely, without paying much attention to national divisions, carrying their books, that is, my sources, with them.

Having thus acquainted ourselves with the idea of Central Europe, it is still not quite clear why this region should be treated separately as far as the texts of learned magic are concerned. In other words: what is so distinctive in this region with respect to the field of magic?

Two answers can be given to this question. The first is related to a tendency already pointed out by the scholarship dealing with the diffusion of Arabic magical texts in Western Europe: copies of magical texts “found an attentive audience only after about . . . 1400 in Central Europe.” Put differently, the answers to the questions posed in this book can be found in fifteenth-century manuscripts. The second characteristic feature of this area is a relative tolerance shown toward texts on learned magic. This tolerance—which I definitely do not want to overstate—is to be understood by Western European standards. While in Paris, statutes and theological declarations condemning various forms and practices of magic were issued one after the other in the later Middle Ages, in Central Europe it was apparently without the slightest sign of fear of prosecution that university students and professors kept magical items in their libraries.

Because the two phenomena are closely related, they can be investigated in parallel. In order to understand why magical texts arrived in Central Europe with such a considerable delay, it is necessary to observe the particular traits of the intellectual history of the area. Roughly speaking, the use and copying of magical texts presupposes the presence of a certain learned culture, and the emergence of a sufficient number of learned scribes, compilers, and book collectors to sustain such a culture requires an intellectual milieu that only universities, monasteries, and royal or episcopal courts can provide.

The date suggested as the arrival of the magical texts in Central Europe coincides with the time of the reorganization of the University of Kraków (originally founded in 1364). After the death of its founder, King Casimir the Great, the university fell into a state of decline that ended only thanks to a new stimulus received from Queen Jadwiga, in the last years of the fourteenth century. This renewal opened up a golden age in the life of the university, in which, in the first half of the fifteenth century, two private chairs were founded especially for the studies of astronomy and astrology. These chairs yielded many new astronomical and astrological works, and provided the history of science with several generations of astronomers, while supplying various clerical and secular courts of Central Europe with thoroughly trained astrologers. Because of this flourishing, the University of Kraków became an international center of astronomy as well as of astrology, and it had an extensive relationship with other centers in Bologna, Paris, Vienna, and the royal court of Matthias Corvinus, king of Hungary. Probably without exaggeration, the contemporaries merely noted that “Kraków is stuffed with astrologers.”

The Prague milieu, in contrast, was somewhat less astrologically oriented. On the one hand, interest in alchemy was already present in Bohemia two hundred years before its late sixteenth-century apogee at the time of Emperor Rudolf II. This interest or even practice of the science of alchemy was probably stronger than a pure curiosity on the part of a confined intellectual circle, because we have an alchemical work dating from the middle of the fifteenth century written in the vernacular, that is, in Czech. On the other hand, natural and image magic, as well as divination, are well represented in the manuscript collections of the first university of Central Europe in Prague. Apart from the university, the monastic context must have also provided fertile ground for an interest in magic: a number of magical texts have come to us from the Augustinian libraries of T_ebo_ and Brno.

Finally, the southernmost intellectual center of the time (no less interested in the celestial sciences) was the court of King Matthias of Hungary. King Matthias’s enthusiasm for Renaissance Neoplatonic philosophy, his fascination with Hermetism, reflected also by the books of his famous Corvinian Library, his enthusiastic correspondence with Marsilio Ficino, the other Italian humanists staying and working in his court, are described by contemporary sources and researched by modern studies. According to Antonio Bonfini, one of the learned Italians staying in the royal household, members of the court were deeply concerned with Neoplatonism, and the names of Plato, Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite, Hermes Trismegistos, Zoroaster, Orpheus, Plotinus, and Pythagoras were mentioned in philosophical discussions on a day to day basis. It is also often emphasized that King Matthias invited great experts of astronomy and astrology, such as the Pole Martin Bylica of Olkusz, the Königsberg-born Johannes Regiomontanus, and perhaps even the Italian Galeotto Marzio to the newly founded university in Pozsony (present-day Bratislava), the so-called Academia Istropolitana. Astrology was taken so seriously that Matthias consulted his court astrologer before campaigns and had the horoscope of his new university prepared.

This was the institutional milieu that served as fruitful soil, not only for the development of the celestial sciences, but also for a deep interest in magic. The intellectual centers listed so far copied and produced a considerable number of texts belonging to each branch of magic. In various courts of kings, archbishops, bishops, dukes, and princes, as well as in the newly founded Central European universities, a new type of intellectual found himself in a peculiar and convenient place for satisfying his interest and getting involved in research.

Yet is it possible to claim that Central Europe was the birthplace of a “center of magical studies”?

Anticipating one of the negative conclusions of my research (partly in order to avoid hasty misinterpretations), let me emphasize here that there is no reason to suppose that magic played any genuine role in late medieval Kraków, Prague, or Buda. Interest in various forms of magic did not constitute a unified or coherent movement either inside or outside the courtly and university life. If we take the extant manuscripts as starting points, and plot their locations on a map of Europe, we will see that Central Europe—especially Kraków—deserves special attention. By pursuing these lines further, we can then address the general issues of who produced and preserved these sources. On the other hand, however, if we proceed in the opposite direction, and wish to provide a general picture of the intellectual activity of the region, we can talk about a strong, consistent concern in astrology, but this claim cannot be extended to the question of magic, examples of which will remain relatively scattered and isolated.

The succeeding chapters follow the former of the two procedures. I start with a careful study of the sources themselves, presenting the main genres of magical literature one by one, then describe the extent to which the categories are represented in the surviving Central European source material, and examine whether the texts are mere imports from the Western manuscript tradition, or whether one can find local products, examples of “original” texts. The codicological context of the particular magical texts will also be questioned as veritable sources: the position of certain kinds of magic in the framework of learning can be better understood on the basis of the tracts that occur or travel together with them. In addition, an excursus departing from the main body of the argumentation of the book will focus on the visual material contained in the sources.

Part Two concentrates more on the human and institutional elements. Two chapters will be devoted to the role that magic played in monastic milieus and royal courts, while a third will survey the patterns of the founding of universities and go deeper into the secrets of the personal libraries of university professors and students. Special attention will be paid in two excursus first to the question of the criminalization of practice of magic, and the dangers awaiting those who did not make a secret of their interest in the occult, and second to the transformation of the figure of the magician, as demonstrated by a historical example closely related to the Kraków material. Here is where we return to the person of Faustus.

The present work can expect basically two kinds of readers: the first has a good knowledge of the sources and genres of magic, but is supposedly less acquainted with the history of local universities and royal courts. The second is more familiar with these latter questions but does not necessarily recognize every magical text by its incipit. I have tried to find a way between the Scylla of leaving my audience uninformed and basic subjects unexplained and the Charybdis of boring some readers by too much popularization. I have had to repeat facts that are widely known in the Western scholarship of learned magic in order to introduce and characterize the categories I operate with. In a bibliographical essay, for example, situated at the end of the book, I have provided short overviews surveying the findings and the main tendencies of the secondary literature of the given branches of magic. These fairly conventional summaries are not meant to be significant contributions to scholarship, their purpose is to provide background knowledge for the readers who may need it. Similarly, my description of the foundation and early history of Central European universities will not contribute anything new to what has been said about the intellectual history of the area; however, I still needed to give some information on the milieu before getting to the subject of the private libraries of university people.

Remaining with the question of the readership of this book, I must also take into consideration the linguistic barrier that separates the three Central European countries from their German-speaking neighbors. The secondary literature and the primary sources of Austria, Germany, and Italy are accessible for the well-prepared modern scholar, but the same is not necessarily true for the Polish, Bohemian, and Hungarian material used in my work. One of my intentions and a raison d’être of this book is to provide this hypothetical scholar with further research tools.