Cover image for Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests, and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe By Sophie Page

Magic in the Cloister

Pious Motives, Illicit Interests, and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe

Sophie Page

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$82.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06033-0

$39.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06034-7

248 pages
6" × 9"
6 b&w illustrations
2013

Magic in History

Magic in the Cloister

Pious Motives, Illicit Interests, and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe

Sophie Page

“In addition to exploring manuscripts and their contents in detail, Magic in the Cloister is original in its focus on a known group of men who owned and read these books and perhaps tried out some of the rituals in them. This is unusual because many manuscripts of magical texts have been lost, or we do not know who owned them. The book therefore presents much new information about the readers of magical texts. It also approaches this issue from a new angle. Sophie Page shows that magical texts could appeal to people who were part of the religious establishment (monks in a wealthy monastery) and who had a monastic vocation.”

 

  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
During the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries a group of monks with occult interests donated what became a remarkable collection of more than thirty magic texts to the library of the Benedictine abbey of St. Augustine's in Canterbury. The monks collected texts that provided positive justifications for the practice of magic and books in which works of magic were copied side by side with works of more licit genres. In Magic in the Cloister, Sophie Page uses this collection to explore the gradual shift toward more positive attitudes to magical texts and ideas in medieval Europe. She examines what attracted monks to magic texts, works, and how they combined magic with their intellectual interests and monastic life. By showing how it was possible for religious insiders to integrate magical studies with their orthodox worldview, Magic in the Cloister contributes to a broader understanding of the role of magical texts and ideas and their acceptance in the late Middle Ages.
“In addition to exploring manuscripts and their contents in detail, Magic in the Cloister is original in its focus on a known group of men who owned and read these books and perhaps tried out some of the rituals in them. This is unusual because many manuscripts of magical texts have been lost, or we do not know who owned them. The book therefore presents much new information about the readers of magical texts. It also approaches this issue from a new angle. Sophie Page shows that magical texts could appeal to people who were part of the religious establishment (monks in a wealthy monastery) and who had a monastic vocation.”
Magic in the Cloister offers a fascinating picture of learned monks reading and even putting into practice magical texts that were kept in the library of their monastery. St. Augustine's, Canterbury, offered not only a haven for prayer but also a laboratory for occult activity.”
“There is something thrilling for the researcher about working in a library for the first time, familiarizing oneself with its contents, both their riches and their lacunae, figuring out its organizational principles, stumbling upon evidence of past users and important benefactors, and then by ever more extended use, discerning the patterns and trajectory of the library’s development over time. . . . As Sophie Page demonstrates in Magic in the Cloister, the thrill is not limited to a summer spent in a scrupulously maintained Fachbibliothek at a twenty-first-century university institute, but can also be won through a more constructed visit to a library in the distant past.

“The library in question in Magic in the Cloister is the late-medieval library of the Abbey of St. Augustine in Canterbury, especially its collection of learned magic. . . . Magic in the Cloister is a stimulating work: its research is meticulous, its insights compelling, and its prose limpid. For this reviewer, the first visit to the library of St. Augustine’s was thrilling indeed.”
“Page contextualizes licit and illicit forms of magic and the reasons for their classification in the medieval mind, focusing upon magical practice in the monastery. Each chapter is thoroughly researched enough to be of interest to the specialist in the field but also provides enough details regarding the texts and concepts in question to appeal to the non-specialist as well.

“. . . Magic in the Cloister is well worth the read, particularly for the academic audience who is coming to these texts for the first time.”
“Sophie Page’s insightful and absorbing contribution to the study of Western learned magic brings together many strands that comprise ‘approaches to the medieval universe’ to focus on the place of magic within it; and in so doing, she demonstrates how the monks at St. Augustine’s were able to incorporate the study of magic into their traditionally Christian view of the world.”
“Page’s work marks a significant contribution to an emerging area of the study of the history of magic, one that has the potential to bridge a gap between what we know of magical texts, and what we can infer about magical readers and practitioners. As such, it has earned a welcome place in my own magical library at home.”
“Engages from the start. . . . Delivers beautifully clear guidance through a complex and technical body of material.”
“An important contribution to the recent wave of scholarship on the history of European magic. . . . Page’s portrayal of monasteries as centres of magic puts us in a much better position to assess the complicated institutional context of ‘magical’ heteropraxy.”
“All histories have limits, but the core of this study is full of rich detail and judicious analysis. Page deftly illuminates not just the contents of a major library of medieval magic but also the intriguing intellectual and spiritual contexts in which it took shape.”

Sophie Page is a lecturer at University College London.

Contents

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgments

List of Abbreviations

Introduction

1 Monks and Their Magic Texts at St. Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury

2 Natural Magic: The Basilisk and the Lodestone

3 The Liber vaccae: Magical Uses of Monstrous Creations

4 Image Magic: Harnessing Power in the Harmonious Universe

5 The Liber de essentia spirituum: Magic, Revelation, and Fellowship with Spirits

6 The Ars notoria and Its Monastic Audience

Epilogue John Dee, St. Augustine’s Manuscripts, and Renaissance Magic

Appendix 1 Translation of the Glossulae super Librum imaginum lunae

Appendix 2 Translation of the Liber de essentia spirituum

Notes

Selected Bibliography

Index

Introduction

During the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, a group of monks with occult interests donated what became a remarkable collection of more than thirty magic texts to the library of the Benedictine abbey of St. Augustine’s in Canterbury. Analysis of their manuscripts and the monastic environment in which they lived suggests that they were a coherent group with shared aims and interests whose occult studies were stimulated by their religious vocation and protected by the relatively enclosed environment of the abbey. There is evidence that magic was practised in order to meet the communal needs of the abbey and that the relative protection from scrutiny there also existed in other monasteries in medieval England. The aim of this book is to elucidate the internal rationality of magic texts at St. Augustine’s, to examine the orthodoxy of magical approaches to the medieval universe, and to show how it was possible for this group of monks to integrate magical studies with their orthodox worldview. The first chapter is devoted to a close examination of what is known about the owners and collectors of books at St. Augustine’s itself. The next four chapters look sequentially at significant genres of magic that were present at St. Augustine’s: natural magic, Arabic image magic, and ritual magic texts written by Christian authors. The final chapter draws together arguments for viewing the monastery as an amenable environment for occult studies, and the epilogue examines how magic texts from St. Augustine’s contributed to the Renaissance magician John Dee’s magical interests and practice.

The monks at St. Augustine’s collected magic texts that provided positive justifications for the practice of magic, and they were the named donors, and in some cases compilers, of books in which works of magic were copied side by side with works of more licit genres. The collecting activities of these monks illustrate a gradual shift toward more positive attitudes to magical texts and ideas in the late Middle Ages that was first enabled by the translation of learned magic texts from the Greco-Roman, Arabic, and Jewish traditions. Learned magic formed part of a body of learning that spread from centers of translation such as Byzantium, Sicily, and especially Spain in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with important consequences for Western intellectual culture. Learned magic texts circulated in manuscripts, described complex rituals, and often drew on the same cosmological concepts as the more scientific works translated in the same period. The recognition that some magical ideas were useful, and the adaptation of others to Christian sensibilities and ritual practice, caused an increase in the number of works accepted as “natural” or “licit.” The survival of significant numbers of some less licit works makes it likely that they were unofficially tolerated. At the end of the Middle Ages, some authors became more confident about putting their real names to works of magic and justifying magic rituals with philosophical arguments.

The gradual shift toward positive attitudes to magical ideas and texts was of course occurring at the same time as increasing condemnations of magic at universities and in legal codes, papal interventions, the growing involvement of the Inquisition in investigating magical practices alongside heresy, and the development of the concept of the demonic pact. Many of these developments had their most significant impact on the persecution of perceived or real popular practices and the construction of a theology of witchcraft. But a backlash against learned magic also gained momentum in the second half of the thirteenth century, after which it became no longer safe or respectable to be an apologist for image magic, like the English natural philosopher Adelard of Bath (ca. 1080–ca. 1152), or a patron of magical translations, like King Alfonso X of Castile (1221–84). In the fourteenth century there was an assault on noninstitutional texts that described techniques for communicating with angels and achieving a vision of the celestial realm, from the assertion of clerical authority in cases of revelatory possession to the 1398 condemnation by the faculty of theology at Paris of the proposition that magical arts could achieve a vision of the divine essence or holy spirits. To some extent, the attack on learned magic was successful; while there is no complete catalogue of extant magic texts in manuscripts, it appears likely that some did not survive at all.

The monks at St. Augustine’s chose to view their magic texts as compatible with their religious vocation, but they would nonetheless have been aware of the texts’ classification as magic and of the condemnation of many of the practices they described. The aim of this study is to explore how these educated members of religious orders sought to fit magic texts into their belief system and worldview. For example, did they believe that their vocation protected them from harm or opprobrium when they acquired, read, or practiced from magic texts? Did they think that magical techniques could be employed for pious ends, combined with orthodox rituals, or used to gain knowledge of the cosmos or induce visions of spirits?

Learned magic texts in medieval Europe were syncretic and were often exotic fusions of magical, philosophical, and cosmological elements from the Greco-Roman, Arabic, and Jewish traditions, mediated through their translation into Latin and adapted by Christian authors. As a consequence, they often acquired a looseness and ambiguity in their rationales, mythologies, and cosmological foundations. This is well expressed in Marcel Mauss’s assertion that magic represents “a kind of totality of actions and beliefs, poorly defined, poorly organized even so far as those who practice and believe it are concerned.” For example, medieval magic rituals tended to be governed by hidden, ambiguous, or contested principles. These included operations that made use of occult rather than manifest powers in natural objects, or that drew on powers not clearly identified as celestial bodies or spirits, or that involved conjuring a demon whose relationship to the practitioner—as servant, companion, or manipulator—was disputed by magical practitioners and theologians. Medieval magic texts have a pragmatic emphasis, but they also show how people thought the medieval universe worked, or could be made to work. Thus they imagine diverse relationships between man, the physical world, and spiritual interlocutors, rather than presenting a complete and homogeneous system for interpreting the world, such as astrology did.

Tactics to divert suspicion from the corpus of magic texts at St. Augustine’s included prudently avoiding works that contained rituals explicitly invoking demons, compiling magic texts alongside less censured genres, and placing manuscripts with occult contents in more orthodox sections of the library. Within the manuscripts themselves there are injunctions to secrecy, requests that the magical knowledge be passed on only to pious men, condemnations of kinds of magic not collected by the monks, and some sections written in code. These expressions of caution are explored in the following chapters, but they should not undermine the exceptional nature of the collection of occult texts at St. Augustine’s, which is also evidence of the fact that censorship is particularly difficult to enforce in a manuscript culture.

The monastic ownership and donation of magic texts could clearly cut both ways, the piety of the owner enhancing the appearance of licitness in a text or the illicitness of the text tarnishing the reputation of a monk. It is the aim of this book to explore how the monks approached this difficulty, what attracted them to magic texts in spite of the dangers this seemed to involve, and what approaches—revealed by the manuscripts, magic texts, and our knowledge of the medieval reception of magic—they took to successfully integrate magic into their intellectual interests and monastic life. As far as we know, monks at St. Augustine’s were never publicly investigated or accused of practicing magic or possessing illicit books, though occult texts appear to have remained in the abbey until its dissolution in 1538. Eighteen years later, many found their way into the collection of the English Renaissance mathematician, astrologer, and magician John Dee, who drew upon the magical ideas in his St. Augustine’s manuscripts to construct his own integrations of magic with scientific ideas and mainstream religious practice.