Religion, Science, and the Transformations of Magic: Manuscripts of Magic 1300-1600

Religion, Science, and the Transformations of Magic: Manuscripts of Magic 1300-1600

By Frank F. Klaassen

PhD Dissertation, University of Toronto, 1999

Abstract: This project treats magical manuscripts of English origin or provenance 1300-1600. The central theme of this project is the manner in which authors, collectors, and scribes of magic established their practices as legitimate or “true.”

The first section deals with astrological image magic manuscripts 1300-1500. It demonstrates that this group of texts was understood as an extension of natural philosophy and transmitted with works of naturalia. In part due to concern about the legitimacy of the practices, scribes modified texts or selected them for copying according to scholastic scientific standards, epitomised by the Speculum astronomiae.

The second section deals with manuscripts of ritual magic from the fourteenth and fifteenth century. Ritual magic scribes had little if any interest in the literature of natural philosophy or naturalia. In comparison to scholastic image magic, ritual magic was more often open-ended, having no pre-defined results. Further, its procedures employed and encompassed the magical operator himself. Finally, unlike texts of image magic, ritual magic texts were transmitted in a much more fluid process and were frequently rewritten or entirely reinvented. These changes resulted from conscious adaptations to varying religious sensibilities or the use of “visionary technologies. ” A diverse, fluid, and adaptable tradition resulted, in which there was little systematic coherence. In turn, this lack of coherence further encouraged the use of non-textual sources (e.g., visions) to establish what was true; in particuar, truth was commonly understood to be accessiile only through divine aid or illumination.

The third section demonstrates that there is a higher level of continuity between medieval and sixteenth-century magic than has been previously recognised. But the continuity should not be traced to scholastic image magic, which practically vanishes from the collections of practising occultists. Rather, medieval ritual magic deserves our attention as it forms the overwhelming bulk of the magical texts in sixteenth-century c0llections. In addition, the magical practices of Marsilio Ficino and Cornelius Agrippa subsume the operator and depend upon his condition, they employ non-textual means of establishing the truth, and their goals were fundamentally religious. In all these senses practicing sixteenth-century occultists may be seen as extensions of the medieval ritual magic tradition.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Toronto

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine
Show Buttons
Hide Buttons