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Magic in the Cloister

Magic in the Cloister

By Sophie Page

Societas Magica Newsletter, Issue 7 (2001)

Diagram of a magic circle for summoning spirits of the air

Introduction: This essay will explore a number of possible characteristics and implications of ‘monastic magic’ which have been suggested to me by the case study I undertook for my doctoral thesis on magic texts belonging to the Abbey of St. Augustine’s, Canterbury and by my ongoing research into cases described in visitation records.

St. Augustine’s Abbey can be viewed as a centre of magical studies in the late Middle Ages because of the large and diverse collection of magic texts present in the library, the number of monks interested in unorthodox studies and the ways in which magic was integrated within the monastic context rather than being practised in a clandestine manner. One of the questions arising from this interpretation of the Abbey as a community in which unorthodox intellectual interests were sanctioned, tolerated or actively encouraged, is how far the nature of the monastic community itself provided an amenable environment for these studies. Could the monastery, for instance, have been seen as a refuge for those who wished to conceal their interests from the outer world? The entrance of three collectors of magic texts into the monastery – William de Clare, John of London and Michael Northgate – coincides with condemnations of magical texts in Paris (1277 and 1323), a city in which they had previously been living. Since two further donors of magic texts – Thomas Sprot and Thomas Wyvelsburgh – were already present in the Abbey, St. Augustine’s may have acquired a reputation for tolerating unorthodox intellectual interests.

The monks of St. Augustine’s would have possessed more than the ‘rudimentary knowledge of Latin, ritual and doctrine’ which Richard Kieckhefer associates with an interest in necromancy and they may have had access to the ‘clerical underworld’ he describes. In particular, the three monks who had previously lived in Paris could have belonged to the kinds of clerical circles referred to in the 1277 condemnation by the Bishop of Paris and the Chancellor of the University of necromantic works ‘and all who shall have taught and listened to them’. Unlike the unemployed or partly employed clerics who were most likely to be associated with necromantic practices, the monastic environment represents a community of religious insiders whose relative isolation combined with their perceived closeness to the supernatural may have created an ideal environment for cultivating an interest in magic texts donated to the library. The main distinguishing features of this monastic milieu, in my opinion, are the non-necromantic kinds of texts generally acquired by monasteries and the mechanisms within these religious institutions for integrating the illicit volumes and providing a relatively secure place for their study.

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