Richard Kieckhefer

title.none: Veenstra, Magic and Divination (Kieckhefer)

identifier.other: baj9928.9908.017 99.08.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard Kieckhefer , Northwestern University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Veenstra, J. R. Magic and Divination at the Courts of Burgundy and France: Text and Context of Laurens Pignon's Contre Les Devineurs (1411). Brill's Studies in Intellectual History. Leiden: Brill, 1998. Pp. xiii, 433. $132.00. ISBN: 9-004-10925-0.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.08.17

Veenstra, J. R. Magic and Divination at the Courts of Burgundy and France: Text and Context of Laurens Pignon's Contre Les Devineurs (1411). Brill's Studies in Intellectual History. Leiden: Brill, 1998. Pp. xiii, 433. $132.00. ISBN: 9-004-10925-0.

Reviewed by:

Richard Kieckhefer
Northwestern University

This book can be interpreted as a detailed study of a specific source within its historical context, or it can be read as an extended investigation of a historical context with special attention to one relevant source. The latter reading is perhaps more useful.

The broader context that Veenstra examines, which is of paramount significance, is the practice, discussion, and suppression of magic in France and Burgundy in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Magic was very much a matter of concern at this time and place, during the reign of Charles VII, for whose madness magic was often proposed as both a cause and a cure. The highlighted source, which is of less obvious importance, is Laurens Pignon's Contre les devineurs, a largely derivative work whose connection to its historical setting is unspecific and somewhat speculative.

Veenstra's treatment of both sides is outstanding. If there is a weakness in the book it is a pervasive uncertainty about what this particular source tells us and why it should be highlighted as it is, but I would not want to exaggerate this criticism. Veenstra is aware of the difficulty. He refers to Pignon's work as a minor treatise on a major theme, and repeatedly, perhaps even apologetically, acknowledges that Pignon's contribution was a modest one. And he fully acknowledges Pignon's indebtedness to predecessors such as William of Auvergne and especially Thomas Aquinas; he makes no claim that the contents of the work have specific relevance to the flurry of concern about magic in the early fifteenth century.

The book is organized around four long chapters. Chapter 1 ("The treatise and its author") tells about Laurens Pignon, his work, and his close connections with the ducal court of Burgundy: he wrote against divination at roughly the time he became confessor to the son of Jean sans Peur, and he may have been inspired to write largely by a conviction that princely dabblings in the occult had brought on the civil war of 1411. Chapter 2 ("The pact with the enemy") surveys the incidents in the era of Pignon and Charles VII in which magic became a matter of public interest, chiefly trials for the exercise of magic; in some ways this is the most valuable in the book, useful in particular for its synthesis of disparate information, although it is the one least clearly relevant to Pignon. Chapter 3 ("History and divination") examines divination and in particular astrology, more in the broader setting of fifteenth-century France than in Pignon specifically. Veenstra here sets the stage by telling about Simon de Phares, the astrologer who penned a history of venerable astrologers, addressed to his sometime client Charles VII, when he found himself under attack by the Archbishop of Lyon. He shows how the duke of Burgundy also took at least some interest in astrology, and he reminds us that books on astrology and divination constituted perhaps two to five per cent of the holdings in princely libraries in late medieval France and Italy. Chapter 4 ("A critique of superstition") deals with the actual contents of Pignon's critique of divination, astrology, and myriad other superstitions, and places his thought on these matters in the context of his contemporaries' work, especially that of Nicole Oresme, but also that of Jean Gerson, Philippe de Maziere, Jehan Taincture, and Nikolaus Jauer. Much of the book is devoted to an edition of Contre les devineurs; tucked away toward the end is an edition of the confession made in 1398 by Jehan de Bar, acknowledging in great detail the practices of demonic conjuration alleged against him.

One of Veenstra's most important arguments is developed in Chapters 3 and 4: that Pignon, like other writers, attacked divination and other superstitions because they called free will into question and they involved idolatrous reliance on demons, but he was unable to extricate himself from the very theoretical assumptions that divination, astrology, and magic rested upon, such as cosmological hierarchy, astral determination of the natural order, and the ubiquitous efficacy of demons operating via natural processes. One can indeed see Pignon and his ilk as hoist on their own theoretical petard. But it might perhaps be more accurate to say that magic and its opponents proceeded quite consciously from common assumptions about the structure of the universe and parted company with equal deliberation on the practical question how one could and should act within this cosmic framework. The question is how far Pignon was conscious of the shared theoretical assumptions; my inclination is to give him and other such writers the benefit of the doubt rather than to assume that we historians assess them from a vantage point of ideological superiority.

In any case, the most important argument of Veenstra's book is that for Pignon magic and divination were fundamentally political crimes, in the sense that they led to warfare, bad government, and disruption of society. He may not be able to go as far as he might like in explaining the specific content of Pignon's work as the result of this concern. But he is convincing when he suggests that these matters were a leading inspiration, perhaps the chief one, for Pignon's taking up his pen.