Barbara Traister

title.none: Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites, (Traister)

identifier.other: baj9928.9906.014 99.06.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Barbara Traister, Lehigh University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Kieckhefer, Richard. Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1998. Pp. viii, 384. $60.00 HB 0-271-01750-3. ISBN: $19.95 PB 0-271-01751-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.06.14

Kieckhefer, Richard. Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1998. Pp. viii, 384. $60.00 HB 0-271-01750-3. ISBN: $19.95 PB 0-271-01751-1.

Reviewed by:

Barbara Traister
Lehigh University

Forbidden Rites examines a how-to manual of magic which details the steps to be taken to create various magical feats and illusions. Instead of focusing on magical theory in the period, Kieckhefer asks what such a practical and unabashedly demonic manual, a fifteenth-century manuscript in the Bavarian State Library in Munich (Clm 849, ff. 3-108), which is neither unique nor particularly distinguished of its kind, can tell us about the culture which produced it and by which it was condemned as dangerous. The volume contains both the edited Latin text of the manuscript and a substantial introductory discussion which touches on the role of the book in the material culture of the period; on the attitude toward magic both of the compiler of the manuscript and also of contemporary thinkers who reacted against such magic; and on the relationship between the rituals of religion and of magic in the period.

Kieckhefer's second chapter describes the particular manuscript on which his study focuses, noting that it is really a compilation of materials, probably from a variety of sources, almost a scrapbook, and anonymous. Because of its Latinity, he speculates that it is probably the work of a cleric. The manuscript displays little real magical theory and no coherent point of view toward magic, but instead provides practical instructions for how to perform specific magical operations, most of which require the assistance of spirits. The particularity of the manuscript is perhaps the least of Kieckhefer's concerns, though he dutifully describes it because, he argues, it is probably typical of a kind of book which was often destroyed or hidden because of the danger its possession could bring to its owner.

In the three chapters which follow, Kieckhefer describes three kinds of magical operations detailed in the manuscript, offering comparable examples from similar manuals as well as analyzing examples from the Munich text. The first and least manipulative of the strands of magic he discusses is illusion. In illusionary experiments, directions are given for creating imaginary castles, flying horses, and illusionary banquets, apparently primarily for entertainment and to produce awe in their spectators. In a reverse illusion, the magical operator can make himself invisible. After remarking on the often playful and entertaining nature of these experiments, Kieckhefer concludes: "What is perhaps most fascinating about these illusionist experiments is precisely their teasing ambiguity, which perhaps made it possible for writers on witchcraft to believe about witches what they had been conditioned to believe just might be true of the necromancers before them. The playful fantasies of the necromancers, then, became sources of the Boschian nightmares of the witch trials" (64).

Kieckhefer labels the second sort of magic which appears in the Munich manuscript "psychological." It involves experiments meant to manipulate the will or the emotions of other human beings. These experiments are often intended to cause harm and are conducted by the operator in secret, usually with very elaborate preparations and rituals. Kieckhefer provides a few examples of the specific purposes of such rituals from the manuscript, e.g. bringing enmity between two people, gaining favor from a dignitary, and seducing a woman. Many of these psychological operations use magical images, and Kieckhefer argues that their mix of traditional image magic with Latin conjurations mostly derived from church ritual provides an interesting locus for examining the relationship of magic and ritual forms of the Church.

The third sort of magic is divinatory, used for such purposes as detecting crimes, finding buried treasure, and predicting the future. This magic required a medium, usually a young boy, and often involved both conjuration and some physical object -- a mirror, a crystal, or surprisingly a polished fingernail -- in which the conjured spirits could appear to the medium. The majority of the experiments in the Munich manuscript are divinatory. Their purpose is most often to conjure spirits in order to obtain specific knowledge or information from them, rather than to command them to perform some task.

In the final chapters of his commentary, Kieckhefer cuts across all three kinds of magic by examining particular magical techniques. He looks at formulae used to conjure demons and to exorcize them, reexamines the differences between "demon" and the "daimon" common to much Neoplatonic magical theory, and discusses magical circles both as protective of the magician and as heighteners of magical power. The compiler of the Munich manuscript seems to have been particularly interested in magical circles. He included a number of specific illustrations of them within his text. Kieckhefer reproduces all of them as plates at the conclusion of the volume. One feature of the Munich manuscript on which he comments is its unabashed interest in demonic magic. Astral magic, which is usually interwoven with necromancy in the magic of the period, has surprisingly little place in this manuscript.

Only in these last chapters on technique does Kieckhefer sometimes lose sight of the larger issues which he elsewhere so brilliantly extracts from a manuscript which many would have discounted as a collection of cheap or sensational tricks. Kieckhefer claims for it little intrinsic significance or interest but, as a representative of a kind of magic which both fascinated and frightened the culture which created it, the manuscript has much to tell readers. As Kieckefer reminds us: "if clients could place faith in necromancy, this was in part because the broader culture took the matter seriously enough to prosecute people for exercising the art, and few doubted in principle that conjuring could succeed, so there must have been necromancers and would-be necromancers who copied out experiments into their books in the hope of having close encounters with malign but potentially useful spirits" (187).

The decision to reproduce the text in its original Latin without translation, but with English headings and textual notes, seems a sound one. Most will want to read this book for its analysis of the role the demonic magic it illustrates played in the culture of fifteenth-century Europe. For those who really want to know how to create an illusionary castle (213), how to gain a woman's love (226), or how to obtain information about a theft by gazing into a fingernail (246), however, the Latin text is available for perusal, and the well-reproduced plates give a rather good idea of the manuscript as object. The volume includes a brief, selective bibliography and an index. By his imaginative choice to examine pragmatic rather than theoretical magic, Kieckhefer has produced a valuable addition to the growing body of scholarship on medieval and early modern magic.