Michael Bailey

title.none: Page, Magic in Medieval Manuscripts (Michael Bailey)

identifier.other: baj9928.0508.002 05.08.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Bailey, Iowa State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Page, Sophie. Magic in Medieval Manuscripts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Pp. 64. ISBN: $19.95 0-8020-3797-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.08.02

Page, Sophie. Magic in Medieval Manuscripts. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Pp. 64. ISBN: $19.95 0-8020-3797-6.

Reviewed by:

Michael Bailey
Iowa State University

To write concisely, yet with clarity and precision, is among the more difficult tasks of authorship. Sophie Page has certainly worked that particular bit of magic in this brief volume. She attempts nothing less than a broad survey of medieval magical traditions, with a primary focus on the period from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries, but also with allusions to, and more substantial forays into, earlier medieval and even early-Christian magical traditions. She does so in a mere sixty pages, most of which also feature large and lavish illustrations of magical signs and symbols as well as images of magicians and demons drawn from manuscripts. Thus this book is really only an essay introducing medieval magical practices and systems, but it is a well-organized and well-executed essay.

Page begins by introducing medieval concepts of magic, offering some sound definitions, and stressing that medieval authorities did not regard systems of magic as in any way irrational. Rather, magic conformed to both theological and natural philosophical ideas of how the universe functioned. She then introduces the "medieval magician," examining primarily how Christian authorities worked to separate magicians from holy people who performed miracles by stressing that the actions of magicians relied on the power of demons. Noting that "magicians" were typically depicted as educated and male, she also traces the tradition of the female demonic sorceress from ancient and early-medieval literature to the late-medieval depiction of the diabolical witch. Having focused in her discussion of magicians and witches mainly on demonic magic and its relation to legitimate miracle, she moves in her next section to discuss natural magic, a category that emerged more clearly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and was related to medieval notions of natural wonders and marvels. Natural magic operated on the principle that there existed certain occult properties in nature that could be harnessed by those with special knowledge and employed to achieve magical results. Such practices might be highly learned, but could also include forms of simple herbal medicine employed by common people. In these two sections, Page neatly encapsulates the two basic spheres of medieval magical operations, at least as conceived by authorities.

Focusing on magic "in medieval manuscripts," Page tends to come at magic from the perspective of literate authorities. This is hardly a fault on her part; save for some sparse and difficult archeological evidence, the writings of these authorities are the only sources we have for medieval magical traditions, and Page stresses at points the ways in which common magical practices also made their way into manuscript sources. She might have done slightly more on this, but perhaps her focus and her space constraints would not allow it. In her next section, on "the power of images," she discusses various amulets, talismans, and other images employed for magical ends. Such practices could be very common and widespread, but Page also focuses here specifically on magical images and diagrams of power drawn into medieval manuscripts. These more often related to complex ritual magic performed by literate and educated men. The following section on "the magical universe" describes how people at all levels of medieval society believed their world to be imbued with spiritual forces both angelic and demonic, and how Christian authorities were deeply concerned that uneducated people especially would be unable to distinguish between these forces. Primarily treated here, however, are various literate traditions of spiritual magic, such as the ars notoria intended to draw knowledge and power from divine and angelic spirits, and the liber iuratus that aimed to compile all magical knowledge. The final section treats condemned magic, including the condemnation of common magical practices as demonic sorcery or witchcraft, but focusing somewhat more on the condemnation of learned ritual demonic magic or necromancy.

No review of this volume would be complete without a mention of the illustrations. Many books on magic, especially those intended for classroom use, include a few images here and there. In this book, however, illustrations take pride of place, occupying virtually the same amount of page space as the text itself. Many aspects of medieval magic are thus illustrated, from depictions of magicians and witches performing their arts, to the various images, circles, and diagrams that often formed an essential element of magical manuscripts. Also included are a couple of examples of magical manuscripts in which particularly questionable words or phrases have been rubbed out from the text, providing direct visual evidence of medieval concerns. Because of the brevity of Page's own text, this book could not be used, I think, as the primary text in a course on medieval magic. Yet because of the ample illustrations, it would make an excellent secondary book, used to spark students' interest and introduce them to the rich visual and material culture of medieval magic.