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13.11.09, Klaassen, The Transformations of Magic

13.11.09, Klaassen, The Transformations of Magic

Transformations of Magic is a meticulous and insightful work of scholarship. It is not only about magic but also about books, science, religion, ideas and their transmission, and the transition from the medieval to the early modern in England. It begins with the observation that the literatures of two kinds of magic--image and ritual-- underwent sharply different transformations between 1300 and 1600: over the course of three centuries the literature of image magic first increased and then declined, with what remained subsumed into naturalia or inserted in passing into texts of ritual magic. The literature of ritual magic, by contrast, enjoyed a history even more vigorous in the sixteenth century than in the thirteenth. An explanation for these distinct histories is, by the author's reckoning, to be found by discerning the larger intellectual contexts--philosophical, scientific, and theological--in which authors, scribes, and readers understood the two kinds of magic and by considering the relationship of each magic's efficaciousness to the written texts themselves. Given a conventional association of a transformed image magic with the Renaissance, and a corresponding derogation of ritual magic as medieval, Prof. Klaassen's findings lead him to a judicious reevaluation of the links and tensions between the medieval and the early modern, at least in terms of magic.

Much of what makes Prof. Klaassen's analysis convincing has to do with the painstaking care he takes in presenting and analyzing the volumes he brings under scrutiny. The eighty pages of back matter attest to his skill as a researcher and his nimbleness with the questions that have heretofore shaped the scholarly conversation on the matters at hand. He describes his work as an analysis of the mise-en-page. He means by this term much more than simply the layout of a text on a page, but also the placement of texts in a volume and volumes in a library. The analysis of such mise-en-page provides the foundation for the inferences first about the owners, scribes, and authors, and then about the transformations these literatures of magic were undergoing. In this regard Transforming Magic continues a productive trend among some historians of magic to attend closely to actual volumes of magical texts and is a model in the method.

His attentiveness to the volumes ultimately sheds light on the intellectual frames of reference that result in the transformations he documents. Regarding image magic the framing question was whether an image worked because of occult natural powers or demonic intervention. In the former case, use of the image would be lawful; in the latter, unlawful. The urge to make image magic lawful then situated it alongside or even in the field of natural philosophy. The alignment shaped the debate and can be seen in the placement of the texts of image magic, which in collected volumes and on library shelves were found among the naturalia. Prof. Klaassen determines that this trend was shaped by certain authoritative works, most famously the Speculum astronomiae, that became increasingly used as a guide for scribes in their immediate discernment of the philosophical and moral lawfulness of particular magical texts. Their use had a constraining effect, and the number of texts of image magic correspondingly decreased.

Ritual magic, by contrast, did not fall within the pale of scholastic rationality, and thus faced a different kind of scrutiny. The question of this literature's effectiveness was less about the truth the texts contained than the extent to which they could serve as "vehicles for [the] discovery [of truth]." This was a moral standard to be sure, but shifted attention onto the practioner rather than any scholastic norm. By dint of the category shift, the literature had no self-evident home either in the scholastic mind or on the library shelves. And that seems to be exactly what saved it: the texts of ritual magic remained less stable than the texts of image magic, and consequently became more resilient and long-lived. Ritual magic not only sustained itself but flourished through this period due in part to a freer relationship between the quality of the texts, the effectiveness of the practices, and the engagement of the practitioners. By Prof. Klaassen's reckoning, this difference in conceptual framework and transmission style worked hand-in-hand, and explains much of the how and why of image magic's disappearance in the course of the early modern period (appropriated into naturalia, marginalized in collections of ritual magic, or simply discarded), and of ritual magic's perdurance to the present day.

These findings impel Prof. Klaassen to new conclusions about "Renaissance magic" and its links to--rather than disjunctions from--medieval ritual magic "highly ritualized and with powerfully religious, interior, experiential, and personal dimensions." He is attentive throughout the monograph to the complex and sometimes contentious historiography that views magic sometimes and in some regards as part of a religious discourse, other times, as part of a scientific one. Regarding that distinction and any easy distinction between medieval and early modern magic, he takes the revisionist approaches yet further away from the older positions rooted in the scholarship of Lynn Thorndike and Frances Yates. Although this reviewer wishes that the author had reflected yet more skeptically on the usefulness of the term "Renaissance" and what distinguishes some magic as learned (as suggested in the title).

Along these lines, one difference between this monograph and the dissertation on which it is based is found in the titles. In the dissertation's title he uses none of three words featured in the monograph's subtitle: illicit, learned, and Renaissance. Early sections of both monograph and dissertation offer a thoughtful analysis of image magic's licitness, with a reflection on Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum maius serving as a springboard, that ultimately directs the reader's attention to the efforts of authors, scribes, and owners to find in image magic echoes of scholastic natural philosophy. The result is to highlight in a helpful way the ultimate ambiguity of image magic's licitness to canonists and moralists, an ambiguity that drives the transformations at the heart of Prof. Klaasen's research. The term "renaissance," consistently uncapitalized in the dissertation, appears usually as a qualifier for "occultism" and in reference to Ficino historically and Yates historiographically. In the final analysis, however, Klaassen's work undermines the notion of "Renaissance" magic both by shifting attention away from the image magic which has otherwise attracted more attention and by highlighting the tradition of ritual magic that such Renaissance figures as Agrippa et alii were not supposed to be interested in. Thanks to Prof. Klaassen's work the reader is challenged to consider ritual magic through their neo-Platonizing lens. What one discovers, especially in ritual magic's emphasis on the experience of the practitioner, is a better fit, upon reflection, than image magic and the Renaissance mage ever were! Finally, the "learnedness" of magic warrants only oblique consideration in either work: by virtue of the milieus in which they were largely practiced and the literacy required for the books instructing their use, image and ritual magic qualify as "learned." But that, like "Renaissance," is our category rather than theirs.

Regarding his sources, Prof. Klaasen unnecessarily apologizes for his focus on manuscripts rather than authorities, an approach that leads him once unnecessarily to apologize for attending too carefully to the mediocre and mundane instead of the luminary. In point of fact, his work draws the reader very effectively into the murky world of semi- and fully anonymous characters out of which the luminary figures emerged and which encouraged the luminary characters to arise. We are introduced to a range of manuscripts the simple listing and indexing of which deserves mention as a great service. At the same time, his early apology may lead to the false impression that much is not learned about "the most eloquent proponents [and] elucidators of magic." Vincent of Beauvais, Agrippa, Finico, and Dee have already been mentioned in passing in this review and are the tip of the iceberg. He likewise gives careful coverage, by necessity, to the most important late medieval and early modern circulating texts of ritual and image magic: the Picatrix, the Speculum astronomiae, and the Ars notoria all receive careful treatment as do such other central writings as Ficino's De vita coelitus comparanda and Agrippa's De occulta philosophia.

In short, this is a very good book based on a use of sources that is both careful and creative. The author's central conclusions are clearly expressed, meticulously researched, and convincingly argued. It is exemplary in its subtle attentiveness to the relationship of ideas to the modes and details of their transmission, and it is compelling in its challenge to reconsider how certain kinds of magic's place in Western society developed from the High Middle Ages to the early modern period. Transforming Magic is a richer piece of scholarship than its modest length might suggest.