The Medieval Review 15.06.03

Page, Sophie. Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests, and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013. pp. x, 232. $79.95 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-271-06033-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Hans Peter Broedel
University of North Dakota

Like other medieval Benedictine monasteries, St. Augustine's abbey in Canterbury was a center of learning with an extensive library. Although its collection of nearly two thousand volumes has largely disappeared, its contents can be reconstructed from a fifteenth-century catalog, which reveals something unusual: alongside the sorts of texts one would expect to find in a monastic library are a considerable number that deal explicitly with what in the Middle Ages would have been identified as magic. Indeed, St. Augustine's could probably have boasted of one of the largest collections of magical texts in England (although to do so would have been extremely unwise). The catalog also reveals that a small group of roughly contemporary monks donated most of these books over a couple of generations spanning the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. These men--Michael Northgate, John of London, William de Clara, Thomas Sprot and a few others--are the protagonists of Sophie Page's Magic in the Cloister, and they set her work apart from most recent publications on medieval magic. Instead of concentrating on the dense, turgid, and arcane contents of the volumes themselves, Page shifts her focus to the communal intellectual milieu of their donors, and makes a fascinating, if necessarily speculative, attempt to reconstruct their worldview.

The presence of so many magical books in a monastic library seems incongruous, but Page suggests that St. Augustine's may have been something of a haven for men sharing a predilection for occult practice along with their monastic vocation. Benedictine monks often pursued wide-ranging interests, including magic, and St. Augustine's appears to have been particularly tolerant, perhaps because it was one of a few English abbeys exempt from episcopal oversight. Even so, Page points out that at St. Augustine's, texts that in other contexts were roundly condemned--such as the theurgic manual the Ars Notoria--were displayed openly alongside perfectly orthodox devotional and scientific texts, with their contents and their donors carefully recorded in the library catalog, which would seem to suggest that this community, at least, was able to reconcile their presence with its monastic goals. This was possible, Page argues, despite a growing general tendency to view magic in demonic terms. The monks at St. Augustine's and similar enclaves conceived of magical study as both useful and consistent with religious orthodoxy, enabling them to use magic and magical texts to serve the "communal needs of the monastery" both instrumentally and devotionally (1).

The book begins with a description of the contents of St. Augustine's magical library and of what little is known about the collectors. Unsurprisingly, the most active donors were scholars, at least two of whom probably studied together at the University of Paris before retiring to monastic life in England. Their interests were reflected in their books, which covered the more esoteric fields of natural history, the various kinds of practical or instrumental magic, and attempts to achieve spiritual goals through magical procedures. This last may seem odd, but Page observes that knowledge was in itself a valid and recognized devotional aim, and some magic books claimed to help the practitioner to acquire knowledge with preternatural speed, and to gain access to secret revelations that might lead to salvation or even to communion with God. On the other hand, books of necromancy, the explicit conjuration of demons, are virtually absent from their collections, probably because, as Page suggests, overt traffic with demons would obviously have transgressed the limits of those strategies the monks deployed to reconcile their arcane studies with Christian orthodoxy.

One of the most evident of these strategies, and the subject of the second chapter, was the claim that certain "magical" effects resulted not from meddling demons or angels but instead the occult by purely natural properties of various tangible things. "Natural magic" could thus be assimilated with acceptable philosophical study, despite the implausibility or even silliness of its procedures. For example, no less a person than Albertus Magnus suggested that hanging the testicles of a mule around a woman's neck would prevent unwanted pregnancies. But in this case, contraception was of far greater moral concern to the great theologian than the instrumental use of occult by purely natural powers. The problem, of course, was that the presence or absence of demonic influence was notoriously difficult to determine, and any magical operation that was used to cause harm (as many putatively "natural" effects certainly could) was liable to be interpreted as demonic or even as witchcraft. Most likely for precisely this reason, Page argues, the monks of St. Augustine's tended to compile their magical texts alongside more conventional philosophical treatises, to emphasize their connection with the natural world.

Subsequent chapters continue this examination of St. Augustine's magical texts, some focusing on a particular genre of magic, such as image magic, and some dealing with a single text of particular interest. Throughout, Page summarizes the contents of the books and provides sufficient context so that even the casual reader can follow her exposition. More speculatively, she tries to situate the texts within their monastic milieu, and to suggest how the monks of St. Augustine's may have read, understood, and interpreted them. The Cow Book or Liber vaccae is an odd but particularly fascinating example, a manual of truly bizarre magical experiments, many of which involve creating artificial living creatures from thoroughly revolting ingredients, killing them, and then using their body parts to obtain marvelous powers. It is hard to know how seriously to take these strange and wildly impractical experiments: one involved feeding a rooster nothing but whale eyes until it swelled to huge size and its own eyes were glowing. Other more complicated procedures create hybrid fusions of human and animal, some of which, the text promises, will be rational beings. Unfortunately, these, too, must be slaughtered in order to harvest their magical remains. All of this seems perfectly monstrous, and, indeed, the text was often condemned, but Page shows that it would have been possible to draw upon ideas associated with spontaneous generation and alchemy to interpret its experiments as exercises in natural magic. She notes that William of Auvergne, a man not prone to coddle magicians, condemned the treatise, but not because its operations were necessarily demonic, "but because the practitioner himself acted like a demon by trying to create monsters out of abominable mixtures" (72).

Image magic could be defended with similar strategies to fend off charges of demonic association. Some texts posited a complex but harmoniously interconnected universe, in which magical but apparently natural and orthodox effects depended upon systems of correspondences and hierarchies of power that bound together terrestrial and celestial realms. Such a universe might very well have held broad monastic appeal, but Page acknowledges that many image magic texts either lacked such a theoretical justification entirely or failed tie the theory to particular experiments. For example, Page notes that in the Liber imaginum lunae the efficacy of an experiment to create a magical talisman depended upon a balanced combination of factors, including the operator's knowledge of astronomy, the power of angel's names, and the cooperation of God. This not only distracted the reader from the similarity of the whole operation to condemned ritual magic but also provided the text with at least a veneer of legitimacy. Yet because the precise source of the talisman's power was obscure, deriving from some combination of natural astral forces, divine sanction, and beings that one might hope were angels, the careful reader had good cause for suspicion.

The more a magical operation invited the participation of spirits, the more likely that this suspicion would blossom into outright hostility, and this in turn invited both authors and readers and turn to alternative strategies of justify such texts. One example is the Liber de essentia spirituum, a strongly theoretical work that attempted to situate the operation of Arabic image magic within a Neoplatonic universe. Despite the work's non-Christian foundations, Page suggests that its monotheism together with its idiosyncratic, but basically Neoplatonic hierarchy of spirits, would have made the text palatable to St. Augustine's monastic donors. The text's magic was also appropriate to a monastic setting, at least in part: granted, one wonders to what extent the monks of St. Augustine's were interested in harnessing the spirits of Venus "to enhance sex," but the anonymous author also hints at the possibility of "the fellowship of angels and the gift of revelation" for the truly pious and worthy magician (98). This evocation of clear devotional goals and demand for high standards of personal conduct could have provided monastic readers with a viable alternative to trying to establish "scientific credentials" of magic. Such a strategy would have been even more plausible with the Ars notoria, a compilation of prayers and rituals intended to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge, devotional meditation, and mystical visionary experience. At St. Augustine's, Michael Northgate's copy was compiled with other prayers, a devotional text, and works on the sacraments, and the whole volume was shelved next to works on sacramental theology, all of which pretty plainly suggests that to the monks the devotional aims of the author outweighed any suspicions about his methods.

At this point, Page concludes her examination of magical texts in a monastic milieu and appropriately so. Northgate's Ars notoria is perhaps uniquely well suited to Page's style of analysis, and her explication of the text's appeal to monastic readers is particularly persuasive. The book actually ends with a brief epilogue that discusses John Dee's acquisition of many of St. Augustine's magical texts, and argues, as does Frank Klaassen in The Transformations of Magic (University Park, PA, 2013), that the Renaissance magus both used and understood ritual magic in the same ways as his medieval monastic predecessors. As this epilogue suggests, however, on the whole, this book remains stubbornly more about texts than about people, despite Page's stated intention to illuminate the worldview of a community of readers. This, though, is not surprising. Her analysis of the corpus of magical texts at St. Augustine's reveals an astonishing syncretism, a literary universe in which mythologies and cosmologies borrowed from Neoplatonic, Hebrew, and Arabic sources could mingle underneath an expansively ill-defined Christian and Aristotelian intellectual umbrella. Page explicates these various strands of thought extremely well, but the very complexity of this intellectual world also makes it very difficult to comprehend: in the last analysis, and with a few exceptions, the worldview of the monks of St. Augustine's remains largely hidden from Page's readers, probably much as they intended, and for men with abiding interests in the occult, perhaps appropriately so.

Copyright (c) 2015 Hans Peter Broedel

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