17.01.20, Alt, eds., et al., Magia daemoniaca, magia naturalis, zouber

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Georg Modestin

The Medieval Review 17.01.20

Alt, Peter-André, Jutta Eming, Tilo Renz, and Volkhard Wels, eds. Magia daemoniaca, magia naturalis, zouber: Schreibweisen von Magie und Alchemie in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit. Episteme in Bewegung. Beiträge zu einer transdisziplinären Wissensgeschichte, 1. Wiesbaden:Harrassowitz Verlag, 2015. pp. 446. ISBN: 978-3-447-10495-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Georg Modestin
Universität Freiburg (Switzerland), Kantonsschule Freudenberg Zurich
georg.modestin@unifr.ch

This volume is an offspring of the "Sonderforschungsbereich 980" located at the Freie Universität Berlin. This "Sonderforschungsbereich" aims at a better understanding of the ways knowledge changed and evolved in pre-modern times. This is also, roughly speaking, the overall topic of this collection of essays, which go back to a conference held in Berlin in November 2013. The core of interests are two distinct though adjacent segments of pre-modern knowledge, i.e. magic und alchemy. The evolution within those two branches of knowledge was by no means linear, as the editors speak in the given context of complex processes marked by various phenomena such as overlapping, adaptation, repulsion, fusion, and other. Moreover, the notions of magic and alchemy are notoriously difficult to define, though there are links between the two, as both were strongly connected to nature. Alchemy, to begin with, dealt in the broadest sense with the transmutation of natural substances, being the historical ancestor of latter day chemistry. The precarious status of alchemy was, as the editors argue, less a proof of its "occult" nature than a consequence if its lack of institutional assets, as it was neither taught in schools and universities nor accepted as a form of craft (5). Magic, on the other hand, was, at least in the form of natural magic as opposed to demonic magic, since the High Middle Ages a form of "erudite, proto-scientific speculation" (8).

The seventeen essays in this volume cover a longue durée from antiquity to the early modern period, the latter being predominant. We shall therefore concentrate on the few medieval subjects discussed in this collection: in the first contribution, Almut-Barbara Renger (Berlin) presents the case of Pythagoras, who has become throughout history a founding figure of a host of disciplines, despite the fact that there is barely anything known about him. Through the reception of Greek texts, Pythagoras became, though at different moments in history, a prominent figure in the Arab world where he happened to be associated with alchemy, as well as in the European Renaissance. Another mythic figure is Jonitus, the legendary fourth son of Noah, born hundred years after the flood, who appeared first in early Christian Syriac writings. Through translations into Latin, Jonitus, who is presented here by Mireille Schnyder (Zurich), got known in the Latin West, where he became a protagonist of vernacular literature. In the twelfth century, he was most prominently deemed to be the receptacle of divine knowledge and the founder of astrology, before losing popularity and finally vanishing in the early modern period. Schnyder's paper is followed by three contributions having a distinctly philological approach: Jutta Eming (Berlin) analyses the literary representation of the arcane and the marvelous in Wolfram of Eschenbach's Perceval; Antje Wittstock (Mannheim) looks for parallels in poetical and alchemical thinking in Gottfried of Strasbourg's Tristan, whereas Sandra Linden (Tubingen) discusses interdependences of love and magic--most notably, but not only love-magic--in German Minnereden (minne-talks).

The preservation and transmission of magical texts in medieval libraries is at the core of Frank Fürbeth's (Frankfurt am Main) preoccupation in this volume. In his contribution, he presents some preliminary results consisting of various data: drawing from the first four volumes of Thorndike's History of Magic and Experimental Sciences (1923-1934), the Catalogue of Incipits of Mediaeval Scientific Writings in Latin by Lynn Thorndike and Pearl Kibre (revised edition in 1963), and Francis J. Carmody's Arabic Astronomical and Astrological Sciences in Latin Translation" A Critical Bibliography (1956), Fürbeth totalizes 314 texts dealing with aspects of magic, most of which (i.e. 240) have been transmitted anonymously. At first sight, this cipher seems impressive, but it must be seen in relation to the eight to nine thousand "other" texts listed by Thorndike and Kibre, so that the portion of magic related texts amounts to a mere 3.5 percent (168-169). Given the fact that the lion's share of medieval book production dates from the later Middle Ages, it comes as no surprise, that most of the magical texts identified by Fürbeth too have been written in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (170). Fürbeth also wants to know in what circumstances these writings were transmitted: having consulted the series of Mittelalterliche Bibliothekskataloge Deutschlands, der Schweiz und Österreichs, which focus on the southern part of the German-speaking area, he counts no less than 295 book collections in which magical texts are to be found. Among them 88 are housed in monastic libraries, 25 belonged to parish churches, 14 to cathedral chapters, and three to universities. Not only institutions, but also individuals possessed book collections. These include for instance 97 clerics and 15 scholars (176). In his contribution, Frank Fürbeth goes on to some deeper reaching considerations about the owners of these magical books, which deserve further discussion. In the annex, the author provides a list of nigromantic and mantic texts based on Thorndike, Thorndike and Kibre, and Carmody (186-188).

All remaining papers in this volume are out of the scope of medieval history and philology, but notable are the contributions of Jan-Dirk Müller (Munich) on the association of magic, eroticism, and art in early modern and pre-classical, predominantly German, literature; Tobias Bulang (Heidelberg) on Johann Fischart; Marina Münkler (Dresden) on the status of magicians and alchemists in the system of knowledge in the early modern period; Volkhard Wels (Berlin) on early modern alchemy as a subject of the history of knowledge; Stefanie Stockhorst (Potsdam) on Johann Rist; Jost Eickmeyer (Berlin) on witchcraft and magic in humanist and baroque Latin poetry; Simon Zeisberg (Berlin) on Hans Jacob Christoffel of Grimmelshausen; Michael Lorber (Berlin) on Johann Joachim Becher; Sven Dupré (Berlin) on Johannes Kunckel's translation of Antonio Neri's Arte vetraria; Harald Haferland (Osnabrück) on Johannes de Monte Raphaim; and Bernd Roling (Berlin) on divining rods between magic and magnetism.

On the whole, given the broad scope of subjects at the crossroads of history and philology covered in this volume, it provides numerous insights and allows glimpses into topics that may not be everyone's special interest.

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