Thirteenth-century monks had a deep and abiding interest in magical texts. While only a few wayward souls dabbled in the dark arts of necromancy and demon invocation, many more saw no contradiction between their religious vocation and the practice of "natural magic." In her 2013 book Magic in the Cloister,  Sophie Page provided a fascinating case study of an extraordinary collection of thirty manuscripts containing magic texts that had been collected and preserved by the brethren of the abbey of St. Augustine's in Canterbury in the decades around 1300. These monks did not believe that their Christian piety was at odds with the magical arts. To the contrary, they had recourse to spells "to develop preaching aids extolling the wonder of God's creation" and employed "ritual magic to communicate with angels" (10).
In the book under review, Allegra Iafrate shows that the well-known scribe and artist Matthew Paris (c. 1200-1259) had interests in common with his contemporaries at St. Augustine's in Canterbury. Her elegant little study presents a full-color facsimile of Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 304, a miscellany of prognostication texts copied and illustrated by Matthew Paris around 1240 CE, prefaced by a 103-page introduction to the manuscript's contents, function, and decoration.  After a brief introduction to Matthew Paris himself, Iafrate delineates the different kinds of divination methods represented in the texts copied in MS Ashmole 304, including onomatomacy (divinitation by means of the subject's name, based on the numerical value of the letters that comprise it), cleromancy (the casting of lots, the results of which are determined by chance), and geomancy (the interpretation of a series of figures ordered at random). Many of these texts trace their origins to the ancient Mediterranean and the Muslim world. With the transmission of these texts across linguistic boundaries, their form and content changed through the process of translation and adaptation. For example, MS Ashmole 304 contains two different metrical versions of Bernard Silvestris' Experimentarius and the Prenostica consideracionis attributed to Pythagoras. Moreover, Matthew Paris made his own contribution to the sortes tradition by composing an introduction to the Prenostica consideracionis, as well as to the Prenostica Socratis basilei. Many of these divination texts circulated based on the authority of the famous names attached to them, figures of ancient wisdom like Socrates, Pythagoras, and Cicero, but also the twelve patriarchs of the Old Testament.
Iafrate indulges our imagination with several pages of fruitful rumination on how the monks of St. Albans may have actually put these texts to use. "Let us imagine a rainy afternoon at St. Albans," she writes, "A group of monks decides to consult the manuscript. How does it work in practice" (53)? As this discussion makes clear, these were functional texts for the brethren. Each of them had its own logic and methodology, which Iafrate explains with admirable clarity. The introduction concludes with some remarks on the history of MS Ashmole 304 (which, like many Matthew Paris manuscripts, circulated among early modern bibliophiles before it was deposited in Oxford), its illustrations and their relationship to other near contemporary sortes collections, and a codicological description of the manuscript, including a full list of its contents, known lacunae, comments on the primary scribal hand (identified as that of Matthew Paris "assez sûrement identifiable grâce à une série de lettres caractéristiques" ) and addenda by later readers, page layout, and decoration.
The remainder of the book is unpaginated, but presents a clearly reproduced, color facsimile of the 71 folios of MS Ashmole 304, which is slightly smaller than the actual dimensions of 172 x 127 mm. There are many benefits to presenting the manuscript in this way rather than in the form of a conventional critical edition. First and foremost, it allows the reader to appreciate the complex sortes tables, many of which are illuminated with images of birds and fortifications (see, for example, fols. 32v-38v). In addition, it highlights the manuscripts' lavish decoration, including the sixty-six rubricated initials and the full-page illustrations of Hermann and Euclid (fol. 2v), Socrates and Plato (fol. 31v), Pythagoras (fol. 42r), and the twelve sons of Jacob (fol. 52r). This study and facsimile of MS Ashmole 304 will be of great interest to historians of medieval magic and monastic culture in the thirteenth century. Specialists on Matthew Paris and his manuscripts will also welcome the attention given to this codex, which has not received the same notice as his historical works. As a final note, I applaud Classiques Garnier for putting a color facsimile of a thirteenth-century manuscript in the hands of scholars and students at such an affordable price.
1. Sophie Page, Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests, and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe (Univeristy Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013).
2.There are useful English summaries of much of this material by the author in the following articles: "The Workshop of Fortune: St. Albans and the Sortes Manuscripts," Scriptorium 46 (2012): 55-87; and "Of Stars and Men: Matthew Paris and the Illustrations of MS Ashmole 304," Journal of the Courtauld and Warburg Institutes 76 (2013): 139-177.