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22.02.12 Eming/Wels (eds.), Der Begriff der Magie in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit

22.02.12 Eming/Wels (eds.), Der Begriff der Magie in Mittelalter und Früher Neuzeit

This collection of nine essays in the series “Episteme in Motion. Contributions to a Transdisciplinary History of Knowledge” examines the concept of magic in the Middle Ages and early modern period with regard to contexts in which it plays a role--literary, philosophical, religious, social--as well as theories and practices associated with it. The series was established in 2016 under the auspices of Collaborative Research Center 980 at the Free University of Berlin; the center’s name--Episteme in Motion. Transfer of Knowledge from the Ancient World to the Early Modern Period--clarifies the goal and scope of the research.

In their introduction, Jutta Eming and Volkhard Wels acknowledge the challenges in providing a definition for magic given its diverse forms of knowledge and practices--alchemy, astrology, love potions, witchcraft--and the various types of texts in which it is referenced, such as books of spells, learned magic, medical literature, kabbalistic writings, witchcraft treatises, and fictional works with marvelous elements. The editors summarize the development of the concept of magic in medieval and early modern Europe, acquainting readers with themes and names prevalent in the individual essays. They note that dictionary definitions align magic primarily with a religious perspective, and traditional scholarship views the evolution of magic to science through the prism of religion (2). Beginning with Augustine there is, however, an attempt to dissociate magic from Christianity and to ascribe it to demons or demonic powers. Nonetheless, associations with theology as well as philosophy persist into the twelfth century, at which time Arabic writings, newly introduced in the West, contribute to the shift toward natural magic, a designation that established itself in the early modern era. Thus, magic fits squarely in both the tradition of the history of religion and religious studies and that of the history of science (4). Eming and Wels draw attention to the significance of magic in literary studies, noting its role in works from antiquity such as the Odyssey to the sixteenth-century chapbook version of the Historia of Faust. The editors also identify analogies between magical thinking and central Christian dogmas, e.g., the performance of miracles, as well as kabbalistic ideas, particularly those expressed by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century philosophers and scholars such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Johannes Reuchlin, and Paracelsus. Early modern times witness the establishment of a close relationship between magic and empirical knowledge. Magic becomes an expression of a rationalization or an attempt to explain phenomena that appear to be inexplicable (8).

Eming and Wels describe how the volume advances the research center’s agenda through its interrogation of commonly held theories such as the demonization of magic from the perspective of Christian theology, its critical stance regarding the (negative) nature of the transfer of magical knowledge in the course of the Middle Ages, and its reconciliation of the opposition between fictional literature and scientific discourse (9). The introduction concludes with summaries of the essays, which provide readers with a succinct overview of the volume’s contents.

The nine essays deal with diverse aspects of the historical development of the concept of magic, with an emphasis on the Western tradition. Several employ a survey approach that covers a broad chronological swath, while others focus at least in part on a single figure or time period. A majority of the essays share common themes and figures. Although the final contributions deal primarily with the early modern period, there is no other discernable organizational principle among the essays.

Christopher Braun and Regula Forster provide the only foray into the Arabic-Islamic world through their examination of the relationship between magic and alchemy in selected texts from the seventh through the fifteenth century. Ibn Arfa’ Ra’s, a twelfth-century Moroccan scholar, is the subject of the second half of the essay, in which the authors describe how several works attributed to him reflect the intertwining of religious and magical or alchemical elements and consider whether this learned man, usually identified as an alchemist, also can be considered a magician.

The contribution of Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann is one of several that focus on the power of language, here the language used in the administration of the Christian sacraments, especially the Eucharist. The Eucharistic rite is characterized as a cultic symbolic theater, and the language employed is not only performative and salvific but also unseeable (38). Substantial sections of the essay appear in the author’s 2018 book, Gott, versuchsweise. Eine philosophische Theo-Logie, a circumstance that should have been acknowledged.

The word “zouber” is the generic Middle High German term for magic, but its precise meaning depends on the nature of the magical act. Frank Fürbeth discusses the evolution of magical terminology found in medieval German literature, citing examples from Pfaffe Lamprecht’s Alexanderlied (ca. 1150) to Ulrich Fuetrer’s Merlin (1473-1487) and with special attention to Reinfried von Braunschweig (after 1291). Fürbeth identifies five phenotypes of “Zauberer”: priest-magician, exorcist, necromancer, magician/fairy in courtly romances, and illusionist and creator of automatons. The chapter concludes with a list of 48 medieval German works that reference magic as well as its own bibliography.

Jutta Eming’s essay deals with the distinction between and confluence of the magical and the marvelous/miraculous as concepts and as phenomena in medieval German literature and in recent scholarship. She traces the evolution of the connotations of magic and examines the historical differentiation between theoretical and practical magic; her comments dovetail nicely with those of other contributors. The author then turns her attention to the relationship between wunder and magic in theory and in practice, demonstrating how magic serves as a type of knowledge that informs representations of the marvelous/miraculous in works of medieval literature, with most examples drawn from the German tradition.

Bernd Roling examines the Christian Kabbalah advanced by scholars such as Pico, Reuchlin, and Agrippa von Nettesheim, especially their representation of the Shechinah, the presence of God in creation. Whereas the Shechinah takes the form of the anima mundi in Pico’s writings, it can also be understood as the primordial mother and female savior, assuming characteristics of the Virgin Mary (113). The latter tendencies manifest themselves in the works of Guillaume Postel, the focus of the final section of the essay; the sixteenth-century scholar’s worldview is revealed to him in part through mystical experiences, and Roling describes him as the “prophet and messiah of the Shechinah” (125).

Thomas Leinkauf describes how Renaissance Neoplatonists including Marsilio Ficino and Martin Del Rio advance a positive concept of magic based on ideas of Plotinus. He argues that the development of the experimental sciences is inextricable from the development and valuation of magic as natural magic (136), and he distinguishes between a rational concept of magic and an irrational one grounded in the tradition of alchemy and belief in demons (146). The author concludes with four patterns of argumentation (Argumentationsmuster) and three types of parallelism (Parallelitäts-Typen) to exemplify the relationship between the spiritual and the material (152-55); both were presented previously in publications regarding hermeticism and astrology. Additional explication of these theoretical models with respect to this essay would have been useful.

Volkhard Wels provides a clear characterization of the divergent development of the concepts of magic and alchemy among the Renaissance Neoplatonists, Paracelsus, and the Paracelsians, which yields a different relationship in each case. The Italian Neoplatonists relegate alchemy to the periphery, whereas Paracelsus establishes pharmaceutical iatrochemistry as fundamental to his theories; it is only among the Paracelsians that the two forms of knowledge converge.

Natural magic is scrutinized again as Daniel Queiser investigates Francis Bacon’s understanding of the concept. For Bacon, material, movement, and form are indivisible, and it is the material nature of objects and the movement patterns of matter that effect magical operations--as opposed to the Italian Neoplatonists’ belief in the workings of intelligent forms and astral influences. The author suggests that Bacon radicalizes and rationalizes theories of natural magic, with magic as an experimental activity, a kind of applied metaphysics.

Sergius Kodera revisits the power of language in his discussion of kairos, a rhetorical term referring to the appropriate moment to employ a strategy in order to be successful--applied here by Kodera to the execution of magical acts. After summarizing the rhetorical kairos of Aristotle, Gorgias, Socrates, and Quintilian, the author identifies resonances of the tradition in Renaissance writings on magic by scholars such as Agrippa of Nettesheim and Giordano Bruno.

The essays represent a broad spectrum of topics and exemplify the transdisciplinary approach of the series. They encompass not only the medieval and early modern periods, but incorporate examples from antiquity and non-Western sources. Given the interconnectedness of themes and repeated references to names, works, and concepts in different contexts, the volume would have benefited tremendously from the inclusion of an index. There is some unevenness in the depth of discussion as well as the connecting of ideas: arguments in several essays are disjointed, and a summary paragraph would have been valuable in instances when it was not provided. Nonetheless, the contributions to this volume contain abundant evidence of the varied reception of magical knowledge in the Middle Ages and early modern period, introduce lesser-known figures and texts, challenge established theories, and present thought-provoking ideas. The novel theses offered and the questions raised but left unanswered provide ample opportunities for future scholarly interrogation.