3. Excursus: Letting go of 21st Century Assumptions
To truly understand how our Renaissance forefathers navigated this complex, constantly evolving territory, we need to zoom in even closer into the reality of their time. For to understand the true meaning and impact of their works we need to be able to assess them relative to the times they emerged from. Risking to end one’s life prematurely on the pyre seems courageous, if not heroic today. Yet such intuitive judgement can easily be misleading - as assessing 16th century behaviour from the reality of the 21st isn’t a great compass to navigate the Renaissance map.
As astonishing as it might seem to our ‘millennial generation’ that decided to accept ‘Now!’ as its only operating mode, people five-hundred years ago perceived, thought, lived and judged in very different ways than we do today. In a time where the notion of human rights was laughed at, where public codices of city laws were just emerging, where even national or federal states didn’t exist and the climate of entire regions would change with the uprise of a new ruler, personal security was a good hard to come by. Whoever was in power was the most highly sought after alliance for everyone. Besides the Catholic Church, their hand alone would guarantee at least some level of fleeting security or complaisance. Such protection would need to be rebuilt at least after each potentate’s death when the cards were reshuffled, yet it was the best people of all traits had to hope for… Being political - both in your alliances as well as in how one published one’s books - wasn’t a derogative term in a world where laws lasted less than one’s lifetime.
On the other hand the 16th century world was a vast place - abundant with the unknown, with rumours, distance and the foreign waiting to be explored. Power in this time was still bound to specific, even though often shifting territories. So for anyone prepared to travel light and often that was good news: Wherever one alliance was lost, a day-trip or two would get one onto the doorstep of another court, another ruler and a new bond to be forged. As fleeting as security, prosperity and even power were, as many places existed where one could try one’s luck again when it was lost elsewhere.
Growing up in such an environment bread very different people from us today. To be fair, some of this ‘difference’ is but a fleeting finish of gloss - easily cracked and rubbed off modern man by a few days out in the wilderness, without electricity, warm water and constant supplies of ready-made food. Civilisation is not what changes human nature, at best it numbs and puts to sleep our more archaic drives born from millennials out in the wild. The relevant difference between us and our Renaissance forefathers thus isn’t one of style, habitus or bare conditions of living, but one of inner and outer perception. Growing up in a world with only natural ambient noise - no radio, no cars, no tubes rattling underground - affected people’s ability to perceive and listen. Being thrown into a world where hardly anybody was capable of reading and one’s own mother tongue had not even been fixed in a single written form, affected the way people thought and spoke. Being part of a world where the most essential way for any news to reach you was through the mouth of your neighbour, affected the vital relevance of social contact. In short, we have to let go of our own inner compass of judgement, of the things we like to take for granted, when trying to understand the lives and motives of our forefathers several hundreds years ago. Just as people looked and smelled differently, so they also felt differently, thought differently and appreciated things in very different ways from us today. Modern day gut feel thus is a terribly bad tour-guide to explore our ancestors' actual living realities.
Now, why does that matter? A particular reason stands out for our exploration: Magic is a subjective science conducted mainly through the human senses. Communication with spirits functions through the medium of the human senses and mind; anything that affects, changes and alters the way these function has to be of interest to the magician trying to understand the practices of their own tradition. A rite from the 16th century, designed to activate and open doors to certain sensory perceptions, was designed for a set of human senses that essentially functioned in different ways than our 21st century minds do today. Think about it - people who lived without the daily experience of a ‘virtual world’, no TV, no tablets and computers were grounded in the present in a very different way. If they underwent a cycle of several weeks of retreat, lent, prayer and even further withdrawal from the outside world, they arrived at a very different place than we do today were we to follow the same instructions… Movies, TV, computer games, even our ability to read in silence created a fluidity of perception, an ability to switch between the perception of the physical world and an inner ‘virtual’ or ‘imagined’ world that our ancestors would have been completely unaccustomed to. As we significantly changed the experience of the world we live in, not the nature but the configuration of our senses has changed as well.
On the other hand the use of incense, daggers, robes and chalices by far might have seemed less romantic to our ancestors than to us today? At the dawn of the 16th century these implements were not considered to be archaic, but expressions of orthodox power and wealth. Look at it in detail and how many of the magical rites of that time mimic aspects of the Catholic mass and the paraphernalia used on its altars? For the 16th century mind creating, adorning and using these tools by oneself and with oneself in the central role of the priest was a huge and deliberate act of heretic revolt. What act in our modern day could compare to it? Which insignia of (spiritual) power are still charged with such much meaning and social hierarchy, that re-creating them for one’s own use would seem such a dangerous act of promethean self-empowerment? (Not much comes to my mind, but I am thinking of the Occupy-movement that annexed social space in front of Wall Street and elsewhere - normally reserved to the powerful and rich. I am also thinking of terrorist-cells annexing the insignia of national military and governments to prove their claim to power…) – So when our Renaissance forefathers brought that chalice filled with wine to their lips and spoke the prayer of blessing - what happened to their senses then? Which reactions and subconscious impulses did such an act trigger? How did it change - even if only for the duration of that rite - their social persona, their unspoken beliefs, the image they held of themselves, the taboos and collective laws they had respected for entire lives? And now let’s turn the mirror and look at ourselves: When that 25-year old ‘adept’ of today is drinking from that same chalice - what is happening to their inner and outer senses then? What once was an act of revolt, might now have turned into its opposite? A world that has grown empty of deep roots, ancient traditions, Latin ritual and thick clouds of incense suddenly is reborn. On a purely social level we might come to the conclusion: What once was an act of breaking away from existing structures of power, might have become a romantic way of re-enacting them? What once were instructions for social revolution five-hundred years later has been turned into recipes of romantic nostalgia. Yes, magic as such is eternal and doesn’t change with the tides of our times or civilisations. However, how we access it, connect to it and tune our senses into it might very well be dependent on the times we grow up in. Because we are as much children of magic, as we are children of our time.
So the 16th century made people grow up with a different experience of the world and their place in it. This difference was not just superficial and an expression of a change in style or conditions of living. Instead, it created a different kind of thinking, of feeling and even appreciating. Senses and perceptions weren’t different in nature, but tuned and calibrated towards a different experience of the world. Equally, foundational aspects of the 21st Western World - such as personal security through human rights and a stable national legislature - were either absent or highly circumstantial depending on the ruler of the territory one happened to reside in. The only pan-European power-base at the time was the self-righteous jurisdiction of the Catholic Church which had turned into a cruel antagonist of scientific advancement and free scholarship. Thus it doesn’t come as a surprise that the 16th century created a broad array of restless biographies of constantly traveling scholars - such as Agrippa, Paracelsus, John Dee or, later on, Johan Amos Comenius. Their travels just as much as their works can only be understood in light of the above reality they formed a part of. Each day spent at the court of a baron was reverence paid in the costly currency of physical presence. And every printed work published in their honour was another link in the chain that one day might safe one’s life. Every act of philosophic or scientific revolt needed to be counter-balanced with an act of submission to a potentate who was likely to offer protection from the Church’s merciless prosecution. Much more so than today, life as a scholar was a constant balancing act, a path walked with great care, where considering one’s current and coming affiliations formed the only foundation to one’s income, security and family’s wellbeing.
In returning to our subject we then have to ask: ‘How did all of this then affect the magic of the 16th century as we know it today?’ Well, the small keyhole through which we are forced to look back in time, are the actual manuscripts of magic that have survived until our present day. They are the only authentic testament of the practices of our forefather - or at least created to evoke such impression. We shall therefore take a closer look at how these manuscripts actually came into existence, for which reasons and maybe most importantly through whose hands?