In Search of a Holy Magic - Part 3

4. The Role of the Scribe

Throughout antiquity people used to distinguish between two mediums of the written tradition, the scroll and the codex. The way a scroll worked is pretty obvious. Most of us know it from the way the Jewish Torah and Pentateuch are still preserved today or from the original scrolls of the Egyptian 'Book of the Dead' as displayed in many Egyptian museums across the globe. The scribe(s) of a scroll would write on the parchment for as much space as it offered, either from left to right or right to left in the Latin and Hebrew traditions respectively. Over time special glues were invented that allowed to glue several parchments together and thus create longer and more expansive scrolls. The codex, on the other hand, (from Latin, caudex, 'trunk of tree' or 'block of wood') originally signified text written on separate, single parchments. The individual parchments were then stacked up and bound into a thicker front and back panel to protect the actual pages. By the sixth century the codex had replaced the use of scrolls almost entirely. Today the term is used to refer to hand-written manuscripts from antiquity to late Medieval times specifically.

What is important to point out for our subject, is that the production process of such codices in the Middle Ages was nowhere near the way books are written and produced today. Obviously, I am not referring to the differences in the technical process of book printing and publishing, but rather to the conditions of production themselves as well as the accepted standards of passing on knowledge in written form. Before the advent of the mechanical letter press the idea of a 'copyright' did not exist. Moreover, even the idea of calling out the actual author's name was rather unusual; instead it was common to leverage names of ancient authorities as part of whose tradition-of-thought the author wanted his contribution to be understood. The output of one's creative thought process or research thus was not centred around the individual who performed the research, but the tradition they aimed to form a part of. The individual was but a link in a living chain that reached back in time to a mythical founder, philosopher or spiritual adept who provided mentorship for and authority over every link that followed in their name. Thus for centuries the purpose of each link (i.e. author) wasn't to stand out - through use of their individual names, claiming authorship for their unique contribution or advancement to a tradition - but rather to blend in. This 'creative disguise' had at least two significant effects:

  1. At first glance it created a familiar set of hugely stable and long-living traditions that every scholar could be familiar with. In a world where lexicons, research standards and in many cases even universities had not been invented yet and where every hand-written codex was a costly rarity, such stability of knowledge and tradition was a critical factor in the eyes of their authorities.
  2. However, equally the concept of 'creative disguise' allowed for each of these traditions to be kept current and alive by their anonymous authors constantly refreshing, slightly adjusting, expanding or simply localising its central ideas and concepts. Most importantly for the concept of magic in Medieval times before the 16th century, the above wasn't limited to the role of the original author of a text, but included the role of the scribe as well. 

As Klaassen explains, copying a manuscript often turned out to be a rather creative process. In short, here is how we might want to think about it: A ‘codex’ was the work of a scribe or a whole series of scribes who copied various manuscripts and then deliberately bound them together in a new collection of parchments. As such a codex represents as much the writings of the authors united in it, as it highlights the conscious choices the scribe(s) made to represent available knowledge on a specific range of subjects. In light of this we should think of the role of the scribe neither as an author, nor as a pure copyist, but as a curator. The following comparison might help to illustrate this: Let’s think of someone organising a museum exhibition for a particular sovereign about to visit their city... Which choices will they make on which works to display and which ones not? Where will their judgement be guided by true expertise, where by chance, availability of material, current zeitgeist, political interest or even intrigue? Thus were the factors influencing a scribe when consolidating material into a new codex or copying an existing one. Of course, the aspect where their role transcended our modern day curators was that often times they weren’t shy of altering the actual material they presented. Whole sections could be left out if parchment was scarce, if particular passages were considered displeasing or illicit or if the predetermined amount of folios in a book simply didn’t allow for the whole text to be included. Thus the role of a scribe turned curator / editor bore much more creative potential than it might seem at first sight. If this was true for any subject they worked on, it was particularly true for the infamous and highly ambiguous subject of magic.

So in many cases the medieval scribe was not a passive copyist, but an active agent of forming and evolving a particular tradition of thought or practice. Let’s take a closer look then at how their work began to shape and represent the Western tradition of magic.

Before the 16th century, i.e. the Renaissance works on magic mostly traveled in either of two categories: image magic or illicit magic. That is to say: magic that worked through certain, often astrologically charged images and then everything else. The former category of magical treatises often was extremely short, pragmatic in its descriptions and can be found traveling as part of larger codices on medicine, herbal healing or e.g. agriculture. The magical image was perceived to be a 'carrier substance' for influences of a variety of natural substances such as minerals, herbs, plants or alternatively alchemical elements, planets or even fixed stars. This form of magic was widely spread throughout antiquity as well as in all later centuries. Strongly influenced by Arabic authors the genre's legal status from the viewpoint of the Catholic Church was tolerated at best. Even where condemned, however, we can still find related material continually copied and spread by orthodox scribes from Catholic monasteries across Europe - not rarely as additional appendices to larger existing codices.     

To better understand this ambiguity of medieval magical writings - being officially condemned by the church and yet continually copied and spread by its own scribes - we need to take a closer look at how during the Middle ages academic knowledge was organised as a whole. 

Magic as such didn't hold its own category but rather presented a particular view of the world - including a broad array of spiritual practices that could be applied to any subject. Thus treatises on e.g. precious stones could be written from a magical point of view as could be treatises on certain diseases, agricultural rhythms or even astrology itself. Broadly speaking, magic was not a matter of subject but of perspective. It was precisely this fluid nature that made it incredible hard to confine for medieval authorities - and still makes it incredible hard to track down for modern day researchers. A treatise providing instructions on certain 'magical practices' could be bound into literally any sort of codex.

Towards the end of the Middle ages the general structure of faculties was organised according to the seven classical liberal arts: The trivium, i.e. the verbal arts of logic, grammar, and rhetoric, as well as the quadrivium, the numerical arts of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. At the time magic therefore didn’t constitute an eighth art but - depending on the author’s understanding - either a subdivision of one of the existing strands of knowledge or a category of forbidden tools that could be applied to any one of them.

"Dominic Gundissalinus (fl. mid-12th century) composed a work, De divisione scienciarum, where the subdivision of physics (drawn from Alfarabi [?-950], whose works he translated) includes judicial astrology, medicine, natural necromancy, image magic, agri-culture, navigation, alchemy, and optics. This attempt to include magical arts among legitimate sciences hardly went unopposed; in the same time period, Hugh of St. Victor (?-1142) wrote about magic only to exclude it vehemently from the domain of legitimate knowledge as a type of false knowledge." (Wouter, p.726) 
"Magic was a complex sin. Authors vary widely in how they classify magic, and the great variation in treatment testifies not only to the imagination of the authors but also to the variety of potentially sinful behaviour that magic might involve. The diversity of practices that magic included, and the variety of human impulses that drove it, made magic difficult to categorize." (Klaassen, p.18)

Instead of searching for a definite body of work that was considered to compile and define the subject of 'magic' in medieval times, we might rather want to explore which factors defined the practices that were widely considered to be of magical nature.

It turns out these factors were surprisingly straight forward as well as relatively stable throughout medieval and renaissance times. Besides obviously heretic factors such as pagan idolatry, food offerings or sacrifices, there were three main aspects which each on their own or certainly if found together would indicate a highly suspicious if not illicit form of spiritual practice. These characteristics - we can call them: medieval magic alarm triggers - were the usage of strange signs or letters, suffumigations and / or ritual incantations (Klaasen, p.27). 

Three filters often applied in the Middle Ages to identify forbidden types of magic.

Wherever image magic thus was presented without including any of these factors it was tolerated at best. Of course the actual choice was depending on the particular scribe’s assessment of how sensitive it would be to present such knowledge in their codex. On the other hand, wherever the same image would be shown and yet the text would provide instructions to ritually charge or activate the image by use of incense, carving additional sigils on it or singing certain inscrutable names over it, the threshold into the category of ‘illicit magic’ had been crossed.

"One way or another, twelfth and thirteen century writers acknowledged that good magic, if there were such a thing, depended solely upon power derived from the natural world, in particular the stars. Bad magic, which probably meant all magic, derived its powers from demons. While it is not always clear how the writers would distinguish good from bad images, many assumed that it was possible to do so, given sufficient skill in astrology and other occult sciences." (Klaassen, p.32)

Now, remember what we learned about the significant threat the Catholic Church was faced with at the beginning of the 16th century - and its deliberate ‘PR campaign’ to re-establish relevance for its ‘services’ and ‘brand’? The three categories identified above and leveraged to differentiate illicit magic from tolerated forms, are of significant relevance in light of this. Just look at them in their most general sense: they categorise any act that even in the remotest sense could resemble any sacred ritual as we know it. Since the beginning of mankind tribes would burn certain herbs, resins or dry leaves in offering to their gods, they would sing and ritually raise their voice to them and of course they would look for ways to speak to them in writing - often leading to highly cryptical and ciphered forms of code, i.e. symbols, signs or sigils. By establishing these three categories as ‘key markers’ to identify the forbidden acts of pagans, witches and magicians the Catholic Church essentially created it a hugely powerful USP (unique selling proposition) for itself: Anybody who felt the desire to contact the divine through the ancient form of ritual was forced to attend the Catholic mass. In a world marked by incredible levels of ongoing change and personal insecurity, no other save option existed. And here precisely these three categories would be brought to live in its only orthodox, i.e. officially approved form and manner: The priest would speak and sing in a language no one understood and raise his voice directly to God, thick clouds of frankincense would elevate the minds of the people bound together in service and the sacred space in which this rite took place as well as all of its many paraphernalia were covered in strange sigils, cryptic writings and holy symbols attempting to embody direct expressions of the divine. Even if Catholic mass failed terribly to deliver in any of these three categories, by banning any other form of expression of it outside of its own service, it became the only available option. Establishing a monopoly on contact to the divine was smart enough; monopolising the foundational expressions of human service to the divine, however, was a truly diabolical plan. Still, the Catholic Church executed it flawlessly, destroying almost any remains of a European pagan tradition and re-uniting its scared and spiritually-deprived flock by use of a fine balance of spreading the poison and offering the only available antidote.  

If you now begin to feel all ‘Rambo' against the Catholic Church like we magicians often like to do, let’s ensure we keep the records straight: What corrupted the church was the same influence that still today corrupts governments, corporations and institutional religions: the nature of the human being. The only reason why pagans didn’t lid pyres to burn Catholic potentates wasn’t because our ancestors were morally superior to their Catholic neighbours, but because they didn’t have the social means or power to do so. Suppression of minorities, polemics against a mythical common enemy as well as the deliberate engagement in armed conflicts at the frontier of one’s nation are all means that support stability and continuity of power in its centre. While modern governments may utilise these tactics in significantly more subtle ways, they clearly aren’t their invention. This ambiguity of judgement is even heightened, when we consider the fact that it were precisely members of the Catholic Church who also ensured the continuation of our tradition of ritual magic. 

"Over this many-coloured garment (of Jewish and Arabic influences on Western magic, ed. Frater Acher) was invariably spread the sacerdotal cope of Christianity, which may have been adopted at first as a disguise, but which in the majority of cases came eventually to be beyond suspicion the official religious belief of most European adepts. The voice of esoteric literature is positively unanimous on this point. Whatever the secret teachings which entered into the traditional science of the Magi, they were not of a nature to interfere with the sincere profession of Christianity among their later initiates, or they were modified into harmony with orthodox Christian teaching." (A.E.Waite, 1888, xxii)

In monopolising the domain of the spiritual and divine during the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church naturally turned itself into the only place where people were able to officially study any related subjects. While its external control and persecution of heretic tendencies was draconian and merciless - all in the service of reuniting its flock under its power-base - the same cannot be said of its internal control. In fact, almost all surviving codices including instructions on illicit or ritual magic from before the 16th century had actually been copied or produced under the Church’s own roof. In essence before the advent of the Renaissance it was as simple as this: If one wanted to study the ancient art of theurgy and ritual magic, one needed to become a Catholic monk. In return this meant that originally pagan magical operations and techniques passed on over centuries, would become more and more Christian over time. Divine names, prayers and invocations would become substituted with aspects and terms of Christian liturgy, while often maintaining the actual ancient ritual structure and techniques as such.

"Although the precise origins of much of this literature remain unclear, certain elements can be identified. The structure of rituals for exacting service from an otherworldly being (i.e., preparation, prayer, invocation, constraint, manifestation, petition, and dismissal) was fixed in custom in ancient times. The Hebraic tradition offered complex hierarchies of angels and their names as well as elements from kabbalism. The Arabic writers offered a tradition of “astral magic,” which often involved a high degree of ritual performance that  frequently involved astrological images and planetary deities or spirits. The Christian tradition provided the crucial elements that made the magical practices at once powerful, convincing, titillating, and dangerous for Christian practitioners: namely, the liturgy and various other programmed practices of the church, exorcism in particular. For this reason the terms exorcizatio and coniuratio are used interchangeably in necromantic treatises. The Christian tradition holds that an upright Christian could invoke the power of God to cast out a demon. One had only to refer to the liturgy to find out whether one could cast out a demon and how to do so; it was only a short logical step to the idea that one could command a demon to do other things as well. A few minor elaborations upon this tradition, a few selective borrowings from Greek, Arabic, and Hebraic magic, and a certain lack of judgment or caution were the only elements necessary for the birth of necromancy." (Klaassen, p.116)

I guess that’s the dilemma any modern ritual magician finds themselves in? The same people who destroyed any remains of their living theurgic tradition in public, were responsible for its continuation in secrecy. Without our flawed Catholic ancestors, without the same people that tolerated or even supported the burning of so-called ’witches’ by the thousands, much of our modern library of grimoires would not exist: the Almandal, the Ars notoria, the Sworn Book of Honorius, the Thesaurus spirituum or even the Arbatel to name but a few. Of course we have to assume that a lot of living magical currents survived outside of monastery walls during the Middle Ages and beyond. However, by holding tightly onto its monopoly over education and scholarship, very few of these traditions found their ways into a written form and even fewer of such written testaments survived in Christian libraries. Thus the shape of ‘learned’ Western ritual magic as we know it today assumed strong clerical aspects over time. Links to cultures and times before the Christian domain were consciously cut and replaced with orthodox terminology and context. 

"The practices of necromantic magic certainly suggest clerical sensibilities. The texts often demand an extensive and wearying program of fasts, purgations, sexual abstinence, prayers, confession, communication, and attendance at Mass. A clerical calling thus may well have helped not only in practical ways, such as the time it afforded, but because of the clergy’s direct, regular involvement in religious matters. The demands for the participation of a priest in the rituals, the required familiarity with the liturgy, not to mention the prerequisite ability in Latin all suggest this group.10 The regular clergy strove for generally similar ideals and would have had intimate familiarity with the liturgy as well. Examples of monastic necromancers, fictional and real, are common." (Klaassen, p.117)

And yet, despite all this ‘bastardisation of magic’ we have to assume that even these newly adjusted rituals yielded satisfying results in practice. Why else would we have evidence for a living tradition of continued practice over many centuries before the ‘dawn’ of the Renaissance? How we have to assume that these medieval books on magic were brought to life, passed on and continually evolved is what we shall explore in the next chapter.

Selected Resources

  • Claire Fanger, Invoking Angels: Theurgic Ideas and Practices, Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries, Pennsylvania State University 2012
  • Claire Fanger (ed.), Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Late Medieval Ritual Magic, Pennsylvania State University 1998
  • Richard Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer's Manual of the Fifteenth Century, Sutton Publishing 1997
  • Frank Klaassen, The transformation of magic: illicit learned magic in the later Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Pennsylvania State University 2013
  • Benedek Lang, Unlocked Books: Manuscripts of Learned Magic in the Medieval Libraries of Central Europe, Pennsylvania State University 2008
  • Will-Erich Peuckert, Theophrastus Paracelsus, Kohlhammer Verlag 1941
  • Will-Erich Peuckert, Deutscher Volksglaube des Spätmittelalters, Spemann Verlag 1942
  • Heinrich Bruno Schindler, Aberglaube des Mittelalters, Korn Verlag 1858
  • Arthur Edward Waite (ed.), The Magical Writings of Thomas Vaughan, 1888
  • Paola Zambelli, White Magic, Black Magic in the European Renaissance: From Ficino, Pico, Della Porta to Trithemius, Agrippa, Bruno, Brill 2007