medieval ritual magic in the renaissance

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  • Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2003 Aries Vol. 3, no. 2

    MEDIEVAL RITUAL MAGIC IN THE RENAISSANCE

    FRANK KLAASSEN

    Frances Yates rescue of Renaissance magic from obscurity was in large meas-ure founded upon the notion that the publication of De vita coelituscomparanda in 1489 constituted a fundamental break with the past in whichthe new elegant magic of Marsilio Ficino stood in stark contrast to the olddirty magic of the middle ages. The newness of Renaissance magic might befound in its urbane language, its philosophical and religious character, and itsattempt to recover the original magic of a pristine past through the use of an-cient texts, particularly hermetic and neoplatonic works. At the same time,Yates argued, the principle point of continuity between medieval and Renais-sance magic could be found in several areas: common astrological supposi-tions; the use of certain groupings of natural substances; the use of talismansand invocations; a common belief in spiritus as the vehicle for astral influence;and common integration of magic into a philosophical framework1. Thus whenshe spoke of Ficinos medieval sources, she was referring principally to tradi-tions of scholastic natural philosophy and of astrological image magic, a tradi-tion largely of Arabic provenance. For example, Yates demonstrated Ficinosdebt to the Picatrix2. Subsequent scholars have continued along these paths.The most significant in the case of Ficino would be Brian Copenhavers stud-ies of Ficinos debts to Plotinus, Proclus, Iamblichus, and Thomas Aquinas,and more recently, Nicholas Weill-Parots admirable examination of the tradi-tion of image magic through the later middle ages to Ficino3. A host of otherscholars have now begun the task of editing, analysing, and explicating themedieval traditions of astrological magic in their own right4. The importance

    1 Yates, Giordano Bruno, 80-1.2 Yates, Giordano Bruno, 69-72.3 Weill-Parot, Les images astrologiques.4 The work of David Pingree has been particularly important in its attempt to trace the for-

    tunes of magic of arabic extraction in Europe. See for example: Pingree, Between the Ghaya andthe Picatrix, 27-56; Picatrix: The Latin version; Some of the Sources, 1-15; The Diffusion ofArabic Magical Texts, 57-102; Learned Magic in the Time of Frederick II, 42-43. The numer-ous studies of Charles Burnett are tremendously important and many are collected in Burnett,Magic and Divination. His other studies include Adelard, Ergaphalau and the Science of theStars, Arabic, Greek, and Latin Works, and Scandinavian Runes. Very important for theongoing manuscript research is Lucentini and Perrone Compagni, I testi e I codici di ermete.Important for the medieval traditions of image magic and their relationship to necromantic tradi-tions is Weill-Parot, Les images astrologiques. Important for the understanding of scholastic

  • MEDIEVAL RITUAL MAGIC IN THE RENAISSANCE 167

    of this tradition, especially before 1500, is attested by hundreds of manu-scripts.

    But medieval ritual magic has received far less attention, in particular in itsrelation to Renaissance magic. In some measure the lack of attention to the socalled dirty magic (or the old hole-and-corner business of the persecutedmedieval magician as Yates would elsewhere have it) results from the fact thatthese traditions are understood to have been transcended by Renaissancemagic5. While some recent scholarship has noted the debt of Renaissancemagic to medieval works of ritual magic6 it is generally assumed that these textsoffered little of interest to the new Renaissance magus. If they have recognizedany connection at all, scholars have followed Charles Nauerts lead, admitting aprobable influence but focusing instead upon other sorts of sources7. No doubt,the great diversity of this literature, the limited number of printed editions ofmedieval ritual magic texts, and the lack of clear connections with Renaissancewriters has made the prospect of investigating this literature daunting. How-ever, the recent and forthcoming publication of a number of important editions,not to mention a growing body of secondary literature, will make it impossibleto ignore8. Yet another reason for the lack of attention to connections betweenmedieval ritual magic and magic in the Renaissance is that the nature of the twocan be so different as to preclude any simplistic comparison. How can onecompare the stellar intellectual acrobatics of a Marsilio Ficino, CorneliusAgrippa, or John Dee to the run-of-the-mill productions of a single medievalnecromantic writer, especially when such Renaissance writers strongly disa-

    reactions to image magic is Zambelli, The Speculum Astronomiae and its Enigma. Most re-cently, some very important work has been undertaken by Sophie Page which integrates thestudy of ritual and image magic with the study of manuscripts and their monastic context. SeePage, Magic at St Augustines.

    5 Yates, Giordano Bruno, 142.6 I refer here particularly to Clucas, Non est legendum and Regimen Animarum et

    Corporum.7 Nauert, Agrippa, 231.8 For editions of works of ritual magic see Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites. John of Morigny,

    Prologue. Forthcoming editions of the Ars notoria by Julien Veronese and the Liber sacer orSworn Book of Honorius by Gsta Hedegrd will also make a substantial contribution. Forarticles on ritual magic see for example the numerous books and articles by Richard Kieckhefer,Forbidden Rites, Magic in the Middle Ages, The Holy and the Unholy, The Specific Rational-ity of Medieval Magic, Erotic Magic in Medieval Europe, and The Devils Contemplatives.The work of Claire Fanger and Nicholas Watson has been particularly important for the study ofthe tradition of the notory art. See Fanger, Plundering the Egyptian Treasure. Watson, John theMonks Book. Stephen Clucas has attempted to demonstrate the influence of medieval ritualmagic upon the practices of John Dee. Clucas, Non est legendum and Regimen Animarum etCorporum. Mathiesen, A 13th-Century Ritual. Klaassen, English Manuscripts and Transfor-mations of Magic.

  • 168 FRANK KLAASSEN

    vowed any connection to necromantic practice? It may well be that Ficino,Agrippa, Dee, and the other great Renaissance mages did not borrow specificsegments from medieval ritual works. It is certainly true that magic tending tothe astrological and mathematical is an easily identifiable source among theirmagical practices. However, an examination of the copying patterns of magicalmanuscripts 1300-1600 should lead us to reconsider the importance of the olddirty magic.

    Our discussion will begin by examining the divisions of magic both as de-scribed in the Speculum astronomiae, and also as suggested by the texts ofmagic themselves and the patterns in their treatment and collection in manu-scripts. The second portion of our discussion will examine over time the pat-terns of copying of the two significant divisions of magic, image magic andritual magic, and in particular the sudden apparent decline in interest in imagemagic in the sixteenth century. With additional reference to sixteenth-centuryliterature and printed books, the third portion of the paper will attempt to ex-plain the apparent decline of image magic and the accompanying continuedinterest in medieval ritual magic.

    Two Divisions of Medieval Magic: Image Magic and Ritual Magic

    A common starting point for discussions of medieval magic is the Speculumastronomiae. The divisions of images it proposes one abominable, oneslightly less so, and one potentially legitimate are ambiguous and continue toevade explanation9. David Pingree has suggested that the work divides illicitmagic into hermetic and solomonic categories. Hermetic texts work pri-marily with talismans constructed at suitable astrological moments, from suit-able material, and often with some form of ritual action such as suffumigation,incantation, or animal sacrifice. The goal of all of this, including the ritualactions, was to focus the powers of celestial influences or rays in a talisman formagical purposes10. It is fairly easy to identify surviving examples of thesetexts from the titles and incipits and hence to arrive at a more or less compre-hensive understanding of this category. Defining solomonic magic, on theother hand, presents more difficulties since the Speculum provides only a briefand rather vague definition and considerably fewer examples. In addition, themanuscript traditions of this material tend to be a good deal more chaotic.Pingree suggests that Firenze NB II-iii-214 is probably a copy of a thirteenth-century manuscript from Paris and contains many of the solomonic works re-

    9 Speculum astronomiae, XI.10 Pingree, Learned Magic, 42-43.

  • MEDIEVAL RITUAL MAGIC IN THE RENAISSANCE 169

    ferred to in the Speculum. On this basis he describes the solomonic texts asthose instructing one how to bind the demons and malefic spirits, or the an-gels to do their will, to compel them by ritual acts and threats of violence tocarry out the necromancers wishes11. Nicholas Weill-Parots interpretationmodifies Pingrees ideas in significant ways. He first observes that there is agreat deal of overlapping between the two categories. For example, he notesthat in most ritual magic images, characters, and seals play a major role inoperations involving angels. He thus suggests that the ritual magic of thesolomonic Ars notoria, with its attention to astrological conditions and the useof notae, might be regarded as very similar to the processes of the first cat-egory (hermetic), where images are employed under certain astrologicalconditions12. Nonetheless he suggests that the first category, the hermetic orabominable texts, may be distinguished by its emphasis upon talismans, onastrological conditions, and upon astral spirits. The second category, thesolomonic or detestable texts

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