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Blogging Kalamazoo: Session 103 - Medieval Magic in Theory: Prologues to Learned Texts of Magic

Tuesday, May 11, 2021 - 08:55

This session on medieval magic is sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence, adding another group to the general interest in the history of magic. I was dithering between this and the first DISTAFF (textiles) session, since both are being recorded for later viewing. In both sessions, only one paper has permission for social media sharing—which originally was going to be how I chose which to view in real time. So…a toss-up.

Introducing the Picatrix: The Prologue's Balancing Act between Content and Perception - Dr. David Porreca, PhD, University of Waterloo

A medieval astrological text, originally Arabic, that provoked controversy among contemporaries. Due to this controversy, it was rarely referenced by name at the time, although one can trace references to it (both text and visual) and was re-copied into multiple other texts. Those who used it balanced the concerns of communicating the content while cautioning readers about the uses of that content. This paper concerns the prologue of the Latin translation.

The prologue is very short, and contains different content in different language editions. All have four main elements: appeals to God, references to the goodness of the sources, a summary of the contents, and rhetorical devices to reinforce the preceding. There is a discussion of differences between the different versions and questions of dating. The sources for the text are framed as supporting its theological legitimacy (it’s a worldly text, not a religious one, but is not in conflict with God) and the breadth of the sources used to create it. At the same time, the prologue suggests that magic (the subject of the text) is not in conflict with nature, but is the culmination of the study of nature. But there are many references to God’s power and to God as the source of all wisdom and knowledge. This seems to be intended to mollify the reader with respect to the text’s non-Christian origin. There is a caution to avoid having the text fall into “the wrong hands” and the author repeatedly emphasizes his benevolent intent in making it available.

While the Arabic prologue has an extensive description of the contents, the Latin prologue simply copies the summaries present at the head of each section of the book (indicating it was compiled after the translation of the body of the text). The six sections open with a description of the planets and their properties, but end with a discussion of “how one might speak to the spirits” and “many other magical affairs” which is likely to be at the heart of the controversy. This potentially controversial material also comprise the largest proportion of the book itself.

Overall, it is clear that the prologue was composed after the translation of the book, has only passing connection to the original Arabic prologue, and is designed to disarm any qualms the reader may have with regard to the text’s content and acceptability.

The Secret in the Prologues to the Collected Treasures: Biblical Allusions, Occult References, and Coded Language in a Thirteenth-Century Medical-Magical Lapidary - Mr. Vajra Regan, PhD candidate, University of Toronto, Centre for Medieval Studies

[The presenter has asked that their paper not be shared on social media.]

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