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Book Review: Magical Manuscripts in Early Modern Europe: The Clandestine Trade in Illegal Book Collections – Daniel Bellingradt & Bernd-Christian Otto

Friday, September 3, 2021 - 07:00

(Oops, I meant to post this a few days ago!)

This is another book that I read because “it fits in the waist pack I used for my Saturday morning bike ride.” Somewhat surprisingly, the main text was short enough to read over two croissants and a cup of coffee.

I bought this book (at a price that did make me wince) because it felt like the topic would make great inspiration for the activities of one of my fictional characters. The core of this book is a facsimile, transcription, and annotation of a printed catalog for a private sale of a collection of magical manuscripts in Germany in 1710. The catalog itself comprises slightly over half of this (somewhat slim) volume. The five chapters of explanatory material include somewhat more than 50% notes and bibliography. So the analysis here is thoroughly documented and cited—what there is of it. But given the extremely narrow focus of the book, that explanatory material feels entirely sufficient to the task.

The chapters are: Introduction, Exceptionality, Scarcity, Illegality, and Conclusions. That gives you a sense of the context being provided. What was the market for books, either printed or manuscript, in early 18th century Europe? How do we define a “magical text” and how did the people who created, owned, and used them view them? How were texts transmitted and why is the question of “authorship” so fraught? Were magical texts banned? How was that enforced and what were the consequences? How did both the methods of production and the restrictions on trade create scarcity? And finally, what are the conditions that made this particular collection of manuscripts special and noteworthy?

OK, I suppose a proper book review would answer some of those questions. But the most fascinating aspects for me are the details that will help me write better fiction about the topic. For example: one of the reasons that magical manuscripts were scarce (among other equally important reasons) was that some theories held that the creation of the “working text” was itself a ritual act. That the creation of one’s own copy of a text, when performed with the right materials, at the right time, in the right way, added to the efficacy of work done using the text. Also, in many ways, the manuscript tradition of magical texts was similar to the creation of household manuals and commonplace books: each person collected together the information, formulas, and reference materials of personal interest. This made even the most standardized texts (such as the Key of Solomon) more of a “modular” collection than a fixed text whose history could be traced by comparative methods. There is discussion of how the center of activity around magical texts shifted from monastic institutions to secular scholars, spurring interest in vernacular translations which in turn created even more diversity and decentralization of the textual content. In Germany, as well as other places, the Protestant hostility to anything “magical” affected the distribution of texts as well as encouraging the market for such books to be nominally “underground”. Governmental offices charged with the authorization and censoring of publications were intended to implement this official hostility, but in fact a lack of manpower, as well as a certain attitude of disinterest, meant that actual suppression of the trade was sporadic and often delayed for years after a publication began circulating.

One of the more trivial details that amused me about the introductory material is that, in discussing the prices for which similar book collections were sold, the authors dealt with the problem of converting the value of various currencies (and providing a concrete reference) by converting them into equivalent quantities of beer. The collection on which this book focuses was sold for 4000 “Reichs-Thaler” equivalent to the cost of building 2 or 3 mid-sized houses in the city of Leipzig (where the sale occurred) or about 260,00-320,000 liters of beer. In another case, a single book was noted as being valued at the equivalent of 1300-1600 liters of beer. I suppose in a modern era of uncertain currency fluctuations, this method provides a more useful gut-level (if you will forgive me) sense of cost than approaches like “so many thousand US dollars in such and such a year, adjusted for inflation.”

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