A Fencers Primer on Medieval Magic

A Fencer’s Primer on Medieval Magic Literary Sources

Though some magical traditions originated within the medieval period and inside of Europe, most of the learned magic in particular came from the distant past and many from the Middle East or more distant regions. The literary tradition of magic in Latinized Europe was closely linked to the Classical Tradition more generally, and its acceptance was tied to the wholehearted embrace of Classical culture, particularly by the educated ‘literati’ who could read and write in Latin or Greek. The following is a short list of a few of the most popular written sources of magic known to Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Many of these sources are known as books of (proto) science and learning, or as philosophy, and they were, but in the pre-industrial world you couldn’t easily separate those things from magic, and all of these were important in the ongoing esoteric traditions of Europe and the Middle East.

Greek Magical Papyri

A general euphemism for a variety of Greek papyrus scrolls which survived from antiquity and that deal with magic. Some were available to medieval scholars, but most were discovered in the 19th or 20th Century. The first of the latter showed up in art auctions or were noticed by scholars in private collections, others such as the thick roll of papyrus scrolls discovered buried in ash in the ruins of Herculaneum were found by archeologists. A large collection were destroyed by bombing in WW2. For the most part, these ancient scrolls provide insight into the magical practices and thinking of practitioners in Ancient Greece and Alexandria.

The magic in these manuscripts is syncretic, and of a Greco- Roman- Egyptian cultural mix, especially Greek-Egyptian. There also seem to be some Jewish influences. The papyri are mostly fragments of larger books, some including spells that appear to be part of larger grimoires, others from work books of active magicians. They include magic incantations similar or identical to the defixiones (curse tablets – see Tabella Defixionis) found in wells and tombs dated to the Classical world.

The Almagest

Astronomical treatise by Claudius Ptolemy, who was a Roman or Greek living in Alexandria in the 2nd Century. He is known mainly for his work in Astronomy, especially the Almagest which outlined the basic physics and structure of the Solar System as it remained until Copernicus in the 16th Century, namely the planetary spheres and the seven planets, the notion that the Earth was a sphere and was the center of creation, and that the stars were on an outer sphere which moved on its own. Ptolemy was very influential for practitioners of astrology, celestial magic and image magic in the Latin, Greek and Muslim world.

Naturalis Historia

A massive 37-volume treatise on Natural Philosophy and the natural world (including Natural Magic), written by the Greek philosopher known as Pliny the Elder. This was a major influence on practitioners throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Sefer Yetzirah

Also known as the Book of Formation, or Book of Creation. A treatise on Hebrew mysticism from the 2nd Century BC. Considered one of the earliest sources for the Kabbalah. It was widely known by Latin medieval scholars of the Renaissance as an indispensable guide to the practice of Jewish numerology and name magic.

Merseburg Incantations (Norse Galdr)

A collections of German magical writings discovered in the Victorian Era, which have been dated back to the 10th Century. Though they seem to have been recorded by a priest, they reflect what are believed to be part of the pre-Christian German pagan tradition. These incantations give us some insight into the indigenous living or Cunning traditions of Central and Northern Europe.

Shams al-Ma’arif

Thirteenth Century Arab grimoire out from Egypt, written by Ahmad Al Buni. Recognized as the second most influential Arab grimoire both in the Middle East and in Europe, just about on par with the Picatrix. Focuses primarily on number and word magic, and rituals for summoning Jinn, Ifrit and Angels. This book is particularly popular with the Sufi mystics.

Picatrix

A voluminous, erudite Arab grimoire originally created in the 11th Century by an anonymous author. Widely considered the most important Middle Eastern grimoire, it’s focus is on image magic, talismans, astrology and divination. Apparently through an error in translation, the Picatrix also introduced the idea of the experiment (experimenta) to the Western Esoteric tradition. The Picatrix was written in four volumes, the first three deal with Astral magic, Astrology, and Talismans, and the fourth volume covers Goetic magic, which was forbidden in much of Latin Europe. Some scholars kept the first three volumes openly but kept the fourth hidden or got rid of it.

Die Nigromancia / Secretum Secretorum

This influential though short treatise is a ‘hacked’ version of an earlier Arab document, which in turn purports to be a dissertation by Aristotle (the anonymous author is referred to by scholars as ‘Pseudo Aristotle’). Though it deals with magic it covers many other subjects such as espionage, cryptography, and medicine and may more properly belong to the tradition of ‘mirror of princes’ books rather than grimoires. But it includes a great deal of esoteric knowledge so it was popular with practitioners.

Book of Stones

Aka Kitab Al-Ahjar this was a major four volume treatise on alchemy, philosophy, astronomy and magic attributed to the somewhat mysterious figure Al Jabir in the 9th Century. This book includes the first written descriptions of distillation processes and much of the laboratory equipment found in chemistry labs today this day. The book also explores the idea of Takwin, or the creation of artificial life, which in turn covers such comparatively mundane if interesting subjects as the creation of clockwork automata, as well as the summoning or creation of magical scorpions that could be sent to kill people.

The Kreuterbuch of Hildegard von Bingen

A Benedictine abbess living in Germany in the 12th Century, Hildegard was a writer, musical composer and mystic. She was considered to be one of the key pioneers of Natural history and the German tradition of treatises of flora called kreuterbuch a nuance of the tradition of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia. She created (or channeled) one of the first of a series of the unique angelic alphabets which were used in later centuries by practitioners of the esoteric arts. Hildegard routinely claimed to be ignorant due to being a woman, but she also invented (or channeled, as she claimed) a secret language with which to communicate with her fellow nuns, and continued to publish important scholarly work through her life.

De Sphaera Mundi

A very popular early 13th Century treatise on astronomy and astrology, by Johannes de Sacrobosco. Very popular in medieval Universities where it was used for teaching the fundamentals of astronomy. Based largely on Ptolemy’s Almagast, it incorporated more detailed astronomical and astrological ideas derived from Al Kindi, AL Jabir, Avicenna and other Muslim auctores. The book depicts the universe as a series of spheres, with earth at the center, and shows the earth tilted at 23 degrees.

Speculum Astronomiae

This was a 13th Century treatise on astronomy which also discussed astrology and celestial magic. To this day it is debated whether or not this book was written by Albertus Magnus, as the author book itself claims to be, or whether that was a pseudonym and it was written by someone else. Whoever wrote it was a highly educated scholar and was capable of writing in the style of Albert the Great. It appeared after 1260 as a defense of the Christian merits of Astrology. The erudite and carefully argued book covers sources from Ptolemy to Albumasar and Averroes. One of the main arguments made by the author was that Astrology is not antithetical to Free Will.

Liber Iuratus Honorii

Aka “The Sworn Book of Honorius” is an important and influential 13th or 14th Century pseudononymous Latin magical treatise, which draws heavily on both Hebrew and Roman Catholic rituals. It provides instructions for summoning celestial spirits, primarily benign spirits or angels, as well as demons and other celestial spirits of intermediate alignment, and provides diagrams for many summoning circles and talismans, most notably the Sigillum Dei.

The Book of Abramelin

A mysterious and very famous German grimoire from the late 14th Century, which purports to be written by Abraham of Worms, a Jewish scholar and merchant of that town. The book of Abramelin includes methods for walking under water and performing other miracles, through a combination of very demanding Hebrew and Hermetic rituals, and then outlines the grueling Abramelin Operation, which allows the practitioner to commune with their Holy Guardian Angel after an ordeal of 18 months of fasting, self-purification and a series of highly fraught summoning experimenta

Liber Ignium ad Comburendos Hostes

Aka On the Use of Fire to Conflagrate the Enemy. A 13th or 14th Century treatise on military pyrotechnics purportedly written by Marcus Graecus, which is probably a pseudonym. It includes 35 recipes including 14 military pyrotechnic preparations, 11 types of recipes to do with lighting (lamp oil and other luminous preparations), 6 medical recipes for cures against burns, and 4 detailed passages on the preparation of saltpeter. Scholars still debate whether this book is of Latin or (Byzantine) Greek origin, and whether it was written in the 13th, 14th or 15th Century. Some of the alchemical preparations and medical cures have magical aspects.

MS 3227a

Aka “Pseudo von Danzig” aka Pol Hausbuch. An anonymous late 14th or 15th Century hausbuch (house book or commonplace book) written in Latin and German, and featuring primarily martial arts and fencing instructions. It may be the first written manuscript of the Liechtenauer fencing tradition. In addition to one complete fencing manual and fragments of several others, the MS 3227a also includes several magic spells, a full copy of the Liber Ignium, alchemical formulae, astrological information, cooking recipes, and recipes for mead, paint, metallurgy, and tooth paste.

Kitab al-Bulhan aka Book of Wonders aka Book of Surprises

An important Arab grimoire dated to the late 14th or early 15th Century in Baghdad. It is very unusual among medieval Arab manuscripts in that it contains several interesting color illustrations depicting everything from the Lighthouse of Alexandria to Demons and Jinn. The Kitab al Bulhan includes techniques of geomancy and magical astrological techniques.

Bellifortis

A famous military treatise by the disaffected German-Czech courtier Konrad Kyeser, it was one of the most popular and original of such manuals of its day, the first to really surpass Vegetius. It sparked an entire new genre of the Kriegsbücher (war-manuals) in the German speaking parts of Central Europe and beyond. Originally written around 1405, it was copied many times.

Though thoroughly grounded in sound military theory, and covering state of the art descriptions of firearms with their various ancillary technologies, as well as single and multi-barreled cannons, war wagons and war-rafts, fortifications, siege and counter-siege techniques and many other detailed aspects of late medieval warfare, it was also “saturated with astrology” to paraphrase one modern scholar. Bellifortis includes several necromantic spells and techniques of War Magic (or Natural Magic intended for warfare).

Antipalus Maleficiorum

Written by the famous Benedictine abbot and magus Johannes Trithemius, is a list of 77 grimoires known to scholars at the time (late 15th Century), with brief summaries of several of them. It was used in later eras as a guide for researchers and practitioners hoping to learn more about the magic arts.

Book of the Holy Trinity

Aka Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit, is a 15th Century treatise on Alchemy whose author is listed as a Frater Ulmannus, purportedly a German Franciscan Friar (probably a pseudonym). The book is a combination of celestial magic, Christian mysticism, and (some allegorical, some practical) alchemical techniques. It was very popular among the German nobility and was seen as a treatise of ‘white’ magic.

CLM 849

aka The Munich Manuscript of Demonic Magic. An anonymous grimoire of learned magic and necromancy written in Latin (with some German) in the 15th Century. CLM 849 includes spells for invisibility, summoning magic horses and castles, and flying using a magic chair. It also includes a list of 11 demons, listed by name and rank (which includes Marquis, Dukes, Kings, Counts, and Presidents).

Liber Officiorum Spirituum

A somewhat mysterious, anonymous 16th Century Latin grimoire, which is linked to the much later Lemegeton or Solomon’s Key series of manuscripts of the 17th Century. The author claims to be the famous 13th Century English Franciscan proto-scientist Roger Bacon, but modern scholars consider certain sections to be clearly derivative of Agrippa’s work which places its authorship after the first quarter of the 16th Century.

The Liber Officiorum Spirituum catalogues 81 Goetic demons and then gets into a list of Faeries, spirits of the air, angels which govern each day of the week, and details of suffumigations and magic circles for summoning rituals. It also includes instructions for making talismans and rituals used to communicate with Angels, Faeries and Demons.

Liber Runarum

An anonymous German grimoire appearing in the 15th Century, which makes a fusion between Norse runic alphabet, already a magical code of sorts, and fuses it with Hermetic astrological and image magic of Greek, Hebrew and Arab origin. This is a short manuscript but it is rich in detail, providing many diagrams and sigils, and it delves into fraught details like communication with the sinister Decans and other celestial spirits, and how to create planetary talismans using Norse runes.

Das Buch Aller Verboten Kunst

A mid-15th Century treatise by the Bavarian physician Johannes Hartleib, which includes a survey of magical practices which covers some esoteric contexts of Neoplatonism, delves into the powers of herbs (which are explored in more detail in his kräuterbuch) and includes the earliest known written recipe for “flying ointment” (Haxensalbe or Flugensalbe). It also gets into the legal status of various types of magic, for example distinguishing between relatively benign and tolerable “Theurgic” magic and illegal / blasphemous “Goetic” magic.

MS Rawlinson D252

aka “Rawlinson necromantic manuscript” is another 15th Century magic grimoire with blatantly transgressive overtones. Written in English and Latin, it is somewhat similar to the CLM 849, containing a number of ‘experimenta’ involving spirits, mostly of a celestial or angelic nature but also some less benign types. It includes several magic circles and diagrams used for summoning, with blood, with rings, with suffumigation, and with crystals.

The Lesser Key of Solomon

Aka Clavicula Salomoni Regis, aka Solomon’s Key. The first of several anonymous books in the tradition of the Lemegeton, this very popular 17th Century grimoire covers techniques of Goetic magic and provides the names of seventy two demons, as well as depicting their sigils or seals, and various summoning circles and diagrams. Though largely derivative of earlier sources, it was considered by Victorian magicians to be the principal source for Goetic magic.

Compendium Magiae Innaturalis Nigrae

Aka “Compendium of Unnatural Black Magic”– (two versions “Prague pamphlet”, Ryland 105) by “Pseudo Michael Scot”. This is an early 16th Century Latin grimoire which was later printed for a wider market in the 17th Century. The author claimed to be the famous 13th Century Astrologer, translator and purported wizard, Michael Scot, but it was clearly written centuries after his death (and borrows quite a bit from Agrippa, dating it to the 16th Century). It includes several “experimenta”. Some of the incantations appear to be written in a made up or gibberish form of Arabic so whomever desires to try the experimenta should have a backup plan!

De Occulta Philosophia Libri III

Perhaps the ultimate single resource for the Renaissance magus, and for practitioners of centuries to come, this masterwork by the Renaissance polymath, magic practitioner, physician, lawyer, mercenary and scholar Cornelius Agrippa, is essentially a very thorough and sophisticated survey of magical knowledge and practice going back to the Classical sources through those of his own time. Experts such as Pliny the Elder, through all of the Arab, Persian, Chaldean, Kurdish, Jewish, Sufi and Moorish sources, and all those by Latin and Byzantine scholars are covered in this book. This book was Agrippa’s most important treatise on magic, and includes magic circles, formula for incense, rituals for summoning and creation of talismans, word and number magic, and Astrology among many other things.

Two colorful images from the Splendor Solis. Both images are alchemical allegories.

Splendor Solis

A very popular Alchemical treatise attributed to a somewhat mysterious figure named Salomin Trismosin (supposedly the teacher of Paracelsus), which first appeared some time in the 1530’s. It included artwork by Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein, and Lucas Cranach. The Splendor Solis contains mostly allegorical text and a series of 22 images, but was considered sufficiently useful for alchemists that it was recreated dozens of times and has never gone out of print. It was considered the most important alchemical source besides the Emerald Tablet