Magic and Intellectual History Symposium, University of York


Yesterday the University of York’s Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies, part of the Department of English Literature, hosted a one-day symposium on the theme of ‘Magic and Intellectual Culture’, organised by Kevin Killeen. The symposium was held in the attractive Treehouse in the Berrick Saul Building, a round room with views of trees all round (although the sound of the automatic windows was rather distracting). Unfortunately, I missed the first few papers; the first panel, on Natural Magic, featured papers on Albertus Magnus, Marsilio Ficino and Cornelius Agrippa, while the second panel (on John Dee and Kenelm Digby), featured papers by Dr Todd Borlik on John Dee’s project to drain the Fens and Dr Mark Waddell on Digby’s weapon salve. Again, I was sad to miss these panels. After lunch I joined Prof. Frank Klaassen for the panel on ‘Reformation, Religion and Magic’, which began with his paper entitled ‘Magic and the English Reformation: a reconsideration’.

Klaassen argued that the Reformation represents a turning point in the development of modern esotericism, but that we have only a partial understanding of exactly how the Reformation changed magic. He argued that, in Protestant countries such as England and Germany, magic became increasingly disengaged from religion. Furthermore, the anti-magic rhetoric of demonologists came to be reflected in the practice of post-Reformation magicians, in a way that it never had before the Reformation. This culminated in the appearance of overt ‘Faustian’ demonic pacts, but it began with the appearance of ever more overtly demonic elements in late sixteenth-century magical manuscripts.

My own paper, entitled ‘Liturgical Change and Ceremonial Magic in Reformation England’, advanced a similar argument, albeit from a slightly different starting point. I began by outlining the significant liturgical changes that undermined the theological rationale for magic in sixteenth-century England – namely, the abolition of the order of exorcist and the removal of exorcism from the liturgy of baptism, thus depriving the clergy of their traditional role as conjurers. I contrasted a text composed on the eve of the Reformation, and deeply intertwined with Catholic piety (The Cambridge Book of Magic) with post-Reformation compilations of magic, and highlighted the extent to which post-Reformation magicians were ‘cultural orphans’ faced with a significant problem. I am not sure that I offered as convincing a solution to the problem as Professor Klaassen, and it was a daunting prospect to share a panel with such a distinguished scholar.

The text of my paper is available here.

The next panel featured papers on John Napier of Merchiston by Dr Alexander Corrigan (who argued that Napier probably wasn’t a magician at all), on his cousin Richard Napier (the astrological physician) by Ofer Hadass of the University of Haifa, and on Tomaso de Campanella by Dr Jean-Paul de Lucca. These papers raised interesting questions about who exactly we can call a magician, and whether self-definition, as well as definition by others, in required.

The day culminated in a very thought-provoking keynote lecture by Dr Stephen Clucas, entitled ‘Ritual Magic and Intellectual History: The Problem of Transgression’. Clucas highlighted what he called ‘the Demonological Transgressive Fallacy’, which is the belief (uncritically accepted by many scholars), that because magicians were thought of as transgressive by demonologists, they thought of themselves as transgressive too. The problem with this view is that it makes magicians’ practice historically incomprehensible; why would anyone have dared to practice magic if they really believed it to be thoroughly impious? Clucas argued that the distinctions between ritual magic and Christian operative prayer were slight to the point of non-existent, and drew attention to a condemnation of magicians of 1398 that makes it quite clear that magicians believed they were pious Christians. Although magicians did have their own fears and anxieties about the dangers posed by demons (a ‘structural paranoia’ at the heart of ritual magic), magicians had their own ways of dealing with these. The task confronting historians of magic, according to Clucas, is to overcome the powerful representation of magic as impious, transgressive and subversive of Christianity. To explain the appeal of magic, it is necessary to uncover its positive motivations and pay less attention to the demonologists.

This was a fascinating symposium, and Klaassen and Clucas’ lectures, in particular, feel like they are breaking new ground in the historiography and conceptualisation of magic. It was a privilege to hear them. It was also an excellent opportunity to let more people know about The Cambridge Book of Magic, which seems to have generated considerable interest – not least because it is one of very few magical texts in print.

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