Review: Magical Manuscripts in Early Modern Europe by Daniel Bellingradt and Bernd-Christian Otto

Daniel Bellingradt and Bernd-Christian Otto, Magical Manuscripts in Early Modern Europe: The Clandestine Trade in Illegal Book Collections (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017). 166pp.

Since the publication of Owen Davies’s Grimoires: A History of Magic Books in 2009 there has been greater awareness among scholars of the importance of books of ritual magic, but the trouble with studying the few surviving books of magic in libraries is that information about their provenance and the ways in which they were traded is often hard to come by. Daniel Bellingradt and Bernd-Christian Otto’s Magical Manuscripts in Early Modern Europe is a brief but groundbreaking study of the trade in books belonging to the tradition the authors term ‘learned Western magic’ at the beginning of the eighteenth century. It provides a critical edition of a catalogue of 140 magical books offered for sale by a Leipzig bookseller in 1710, coyly entitled Catalogus rariorum manuscriptorum (‘Catalogue of very rare manuscripts’). An almost unique survival from the period, the catalogue offers (among other things) an insight into what books were considered magical, the interests of collectors (at a time when the European Enlightenment was supposedly dispelling learned interest in magic) and the ways in which booksellers dealt with such controversial volumes. The fact that the collection survives to this day in the library of Leipzig University makes it uniquely possible for the authors to gain information from the volumes themselves as well as the bookseller’s catalogue, making Magical Manuscripts a so-far unparalleled bibliographical achievement in the field of the history of magic.

Bellingradt and Otto’s study is an interdisciplinary one, with Bellingradt contributing his expertise in book history and Otto his expertise in the history of magic, and the book approaches the Leipzig catalogue from multiple perspectives. Successive chapters consider the exceptionality, scarcity and illegality of magical books in eighteenth-century Europe. The authors conclude that, although sale of magical books was not strictly illegal in Saxony in 1710, the contents of the catalogue were sensitive enough to discourage the booksellers from openly distributing it. The ‘attached aura of secrecy and underground transmission’ made the books in the catalogue more valuable, and the continuing production of magical books in manuscript (in large numbers) challenges the notion that the eighteenth century was the ‘age of print’. It was usually thought essential to the book’s magical effectiveness that it should be a manuscript rather than a printed book; furthermore, the printing of such controversial texts was often impossible, so manuscript transmission was necessary as well as desirable.

The books in the Leipzig catalogue were sold for an enormous sum to a dedicated collector, yet the authors observe that it is unlikely that most collectors ever made use of magical books. Like Horace Walpole’s desire to possess magical artefacts such as John Dee’s scrying mirror, German collectors wanted to own magical manuscripts as valuable and scarce curios; we should be grateful that they did, because in doing so they preserved these illicit manuscripts for posterity. Bellingradt and Otto show that scholars have relied too much on printed editions of magical texts to draw their conclusions about the popularisation of learned magic in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Such popularisation was taking place much earlier, but through the medium of manuscripts rather than print. The authors observe that the study of texts and techniques of learned magic in Europe between 1600 and 1800 is a fertile field of research that early modern historians have yet to discover.

The thought that kept recurring to me while reading this book was that there are striking parallels between the eighteenth-century trade in magical books and the contemporary trade in occult literature. Although few magical manuscripts now come up for sale (most are in university collections), I have heard stories of such manuscripts going missing from university libraries because they are so much sought after by collectors. The sought-after manuscripts today include not just traditional European books of ritual magic but also the nineteenth-century ritual manuals of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and even the ‘Books of Shadows’ of early Wiccans dating from the 1950s and ’60s. However, the major trade today is not in manuscripts but in lavishly printed occult books, such as the facsimiles of magical manuscripts published by the Society for Esoteric Endeavour. These are usually published in strictly limited editions at reasonable prices for subscribing members, but small occult publishers are often the victims of so-called ‘grimoire scalping’ whereby individuals will sell on lavish editions of occult books for vastly inflated sums in the online marketplace. The sums that people are prepared to pay for occult books considered to be scarce is an indication that the same fascination with forbidden books described by Bellingradt and Otto continues unabated to this day.

One reply on “Review: Magical Manuscripts in Early Modern Europe by Daniel Bellingradt and Bernd-Christian Otto”

I understand that your book, Edmund, England’s Lost King is coming out later this year. I look forward to reading this.
My book, St Edmund and the Vikings, is being launched on 19th Apri with a reception at Jarrolds in Norwich.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.