Five years of The Cambridge Book of Magic

Magical sigils from The Cambridge Book of Magic

Today marks five years since the publication of my edition and translation of Cambridge University Library MS Additional 3544, a working manual for a practising Tudor ritual magician which I called The Cambridge Book of Magic. The Cambridge Book of Magic has proved far more popular than I originally anticipated – the manuscript had not, after all, attracted much attention in the years before I published an edition of it. The translation was a side project that emerged from the writing of my book Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England, in which I emphasised the importance of considering the actual writings of magicians as well as third-party accounts of their supposed activities. Editions of the medieval and early modern books of magic actually used by practitioners – as opposed to ‘ideal’ reconstructions of definitive texts of books such as The Sworn Book of Honorius – remain rare. Examples include Richard Kieckhefer’s Forbidden Rites, The Book of Oberon edited by Daniel Harms and others (which appeared at almost the same time as The Cambridge Book) and, most recently, Frank Klaassen’s Making Magic in Elizabethan England.

The Cambridge Book had previously been dated, on the basis of guesswork, to the 1560s, but I was able to show from internal evidence that the manuscript dated from between 1532 and 1558, and probably from the 1530s. I was fortunate to be able to introduce The Cambridge Book of Magic to the world at a symposium on ‘Magic and Intellectual Culture’ at the University of York on 5 March 2015, a gathering which attracted a number of leading historians of magic. The Cambridge Book proved popular among grimoire enthusiasts, and Dr Harriet Archer kindly reviewed the edition in The Year’s Work in English Studies in 2017. Situating the book within a broader resurgence of studies of magic and alchemy in 2015, Dr Archer noted that The Cambridge Book ‘plunges us headlong into the practicalities … to the extent that this reviewer felt slightly unnerved to find herself in the text’s possession’. The Cambridge Book is indeed a slightly unnerving text, showing signs as it does of having been used as a practical manual by a practising magician, which raises troubling questions about what exactly ritual magicians really thought they were doing. There were certainly moments when editing the text that I felt uncomfortably close to a baffling and alien view of the spiritual world. As Dr Archer observed, The Cambridge Book ‘is perhaps best reserved for daytime reading’.

The Cambridge Book has been referenced since 2015 in numerous books, articles and blogs. A short piece about the manuscript, written by me, appeared on the blog of Cambridge University Library’s Special Collections, and I still have a chapter forthcoming that is based to a large extent on an analysis of the text. Perhaps the most important legacy of the text’s publication, however, was the inclusion of the hitherto obscure MS Additional 3544 as a key exhibit in the Ashmolean Museum’s ‘Spellbound’ exhibition, which ran from 31 August 2018-6 January 2019.

I hope that many more people will come to read The Cambridge Book of Magic over the next five years and come to realise the importance of publishing editions of magical texts actually compiled and used by practising magicians.

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