- Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests, and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe by Sophie Page
There is something thrilling for the researcher about working in a library for the first time, familiarizing oneself with its contents, both their riches and their lacunae, figuring out its organizational principles, stumbling upon evidence of past users and important benefactors, and then by ever more extended use, discerning the patterns and trajectory of the library’s development over time. The experience encompasses both archaeological and forensic dimensions, and can be of far greater and longer-term value than getting to the individual volumes that brought the researcher to the library in the first place. As Sophie Page demonstrates in Magic in the Cloister, the thrill is not limited to a summer spent in a scrupulously maintained Fachbibliothek at a twenty-first-century university institute, but can also be won through a more constructed visit to a library in the distant past. [End Page 815]
The library in question in Magic in the Cloister is the late-medieval library of the Abbey of St. Augustine in Canterbury, especially its collection of learned magic. The collection amounts to some thirty volumes and warrants Page’s efforts on account of the pre-eminence of the abbey in English ecclesiastical and intellectual life. Her self-stated aim is to ascertain the internal rationality of the magic collection and to evaluate the rationale for its possession and use in a religiously orthodox monastic context.
Magic in the Cloister is the substantially revised dissertation submitted by Page for her doctorate at the Warburg Institute in 2000. Those origins would suggest that Page has been working in this medieval library, whose contents were dispersed during Britain’s early-sixteenth-century monastic dissolution, for about two decades. The familiarity that comes from such a long association enriches the analysis. Three highlights follow: First, the monograph contributes to a current research priority in the study of magic that magical texts should be analyzed in their codicological and librarious contexts. The series Magic in History has done much to shape this research agenda and includes this volume, Richard Kieckhefer’s Forbidden Rites (1998) and Benedek Lang’s Unlocked Books (2008). Page’s chapter on the monks who acquired the magic books for the abbey is exemplary in this regard. Second, the monograph attends with sophistication to the medieval diffusion in Western Europe of magical works of Mediterranean origin. Her analysis of the liber vaccae in the second chapter and her consideration of theurgy in the sixth shed important light on the appropriation of Arab and Jewish magical thought into the Western Christian world. Third, Page includes two translated texts as appendices, the Glossulae super librum imaginum lunae and the Liber de essentiali spirituum. These are shorter texts that would not likely otherwise find their way to press, that are important to particular chapters in the monograph, and that are now happily available for broader classroom use. Their inclusion is to be applauded.
Weaknesses are apparent only in contrast to the volume’s overriding strengths: the epilogue on John Dee, although at points intriguing, is unclearly linked to the substantive chapters that precede it. Furthermore, the concern to establish the “orthodoxy” of the texts’ possessors is overwrought at points: Cecco d’Ascoli’s execution in Florence would be more the exception than the rule and too far away to have been of real concern to readers at St. Augustine’s. Nonetheless, Magic in the Cloister is a stimulating work: its research is meticulous, its insights compelling, and its prose limpid. For this reviewer, the first visit to the library of St. Augustine’s was thrilling indeed.