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  • Rewriting Magic: An Exegesis of the Visionary Autobiography of a Fourteenth-Century French Monk by Claire Fanger
  • Laura Ackerman Smoller
Claire Fanger. Rewriting Magic: An Exegesis of the Visionary Autobiography of a Fourteenth-Century French Monk. Magic in History. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2015. Pp. xv + 215.

Clare Fanger first made a name for herself in 1998 with the edited collection Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic (The Penn State University Press). At that point, the sorts of practices and texts that Fanger and the other authors in that volume were studying were essentially unknown. Medieval ritual magic (as she then termed the nexus of practices discussed there) was largely understood through the condemnations of late medieval theologians; yet in Conjuring Spirits contributors discussed example after example of texts that demonstrated the breadth of medieval intellectual magic, and in the case of John of Morigny, that even offered a record of actual practice. With John of Morigny, what Fanger described was a medieval monk who wrote, first, of his own engagement with a magical technique called the ars notoria, a set of rituals centered around a group of figures (or notae) designed to grant the user instantaneous knowledge of the seven liberal arts, and second, of his abandonment of that practice for another set of rituals of his own devising (or revealed to him by the Virgin Mary, as he claimed). This latter set of rituals allowed him to obtain the same sorts of benefits, which he described in a two-part work now known as the Liber florum,of which Fanger has recently, along with Nicholas Watson, published an edition and commentary.1 [End Page 289]

Fanger’s scintillating new monograph, Rewriting Magic: An Exegesis of the Visionary Autobiography of a Fourteenth-Century French Monk, shows just how far her understanding of John of Morigny’s text has come in the last twenty years. While the word “magic” does appear in the title of this exquisitely crafted book, it is apparent that Fanger now reads Morigny’s work much more in the context of monastic liturgical, spiritual, and contemplative practices (sources in which she clearly has immersed herself), as she now stresses the narrative of penance that structures John’s autobiographical account, as well as the sacramental nature of his book and the rituals he recommends there. John becomes much less “exotic,” and Fanger makes clear the degree to which his brother monks approved of and sought to emulate his doings. It is increasingly difficult to think of what John described as simply fitting within a category called “magic,” and the implications of that for the study of religion in the later Middle Ages are profound.

In Rewriting Magic, Fanger draws insights not simply from her own long thinking about John’s text (or, rather, texts), but also from a thorough scrutiny of the manuscript tradition (which has expanded vastly over the last twenty years, with continuing discoveries by Fanger and Watson, who now count at least twenty-four manuscripts containing all or parts of John’s work). Together, these lines of inquiry have enabled Fanger to untangle, first, the ongoing process by which John revised his book over the course of at least a decade, and second, the careful way in which he structured and wrote about his own work, so as to present his act of revision not as one of repudiation (of his Old Compilation by his New Compilation) after detractors accused him of necromancy, but rather one of supersession, in the sense of the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament in Christian thinking. None of this is apparent on the surface; none of this work has been easy.

What Fanger also does brilliantly here is mirror in her own writing John of Morigny’s careful attention to structure and to describing an intellectual journey in his text. Her book, in fact, traces two paths of discovery: his and her own. This double narrative represents a bold, daring move—as scholars, we are supposed to leave ourselves out of our writing—and one that had me absolutely captivated. The book is divided into two parts, entitled...


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