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  • False, Lying Spirits and Angels of LightAmbiguous Mediation in Dr Rudd's Seventeenth-Century Treatise on Angel Magic
  • Egil Asprem


"His only (but great and dreadful) error [was], that he mistook false lying Spirits for Angels of Light, the Divel of Hell . . . for the God of Heaven." With these words the seventeenth-century scholar Meric Casaubon (1599–1671) introduced and condemned the famous angel conversations of John Dee (1527–1609) and his scryer Edward Kelly (1555–97), describing them further as "a Work of Darknesse."1 Casaubon did not dispute Dee's good intentions with the magical experiments, or his self-conception as a pious Christian. The problem was rather the doctor's gullibility when faced with what, in Casaubon's view, were obviously evil spirits masquerading as angels.

Casaubon's suspicion was entirely typical of the line antimagical arguments had followed for ages. Ever since the early church fathers, theologians had more or less agreed that magic generally worked by the aid of demons, whether explicitly or implicitly.2 From the Middle Ages onward the perceived powers of the devil and his legions came to be seen as formidable in the theologians' eyes; devilish feats of trickery and illusion were especially [End Page 54] emphasized.3 When condemning the increasingly popular Ars Notoria of the thirteenth century—a system relying on prayer and invocation of angels and other presumably benign mediators for bringing knowledge and illumination to the practitioner—Thomas Aquinas wrote that the use of verba ignota, or unknown angelic names, in these practices should warn the good Christian that the entities invoked were in fact demons rather than angels.4 And any such contact with demons, no matter for what goal, should be considered unlawful and dangerous.

Worries about infernal tricksters only increased in the coming centuries. So much so that by the early modern period the question of how it was even possible to distinguish a demonic illusion from a real divine miracle was considered one of the most difficult epistemological problems in theology and natural philosophy alike.5 It was against this background that Casaubon had raised his suspicions toward Dee's and Kelly's angels.

Both Dee and (especially) Kelly were aware of the ambiguity of these entities themselves, something that becomes clear at several instances in the angel diaries Dee recorded.6 Magical practitioners generally were seldom ignorant of the theological accusations raised against their practices, even back in the Middle Ages. Rather, they often appeared to share this concern, but confronted these difficulties with greater optimism than their theologian contemporaries, looking for ways to resolve the issues of ambiguous mediation rather than giving up their efforts altogether.7 [End Page 55]

In this essay I will show how these magico-epistemological issues are grappled with in a treatise on angel magic presumably written in the latter half of the seventeenth century. This treatise has been considered by some to represent an unknown and "secret tradition" or transmission of the angelic conversations of John Dee and Edward Kelly, which is one of its main sources. The manuscript is titled A Treatise on Angel Magic, contains an intriguing blend of magical practices from the late medieval and early modern periods, including material taken and (as I will show) critically modified from parts of Dee's diaries, and is purportedly written by one Dr. Rudd.

My approach in this essay is twofold. To my knowledge, Rudd's Treatise on Angel Magic has not yet been treated by academic scholarship except with a few words in passing, despite having been available in print since 1982.8 The first task of this essay is therefore to treat the issues of dating, authorship, and context of the manuscript, which seems to me to have been the source of quite some confusion. In doing this, the supposed relation to Dee's and Kelly's material is in particular need of further scrutiny, as certain misconceptions about this relation have been contended and uncritically repeated. This may in turn have led to an interpretation of the text on faulty premises, which I will aim to overcome with this contribution.

In the second part of the article, I will...


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