- Unlocked Books: Manuscripts of Learned Magic in the Medieval Libraries of Central Europe
Magic in the medieval past is often seen through the eyes of its opponents, through trial records, inquisitorial texts, denunciatory sermons, and theological [End Page 232] treatises explaining and condemning the demonic nature of virtually all magical rites. Yet there is another way to approach at least elite, learned magic in Europe’s medieval period, namely through the texts that literate practitioners of those forms of magic have left scattered through libraries across the continent. This method of studying magic is not new, but has undergone significant development in recent years, with Richard Kieckhefer, Claire Fanger, Frank Klaassen, and Sophie Page leading the way, at least in terms of publications in English (in French, one would certainly add Jean-Patrice Boudet, Julien Véronèse, and Nicholas Weill-Parot). Now Benedek Láng adds his voice to this chorus. While the wealth of Western European libraries has hardly been exhausted—indeed it has really only begun to be sifted though—Láng usefully turns his attention, and his considerable linguistic skills, to “Central Europe,” by which he means the medieval kingdoms of Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary, and ultimately their great intellectual centers at Kraków, Prague, and Buda. His purpose is to identify and analyze magical texts that can be associated with these regions, and to characterize, insofar as he is able, the circle or circles of people who produced and patronized them, and among whom they circulated.
Every student of historical magic must define the scope of that term, and Láng’s first task is to identify what kinds of texts he will take as “magical.” Drawing mainly on categories he finds in the texts themselves, but also relying on his own perspective, he develops five varieties of magical practice found in his texts: natural magic (bordering on science), image magic (involving mainly the use of inscribed astral talismans), divination (defined more by its intended goal than its varied methods), alchemy, and ritual magic (that is, ceremonial magic intended to invoke the power of spiritual forces, angelic or demonic). He deliberately omits astrology, regarding it as implicated in many forms of magic, but not in itself a magical practice. This exclusion would no doubt have shocked many medieval authorities, for at least since the time of Augustine they had standardly recognized a category of dangerously superstitious astrology alongside legitimate forms, and they explicitly condemned superstitious astrology, by that name, alongside other forms of practice Láng recognizes as magical. Nevertheless, Láng’s decision not to employ astrology as one of his categories, based on the medieval position that astrological observation untainted by other forms of superstitious or magical practice was entirely licit, is not unreasonable. Ultimately, the categories for magic employed in the past are often just as vague and slippery as those used today.
Having established his categories, Láng then looks for texts and their practitioners. While magical texts are not so thick on the ground in Central as [End Page 233] in Western Europe, mainly because Central Europe’s universities were later foundations and hence the intellectual milieu that produced such texts was slower to develop there than in the West, he still finds a number of significant texts produced in this region mainly in the fifteenth century. He also cautiously asserts that the atmosphere at these younger universities and their attendant royal and noble courts was less stringently hostile at least to some forms of magic than was the case in the West, where in Paris the theological faculty condemned a long list of superstitious errors in 1398, the great occult library of Jean de Bar was burned in that same year, and in 1402 the leading theologian of his era, Jean Gerson, wrote specifically On Errors Surrounding the Magic Art. Of course, magic was condemned in Central Europe, and the decrees of Paris and the writings of Gerson were influential there, but in general, according to Láng...