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"ABOMINABLE MIXTURES": THE LIBER VACCAE IN THE MEDIEVAL WEST, OR THE DANGERS AND ATTRACTIONS OF NATURAL MAGIC By MAAIKE VAN DER LUGT In his magnum opus on the history of magic, Lynn Thorndike devoted a few pioneering pages to the Liber vaccae or Book of the Cow. He identified and described several of the manuscripts of this singular Arabic compilation of magical experiments, pointed out the many different titles under which it was known in the medieval West, and discussed its false attribution to Plato, Galen, and Hunayn ibn Ishâq. By contrast, given his habit of paraphrasing the texts he examined at great length, Thorndike's account of the content of the work is uncharacteristically patchy. He hastily referred to "elaborate experiments in unseemly generation and obstetrics," the aim of which was "to make a rational animal from a cow or ape or other beast, or to make bees." In his opinion, the experiments of the Liber vaccae were, in fact, "unmentionable," and "hardly such as can be described in detail in English translation."1 Among medieval readers, the Liber vaccae elicited no less outspoken reactions . The text clearly exerted a certain attraction among the learned, as indicated by the relatively large number of manuscripts and citations. Substantial parts of the Liber vaccae were also integrated into a Latin treatise on magic and wonders, the De mirabilibus mundi. Some scholars had no qualms about it. However, most readers dismissed the Liber vaccae as "abominable," "full of perversion," and accused it of "uprooting the laws of nature," and "violating her secrets." This article is an attempt to understand better the dubious reputation of the Liber vaccae, through a detailed study of its contents and the ways it was read and transmitted in the Latin Middle Ages. Since Thorndike, valuable scholarship has contributed to our knowledge of the Liber vaccae. The dismal quality of the extant Latin text — the Arabic original is almost entirely lost — seriously complicates any project to edit the text critically. In several erudite articles concerned with the place of the Liber vaccae within ancient and Near Eastern magical, religious, and philosophical traditions , the late David Pingree has nevertheless provided highly useful tran1 Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 vols. (New York, 1923-58), 2 (1923): 778-82, 809-10. Thorndike's account is partly indebted to M. Steinschneider , Zur pseudoepigraphischen Literatur, insbesondere der geheimen Wissenschaften des Mittelalters. Aus Hebräischen und Arabischen Quellen (Berlin, 1862), 52-64. 230TRADITIO scriptions and paraphrases of important parts of the work. He has also identified several more Latin manuscripts.2 A full transcription of one manuscript has, moreover, recently been made available by Paolo Scopelliti and Abessattar Chaouech.3 In an important book, William Newman has provided a stimulating reading of the experiments on artificial generation, as part of a study on alchemy and pre-modern homunculus traditions.4 Sophie Page proposed a penetrating analysis of the structure and rationale of a larger sample of experiments.5 However, as we shall see, these various attempts at unravelling the magic of Liber vaccae differ on several important points and can be complemented on others. Moreover, no systematic study of its reception in the Latin West has yet been undertaken. The Liber vaccae contributed to the rise of learned magic during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. During that period, magic underwent a profound transformation. Until then, it had been an aggregate of definitions, recipes, and practices, devoid of a theoretical underpinning, and without much of a unifying structure or identity. Under the influence of new magical texts, translated from the Greek, and, especially, the Arabic, magic became something of an organized field, with a certain claim to scientific status.6 Although the Liber vaccae lacks an articulate description of its theoretical foundations, we shall see that the experiments, however extravagant, 2 David Pingree, "Plato's Hermetic Book of the Cow," in Il neoplatonismo nel Riñosamente , ed. Pietro Pini (Rome, 1993), 133-45; "Artificial Demons and Miracles," Res orientales 13 (2001): 109-22 (with a summary of the Latin text and English translation of the first book); "From Hermes to Jâbir and the Book of the Cow," in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2166-5508
Print ISSN
0362-1529
Pages
pp. 229-277
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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