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Reviewed by:
  • Magic: A Beginner's Guide
  • Michael D. Bailey
Robert Ralley . Magic: A Beginner's Guide. Oxford: Oneworld, 2010. Pp. xvi + 176.

Surveys of the history of magic (and of witchcraft, although this item is decidedly not one of the latter) are thick on the ground, so with each new book, one can fairly ask what new or different elements it offers. The greatest strength of this book is its conceptual breadth. Beyond the standard medieval and early modern history of European magic and its repression, it offers (relatively) lengthy treatment of magic in post-Enlightenment Europe, including coverage of two topics almost never found in more "standard" surveys—stage magic and the modern academic treatment of magic. Covering so much ground in so short a space is a tall order, and the book's deficits inevitably stem from its constant compression of complicated topics and questionable choices regarding inclusion and exclusion.

Ralley begins by noting that "magic was an accusation long before it was a practice" (p. viii), introducing the idea that rather than a set of certain activities, "magic" in European history has more often been a (typically pejorative) label applied to a shifting body of practices in various historical societies. This history begins in antiquity, as the Greeks coined the term magic to encompass activities that they associated with the Persian priestly caste, the magoi. In his introduction, Ralley moves speedily from Persian magoi to the biblical magi, and skillfully uses their depiction over the centuries as a crash course in how the image of the magician—the magus—can change. The absence of more extensive treatment of magic in antiquity is regrettable, but recognizing that in a book of this nature radical concision is often necessary, I found Ralley's strategy here effective.

Into his first chapter Ralley then condenses everything that frequently occupies all or most of other surveys, namely the medieval and early modern Christian condemnation of magic and persecution of magical crimes, notably witchcraft. Again, I found Ralley's presentation basically sensible, at least until witchcraft. As this is a book about magic broadly conceived, Ralley justifiably does not want to give the early modern witch trials too much attention. The problem is that he gives them practically none at all. Moreover, his stunted presentation feeds into several persistent myths about witch-craft [End Page 212] that a survey should dispel. Ralley actually spends most of his "witchcraft" section on late medieval condemnations of demonic magic, culminating in the earliest real witch trials in the 1400s (pp. 22-25). He then treats the entire period of the early modern trials and their decline in less than one full page (pp. 25-26). For the general readership at which this book aims, this skewed emphasis could create an impression that Europe's witch trials were more a medieval than an early modern phenomenon, and that clerics and above all the "Holy Inquisition" were primary agents in the trials. Ralley notes that "witch trials continued through the seventeenth century" and that "during the period of just over a century from 1561 to 1670, it has been calculated that at least 3,299 people were executed in south-west Germany alone" (p. 25). Yet this is the only statement he gives indicating that the height of witch hunting fell in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Experts, of course, will realize what he means to convey, but general readers will have no reason to make the necessary extrapolation. Also, why offer a relatively meaningless (in isolation) regional figure as the only allusion to the magnitude of the early modern hunts? Why not simply present the widely accepted estimate of approximately 50,000 total dead?

In his second chapter, Ralley turns to "Renaissance magic," introducing Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficinio, as well as other standard figures such as Johann Reuchlin and Johannes Trithemius, Agrippa, and Paracelsus. There are two deep problems with the chapter, however. First, although he recognizes that notions of natural magic extend well back into the Middle Ages, Ralley insists that "what European scholars achieved, over a generation either side of 1500, was a redefinition of magic" (p. 33). Generalizations, perhaps even...


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