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  • Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests, and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe by Sophie Page
  • Kathleen Kamerick

Kathleen Kamerick, Sophie Page, medieval magic, Christian magic, Magic in History, Abbey of St. Augustine, monastic magic

Sophie Page. Magic in the Cloister: Pious Motives, Illicit Interests, and Occult Approaches to the Medieval Universe. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2013. Pp. xi + 232.

The late medieval library of the wealthy Benedictine abbey of St. Augustine in Canterbury contained an extraordinary collection of books, one of the largest in England. Its almost two thousand volumes included at least thirty texts that can be called magical. In this library an occult work might occupy its own volume, or form one part of a volume that contained other less problematical genres. Some of this magical literature entered the library through donations from monks: so, for example, one William de Clara brought with him fourteen volumes of scientific works and also the extraordinary Liber de quindecim stellis that explains how to channel the influence of the stars into talismans. A subprior owned three lapidaries describing the occult powers of stones, and another monk endowed the library with texts on geomancy and astrology. The monk known as John of London donated eighty-five volumes that included texts on a wide array of occult practices, including the Ars Notoria, image magic texts, astrology, and many more. St. Augustine’s library clearly distinguished itself by its size, richness, and, as Sophie Page demonstrates, its stunning evidence for the tolerance and even encouragement of the study of magic in a period when magic faced increasing hostility and outright condemnations.

Page investigates several issues that this remarkable library presents, among the most crucial being the conditions that allowed these magical texts to become part of monastic life. The monks clearly realized that studying certain works of magic—including some they owned—could be dangerous. She offers several possibilities for understanding the presence of these works in their library, first suggesting that the monks might see their vocation as a protective cloak against magic’s dangers. More surprising is her finding that creative cataloguing in the monastic library created a safe haven for some occult works by shelving them in sections with more orthodox volumes. In addition, certain forms of magic fell through holes in the nets of condemnation issuing from Paris and elsewhere. Magical texts in Arabic, Greek, and [End Page 251] Hebrew, for instance, offered new “knowledge and useful practical arts” (30). Chapter 2 shows how natural magic, as part of the larger study of natural science, found acceptance even as the clouds of suspicion gathered. Page’s detailed study of the contents of certain manuscripts in St. Augustine’s library reveals, for instance, that material on the magical uses of animal parts or instructions for creating marvels can be found alongside subjects like surgery.

Four chapters take up specific texts to show how monastic study and devotions could accommodate their magical contents. Chapter 3 examines the Liber Vaccae, translated from a ninth-century Arabic text and bursting with experiments for the magical practitioner to try his hand at. The St. August-ine’s copy was paired with a safer text, the Latin translation of Ibn al-Jazzar’s Kitab al-khawass called De proprietatibus, an immediate context that Page believes allowed readers to see the Liber Vaccae in the “safe context of natural magic” (54) even though it gave instructions for creating rational animals from organic matter. The Liber Vaccae clearly challenged orthodoxy and was widely condemned; its transgressions led to the removal of certain parts in the St. Augustine’s copy, but even so its presence in the library seems daring.

In Chapter 4 Page focuses on image magic, deftly examining its various strains in popular and learned traditions. Writings on image magic comprised a distinctive genre among the magical works in St. Augustine’s library, with sixteen separate texts and many more copies and excerpts. Despite fears of idolatry and concerns voiced by thinkers like Thomas Aquinas that magical characters were part of a demonic pact, Page clearly shows how monastic readers could interpret image magic within a Christian context...


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