- Das Losbuch. Manuskriptologie einer Textsorte des 14. bis 16. Jahrhunderts by Marco Heiles
Losbuch, Losbücher, lot book, books of fortune, books of sorts, sortes, visual studies, material culture, divination, popular culture, German language, books of magic, medieval manuscripts
We might as well say it right away: Marco Heiles's work is a milestone in the historiography of Losbücher or lot books. Nobody remotely interested in this topic can afford to ignore his seminal study. However, so few people might be remotely interested in the topic that it is probably best to begin this review by explaining what lot books actually are.
Lot books are also known as "books of fortune" or "books of sorts." A Latin term often used for them is simply sortes. What were they and how were they used? Try to imagine a medieval cross between a modern interactive puzzle book and a penny arcade fortune-teller machine. You were not supposed to read a lot book cover to cover. Rather, you let some kind of random choice mechanism decide which part of the book you should read. This mechanism could simply be a dice, or a kind of wheel of fortune integrated in the book. The throw of the dice or the symbol you got when you turned the wheel would take you through visual markers to a certain part of the book. There, you might find some kind of prophecy about your future or about a specific question you had asked. Lot books could arrange various layers of hints and references. The reader, or rather user of a lot book was likely to be entertained with various illustrations depicting the wheel of fortune or pictures of numerous "authorities" such as saints, biblical figures, or mythical personages who appeared together with texts that were supposed to talk directly to the user. Heiles's text gives a very good idea of the visual charm of lot books. It is lavishly illustrated—pages 276 to 323 present very good reproductions of the colorful manuscripts of some lot books.
Fifty-three different texts of lot books in forty-eight manuscripts plus twenty-four print editions were produced between the middle of the fourteenth century and the middle of the sixteenth century in German-speaking Europe. Even though this is a significant corpus of texts, neither historians nor Germanists have developed a lot of interest in lot books so far. The books were all too readily dismissed as a simplistic and banal form of divination. Here, modern authors echoed some medieval theologians who criticized lot [End Page 283] books as just another form of unlawful magic. Heiles argues that this interpretation is not wrong but far from being the whole truth. He demonstrates that some lot books warned against divination: the books themselves stressed that fate was unpredictable. In an ever-changing world, where the wheel of fortune turned rapidly and endlessly, the Christian faith was the only firm ground one could stand on. Thus, texts that seemed to promise unorthodox prophecies and magical revelations really preached the Christian message of trust in God and moral responsibility.
As it is so often the case, things become really interesting when they go wrong. Heiles analyzes a number of lot books that just don't work. They do not work not because some important pages got lost in the last couple of centuries, but because they have never worked. Heiles can prove that in several manuscripts the system of references that takes the reader to his prophecy and thus makes a lot book a lot book had always been faulty or incomplete. In these cases, the references simply led nowhere or at least not to anything that the reader might see as a meaningful answer to his question. Heiles analyzes the faulty references in detail. Why even the authors, who seemed to have otherwise been prepared to invest time and effort in their work, overlooked or tolerated these errors remains, however, unclear. Why the evidently faulty lot books were still copied and bought time and again is...