Magic, Science & Religion in Medieval Manuscripts | Dr Eva de Visscher

On the second day of the Archives, Artefacts & Literary Culture workshop held at the National Library of Wales/Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru on the 27th June, came a session from Dr Eva de Visscher of the Department of History & Welsh History at Aberystwyth University. She gave a talk entitled Magic, Science & Religion in Medieval Manuscripts. Although I rather unfortunately missed the first ten minutes of the talk due to the untimely arrival of an electrician at my flat (rather in the manner of the Person from Porlock), I nevertheless got to hear the bulk of Dr de Visscher’s presentation, though of course my writing here is but a brief synopsis of the fascinating talk she gave.

Dr de Visscher signposted from the outset the inherent difficulties in the subject on hand, not least because certain types of what we would now call magic were during medieval times condoned on religious grounds: things such as exorcisms, for example. This raises the interesting matter of how we define magic – do we do so using our modern sensibilities, or medieval ones? Modes of thinking develop and perspectives shift, after all, and a variety of thoughts on the subject co-existed even in medieval times, with some authors condemning all or most types of what we would call magic, and some who would accept certain ones. de Visscher pointed out that the study of magic simply cannot be viewed outside of its relationship religion, especially artefacts such as magic books, which deal with power. One sees also an overlap between the scientific and the occult in areas such as astronomy, chemistry and alchemy: the best examples where these areas meet are within medieval medical texts, which include religious writing and charms, and astronomy. Huge importance was attached to the power of the stars, with astronomy being seen as one of the seven legitimate arts. Aristotle argued that changes on earth were caused by celestial bodies, which in turn descended from God and the angels. The power of the stars, therefore, could be found in everything. However, planetary influence on humans caused real unease in ecclesiastical circles – the get-out clause was applied in the notion that whilst the stars could be said to be responsible for human action, the soul was still the ultimate responsibility of God.

Medieval manuscripts covering such weighty matters were often used in a scholastic environment, and also read by priests. There was also a “clerical underworld”, those who had had some religious training, who would become interested in magic as a means of increasing their own personal knowledge and power and would increasingly dabble in the occult as a means of doing so.

Dr de Visscher mentioned several manuscripts as a means of emphasising her point, one of which was The Lots of the Apostles, a book on lot-casting. The casting of lots was used as a means of divination, a reading of fates. Three dice would be thrown, and then a question would be asked. Each combination of numbers on the dice would lead you to a certain answer. For example, if you achieved the sequence of numbers 5=5=4 on your dice, then you were to “Trust in God and you will conquer your enemies, and you will have your way”. [Folio 7v of the manuscript] The use of casting lots was condemned by Papal decree in the 12th century, as part of a wider shift in the perception of certain methods (such as trial by ordeal) and the question of how much humans should expect from God in terms of signs and answers.

Arabic knowledge began to enter the tradition, probably in part as a result of the Crusades. Dr de Visscher then discussed the Secretum Secretorum, or Secret of Secrets, which was attributed to Aristotle and supposedly a letter to Alexander the Great but which was, in essence, a pre-Machiavellian book of statecraft and included sections on physiognomy, astronomy, and ritual magic. Mostly medieval, it was written and revised in Arabic, and it was the Arabic version which was twice translated into Latin: the first only partially by John of Seville around 1120, and the second time in much fuller detail in Antioch by Phillip of Tripoli around 1230. It is the second translation that is in the manuscript at NLW, and I have included an image from one such manuscript, digitised on the Europeana website, the original of which was provided by the Bodleian Library.

Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Secreta Secretorum, F.001r
Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Secreta Secretorum, F.001r

The content of the manuscript is esoteric – it talks about the philosophers stone, about the best time to launch a battle, and about knowing who to trust amongst your advisors. Most trustworthy people are of medium stature, and blondes are generally untrustworthy, which may represents the Eastern influence of the original. The manuscript combines old practices with new, and very much represents the shift in thinking about magic and its definitions. The inscription inside, “that book remains with Johannes Alcester” could possibly be linked to Evesham in Worcester and the Benedictine abbey there; possibly the aforementioned Johannes took the manuscript with him after the dissolution of the monasteries. (As an interesting aside, it can be seen that magic and witchcraft became more associated with Catholicism after dissolution).

Dr de Visscher used a variety of manuscripts from the National Library’s archives to illustrate her talk: Peniarth 339, Peniarth 364, Peniarth 364 B(1) and B(2) and NLW 735c, a medieval manuscript on astronomy, the digitised version of which can be found on the Library’s website and images from which I include below, for illustration purposes:


NLW 735c, Medieval Astronomy, a manuscript held at the National Library of Wales. A digitised version can be found on their website.
NLW 735c, Medieval Astronomy, a manuscript held at the National Library of Wales. A digitised version can be found on their website.
NLW 735c, Medieval Astronomy, a manuscript held at the National Library of Wales. A digitised version can be found on their website.
NLW 735c, Medieval Astronomy, a manuscript held at the National Library of Wales. A digitised version can be found on their website.

There were other presentations that day: Dr Elisabeth Salter discussed Dealing with Miscellany: the Religious and the Secular, whilst Dr Eryn Mant White gave us a great insight into The Development of Print Culture in the Context of Wales (more on these later).

As a footnote to this post, I had a great deal of trouble finding some of the manuscripts used by Dr de Visscher in the Library’s online catalogue. This might very well be due to my poor searching capabilities, but it means I have not been able to fully illustrate some of the marvellous artefacts that we were privileged to have access to on that day. Dr de Visscher’s talk was really interesting and the topic as a whole fascinating: although the Library can sometimes seem daunting and some of the topics out of reach, but there really are wonderful treasures to be found there, and I can’t encourage you all enough to attend (if you haven’t already done so).


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