Ritual Invocation and Early Modern Science: the Skrying Experiments of Humphrey Gilbert

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Ritual Invocation and Early Modern Science:

the Skrying Experiments of Humphrey Gilbert
Frank Klaassen
Early in 1568 Humphrey Gilbert (1537-1583) returned to his family estate in Devon from military campaigns in Ireland where he had distinguished himself with his brutality. It was probably something of a turning point in his life. In the next few years he would put before Elizabeth I his proposal for a new academy and begin in earnest his preparations for seeking the Northwest Passage. A seventeen-year-old protégé of the Gilberts, John Davis (1550-1605), joined him. Under the guidance of the Gilbert household (including Humphrey’s younger step-brother Walter Raleigh), Davis was about to embark on a path that would lead him to become one of the great navigators of his age and namesake for the Davis Strait in the Canadian North. Also present was Adrian Gilbert, Humphrey’s younger brother and Davis’ lifelong associate. They came together one day in February and, employing a show stone and crystals, conjured demons and sought the assistance of angels and the dead. Humphrey, the ‘master,’ read the prayers requesting aid from the divine, conjured the demons, and directed the operations. A variety of visions appeared in the stones, which Davis, as skryer, reported and which they recorded in detail. Some of what the spirits told him suggest he was seeking information about his own future, but his principal goal was to seek information about performing magic from creation’s greatest magicians. To this end, he conjured and bound Azazel, the demon in charge of spirits of the dead, and forced him to bring them Adam, Job, Solomon, Roger Bacon, and Cornelius Agrippa. The great magi appeared and consented to help, their numbers supplemented by the un-asked-for appearances of St Luke and John the Baptist.

Humphrey Gilbert and John Davis were certainly colorful characters: enterprising, audacious, single-minded, and self-promoting men whose violent and dramatic deaths – Davis at the hands of pirates off the coast of Borneo and Gilbert off the Azores in the wreck of a ship he had been advised to leave – were apt conclusions to lives of inveterate risk taking. But one would have no reason to suspect they had such involved interests in ritual magic in the absence of a record of their activities in the British Library manuscript I discuss here and a few circumstantial clues, such as their association with John Dee and his skryers. If foolhardy and opportunistic, they were of sound mind and built significant careers in the complex world of Elizabethan politics and business. Naturally, such a situation needs no defense or explanation; a belief in the efficacy of ritual magic could hardly be considered unusual in the mid sixteenth century nor its practice sociopathic. On another level, however, their interest in ritual magic appears more puzzling.

If Gilbert and Davis do not deserve places in traditional histories of science, which tend to emphasize great discoveries, they certainly merit inclusion in more recent studies of the broader social and intellectual context in which modern science was born.1 They built careers for themselves by promoting the investigation of the natural world as useful and as an important element in state building. Through his abilities, technical innovations, and publication in the area of navigation, John Davis would come to be what Eric Ash has called an expert mediator, synthesizing practical and experientially derived knowledge with theoretical approaches.2 Gilbert’s proposal for a new academy in London reveals his approach to learning, inquiry, and experimentation as almost Baconian. In addition to being practical, skeptical, anti-scholastic, experimental in orientation, and hostile to esoteric language, he also advocates breaking down traditional boundaries among professions and between theory and practice, seeking a fruitful engagement between those theoretically included and those of a more practical bent. Following most accounts of the period one would expect those with such ‘proto-scientific’ interests to be attracted to the sort of magical literature concerned with natural causation, the structure of the natural world, and the mathematization of reality. Yet the standard fare of natural magic, astrological image magic, ‘astral magic’, secrets, magical recipes and experiments, or discourses on natural magic, seem to have been of little personal interest to Gilbert and Davis.3 Instead they chose medieval ritual magic, particularly necromancy, a tradition regarded by most historians as a disappearing, superstitious, and utterly un-scientific remnant of the middle ages.4 This leads to two possible conclusions. Either their interest in this sort of magic was unusual, atavistic, or simply discontinuous with their scientific dispositions – a perfectly reasonable conclusion – or ritual magic was not as outmoded and irrelevant to the history of science as we have thought.

It will come as no surprise to readers of this collection that I wish to explore the latter possibility. Gilbert’s proposal for a new academy epitomizes many of the ideas regarded as seminal to the scientific revolution. A closer comparison of his proposal with his magical operations and the traditions from which they drew reveals numerous ways in which medieval ritual magic and the intellectual culture which surrounded it conform to the intellectual predispositions and epistemological assumptions of the early scientific revolution. In fact, such strong commonalities may be found between them that this sort of magic should be regarded as quite a natural choice the sixteenth-century man of science. In turn, this should lead us to re-evaluate our assumptions both about sixteenth-century magic and science, but about the notions of magic and science in general.


Humphrey Gilbert’s Operations and Medieval Ritual Magic

The operations I have described are recorded in two related manuscripts bound together in a volume with a variety of other magical works, London, British Library, MS Additional 36674.5 The first contains a work of necromantic magic and the second a record of the visions attained through its operations, or ones very similar to them. The latter identifies the skryer as John Davis and the master as ‘H. G.’ Paleographic and circumstantial evidence make clear that the text was a joint effort of Adrian and Humphrey Gilbert, that the first text was probably written by Adrian, and that the second was probably a draft prepared by a secretary based on notes taken during the operations.6 They began recording visions on February 24 and continued into April. The magical instructions, begun on March 22, were evidently written contemporaneously with the operations. Great similarity to medieval traditions (discussed in more detail below) suggest they probably had one or more necromantic manuscripts at their disposal which they employed as the basis for their operations. They also incorporated prayers and techniques derived from the visions.7 How much the original text or texts may have been edited is unclear but it seems quite possible that the absence of obviously Catholic elements was due to their editorial efforts.

The sources, techniques, goals, and language of these operations are in almost every respect medieval and most of the differences resulted from relatively superficial revisions by their Protestant and secular scribes. After carefully noting that the work was begun at 8 a.m, the Sun in Aries, the text lists a short set of rules for operation including wearing clean clothes, keeping promises, being good to the poor ‘where he seeth need.’ and avoidance of swearing and drunken company.8 Such rules commonly occur in the early folios of ritual magic works. The Practica nigromanciae attributed to Roger Bacon specifies clean clothing among the rules and the Liber juratus gives a strong emphasis to keeping good company.9 Almsgiving is an instruction found in the Ars notoria’s Opus Operum and in John of Morigny’s work. Medieval ritual texts uniformly emphasize good behavior and moral purity, something which could be assured by seeking confession prior to operation.10 They give greater emphasis to sexual purity as inherently powerful, something attributable to Catholic traditions in general, but particularly to emphasis on chastity or sexual self-control in the clerical and university settings where this magic was commonly practiced.11 It seems likely that a Protestant scribe (possibly the Gilberts themselves) removed these more stringent requirements and that the relaxed rules reflect conceptions of sexuality and marriage in Protestant thought and/or the decidedly secular milieu in which the many sixteenth-century magicians (and certainly Gilbert and Davis) moved. As I discuss in detail below, the acquisition of information, learning, or wisdom was a fundamental goal of medieval ritual magic, even necromancy.12

The ritual procedures described in the instructions and recorded as having been performed by them in the vision accounts are similarly drawn directly from medieval ritual magic. As was the usual practice in necromantic works, the operators employ a combination of angelic and demonic magic, and assume that, while they can command demons, they may only request the aid of God, the angels, and the dead.13 They work for the most part during the day and are attentive to the hours and the general astrological conditions.14 They employ crystals or other reflecting surfaces for skrying and endeavor both to trap demons in crystals and also to provide crystals for good spirits to enter voluntarily.15 They require that a skryer be used to see the visions but not that he be a virgin child as was common in medieval texts.16 The demon Azazel whom they conjure has a long history beginning with a brief mention in Leviticus, extending through Jewish traditions, and reappearing in Christian cabalism in the late fifteenth century. The somewhat more surprising notion that this demon could facilitate access to spirits of the dead might conceivably be Jewish in origin but was certainly immediately derived from Latin necromantic traditions. Similar operations involving Azazel survive in several other fifteenth- and sixteenth-century British manuscripts.17 Following the instructions for conjuring the dead, the text gives instructions for conjuring the ‘Four Kings’, the demons governing the four climes of the world, ‘Oriens, Amaimon, Paymon, And Ægin.’ Humphrey evidently performed this operation since it is recorded in the notes, although they included no descriptions of the resulting visions if there were any. Operations for the Four Kings are very common in medieval necromantic works and commonly employ mirrors or crystals.18 The instruction section of the manuscript concludes with all-purpose conjurations for any spirit. Similar open-ended operations may also be found in necromantic manuals. Aside from the lack of any obviously Catholic formulae, such as Ave Marias, and a reduced emphasis on ascetic practices and moral purity in the period leading up to the operations, the instructions are indistinguishable from those in medieval works.19

The extensive records of the visions set this text apart from most magical manuscripts. The following passage gives a good impression of them.

Seene by H.G. and Jo.: on ye 14 daye of marche anno domini 1567 at the sonns sett, or a little after, I knowe not perfectlye, it was aboute 7 of the cloke. First I, and my skryer sawe a rownde fyer in the west, which sodaynly vanished and came agayne. There apered annother with hym which I beheld very well, and from them there went a greate blacke cloud under them, which went from the west, by the north to the east pointe. And ouer that cloud there came an extreme number of fyer, and in the place where the first fyers were there was a greate quantitye yat was marvelous red, and ye which turned into gold; and some parte of the fyer went towards the south, soe yat god of a great miracle shewed it to me and my skryer; also the fyer was marvelous greate and bright, and tourned into gold as before. And sodainly casting my eye asyde, there was a great blacke cloude, which gathered into a sharpe pointe, into the west, and spreade very brode into the top towards the East, being maruelously inclosed with fyer, hauing .6. sundry points of blacke, having under ech bundle on the south side, a longe streyke of gold, very bright, which were in closed with greate fyer. [An illustration follows.] And after the litle streike there apered aboue them 2 greate bundles of golden streiks, which stoode aboue ech of the golden strikes, but the bundle yat stoode vppermost, was not soe bright as he yat stoode below. There was a greate blacke clowd betwene these 2 bundles and about the topp of this maruelous thinge, there was a greate quantitye of greene as before apereth. And betwene of the .6. blacke clowds as before, there was a greate number of fyer betwix eche of them as before you see. Also there apered on the south syde of yt, uppon the nether most bundle of gold, a square golden hyll with .4. corners, with 4 angles standing about yt, at ech corner one, whose names were mathewe, marke, luke, John, being barefoted with bookes in there hands, ther being a greate tre of bloud in the middle of the golden hyll, also there passed by vs, 2 doggs running on the grounde, which were spirits comming from the south towards the northe; the first of them was white, red and blacke, and went lering away apace which had noe tayle. Then followed the other dog which was all blacke, with a long tayle. And when he was right against me and my skryer, he loked first on the miracle before drawen, and then on me, and then on it againe; and soe passed awaye. These dogs had little legs, and greate brode feete, like unto horses. All which things aperith to vs with in one howers space. And when I went from the place, all things vanished awaye.20

Although in some of the records the spirits seem to speak directly to the operators from the stone or crystals, this passage and many others give the impression that all of the participants were entirely immersed in the visionary experience. It seems more likely that the skryer saw and reported visions in which he and the others were participants, though it is possible that the others may occasionally have seen things too. Dee’s records of his ‘actions’ contain similar ambiguities in the visionary record, where Dee is always an active imaginative participant in the proceedings, though his notes make it clear that he seldom saw anything.

If they are subject to occasional lapses (such as the failure to record the hour in this instance), and if their record keeping is not as thorough as Dee’s, nevertheless the Gilberts certainly make an effort to be systematic. They commonly record the time and general astrological conditions. The tremendous attention to detail makes clear that they were concerned to preserve accurate and detailed accounts of what the skryer had reported. That they returned to the text and corrected various details reinforces the impression that they wished the vision accounts to be as accurate as possible.21 Given this concern with detail and accuracy, it may well be that the Gilberts described the visions as if they were visible to all as a literary device to lend the process a level of credibility and to emphasize that they were the result of the efforts of at least two of those present.

This passage illustrates an important way in which Gilbert’s operations were not typical of medieval manuals and which cannot be attributed to changes in religious sensibilities. If medieval magical operators made extensive and detailed notes during their operations, to my knowledge, none survive. Accounts of visions attained through magical processes may be found in literary works (usually anti-magical) or in instructions for ritual magic operations which tell the operator what should result. More extensive accounts of visions by magical practitioners are less common. The notable exception, the Liber visionum of John of Morigny, is a highly polished account which is clearly reconstructed from memories of the visions rather than detailed notes taken at the time. Unlike John’s work, but more like the records of John Dee’s actions, those visionary records in Additional 36674 appear to be relatively undigested. One might speculate that medieval examples have simply been destroyed or lost, but one would still have to account for why these texts did not survive. The most plausible explanation would be that prior to the second half of the sixteenth-century any such notes were not considered worth keeping. In either case, the extensive note-taking of the Gilberts and John Dee, their desire to preserve the notes, and their efforts to assure their accuracy and sense of immediacy seem to represent a new attitude to the raw data of the visions.

A more detailed examination of their goals and methods reveals a similar mix of tradition and innovation. Gilbert’s principal goal of deriving knowledge manifests itself immediately at the start of the instructions where the reader is advised to begin with a short general prayer for wisdom.

This prayer is to be sayde when and before you deale with any spiritt; This was reuealed by kinge Solomon, Anno domini 1567, die 20 Februarij circa 9. 10.

O god of Aungelles, god of Archaungells; god of Patriarches, god of Prophetts, god of vs sinners; O lord be my help, that this my worke may proceed in good tyme, to thy glorie, O god; and to learninge, and noe Art else, glorifie the in all workes. Amen

Let not euyll spyritt enter my mynde o god, nor nothinge else but all to thy glorie o god; for learning is all my desier, lord thou knowest; euen as yt was to thy seruaunt Solomon; O lord sende me somme of this good hiddenn worke, that hath not been reuealed to noe mann. Then for that cause I desier the O god to sende yt mee, that in these our laste daies yt may be knowenn. Amen. Amen, lord, Amen with your Pater noster.22

Such prayers are fundamental elements in ritual magic works like the Ars notoria where they employ similar kinds of formulae and rhetorical strategies.23 That this prayer should be said at the start of all spirit operations seems designed to frame the entire set of instructions as a search for knowledge and, at least in these pages, this appears to be sincere: the search for secrets, wisdom, or learning predominates throughout the operations.

Precisely how they thought this knowledge was to be transferred, however, is less clear. The request for knowledge in this passage and the attribution of the prayer to Solomon rightly moved Gabriel Harvey, the seventeenth-century owner and annotator of the manuscript, to note its evident likeness to the Ars notoria.24 A passage in which Solomon tells Gilbert that he will be taught ‘all the arts’ suggests this work above all others. That Solomon also advises him that he must read when told to do so may be a reference to the exercise of reading required in the performance of the Ars notoria.25 However, the request for a ‘hidden worke’ in passage above seems to reflect the story of the Liber Rasielis in which secret knowledge is passed to Adam from the angel Rasiel either figuratively or physically in the form of a book.26 That Gilbert is promised such a book and that Davis retrieves it from the ‘House of Solomon’ in a vision tends seems to reflect this tradition.27

Jo. sawe a greate woods, having a greate howse in the middle of yt: with a little house by it most strongly buylded; hauving an Iron dore, with 9 keyholes. these being written vn the dore thes caracts following [numerous sigils] And in the house he sawe a chamber richly hanged with gold, in which chamber there was a tre of christale which was written upon very well, hauving many branches, with a dore on hym, as it were with 7. keyholes, which had the [***?] written on yt; with in there with there ware many bookes, whereof one had a christall cover and another with the heary syde of a skyn outward; with divers other goodly bookes....28

At still other points, Solomon tells Humphrey that he will teach him how to ‘make’ a book, which suggests the divinely aided editing and writing of John of Morigny and Honorius of Thebes.29 The instructions for conjuring the Four Kings also advise the operator to demand a book of magic from the demon Oriens, so the search for knowledge of magic is by no means limited to angels and spirits of the dead, even though this appears to have been their most successful avenue.30 One is left with the impression – not surprising given the variety of possibilities suggested by prior texts – that the operators themselves were unsure what to expect, be it a kind of infusion of knowledge, the delivery of a book, or instruction and guidance, but were content to let the spirits decide.

At the same time, certain kinds of information were actually transmitted to them and consistent features may be discerned both in the nature of that knowledge and how they used it. The great care taken to record the visions suggests the assumption that all the small visual details, such as the sigils on the door, might potentially be important sources of information and perhaps that many of the more incomprehensible ones, such as the activities of the strange multi-colored animals, might need to be decoded or understood at a later date. More importantly, the spirits directly instructed them in the proper performance of magic, sometimes even when they had not been asked, and although they certainly referred to conjuring manuals and perhaps the works of Cornelius Agrippa for information, they appear to have regarded these sources as secondary to the visions. On March 22 between two and three in the afternoon, Humphrey (probably with great relish) was cursing and condemning Bleath, a particularly recalcitrant minor demon.

There came of hymselfe the Euangelist Luke into a christall stone that lay on the bourd. And willed me to leaue using the names of God, to such wicked and rebellious spirits offering hymself to doe all things for me, and to teach me, howe to haue althings done by the angles, without such cursings, and coniuring by the word and names of god.... And I hauing the spirit of K. Solomon and the spirite of Jobe before. They both fell on their knees to Luke when they sawe him. And the wicked inferior bleath rean continually away, from one place to another rounde about the stone as fast as might be.31

What happens here is unusual in two ways. While John of Morigny also records instances of divine apparition in the course of his performance of demonic magic (including apparitions of the four evangelists), and while these apparitions ultimately do lead to the production of a divine text, the emphasis in John’s autobiography is always at first on the strenuous and difficult conversion away from demonic practices. This intervention by St Luke in this passage is a more direct and effortless transition from demonic binding to something more like angelic invocation, its very fluidity suggestive, perhaps, of a dissolving conceptual boundary between angelic and demonic practices. More importantly, the advice which Luke offers them runs counter not only the approach they had already recorded in their book of instructions but to traditional necromancy as a whole. Rather than the standard method of conjuring, which mimicked exorcism by invoking holy names and by drawing upon the power promised by God to good Christians, Luke suggests a temporary but novel arrangement in which he, a spirit of the dead, an elect soul, would control demons on the operator’s behalf. As in the case of John of Morigny, visionary experience supersedes traditional and textual authority. It should not be surprising that they were willing to take the word of a saint on how to perform magic over what they found in their conjuring manuals; however, other examples reveal that this was not an isolated example but part of a purposeful, if not systematic, approach. They did not regard magic as the performance of various experiments unrelated except for the similarity of their form, but rather as a progressive program of learning, a cumulative process in which information and experience were assembled over time. Such a progression is implicit in their demand that one begin with lower spirits and work up to more difficult ones. “Bleath, should a younge beginner first call; although to call Assasel yt is the most noble Arte; whose charact followethe.”32 But the best evidence of their approach to knowledge lies in the way they assembled the manuscripts we are considering.

Their careful dating of their visions allow us to reconstruct the complex relationship between their operations and the magical manual they were writing, or at least some of it. We know that their operations were probably based on some late medieval conjuring manual which they, or some prior scribe, had adjusted according to Protestant and secular sensibilities. It is also possible, if not likely, that they had tried this kind of thing before. While it is true that Humphrey was blustery enough to fancy himself an expert relatively quickly, the confident tone of the text suggests he had been at it longer than a few weeks. They began their recorded operations in late February, and soon after, on the 20th of February, Solomon dictated a new prayer for them to employ at the start of their operations. Presumably they used it from that point on since, as we have seen, they accorded it such an important place in their magical manual when they began to write it on the 22nd of March at 8 a.m. How much they managed to write before that afternoon is unclear, but by 2 p.m. Humphrey was engaged in his operation to conjure the Four Kings. Shortly after this St Luke appeared, offering the correction and assistance we just discussed and promising to teach a new method of operation. Luke fulfilled this promise eight days later with instructions for a show stone in which Bleath would not have been able to disobey.

The beste and moste excellente waye and Arte is, as well for Aungells, as for Inferiours and other Spyritts, to haue these names of god wryttenn in your stone, as followethe. [A round stone is roughly sketched out but it has been left incomplete since no characters inserted.]

This is written without, because the circle was to lyttle, but yt muste be written wythin the circle nexte adioyninge, your stone muste be flatt of bothe sides, and cleare without crackes or staines, and as large as may be gottenn, and of a good thicknes.

Nota: Noe spyritt cann disobay that is called into the stone thus graued; and the makinge therof wast discovered by Luke onn Easter time, beinge in Anno Domini 1567. 33

This passage falls on the last folio of the manual, and operations employing the names of God to control recalcitrant demons appear in the previous folio. Precisely how the new equipment provided by Luke was meant to alter the operations is unclear. He certainly did not mean for them to cease employing demons or ghosts, which would have entailed rejecting all the methods they had recorded to that point, but rather “willed [them] to leaue using the names of God, to such wicked and rebellious spirits.” So it seems likely that they assumed this addition would make certain operations of the manual unnecessary but that in other respects it remained appropriate.

Gilbert and his associates sought to acquire knowledge in a purposeful, even systematic, manner understanding that it would be a cumulative process. They began with ritual magic manuals in hand and, in fact, given that such texts were common, it is quite possible that they had one of the many circulating manuscripts of ritual magic attributed to Solomon or Roger Bacon, or a printed volume by Cornelius Agrippa. If they did not enter into the operations under the assumption that their books might need correction, they certainly assumed that true magical knowledge had to be derived from practice and from direct engagement with the numinous rather than from books. In part they assumed that one had to build up experience in order to practice the art effectively; in part, the practice of the art itself made new information available. They carefully recorded their visions, noting intricate details, evidently assuming their descriptions might ultimately yield further knowledge. The spirits also instructed them. No doubt they understood that Solomon’s promise to assist Gilbert in ‘making’ books would be fulfilled in such a fashion – and they certainly did make a new book. More crucially, the new revealed elements superseded the old and became key elements in the new manual, and at the very least, their experiences facilitated a critical dialogue with whatever base text they originally employed.

So despite being based on the texts and traditions of medieval ritual magic, this manuscript differed from them. Protestant attitudes (or the desire not to appear Catholic) probably motivated the Gilberts or some prior scribe to strip out Catholic elements and to remove requirement of virginity for a skryer and of ascetic practices for the master. The Gilberts added new techniques, prayers, and magical characters to whatever original text or texts they had, and for all we know, they may have made a wide range of other undocumented changes based on instructions from the spirits. That they made careful records of the visions seems to constitute a significant change to the medieval traditions of ritual magic, but they do not appear to have affected its processes or intellectual culture in a dramatic way. In fact, these changes themselves reflect another significant area of continuity with medieval ritual magic. This continuity can be best understood in the broader context of medieval learned magic. So let me introduce this discussion with a brief description of the other major tradition of illicit learned magic prior to 1500.

Astrological image magic is represented by hundreds of manuscript witnesses prior to 1500 and the form of those manuscripts is consistent and distinctive. Magical talismans, rings, or other objects bearing some sort of engraved astrological symbol had received enough approval from scholastic writers as a potentially non-demonic form of magic to grant this kind of magic a kind of associate status within scholastic natural philosophy. Important works of natural philosophy such as the Speculum astronomiae regarded some forms of astrological image magic as natural and non-demonic; and philosophers of the stature of Albert the Great had no quarrel with this idea. In part as a result of this, these texts demonstrate a measure of stability in transmission and interpretation. While Thomas Aquinas and others following him were more stringent in their assessment of the legitimacy of image magic, these early positive evaluations were enough to keep a debate continuously alive in scholastic circles from the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries.34 As this debate hinged upon obscure details in the scholastic model of physical causation, proponents of astrological image magic, eager to find ways to demonstrate its legitimacy, tended to employ scholastic arguments. Opponents and those who had not made up their minds also depended upon the literature of natural philosophy for clarity and guidance. This situation is reflected in the manuscripts and the codices and libraries that contained them.. Almost uniformly prior to 1500 scribes, collectors, and cataloguers treat astrological image magic as part of the library of natural philosophy and naturalia The principles of scholastic natural philosophy and the opinions of scholastic authorities also played a major role in helping scribes to choose appropriate texts to copy. Texts which were conformable to scholastic prescriptions of legitimacy were copied at a much higher rate than those deemed illegitimate, many of which do not survive at all.35

Works of astrological image magic, by their very nature, also demand a particular kind of treatment by their interpreters and scribes, and this makes them similar to scholastic scientific works in another sense. According to the arguments of the Arabic commentator al-Kindi, the figure in an astrological talisman or ring (as opposed to the stuff of which it was made) had to have an ontological connection with the astrological influences upon which it drew. This assumption was implicit in many of the magical texts themselves; it also formed the core question in the scholastic debate: does the shape of a physical object have or transmit occult properties? Thus, for Latin readers who believed this was possible, the image depicted or described in the text might reflect a cosmological secret: if the image was accurate, the magic would work, and the text would contain a valuable key to understanding how the universe functioned. If it was not accurate, if it did not correctly depict the ontological stellar configuration, it was useless. Truth thus potentially resided in the actual depicted figures or characters in the text itself and their usefulness depended upon their accuracy. More significantly, if an appropriate figure was not employed, the operator ran the risk of invoking the aid of demons. Perhaps for this reason, or perhaps because they were treated like other works of natural philosophy, their transmission tended to be relatively stable and the contents did not vary a great deal. The intellectual culture surrounding this sort of magic is thus arguably similar to scholastic culture in its emphasis on the authority of transmitted texts.

The intellectual culture surrounding ritual magic and its written traditions could not be more different. Subject to perennial re-writing, editing, and reformulation, ritual magic was perhaps the most mercurial of all medieval magical traditions. The multiplicity of its textual traditions was both the cause and also the result of the fact that its intellectual tradition in significant ways stood outside the mainstream. Although scholastic arguments certainly played a role in the rejection of ritual magic practices, no scholastic authority ever provided a shred of hope that they might be legitimate. They fall entirely in the realm of what Weill-Parot has termed “addressative” practices – by all standard Augustinian and Thomistic definitions, they are non-natural.36 It is thus understandable that texts of ritual magic travel with works of naturalia far less often. Astrological image magic texts differ from ritual magic texts in a crucial structural way as well: the purpose of ritual magic texts is generally intermediary: they do not tend to record truths about the world, but rather to represent ritual practices by which contact with spirits may be facilitated in order to attain truths about the world. Like all liturgies, ritual magic is highly subject to local need and local change. Finally, the authors of ritual magic texts were keenly aware that the magical library contained false or misleading texts.37 If works like the Liber Rasielis tended to represent themselves as divinely revealed, they were still less containers of truth than divinely sanctioned means to discover it. Truth had to be discerned in practice and in encounters with the numinous, particularly angels, and the particular knowledge which might be derived would differ from person to person.38 A fifteenth-century necromancer’s manual records necromantic processes in which emphasis is given to questions rather than answers.

When the spiryt is apperyd: What is thy name? Under what state and what dynite [i.e. dignity] hast thow? What is thy powyr and thy offyse? Undyr what planet and sygn art thow. Of what parte arte thow of the world? Of which element art thow? Whych is thy monyth? What is thy day and thyn owyr? What is thyne howre, day or nyght? Whych is thy winde? What be they caretes that thow abyst to? Whych is thy mansion and thy day? Which is thy sterre? Which is thy stone? Which is thy erbe? What is thyne offyse to do. What is thy metale? What is thyne Aungellys name that thow moste obeyst to. And in what lykenes aperyst thow? How many commyst thow wythall?39

Similarly, the commonly occurring conjurations for any spirit suggest the users developed magical processes in response to whatever circumstances might arise in their operations or using whatever new knowledge they might have gained through their practices. For example, it appears that Trithemius probably employed angel magic to fill in the gaps as he wrote his Chronicle.40 Truths were thus derived directly from experience of the numinous, from instruction by it, or from interrogating it, and this process of discovery both enabled and depended on a dynamic relationship with the texts, which were continuously being adapted to suit new needs.

Even where ritual texts are handed on in recognizable forms and variants (e.g., in the case of the Ars notoria), practitioners appear to have understood ritual magic as a program of progressive, cumulative, and practical knowledge acquisition. It was understood that one had to learn how to perform ritual magic. The prologue to the Liber sacer requires the understanding of the text be passed on in a kind of magical apprenticeship process, a holy brotherhood in which the master selects appropriate followers who ultimately may be given the right to take up his position and pass the knowledge on to others.41 John of Morigny talks explicitly about how he had to learn how to make the Ars notoria work.42 Part of this process may have been a kind of conditioning which made the practitioner more disposed or attentive to whatever psychological mechanisms the magic drew upon, such as dreams or trance states. But this learning process was also understood as practical and cumulative. For example, John appears to take it for granted that the natural result of having developed expertise in necromantic magic was to write a book on the subject.43 In part the process also involved the development of critical skills in dealing with visionary experiences. When John of Morigny began practicing magic, he was unable to tell the difference between holy and unholy presences and he emphasizes the need for requesting assistance through prayer.44 Eventually, however, he was able to produce a detailed discussion of the ways in which one could do this.45

In summary, ritual magic was not regarded by its practitioners as part of the discourse of scholastic natural philosophy. Ritual magicians understood truth to be derived not from knowledge preserved in authoritative works but from experience, practice, or interrogation of spirits. They understood this knowledge to be cumulatively assembled by the practitioner rather than to inhere in a pre-existing set of authoritative pronouncements. They understood their relationship with their texts to be dynamic and susceptible to information by the spiritual encounter. And finally, although their ritual processes were in part designed to overcome the deficiencies of the natural senses, nevertheless they were almost entirely dependent upon the senses for knowledge acquisition.

These habits of mind may be witnessed in Gilbert’s operations. Aside from some imagery which suggests an interest in alchemy, they display no interest in astrological image magic, other kinds of natural magic, or any of the scholastic theories and debates associated with them. They did not regard the received traditions of magic as authoritative but employed them in a dynamic and interactive manner. Their advice that “the master must also haue 1 or 2 good bookes to call by, as after you shall here fyende” makes clear that one had to be discerning about the texts one chose; however they also evidently regarded their base text as something which might need to be corrected or more substantially transformed. They did not hesitate to make modifications where they saw fit. Some of these modifications were more minor and motivated by their own religious sensibilities. Some were more considerable, involving the incorporation of new operations or equipment prepared under the direction of the spirits.

Perhaps more radically than their medieval forebears, the Gilberts understood their visions not only as a proof and tangible effect of the legitimacy of their operations, but as experiences which were potentially an important source of raw data. Their attention to the intimate and seemingly inconsequential details of the visions, and their efforts accurately to record them in an undigested form, witness their focus on experientially derived knowledge. The way they edited their texts, and their advice that the operator must work progressively, starting with lower demons and working upwards, demonstrate that they regarded knowledge of magic to be acquired cumulatively. In the end, they contributed to the on-going transformations of medieval ritual magic by assembling and collecting their information in a new magical text.




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