Home / Issue 20 / Spells for sale: the grubby reality of magic in early modern England

Spells for sale: the grubby reality of magic in early modern England

By Francis Young

Popular perceptions of magic in Tudor and Stuart England have largely been formed by scholarship on three figures, one real and two fictional: John Dee (1527–1608/9), the astrologer and crystal-gazer who famously advised Elizabeth I; Prospero, the magician in Shakespeare’s The Tempest; and Christopher Marlowe’s learned and hubristic Doctor Faustus. Unfortunately, none of these figures is truly representative of the reality of magical practice in early modern England, largely because they embody a tradition of learned ‘Renaissance magic’ originating in fifteenth-century Italy with the great Florentine Neoplatonist magus Marsilio Ficino. The jobbing magicians of early modern England had little time for the subtleties of Renaissance magic or the grand dreams of a Dee, Prospero or Faustus – even if they had the Latin to read about it – and their practice was firmly rooted in what Frances Yates called ‘the old, dirty magic’ of the Middle Ages.

What Yates called ‘dirty magic’ was known by several names at the time, including necromancy, nigromancy and conjuration. Today, it is usually called ‘ritual magic’, to distinguish it from the slightly more respectable ‘natural magic’ that claimed to draw on the occult virtues of heavenly bodies and living things. The magic of necromancers depended on the summoning (or conjuration) of spirits, both good and evil, in order to perform the magician’s will. Conjuration was an ancient practice that combined the medieval church’s liturgy of exorcism – which allowed priests to banish evil spirits and compel them to speak – with an equally ancient Jewish tradition of manuals of spirit magic attributed to King Solomon; who was supposed to have commanded spirits during his lifetime. The apparent piety of ritual magic was often a thin veneer cloaking self-interested motives – although not always; at least some magicians, like Dee, believed that summoning and commanding spirits was a test of their devotion to God. For the most part, however, the evidence of surviving grimoires (books of magic) suggests that early modern English magicians were interested in money, power and sex.

In the Middle Ages, ritual magic had been a persistent problem among clergy and university students prepared to use their learning to establish communication with the spirit world via this ‘ritual technology’. In theory, the English Reformation should have done away with ritual magic because it denied the semi-magical power of the clergy to bless and exorcise. Instead, the Reformation led to a ‘democratisation’ of magic as rising literacy and an explosion of printing made magical texts more accessible than ever before. Some practised magic out of personal curiosity, while others provided magical services for money; some were former monks, friars and chantry priests – the clerical detritus of the dissolution of monasteries and chantries – forced to make a living by other means. Although acts of parliament of 1563 and 1604 criminalised all forms of spirit conjuration in the same breath as witchcraft, the reality was that enforcement of the law against magicians (as opposed to suspected witches) was patchy at best, and many flourished in spite of occasional appearances in the pillory.

Francis Coxe, who was pilloried in 1561 for trying to kill by magic the captain of Elizabeth I’s personal bodyguard, Sir William St Loe, published A Short Treatise declaring the Detestable Wickedness of Magical Sciences, as Necromancy, Conjurations of Spirits, Curious Astrology and such like. Publicly, the purpose of the publication was to show Coxe’s repentance, but it was clearly also a money-making venture intended to offer the public a tantalising insight into the world of a professional Tudor magician:

When the spirit is once come before the circle, he forthwith demandeth [from] the exorcist a sacrifice, which most commonly is a piece of wax consecrated, or hallowed after their own order (for they have certain books, called books of consecration) or else it is a chicken, a lapwing, or some living creature, which when he hath received, then doth he fulfil the mind of the exorcist, for once he hath it, he will neither do, neither speak anything.

Coxe’s readers were wholly reliant on magicians to reveal the true nature of their practices, but modern scholars have access to a small number of grimoires that survive from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Britain, having escaped the attentions of the authorities and the ravages of time. Mouse Reeve’s online Grimoire Encyclopedia is an important effort to quantitatively analyse these grimoire texts, but many remain unpublished and untranslated from Latin.

Most grimoires from the sixteenth-century onwards were written as an aide memoire for a magical practitioner providing magical services to clients. Some magicians are known to have practised as astrologers, a reasonably respectable profession at the time but one which lent itself to providing additional magical services to customers. Others claimed to practice medicine, like the celebrated Simon Forman (1552–1611), while still others may have been herbalists, apothecaries or lapidaries (traders in minerals), since all these were professions ancillary to magic. However, in most cases we have little idea who the magicians were unless they were caught, since they usually took care to conceal their identities. The services they provided included detection of thieves and lost objects, detection of buried treasure, love magic (and related services such as magical contraception) and ‘scrying’, a form of divination that involved summoning spirits into a shiny object like a crystal ball and asking them to reveal the future. Occasionally, magicians might also provide magical revenge, offering to make a wax effigy of someone which would then be melted or stuck with pins. The grimoires rarely claimed that such magic could kill, however, since the aim of most magicians seems to have been coercion rather than murder.

Many early modern magicians, such as Gregory Wisdom (d. 1599) who cynically exploited Henry Neville, Earl of Westmoreland, were patently con artists. A few, like Dee, were sincere seekers after mystical enlightenment. Yet the majority, I would suggest, were a bit of both. The depth and consistency of the grimoire tradition makes no sense if magicians were all out-and-out hucksters, yet at the same time most grimoires pander to the most venal desires – such as spells to make women strip naked and dance in front of men. Ritual magic subordinated religious rites entirely to the most profane aims, yet at the same time it infused ordinary objects and actions with potent – and in some cases sinister – magical power.

Francis Young is the author of English Catholics and the Supernatural (2013) and A History of Exorcism in Catholic Christianity (2016), as well as the translator of two books of magic, The Cambridge Book of Magic (2015) and A Medieval Book of Magical Stones: The Peterborough Lapidary (2016). His next book, Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England will be published by I. B. Tauris in 2017.

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