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Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to…

Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa (utgåvan 2023)

av Anthony Grafton (Författare)

MedlemmarRecensionerPopularitetGenomsnittligt betygOmnämnanden
562471,969 (3)2
"Anthony Grafton explores the art and influence of an opaque historical figure: the magus, or learned magician. A distinctive intellectual type in Renaissance Europe, magi contributed to the humanistic currents of the time and had a transformative impact on public life, influencing advances in sculpture, painting, engineering, and other fields."--… (mer)
Titel:Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa
Författare:Anthony Grafton (Författare)
Info:Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press (2023), Edition: Multilingual, 304 pages
Samlingar:Ditt bibliotek


Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa av Anthony Grafton


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I approached this book with interest, but was disappointed. As I'm looking at other reviews, my sense is that those with this field of study really enjoyed it, but those of us interested in, but not familiar with, the topic found it rough going.

Part of the issue is that this is some seriously dense prose. It cannot be read quickly. Adding to that challenge is the fact that the writer doesn't do a lot of signalling of the point or central idea he's trying to convey in different sections. I needed more help from him to follow his thinking, and I didn't get it. Detail after detail after detail is related, and I found myself hard-pressed ro understand the purpose of all these specifics.

If you have a background in this field of study, you may find this a remarkably enlightening book. If you're coming to the field with little or no experience, it's apt to wash over you without leaving much behind.

I received a free electronic review copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley; the opinions are my own. ( )
  Sarah-Hope | Jan 9, 2024 |
Reading the history of magic requires some advance thought. Because the more you examine it, the more it devolves into fraud, religion, and fear. It’s inevitable, it seems. So with Magus, by Anthony Grafton. It is an enormously detailed look at the state of magic in the 1500s, from Faustus to Agrippa, and how it got there. And not so much about the magic.

Magic used to be real to the general populace. Stories abound of evil events called for by a Magus. Grafton cites the case of Dr. Faustus, the most famous magus of his era, when the city councilors of Ingolstadt made him swear an oath not to take vengeance on the city when he left. It was hardly the first time he had been booted out by a city, and they feared what he could do to them.

The fact that a magus could mingle with the leadership even locally, let alone at the king and emperor level, seems outlandish to us today. But in the 1500s, they were international celebrities - to be feared.

The key to being a magus was mastering a minimum of two domains: astrology and necromancy. Astrology is easy, as the world has a long history of magi and priests making up stories about stars and planets. The juxtaposition of various heavenly bodies is the prime excuse for generalized predictions, especially predictions of the past, which prove the assumptions correct. They could say anything they wanted about two heavenly bodies crossing paths, and they did. And everyone believed it. It was the science of the day. It was particularly easy to look back, see where planets had crossed, and compare it to the events of that year. They were then totally free to claim cause and effect.

One renowned expert cleric, Roger Bacon, maintained there could only be six great religions in the world, because each one had to be governed by a different planet in conjunction with Jupiter. Judaism, he pointed out, is the religion of Saturn, while Mercury announced the birth of Christ and therefore Christianity. Now that we know there are more planets in the solar system, presumably more great religions and gods would be allowed on Earth.

Necromancy, conversing with, or raising up the dead was more difficult and dangerous. It could get the magus in trouble with The Church. It required actual demonstrations, which meant models, conspirators, venues, and so on. But once a reputation was established, stories of past exploits, real or imagined, could carry the day with no further need of proof.

Lower down the scale, magic could come from tricks and healing. Magi could cure anything with compounds of plants. Nothing ever had to be proven, merely talked about as the age-old, bona fide way of curing various conditions. Grafton gives examples such as cutting off a dog’s tongue and placing in one’s shoe, right under the big toe, to prevent dogs from attacking. This sort of thing survives to this day in homeopathy and Chinese herbal medicine, which is the cause of numerous animals going extinct. Thanks to their body parts “curing” diseases and conditions like impotence and weak libido, they are in staggeringly high demand in southeast Asia. It is all magic.

Talismans are another magic trick that survives today. Take a stone chosen for its supposed powers, carve a magic letter or word on it, wrap it with some sort of scent and hang it around your neck. Keeps the bearer healthy. All kinds of scholars criticized this absurd practice. And then did it themselves.

Magnetism was a huge boon to magi. They could make inanimate objects move, or even fly. Magnetism soon made its way into the healing scam, where it thrived for a good four hundred years. Patients, however, did not do as well.

To round out the menu, Grafton lists geomancy, predictions based on the throw of dice, hydromancy, predictions from examining water, aeromancy – the air, pyromancy – visions in fires, chiromancy – palm reading, and scapulomancy, predictions using shoulder blade bones for divination. But he just lists them; he has no accompanying stories.

Anyway, those things are not what the book is about. Rather, it follows Faustus, one of the most famous and despised magi of all time. He was apparently arrogant and obnoxious, scamming his way across Europe. He is the only real practitioner profiled in the book.

The other major characters are Christian scholars and researchers. They were obsessed with documenting and collecting. They wrote books, built whole libraries of collected works, and consulted with royalty, safely (for the most part) separated from the practitioners by their scholarly façade.

Grafton also makes the point that The Church itself had primed the population for this sort of thing with all its own magical practices: “Its liturgical, processional, and Eucharistic rituals included many of the practices that magicians and others could appropriate for their own diabolic ends.” So the book is really about the self-induced conflict of religious scholars attempting to document and analyze this demonic phenomenon during a hundred year period from the mid 1400s to the mid 1500s.

This also being the Renaissance period, engineering got sucked into the maelstrom. People marveled at new styles of architecture, and new tools devised through physics. Things like pulley systems, that could multiply the weight one man could manage, were magical. The dome of the Florence Duomo is another such magical engineering feat.

Then there was Trithemius, an abbot who amassed probably the most knowledge and documentation of anyone. A lot of Grafton’s focus on him has to do with cryptography, including steganography – hiding data in images (He wrote the book on it in the early 1500s). Some languages, like Hebrew, assign numeric values to the letters of the alphabet (because there is no other numbering system). This is what led to the ongoing scam called numerology, in which words can be reduced to numbers, and depending on the word, either a lucky or unlucky number. It is also perfect for devising codes to ensure secrecy between sender and receiver. The more time he spent on them, the more sophisticated his own cryptographic codes became. Coding messages is at least as old as the renaissance.

Trithemius had perspective. He understood what he was looking at. It allowed him to write analyses like: “The crowd, which is quick to believe in vice, rages as usual against the innocent. Since it does not know the principles of nature, it ascribes to evil operations whatever it does not understand. The ignorant never realize that the marvelous is possible, and they measure the power of nature by the capacity of their own minds. Hence they are fooled as completely as if they were blind.” Still true.

Hypocrisy was an inherent condition of this sort of magic. Agrippa, the subject of the final chapter, actually denounced astrology as a fraud in his book published in 1530, which was a pretty bold thing to do. Yet a year later, he was busy devising new rules for the conjunction of Earth with comets. Oh well; it’s a living.

Agrippa was big on the Christian Cabala, which several of the scholars profiled in the book made up to compete with the Jewish Kabbalah. It is pure mysticism, based in nothing whatsoever. But Christianity has always been about keeping up with the other great religions, as can be seen in its holidays and myths, mostly derivative when not simply copying.

The thing of greatest value that I learned here was that disinformation is nothing new. It has merely changed shape with the media available for it. In the 1400s, you could not read a historic book and assume what you read was correct or even the author’s words. Scholars had to visit multiple cities and look up facts in each city’s copy of the same book. Because books were hand copied, and human copiers could alter text, especially in translation. They could and did add paragraphs and chapters of their own, and/or delete those of the original author. When a scholar found a difference from one copy of the same book to the next, he had to decide how to play it: explain them both, ignore them both, or pick one and maybe mention that idea was only available in the version found in the library in Cologne, but not Oxford, for example. Which one was the truth: the one with the added paragraph, or the one with paragraph missing? It makes today’s social media disinformation positively quaint and charming by comparison.

Unfortunately, the book is very dense with detail. Not of magic, but of authors. There is far too much detail, too much background color on them, and too much context. And not much magic. It doesn’t help that single paragraphs can go on for more than a page, never isolating their main thoughts. The overall effect is not so much that of an enchanting topic, but of drudgery in reading. Sooner or later, the reader must realize s/he can skip over endless descriptions of people and relationships, because they are entirely forgettable and usually unhelpful. Magus is needlessly hard work.

David Wineberg ( )
  DavidWineberg | Dec 10, 2023 |
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Wikipedia på engelska


"Anthony Grafton explores the art and influence of an opaque historical figure: the magus, or learned magician. A distinctive intellectual type in Renaissance Europe, magi contributed to the humanistic currents of the time and had a transformative impact on public life, influencing advances in sculpture, painting, engineering, and other fields."--

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