Sienna's Reviews > Grimoires: A History of Magic Books

Grimoires by Owen Davies
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May 10, 11

bookshelves: 2011
Read in May, 2011

This was a fascinating but frustrating read. I appreciate the impressive breadth of the topic but feel that much of the depth was selected rather arbitrarily to titillate or hint at just how far the author's knowledge-net reaches: like, here are runic farting spells and Satan-citing remedies for impotence, tee hee. Davies has previously written on popular magic and cunning-folk, so that may explain the periodic glossing of content, and his chapter notes are pretty generous if you're looking for more details. I also recognize the difficulty of dealing with a subject that's constantly in flux, particularly pre-print when a scribe's opinions and experiences often shaped the contents of the manuscript he (re)produced — what a challenge for editors!

My primary concern is that I couldn't help quibbling with the points Davies made on subjects I do know pretty well, especially when it comes to the variety of ways that early modern women and medical practitioners engaged with the magical world. If there are worrying gaps in the familiar information, how do I know the same is not true of the unfamiliar? I'll give him the benefit of the doubt — an approach the copy editor(s) obviously also decided to take, based on the inconsistent spelling, capitalization, abbreviation, comma and apostrophe usage — but doubt I'll be citing this in any papers.

When defining what constitutes a "grimoire," Davies focuses on conjuring and talismans. He happily includes the diabolic but not the divinatory, discussing Paracelsus but dismissing or omitting the "usual" cures that reflect the spread of his beliefs and methods (occult sympathy and chemically derived ingredients, for instance). Spells are accepted but seem to be to be difficult to differentiate from magical remedies. He hints at alchemy but fails to delve into what he means by the term. These are just minor points, but a bit more exposition might have helped to clarify why Davies emphasizes certain aspects of magic but breezes over others — worthy of note, I think, because many of the works characterized as grimoires (the Grand and Petit Alberts, Key of Solomon, books attributed to Agrippa, etc.) contained both, which is why they crop up repeatedly throughout Grimoires.

Then again, I'm very interested in both alchemy and the spread of magical knowledge to non-magical realms, so these worries probably better reflect my desires as a reader than the book's shortcomings. As another reviewer has already noted, Davies delivers on his promise: this is, indeed, a history of magic books. There's a little something for everyone who might be tempted to pick up a copy of Grimoires, and where depth has been sacrificed at least we've got a decent road map for further reading. And there's plenty of good stuff in the 283 pages of the main text:

The one place in Europe where grimoires did feature prominently in the witch trials was Iceland. Around 134 trials are known to have occurred in this former Danish territory, and nearly a third of them involved grimoires, written spells, or runes and symbols derived from them. Those fortunate enough not to be executed were flogged while the pages of their magic manuscripts were burned under their noses. As surviving examples from the period show, the grimoires being used in this northern outpost of European culture consisted of a very distinctive blend of Continental magic, with borrowings from Solomonic texts and the like, and the Nordic runic tradition. [...]

Another distinctive aspect of the Icelandic experience is that only 10 of the 128 people known to have been tried by the island's highest court were women. This is extraordinary, considering that in Denmark and Norway, and in Iceland's southern neighbour, Scotland, the vast majority were female. One explanation for this emerges from a comparison with Finland where the majority of accused were also men, in contrast with trials in the homeland of its Swedish rulers. Maybe the Norwegian settlers who came to Iceland from the late ninth century onwards brought with them strong elements of the male shamanic cultures of the Saami, which continued to shape the magical tradition of Finland and northern Scandinavia into the early modern period. We need to be clear though, that although accusations of simple harmful witchcraft (rather than full-blown Continental diabolism) were usually the basis of the accusations in Iceland, most of those accused were not witches but rather cunning-folk or ffölkynngisfolk ('wise people'). The shaman connection may have some mileage, but Iceland's magic was based much more on literary magic than that of the 'shamanistic', spirit-inspired traditions of Finland.
(71-2)


(The gender shift and blending of regional and far-flung magical traditions are both fascinating. Those also taken with the latter point might be interested in Emma Wilby's Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, which connects English popular magic and shamanistic traditions.)

Threaded throughout is the really satisfying theme that although so much magic is rooted in falsehood and myth-making, those foundational lies somehow matter very little to anyone drawn to the subject. By the time we learn enough to be disappointed, we're hooked.
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