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Elizabethan Necromanticism and the Sexual, Spiritual Lore

Elizabethan Necromanticism and the Sexual, Spiritual Lore
© Photograph by Richard Terborg

The magic operations presented here are curiosities for a variety of reasons, many of which coalesce around a single question: why would someone write them down? And since they represent a long-standing tradition, why would they have been copied and preserved long enough for the scribe to find them?

Some forms of magic probably had subjectively convincing results that motivated their practitioners to preserve them and pass them on to others. But that an operator could achieve subjectively convincing invisibility seems very unlikely. Implausibility is arguably a common characteristic of magic: why would one pursue by magic what one could gain without much trouble in other ways?

Other examples from the collection from which these rituals are drawn include seduction of women, invariable success at fishing, and assured gains in gambling. Invisibility is only the least plausible of an implausible lot. This quality reminds us that, whatever drove the preservation and copying of these texts, it need not have been a series of experimental successes.

The fantastic will have an appeal no matter how improbable, but, in addition to this, a combination of factors evidently motivated the scribe to write these operations down, including the texts’ believability as magic, masculine wish fulfilment, their value as entertainments, and a sixteenth-century fascination with fairies.

One element that would have made the piece attractive was that the magic was credible in the sense that it adhered to the general form of medieval and renaissance magical works. The idea that magical properties inhered in nature and could be derived from animals was common, and books listing the sorts of short “secrets” or “experiments” that appear here circulated in manuscript and print.

The longer pieces also reflect common assumptions about magic. They begin with the usual preparations associated with medieval ritual magic such as abstinence and bathing. The structure of the conjurations follows traditional form, including an invocation or call, a charge or command to the spirit, and a licence for the spirit to depart.

Like all works of necromantic magic, they assume that duly upright Christians have the power to command demons in the name of God, as in exorcism. The use of Latin for conjurations was almost uniform prior to the Reformation and common afterwards. And if invisibility seems to us an implausible goal, it was certainly common enough in medieval collections of magic. The combination of shorter operations with longer conjuring pieces was also common. So in a variety of ways the texts would have appeared to be credible parts of the genre.

The experiments listed here probably are not original creations of the scribe. All likely derive from earlier sources and may be considered products of a longstanding selection process. For example, an operation similar to the first one presented here appears in Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft, attesting to a broader textual tradition. The scribe must also have drawn upon a conjuring manual since (as we shall see) he was not competent enough in Latin to have made up the conjurations himself. The texts also reflect much earlier traditions.

From antiquity, birds commonly appear as elements in operations for invisibility. Similarly, the use of eyes or the blinding of a bird or other animal are common. Lore on rings and stones of invisibility also evidently draws on traditions extending back to antiquity, and the notion that birds can fetch or somehow produce magical items is well attested. Although less common, similar power is attributed to ants. As we shall see, the text also draws upon common elements in fairy lore.

The notion that abstinence or control of sensual and sexual impulses might make one more magically powerful is omnipresent in medieval ritual magic and, if muted, appears in these pieces. Although the requirement to avoid “H & G” in the first ritual is obscure, it probably initially involved avoidance of women or sexual impurity in general.

The need for virgin wax, a clean location, clean clothes, bread made with good wheat, and a cleansing bath before operating reflect these assumptions as well. The requirement that the operator does not accept food or wine from the spirits in the second piece also suggests the value of self-control or even asceticism, as he is supposed to content himself with bread and water.

The strange coincidence of these sorts of assumptions with prurient goals also commonly occurs in necromantic manuals. In fact, the last operation epitomises this strange opposition by hinting at the possibility that the magician can have sex with one of the conjured spirits! It might be that the ritual actions and resulting states were understood to have a kind of mechanical efficacy, independent of the intent of the operator. But in the end, this seeming contradiction cannot entirely be explained away.

These texts might also have been attractive or entertaining as masculine fantasies. The collection from which these passages are drawn was copied by a single, sloppy hand and graced with an artless title page reading “Of Love, of Kardes, Dies, and Tables, and Other Consaytes.”

The constituent magic operations betray a set of rakish or adolescent sensibilities with a focus on women, sex, gambling, fishing, hunting, and sneaking about in an invisible state. Given this context, one might well read the longer invisibility operations (and even the entire magic collection) as a fantasy of male power. The magician commands beautiful virgins by gesturing with his sceptre and knows how to control his desires to sexually conquer them. Many other pre-modern ritual magic texts reflect similar sorts of sensibilities, and this mythologized masculinity would also have been attractive to a certain portion of the population. Additionally, one might regard this section as analogous to portions of medieval magic manuals in which the authors engage in fantastic bragging about their powers.

These experiments also served literary functions. A general appetite in the sixteenth-century for “wonders” of this kind can be illustrated by the popularity of books of secrets. Although many books of this kind included genuinely useful craft information, a large number evidently responded to popular interest in curious and sensational material and were thus as much a literature of entertainment as practical magic books. That the scribe referred to the secrets as “consayts” and attempted to make the title page look like a printed frontispiece strongly suggest that he associated this collection with that larger literature.

The works in this collection also echo late medieval literary motifs, further suggesting literary sensibilities. Mysterious but attractive women who are really demons or fairies and whose supplications one must avoid are common in British vernacular literature, particularly in Celtic literature. That they might involve complex tests of character also suggests these sources, though such tests typically do not yield gifts but allow the protagonist to avoid danger or loss of honour. So, in part at least, this ritual might derive its resonance for readers from literature. The line between magic and literature or storytelling was not always clear.

This combination also marks a period of change in the conception and practice of magic in the latter part of the sixteenth-century driven by a variety of factors: changing religious ideas resulting from the Reformation, an expanding vernacular literature of learned magic (print and manuscript), new scientific ideas, and an extensive printed literature of anti-magical invective.

The emulation of printed literature by the scribe of this collection is one example. A set of elements in the last operation also highlights how learned magic was wound together with literature and popular traditions in new and unusual ways.

The last text concludes by implying that the operator is to have sex with the spirit that he has just conjured. Given that a witch’s pact with the devil was often understood to be sealed with a sexual act, it seems incautious at best to have sex with a spirit of any kind, and the notion that a spirit might be a virgin is even more peculiar.

This unusual operation (including the sex) derives from a late medieval manual known as the Thesaurus spirituum that was generally dedicated to more conventional demon conjuring.

Necromantic manuals might offer to transport the woman of your choice to your bedroom, but this operation is the only instance of which we are aware in learned magic in which the magical ritual could result in sex with undefined spirits. So why did the scribe select this operation out of the host of other more conventional ones available both in the Thesaurus spirituum and elsewhere?

We have already discussed masculine fantasy and the power of a good story as possible motivations but to these we can also add the peculiarly Elizabethan fascination with fairies and fairy lore.

The ritual accords well with popular fairy lore according to which one might take a fairy wife who was actually female (rather than the illusory sexuality of a demon) and with whom one might even produce children. It evinces a range of other commonalities with these traditions as well.

Most tellingly, the fascination with fairies is in evidence elsewhere in contemporary magic literature.

A very similar operation in ‘The Discoverie of Witchcraft’ and a seventeenth-century manuscript explicitly refer to the women as fairies.

Having sex with fairies is also the explicit target of another version of this ritual in a manuscript in the Folger Shakespeare Library. K.M. Briggs has identified the occurrence of some elements of these rituals, particularly the offering of a meal at a specially arranged table and the consequent arrival of three persons or fairies in thirteenth-century French literature and later popular magic traditions.

This regular incorporation of fairy lore into necromancy seems peculiar to the late sixteenth-century and is attested by other examples. The choice of this unconventional experiment was evidently related to a growing written literature that discussed fairy magic in association with ritual magic and the considerable fascination that fairies held for Elizabethan writers.

In short, the shift in the emphasis it involves subtly illustrates the transformation of the medieval traditions under the influence of peculiarly sixteenth-century preoccupations.

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