Review of “Magus” by Anthony Grafton – Enthralled
Last October, a small conflict in the ongoing cultural debates arose when the University of Exeter announced a new master’s program. The MA in magic and occult science unintentionally sparked criticism from those opposed to progressive ideas. On the social media platform now known as X, headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh strongly objected to the degree, stating: “We have gone beyond the point of absurdity.” In defense of her course, program director Emily Selove argued in the Guardian that superstitions and rituals – such as crystals, horoscopes, lucky items, and game day routines – are a part of everyday life. However, works discussing magic or occult topics have been consistently overlooked by academic research. If only she had waited a few more months, she would have discovered Anthony Grafton’s insightful yet approachable Magus, which addresses this neglect and reveals that the difficulty in discussing this subject dates back over 500 years.
On December 6, 1455, physician Johannes Hartlieb engaged in a dispute with an army captain over a goose bone. The two men had been discussing the weather and the possibility of a mild winter. The military man confidently declared that studying a goose bone was the most reliable means of predicting weather, citing its use by the Teutonic knights in their campaigns. Frustrated, Hartlieb offered his own prediction based on astrological reasoning, stating that the alignment of Saturn and other stars indicated a mild winter in three years. Historian Grafton humorously notes that Hartlieb’s prediction was not based on “diabolical art” but rather on sound scientific astrology.
This may appear to us as a distinction between two equally unbelievable forms of naive speculation. However, during the late Middle Ages, it symbolized the contrast between base superstition and the developing practice of educated magic. Instead of the eerie witches floating through the mist, envision someone like Prospero engrossed in his books, “lost in private studies.” The individual practicing this novel form of academic magic was known as a magus.
According to Grafton, the magus is not as respectable as the artist or scientist, but still plays a significant role in the larger picture. Typically depicted as male, the magus combines elements of magic and technology and may gain power and influence. There may be some fraudulent actions in his career, but his main focus is on collecting rare books written in obscure languages. These include the Picatrix, an 11th-century Arabic work, The Secret of Secrets, supposedly written by Aristotle for Alexander the Great, and works by Zoroaster and Hermes Trismegistus that evoke images of Persia and Egypt. Pico della Mirandola, an Italian magus, unintentionally reinforced the belief that Jewish communities practiced magic not accepted by Christianity when he turned to Kabbalistic teachings.
According to Grafton’s historical account of magic, early interest in the military potential of enchanted objects shifted in the 15th century to a focus on improving personal health through astrology, particularly for scholars. Marsilio Ficino of Florence advised against excessive sexual activity, overeating and drinking, and staying up late. He also observed that after the age of 70, the body may experience a lack of moisture, suggesting that it may be beneficial to seek out a young, healthy, cheerful, and temperate girl to suckle from during times of hunger and a waxing moon.
The balance between acceptable and unacceptable magic was constantly changing, as each magician tried to differentiate between the practices he engaged in and those that were considered taboo. In this world where self-promotion was approached with caution, it’s no surprise that the reckless and indiscreet Faustus, a 16th century German alchemist whose life became legendary, caused such a stir. He boldly declared himself as “the greatest of necromancers”, boasted that he could easily perform any of Christ’s miracles, and even summoned a swarm of flying crockery to attack Luther’s top assistant. This was enough to tarnish the reputation of the profession.
At this point, the serious magus’s work was starting to align with a different type of magic: the impressive displays of mathematics, engineering, and perspective that could create spectacles and amaze audiences. In 1546, while working on a play at Cambridge, a young John Dee created a special effect that baffled onlookers: a scarab beetle appearing to ascend into the sky with a man on its back. Many years later, Dee would express frustration at being falsely accused of being involved with evil spirits and condemned as a “Companion of the Helhoundes” and a “Caller and Conjuror”. This reputation has persisted for centuries. However, when recalling some of the incredible things he had witnessed or heard of – a moving automaton in Paris, an artificial eagle that flies over Nuremberg – Dee acknowledged that it was through the use of mathematics that these “Wonder-worke” were achieved.