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Upper-class rituals

FAU researcher investigates previously undiscovered collection of important magical manuscripts

University of Erlangen-Nuremberg

Predicting the future, summoning angels and demons, creating talismans, dowsing rods and magic mirrors: In early modern times, magical rituals were part of the body of knowledge of the educated classes of society. Together with Dr. Bernd-Christian Otto from the Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt, Prof. Dr. Daniel Bellingradt, Junior Professor in Book Science and specialist in historical communication research at the Friederich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU), examined a collection of 140 ritual magical manuscripts from the early 18th century which had previously remained undiscovered in the library of the University of Leipzig.

Old traditions which are not common knowledge

Written in German, Italian and Latin around 1700, the 140 manuscripts include transcripts, recreations and translations of magical texts. These grimoires are based on Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions. Most of the texts are ritual scripts, that is, instructions for and descriptions of rituals. Some rituals allow you to look into your own future, while others can make the bewitched become invisible or even allow them to fly.

Banned and consequently retrieved

The collection reveals the secret knowledge which was passed on from generation to generation within the upper social milieus. Indeed, despite many attempts to ban and censor, the practice of magic held a certain appeal in the period after 1500, especially among learned and elitist circles who, behind closed doors, sought to redefine the boundaries between magic, religion and science. According to Daniel Bellingradt, "this collection gives us an insight into a time and universe which could be designated as the 'Dark Enlightenment'. It is almost the underground history of the Enlightenment."

Readers required a high level of education to understand the texts, which typically featured long and convoluted passages. Moreover, the rituals themselves would take a relatively long time to perform, were expensive and required a broad knowledge of European-religious traditions, all prerequisites which were generally only accessible to educated social elites. In other words accessible to those strata of society which had been rediscovering ancient knowledge, including old magical writing, from the mid-13th century on. Interest in this kind of knowledge remained intact during the Renaissance and afterwards.

As a result of the ban on magic (in Leipzig, the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina of 1532 remained in force in 1700) and censorship in general, this dangerous knowledge was disseminated mostly via underground channels like secret scholars' circles and monasteries where it was handed down either orally or by means of anonymous one-off handwritten notes. Although the use of letterpress printing was somewhat limited in this area, trading in magical manuscripts was certainly worthwhile. "The collection also helped us understand the clandestine book trade, which seems to have been a particularly lucrative business for the traders," Bellingradt adds.

At the time when these 140 manuscripts were written, their cumulative value was equivalent to the price of two or three townhouses in Leipzig. A treasure of great value, which Bellingradt and his colleague Dr. Bernd-Christian Otto of Erfurt University have now rediscovered. Bellingradt first began to suspect the existence of the collection some years ago, after finding, sandwiched between censorship orders, a catalogue of books, dated 1714, which had been forbidden by the Electoral Saxon Book Commission. The catalogue contained a list of 140 forbidden manuscripts. Some time later, his colleague identified the collection described in the catalogue in the Leipzig University library, where the magical manuscripts had been kept more or less intact over the centuries. The results of their investigation are now being published in a book entitled "Magical Manuscripts in Early Modern Europe. The Clandestine Trade in Illegal Book Collections".

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