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Book review: Magus: The art of magic from Faustus to Agrippa by Anthony Grafton

22 December 2023

‘Magus’ interests were not always legitimate, G. R. Evans finds

THIS is a thoroughly readable grapple with the Renaissance and Reformation endeavours to find a way for Christian believers through thickets of confusion. This was the time when the relatively confident subjects of respectable university study were being added to or superseded. With the seven liberal arts of Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy, you knew more or less where you were. There had been “authorities” for those in the form of classical textbooks, translated into Latin from the Greek where necessary. Now, some intellectuals were learning Greek, and the range of books to be relied rely on was expanding in the universities. This was far from uncontroversial and led to some regrettable episodes of burning of books.

In the thickets were some ancient “disciplines”, as well as new potentially respectable ones. Philosophy jostled with the ancestry of modern experimental science, religion with magic, intellectual challenge with suspicions of devil worship. Anthony Grafton tracks a path through all this, beginning by inviting the reader to breakfast with the Lutheran academic Philip Melanchthon and the “magician” Faustus. Faustus was a “performer” as well as an intellectual and an apparently successful practising magician. The tale could be fiction (they may never have met), but it made its point as told by another academic, a professor at the University of Heidelberg. He conducted something of a campaign against Faustus, and, in his stories, Luther and Melanchthon played brave and successful parts.

Grafton moves back in time in his next chapter to examine medieval attitudes to the Magi of the Epiphany. The Magi were clearly astrologers, but not reproved in scripture. It records that they were given guidance to protect their safety when they departed from their visit to the baby Jesus and his mother. Nevertheless, medieval critics distinguished firmly between astrology and astronomy and disapproved of the way in which astrology might be associated with a variety of magical practices. There was a fine line here, as in many other areas of “Magus” interest. Holy water might be used in spells, and that was plainly wrong, but herbs might be used medically without involving magic.

AlamyThe Magi in a woodcut from a 1483 edition in German of 14th-century John of Hildesheim’s Historia Trium Regum

Next comes “Power over nature”, in which Grafton explores the emerging ideas that were to define modern science — for example, the development of alchemy. Alchemists often had considerable knowledge of the properties of plants and the magnetic effects of lodestones. Something approaching experimental science emerged by way of the testing of observable “apparent effects”. Here, too, hovered the distinction between theory and practice which still bedevils higher education.

The following chapter on “The Learned Magus” looks at Pico della Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino as leading examples of thinkers only too conscious of the possible threat to good Christian order in the success of the magical in capturing the popular imagination. Was it true that the stars and planets exerted an influence on the earth, and, if so, what kind of “influence”? What should be made of the apparent miracles performed by the relics of saints? Were they holy or the work of Satan actively leading the easily led and uneducated astray?

The book-loving Benedictine Johannes Trithemius has a chapter to himself. He used his vast library to support his accounts of Germanic history. But he made a good deal up, and his writings included such frauds. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, author of De occulta philosophia, has another chapter. His writing blurred the line between philosophy and magic and encouraged the strengthening of parties campaigning against the monks and friars. Here were stirrings of Reformation hostility to the religious orders. Mysticism was popular, and there were cults whose adherents embraced a variety of positions in the thicket.

There is no Conclusion, but this scholarly work, relying on earlier attempts such as those of Francis Yates and James George Frazer to penetrate this thicket of effort and thought, does a great deal to identify the plants in the thicket, and mark their cross-breeding and their seeding of enormously important later changes.


Dr G. R. Evans is Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in the University of Cambridge.


Magus: The art of magic from Faustus to Agrippa
Anthony Grafton
Penguin £30
Church Times Bookshop £27

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