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Jortner on Davies: Grimoires (2010) (Read 2345 times)

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Jortner on Davies: Grimoires (2010)
28.06.2011 at 09:28:28
Adam Jortner  
Owen Davies:  
Grimoires: A History of Magic Books
Oxford : Oxford University Press 2010
ISBN 978-0-19-959004-9
: The Magic Words
Grimoires represents the broadest chronology Davies has yet attempted. Magical books date back almost to the invention of writing; this volume stretches from Moses and the Hebrew Bible to Anton LaVey and The Satanic Bible (1969). Practically, however, the story begins with medieval efforts to appropriate and interpret ancient magic, through the fifteenth-century rise of hermeticism, and into the democratizing effect of the printing press. Davies makes much of the expanded reach print gave to grimoires, and hence most of this account deals with the early modern and modern use of printed magical books by esoteric gentlemen and treasure-seeking rabble alike. Even if, as Davies argues, print did not eliminate handwritten grimoires, the print revolution created more grimoires and more stories about grimoires--the intellectual back and forth and anecdotal evidence that provide the two evidentiary supports of this study.

And yet, if showing the number and influence of magical books in Western history is Davies’s objective, then in showing volume, he makes an implicit argument: fully two-thirds of his world history of grimoires involves books published after the onset of the Enlightenment. The rise of printing, the spread of literacy, and the rediscovery of ancient Near Eastern cultures led to the creation (and re-creation) of many more grimoires in the years since 1700 than had ever before existed. Davies’s nineteenth-century predecessor, Arthur Edward Waite--who wrote an extended history of magic books in addition to designing tarot cards--noted the “remarkable bibliographic fact that such texts were issued, and on so great a scale, in the last decade of the nineteenth century” (p. 181).[2] Seen from the perspective of the grimoire, magic is a thoroughly modern phenomenon--not a survival or a retention.

This latter point represents an important piece of the argument for those who study magic, witchcraft, and esoterica; unlike many other subfields, historians of the supernatural often need to demonstrate the ubiquity and extent of their subject matter to convince colleagues and committees of the validity of their work. Several works in the last decade (some of them by Davies) have shown that magical, mystical, and esoteric thought thrived in the modern age, yet an older sociological predilection still persists that treats magic and miracle as exclusively premodern ideas that existed only as holdovers in the twentieth century. If Grimoires is correct, however, the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries provided the ideal environment for magical thinking. Magic is very modern. Other books have made a similar point, but it is a point worth hearing more than once, particularly when written with Davies’s élan.
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