Treasures from the London Library: Magic, superstition or subversion?

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros considers the works of three authors who, during the religious fervour of 16th-century Europe, moved away from the Church and wrote about magic.

In 16th century Europe, nothing was more important, controversial, or dangerous, than religion. Yet, as some of the books in the London Library show, at a time when wars, plague and religious persecution were part of everyday life, some turned away from the Church in their search for answers and reassurance.

Jean de Meun’s Le dodechedron de fortune

Jean de Meun’s Le dodechedron de fortune: livre non moins plaisant & recreatif, que subtil & ingenieux entre tous les jeux & passetemps de fortune was printed in Paris in 1356. Jean Clopinel or Chopinel (c. 1240-c. 1320), named de Meun after his birthplace, was a French poet best known for writing the continuation to Guillaume de Lorris' unfinished Roman de la Rose, in which he famously satirizes the Pope, monastic orders, marriage, love and women.

De Meun adopts a similarly playful and irreverent attitude towards life in the Dodechedron. The Dodechedron is an instruction manual for telling fortunes using dice and includes a table of numbers to provide answers to a list of set questions. The reader only needs a twelve-sided die to roll for answers to questions such as whether a horse one is thinking of buying will prove a good investment, whether a prisoner of one's acquaintance will be released soon, or whether a particular person will come to bad end. In his preface, the author warns that the book should only be used for fun and should not be taken seriously; however, the fact that it was reprinted in 1556, over two hundred years after de Meun's death, suggests that it may have provided more than good and light-hearted entertainment. Over time, the Dodechedron grew in popularity and an English version was published in London, in 1613, as The dodechedron of fortune, or, The exercise of a quick wit A booke so rarely and strangely composed, that it giueth (after a most admirable manner) a pleasant and ingenious answer to euery demaund; the like whereof hath not heretofore beene published in our English tongue. Being first composed in French by Iohn de Meum, one of the most worthie and famous poets of his time; and dedicated to the French King, Charles the fift, and by him, for the worth and raritie thereof, verie much countenanced, vsed, and priuiledged: and now, for the content of our countrey-men, Englished by Sr. W.B. Knight.

While it appears that Jean de Meun's mischievous and subversive character drove him to explore unorthodox territory, our next two authors, Claude Dariot and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, ventured into astrology and occultism out of a profound belief in their power.

Claude Dariot (1533-1594) was a French physician and astrologer who was sensible enough to also be a Calvinist rather than a Catholic since astrology was considered heretical by the Catholic Church. His key work, A briefe and most easie introduction to the astrologicall judgement of the stares, was first published in Lyon in 1557. It was later printed in London, in 1598. In his briefe, Dariot discusses the effects of the movements of the planets and stars on some illnesses and the existence of astrologically propitious days for preparing remedies and carrying out certain surgical procedures, thus blurring the boundaries between science and magic.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535) was secretary and counsellor to Charles V, Emperor of Germany. He was a Catholic theologian, a royal physician, a philosopher and a soldier, but also the most important early modern writer on magic and the occult. He completed his most important work, De occulta philosophia, in 1510, and an enlarged version was published in Cologne, in 1533. De occulta philosophia earned him the title of 'founder of occultism'. In his lifetime, Agrippa travelled around Europe, was banished from Germany after a theological clash and was imprisoned in France for his unwise remarks regarding the royal family. However, he was never persecuted for his writings on magic and while some accounts claim that he rejected the occult towards the end of his life, it is not clear that he did.

Dunia Garcia-Ontiveros is head of Bibliographic Services at the London Library.

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