Resources for Historical Campaigns

Lofgeornost

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This is a good list. To this, I would note that there have been some fairly recent translations of earlier, late medieval (as opposed to Early Modern) grimoires including some that are overtly transgressive. One good example is the CLM 849 or Munich manuscript of Demonic Magic. These earlier grimoires have a different tone than the 17th Century ones people are more familiar with, and are actually a bit more 'RPG like' in terms of some of their 'experimenta' which are not just descriptions of the characteristics of various goetic spirits, but actual recipes to accomplish specific goals, such as to turn invisible or summon a phantom horse to take you to Persia (just don't fall into a state of Sin when you get there).

A guy name Richard Kieckhefer has published an overview and partial translation of this book in English, it has also been transcribed into modern German published in a couple of other languages. You can get Kickhefer's book as part of a series called "Magic in History" on Amazon, which has several other useful titles.

Yes, Kieckhefer's translation is very useful. He's one of the major English-language scholars of medieval magic and witchcraft; his Magic in the Middle Ages came out recently in a third edition. The 'Magic in History' series has a lot of interesting material in it.

One really good resource for maps of early modern Europe in general are the atlas published by Braun and Hogenberg ('civitates orbis terrarum'). You can buy a facsimile pretty cheap - it's small so the images are not big but it's really cool. In particular they provide maps of hundreds of cities. Many of these are also online, for example, this is their map of Rome:

I can't recall if it's been mentioned already upthread, but a lot of the Civitates Orbis maps or city plans are available in electronic form at the Historic Cities site associated with the University of Jerusalem.

Yeah, it is more fun for me too. I think most people really prefer the "zero to hero" and "fantasy superhero" type genres. But for me, I like the world of the only slightly better than the ordinary folks. People who still do have to worry about where they are going to eat tomorrow and where they will find shelter to lay their weary head at night... and who can't be certain they can kill any robber who accosts them on the road.

This is the basis for the great "low fantasy" fiction which was also important in the genres which influenced RPGs: Jack Vance, the original Robert E Howard Conan novels, Fritz Leiber and so on. These are the kinds of stories I personally find most fun. And these are the kinds which you can really sink your teeth into in an historical setting. We also assume a little big of magic and mystery in our 'historical' setting, but based essentially on what the people of the period believed was true and real: Mysterious angels and celestial spirits, trolls in the forest, necromancy of scholars, the cantrips of hedge witches and cunning folk, the fey, the powers of saintly relics and shrines, and of course, demons and devils, rather than modern high fantasy tropes.

Certainly one of my favorite approaches as well! A belated welcome to the 'Pub--it's nice to have the author of The Medieval Baltic sourcebooks (and other Codex Integrum publications) here.
 

Klibbix!

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This is a good list. To this, I would note that there have been some fairly recent translations of earlier, late medieval (as opposed to Early Modern) grimoires including some that are overtly transgressive. One good example is the CLM 849 or Munich manuscript of Demonic Magic. These earlier grimoires have a different tone than the 17th Century ones people are more familiar with, and are actually a bit more 'RPG like' in terms of some of their 'experimenta' which are not just descriptions of the characteristics of various goetic spirits, but actual recipes to accomplish specific goals, such as to turn invisible or summon a phantom horse to take you to Persia (just don't fall into a state of Sin when you get there).


A guy name Richard Kieckhefer has published an overview and partial translation of this book in English, it has also been transcribed into modern German published in a couple of other languages. You can get Kickhefer's book as part of a series called "Magic in History" on Amazon, which has several other useful titles.

Cornelius Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy is available in pretty readable translation, and IMO is a very good overview for magic in that period as he covers a little bit of everything. You don't need a PhD in medieval theology to read it either, as even though he was a 16th Century 'wizard' (among many other talents) his voice is fairly modern in tone and his language isn't too strange. I find it's always instructive to read these people in their own voices. It can be a great resource for providing tidbits to your gamers as well (same is defintiely true of the more transgressive CLM 849 and similar MSS as they sometimes have a very creepy 'voice'.)

Francis Yates has several interesting books on mnemonics and it's esoteric aspects which I think is very helpful in understanding the esoteric tradition in late medieval and early modern Europe, and the more literate strata of society in general. It will help you understand the work of figures like Raymond Lull and Giordano Bruno much better. And the use of the memory palace / Ars Memoria has become a modern sport.

Finally, generally speaking I recommend learning as much as you can about the Classical traditions, especially neo-platonism, to understand those individuals like Ficino or Agrippa who were leaders in the revival of interest in the esoteric arts in the Renaissance. You probably gain more ground in making sense of it all by reading a little bit of Plotonius than most modern assessments.


Kieckhefer‘s Forbidden Rites, which I believe you are referencing above, was a good read. I had a good chuckle reading the spell about summoning a Horse.

As for Yates, I own a copy of her book about the Hermetic Tradition but have yet to read it.

I did read The Art of Memory but I’ll have to read it again since I’ve learned a bit since then and it may be a bit more digestible now.

I’m working my way through a few books on Chaos Magic, namely Condensed Chaos, and since that system advocates for using whatever other traditions as the magician sees fit, I’m going to go through my library for more ammunition.

I am particularly interested in the sunmoning of entities, but more from an operative perspective. The old grimoires are good fodder for this.
 

Peter Von Danzig

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Yes, Kieckhefer's translation is very useful. He's one of the major English-language scholars of medieval magic and witchcraft; his Magic in the Middle Ages came out recently in a third edition. The 'Magic in History' series has a lot of interesting material in it.

Yes there seems to be a growing interest in this material in certain circles. The late medieval works some of which are just coming into public view, as Kieckhefer notes, are quite different from the later 17th Century ones most people are familiar with, they are a little bit more "RPG-esque" in a way.

When I was researching Superno I had the opportunity to chat with a few very serious practitioners from this community. Unique subculture, or array of them, with some very erudite and accomplished people involved. It's kind of difficult to know what to make of it all.

I lack the skills or inclination to pursue this sort of thing myself, and as it is something I do not know that much about, I am ... respectfully wary of the whole thing. But it's certainly fascinating to learn about. It seems that the same aspects which drew the interests of people like Ficino and Agrippa back in the day still have a certain pull, though perhaps for a different set of reasons.
I can't recall if it's been mentioned already upthread, but a lot of the Civitates Orbis maps or city plans are available in electronic form at the Historic Cities site associated with the University of Jerusalem.

Great site! Almost all of them are also on Wikimedia Commons as well, usually two or three times.

Certainly one of my favorite approaches as well! A belated welcome to the 'Pub--it's nice to have the author of The Medieval Baltic sourcebooks (and other Codex Integrum publications) here.

Thank you very kindly, that's very nice of you to say. I'm glad to be here.
 

Peter Von Danzig

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Kieckhefer‘s Forbidden Rites, which I believe you are referencing above, was a good read. I had a good chuckle reading the spell about summoning a Horse.

As for Yates, I own a copy of her book about the Hermetic Tradition but have yet to read it.

One of her books has an amazing fold out map of a memory palace. I have it somewhere on my shelf need to go look for it.
I did read The Art of Memory but I’ll have to read it again since I’ve learned a bit since then and it may be a bit more digestible now.

I’m working my way through a few books on Chaos Magic, namely Condensed Chaos, and since that system advocates for using whatever other traditions as the magician sees fit, I’m going to go through my library for more ammunition.

I am particularly interested in the sunmoning of entities, but more from an operative perspective. The old grimoires are good fodder for this.

yes indeed. I assume you have volume IV of the Picatrix and the Sworn book of Honorious?

Another really interesting one is the book of Abramelin the sage. That's a real weird one.
 

Peter Von Danzig

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My favorite setting that I haven't done with anything yet, (and I'm not sure I'm quite ready to tackle, though I have been collecting sources) is early to mid -16th Century Pacific Rim and Indian Ocean. From just when the Portuguese get there through the early arrival of the Dutch, Spanish, Ottomans, (and a bit later) English, French, etc.

You have a really incredible mix of cultures there, not to mention fighting styles. It's like that absurd old show 'deadliest warrior'. The Spanish were clashing with Ronin Samurai (who were muscle for Chinese "Wagu" pirates) down in the Philippines. The Dutch were hiring Ronin by the thousands as 'security' for the East India Company in Java. There were very tough local tribes in the Philippines, Indonesia etc. (like the Moro Cheiftain Lapu Lapu who killed Magellan for example). The Spanish had Irish, Mexican, and German mercenaries in significant numbers. The Portuguese, who established their first big base in Japan at Nagasaki in 1571, had Ethiopians, Flemish, and Frenchmen on their ships. I have a memoir from a Venetian physician who accompanied them on one of their earliest expeditions to the Pacific rim (who made maps). You had secret kingdoms in Siam and Khmer city states, all of which were visited by various rogue Spanish or Portuguese soliders (some of whom also wrote memoirs).

The Portuguese published a book with little paintings of people they encountered all the way from Portugal to the Pacific, the Códice Casanatense. Here are a few images from it:

320px-Codice_Casanatense_Ethiopians.jpg

Abyssinian warrior and wife

320px-Codice_Casanatense_Rumes.jpg

Turks from the Red Sea area

640px-Codice_Casanatense_Water-tank_in_Gujarat.jpg


Swimming pool in Gujarat, India

640px-Codice_Casanatense_Patanas.jpg

Women hunting birds on horseback in Persia

640px-Codice_Casanatense_Sinhalese_Warriors.jpg

Sinhalese warriors from Ceylon
 

Peter Von Danzig

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Another regional map I really like is the 16th Century "Carta Marina" by Swedish "Bishop without portfolio" Olaus Magnus. Fantastic map of Scandinavia with all kinds of monsters, giants, trolls etc., plus legit historical details like Finns fighting on Skis, Vistula riverboats on the way to Danzig, Teutonic Knights skirmishing with Muscovites etc.

1655319595176.png

Here is a high res version where you can see all the detail

 

Lofgeornost

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For some general (rather esoteric) resources, I recommend the Ex- Classics site.

I've mostly used it for its collection of English Civil War pamphlets, but the entire site is a treasure trove of long out of print books and documents.
Although the interface is a bit more clunky, the EEBO (Early English Books Online) site is invaluable for e-copies of texts published before c. 1700. It is actually tied to a paid-subscription database, but the raw texts digitized by the University of Michigan are released for free.
 

Klibbix!

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One of her books has an amazing fold out map of a memory palace. I have it somewhere on my shelf need to go look for it.


yes indeed. I assume you have volume IV of the Picatrix and the Sworn book of Honorious?

Another really interesting one is the book of Abramelin the sage. That's a real weird one.

I have the Abramelin book and the Picatrix, but the other one I’ll be on the hunt for!

i also have these two, which I’ve found to be interesting reads.



7030425E-C47F-408B-A777-8BE980734FAC.jpeg C42FDC49-B962-48F3-860D-DECD27D0F307.jpeg
 

Peter Von Danzig

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Grand Grimoire is interesting in terms of goetic tradition, but I think it's an.... "abbreviated compilation" of earlier sources made during Victorian times. It basically has all the Lemegeton stuff you would find from the 17th Century onward. Secretum Secretorum is a bit more of a 'mirror of princes' type book but it has some useful information in it.

Regarding the book of Abramelin, have you seen the film "A Dark Song"?


Though there are good translations commercially available now, Honorious is not an easy read, and neither is the Picatrix. You need to know something about Catholic liturgy for the former and a great deal about astrology (and associated math) for the latter. But the practitioners seem to set a lot of store by both of them, going back centuries.

Agrippas De Occulta Philosophia libri III is probably the single best, and most readable overview of the material from the earlier period, in my opinion, including the Classical sources. For your purposes, you might want to look for the MS Rawlinson D252 as well, and you probably already know this, but there are apparently full translations of the CLM 849 floating around now, including parts that Kieckhefer doesn't mention in his book.

At the risk of coming across foolish, I'd say take care with all this stuff.
 

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Regarding the book of Abramelin, have you seen the film "A Dark Song"?

That is one of my favorite horror movies of the past decade. It is one of the few that actually makes any real attempt to depict an actual ritual. I would have preferred something a little more subtle in the last half hour, but overall there isn't any other movie quite like it.
 

Klibbix!

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Grand Grimoire is interesting in terms of goetic tradition, but I think it's an.... "abbreviated compilation" of earlier sources made during Victorian times. It basically has all the Lemegeton stuff you would find from the 17th Century onward. Secretum Secretorum is a bit more of a 'mirror of princes' type book but it has some useful information in it.

Regarding the book of Abramelin, have you seen the film "A Dark Song"?


Though there are good translations commercially available now, Honorious is not an easy read, and neither is the Picatrix. You need to know something about Catholic liturgy for the former and a great deal about astrology (and associated math) for the latter. But the practitioners seem to set a lot of store by both of them, going back centuries.

Agrippas De Occulta Philosophia libri III is probably the single best, and most readable overview of the material from the earlier period, in my opinion, including the Classical sources. For your purposes, you might want to look for the MS Rawlinson D252 as well, and you probably already know this, but there are apparently full translations of the CLM 849 floating around now, including parts that Kieckhefer doesn't mention in his book.

At the risk of coming across foolish, I'd say take care with all this stuff.

That is one of my favorite horror movies of the past decade. It is one of the few that actually makes any real attempt to depict an actual ritual. I would have preferred something a little more subtle in the last half hour, but overall there isn't any other movie quite like it.


I have seen it! I enjoyed it immensely, I think there was a great deal of creative license taken with the depiction of the work but it was good and subtle until the last half hour, as noted. Any other movies you'd recommend in a similar vein?

I didn't actually know there were other translations, I will have a look. Thank you for pointing that out.

Also, not foolish at all, I try to take it as seriously as I can!
 

Peter Von Danzig

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That is one of my favorite horror movies of the past decade. It is one of the few that actually makes any real attempt to depict an actual ritual. I would have preferred something a little more subtle in the last half hour, but overall there isn't any other movie quite like it.

I actually liked the ending, it got the idea across. Overall a very interesting and quite spooky film in it's own way. The tension built up very gradually.
 

Lofgeornost

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Yes there seems to be a growing interest in this material in certain circles. The late medieval works some of which are just coming into public view, as Kieckhefer notes, are quite different from the later 17th Century ones most people are familiar with, they are a little bit more "RPG-esque" in a way.

When I was researching Superno I had the opportunity to chat with a few very serious practitioners from this community. Unique subculture, or array of them, with some very erudite and accomplished people involved. It's kind of difficult to know what to make of it all.

I lack the skills or inclination to pursue this sort of thing myself, and as it is something I do not know that much about, I am ... respectfully wary of the whole thing. But it's certainly fascinating to learn about. It seems that the same aspects which drew the interests of people like Ficino and Agrippa back in the day still have a certain pull, though perhaps for a different set of reasons.
I can't say that I've ever encountered someone who actually believed in these occult traditions; my own interest in them is only for historical research or for material to use in gaming. Some enthusiasts or practitioners have done a lot of work recently in bringing out editions or translations of source material. Frankly, I'm not sure how to judge them as editions. I suppose you'd have to approach it on a case-by-case basis. I am wary of such material for real historical research, because (1) the history of magical texts is so replete with pseudigraphia, unacknowledged borrowings, and 'invented traditions' that the time of composition and the context of individual works can be hard to discern without a lot of work and (2) many of the sources lack critical editions or even the beginnings of the research in manuscripts that would be needed to compile them. This matters less, of course, if the point is to create an edition of one particular manuscript (rather than a text), and also if you are using the material as inspiration for gaming, rather history-writing.
 

Peter Von Danzig

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I can't say that I've ever encountered someone who actually believed in these occult traditions;

Oh they exist, and they are definitely an unusual group of people. There are even people who will construct devices like an almadel for a fee

ded0427d28ffca0d2ba964de634ecc7e.jpg


my own interest in them is only for historical research or for material to use in gaming.

Same here, though I am curious about some of the philosophical implications, as some of the related tools, such as the mnemonics system, seem to actually work. You've probably heard of the 'memory Olympics' etc.

Some enthusiasts or practitioners have done a lot of work recently in bringing out editions or translations of source material. Frankly, I'm not sure how to judge them as editions. I suppose you'd have to approach it on a case-by-case basis. I am wary of such material for real historical research, because (1) the history of magical texts is so replete with pseudigraphia, unacknowledged borrowings, and 'invented traditions' that the time of composition and the context of individual works can be hard to discern without a lot of work and (2) many of the sources lack critical editions or even the beginnings of the research in manuscripts that would be needed to compile them.

yes, absolutely this. The issue is however that the Victorian and early 20th Century translations suffer from the same issues as modern efforts. There werre many charlatans and phonies involved in this stuff going back to the 16th Century (look at Edward Kelley for example) and no doubt long before that.

But it seems like the 18th and 19th Century were particularly bad for this. I am not an expert myself, but from what I understand, as one example, the translation of the book of Abramelin done a century ago by the OTO and Crowley etc., is quite sloppy, full of errors, and rather carelessly truncated. Evidently the newer translations are much better and more complete, and that is true for several different manuscruipts. If you actually did believe in this stuff, I think that could be pretty important!

Again, I'm not an expert, in fact definitely an outsider and a neophyte, this is just the conclusion I came to from a period of research.

We also ran into this exact type of problem in the HEMA / WMA world. Translations are always difficult even when the translator is good, we are on probably the fourth of fifth generation of translations of some of the longest known medieval fencing manuals and have only made what progress we have done by the collaboration of what are now thousands of people in the research side alone (including about fifty active translators). There is always another layer of context, a new understanding of jargon, sometimes even cyphers decoded or new volumes discovered, which change our perception. The same is true of the esoteric and hermetic traditions of course.

In fact, the impetus to learn more about the esoteric corpus was because it is also included within several of the fencing manuals and war-manuals (Kriegsbücher). So I was curious what the hell that stuff was!

This matters less, of course, if the point is to create an edition of one particular manuscript (rather than a text), and also if you are using the material as inspiration for gaming, rather history-writing.

Yes absolutely. When i was doing my RPG book on this i took care to leave certain things out, I guess out of an abundance of caution. No goetic diagrams for example and I didn't include the exact wording of any of the incantations. My goal was, as you say, for context and flavor, to help gamers tell an interesting (and sometimes scary) story, and one which ties into the real world of the period (for me, late medieval Central Europe). But I didn't want to sort of just create an off-ramp for young people especially to get into experimenting with this stuff. At the very least you might run into some people better left alone. I even (after debating with myself about it a bit) wrote a little disclaimer to this effect which I included in the book.
 
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Peter Von Danzig

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What we do in the HEMA world is we make the scans of the original fightbook, the transcription (the copy from the old handwritten manuscript or printed book, which is often a major challenge of it's own), and the various translations, all available online for anyone to compare and contrast. Sometimes on the same page. This has been very helpful and enabled us to make a lot of progress in the last few years. Some of the grimoires are also available online as scan by the various universities that hold them.

There are also several sites like the Twilit Grotto which put transcription and translation side by side, for example:

 

Lofgeornost

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Yes, absolutely this. The issue is however that the Victorian and early 20th Century translations suffer from the same issues as modern efforts. There werre many charlatans and phonies involved in this stuff going back to the 16th Century (look at Edward Kelley for example) and no doubt long before that.

But it seems like the 18th and 19th Century were particularly bad for this. I am not an expert myself, but from what I understand, as one example, the translation of the book of Abramelin done a century ago by the OTO and Crowley etc., is quite sloppy, full of errors, and rather carelessly truncated. Evidently the newer translations are much better and more complete, and that is true for several different manuscruipts. If you actually did believe in this stuff, I think that could be pretty important!
Yes; a lot of the editions by occultists in the 1700s-early 1900s were definitely sloppy or deliberately misleading and no doubt some of the newer editions done by enthusiasts are much better.
What we do in the HEMA world is we make the scans of the original fightbook, the transcription (the copy from the old handwritten manuscript or printed book, which is often a major challenge of it's own), and the various translations, all available online for anyone to compare and contrast. Sometimes on the same page. This has been very helpful and enabled us to make a lot of progress in the last few years. Some of the grimoires are also available online as scan by the various universities that hold them.

There are also several sites like the Twilit Grotto which put transcription and translation side by side, for example:

All of that is very useful. What you want ultimately for historical study are real critical editions, where scholars have hunted down all the manuscripts of a given text that they can find, carefully compared all the variant readings in them, and done their best to reconstruct the original text--the sort of thing that is standard for scholarly editions of Classical works, or volumes in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, or the Oxford Medieval Texts series (to mention a few). As far as I know, almost no medieval or Early Modern grimoires have received this full treatment, though there are good editions or translations of specific manuscripts. Of course, since some manuscripts are more collections of different spells, rituals, lists of spirits, etc. that the writer found interesting or worth copying than they are copies of a set text, an edition of a specific manuscript is really all that can be produced.
 

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yeah I think the best you can hope for right now are good translations of the oldest extant original MSS or documents. And there are some of these, apparently. Contextualizing them and comparing editions and so on is a project that even if there were enough people demanding it, would be dependent on expertise that just frankly doesn't exist when it comes to that period. And when it comes to something like the Legementon or Ars Goetia I believe you will find there is actually no central or definitive version. Just a bunch of variations and different branches going back into Antiquity.

For the medieval period in general, on the one hand, there is still an abundance of surviving documents from as far back as roughly the 14th Century. Before that they are a bit more rare but you still have quite a few back another couple of hundred years. Then the pickings start to get thin. You can still find some Carolingian, Norman etc. records. And Byzantine of course.

But when it comes to medieval history, even the magisterial efforts you cite above such as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica are not to be trusted and must be taken with a significant grain of salt, IMO. They were produced with a specific goal in mind - to do with State building, more than to do with historical accuracy. It all depends how fine of a point you need to put on it of course, for RPG research I don't think you need to worry, but you will find that very strange editorial decisions were routinely made in that period (and later) for political or cultural reasons which either no longer make any sense to us or are frankly abhorrent. A lot gets left out, some things get added in, and so on.

That's why more current (and complete) translations tend to be better, because the interesting bits are often the ones that got left out.

The irony is that I think there are actually better and more translations available for Classical sources, carefully verified and contrasted and so on, and mostly from Medieval or Early Modern MSS, than there are on most indigenous medieval literature and records, even though there are vastly more of the latter, and in many (though not all) cases they are far more advanced. For the longest time the academy was very dismissive of medieval culture in general though that has been changing in more recent years.
 

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the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, or the Oxford Medieval Texts series (to mention a few).

Speaking of this kind of thing though, for Central Europe, I've found Jacob Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie, which you can find in English, is very useful and interesting (albeit taken with a grain of salt).
 

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I can't say that I've ever encountered someone who actually believed in these occult traditions; my own interest in them is only for historical research or for material to use in gaming. Some enthusiasts or practitioners have done a lot of work recently in bringing out editions or translations of source material. Frankly, I'm not sure how to judge them as editions. I suppose you'd have to approach it on a case-by-case basis. I am wary of such material for real historical research, because (1) the history of magical texts is so replete with pseudigraphia, unacknowledged borrowings, and 'invented traditions' that the time of composition and the context of individual works can be hard to discern without a lot of work and (2) many of the sources lack critical editions or even the beginnings of the research in manuscripts that would be needed to compile them. This matters less, of course, if the point is to create an edition of one particular manuscript (rather than a text), and also if you are using the material as inspiration for gaming, rather history-writing.

I believe, I think, insomuch as I feel that belief can be used as a tool rather than an overarching explanation for how things are. One of the thing that I've been very interested in lately is temporary belief, or taking on a belief for the purpose of changing how a practitioner thinks and then discarding it afterwards. There is a current running through many of the more modern occult texts that suggests that belief is irrelevant and that what matters more is results, however you interpret that. The medieval occultists and their predecessors certainly seem to have believed that something was achievable through their methods, or that their writings had a value beyond the mundane world. I really see no difference between many of their beliefs and any of the ancient and contemporary religious movements (and indeed, many occult beliefs are inexorably intertwined with specific religions, or at least it seems that way to me).

I can count exactly two experiences in my life that seemed legitimately magical, and one of them was when I was under the influence of mind-expanding drugs so it's not like I have anything concrete to point at, even if I thought that that would make a difference. If pressed, I would probably say that I think the whole thing is all about the achievement of certain psychological states and the process of engendering flexibility in the mind and life of the magician, including the ability to make rapid changes through various brain states at will. I also have a suspicion that more extreme things may be possible, such the maintenance of consciousness after death or even just waking up from this dream we experience as life to witness a more profound reality.

Reading Robert Anton Wilson's books over the last few years left a big impression on me. He stresses, if I've got this right, bringing agnosticism to bear on all things and not just religious matters. I don't think I've ever believed in anything, so it's a worldview I've fallen easily into.

But it doesn't really matter. Isreal Regardie's The Art of Relaxation and One Year Manual, specifically, have given me a greater understanding of my body and mind, taught me the value of discipline and willpower and, I'd like to think, allowed me to overcome a downward spiral of alcoholism that consumed much of my late twenties and thirties. Yes, there's rituals and magic words to be spoken amongst the meditation and breathing techniques, but even if it turns out to be a bunch of nonsense, I got something positive out of it.

Oh, and a lot of fantastic inspiration for gaming!
 

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Yah I've read descriptions by modern practitioners similar to this. As you say, in the time when these books were written, many very accomplished people did believe they got something out of it. People like Cornelius Agrippa, Giordano Bruno and Marsilio Ficino were not stupid. To the contrary, they were people of the highest caliber, at a level of erudition which is quite rare today. Genuine Renaissance Men, with a wide array of skills and life experiences.

And as you say, achieving certain psychological effects are clearly part of what it's all about.

I've read enough late medieval sources to have acquired great respect for the intelligence and sophistication of the people from these cultures. I've seen the martial arts techniques from their fechtbücher, (which seemed very counter-intuitive and strange when we first rediscovered them about twenty years ago), work surprisingly, devastatingly well in difficult conditions. I've seen a lot of other things from the era turn out to be real in surprising ways, from the medieval MRSA cure to startlingly real alchemy experiments, the mneomnics and so on, even medieval armor turning out to be bulletproof.

So it's certainly not that I totally dismiss everything outright, even if I don't believe in literal demons and angels or that I can summon a phantom horse which can take me to Persia. I have some insight into how the medieval minds works and the layers of allegory and multiple meanings they put into nearly everything they wrote.

I would recommend to be careful with these types of practices though, particularly the darker shaded ones, and I'm sure you know what I mean. Because yes, they use allegories, there are always multiple meanings, but like so many other artefacts of this culture, we really don't fully understand it and there is probably more to it than we currently think there is.
 

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The idea of 'provisional' belief is also I think, an example of medieval sophistication. As one way to explain that, when a medieval scholar studied medicine, they read the works of three 'auctores' (authorities) - Hippocrates, a Greek pagan, the Galen, another pagan from ancient Rome who didn't much care for Christians, and Avicenna, a Muslim from Persia with a tendency toward Neoplatonism. All three of these people were from a different culture, of a different faith, often quite opinionated on many matters, and they didn't always agree with one another on everything (though all three for example, advised the reader to boil surgical instruments before use).

A Christian scholar in say, 15th Century Paris, Bologna or Krakow, would need to read the works of these people without getting upset at their discussion of the Muses or the Jinn; their praise of Allah or Apollo. The student's job was to glean what they could from each of these wise auctores. And to do so, they kind of put on a different 'hat' each time. Many of them even got involved in philosophical debates such as between the Stoics and the Epicurans, or the the neo-Platonists and their various Muslim critics. But it didn't mean their original faith or worldview necessarily changed.
 

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I have seen it! I enjoyed it immensely, I think there was a great deal of creative license taken with the depiction of the work but it was good and subtle until the last half hour, as noted. Any other movies you'd recommend in a similar vein?

I have never found one that is even close to "A Dark Song," at least when it comes to using a real ritual as the basis for it and sticking to the general idea behind the ritual, if not the precise details. I have looked a lot for one, too. Most movies take one or two little things and go off in directions that aren't indicated in the legends and myths. For example, "Hereditary" uses the Goetic entity "Paimon" and focuses on one of the "gifts" it might be able to grant people who summon it, but beyond that it just veers off in another direction. I like "Hereditary," for many reasons, but it isn't as solidly based in actual legend and myth as "A Dark Song."
 

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I can't say that I've ever encountered someone who actually believed in these occult traditions; my own interest in them is only for historical research or for material to use in gaming. Some enthusiasts or practitioners have done a lot of work recently in bringing out editions or translations of source material. Frankly, I'm not sure how to judge them as editions. I suppose you'd have to approach it on a case-by-case basis. I am wary of such material for real historical research, because (1) the history of magical texts is so replete with pseudigraphia, unacknowledged borrowings, and 'invented traditions' that the time of composition and the context of individual works can be hard to discern without a lot of work and (2) many of the sources lack critical editions or even the beginnings of the research in manuscripts that would be needed to compile them. This matters less, of course, if the point is to create an edition of one particular manuscript (rather than a text), and also if you are using the material as inspiration for gaming, rather history-writing.

My interest lies along the lines of historical research and a general interest in sociocultural belief systems, particularly obscure ones. I apply some of it to gaming, too.

The translations by the Golden Dawn and OTO folks (an other Victorian occultists) are definitely problematic in a lot of ways. Unfortunately, the were the main translations of a lot of older works until relatively recently, so they had quite a bit of influence on things.

Some works have better modern translations, done by people with academic backgrounds in one or more of the related subjects, but a lot of it is still pretty fragmented. You can piece a certain amount together by going through various dissertations, academic journal articles, chapters in scholarly festschriften, etc., but it can take a lot of effort.

Even if you stick to the academic stuff, though, you still have to look pretty carefully at the assumptions of the translators and their specific areas of specialization. For example, not many Renaissance scholars (in whatever field) have done a lot of research into older Persian magical writings, and a lot of academics who examine works from the past 500 years or so haven't done a whole lot of research into the Graeco-Egyptian stuff that was the basis (in radically altered forms) for a lot of later occult ideas. It can be really interesting to see how things morphed and changed and were ground up and reconstituted through the lens of various cultures when you follow the path of magical belief and writings from the Ancient Near East up through the Victorian Age.
 

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The presence or absence of knights as an elite social group of specialised mounted warriors in eleventh century Germany remains a matter of scholarly debate. Most modern English translations presuppose the answer and render milites as knights. A feudal revolution is thus assumed to have taken place across Europe in c. AD 1000. If a layman was not aware of the recent academic literature, they’d struggle to question if there were German knights.

However, let’s be clear, in a RPG the answer can be whatever one wants. It’s a game and that’s fine. I’m deeply sceptical about eliding RPGs with professional academic research in history. The two fields have very little to say to one other, thank God.
 

Klibbix!

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Yah I've read descriptions by modern practitioners similar to this. As you say, in the time when these books were written, many very accomplished people did believe they got something out of it. People like Cornelius Agrippa, Giordano Bruno and Marsilio Ficino were not stupid. To the contrary, they were people of the highest caliber, at a level of erudition which is quite rare today. Genuine Renaissance Men, with a wide array of skills and life experiences.

And as you say, achieving certain psychological effects are clearly part of what it's all about.

I've read enough late medieval sources to have acquired great respect for the intelligence and sophistication of the people from these cultures. I've seen the martial arts techniques from their fechtbücher, (which seemed very counter-intuitive and strange when we first rediscovered them about twenty years ago), work surprisingly, devastatingly well in difficult conditions. I've seen a lot of other things from the era turn out to be real in surprising ways, from the medieval MRSA cure to startlingly real alchemy experiments, the mneomnics and so on, even medieval armor turning out to be bulletproof.

So it's certainly not that I totally dismiss everything outright, even if I don't believe in literal demons and angels or that I can summon a phantom horse which can take me to Persia. I have some insight into how the medieval minds works and the layers of allegory and multiple meanings they put into nearly everything they wrote.

I would recommend to be careful with these types of practices though, particularly the darker shaded ones, and I'm sure you know what I mean. Because yes, they use allegories, there are always multiple meanings, but like so many other artefacts of this culture, we really don't fully understand it and there is probably more to it than we currently think there is.

Most definitely, and I think here is where I would apply some of what I was talking about earlier about belief. It doesn't matter if you believe in the forces behind what you are doing, they can still have a dangerous effect. If they're real, then they are certainly dangerous; if they're merely the dark recesses of your mind, they just as dangerous. As you mentioned, there is most definitely more to it all than than we think there is.
 

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Yes; a lot of the editions by occultists in the 1700s-early 1900s were definitely sloppy or deliberately misleading and no doubt some of the newer editions done by enthusiasts are much better.

All of that is very useful. What you want ultimately for historical study are real critical editions, where scholars have hunted down all the manuscripts of a given text that they can find, carefully compared all the variant readings in them, and done their best to reconstruct the original text--the sort of thing that is standard for scholarly editions of Classical works, or volumes in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, or the Oxford Medieval Texts series (to mention a few). As far as I know, almost no medieval or Early Modern grimoires have received this full treatment, though there are good editions or translations of specific manuscripts. Of course, since some manuscripts are more collections of different spells, rituals, lists of spirits, etc. that the writer found interesting or worth copying than they are copies of a set text, an edition of a specific manuscript is really all that can be produced.
The only one that I know of that has the critical text edition is Picatrix. The University of London offers a PDF version for free under a Creative Commons license for personal use.
 

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But when it comes to medieval history, even the magisterial efforts you cite above such as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica are not to be trusted and must be taken with a significant grain of salt, IMO. They were produced with a specific goal in mind - to do with State building, more than to do with historical accuracy. It all depends how fine of a point you need to put on it of course, for RPG research I don't think you need to worry, but you will find that very strange editorial decisions were routinely made in that period (and later) for political or cultural reasons which either no longer make any sense to us or are frankly abhorrent. A lot gets left out, some things get added in, and so on.

That's why more current (and complete) translations tend to be better, because the interesting bits are often the ones that got left out.

The irony is that I think there are actually better and more translations available for Classical sources, carefully verified and contrasted and so on, and mostly from Medieval or Early Modern MSS, than there are on most indigenous medieval literature and records, even though there are vastly more of the latter, and in many (though not all) cases they are far more advanced. For the longest time the academy was very dismissive of medieval culture in general though that has been changing in more recent years.
Well, while the MGH was part of a German nation-building project, and this doubtless influenced the choice of texts that were edited and the commentary on them in the volumes, I would be more wary of claiming it damaged the editorial work itself. German scholars in the 19th century may not have invented the tools needed to create critical scholarly editions of texts, but they practiced them at a very high level. And the knowledge of Classical Languages that was common in the 19th century is quite rare today, even among experts. For example, I've read of German Gymnasium students in Greek in the 1800s having to translate Thucydides as their instructor read it aloud to them and to translate it not into German but Latin. I don't know many professional Classicists today who could do what those teenagers could. And, of course, a good critical edition notes all variant readings, so even if something doesn't make it into the critically-reconstructed text it will be there in the footnotes or other apparatus.
I believe, I think, insomuch as I feel that belief can be used as a tool rather than an overarching explanation for how things are. One of the thing that I've been very interested in lately is temporary belief, or taking on a belief for the purpose of changing how a practitioner thinks and then discarding it afterwards. There is a current running through many of the more modern occult texts that suggests that belief is irrelevant and that what matters more is results, however you interpret that. The medieval occultists and their predecessors certainly seem to have believed that something was achievable through their methods, or that their writings had a value beyond the mundane world. I really see no difference between many of their beliefs and any of the ancient and contemporary religious movements (and indeed, many occult beliefs are inexorably intertwined with specific religions, or at least it seems that way to me).
Sure; I wasn't trying to put down people who practice or believe in these sorts of occult traditions; I was just remarking I'd never personally met one, unlike Peter Von Danzig Peter Von Danzig. The line between occult traditions and religions is normally a matter of social definition, as you suggest. This idea of temporary belief sounds a bit like what I've heard described as 'advocacy belief' in other contexts--specifically, lawyers or other types of advocates adopting the position of their clients as part of arguing for or representing them.
Yah I've read descriptions by modern practitioners similar to this. As you say, in the time when these books were written, many very accomplished people did believe they got something out of it. People like Cornelius Agrippa, Giordano Bruno and Marsilio Ficino were not stupid. To the contrary, they were people of the highest caliber, at a level of erudition which is quite rare today. Genuine Renaissance Men, with a wide array of skills and life experiences.

And as you say, achieving certain psychological effects are clearly part of what it's all about...
Yes; I struggle with this with my students all the time. They tend to assume that people in Early Modern Europe who believed in magic were simply ignorant or 'superstitious' (in the modern sense of the term).
 

Peter Von Danzig

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The presence or absence of knights as an elite social group of specialised mounted warriors in eleventh century Germany remains a matter of scholarly debate. Most modern English translations presuppose the answer and render milites as knights. A feudal revolution is thus assumed to have taken place across Europe in c. AD 1000. If a layman was not aware of the recent academic literature, they’d struggle to question if there were German knights.

However, let’s be clear, in a RPG the answer can be whatever one wants. It’s a game and that’s fine. I’m deeply sceptical about eliding RPGs with professional academic research in history. The two fields have very little to say to one other, thank God.

I agree getting sucked into abstruse academic debates is a total waste of time, very tedious and often frustratingly pointless. That is not needed for RPGs as such.

I personally try to bypass the academic debates and make the primary sources available to gamers and game designers (and historical fencers, authors, and many others) with enough basic explanation and context so that if they want to take it further they can. I try to avoid theories at all costs.

The way I explain my books is, they are not meant to be the 'IKEA instructions' that you have to read and understand in their entirety before you can put your couch together, it's more like a 'box of crayons' that you can pick and choose from as you please. That's what the pioneering authors of fantasy, weird fiction and sword and sorcery genres did. They educated themselves enough to have a good foothold in the period sources (and many of them were quite erudite) but then they picked what they wanted from these sources and had fun with it.

In your example about German knights, as I noted previously, by the time you get that far back records are rather sparse (that's what medieval scholars such as 'Petrarch' meant when they invented the term 'dark ages'). In tenth Century Germany there aren't many records and almost all are in bad Latin. But by the time you reach the High and then Late medieval periods, you are awash in records, in increasingly better Latin and in the vernacular dialects. You definitely don't need to resolve the theoretical debate about what precisely defines a knight, but you can have fun with an explore the various types that clearly exist in the German speaking areas by say, the 12th Century: Serf knights (ministeriales), monk knights (ritterbrüden), robber knights (raubritter), burgher knights (constaffler), Free Imperial Knights (reichsritter) etc.

Though none of these match the modern tropes with which the fantasy genre has become larded, they are available, fully fleshed out, as options from the historical crayon box, and there is no reason you can't have a lot of fun with them.
 

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Well, while the MGH was part of a German nation-building project, and this doubtless influenced the choice of texts that were edited and the commentary on them in the volumes, I would be more wary of claiming it damaged the editorial work itself. German scholars in the 19th century may not have invented the tools needed to create critical scholarly editions of texts, but they practiced them at a very high level. And the knowledge of Classical Languages that was common in the 19th century is quite rare today, even among experts. For example, I've read of German Gymnasium students in Greek in the 1800s having to translate Thucydides as their instructor read it aloud to them and to translate it not into German but Latin. I don't know many professional Classicists today who could do what those teenagers could. And, of course, a good critical edition notes all variant readings, so even if something doesn't make it into the critically-reconstructed text it will be there in the footnotes or other apparatus.

I'm not an academic myself, so I can only base my understanding of this on my own perceptions and what I read when I do wade into academic articles, but a lot of the 19th and up to mid-20th Century work on medieval history in German has been fairly downgraded by the more recent generation of German speaking medieval scholars. I'll give you one example - the The Routledge Handbook of Maritime Trade around Europe 1300-1600 just came out as a major work on the subject of maritime trading cities. In their article on Lübeck, the most important city of the Hanse, they noted that the scholarly work from 1800 - 1945 was increasingly 'tainted' because (to drastically summarize their arguments) of omissions and small changes done in the name of the causes of state building and later, fascism. Lübeck has a lot of records going back to the 13th Century, but apparently after WW2 the Soviets confiscated all these and brought them to somewhere in Russia, and the Germans only got them back in the mid-90s. So we are apparently in the second or maybe third generation of serious research on that very important town Unesco World heritage site, epicenter of long traditions of maritime and urban law, etc.

I agree that 19th Century students could probably outpace many modern experts in their translating abilities. But as I noted upthread, I believe we as a society actually have a much better grasp on the literature of the Classical world than we do on the medieval. During the last 25 years of translating the fencing manuals, with numerous PhDs involved, I can tell you that we learned an enormous amount and threw out many fondly held errors in perception. I am not a translator myself but I am friends with quite a few and work closely with several of them (my specialty is the context of the manuals). Translation is very tricky and this is especially true when you are dealing with odd medieval Latin (typically used in a euphemistic fashion) let alone the dozens of local vernacular dialects.

As just one example - in the 19th Century they found and translated several copies of the various versions and near-copies of the 'Saxon Mirror' ( Sachsenspiegel) - the book of traditional German law for feudal and land use issues. There were errors in the translation but the bigger problem was that 19th Century scholars assumed that the law as written was how they were enforced. Many of the punishments in the sachsenspiegel are quite harsh, and this contributed to the notion of the medieval world as extraordinarily violent with trial by ordeal, witch burnings and inquisitions, constant torture and forced duels and so on being the norm. It wasn't until generations later that actual court records were closely analyzed, and we learned that at least by the late medieval period, these kinds of punishments or mystical judgements were very rare. Of relevance to the fencing manuals, judicial combat was exceedingly rare at least by the 14th Century. What we find instead in the records of the various towns was that cash fines, scoldings, and temporary or permanent exile were far more common punishments unless a criminal was caught literally 'red handed' in a capital crime.

So we have a new version of the medieval world to think about. We now know that witch burnings were really more a symptom of problems in the Early Modern period, leading into the "Enlightenment". Medieval magistrates tended to view magic of the common people as superstition, and magic of the scholarly estates as part of 'Natural Philosophy'. Only certain types were even illegal.

The medieval world looks a lot less harsh, more complex and nuanced. But that doesn't make it less fun or interesting to use as the basis for adventure.
 

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Even if you stick to the academic stuff, though, you still have to look pretty carefully at the assumptions of the translators and their specific areas of specialization. For example, not many Renaissance scholars (in whatever field) have done a lot of research into older Persian magical writings, and a lot of academics who examine works from the past 500 years or so haven't done a whole lot of research into the Graeco-Egyptian stuff that was the basis (in radically altered forms) for a lot of later occult ideas. It can be really interesting to see how things morphed and changed and were ground up and reconstituted through the lens of various cultures when you follow the path of magical belief and writings from the Ancient Near East up through the Victorian Age.
Good points. When I talk to people about trying to learn about the late medieval period I tell them to study the Classics first, at least read a few of the easier and more fun translated works: Tacitus, Caesar, Seutonius, Herodotus etc. The more of the Classical world they know, the better they will understand the medieval period (and our own, as the bones of our law, math, science etc. are still Greco-Roman, although it's less obvious today).

You couldn't be a medieval Humanist if you couldn't read and write in Latin, at a minimum. I think you'll find that some of the educated strata of the late medieval world were superb classicists. Agrippa read and wrote in High German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew (he discussed the Torah with renowned Rabbis and he knew the kaballa). Guys like Ficino or say, Macchiavelli, wrote letters to their friends in close imitation of the personal styles of various Greek philosophers, as a combined homage / inside joke. If you read say, the Nuremberg Chronicle you'll note that they call out Seutonius, Herodotus and Josephus as sources for their world history more often than any of the apostles or saints (with a few exceptions, they do refer to St Augustine, Albertus Magnus and so on, who were themselves highly educated).

If you ever get a chance to read Anneus Piccolomini, as a Classisist, you will find great pleasure. And the neoplatonists of this era were certainly well aware of the roots and origins of Hermes Trismegistus, and in their letters and published works they reconvened centuries old debates from among the Arab and Persian scholars about Plotonius and Syrianus at the same time as they waged the furious social, political and military conflicts of their own time (and these very much overlapped).
 

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Sure; I wasn't trying to put down people who practice or believe in these sorts of occult traditions; I was just remarking I'd never personally met one, unlike @
Peter Von Danzig
Peter Von Danzig. The line between occult traditions and religions is normally a matter of social definition, as you suggest. This idea of temporary belief sounds a bit like what I've heard described as 'advocacy belief' in other contexts--specifically, lawyers or other types of advocates adopting the position of their clients as part of arguing for or representing them.

Oh for sure, I didn't think you were, just wanted to offer my perspective! I don't have many people to talk to about it offline so it's nice to be able to chat about it.

That's a very interesting connection to advocacy belief, which is the first time I've heard the term. It makes complete sense though, I know religious thought has influenced legal systems a great deal.
 

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Part of the problem for Victorian era scholars in understanding medieval law, is that when they did the 'critical text analysis' they were looking for a center. They believed the 'Holy Roman Empire' must have had a center, as their new Empire would have, and they expected to find it, like that of Ancient Rome.

But medieval society is much more decentralized, to an extent that is hard for us to understand even today. There were many centers and they were constantly moving around. The Holy Roman Empire was in fact in many ways, a 'failed state' by today's standards, but it was one which was nevertheless highly functional, from which we got the printing press, the mechanical watch, the wheel lock pistol, the paintings of Dürer and Cranach and Holbein, etc. etc.
 

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Yes; I struggle with this with my students all the time. They tend to assume that people in Early Modern Europe who believed in magic were simply ignorant or 'superstitious' (in the modern sense of the term).
It's another one of those challenging medieval things, there isn't just one answer. There was of course a superstitious and primitive form of witchcraft, there were naturally fakers, swindlers and charlatans galore. And then there was also this highly erudite scholarly strata.

In my RPG book on late medieval magic, I broke it down into four types (somewhat arbitrarily, as they all overlap):

1) Cunning magic - This is the more or less respectable "magic" of the common, especially rural people, which was generally perceived with tolerance by the authorities and had a lot to do with (human and veterinary) folk medicine, pharmacology, folk wisdom and so on. The 'cunning folk' who practiced these arts were seen as playing a beneficial stabilizing role in rural communities (though the level of tolerance varied by region and time period). Midwives from this tradition were sometimes put on the payroll of large towns to assist with childbirth among their citizens (sometimes over the objections of elements of the Church), and they seemed to have a positive effect on infant mortality. Interestingly, cunning magic remained tolerated even through the period of the 'Witch burnings' in the later 16th and 17th Centuries. The wikipedia article on this gives a halfway decent overview.

2) Scholarly magic - This is the magic of the literate strata, the burghers, university students and professors, some of the friars, and the educated priestly class. A lot of it is based in Classical traditions (including the Egyptian-Greek hermetic corpus), some on Arab and Persian, some at least partly derived from pre-Christian Europe. It all tends to be very sophisticated and requires skill in languages, astronomy and astrology, mathematics, mnemonics, church liturgy, and other formal disciplines to even begin to tinker with. Some disciplines of natural philosophy dip into this - alchemy, for example, though many 'experimenta' from alchemy had become mainstream chemistry by the 15th Century, for example used in processing metal ores from mines, used by painters to mix pigments and so on.

3) Pious magic - This is the magic of the Church, and other organized faiths (Jewish, Muslim etc.) focused on the saintly miracles, traditional folk practices which got codified into the religion, and this too has it's high (scholarly) and low (poular / 'vulgar') forms. Everything from saintly miracles to rituals for directly interrogating celestial spirits (angels) using an almadel etc. I also include kabbalah in this tradition though it's also part of the scholarly type.

4) Clandestine magic - This is the more blatantly illegal magic, necromancy, nigromancy, the more sinister forms of goetic magic, certain forms of geomancy and so on. What made it illegal is often a bit counter-intuitive to modern ways of thinking, and it varied between different religious zones of influence; i.e. there was a difference in what was legal and what wasn't in Latinized Europe, Greek / Orthodox Europe, Shiite Muslim polities and Suni Muslim polities and so on. For Latinized Christians, rituals oriented toward the earth, like with suffumigation from below, are often in the 'naughty' category, while in the Muslim world they greatly feared certain air spirits. Anything linking you to a Jinn or a Dev could conceivably get you in trouble, though if you followed the letter of the law (Jinn are mentioned in the Koran) you had a better chance of getting away with it.

Clandestine magic was the type most often punished by authorities, and it's use was closely associated with criminal activity, including many things that certainly veered into the very real like poisonings and druggings. One interesting thing about Clandestine magic is that it seems that Friars and Priests were the ones who were the most into it.
 

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I think you'll find that some of the educated strata of the late medieval world were superb classicists. Agrippa read and wrote in High German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew (he discussed the Torah with renowned Rabbis and he knew the kaballa).

All good points. Just as a point of clarification, though, when I said "Renaissance scholar" I meant a modern scholar who specializes in study of the Renaissance, not a scholar during the Renaissance period. I was mainly referring to modern translations and translators. I'm sorry I didn't make that clear.
 

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All good points. Just as a point of clarification, though, when I said "Renaissance scholar" I meant a modern scholar who specializes in study of the Renaissance, not a scholar during the Renaissance period. I was mainly referring to modern translations and translators. I'm sorry I didn't make that clear.

No i got that. I was just alluding to the fact that you can go to the "Renaissance" era Classicists and find some relief!

I do know some medieval scholars in Europe who are definitely well read in the Classics, it seems to be a bit more rare in the US, though that may just be a bias from my own limited perception based on people I've met.
 
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