Transcript: 232. Charles Burnett on Magic

Charles Burnett tells Peter about the role of magic in medieval intellectual life.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.


Peter Adamson: You actually came on before with Dag Hasse to do a discussion of the influence of and translations of Arabic philosophical and scientific works in Latin. And we're going to be touching on that again in this interview, but we're focusing on magic. So maybe you can start by telling us what we're going to be meaning when we say magic. What would you understand by the term magic and what would the medievals have understood by the term magic? 

Charles Burnett: Well, that's a very difficult question and has been much debated by scholars, so much so that many scholars prefer not even to use the word magic for magic as it were, but would prefer to substitute something like occult sciences or necromancy or prestigia or hermeticism. The strange thing is that magic, magica, although it's a classical term probably of Persian origin, is not very much used in the Middle Ages. And so when you're talking about magic in the Middle Ages, you're talking about a term which probably would not have been understood by most medieval scholars. It becomes used again in the Renaissance. But the most common word for what we might presume to be magic in the Middle Ages is necromancy or nigromancia. I suppose if you tried to define it, you couldn't do better than to start with the definition which we find in the Speculum Astronomiae, which has been attributed, which is often attributed to Albertus Magnus. Now there's a question mark as to actually who wrote it, but we know that it came into being in the 1260s and there necromancy or nigromancia is divided into three parts. And one kind involves the invocation of spirits or daemons, spiritus or daemonus, and the use of what we call suffumigations in a sense. Another part simply involves the use of exotic languages and unrecognizable words, usually inscribed on materials like a talisman. And a third kind is using simply the powers of nature, the powers of the planets, powers of the four elements and so on. And these three parts encompass quite a lot of what one might discover, what one might describe as being magic in the Middle Ages. 

Peter Adamson: The first type that you mentioned, which is demonic or involves spirits and is associated with incense, is the idea there that these demons are smoky beings and that they're sort of quasi-physical? 

Charles Burnett: They were, absolutely. I mean, they are attracted by the incense and the whole purpose of this magic, which is often described as being ceremonious magic. You have to wear special clothing, you have to have a special kind of altar, you have to do things at a special or significant time, usually astrologically determined. The whole purpose is to summon these spirits so that they do your will. 

Peter Adamson: So they actually follow commands or are willing to consider requests? 

Charles Burnett: Well, you've got to subdue them, you've got to make them for your commands. And they are described, I mean here, there's a considerable literature on the nature of spiritus or daemonus in Arabic Rukhani art. And they are described as being part corporeal and part incorporeal. They're corporeal to the extent that they can actually use their senses, i.e. they can hear and see, therefore they hear the invocations that you direct them to. And they're semi-corporeal in the sense that they dwell halfway between the material earth and the completely incorporeal heavens where the angels and God and his saints dwell. 

Peter Adamson: And this is an idea that goes back to antiquity? 

Charles Burnett: Oh, it does, yes. In fact, one of the most detailed discussions of the nature of these spirits is in Calcidius's commentary on Plato's Timaeus. 

Peter Adamson: Right, okay. Now, in terms of the things that you can accomplish using magic, it seems to me as a real outsider to this whole literature that one of the main things you can achieve is somehow predicting the future. And I don't know whether that is something that you could do by asking a demon. But things like astrology, which we might also think has something to do with magic, for example, and other forms of prediction, those, I think, I mean, I would have thought that that falls under the heading of magic. But what you were just describing, the three kinds of magic you just described, seem to be rather different. 

Charles Burnett: Well, yes. I suppose the magic that I have been describing is the magic that puts power into the practitioner's hands. He is able to change the future, he's able to change situations, he's able to destroy an enemy, he's able to make people love each other. As long as what he does, though, is still in conformity with the position of the heavens. So there is an element of choice, if you like astrological prediction. And for that reason, again, going back to the Speculum Astronomiae, the use of talismans, the summoning of spirits and so on to affect the future is described as being one, the division of astrology, which is called elections, choices, choices for the future. There is, of course, the whole area of the mantic arts. Again, they have a special name, which are simply predictive. I mean, using geomancy, for example, where you use dots randomly cast on the sand and rearrange them into geomantic figures. And the figures will tell you the future, will tell you what's going on, hidden things. Scapulimancy, where you look at signs, marks on shoulder blades extracted from sheep and other sortilege and so on, whereby you can just predict the future. And of course, astrology is described as being the most perfect way of prognosticating the future. But by the time you get to astrology, you're, well, let's say on the borderlines of magic, because astrology really shouldn't and wasn't described as being a magical art, except by its opponents.

Peter Adamson: Right. So actually, you said before that sometimes people use the phrase occult sciences, and that might encompass what you're describing as magic, also astrology, and perhaps also alchemy. But I guess you're suggesting that we should keep these three things separate. 

Charles Burnett: Well, it's quite true that occult sciences is a much better general term for the whole, for all these, to encompass all these different arts, crafts. But one can also go back to the distinction already in the Speculum Astronomiae between, let's say, spiritual or ceremonious magic and natural magic. And natural magic, you're dealing entirely with forces in nature which are already there. And that, you might say, is closer to natural science and indeed to astrology, because you're finding out actually what the situation in the universe is, the best time for doing things, the best time for bringing together objects, materials, and so on, in order to affect something else. 

Peter Adamson: So that's where we might start thinking that the occult sciences come very close to being related to philosophy, or most related to philosophy, or most straightforwardly related to philosophy. 

Charles Burnett: Well, yes, especially if you then consider what are called the occult natures. For example, in the Aristotelian tradition, everything natural, causes and effects, are usually explained in terms of the relationship between the four elements, four qualities. But there are many things in nature which do not follow this, whose explanation cannot be derived from Aristotelian peripatetic philosophy, such as the magnet. I mean, why does the magnet draw iron towards it? All action at a distance has to be explained and can't be explained simply in elemental terms. And so everything, well, many things in nature are considered to have occult qualities specific to them, to their species, by which they do things which are not explicable in terms of Aristotelian physics, but are natural all the same. 

Peter Adamson: And so magic in this case would be a way of discovering and manipulating these occult features. And then other kinds of magic involve discovering and manipulating other kinds of entity that are available to the naked eye, so to speak. So things like demons. 

Charles Burnett: Well, of course, yes, yes. And this includes the whole area of medicine, for example, that different herbs, different drugs have their specific qualities, their occult qualities, by which they can heal people. And of course, medicine, if you like, medicine is another practical art which involves changing nature for the better. At least one hopes that most doctors are trying to change things for the better. And so medicine is ranged alongside magic or necromancy, let's say, specifically necromancy, the science of talismans, astrology, science of navigation, using burning mirrors as the class of practical physics, practical natural science, or as al-Farabi would say, the branches of natural science. All these have a practical aim. So in a way, the power to each other, medicine, astrology, magic, in all those cases, you are changing the nature around you. 

Peter Adamson: Before we get any further into this, maybe I should just pause to ask you a more basic question, which is, how do we know anything about medieval magic? I mean, you've just told us what it is, and it sounds like it's actually quite a complicated phenomenon that relates to a long tradition that goes back to the Arabic world, the Arabic speaking world and antiquity. And you've already mentioned one text which discusses magic. And magic is also discussed sometimes critically by philosophical authors, including John of Salisbury, for example, who I've already mentioned in the podcast. But there's also quite a number of surviving texts that discuss magic without complaining about it, but actually tell you how to do it, right? And I suppose that there's also what we might call material culture, like surviving talismans and so on. So can you give us a sense of the range of material on which a historian of medieval magic might draw? 

Charles Burnett: Well, indeed, the range is very wide indeed. You can search a lot at the popular level, which I don't think we kind of go into, like charms and spells and curses and so on, which have magical effects, which are regarded as being part of magic. At least they incorporate what we call words of power. But then we have the learned tradition of magic in the West, which is almost entirely based on Arabic texts, translations from Arabic texts. The central figure in this learned tradition is Hermes. We also have Apollonius, Bodinus. We have Thabit Ibn Qurra. We have various Arabic authors. We have Tumtum al-Hindi, who probably has in fact a Sanskrit origin. But these texts were all translated from Arabic into Latin. One characteristic of magical texts is that they are anonymous. So we rarely have a translator. We rarely have a real author, a named author. The authors are the sages of antiquity and the translators remain anonymous. So it's very difficult to say exactly when these texts came into Europe. But we do have some early manuscripts from the 12th century, especially associated with Hugo of Santalla, who was a specialist in Hermetic literature. And then we start having the discussions of these texts, often in critical ways, like William of Auvergne in the early 13th century in his Dei Universo,  who names a whole lot of magical texts just in order to condemn them. 

Peter Adamson: And is it actually the case that these Arabic-Latin translation texts, are they really based on Arabic texts? I mean, do they make up... I mean, of course, some of them are, and sometimes we even have the original Arabic as well as the Latin translation. But are there quite a few texts where they pretend that they're drawing on this long tradition and they're actually just making it up themselves? Or is it hard to say? 

Charles Burnett: Well, in the last event, it is hard to say. One can recognize many of these Latin translations as being translations. But there's one text which is really quite essential, which I think you've already discussed in your podcast, and that is al-Kindi’s De Radiis, which exists only in Latin. So we already have a question mark as to whether there ever was an Arabic original. In fact, I think it's quite likely there was. But this text has a distinction of being a rare text which actually gives a theory behind how magic works. 

Peter Adamson: And this is really an attempt to explain how action at a distance could be possible by invoking this mechanism of a ray. 

Charles Burnett: Absolutely, yes. 

Peter Adamson: And the rays are... it just so happens I know about this text because it's supposedly written by al-Kindi, who I've worked on. And the rays are invoked to explain a very wide variety of phenomena, including some which we would consider to be correct, like eyesight, but then also things like the power of magic words, the power of the stars on the earth and so on. So how does he think that rays function in order to explain action at a distance exactly? 

Charles Burnett: Well, all he says is that everything emits rays. I don't know how they emit rays, but not only the stars, which obviously emit rays, the heavenly bodies, but also things on earth. And the eyes, as you mentioned, of course, they emit rays because that's how they actually collect the material and information to recall it into the mind. But above all, the voice, the human voice, the verbum, the word emits rays which have powerful effects on what is addressed by those words.

Peter Adamson: And speaking of words, do Arabic words then survive in Latin magical terminology quite a lot? 

Charles Burnett: This is an interesting thing because in order to invoke the spirits, the ruhaniyat or the spiritus, you have to know their names. 

Peter Adamson: And what language do they speak? 

Charles Burnett: Well, you have whole lists of names which don't make sense in Arabic or in Latin. Very often they will have apparently Greek endings or Hebrew, look like Hebrew words, names. But the important thing is to pronounce them absolutely correctly. And when you're translating something from Arabic into Latin, since Arabic is generally unvoweled, then you can lose an awful lot. 

Peter Adamson: You mean they only write the consonants, they don't write the short vowels. 

Charles Burnett: And so the power of these words is likely to be lost when they arrive in the Western world. 

Peter Adamson: I see. Okay, I meant more whether they have technical terms that are like Latinized versions of Arabic technical terms, which you sometimes see happening in the Greek Arabic translation movement originally, and then you see it happening again in philosophical texts. You'll sometimes see a word that's really an Arabic word, but they've just made it look like a Latin word. 

Charles Burnett: Yes, yes, yes. Well, I suppose you could say that even the word spiritus is a calc on ruhaniyat and ruh means spirit and ruhaniyat is a... because there are so many different words for spirit. I mean, spiritus in Latin means so many different ways, but they have actually chosen this word rather than say daemon or some other Latin word, lava or whatever, to translate this Arabic word. The other contexts in which you see real Arabic words are in the prayers, where sometimes Arabic words are left untranslated, like if there's a prayer to the divine light, you'd have the nur-e-ilahi, just transliterated, and then perhaps a Latin translation over it. But the Arabic words in themselves were regarded as having some power. 

Peter Adamson: Okay, so you're describing what sounds like a fairly extensive literature that survived down to us. And I mean, we should bear in mind here that what survives down to today would be a fraction of what existed then, because it has to be copied and survive the fortunes of fire and loss and so on. So this was obviously quite a substantial body of texts, even leaving aside the more popular side of magic that you were describing before. And I guess that a lot of listeners might be surprised at this, because we might assume that the attitudes of religious authorities towards magic would have been disapproving to say the least. So is that right? I mean, was it widely condemned by the Church and by theologians and so on? Or were there contexts in which magic was seen as acceptable or appropriate? 

Charles Burnett: Well, to go back to that text I referred to at the beginning, the Speculum Astronomiae, of the three divisions of magic, the first two involving spirits and unknown languages were condemned, and the third one involving natural magic, just the manipulation of the natural forces which were there anyway, was accepted. And I think you find this quite frequently that people can engage in, if they're knowledgeable about how nature works, they can actually use natural forces for the good. Another thing that you find is that the magic ceremonies in which the spirits are used, occasionally reworded so that they become Christian ceremonies, as someone called Jean de Molini in the 14th century, who takes a typical way of actually sacrificing to the power, to the spirits' planning, invoking the spirits, summoning them, and he makes it into a praise of the Virgin Mary and summoning the Virgin Mary. So that's one thing you can do if you're a Christian. The condemnations, well you do find condemnations alongside the condemnations of Aristotelian philosophy in the 13th century. 

Peter Adamson: So magic is no worse off than Aristotle. 

Charles Burnett: No, no. But I think you could say, but maybe this is going to be your next question anyway, is that to a large extent magic went underground in the Middle Ages. You have this period, let's say an open period, when the translations were made in the 12th and early 13th century, and then the manuscripts disappear. You don't have manuscripts. You have occasional references, well many references, often to classical sources like Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, where you have a very large section on magic. But it's only in the Renaissance that the same texts which were translated in the 12th and early 13th century started to emerge again from the underground as it were, and were copied and also received in a very positive way by people like Ficino and Pico della Mirandola. And you have vast magical summae, there's one by someone called Giorgio Anselmi from the beginning of the 14th century for example, which includes, perhaps this is interesting, the mantic arts, geomancy, scapulimancy, chiromancy, but devotes most of its 200-odd folios to the art of talismans, of making talismans, invoking spirits and unchanging things through these means. So you do find condemnations obviously. But magic, well maybe there's another contrast, when you see magic described in Isidore and Saint Augustine and so on, it's always in negative terms. But when you start reading these texts which were around, which were rediscovered in the Renaissance, you see that they are very positive. They are texts which have good ends. I mean the magician is told that magic might be questionable, but it depends on the person who's using magic. If he uses it for a good end, that's fine. 

Peter Adamson: That's another parallel with medicine actually. 

Charles Burnett: It is. 

Peter Adamson: It's a kind of cliché almost, the medical doctor is the person who can poison you or heal you. 

Charles Burnett: Absolutely, yes. 

Peter Adamson: And so the good doctor is the one who heals you obviously. 

Charles Burnett: Well there is an introduction to one magical text, in fact Hansmann on talismans, in which magic is described as being like an axe. And if you know how to use it for good end, that's fine. But it can also cause a lot of... 

Peter Adamson: Chop wood, not people. 

Charles Burnett: It can cause a lot of harm. 

Peter Adamson: The more open attitude towards magic and more positive attitude that you're describing with the 12th and 13th century, the period where the translations came in from Arabic, is that because it's reflecting a positive, or at least generally accepting, attitude towards magic in the Arabic-speaking world that was then transmitted through these texts? I mean, could you, so to speak, get in less trouble for magic in the Arabic-speaking world than in Latin Christianity? 

Charles Burnett: I think that depends on the period and the place really, because there's astrology sometimes strongly condemned, sometimes part of court culture. One can't fail to mention the most important magical handbook of the whole of this period. That's the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, or what became the Picatrix in Latin, which arose in Al-Andalus in the court in, well, just about the time of the breaking up of the Caliphate of Córdoba in the early 11th century. And that has what I think is one of the best definitions of magic. Maybe I should have mentioned this at the very beginning, but at the beginning of the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, magic is divided into three parts, but in a different way from the way that we find in the Speculum Astronomiae. Namely, the magician is entirely involved in manipulating body and spirit. And when he, it's almost always a he of course, when he is bringing spirit to spirit, bringing to bear spirit on spirit, he is involved in what in Arabic, using a Persian word, it's called niranj. And this becomes simply an opus in Latin, but we can identify these texts, which tell you how to contact and manipulate the spirit of another person or of an animal, of taming animals, for example. You use the spirit-spirit contact directly. The second is spirit on matter, and that's when you take a talisman, something made out of material, it needn’t be metal, it could be any material, and you inscribe sort of spiritual letters, put the spiritual power into that talisman, that spirit on matter. And the third part of magic is alchemy, where you mix matter with matter. So this is a neat way, really, of describing the three parts of magic, which were, which became known, of course, through the translation of the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm into Latin in the 1260s in the court of Alfonso el Sabio. But another, within the same context, also by Maslama al-Majriti, the composer of the Ġāyat al-Ḥakīm, we have the Rutbat al-Ḥakīm, the step of the wise man, and there you have the intellectual description of the intellectual progress, or you could say the gnostic progress, I suppose, of the adept, where it's necessary to go through all the liberal arts, you go as far as reason can go, and then when you've reached the top step, as it were, of the liberal arts, there are two more steps. The first step is alchemy, which is what is dealt with, in fact, in Rutbat al-Ḥakīm, the step of the wise man, and the final, the ultimate step is magic, sahar or necromancy. This is probably a fine example from the Middle Ages of how magic is not prestidigitation, it's not playing tricks, it's not deceiving people, but it is describing the highest level that a human being can aspire to. And this, of course, is what's taken up, again, in the Renaissance, when you see what Ficino has to say. 

Peter Adamson: Maybe then in conclusion, we could just say something about why the historian of philosophy should be interested in this whole phenomenon of magic. I mean, a lot of the magical texts themselves certainly don't read as if they're philosophical works, but on the other hand, even from what you just said, it seems that the magical tradition, for one thing, is drawing on the philosophical tradition, so the idea that you go through the liberal arts, for example, before you get to magic, that in some ways comparable to, for example, the mystical tradition, which sometimes compares mystical enlightenment to a further step beyond philosophy. So there's that idea, but there's also the idea that magic might give you access to something that looks a lot like what philosophers talk about, so for example, the operation of natural properties on one another, but in a deeper way. So there's both a methodological continuity and also a theoretical continuity with magic, between philosophy and magic. Do you think that's fair? 

Charles Burnett: Oh, yes. I think this is very true. It's just another way, as it were. And what is described in magic actually is the achievement of the perfect nature. Other connections, of course, we've already mentioned, why does the magnet attract iron? The occult powers, they have to be explained, at least by natural science, which is within philosophy. There's a whole genre of magic called the ars notoria, which is relevant to philosophy because it's something which arose in the philosophy faculties of the medieval universities, especially in Paris, which enabled the student to learn in a remarkably short time what he would otherwise take a year or years to learn. And of course, philosophy is one of the main things that he has to learn or he can learn very quickly using the ars notoria. But this is based on angels, on geometrical diagrams, on a kind of contemplation of a mandala. So that's another connection with philosophy. But there's a book, I don't know whether you've seen it, by Nicolas Weill-Parot called “Points aveugles de la nature,” which is all about, first of all, occult powers, and then nature's hatred of the empty space. And in order to explain these unnatural things, as it were, certainly not following, not explicable in Aristotelian terms, magical texts can be brought to play. 


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