Renaissance magic  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Renaissance humanism (15th and 16th century) saw a resurgence in hermeticism and Neo-Platonic varieties of ceremonial magic. The Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, saw the rise of scientism, in such forms as the substitution of chemistry for alchemy, the dethronement of the Ptolemaic theory of the universe assumed by astrology, the development of the germ theory of disease, that restricted the scope of applied magic and threatened the belief systems it relied on.

Contents

Artes magicae

The seven artes magicae or artes prohibitae, arts prohibited by canon law, as expounded by Johannes Hartlieb in 1456, their sevenfold partition reflecting that of the artes liberales and artes mechanicae, were:

  1. nigromancy ("black magic", demonology, by popular etymology, from necromancy)
  2. geomancy
  3. hydromancy
  4. aeromancy
  5. pyromancy
  6. chiromancy
  7. scapulimancy

The division between the four "elemental" disciplines (viz., geomancy, hydromancy, aeromancy, pyromancy) is somewhat contrived. Chiromancy is the divination from a subject's palms as practiced by the gypsies (at the time recently arrived in Europe), and scapulimancy is the divination from animal bones, in particular shoulder blades as practiced in peasant superstition. Nigromancy contrasts with this as scholarly "high magic" derived from High Medieval grimoires such as the Picatrix or the Liber Rasielis.

Renaissance occultism

Both bourgeoisie and nobility in the 15th and 16th century showed great fascination with these arts, which exerted an exotic charm by their ascription to Arabic, Jewish, Gypsy and Egyptian sources. There was great uncertainty in distinguishing practices of vain superstition, blasphemous occultism, and perfectly sound scholarly knowledge or pious ritual. The intellectual and spiritual tensions erupted in the Early Modern witch craze, further re-inforced by the turmoils of the Protestant Reformation, especially in Germany, England, and Scotland.

C. S. Lewis in his 1954 English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama differentiates what he takes to be the change of character in magic as practiced in the Middle Ages as opposed to the Renaissance:

"Only an obstinate prejudice about this period could blind us to a certain change which comes over the merely literary texts as we pass from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century. In medieval story there is, in one sense, plenty of “magic”. Merlin does this or that “by his subtilty”, Bercilak resumes his severed head. But all these passages have unmistakably the note of “faerie” about them. But in Spenser, Marlowe, Chapman, and Shakespeare the subject is treated quite differently. “He to his studie goes”; books are opened, terrible words pronounced, souls imperilled. The medieval author seems to write for a public to whom magic, like knight-errantry, is part of the furniture of romance: the Elizabethan, for a public who feel that it might be going on in the next street. [...] Neglect of this point has produced strange readings of The Tempest, which is in reality [...] Shakespeare’s play on magia as Macbeth is his play on goeteia" (p. 8)

Baroque period

Study of the occult arts was intellectually respectable in the Renaissance, and remained so far into 17th century (cf. Isaac Newton's occult studies, Baroque philosophy). At the peak of the witch trials, there was a certain danger to be associated with witchcraft or sorcery, and most learned authors take pains to clearly renounce the practice of forbidden arts. Thus, Agrippa while admitting that natural magic is the highest form of natural philosophy unambiguously rejects all forms of ceremonial magic (goetia or necromancy). Indeed, the keen interest taken by intellectual circles in occult topics provided one driving force that enabled the witchhunts to endure beyond the Renaissance and into the 18th century. As the intellectual mainstream in the early 18th century ceased to believe in witchcraft, the witch trials subsided almost instantaneously.

List of authors

Renaissance authors writing on occult or magical topics include:

Late Middle Ages to early Renaissance
Renaissance and Reformation
Baroque period

See also





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Renaissance magic" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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