Chapter 4 Narratives of the Witch, the Magician, and the Devil in Early Modern Grimoires

In: Fictional Practice: Magic, Narration, and the Power of Imagination
Author: Owen Davies

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The circulation of grimoires, and concerns over their influence, were subtly but inextricably woven into the fabric of the early-modern witch trials. After all, the laws against witchcraft that were introduced across Europe during the sixteenth century also targeted other forms of magic from treasure hunting to thief detection and spirit communication. For various reasons, though, male magicians largely escaped the courts and the torture chambers. Still, in the witch-trial court records across much of Europe we find frequent references to cunning-folk, treasure-hunting magicians, and learned spirit-conjurors, and sometimes also mention of the books they used. The figure of Dr Faust loomed large in legend. This raises the intriguing issue of whether the experience of the witch trials informed and changed the grimoire tradition and the narratives that shaped their content. Early-modern grimoires were shaped by the interplay of print, manuscript, and oral traditions over time, and the ritual acts they contained were determined by notions regarding the gendered nature of different types of magic in legal, theological, and journalistic discourse. Those who constructed and printed grimoires in the early modern period chose to ignore, adopt, and reproduce narratives that were circulating at the time based not on concerns about witchcraft, but on venerable archetypes of masculine adventure with magic. Fiction and fact were melded to reinforce archetypes and redefine ritual tropes that would shape how common people acted out their ritual lives and negotiated their own emotional relationships with magic and the supernatural world.