That old black magic

Shedding light on history's darker corners

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:22:23 PM

If you’re looking for a spell this Hallowe’en to cast out the demons and keep the little angels from egging your house, Frank Klaassen might be able to help.

The University of Saskatchewan history professor is searching North America and Europe for texts about magic written between 1300 and 1600.

“Everyone in this period believed in demons and angels, and also that they could have a powerful effect on human lives,” he explains.

During this time period, magic was practiced, collected and discussed by the learned elite, says Klaassen, especially men educated in Latin such as priests, monks and doctors.

“As a priest, it would have only taken a small step to recognize that if you have enough power to cast a demon out during exorcism, you might be able to make a demon do anything you want.”

Klaassen’s work includes collecting information on the creation and transmission of hundreds of manuscripts about the practice of magic, as well as any details he can find about the manuscripts’ authors and collectors.

“It gives us a deeper understanding of some of the darker corners in the history of religion and science,” he says.

Klaassen’s collection will allow researchers to track changes in the way people thought about magic and the occult throughout history. It will also shed light on the lives of the men who practiced magic, and why they did it.

“Most of the magic is not about inflicting harm,” says Klaassen. “Rather, it consists of spells that influence superiors to show favour to the practitioner, or allow him to acquire money and power, or to get secret information.”

Spells to find love or attract women also appear frequently in the texts, as well as magic for gaining wisdom and knowledge.

In all, Klaassen says the collection will reflect the “magical renaissance” of medieval Europe, and bring to light many magical texts that have been left undiscovered and unexamined in the past.

Frank Klaassen’s research on medieval magic was funded through SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants program.