Help a Library Transcribe Magical Manuscripts & Recover the Charms, Potions & Witchcraft That Flourished in Early Modern Europe and America

Mag­ic is real—hear me out. No, you can’t solve life’s prob­lems with a wand and made-up Latin. But there are aca­d­e­m­ic depart­ments of mag­ic, only they go by dif­fer­ent names now. A few hun­dred years ago the dif­fer­ence between chem­istry and alche­my was nil. Witch­craft involved as much botany as spell­work. A lot of fun bits of mag­ic got weed­ed out when gen­tle­men in pow­dered wigs purged weird sis­ters and gnos­tic heretics from the field. Did the old spells work? Maybe, maybe not. Sci­ence has become pret­ty reli­able, I guess. Stan­dard­ized clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tems and mea­sure­ments are okay, but yawn… don’t we long for some witch­ing and wiz­ard­ing? A well-placed hex might work won­ders.

Say no more, we’ve got you cov­ered: you, yes you, can learn charms and potions, demonolo­gy and oth­er assort­ed dark arts. How? For a one­time fee of absolute­ly noth­ing, you can enter mag­i­cal books from the Ear­ly Mod­ern Peri­od.

T’was a ver­i­ta­ble gold­en age of mag­ic, when wiz­ard­ing sci­en­tists like John Dee—Queen Eliz­a­beth’s sooth­say­ing astrologer and reveal­er of the lan­guage of the angels—burned bright­ly just before they were extin­guished, or run under­ground, by ortho­dox­ies of all sorts. The New­ber­ry, “Chicago’s Inde­pen­dent Research Library Since 1887,” has reached out to the crowds to help “unlock the mys­ter­ies” of rare man­u­scripts and bring the diver­si­ty of the time alive.

The library’s Tran­scrib­ing Faith ini­tia­tive gives users a chance to con­nect with texts like The Book of Mag­i­cal Charms (above), by tran­scrib­ing and/or trans­lat­ing the con­tents there­in. Like soft­ware engi­neer Joseph Peterson—founder of the Eso­teric Archives, which con­tains a large col­lec­tion of John Dee’s work—you can vol­un­teer to help the Newberry’s project “Reli­gious Change, 1450–1700.” The New­ber­ry aims to edu­cate the gen­er­al pub­lic on a peri­od of immense upheaval. “The Ref­or­ma­tion and the Sci­en­tif­ic Rev­o­lu­tion are very big, cap­i­tal let­ter con­cepts,” project coor­di­na­tor Christo­pher Fletch­er tells, “we lose sight of the fact that these were real events that hap­pened to real peo­ple.”

By aim­ing to return these texts to “real peo­ple” on the inter­net, the New­ber­ry hopes to demys­ti­fy, so to speak, key moments in Euro­pean his­to­ry. “You don’t need a Ph.D. to tran­scribe,” Fletch­er points out. Atlas Obscu­ra describes the process as “much like updat­ing a Wikipedia page,” only “any­one can start tran­scrib­ing and trans­lat­ing and they don’t need to sign up to do so.” Check out some tran­scrip­tions of The Book of Mag­i­cal Charms—writ­ten by var­i­ous anony­mous authors in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry—here. The book, writes the New­ber­ry, describes “every­thing from speak­ing with spir­its to cheat­ing at dice to cur­ing a toothache.”

Need to call up a spir­it for some dirty work? Just fol­low the instruc­tions below:

Call their names Ori­moth, Bel­moth Limoc and Say thus. I con­jure you by the neims of the Angels + Sator and Azamor that yee intend to me in this Aore, and Send unto me a Spirite called Sag­rigid that doe full­fill my comand­ng and desire and that can also undar­stand my words for one or 2 yuares; or as long as I will.

Seems sim­ple enough, but of course this busi­ness did not sit well with some pow­er­ful peo­ple, includ­ing one Increase Math­er, father of Cot­ton, pres­i­dent of Har­vard, best known from his work on the Salem Witch Tri­als. Increase defend­ed the pros­e­cu­tions in a man­u­script titled Cas­es of Con­science Con­cern­ing Evil Spir­its, a page from which you can see fur­ther up. The text reads, in part:

an Evi­dence Sup­posed to be in the Tes­ti­mo­ny
which is throw­ly to be Weighed, & if it doe
not infal­li­bly prove the Crime against the
per­son accused, it ought not to deter­mine
him Guilty of it for So right­eous may
be con­demned unjust­ly.

Math­er did not con­sid­er these to be show tri­als or “witch­hunts” but rather the fair and judi­cious appli­ca­tion of due process, for what­ev­er that’s worth. Else­where in the text he famous­ly wrote, “It were bet­ter that Ten Sus­pect­ed Witch­es should escape, than that one Inno­cent Per­son should be Con­demned.” Cold com­fort to those con­demned as guilty for like­ly prac­tic­ing some mix of reli­gion and ear­ly sci­ence.

These texts are writ­ten in Eng­lish and con­cern them­selves with mag­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al mat­ters express­ly. Oth­er man­u­scripts in the project’s archive roam more broad­ly across top­ics and lan­guages, and “shed light on the entwined prac­tices of reli­gion and read­ing.” One “com­mon­place book,” for exam­ple (above), from some­time between 1590 and 1620, con­tains ser­mons by John Donne as well as “reli­gious, polit­i­cal, and prac­ti­cal texts, includ­ing a Mid­dle Eng­lish lyric,” all care­ful­ly writ­ten out by an Eng­lish scribe named Hen­ry Feilde in order to prac­tice his cal­lig­ra­phy.

Anoth­er such text, large­ly in Latin, “may have been start­ed as ear­ly as the 16th cen­tu­ry, but con­tin­ued to be used and added to well into the 19th cen­tu­ry. Its com­pil­ers expressed inter­est in a wide range of top­ics, from reli­gious and moral ques­tions to the lib­er­al arts to strange events.” Books like these “reflect­ed the read­ing habits of ear­ly mod­ern peo­ple, who tend­ed not to read books from begin­ning to end, but instead to dip in and out of them,” extract­ing bits and bobs of wis­dom, quo­ta­tions, recipes, prayers, and even the odd spell or two.

The final work in need of transcription/translation is also the only print­ed text, or texts, rather, a col­lec­tion of Ital­ian reli­gious broad­sides, adver­tis­ing “pub­lic cel­e­bra­tions and com­mem­o­ra­tions of Catholic feast days and oth­er reli­gious occa­sions.” Hard­ly sum­mon­ing spir­its, though some may beg to dif­fer. If you’re so inclined to take part in open­ing the secrets of these rare books for lay read­ers every­where, vis­it Tran­scrib­ing Faith here and get to work.

via Smith­son­ianAtlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,600 Occult Books Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online, Thanks to the Rit­man Library and Da Vin­ci Code Author Dan Brown

Behold the Mys­te­ri­ous Voyn­ich Man­u­script: The 15th-Cen­tu­ry Text That Lin­guists & Code-Break­ers Can’t Under­stand

Isaac Newton’s Recipe for the Myth­i­cal ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Is Being Dig­i­tized & Put Online (Along with His Oth­er Alche­my Man­u­scripts)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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