Chicago Library Seeks Help Transcribing Magical Manuscripts. Three texts dealing with charms, spirits, and all other manners of magical practice are now accessible online.—Brigit Katz, Smithsonian [HT M Valentinelli]
Among the library’s collection of rare Bibles and Christian devotional texts are a series of manuscripts that would have scandalized the religious establishment. These texts deal with magic—from casting charms to conjuring spirits—and the Newberry is asking for help translating and transcribing them.
The three manuscripts now available online reflect the varied and complex ways that magic fit into the broader religious landscape of a shifting and modernizing West. The 17th-century Book of Magical Charms contains instructions on a range of magical practices—“from speaking with spirits to cheating at dice,” according to the Transcribing Faith website—but also includes Latin prayers and litanies that align with mainstream religious practices. An untitled document known as the “commonplace book” explores strange and fantastical occurrences, along with religious and moral questions. Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits by Increase Mather, a Puritan minister and president of Harvard who presided over the Salem Witch Trials, expresses a righteous condemnation of witchcraft.
As an example, Fletcher cites The Book of Magical Charms, with its meticulous chronicle of occult practices. “Both protestant and Catholic churches tried very hard to make sure that nobody would make a manuscript like this,” he says. “They didn't like magic. They were very suspicious of it. They tried to do everything they could to stamp it out. Yet we have this manuscript, which is a nice piece of evidence that despite all of that effort to make sure people weren't doing magic, people still continued to do it.”
Help us unlock the mysteries of these texts
In the early modern period, the practice of religion involved various modes of reading and disseminating texts, in both public and private. Most European Christians participated in a culture of religion in which faith was displayed and practiced out in the streets as well as in the privacy of their own homes. Members of the book trade participated in this culture as well, providing readers with the materials needed to celebrate religious occasions of all kinds. Many of these printed materials were ephemeral in nature, meaning that they focused on current events and were cheaply produced. Yet, the arrival of printing in the West in the middle of the 15th century did not signal the end of the manuscript. Books that were written and circulated by hand remained vitally important, particularly since rises in literacy did not always equal the ability to own books and many people borrowed books and copied them.
The Newberry collection includes rare examples of printed and manuscript sources that shed light on the entwined practices of religion and reading. For example, the library’s outstanding collection of broadsides reflects our collecting interest in early modern Italian history and culture, but also in all aspects of the book trade of the period. The tradition of shared manuscripts fostered another distinctive genre, the commonplace book, in which readers compiled favored quotations, passages, poetry, lists, recipes, magic spells, and more into notebooks. Commonplace books 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. These manuscripts substituted for the classical techniques of the arts of memory and often served as a resource for the production of new texts. Many of these books were passed on to future owners who added their own material. While commonplace books were not necessarily intended to be chronological or introspective, they can often provide clues about what an individual was reading and thinking about at certain times.
In this resource, we invite you to help build a picture of reading practices in rare materials from the Newberry collection by transcribing and translating their contents.
Via About Transcribing Faith
Transcribing Faith is part of Religious Change, 1450-1700, the Newberry Library's year-long, multidisciplinary project exploring how religion and print challenged authority, upended society, and made the medieval world modern.