NPJ Book Review: Forbidden Rites, A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century by Richard Kieckhefer


Forbidden Rites, A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century by Richard Kieckhefer (1997) “Possessing” a rather thick medieval collection of books this one may be considered the most insightful in terms of practice. This is part of a History of Magic series. (For a general overview of magic in early Europe, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe by Valerie J. Flint is a good introduction.)

That said, having in one’s possession magical writings even in the late Middle Ages, considered a wicked practice, it was felt that “you are what you read.” The fear of necromancy and of necromantic writings was ruled as an obsession and an offense to God. A man by the name of Bernard Délicieux, a Franciscan friar during the Spanish Inquisition, was charged with murdering the pope along with other charges, all but one of the charges were dropped, after he recanted. The charged not dropped was treason against the French king (for possessing a book of necromancy). He died following much torture in prison in 1320. Doubt was not allowed.

Context is everything and the church wanted to have the final say, though priests and clerics were practicing magic from the initial formations of their religions. Ritual and rites are forms of control, guidance and yet those rituals and rites opened the door to the forbidden.

This work is about magic with “practical” applications. The Latin portion of the text and the translation might serve as a handbook for magic but one’s knowledge of Latin would also come into play. This is a scholarly work. It includes an English commentary of the full Latin text with a detailed analysis of content as well as historical context and how it compares to other necromantic texts of the late Middle Ages. The original manuscript for which the book is based is preserved in the Bavarian State Library in Munich.

The author covers the nature of necromancy based on his research including the issues between magic and religion. Rituals and rites are discussed in-depth – illusionist experiments, love, favor and madness: psychological experiments, divinatory experiments, formulas for commanding spirits, and the magic of circles, spirits and spheres and so forth.

An example of the historical effect of magic is in the words we use such as “charm” and “fascinating.” The author delves into the language and the force that it holds over our emotions and thoughts. In areas of divination he also shows roots in Jewish sources among other ancient cultures and the use of such things as oils and incantations as well as prayer. I am also reminded of Elizabeth Butler’s Works on magic and its influence.

From a modern perspective it’s intriguing to see how far we have or have not progressed in our understanding of what influences us even today and the effects what we might perceive as being possessed by our own words. As noted, this work is scholarly and exceptional in its research – especially insightful for those with an interest in such matters and I would add, the effects of rituals on the human mind and subsequent actions.