Conrad (2019 Congress)

Michael A. Conrad
(Kunsthistorisches Institut, Universität Zürich)

“In Plain Sight:
The Promotion of Astrology and Magic at Royal Courts
in the 13th Century in Transcultural Perspective
(A Response)”

Abstract of Paper
To be presented at the 54th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2019)

Session on
“Embedded in the Mainstream:  Ritual Magic Incorporated in ‘Legitimate’ Texts”

Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Vajra Regan
2019 Congress Program

[Published on 14 March 2019]



When it comes to manuscripts on (ritual) magic in the Middle Ages, especially during the thirteenth century, a strange tension is tangible between authors who felt the need to hide information related to such practices within works of (allegedly) other nature, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the promotion of astrology, and at times even of magic, in works commissioned at royal courts.

The example of Alfonso X of Castile (reigned 1252–1284) seems especially outstanding here.  Due to his general interest in and promotion of astrology, he is also known as the “Astrologer-King” (Rey Astrólogo).  As a result, he had the staff of his scriptorium, consisting of Christian, Jewish, and even Muslim scholars, compile works on astrology and magical arts based on Arabic sources.  Famous results of this transcultural exchange, that, more often than not, mainly had the form of a unidirectional cultural appropriation, include the Picatrix, which deals with amulets, and the Lapidario, which is concerned with stone magic — as well as several treatises on the correct interpretations of the stars.  Alfonso even promoted astrology as a heuristic tool for political decision-making.

In many ways, his interest in such contested arts was not that uncommon. Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (reigned 1220–1250), with whom Alfonso was related, had also been a well-known patron of astrology and adjoined arts.  The appropriation of Arabic knowledge furthermore shows how much these magic arts had prospered in the Islamic world, which demonstrates how much this cultural context differed from Latin Europe.  At least a brief mention of this alternative tradition should be made, along with the further development of such royal patronage during subsequent centuries.