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Medieval magic has received much scholarly attention over recent years, with the publication of numerous studies exploring ritual and astrological magic, healing magic and other supernatural interventions into the natural world. Few scholars, however, have examined medieval illusionist magic and magic tricks, defined here as wonderful feats achieved solely through human knowledge and skill. Where attention has been given to illusionist magic, these investigations have focused on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Although Reginald Scot’s 1584 book The Discoverie of Witchcraft is often cited as the earliest text to contain instructions for the performance of magic tricks, this paper will introduce a source base of over 100 largely fourteen and fifteenth century manuscripts containing approximately 450 recipes, instructions and experiments toward the production of marvellous, seemly magical, events. From this corpus, I have developed typologies of magic tricks and the manuscripts that contain them to determine who would have consumed magic tricks, in what way and for what reasons. The diversity of magic tricks and the variety manuscripts that collect them reveal a common and popular medieval interest in wonderful events produced though human ingenuity. 

This paper demonstrates that there was a common understanding and appreciation of magic tricks, such as sleight-of-hand and small chemical tricks, as a form of private and domestic, as opposed to professional and public, play in the late medieval Latin West. In this paper, the term magic trick refers specifically to recipes or instructions to create illusions that can be performed in domestic and professional settings, in the home or on the stage. Illusionist magic refers to the art of performing these illusions, rather than their instruction. In both a medieval and modern context, magic tricks could, of course, be performed by both specialist artists and amateurs as a form of public entertainment and intimate diversion. I examine here specifically how medieval compilers, readers and audiences read, collected, performed, and witnessed magic tricks in their personal communities - their homes, universities and monasteries.

Key words: Magic, Performance, Medieval, Recipes, Chemistry 

Biography: Vanessa is a third year part-time doctoral candidate at UCL. Her research focuses on magic tricks and chemical experiments as form of entertainment in the later Middle Ages. Focused largely on the 14th and 15th centuries, her work aims to show that medieval people distinguished between ‘true magic’ and ‘magic tricks’. This project is informed by her master’s thesis on illusionary magic in the later Middle Ages which explored ritual and natural magic that created fantastic sights with no true lasting effect upon the world.


All welcome- this seminar is free to attend but booking in advance is required.