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Banned books

Steve Patterson on the banning of books by church, state and the tech industry



The ‘Book of magic’ held in the hands of the sorcerer as they stand within the circle of Arte is a potent and evocative image. The magical book, however, was a very real historical phenomenon. It’s hard to define a typical magical text. They are generally collections of charms, spells and rituals intended for the use of practitioners in the magical arts as a kind of instruction manual. Their content varies from dealing with the every-day (such as love spells and spells of healing or vengeance) to the deeply spiritual. On the surface some of them may seem curiously amoral, but through them all there runs a spiritually democratising thread; the idea that the creative forces of the universe do not belong to God (or the gods) alone, but with the proper knowledge and instruction they may be wielded by anyone!

Magical texts have been around since antiquity, but one could argue that fully fledged magical books or Grimoires begin with the Picatrix in the C10, leading on to the works attributed to Albertus Magnus in the C13, with a flurry of works around the C15 (Trimethius, Agrippa, key of Solomon etc.) followed by a host of others, all claiming great antiquity going in to the C16, C17 and C18.

These books do turn up sporadically as evidence in the witch trials of the Middle Ages and the early-modern period, but bearing in mind their apparent ubiquity and handiness as physical evidence, it is not as common as one would imagine. There are exceptions to this of course; in the Icelandic witch trials, a third of the accused were said to be in possession of some kind of magical text. Persecution and criminalisation of the producers and distributors of the said books however seem to be surprisingly conspicuous by their absence.

One point in history when this began to radically change was with the Catholic church's formation of the heresy hunting ‘Holy Office’ – or as it was more popularly known – ‘The Inquisition’. Books had been banned since its inception in the C13, most notably the Jewish texts; spurred on by the fear of Jewish converts to Christianity, many of whom had been converted at sword point, returning to their original beliefs. In 1557 Pope Pius V founded the 'Index Librorum Prohibitorum' or the index of prohibited books, primarily as a response to the emerging protestant dominated printing industry. Needless to say many magical books were swept up in its wake; Lull, Paracelsus, Agrippa, Trithemius to name but a few. By 1573 the sheer volume of seized magical texts was becoming unmanageable and the holy office began to order the burning of the books. The 'Index' remained in operation with continual amendments until 1966 ... one year after the Inquisition itself was dissolved and re-booted in the form of 'The sacred congregation for the Doctrine of Faith'.

There must have been pressure on publishers not to produce these magical texts. In spite of their popularity, their production was at best sporadic. In mainland Europe various presses did seem to produce magical books, perhaps reaching a peak in France in the mid C18 with what became known as the “Blue books/Livre bleu”, the most famous of which was the 'Petit Albert' (pictured above), which reached a wide distribution amongst the French peasantry. In Britain the printing of magical books was practically non-existent. One exception to this between the 1790's and 1840 being John Denly who set up an occult bookshop in Catherine Street in London’s Covent Garden, where he famously made a living by hand copying Grimoires to order.

In the new world in the C19 and beginnings of the C20 however it was a different story. Magical books of spells and charms such as the '6th and 7th books of Moses' and 'The Book of Saint Cyprian' were being openly printed and sold on a huge scale. De Laurence was busily re-publishing any magical text he could get his hands on and distributing them to a magic-hungry world. Even his catalogue came to be considered a magical text in its own right. In 1820, John George Hohman, author of the spell book “The long hidden friend” writes –

“I am willing that my books should be seen by everybody, and I shall not be secret or hide from any preacher. I, Hohman, too have some knowledge of the scriptures, and know when to pray and call to the lord for assistance. The publication of books (provided that they are useful and morally right) are not prohibited in the United states, as in the case of other counties where kings and despots hold tyrannical sway over the people.”

It seems ironic that the country that held liberty and freedom so dear to its heart has now embraced the very despotism it sought to escape from. In 1982 the American Library Association started 'Banned book week' as a response to the Federal and Government authorities widespread banning of books and texts.   

Back in Blighty, one example of the repression of a book which particularly intrigues me is the case of Mary Ann South’s 'Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery'. Mary Ann South was the daughter of Thomas South. He was a gentleman of independent means who had built up a vast library of Hermetic, alchemical, philosophical and mystical works; to the study of which he had devoted his life. Mary Ann had begun life in helping her father with cataloguing and secretarial work in his library, but quickly developed her father’s single minded thirst for the mysteries and became a partner in his studies. She had also developed an interest in 'Mesmerism'. She saw that hypnotic techniques and manipulation of 'Psychic ether' could have a mystical spiritual dimension. She began to fuse elements of this with Neo-Platonism, Hermeticism and alchemy. She and her father agreed they needed to publish their work. They both confined themselves to separate rooms; father embarked on an epic poem of a hermetic nature, whilst she set to work on a prose treatise of her work. In 1850 she finished her work first, and without reading it her father sent it to the publisher.

On the books arrival from the publisher, the both of them seemed to have some kind of meltdown and burned the entire print run along with Thomas South’s still unfinished manuscript on a bonfire in the garden. The reasons for this were unclear; was this a sudden attack of Protestant religious zeal, or was this father’s jealousy over his daughters work, or was it a genuine fear that they had revealed too much of the sacred mysteries to an unready world?

In this strange tale in which the author repressed her own book, only questions remain. After remaining buried for nearly 70 years it did eventually emerge. In 1918, shortly after the death of Mary Ann South the book was eventually republished after its original publication in 1850. Walter L Wilmshurst wrote an introduction to the new edition which was nearly as turgid and impenetrable as the book itself. Still the reasons for its initial destruction and as to how or why it came to eventually see the light of day remain unclear. It has however become an inspiration to figures as diverse as Karl Jung and Israel Regardie and even inspired the 1982 novel 'The Chymical Wedding' by Lindsay Clarke.

Maybe there is something intrinsic to the nature of magical texts, as with some mystical texts; perhaps they were never intended to be for mass circulation. Their power lay in their self-generating exclusivity. Folklore gives us grim warnings of dealing with such magical books. Cornish legend tells of the chaos that ensued when servants peeked in to the pages of the forbidden tomes whilst their sorcerer masters (also members of the clergy) were otherwise occupied. Breton legend tells of the 'Agrippa' with its human skin binding. Once it is used it will follow its owner to the grave. In Jersey similar tales are told of 'The Petit Albert'. In fact in 2016 whilst I was researching the said Grimoire, after requesting 'The Petit Albert' from the library store, the librarian in the main Jersey library refused to actually touch the book, sliding it off the back of another book with the use of a ruler on to my desk. Maybe there is something almost 'self editing' inherent to their nature.

Up until the 1990's it was almost impossible to acquire copies of the Grimoires. Times have moved on and now the world of publishing has opened up to the idea of magical books and many of the old magical texts are being re-published in a variety of wild and wonderful editions. The reason for the reticence to publish magical texts in the past has been at best disinterest or at worst the fact that they are felt to be somehow inherently dangerous; unleashing evil powers on to the world, or that the practices they promote are bloodthirsty and barbaric; but a cursory look at most magical texts will see that this is nonsense. Maybe the real fear comes from the fact that many magical texts are there to promote a sense of empowerment and independence, beyond the powers of the church or the state.

With both the historical repression of magical books and the witch persecutions, it is tempting to create a stereotypical scenario in which a disempowered victim is arbitrarily repressed by a despotic authority figure from outside their community. The more one looks at either phenomena, it seems to become more and more complex and ambiguous; who's on whose side, and where the power lies remains a permanently shifting ground.

A present example of this can be seen in the United States with the high profile banning of various texts believed to be of an occult nature including the popular children’s fictional 'Harry Potter' books of J K Rowling. These have been primarily instigated by an Evangelical ultra-protestant Christian group known as the 'Ellel Ministries', who believe the world to be inhabited with evil spirits and have coined the term 'Spiritual warfare' to describe their own particular brand of evangelism. They may have enormous assets and friends in high places, but what on the surface may appears to be a state sponsored program of book banning could just as equally be also be seen to be as one fringe group with occult beliefs attacking another fringe group which may or may not have occult leanings.

It is too easy to fall in to the trap of looking at the banning of books as happening on a state sponsored mass scale, as with the Nazi book burnings of the 1930's or the repressions of the Inquisition from the Middle Ages. It could be argued that there is a far more insidious wave of book banning going on, under our very noses. Ironically what is often instigated on a macro level is actually implemented on a micro level. The methods of controlling access to books may come in unexpected guises. The 'elephant in the room' which looms over the matter, which is so large that we rarely even see it, is the spectre of the tech industry and its unregulated digitisation of our culture.

The spread of the tech industry presents itself as being common-sense, neutral, liberating and a historical inevitability, but make no mistake; it is a consumer product of which its dissemination is both economically and ideologically driven - and one inevitable casualty of its spread is the humble book.

The book is a physical object which requires the reader to acquire, handle and read its contents. This is a logistical process which requires perseverance, a particular mind-set and an equally particular skill set for the reader to engage. As libraries and publishers alike begin to adopt digital means of reproducing, storing and controlling access to books, the very act of digitisation itself begins to remove the reader from the book and worst of all, begin to impose its own tacit form of book banning.

Constantly new formats of digitisation emerge; all with promises of improving quality and access, but in reality access to books becomes increasingly limited to the elite with the relevant equipment and know-how. To access these digital formats and the literature imprisoned within them one must buy the appropriate products, and quite literally ‘buy-in’ to the ever expanding grasp of the tech Industry.

Many university, school and public libraries are disappearing (ironically it is only in prison where digital access is strictly limited that they are on the rise), and we are led to believe that book have been superseded by the internet. We are always told 'it is all on the net', but any reader of books knows that this is an absurd statement. The proliferation of homogenised, pre-digested information on the net bears no similarity to what I see in the books around me. This is in no way a service to help us; perhaps the most insidious aspect of this process of digitisation is that fact that it is a purely commercial phenomenon. To put it bluntly, each time you engage with a computer someone, somewhere buys your clicks. It is then fed back to you to modify your behaviour so you engage more, and thus make more money for someone in Silicon Valley. This is not a wild and wacky conspiracy theory; this is the basic digital business model. The internet is not about quality, it is about quantity, it is about getting us blindly pecking for corn like pigeons in a Skinner box.

But the digital control of books is something far more elusive than just being inherent in the logistics of its operation. From the Middle Ages onwards the gate keepers of knowledge, and the books that held that knowledge, were the Church. From the Enlightenment onwards this role was taken over by the Universities. They were not just controllers of ‘facts’ but definers of what was held to be truth and how we actually saw the world. This role has slid, almost without us noticing it, in to the hands of the unelected, unaccountable and anonymous tech industry. As with the Universities and the Church, any rational questioning of the tech industry on ideological or ethical grounds is considered inconceivable and either marginalised, ridiculed or repressed. It is seen as seen as irrational and irrelevant and clearly just the result of either evil or error on the part of the critic. Times don’t change!

In a society where the popularist media of subjugation and exploitation becomes the norm, it’s not surprising that magical texts become marginalised. ..And there’s the rub! It is not the church or the state or even the tech industry who have been the main repressors of magical literature (and indeed much of our radical literature). It is us. By our disinterest and apathy we have all become complicit. What better means of controlling and banning books than not to stop them at source, but to erode our desire and ability to read. At the time of writing the average reading age in the UK is 9: sat-nav has made us spatially illiterate, social media has made us socially illiterate, and the internet has just made us illiterate!

Maybe the uncomfortable truth of the situation is that to understand the nature of both the banning of magical books and the witch trials with which it co-existed, and indeed the impact from the tech industry on our modern day access to literature is that we first need to understand and acknowledge our own part in the process. As it was in the days of the Inquisition, so it still remains today ...One of the greatest acts of resistance one can do against the tech industry is to pick up a book and read it.    



This is a transcript for a presentation given at the Museum of witchcraft and magic Boscastle Colloquium - September 2019 as part of a series of events for “Banned books week”.