Grimoires: A History of Magic Books

Brian Gibbons on a scholarly history of spellbinding depth

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Reviewed by: Brian Gibbons
Author: Owen Davies
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £14.99

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Davies surveys some 2,000 years of the production of grimoires (books of magic spells) with the thorough scholarship we can expect from one of our foremost experts in the history of magic. The devil, as always, is in the detail, and there is perhaps too much detail in this book, and not enough of an overall argument. Much of the book reads like a bibliographical guide rather than a history. Especially in the early chapters readers will encounter fact after fact, but very few suggestions about how they might interpret the significance of these facts.

Only when Davies deals with the 19th and 20th centuries does he succeed in providing any real historical analysis. We might also expect more literary analysis of Davies’ chosen genre, given that his topic is ‘literary magic.’

Davies gives the impression that the grimoire is a fairly homogenous genre, which, over a period of two millennia, would be an extraordinary generic conservatism. The author, for example, devotes only two pages to what is, perhaps, the most significant development of the last half century, the growing prominence of women as compilers of magic books. In doing so he says nothing about how this has affected such books. The chatty, anecdotal approach of some female-authored Wiccan spell books surely make them a very different product than The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses.

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Nevertheless, given the vast scholarship underlying it, this book is undoubtedly a necessary reference work for anyone with a serious interest in the history of magic.