Jean de Beetz and Magic

Foxfier linked to me with an article, and she started me off…. (Sorry, still can’t recall the name of that early 1990’s history of ideas book on magic in early medieval Europe. I can’t even remember which college library I read it in. Toronto, maybe.)

Jean de Beetz (or Jan de Beets, or Johannes Beetsius, or Beetzius, or….) was a Carmelite monk who taught theology at the university in Louvain. He wrote a fair number of books, but apparently his fame today boils down to a tangent of folklore and linguistics. So it goes.

Anyway, he wrote a big book called, in its original 1485 printing, Commentum super Decem Praeceptis Decalogi, or Comments on the Ten Commandments. (It is also called by the same name as more popular books about the Ten Commandments by other theologians, like Praeceptorium Divinae Legis, or Expositio praeceptum, or Expositio decem catalogie praeceptum, which makes it a real pain to find.)

The 4th Exposition is the bit on magic and divination. Basically, he’s agin it, because it’s a sin. (My understanding is that he also thinks it doesn’t work, but it took me a long time to just find the book; I haven’t read the whole section.)

But as part of his pastoral backgrounding on why you’d be so angry as to attempt black magic, he also includes a little old lady cow curse verse (and cure verse) in medieval Flemish. (I guess it’s medieval Flemish.) The search term “mollekens” will bring you directly to the page in question; it’s chapter 7 under the 4th exposition.

“Beetzius” was picked up by a Jesuit named Del Rio who worked at the same university several centuries later, for his big book o’ magicology/theology and confutation of superstition, Disquisitionum Magicarum. Because honestly, if you can quote a man’s deep thoughts or you can quote him as a source on medieval cow curses, which one would you choose???

However, Del Rio lucked out in the Author Stakes, because his book was translated into English in 2000. Investigations into Magic by Martin Antoine del Rio, translated by P.G. Maxwell-Stuart. (Interestingly, Maxwell-Stuart asserts EU author rights. Seriously? There’s no difference between author and translator rights, if the writer’s dead long enough?) It’s not what you’d call a full translation, however. It abridges examples and quotes out of existence, which seems to take the point out of translating the book at all.

However, we do learn in the abridged preface that when Del Rio visited Salamanca, the university kids showed him the super-secret vault, blocked up by Good Queen Isabella, where the Moorish professors used to teach Forbidden Arts! Apparently the Salamanca magic degree story was told to him as being from back in Moorish days. Needless to say, there wasn’t any university in Salamanca in Moorish days. (Or Toledo or Sevilla, the other Forbidden Arts Moorish universities that the kids told Del Rio about.) It cracks me up that an otherwise learned guy like Del Rio would swallow an urban legend like that!

We also learn that Del Rio thinks Francesco de Vitoria was way too narrow in his definition of magic; and so that he does believe that natural and artifice magic could exist, not just demons playing tricks. Heh.

Anyway… Beetz didn’t luck out in the Author Stakes. But he’s on Google, which means he’s got some visibility back.

Jean de Beetz apparently was also a cheerful sort of contemplation master, who advocated bringing preparation for contemplation into daily tasks, and starting small with little pious practices. Apparently Beetz’s sermons on the times of the year deal with this sort of sanctification of all of life. If magic was a project of attempts to deal with frustration, he seems to have been as un-occult as it gets.


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