Medieval magical figures

Between image and text

Authored by: Sophie Page

The Routledge History of Medieval Magic

Print publication date:  February  2019
Online publication date:  February  2019

Print ISBN: 9781472447302
eBook ISBN: 9781315613192
Adobe ISBN:


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Medieval magical figures are a type of diagram: a simplified figure, mainly consisting of lines, that conveys the meaning of the appearance, structure or workings of something and the relationship between its parts. Magical figures acted as instruments to activate celestial and spiritual powers, and as visual devices to organize ritual elements considered powerful in their own right. They were part of the ritual toolkit with which practitioners attempted to manipulate the cosmos and very common in texts and manuscripts of learned magic. In the late Middle Ages, they were circulated both as integral parts of magic experiments and texts and independently, and they could involve an array of different shapes, images, words, letters, symbols, modes of construction and ritual uses. Although they have been little studied, magical figures are useful for exploring the relationship between image and text in learned magic and for explaining why critics identified some texts as deviant. 1 This chapter sets out several common types of figures including the “Eye of Abraham” charm, the square figures called laminas, circular apotropaic amulets, figures to aid visualization in ritual magic and magic circles to be drawn on the ground. I compare their uses, transmission histories and evidence of creativity in their production.

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