Over the summer I occupied myself with a number of projects, among them transcribing a 16th century manuscript which details the magical adventures of Sir Walter Raleigh’s half-brother, Humphrey Gilbert. Preserved as part of the British Library’s Additional MS. 36674, the two items in question tell of what Humphrey and his young friend John Davis (- later to be England’s master navigator) got up to in the spring of 1567, during which time Gilbert, serving in the army during the brutal Tudor conquest of Ireland, had been dispatched to England.
What exactly did they get up to? Well, calling up the spirits Assasel, Aosal and Oriens into a magical mirror, for a start… The process they used is recorded in the first item I transcribed, entitled An Excellent Booke of the Arte of Magicke. However, they went further and also recorded the results of their magical experiments in a second item, simply entitled Visions. It is highly unusual for a ‘grimoire’ to also record the results of the rituals laid out therein, in fact, outside the work of John Dee (himself an associate of Gilbert & Davis) I can’t think of many examples that amount to much more than isolated anecdotes. When read together, An Excellent Booke and Visions also provide a fascinating insight into the actual historical composition of a grimoire.
The exact purpose of their conjuring is somewhat vague, and appears to be the same sort of yearning for occult knowledge that would later spur Dee on to seek out the angels. As well as the aforementioned spirits, Gilbert also ends up conversing with the ghosts of King Solomon, Job, Roger Bacon, Cornelius Agrippa, Saint Luke and a pair of angels! The record of visions runs from the 24th of February to the 6th of April. It ends with a record that Davis had transcribed a new book from the crystal under the guidance of St. Luke – a book which now appears to have been lost.
I have collected my transcriptions of An Excellent Booke and Visions together under the title Liber Assaselis: Two Magical Works by Humphrey Gilbert, A Gentleman of the 16th Century. Until publication I have uploaded a preview to Issuu which provides a few pages from my typescript, including excerpts from the introduction and the transcriptions (in both modernised and diplomatic versions).
If you’re interested in finding out more about Humphrey Gilbert, the brilliant Frank Klaassen wrote about him in his chapter of Invoking Angels, edited by Claire Fanger. Dr. Klaassen also had a new book released in Autumn, a few months after I’d finished my own work, called The Transformations of Magic, which also mentions Gilbert. I have made a great effort in my own introduction not to duplicate Dr. Klaassen’s work, but to complement it; for example, looking more closely at the history of the manuscript, turning up a number of probable sources for Gilbert & Davis’ experiments (including other manuscripts dealing with Assasel, Aosel and Oriens), exploring the magical themes that their work touches on (such as the transcription of books from spirits) and debating the influence of Gilbert’s ‘cholerick’ temperament on his approach to conjuring spirits.