How to Conjure Spirits: The Logistics of the Necromancer’s Manual in Early Modern Switzerland

The scholar Faust and the demon Mephistopheles, woodcut from the title page of The Tragicall Historie of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (London, 1620), via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1727, fourteen men and women stood trial before the court of Basel for alleged treasure hunting. There was a rumor that some of them had attempted to find hidden treasures by performing nocturnal ceremonies to conjure spirits that could uncover and release the concealed money. Jacob Schaffner, a shoemaker, stated on record that he had obtained his knowledge of how to conjure spirits from a book he had bought from a Saxon some time ago. Said man supposedly received the book from a Venetian. Another man stated that he had come into possession of this book and copied various parts of it with his friends. This is just one of the many stories that can be found in early modern court documents about treasure hunters trying to conjure spirits. Such handbooks became the center of attention at such trials as the authorities were eager to track them down and place them in safe custody.[1]

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Three preconditions enabled the circulation of and desire to consult such books. First, there was a belief in the existence of invisible entities, which the living could communicate with. The existence of ghosts and spirits was taken for granted in early modern Europe. Second, people assumed that it was possible to influence both the physical and the supernatural world (spirits) through spells and rituals. Third, traditionally there existed a strong semiotic connection between the apparition of spirits and hidden treasures. Many people believed that such treasures were guarded by evil spirits who could be outsmarted and forced to reveal the riches under their watch. Much more important, however, was the relation between treasures and the spirits of the dead. In court documents, we often find the assumption that people hid treasures while still alive but then calamitously died before they could retrieve their money. Consequently, they were doomed to walk the earth as unruly spirits until the living uncovered their buried secrets. In these cases, conjuring spirits served a dual purpose. There was an opportunity to suddenly become very rich. At the same time, the treasure hunter would do something good by releasing the poor souls who had owned the riches from their torment.[2]

“On the Discovery of Treasure” [Von erfyndung eines schatz], woodcut in Francesco Petrarca, Von der Artzney bayder Glück (Augsburg, 1532), fol. 71r. Staats- und Stadtbibliothek Augsburg, 2 Phil 57.

It is a stroke of luck that, along with court documents, manuscripts of necromancer handbooks are preserved in the archives. This circumstance affords the opportunity not only to analyze the handling of these books but also to investigate their content. The necromancer’s handbook is distinctive in many respects. It is a so-called grimoire as it served a magical purpose. It contains detailed instructions on how to perform rituals to communicate with spiritual entities. In the above-mentioned case from 1727, the ultimate aim of the ritual was to uncover hidden treasures, whereas other books focused on gaining knowledge about the future or casting a spell on someone.

The power to conjure spirits and force them to do certain things lay within the words and actions performed during a ritual. According to the speech act theory developed by John Austin, language is able not only to express an idea but also to perform an action. For example, one must utter the sentence “I do” in order to seal a marriage. The attempt to conjure spirits, thus, can be interpreted as a speech act with which someone tried to compel the addressee—the spirit—to do something specific.[3]

The core of the necromancer’s ritual stayed curiously consistent for many centuries. Finding a hidden treasure, drawing a circle, and refraining from speaking during the ritual were consistent elements of many books in late medieval and early modern periods.

But how are such manuals relevant to the history of knowledge? Although their content may be very fascinating, questions about how the manuals were used are of particular interest. What did people do with these books? For one thing, people obviously tried to conjure metaphysical entities, but analyzing the logistics of the necromancer’s handbook is crucial to understanding the role these books played in certain historical cultures. In early modern times, grimoires were lent, sold, copied, or shared. The necromancer’s manual even functioned as a demonstration of authority. People who were in possession of these books and additionally knew how to perform the ritual enjoyed unusual prestige. As far as the authorities are concerned, these books were forbidden, to be hidden away or even burned.

Illustration from instructions on how to draw a magic circle. State Archive of Basel, Criminalia 4, 52 (1764), Das Grosse Geheimnus aller Geheimnussen oder Warhafftes Jesuiter Haubt Zwang Büchlein, p. 2.

The contents of these manuals can be labelled “occult knowledge” for three reasons. First, it was forbidden knowledge. The conjuring of ghosts and spirits was strictly prohibited and punished in Protestant and Catholic areas alike in early modern Switzerland. Conjuring spirits for the purpose of magically revealing the future or other hidden or stolen things was strictly punished by the authorities as a result of the biblical ban on necromancy (Deuteronomy 18:10). This was also valid in Protestant theology, even though the return of the souls of the dead was considered impossible. The Protestant clergy argued that people did not really conjure the dead but rather the devil, who took the shape of the deceased to deceive the living.[4] Second, this forbidden knowledge was bound to the physical shape of a book, which meant it was not freely available. Third, one had to decipher the spells and sometimes foreign characters and symbols in necromancer handbooks correctly. Many people believed that only certain men and women had the capacity to decode its contents and perform the ritual effectively.

The court documents dealing with treasure hunting and other types of conjuration make clear that a great number of such manuals circulated among the populace. A study of documents relating to treasure hunting in early modern Lucerne shows that the accused mentioned eleven different titles of necromancy handbooks, although the records mostly referred to a “banned” or “proscribed book” (Bannbuch, Zwangsbuch).[5] In another case in Berne, one witness brought three books to the investigators’ attention. While he received two of the books from friends, he allegedly found a third lying on the street, and he made copies for personal use.[6]

The masses of grimoires consulted by the populace led the city council of Zurich to issue a mandate in 1672 against their possession and transmission. In this mandate, the authorities requested everyone in possession of a manual to turn it in to the local priest within fourteen days. At he same time, they advised the clergy to carry out random house searches.[7]

During criminal investigations, necromantic manuals served as evidence, in Protestant and Catholic areas alike. For this reason, grimoires could also be used for blackmailing. When a man found a book called The Book of Doctor Faust in Lucerne, another man stole it from him and threatened to turn the book over to the Jesuits and to report him to the authorities if he didn’t pay thirty guilders.[8] Many people caught with a contraband book tried to convince the authorities that they had intended to bring it in, albeit too late and unfortunately to no avail. Affirming they had not used any supernatural magic, only pious prayers, did not help either. Claims of illiteracy and an apparent inability to decipher the title of a forbidden book, let alone its content, seemed to be more effective, however.

In the end, naturally none of the conjurers succeeded with their respective rituals. Why, then, were these manuals so widely used? First, people actually found hidden treasures, albeit through luck rather than magic. The chance of finding valuables seemed to have increased in the seventeenth century, especially during the Thirty Years War. It is believed that people had to bury valuables when leaving their homes in a hurry.[9] Certainly, the official prohibition of the possession and circulation of these books made these manuals more attractive and offered an adventurous alternative to daily life. In some cases, however, where men and women called upon God and Jesus, these people really seemed to believe they were not doing anything wrong. On the contrary, they believed it to be right as long as they performed the rituals in the name of God. Finally, these books were popular because they oscillated between the known and the foreign. While the similarity to Christian prayers provided the people with a form they knew from their daily lives, foreign characters and symbols emitted a scientific and exotic aura. As I will argue in my paper, the semiotic complexities of the ritual, which were presented in a scientific manner in the books, served as an easy explanatory way out when the ritual did not succeed. 

Eveline Szarka is a doctoral student in history at the University of Zürich.

  1. Jakob Schaffner und andere, 1727, State Archive of Basel, Criminalia 4, 23.  ↩
  2. Johannes Dillinger, Magical Treasure Hunting in Europe and North America: A History (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011), 74.  ↩
  3. John L. Austin: How to Do Things with Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962).  ↩
  4. See, for example, Ludwig Lavater, Von Gespänsten, Vnghüren, Fälen vnd anderen wunderbaren Dingen (Zurich: Christoph Froschauer, 1569), Central Library of Zurich, II App 636.  ↩
  5. Stefan Jäggi: “Alraunenhändler, Schatzgräber und Schatzbeter im alten Staat Luzern des 16.–18. Jahrhunderts,” Der Geschichtsfreund 146 (1993): 78.  ↩
  6. Interrogation of Ruff Erhard, April 13, 1668, State Archive of Berne, Ratsmanual, vol. 157.  ↩
  7. Mandate concerning the prohibition of magical books, January 5, 1672, State Archive of Zurich, III AAb 1.5, 2.  ↩
  8. Interrogation of Franz Josef Hug, August 28, 1756, State Archive of Lucerne, Akt 113 892.  ↩
  9. Johannes Dillinger: “Das ewige Leben und fünfzehntausend Gulden—Schatzgräberei in Württemberg,” in Zauberer Selbstmörder—Schatzsucher. Magische Kultur und behördliche Kontrolle im frühneuzeitlichen Württemberg, ed. Johannes Dillinger (Trier: Kliomedia, 2002), 272.  ↩
Suggested Citation: Eveline Szarka, “How to Conjure Spirits: The Logistics of the Necromancer’s Manual in Early Modern Switzerland,” History of Knowledge, May 14, 2018,