Monday, September 9, 2019

Magic in the 1700s, or, Le Petit Albert: an introduction

So back in the days people believed in magic. What did this mean exactly? The spells magic users (I think we need as broad a term as we can here) created tells us a lot about what people believed was possible for a human to achieve via supernatural means. It also tells us a lot about what people *wanted* to achieve, what they wished was possible or true. There aren't any spells to turn your beard into spagetti, because no one has any interest in achieve that goal. Almost always though, there are love spells.

The reason I'm bringing this up is because Marquis did an excellent take on the subject, building an old D&D spell list for magic users, based on Egyptian and Mesopotamian spells. You should really check it out, it's a very impressive piece of work and quite interesting read. I thought that maybe I too could contribute somehow.

Now I don't' have access to old Egyptian texts and I'm not a "real" scholar, but I do have something – I'm fluent in French and I have access to some old magical texts, or Grimoires. So let's talk about one – the Petit Albert.

The Petit Albert is a grimoire for "the small people" - the peasantry, the country gentlemen, the humble burger. It has well over a hundred spells, although the exact number is difficult to determine, as some spells are not spells at all but basically recipes to make nice soap, and others have a meandering formulae with little "side trips" that turn out to be distinct spells in and of themselves.

It was first published in 1706, and was attributed to Albertus Magnus, although it also cited o other authors as source, such as Cardano and Paracelsus.  As these authors are from after Albertus' death, clearly he must have been a time-lord.  Atributing grimoires to church leaders as a "cover" was not an unknown practice (such as the Grimoire of Pope Honorius, which I will have to review in a different entry). Le Petit Albert's author also took pains to make its spell seem benign and the result of good Providence, not black magic. Le Petit Albert was a "sister book" to the Grand Albert, which was a more serious, perhaps even more dangerous, Grimoire. Despite the attribution and the lighter tone, the Church, of course, took a very dim view to these Grimoires and denounced the book as a tool of the devil.

Nevertheless, le Petit Albert was, if the Wikipedia entry on the topic is to be believe, immensely popular. In one year, 400 000 copies were sold in a region of Belgium alone! Everyone had a copy. This is despite the fact that many of the spells were obscure or quite difficult to perform, requiring odd or very expensive ingredients, and thus weren't that useful for peasants. I'm uncertain if they were purchased because they were seen as a useful tool or for "entertainment" value. Why to people read horoscopes even to this day?

I was unsure how to tackle this and other Grimoires, but I was wisely counselled to try to make this into a series of of blog entries instead of some king of megapost. Perhaps, out of all this, a "late renaissance/early modern" spell list to be used in a more "historical" RPG game could be made? We'll see. The spells are not the "one action casting time lightning bolt" type – they take a long time to prepare, and often operate indirectly.

So I will give examples of spells in the Petit Albert, try to gamify some of them (in what system? Troika? the GLOG?) and translate some of them. Note that I a *not* a translator, and some of the terms are obscure or may have changed in meaning over time. Making things worse is the tendency towards Hermetism, where coded language was often used – mercury might mean quicksilver, the planet, the God, or something else entirely. Thankfully le Petit Albert seems to freer of that than some other Grimoires, and while I can't promise I will get it right, at least it will be better than what Google Translate will get you. So here's an example to get you started:


(some of the spell titles are … something)

Here is the method to make a magical candle, with which the person holding it will appear headless. You will take a freshly shed snake skin, some orpiment
(arsenic sulfite crystals), Greek pitch, some reupondique (no idea what this is, neither does Google...), virgin wax and donkey blood; you will crush all these things together and you will boil them under a gentle heat, for 3 to 4 hours, in an old pot full of swamp water, then letting them cool off, you will separate the mass from your drugs (your medicine, your ingredients) from the water and you will with this mass assemble a candle, which will have a wick made of threads from the shroud in which a deceased was buried; and whoever light this candle will be illuminated and appear headless.

Looong run on sentences, hours of work, strange ingredients for an oddly specific objective... that's the lot of the 1700s magic user.  Of course, I bet no one has ever tried this particular spell because no one knows what the hell reupondique is, let alone the shroud requirement.

Well that's it for now, Stay tuned! 😊


  1. I, for one, am *greatly* looking forward to this!

    1. Thank you. I've translated a few more. I think next step will be publishing a "short" list of content, then pick and choosing more "gameable" spells.

  2. Here is my rpg mod based on a "fantasy France" of the same time period:

  3. Hmm, I vaguely recall seeing that "spell" before. I think it was in a booklet (The Black Art Exposed) that was reprinted as an appendix to a book on (stage) magic (Magic Digest, by George B. Anderson) which I had as a kid. The original booklet was from the 1870s and probably used Le Petit Albert as one of its sources.

    I sometimes get vague inklings to do something with material from Francis Barrett's The Magus... I've used it as an occasional reference for a line or two, here and there, but never tried any large-scale content creation based on it. Glad to see someone giving it more effort than I ever did!