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A colourful page from a witchcraft book

Want to try Transcribing Ancient Magic and Witchcraft Manuscripts? Here's Your Chance...


A transcription and translation project puts volumes of spells, potions, and witchcraft into the hands of online users.

In an era immersed in technology and science, between the interstice and the comfort of the “verifiable,” magic is not only alive, but still fascinating. A discipline that once fulfilled the roles of modern chemistry, botany, and psychology, to name a but a few, still rallies teams of academics from the world’s most prestigious universities to rescue and translate it. Despite the fact that science, standardized units of measure, and technology all make our lives more convenient, many of us long for the chance to cast an evil eye at those who’ve harmed us, or to mix a love potion to draw the attention of someone who attracts us.

Fortunately, there’s The Newberry, a library and independent research center open since 1887. Through the library’s Transcribing Faith project, anyone interested in texts on magic, religion, and other disciplines from the early Modern Era through the 19th century can help to decipher, transcribe, and in some way, give new life to these texts. One of the most dazzling is a book of magical spells from 17th-century England. It contains everything from remedies to cure toothaches, to tips for cheating at dice games and talking with spirits.

The project doesn’t require experts. Project directors explain that the transcriptions are more like editing articles from Wikipedia. (Here are some exercises in transcriptions from others who’ve participated in the project.) Beyond manuals of magic, Transcribing Faith has also used volunteer transcribers to tackle the records of multiple witch trials and a very old book of Italian Catholic propaganda. Most of the texts were written in English, although The Newberry also shares a few written in Latin.

The project’s ultimate purpose is to disseminate information about this, one of the most vibrant, turbulent, and interesting times in the history of Western culture: the early Modern Era and the Renaissance, and some of the practices that fed into the imaginations and spirituality of those who lived it. Transcribing Faith helps us, of course, to know a bit more about the reading habits of that era, which leaned more toward the consultation of sections of books rather than reading entire volumes straight through.

Magic, which we all practice, even involuntarily, was created by people, for people. That’s a crucial part of its very nature. So the Newberry work allows ordinary people, through the internet, into these landscapes of dreams and magic, taking magic out of the hands of experts and out of the archives of libraries and universities. It’s an admirable project both in its generosity and in what it divulges.



Image: Wellcome Images.

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