Manuscripts as Magical Agents

Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, Hamburg
10 - 11 June 2016


One of the aims pursued at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures is to research agents and forms of agency in manuscript cultures. Manuscripts are not only objects of cultural practices, but can be understood as having a socioculturally mediated capacity to act by themselves. With their specific materiality and visual design, they actively contribute to cultural interpretations of reality and as such can be subsumed under the concept of agency or the German term Wirkmacht. This agency or Wirkmacht is constituted by the relationship and interaction between a manuscript as a physical object and human actors as producers, possessors and users of manuscripts.

Manuscripts as magical artefacts, be it amulets, magical recipes or manuals of magic, are a characteristic case of Wirkmacht. Besides the specific materiality connected to their use, such as size, form, and writing materials, magical manuscripts can exhibit specific visual designs, e.g. magical signs, diagrams or triangular vanishing schemes (Schwindeschemata), that are directly related to their assumed potencies. We can see in the use of miniature Qurʾans and miniature Bibles worn as protective amulets, that these religious manuscripts and artefacts are not merely to be seen as passive objects bearing texts, but need to be understood as actors that unfold independent Wirkmacht and thus contribute to magically influenced realities.

Human actors rely on the Wirkmacht of magical artefacts and, through the interaction with them, simultaneously affirm their efficacy. The potency of such manuscripts can be activated by their immediate presence, their contact to the human body, or by the material and visual, sometimes iconic or self-referential features of the objects. Magic manuscripts structure situations and actions and actively intervene in the everyday world of human actors (for example as charms for protection or charms for love).

The workshop aims at advancing our understanding of how manuscripts as magical artefacts (for example amulets, but also recipes or manuals) are attributed with Wirkmacht in cultural practices and are perceived as “performers of magic” themselves. Particular questions of interest are:

  • How do the materiality and the design of manuscripts contribute to their Wirkmacht as magical artefacts?
  • How does the assumed magical efficacy of manuscripts vice versa affect their production, possession, and use?
  • Which historical changes is this Wirkmacht subject to?
  • What is the social dimension of this Wirkmacht of magic manuscripts?

The workshop will cover a variety of manuscript cultures as well as different historical time periods up to the 20th century.

Programme and Abstracts

Programme and Abstracts (updated 06.06.2016)


The workshop will be held at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, Warburgstraße 26, Hamburg, Germany. How to find us