Dark tales, black books
Friday 26th October 2012, 4:00PM BST.
Almost since their publication, the titles dubbed ‘black books’ have been dogged by sinister stories and bizarre rumours. Shaun Shackleton went along to the Priaulx Library to investigate these manuals of magic for himself…
MYSTERY, intrigue and many a dark rumour surrounds them.
‘They’re bound in human flesh’, goes one legend. ‘If you own one, you can never get rid of it – you can’t burn it and even if you throw it out to sea, it will always come back to you’, says another.
Some say they were written by witches and sorcerers and contain black-magic spells and others believe they’re so evil they must be locked up in an attic.
In fact, a rumour that if anyone touched a copy they would be cursed for life so unnerved Guernsey Press photographer Tom Tardif’s work experience student that she refused to go into the library, preferring to stay in the car instead.
Such is the power of the Priaulx Library’s so-called ‘black books’.
But are they really steeped in witchcraft, black magic, diabolism even?
‘Actually, I had them rebound in black leather a couple of years ago because the covers were getting a bit tatty,’ said the Priaulx’s chief librarian, Amanda Bennett.
The two books she is talking about are Le Grand Albert and Le Petit Albert and they are, in fact, grimoires – books of household magic that were hugely popular in France throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
‘The earliest copy of La Grande Albert is from the 15th century, 1496, and is in Latin, though it was published in the form that we know in 1764.
‘It is purported to be the work of Albert Le Grand, or Albrecht De Groot, a 13th-century Dominican monk. He was a bit of a genius.’
A genius and something of an enigma.
‘He was hot on science,’ said Amanda. ‘Apparently he invented the cannon and the pistol and he was the first person to create an automaton [a robot with encyclopaedic knowledge, which he named “the Android”].
‘He was also supposed to have known the secret of the philosopher’s stone and he lived to be 90 years old, which no doubt helped his reputation.’
The Priaulx Library has several copies of Le Grand Albert.
‘It contains chapters on human reproduction and the conceiving of females, which also probably helped his rep.
‘It has sections on the virtues of herbs, precious stones and animals and old wives’ tales. Nothing particularly sinister,’ said Amanda.
An extract from Lives of Alchemystical Philosophers by Arthur Edward Waite in 1888 described Le Grand Albert as being concerned with ‘methods for preservation against the plague, malignant fevers, poisons, &c… of the magical properties possessed by the hair of woman, of the infallible means of ascertaining whether a child still in the womb is male or female.
In the others there is a curious chaos of remarkable superstitions concerning urine, vermin, old shoes, putrefaction and the manipulation of metals.’
Perhaps not surprisingly, the book was a huge success when it was published and virtually every home in France had a copy – it wasn’t about ‘household magic’ for nothing – and it was also common in Guernsey.
And for a time, the Church tolerated it.
‘But Guernsey being a very puritanical place, perhaps the Church began to think the book was too powerful for our human minds,’ suggested Amanda.
‘Perhaps it was the clergy that gave it such a bad rep.’
After Le Grand Albert came Le Petit Albert, which only increased the book’s notoriety.
‘In effect, the publisher’s brought out a sequel and it was first published in France in 1668. It is basically cobbled together from lots of different sources.
I don’t think anyone is entirely sure of all of them.’
Parts of it are purportedly from Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535), a notorious German magician, occult writer, theologian, astrologer and alchemist, who wrote Of Occult Philosophy between 1509 and 1510.
In Le Petit Albert, there are sections on talismans, mandrakes and elementals.
Also an illustration of the rather more sinister ‘hand of glory’, where a candle is made of human tallow (fat), lit and taken underground. If it starts to crackle and gutter, it means the holder is near treasure.
The two ‘black books’ are part of a collection of occult books that belonged to the Allez family of Le Bordage, St Saviour’s.
‘I’m actually descended from them,’ said Amanda.
Also included in the collection is Les Secrets des Secrets de Nature, a little handbook that contains conjuring tricks, herbal potions and potentially mean tricks, such as preventing someone sleeping at night, stopping a pot boiling, scaring people and making itching powder. It also includes this:
‘To drive fleas away from the house and send them onto the legs of whomever you desire. Take some ass’s milk and put some on to the shoe of your target and you will see all the fleas go on to him.’
And the only book that looks as if its cover is made of human skin is Chiromance & physiognomie par le regard des membres de l’homme, by Jean de Indagine (Chiromance & physiognomy looking through the members of man), which has a card attached reading, ‘The gift of Madeline de Havilland’.
‘Like if you have a big nose, then you must be a criminal,’ said Amanda.
So, nothing much to worry about. Palmistry, superstition, a few herbal remedies and astrology, a couple of spells – oh, and a candle made from human flesh.
‘Well, we do have some really nasty ones, some by Aleister Crowley,’ admitted Amanda, intriguingly.
‘They used to be on the shelves and some quite interesting people came in to look at them.’
She added, ‘We keep those upstairs.’
If they had an airing, like Le Grand Albert and Le Petit Albert, then perhaps I’d stay in the car too.