The necromancer of Woburn Square

Written by Amaia Arizaleta |

On What Happened to a dean of Santiago with Don Yllán, the Grand Master of Toledo is a tale from the collection of stories titled El conde Lucanor, written by Juan Manuel in the 14th century. The story revolves around a wise magician in Toledo who is visited by a cleric from Santiago de Compostela seeking to learn necromancy.

In this blog post, former Warburg fellow, Amaia Arizaleta, draws parallels between her own journey to the Institute as a fellow and the tale's narrative. Read to learn more about the complex perception of necromancy in medieval times and Amaia's experience of studying at the Warburg Institute and meeting Charles Burnett.

London, British Library, MS Additional 30024, detail of a late thirteenth-century quarto manuscript  of Brunetto Latini’s Livres dou tresor
London, British Library, MS Additional 30024, detail of a late thirteenth-century quarto manuscript of Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresor; 1260-1299; France, S; f.1v
"It seems strange that in such respectable sources the conjuring up of the dead in order to prophecy (which is the literal meaning of 'necromancy') should be so well-integrated into the parts of philosophy. But what is really meant by 'necromancy' and how did it relate to other sciences?"

Charles Burnett, “Talismans: Magic as Science? Necromancy among the Seven Liberal Arts"[1]


“In Santiago there lived a dean who had a great desire to learn the art of necromancy. He heard that Don Yllán of Toledo knew more about it than anyone else at that time, so he went to Toledo to study that science.”

Don Juan Manuel, Libro de los enxiemplos del conde Lucanor et de Patronio (ca. 1335)[2]

In a collection of stories - El conde Lucanor (1330-1335) - written by Juan Manuel (1282-1348), Prince of Villena and a master of Toledo, there is a tale titled On What Happened to a dean of Santiago with Don Yllán, the Grand Master of Toledo. We are told of a very wise character who has spent his life studying the magical arts, the natural sciences, and the texts and techniques of divination. He welcomes into his house a cleric from Santiago de Compostela who wishes to acquire the art of necromancy. This tale, illustrated in 14th-century Castile, presents the reason for the journey of knowledge and the attraction to Toledo that had seduced Daniel of Morley, among others. Daniel of Morley, an Englishman who claimed to have visited Toledo at the end of the twelfth century to observe the dynamism of the new Arabic sciences, classified necromancy among the eight sciences derived from astrology and benefited from it. It is well known that since the 12th-century, Toledo had been a great European scientific centre, where texts of natural magic and astral divination were read. Toledo also rivalled the diminished Santiago de Compostela in ecclesiastical importance. A few centuries earlier, this city was considered the Rome of the West, though the bishopric of Santiago de Compostela had lost importance in the 14th century. This rivalry explains the anxious visit of the dean of Santiago to the wise man of Toledo. Incidentally, it is worth remembering that Juan Manuel, the author of this tale, was the nephew of King Alfonso X of Castile and León, whose patronage enabled the translation of the Ghāyat al-ḥakīm into Castilian in 1256, and later into Latin, under the title of Picatrix.

One year ago, in the spring of 2022, I had the immense good fortune to enjoy a Brian Hewson Crawford and Grete Sondheimer Short-Term Fellowship at the Warburg Institute, which allowed me to start shaping my research project The small world of the Toledo’s intellectual elite (early 13th century). One of my goals was to personally meet and learn from Charles Burnett, Professor of the History of Islamic Influences in Europe. Working myself on the circulation of knowledge between the cathedral and the Castilian-Leonese court in the late 12th and early decades of the 13th century, I had the highest admiration for Charles’s impressive scientific work. Upon my arrival, I had already read most of his works, but Charles lent me during those happy months at the Institute the most recent ones that arrived on his desk. Charles Burnett is almost a fictional character, with an extraordinary aura. His welcome was as kind and warm as that which the master of Toledo offered to the cleric of Santiago: “the day he arrived in Toledo, he went straight to the house of Don Yllán and found him reading in a secluded room; and when they met, Don Yllán received him warmly. He took excellent care of him and gave him very nice accommodation and everything he needed, and made it clear that he was very pleased with his visit.” Charles did indeed take excellent care of me, as he does of all his students.

To return to our Spanish story. Some readers today might be surprised by such desire of the Compostelan cleric… being a cleric, he should have assimilated the practices of the master of Toledo to a usurpation of divine power. It is worth recalling here the quotation from Charles that opens this blog. Although Isidore of Seville had made it clear that necromantici sunt, quorum precantationibus videntur resuscitati mortui divinare, et ad interrogata respondere (“necromancers are those whose invocations appear to raise the dead to guess and answer questions”) Charles Burnett has explained how, although “necromancy is normally understood to refer to deliberate malevolent invocations and conjurations of demons,” the concept is complicated because some valences of the word also pointed to more neutral and scientific ideas.[3] We should not forget the existence of numerous testimonies of the reading of works of magic, alchemy, and astrology by those from various orders, who did not suffer persecution for such an interest in such 'necromantic sciences'. Let us take a look at the frontispiece of the Livres dou Trésor by Brunetto Latini, who spent some time at the court of Alfonso X, the uncle of Juan Manuel (it was indeed a small world):

Frontispice ms.London, Additional 30024, 1v
London, British Library, MS Additional 30024, page from a late thirteenth-century quarto manuscript of Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresor; 1260-1299; France, S; f.1v

Here, 'necromancy' is overvalued as it is represented at the same level as the most prestigious of the sciences of the quadrivium, 'astrolomie', i.e. astronomy-astrology — we are not far from the various attempts to theorise magic carried out by various thinkers from the 12th to the 14th centuries, some of them Hispani (from Petrus Alfonsi to Berenger Ganell).

In the story, the magician of Toledo is presented in a very positive way and turns out to be the model of conduct before the counterexample of a hypocritical and vengeful cleric. This could well be due to the fact that the character is situated in the city where the Arab-Latin translations revamped a philosophy of nature of Greco-Arabic inspiration, producing knowledge that acquired a new scientific status[4]. The final reaction of the cleric turned false Pope is, therefore, of great interest: “The Pope complained about this diatribe and began to insult don Yllán, saying that if he kept insisting he would have thrown him in jail, and calling him a heretic and a sorcerer, since he knew full well that he didn't have any other profession or livelihood in his hometown of Toledo apart from the art of necromancy.” The story is written at the end of John XXII's pontificate, perhaps at the beginning of Benedict XII’s, and at a time of debate when the boundaries of white magic were not yet clearly marked in relation to orthodoxy. In the early years of the 14th century, Pietro d’Abano wrote in his Lucidator (1310) that the nigromanticus is the one to which the people attribute fascinamenta et facturas seu maleficia, most of which are in fact a matter of imagination. Half a century later Nicholas Eymerich evoked the ‘baleful gaze and oblique view’ of heretical magicians, necromancers, and invokers of dominion in his Directorium inquisitorum.

Ms. British Library  Royal MS 10 E IV, 30v
Ms. British Library Royal MS 10 E IV, 30v

I learned so much at the Institute. It was a period of total intellectual satisfaction, almost entirely free of earthly strife. I came to London not from the mists of northern Iberia, but from the sunny south of France, from Toulouse. From the south I went north, and I did not follow the trajectory of the wicked dean, first alone, and then in the company of the good master. A trajectory that took both characters from Toledo, with a quick parenthesis back to Santiago, to Toulouse, on the way to the papal curia installed in Avignon. Toulouse was not so far from Toledo and proof of this can be found in the Toulouse Tables (Paris, BnF, lat. 16658, for example[5]). There is further proof, as to the proximity between Toulouse and the British Isles. For example, the British Library Royal MS 10 E IV — contemporary with the Libro del Conde Lucanor — which contains the Decretals of Gregory IX, edited by Raymund of Peñafort. The text is dedicated to the University of Paris, but both the text and gloss were written in Southern France, probably in Toulouse. This manuscript is now known for its celebrated little personage on folio 30v.

Much could be written about our tale, similar not only to a traditional type story set at the court of Frederick II, but also closely analogous to a Hebrew exemplum included in Ibn Sahula's 13th-century work, the Meshal Haqadmoni.[6] That bad dean went to Toledo attracted by the fame of the master necromancer, as I went to London attracted by the fame of the master sage Burnett. But that’s the end of the similarities (I hope). I got what I was looking for and would go back to Woburn Square a thousand times. The necromancer did not throw me out of the Institute, whose library is not unlike the “very nice living quarters with a finely decorated chamber with books and a place to read” to which the Toledo master leads his disciple. In the library of the Warburg Institute, where “items sharing the same classmark should not be in any particular order, reflecting a lack of hierarchy or differentiation between types of items,” I was free to explore. The magnetic library of the Warburg Institute is a literary laboratory that proposes a living, constantly moving arrangement of books.

Idiom or Column of Knowledge by Matěj Krén, Municipal Library on Mariánské náměstí, Prague.
Idiom or Column of Knowledge by Matěj Krén, Municipal Library on Mariánské náměstí, Prague

Umberto Eco reinvented at the end of the 20th century in his The Name of the Rose, the universal library of Babel of Jorge Luis Borges, who imagined in 1941 that the universe is an expansive library and humanity, its librarians. “Borges’s library is a vivid metaphor for the pursuit of encyclopedic knowledge, a ‘catalogue of catalogues’ or a glimpse of eternity and perfection.” To access the library of the Toledo master, it was necessary to descend “an elaborately carved stone staircase, and descend for quite a long time until that it seemed the Tagus River flowed above.” Such a trajectory makes me think of the Idiom or Column of Knowledge - a column of 8,000 books by the artist Matěj Krén which has been standing in the entrance hall of the main building of the Municipal Library on Mariánské náměstí, in Prague.

There is more: when Jorge Luis Borges rewrote Juan Manuel’s story, he gave it a superb title in Spanish, “El brujo postergado,” which could have been translated as ‘The Wizard Postponed’. It ended up, however, being published in 1960 in an American SF magazine under the title ‘The Rejected Sorcerer’ He added a new element : the master’s face had strangely become younger. In Spanish, ‘remozar’; in English, ‘refurbish’. As I write this blog, the Warburg Renaissance Project is on its phase 2, part of the refurbishing of the building; I can also hear Giuseppe Tartini’s Sonata for violin and cello in G. Major, B. G7: II. Allegro playing. It seems appropriate to recall Charles’s music in the corridors of the second floor in the late afternoon.

Amaia Arizaleta
Université de Toulouse

Amaia Arizaleta (Pamplona, Spain) is Full Professor of Medieval Hispanic Studies at the University of Toulouse, France. After a thesis that led her to the Book of Alexandre (Libro de Alexandre) and to Alexander the Great in the West in the 12th and 13th centuries, she worked on questions related to writing practices, poetics of the chronicle, the chancery of Castile-Leon in the period from 1180 to 1230. Her research  is concerned with intellectual history and with the transmission and the configuration of knowledge. She has recently worked on Anglo-Norman models in Castilian culture and on the literary role of some Iberian princesses. Her current research is on a community of learning, the one shaped by the learned Castilian clergy at the beginning of the XIIIth century. 


[1] In Magic and Divination in the Middle Ages: Texts and Techniques in the Islamic and Christian Worlds, Variorum Collected Studies Series, CS557, Aldershot, 1996, 1-15, p. 2.

[2] A. Savo & M. Cossío Olavide’s translation into English. Don Juan Manuel, Libro de los enxiemplos del conde Lucanor et de Patronio, 2020, p. 7. Exemplum 11. “On what happened to a dean of Santiago with Don Yllán, the great sage of Toledo.” I prefer translating 'maestro' to 'master'. See as well, Juan Manuel. The Book of Count Lucanor and Patronio : A Translation of Don Juan Manuel’s  El conde Lucanor, translated by J. E. Keller, L. C. Keating, and B. E. Gaddy, Peter Lang, 1993. For a Spanish edition of the work, see G. Serés, Barcelona, 2006.

[3] Charles Burnett, Magic and divination.

[4] Charles Burnett, “The Coherence of the Arabic-Latin Translation Program in Toledo in the Twelfth Century,” Science in Context, 14 (1/2), 2001, p. 249–288.

[5] David Juste. “Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Latinorum. II. Les manuscrits astrologiques latins conservés à la Bibliothèque Nationale de France à Paris,” Institut de Recherche et d'Histoire des Textes, 2015. pp. 5-351.

[6] David A. Wacks, “Ibn Sahula’s Tale of the Egyptian Sorcerer: A Thirteenth Century Don Yllán,” eHumanista, 4, 2004.