The best programme on the radio is In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg’s weekly surf through philiosophy and history on Radio 4. It’s a great programme — you get some of the latest academic work on a subject, packaged up in a nice, digestible package. I love it. I know Bragg irritates many but this is the best setting for him: his ego, which elsewhere can be overbearing, is essential to serving the interests of the listener when engaging with subject specialists. In terms of eludication, it works a treat.
Last week’s was an absolute corker: it was all about Renaissance Magic. This is an essential subject for understanding both modernity, or what passes for it, and pre-Christian history, in terms of science, art, philosophy and, quite rapidly, cultural theory. It’s a humdinger of a topic.
The central text of Renaissance magic is Frances Yates’ magisterial Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. I was introduced to it by my wife, who encountered it when doing graduate work at the Bartlett School of Architecture, at a time when the Bartlett was an inferno of intellectual energy; it still is one of the three or four most forward-looking and academically robust architecture schools in Europe. Architects have been enthusiastic recipients of Yates’ wisdom; so much of architectural theory is based on the neoclassical ideals of the Renaissance, and Yates provided a fresh conceptual model for evaluating the roots of modern architecture which was both persuasive and mind-blowing.
Its thesis is as startling as Yates is respected (she is THE hardcore authority on the history of Renaissance philosophy and art): that the Renaissance, far more than being simply a re-discovery of classical sources (though this was of course the central conceptual input) or a product of Arab technology (the use of the number zero for example, which was also covered in this series), was, in intention and in effect, a full-on pagan revival. Over and again, Yates demonstrates that the mantle of Catholicism, within which Classical themes were deployed, was largely a cover under which full-on practical magick flourished. I would happily split hairs about whether this magick was actually Christian in orientation and ideology, as is largely (if not comprehensively!) true of the cunning men, herbalists and midwives who are frequently and wrongly claimed by some Wiccans (for example) as being their explicitly pagan forebears… but such qualifications are scarcely necessary given the weight of documentary evidence marshalled by Yates to demonstrate the deliberate pagan intent of many of the Renaissance players.
The programme doesn’t quite possess the sweeping authority of Yates, but it’s a hell of an interesting survey nevertheless. As with pretty much all the In Our Time shows, you can still hear it: go here and click on the listen again button.