Friday, June 3, 2011

Life-Cycle of a Necronomicon

Life-Cycle of a Necronomicon
Bobby Derie

Books have a life of their own, but it is rare in this modern age to find a book with a long and a colorful history. Modern paper is not made to last the rigors of centuries and the handling of many. The longest-lived volumes tend to dull lives in great libraries, or survive for decades unread on a shelf while their more popular brethren slowly fall apart from use, and the more adventurous books tend to live very brief lives indeed. It has been a pleasure, then, to track the life-cycle of one such work that is both long and interesting.

The Story of the Gutenberg-d’Averoigne-Dee-Exham-Vivian Necronomicon is a curious one, and it has been the work of many hands to bring it together in this narrative, and today I stand on the shoulders of those cataloguers and librarians of old, to add my few notes to the pile. My thanks and congratulations go out to those giants whose shoulders I straddle: Stanley, Harms, Wilson and de Camp, and all those others whose tireless efforts have gone into tracing the histories of the Necronomicon, in its many editions and translations, throughout the centuries.


Ole Worm of Jutland was weary but feverish with excitement as he pored over the faded Greek manuscripts of the NEKPONOMIKON. On his bare scriptorium lay three versions of Theodorus Philetas’ forbidden work, the translation of the Al Azif of the Mad Arab, each manuscript unique, a heritage of errors, corrections, and glosses repeated by amanuenses. The oldest, a moldy and incomplete stack of vellum, might have been one of those copied from Philetus’ original near three centuries before, and had been scavenged from a genizah, or book graveyard, in the Jew’s quarter; while the newest and easiest to read bore traces of the Medieval Latin taught in the university of Toledo.

It had taken the scholarly Danish monk months of scouring the book-stalls and libraries, since he had first caught a reference to the banning of the text by the Patriarch Michael. From Matins to Vespers for days on end he had plied collectors, seeking amid the occult and the forbidden for some trace of the lost book. There was much to choose from, for Toledo was a den of sorcerers and scholarship. Here mingled Jew, Moslem, and Christian, and in the academic atmosphere of the 1200s there was a great demand for the translation of strange and classical texts into the common tongue. Unveiled to any who could read Latin were the mysteries of the Cabala, the astromancy and talismans of the Arabic Picatrix, the natural magic of the Greek Krynadies, and all the invocations of demons the Medieval European mind could imagine.

Here too, was Ole Worm, or Olaus Wormius as he was known in Latin, well-situated, a man of his time in the most propitious place to ply his skills. A scholar of Latin and Greek, trained in rhetoric and poetry, he was also known as a mercenary cleric-conjurer who performed exorcisms to dispel devils and spirits from the sick and afflicted, and quieted the spirits that guarded ancient and buried treasures. The magician-monk was well-versed in the occult of the time, and his production of an accessible Latin version of the ancient Greek Necronomicon would bring him fame and fortune from a selection of Toledo’s rich and affluent patricians. Earlier, he had sought out for the Arabic original, but each grey-bearded Jew and indifferent Moslem willing to deal with him would just shake their heads and wring their hands, and after months of fruitless effort he had given up that text as lost to the ages.

So line by line did the scholarly monk work his way through the tiresome Byzantine scripts, compiling and editorializing from the three separate texts a single and unified whole, striving to retain something of the poetic flavor and meaning which Philetas had echoed from the Mad Arab’s own script. It was the work of years, for the book was enormous in scope, rivaling the Bible in wordcount, and many a night Wormius had stayed up late, chewing his lip over some inconsistency between his sources, or how best to translate the strange foreign names of Alhazred. Wormius’ manuscript, the Latin Necronomicon, did not bring him the fortune or acclaim he might have desired—only infamy. He had sold precious few copies of the 1228 manuscript when the Bishop of Toledo charged him with heresy, and urged the prince of the city to arrest him. Wormius escaped, but his rooms were ransacked, his magic books and papers made a bonfire in the street.

Olaus Wormius escaped north to Salamanca, Paris, Prague, and finally Mainz, one step ahead of the rumors concerning him, finding an easy home in the burgeoning universities, leaving in his wake partial manuscripts of his Latin Necronomicon with Masters and Doctors of the Arts. It was in Germany he found, for a time, succor. Sigfried III of Eppstein, the Archbishop of Mainz welcomed the traveled scholar, providing haven and funding in exchange for an elaborate illuminated manuscript of the Latin Necronomicon for his personal library.

The timing, to say the least, was poor. Pope Gregory IX was obsessed with the heretical sects he feared flourished in Germany, and was eager to impose his power on the independent German bishops. In 1231, the Pope founded the Inquisition to root out heresy, and in a papal bull recorded in 1232 from Anagni he issued a discreet challenge to the Archbishop by deliberately banning the Necronomicon in both Greek and Latin translations. Olaus Wormius lingered at Mainz until 1233, when the Pope issued another bull, specifically directed at the Archbishop of Mainz and the bishop of Hildesheim, the Vox in Rama, against certain heretical sects. Wormius retreated again, this time to his native Denmark, where he eschewed occult works and made a name for himself in the translation of Greek and Latin classics rather than necromancy.

However, before he left, the monk presented to his patron the finished work that he had been commissioned to produce. The manuscript he had created for the Archbishop of Mainz resided in the secret library of the Archbishop’s residence, which was attached to the Cathedral of Mainz. There it remained until 1439, with the breaking of the Council of Basil, when the Archbishop of the time gave the book to Johann Fust as security for a loan of 200 gulden.

The blackletter Necronomicon of the 15th century is a curious incunabulum, undoubtedly one of the first works printed with movable type. No printer’s mark or dedication is included on the few extant copies, but there are curious parallels to one other major work of the same time period—indeed, the major work: Gutenberg’s Bible.

Johann Gutenberg was a resident of Mainz, a scion of the old patrician families or “ancients” that formed the town council. He had returned from abroad in 1448, and began what is to most accounts the first true print-shop in Europe, setting up a workshop in his old family residence, the Gutenberg house. The Bible was not, of course, his first attempt. The earliest efforts of Gutenberg’s press were the Ars Grammatica of Donatus, an ancient and standardized text that was common in every school, monastery, and university in Europe. It was a guaranteed seller, and Johann learned much from its production.

Other small efforts continued, as Gutenberg and his apprentices worked out the difficulties in craft and technology—he produced a religious calendar, with the same blackletter font as the Donatus, which was thereafter known as the Donatus-Kalender or D-K font. The same early font was discovered, in 1898, on a small scrap of paper behind the leather in an account-book. The scrap contained a few lines from a German edition of the Sibylline Prophecies, a set of occult prophecies. A similar blackletter typeface was used in Gutenberg’s Bible…and the Latin 15th century Necronomicon.

Still, the presence of the blackletter type alone is no guarantee of lineage. Blackletter was used extensively throughout the mid-to-late 15th century in Germany and beyond. Still, the blackletter Necronomicon and the Gutenberg Bible share the same double-folio size sheets, producing large manuscript-style printed books. The text in each is arranged in two columns, justified on both the left and the right—a distinctive stylistic choice that was a mark of Gutenberg, but could have been easily reproduced at a later time. Finally, both books begin with 40 lines per page and printed title rubrics—later in the printing of the Bible, Gutenberg changed the spacing slightly to 42 lines per page, probably to save on paper, and the printed rubrics were likewise abandoned, but both are present in the blackletter Necronomicon. The retention of these early features in the Necronomicon suggest its printing may have overlapped with the early part of printing the Bible, but that Gutenberg learned from the process. It is also notable that both books are roughly the same size, with the Necronomicon being 1,112 pages, while the 42-line Bible was 1,272 pages.

Whatever the case, the question remains as to why Gutenbeg would print a Necronomicon, and if he did print it, where he would have received the manuscript from which the text of the printed book was derived? The Medieval grimoires such as the Liber Juratus, the Clavicula Salomonis, and the Alamandal had circulated for ages, but were insufficient to fulfill the demand for occult lore among the learned and wealthy, and so enterprising individuals began releasing new texts based on prominent alleged or suspected magicians, including Albert the Great and Roger Bacon. A printed magical work was almost guaranteed to have an audience, as Gutenberg’s own Sybilline Prophecies clearly demonstrated. Gutenburg, short on cash and with the preparations for his 40-line Bible begun, might just have been on the lookout for a suitable text for this sort of project—and Johann Fust was the money-lender bankrolling Gutenberg. It would have been natural, in the circumstances, for Gutenberg’s business-partner to proffer the Wormius manuscript as a possible money-maker.

The books of the Gutenberg press, from the 1450 Donatus to the 1455 Bible, were sold unbound, sometimes uncut. The wealthy purchasers of the books would have the privilege of determining the size and evenness of the margins, the material and decoration of the binding, according to their own tastes and means. Like the print run for the Bible, the blackletter Necronomicon had a small run in vellum—estimated at no more than 20 copies, based on the few survivors—and a slightly larger run, perhaps 50 copies, done in imported Italian paper; in the correct light, the watermark can still be seen on the paper.

If the blackletter Necronomicon was published by Gutenberg in Mainz in 1452 or 1453, it might have coincided with the visit of Nikolaus of Cusa, a cardinal, jurist, mathematician, astronomer, and papal legate to Germany. This would have been a great difficulty for Gutenberg and Fust, for the Necronomicon was still forbidden by the Papal decree of 1232, and here was a representative of the See of Rome on their very doorstep. Moreoever, Nikolaus of Cusa may have already been familiar with the Necronomicon, as he is known to have browsed the Vatican Library begun by Pope Nicholas V in 1448, and which is supposed to have a copy of the Greek or Latin manuscript. Public offering of the book in Mainz would have been impossible. So in 1452, Johann Fust hired as his agent Josef Koster.

In 1477, Josef Koster was referred to by one Italian printed tract as “the Devil’s Merchant,” but he was born the son of a linen merchant in Mainz, educated at St. Christopher’s church school, until a fire destroyed his family and his dreams of studying at the University of Erfurt. He could read and write Latin and a little Greek, and eventually found a niche in the church as a subdeacon. Despite his nominal rank, Koster’s true business was mainly the sale of indulgences, and on his business he kept in touch with all levels of society in Mainz—Jews and beghards, guildsmen and laity. By all accounts a bit of a mercenary, Koster was accused several times of simony and heresy—specifically (from his trial in 1441) selling the sacraments of the church, and promulgating the sale of grimoires among the clergy of Mainz.

Koster traveled from Mainz to Erfurt, Lepizig, Vienna, Prague, Vienna, Nuremburg, and finally back to Mainz; a circuit that brought him into contact with many of the major universities, where he sold copies of Donatus and, perhaps, surreptitiously offered copies of the blackletter Necronomicon to those who seemed open to such things. The first known sale of a Latin Necronomicon was at the University of Vienna in 1456—when Josef Koster had been on the road for nearly three years. A bill of sale recorded the purchase to a Guillaume d’Averoigne for 50 gulden—the cost of an unbound vellum Gutenburg Bible—from a “Josef of Mainz.”

Guillaume d’Averoigne consulted with the local binder Freidrich of Nuremberg, who because of the large number of pages and the heavy vellum, recommended the book be bound as four separate volumes, and in full calfskin, with silk thread and iron clasps on the edges. The cover was finished by a blind-tooled portrait of Alhazred in the desert, surrounded with images of small stinging insects. Satisfied with the result, d’Averoigne inscribed the first page of each volume with his name and the date.

The d’Averoigne library was begun by a crusader knight ancestor, who claimed to have fought with Cormac Fitzgoffrey and Ludwig Prinn in the Holy Lands, and returned with a chest of Saracen manuscripts in Arabic, Hebrew, and Coptic as his part of the booty. Subsequent generations expanded the library, and gained a reputation as warrior-scholars—d’Averoigne’s grandfather returned from Iberia with a chain of Moorish slaves, who served the household as scribes and tutors, so that by the time of Guillaume’s childhood he and his siblings could read and speak passable Arabic as well as French and Latin. D’Averoigne’s father, the Sieur d’Averoigne, was a noted bibliophile, and was the first to seek to catalogue the library and its contents, hiring scribes to copy out and bind the many old, faded, and loose manuscripts in the collection.

The Necronomicon, due to its provenance, would have been an excellent addition to the family archive, and d’Averoigne hurried from Prague with his treasure, along with a chest of other books. Shortly before he left, d’Averoigne contracted a wasting disease, marked by an extreme pallor, weakness, and a propensity to vomit blood, which progressively worsened during the trip. He made it to Paris, where his brother Gilbert was studying medicine, and the two took to studying the book together in Gilbert’s rooms, with Gilbert concocting medicines to treat his brother’s illness.

The d’Averoigne brothers became well known in the occult student circles of the university, bartering hand-copied pages from the Necronomicon for complete books and manuscripts—and such was the shadowy reputation of that tome that they succeeded, sometimes selling the same spell a dozen times to different buyers, amassing a substantial occult library. After some weeks, however, the brothers had a falling out which coincided with the worsening of Guillaume’s disease. The Prague-trained scholar could barely croak out more than a few words, and could not eat or drink anything more than a bit of bread soaked in wine. When Guillaume finally died, Gilbert claimed his brother’s possessions, including the Necronomicon. His enemies charged Gilbert with using sorcery to cause his brother’s death, and rather than face the charges Gilbert fled Paris, heading to Lyons in 1468.

The Sieur d’Averoigne, hearing of his eldest son’s death and his younger son’s flight, cut the young man off from the family’s monies and lands. On his own in Lyons, Gilbert was forced to take trade as a bookseller to support himself, inviting customers up to his rooms and parting with one or two manuscripts at a time to sustain himself, or more often writing out a list of volumes for sale to certain monasteries and solitary occultists of his past acquaintance. Around 1470, Gilbert d’Averoigne was living behind an inn, and storing his books in its basement, a dismal stone temple that dated back to Roman Lugdunum. His collection was now but a shadow of what it had been, as his few surviving letters attest the slowly dwindling nature of his collection. It was down there he first met a recent immigrant from Germany, Master Reinhart, a printer and engraver who had apprenticed at the Gutenberg and Fust printing press in Mainz, but had left after the siege ten years before. Now Reinhart was in France, and had the funds to set up his own print shop—he approached the younger d’Averoigne with a proposal: to print a new copy of the blackletter Necronomicon. Owing considerable debts and unable to maintain his book-selling much longer, d’Averoigne agreed.

The years of study and use had not been kind to the d’Averoigne Necronomicon. The covers were badly scuffed, the iron claps given to rust, but the four volumes were intact, the pages clean and the text clear. D’Averoigne acted as editor as well as partner in the venture, glossing and paraphrasing some of the Wormius translation to produce a shorter and more manageable text in the slimmer Roman typeface from Italy—this reduction, combined with the decision to produce a run-on text in a quarto format on local paper was designed to produce a more accessible and affordable volume, though the volume still came in at near 900 pages when folded and ready for binding, and represent the only characteristics to determine its time and place of origin, for Reinhart chose to place no colophon or identifying marks on the book—even the title page is a facsimile of the first blackletter edition.

The Lyons Necronomicon was valued at the somewhat heavy price of 30 francs. Unlike the very moderate price of the Gutenberg Necronomicon, whose cost would have been partially subsumed in the creation of the Bible, and which needed to undercut the price of the scarce manuscript copies, the Necronomicon was now extremely rare in any form, manuscript or print. The Lyon printing of Wormius was to be produced in an initial run of some 556 copies—sufficient to cover the tremendous cost of setting up the new print shop, and the materials.

Sales were slow at first, as word of the book was spread slowly, and d’Averoigne was prevailed upon by Reinhart to employ his correspondence to move the stock, for by this point they were both very much in debt. With the bookseller’s missives, warlocks and would-be sorcerers began to flock to Lyon. D’Averoigne flourished in this brief period. He had the iron clasps removed and replaced with gold and on the cover the wings of the crawling insects elaborated with gilded leather onsets. These improvements accomplished, d’Averoigne would receive his customers dressed in dark robe and tall cap, the blackletter Necronomicon on prominent display. With theatrical precision, d’Averoigne would read aloud select passages from the blackletter by candlelight as the prospective buyer followed along on the Lyons edition. With these proofs that they had “the complete and true edition,” business went well for a few months, but several of the apprentices confessed their fears about the book to church officials, and over four hundred volumes and the leaden type were all burned by the Inquisition, along with Master Reinhart.

Other small print runs of the Latin blackletter are rumored or suggested to have occurred, though evidence mainly comes from announcements of the printers’ arrest and destruction. A few leaves of a Gutenberg Necronomicon facsimile were produced in Mannheim, Germany around 1490, through an old block-printing process in an effort to create authentic forgeries, but the process was laborious and the culprits discovered and hanged. Tarsus Press in Wurttemburg produced three complete books in 1500, using an experimental “rolling print,” but the press was lost during a blaze. The men behind both editions were apprentices that had served under Gutenberg and Fust in Mainz, and had later taken the technology—and, apparently, copies of the Necronomicon or worksheets—with them abroad to start their own businesses.

D’Averoigne, perhaps with a few unbound copies, returned to Paris ahead of the Inquisition, perhaps with plans to barter one of his Necronomicons for sanctuary with the Archbishop of Sens or even the superstitious King of France, Louis XI. In June of 1472, while surviving in the conjurer’s demimonde that surrounded the royal court, d’Averoigne received word of his father’s death and traveled to Averiogne to pay the relief and claim title and manor. The new Sieur d’Averiogne settled in; and the blackletter Necronomicon was placed with the Saracen writings in the family library. In celebration of his recovered wealthy and position, in 1490 the Sieur d’Averiogne commissioned a series of illustrations in the leaves of the Necronomicon by an unknown engraver, very probably a pupil of Martin Schongauer of Augsburg, though it is just conceivable the master himself may have taken the commission—though he died not long after, in 1491. These miniatures are a series of scenes depicting Alhazred (dressed in contemporary 15th-century Moorish garb) in his travels to the Nameless City and other encounters, each of the four volumes receiving four marginal illustrations (on 33 recto, 100 verso, 133 recto, and 233 verso) for a total of sixteen.

In 1501 the celebrated Venetian printer and bookseller Aldus Manutius of the Aldine Press was rumored to have produced a Greek edition of the Necronomicon. This was, in and of itself, not particularly surprising. Teobaldo Manucci, known by his Latinized name as Aldus Manutius to collectors and booksellers, was a scholar of the Greek language and a leader in printing Greek classics, most notably a five-volume edition of Aristotle from 1495-1498. At his workshop in Venice, he employed Greeks to compile, collate and edit the manuscripts, to set the type and read proofs. More than this, Manucci was no stranger to controversy. His 1499 production of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili remains as one of the great hallmarks of early printing, a beautiful and bizarre work of art and lavishly illustrated with 168 woodcuts, and an elegant and clear Roman typeface.

The Aldine Necronomicon was only about a six hundred pages—and two hundred and forty of those were woodcuts. The manuscript he had translated from was not a hand-copy of Theodorus Philetas’ forbidden translation, but an epitome of the work done by a slave in the Kingdom of Jerusalem on Cyprus, which Manucci had rented from a sea captain shortly after Venice had purchased Cyprus from Queen Catherine in 1489. Faced with difficulties translating the sometimes cryptic Cypriot Greek with its weird Arabic terms, Aldus Manutius resorted to hiring Cypriot icon painter Nicolaus Ritzos to provide the enormous number of woodcuts as a way to clarify the condensed text.

D’Averoigne himself, nearing sixty years of age, left his castellan in charge of the manor and left for Venice to acquire a copy of the Greek Necronomicon himself. His journey was interrupted by the Second Italian War, and instead of traveling overland he was forced to take ship in the Mediterranean; the blackletter Necronomicon kept sealed in an iron box with seven locks. When he finally arrived in 1503, the Greek Necronomicon was already gone, the type reassembled to print more Greek classics. The press had cracked badly after completing barely forty copies, and had to be broken up, and the sale of the unbound copies was a bust. Manucci’s agent, who had traveled north with twenty copies, was killed on the route to Ravenna and his belongings stolen by brigands, likely unemployed mercenaries. The manuscript itself had been returned to the sea captain, who had set sail for Cairo and disappears from history.

D’Averoigne met privately with Manucci. The ink-stained printer and the thin-faced aristocrat met over a meal, and fell into talk as two bibliophiles are want to do, of mutual acquaintances in the business and the choicest editions. Manucci’s wife came out when the servants cleared away the dishes with a jug of old wine, then retired for the evening, leaving the two men to talk late into the night as if old friends. A rear room of Manucci’s workshop served as library and office, books bound and unbound stacked flat on shelves and tables. Here, d’Averoigne laid bare his Latin before the printer, and inquired after the Greek. Manucci related the sorrowful tale, shaking his head at his own folly. The manuscript was gone, the Aldine Press involved with other projects. Only the blasphemous and terrible woodcuts remained, and the Doge or the Pope would have his head if those came to light. D’Averoigne convinced Manucci to agree to a private commission: a set of the woodcuts on vellum, in the same half-folio size as the blackletter Necronomicon, for the outrageous price of 500 florins. The project took only a few weeks, and content with these pages, d’Averoigne returned to France, but perished on the crossing from Sicily in 1504.

The House of Averoigne continued with Gilbert d’Averoigne’s daughter, Suzette, who married her cousin Ronald of a cadet branch of the family. Ronald cared little for books, and after ripping the gilding and gold from the Necronomicon and several other bound manuscripts, left the library entirely to his wife’s care. Suzette d’Averoigne, in between birthing sixteen children, four of whom survived to adulthood, took upon herself the upkeep and organization of the family library, instituting a rough chronological organizational system, based on when the volume had been acquired by the family, and repairing what damage she could.

The d’Averoigne Necronomicon had fared very badly in the warm, damp air of the crossing; the leather covers had begun to rot and small tears at the spine made many of the pages loose from rough treatment. So in 1513 Suzette d’Averoigne had the book unbound, the Aldine woodcuts inserted, and restitched and bound; this time as two volumes in an unknown leather. “Like sheepskin,” wrote Edwin d’Erlette “but rougher, as shagreen, and with a few hard, curly hairs yet on the edges, which seemed to grasp at the fingers.” Her final addition to the text was a brief book curse inscribed on the inside front cover, beneath her father’s signature:

Iä Iä Iog-Sotôt-ha deae Via et Porta maledicat sit vivendo et moriendo auferi libri Iä Iä

The Comte d’Erlette was one of many scholars who wended their way to the Chateau d’Ximes, to study for a time in its library. Suzette converted an ancient chapel dedicated to Azédarac, a local saint, into a reading room, iron chains securing the volumes to the shelves, but long enough for the browsers to drag them to the reading tables. It was during this period, from about 1513 to 1560, that the first written marginalia appear in the text itself. The annotations are the work of at least two different hands, both writing in the Latin of the time.

The first writer provides glosses to the text, stating plainly their interpretations of Alhazred’s text as translated by Wormius, and were apparently made in two sessions separated by a period of years, as revealed by the fading of the ink. These notes can be somewhat dated by references made to Erasmus’ translation of the New Testament (published 1516) and what may be a manuscript of Agrippa’s De occulta philosophia libri tres (not published until 1533, but first drafted around 1510), and among the suggested authors are the Comte d’Erlette and Count Northam of Yorkshire, both of whom are known to have visited Ximes during that period. The second writer’s comments are more fabulous, and written entirely in the two distinct cryptographic or pseudo-scripts used throughout Alhazred’s text, with nothing to indicate their author or time of writing.

In 1559, the Index Liborum Prohibitorum was published, and among the many Protestant books and erotica were works of the occult including the Necronomicon. With the renewed Papal prohibition, possession of the book became more dangerous than ever—but the Index also advertised Alhazred’s forbidden text to an entire generation of literate Europe. Demand for the rare book soared, even as references to it were surreptitiously excised from libraries in Catholic monasteries, universities and private collections. Collectors and translators took to disguising their copies under false titles and false bindings.

The d’Averoigne library was subtly purged of its more illicit works, with some fifty forbidden titles removed between 1512 (Suzette d’Averoigne’s catalogue) and 1560 (Jean-Paul d’Ximes catalogue). X-Ray analysis of the 1560 d’Averoigne catalogue shows the entries were scraped out and copied over with titles of theology and religion that d’Ximes had probably brought back from studying in a Jesuit school in Spain. Among the absent titles was the blackletter Necronomicon in two volumes and its curious leather binding—replaced by a single volume work falsely titled the Qanoon-e-Islam, bound in a copy of the first papal bull to ban the book in 1532—a deception and a subtle rebuke by the illicit bookbinder toward the Pope—and finished with cow leather.

The deceit was not sufficient. Rebellious Hugenots brought Catholic authorities and the Inquisition to the region, and local nobilities were as subject to the social and political influence of the First Estate as the peasants and bourgeoisie were vulnerable to the sword and the thumbscrew. In 1561 Jean-Paul d’Ximes, the grandson of Guillaume d’Averoigne, sold the disguised Necronomicon and several other books to a Spanish converso, the engraver Nahash ben Moses of Bologna. As a converted Jew, ben Moses faced especial dangers from the Inquisition—as terrible as it would be if he was caught with a book of forbidden magic as a Jew, as a converted Jew who deliberately forsook his baptism into the true faith his crime and his fate would have been all the more heinous. It is perhaps less surprising, then, that ben Moses fled to Urbino in Italy and the relative safety of the small Jewish guidecca there.

The publishing of the Index Liborum Prohibitorum had whetted the appetites of rich buyers throughout Europe. Many other such lists of prohibited books circulated, little more than shopping lists of erotica and carnal etchings for the debauched and educated, and ben Moses sought to cash in on that market by offering a second Greek edition of the Necronomicon. He borrowed 200 scudos from moneylenders in the guidecca, and made friends with a printer of Greek plays and poetry, printing only a few leaves at a time when the press was idle. For months, working at odd hours and in the greatest secrecy, the work slowly took shape, and by 1567, ben Moses had assembled 297 completed, unbound books of poor quality and with many errors, which were sold at five scudos apiece.

The Necronomicon of Urbino is an octavo of barely four hundred pages, many of them occupied by engraved reproductions of the original Greek woodcuts from the d’Averoigne book. The text was a heavily abridged, moreso than the Venice 1501 edition, but came from an original Greek manuscript copy, which was more esteemed among scholars for its closeness to the Arabic original. Ben Moses further enriched the book by interspersing it with the cryptic coded annotations in the margins of the d’Averoigne copy, interpolated directly into the text.

Nahash ben Moses was expelled from the Jewish community in Urbino in 1571 when rumors connecting the Jews to a copy of the Necronomicon reached the ears of the community elders, who feared violent reprisal against the entire community. The engraved plates were melted down, and other evidence of the edition removed save for ten loose leafs, possibly proofing pages, which were discovered in the binding of a book on the anatomy of tobacco in 1876.

Nahash ben Moses travelled north towards Buda, falling in along the way with the Voivode Ferenczy, a renegade Székely prince of the Principality of Transylvania or southern Bohemia who refused to give even lip service to the Ottomans. Ferenczy is a curious figure—the Germans addressed him as Herzog, equivalent to the rank of Baron, and sometimes his name was given as Hauptmann or Hauptman. One graduate student claimed the that Voivode Ferenczy and Herzog Hauptmann were two distinct individuals, being foreigners of strange habits and similar magical interests who lived at roughly the same time, and whose identities and legends have been conflated. Whatever the truth, Ferenczy (as we shall call him) was an avid student of the occult who claimed to have studied at the legendary academy of Scholomance. Ben Moses bought the eternal good graces of the voivode by giving to him his original Greek manuscript of the Necronomicon, and the two adepts entered the city of Prague in 1575 or ‘76.

The reign of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, was a time when Prague’s legend for alchemy and the occult sciences was established for all time. It was the age of the Maharal of Prague and his golem, when strange scholarship was embraced and practiced openly in the city. Where in earlier ages the occult had been banned, and alchemy little more than the practice of liars and thieves, now it was studied by the great, and flourished in the streets and the courts. The voivode established himself on the fringes of the royal court, and commissioned the Jew to exhaust the libraries of that great city for one purpose: to compile a history of the Necronomicon—and, if possible, to find or reconstruct the original Al Azif, whose baleful knowledge might allow him to retake his homeland from the Turks.

In 1586, the grey-bearded converso’s research attracted a like-minded scholar, a visitor to the court of Rudolf II—Doctor John Dee of England. In a small, sumptuously decorated parlor the voivode entertained the foreigner by allowing him to examine the Greek manuscript, side-by-side with the d’Averoigne Necronomicon, still in its false binding. Dee was entranced, took many notes, copied hundreds of pages over many slow afternoons, and eventually pressed ben Moses to borrow his copy, for deeper study at length, which the old converso eventually agreed to. Dee’s notes on the Greek and Latin text would become the core of a modern English translation of the Necronomicon. Nahath ben Moses died in the winter of 1587, and Dee took the Latin book with him when he returned to England in 1589, to find his library and workshop had been raided by thieves.

Dee would study the blackletter Necronomicon in detail, from many different perspectives, working in a doomed effort to incorporate it into Christian mythology. His son Arthur Dee recalls his father with the “Queer book of Islam,” of which the aged Hermetic philosopher conducted a Cabalistic study, in the hopes of unlocking some hidden secret of Alhazred or Wormius, to no known avail. It is Dee who added the third set of interlineations, this time in English, focusing on those portions of the book written in code or strange language. He also marked certain planets and stars with curious glyphs, probably of his own design, and these marginalia for Yuggoth, Xoth, and other fanciful astronomical bodies can be found on pp. 13, 21, 387, 717, and 901. His translation of the Necronomicon and notes eventually became the property of the magician Elias Ashmole, but of the Wormius translation Ashmole gave no report, though it is almost certain he was aware of its existence.

During these days Dee slowly fell into poverty, and was forced to sell off his library a piece at a time. In 1598, some ten years before his death, the aged Doctor parted with the book for 60 guineas. The year is significant, as it was in the same year that Cultus Maleficarum was published by the Earl of Sussex. The Cultus was a curious document, half-Latin and half-English, taking as its sources an Old English manuscript translation of Al Azif, known more popularly as the Sussex Manuscript, and another version of the Wormius translation, probably the Lyons edition. The Cultus was ill-received, aimed at witch-hunters instead of scholarly Hermeticists, but it did much to introduce the Necronomicon to an English audience, and the appearance of the flawed Cultus may have precipitated the offer to purchase the impoverished Dee’s genuine edition.

It was in the possession of this buyer that the d’Averoigne Necronomicon first received a bookplate, on the recto of its rearmost leaf on both volumes. The pieces of paper pasted on the back are about six inches square, and bear the legend “Ex Libris” and beneath that a curious coat-of-arms: a monstrous porcine figure armed and langed gules. The pig-man is not typical to English or Welsh heraldry, and completely baffles experts, but which may be related to the arms of the Arthurian knight Tristan. The Garter Principal King of Arms William Bruges (1415-1450) recorded a similar device for the Barons of Exham Priory, title and estate possessed by the de la Poer family.

In 1631, the bookseller Joshua Cohen of Chandos Street, London recorded the book under its false title in his accounts, purchased for £30 from a party recorded only be the initial “P.” The date coincides with the extinction of the de la Poer line by the eleventh and final Baron, who after the holocaust took ship from London to Virginia. Cohen noted the book in good general condition, though the pages were dirty, and the cover suffering somewhat from red rot and stained with “red wine or such,” which left a permanent discoloration on the leather cover, but had not touched the pages.

What is most remarkable about Cohen is that he sold not one Necronomicon, but three. He had at his shop in 1630 not only the d’Averoigne copy, but two unbound manuscripts of the Wormius translation which had been published in Madrid in 1622-3. The books were stored in a wooden crate that had gotten wet during the lengthy voyage, and much of both copies were ruined by the seawater on the paper. At this time the Puritan, practicing alchemist, and bibliophile John Winthrop the Younger was in the market for a Necronomicon, and had offered a good price if Cohen could get him one. The enterprising bookseller removed the older—and infinitely more valuable—d’Averoigne copy from its rotting old leather cover, and by compiling the two water-damaged copies together, managed to form a more-or-less complete edition. As an added flourish to his simple forgery, Cohen spent two weeks copying out the marginalia and notes as well as he could by hand; handwriting analysis over a century later would confirm that the notes in the book bound as the Qanoon-e-Islam were all written by the same individual, within a short period of time.

Cohen sold the book at a great profit to John Winthrop the Younger, approximately £50. Winthrop would follow his father and namesake to America in 1630, taking with him over a thousand books, some of them from the library of John Dee, and eventually become the first Governor of Connecticut. In 1675, shortly before he died, Winthrop took on a young Salem boy as a servant and secretary named Curwen or Corwin, and when Winthrop perished in 1676 his will gifted the studious young man with the Qanoon-e-Islam. Curwen later became a successful shipping magnate in Providence, but was accused of witchcraft and died in 1771. The Qanoon was retrieved from his belongings, and became the possession of the Phillips family, where it remained until 1895, when it was donated to the Miskatonic University Library by Whipple Phillips.

Cohen was now in possession of the d’Averoigne Necronomicon, now sans binding. He proceeded again to make a forgery, this time scraping the ink off an old Bible and covering the vellum pages with his own handwritten copy of the d'Averoigne text, incorporating the annotations directly into the main text. The resulting book was sold, according to Cohen’s meticulous account-book, in 1633 to a young, wealthy university student identified as “W.” for 20 guineas. According to local legendry, the book was burned at the fireplace in Gray’s Inn, later that same night it was sold, after a long conversation with Lord Northam (a descendant of the same visitor to the Chateau d’Ximes) about the evils of sorcery.

The true d’Averoigne Necronomicon was finally sold to a discerning customer in 1649, to settle a debt of £200. By then Cromwell was Lord Protector, and the witch-burning craze had resulted in the brief supremacy and violent death of Matthrew Hopkins, the “Witchfinder-General” whose own book The Discoverie of Witches was published in 1647, the same year as his death. The popular conception of magic was now torn between two diametrically opposed parties—the educated and stately male scholars, some of them nobles; and the old, typically illiterate women accused as witches. A union of these apparent opposites was Abigail Prinn, who carried the unbound book in a vellum envelope on her way to Massachusetts.

Before they set sail for the New World, the Pilgrims settled for a number of years in Holland. Abigail Prinn was the daughter of an old Dutch line on her father’s side, while her mother’s people hailed from Lancashire. She was raised to the best education her parents could afford, which in their modest means meant that she read a great many books, and listened to a great many old stories as told by the most wizened folks about her. By the time she was an adult and of marriageable age, she could read and speak English, Dutch, German, Latin, and a little French and Spanish, and could recite the Bible from memory.

Her parents chose to stay in Holland when the majority left for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and when Abigail Prinn finally set sail for Salem-town in 1649, she carried with her the d’Averoigne Necronomicon. As an independent woman of means, Prinn stuck out in the town, and proved a tempting target to many bachelors—including, perhaps, her neighbor Joseph Curwen. The two might even have courted for a period, despite their age difference, but in 1690, two years before the most famous witch trials, Abigail Prinn was hung at the gallows, and then her corpse staked to the earth to keep it from seeking revenge. In the same year, Joseph Curwen fled Salem for Providence.

In 1760, the Salem Social Library was formed by a combination of subscriptions from proprietors and donated books. The library grew through the years, and in 1810 was merged with the Salem Philosophical Library to form the Salem Athanaeum, one of the oldest private libraries in the Americas. In the 1850s, while the library was being prepared to move into a new, permanent location, thieves broke in and ransacked through several crates of rare books that were not available to the general public. According to the catalog, nothing was missing, but the librarians at the time noted that there were several old boxes of books which had been discovered recently and not yet catalogued, and these were among the damaged containers.

The d’Averoigne Necronomicon—poorly and inexpertly bound in black-dyed horse leather—surfaced again in Kingsport, Massachusetts as reported by Jake Wilkins, a book agent in 1894. The Miskatonic Valley town had suffered a recent uproar with the discovery of a pagan order or cult, believed to be an offshoot of freemasonry, and the Kingsport Anti-Masonry Party had formed a lynch mob, killing several suspected cultists and raiding their homes. A remarkable number of rare books were seized as evidence by the police during their investigation, and afterwards were put up for public auction. Jake Wilkins snagged a choice lot of incunables and early printed works for $300, which included the Necronomicon.

Wilkins ended his buying trip in Massachusetts and returned to London, where he cleaned, inspected, and catalogued his finds. The Necronomicon was identified, the bad binding removed—revealing once more the Papal Bull of 1532—and the pages counted and ordered. Despite their age and wear, including a few scratches and spots of mold, the book remained complete except for the second to last leaf—this final printed page had been cut out of the book.

In September of that same year, Sir Thomas Vivian, a medical doctor and surgeon who owned his own hospital in London and even attended members of the Royal Family, gave him £600 for the unbound, spider-haunted Necronomicon. Vivian’s early adulthood was spent in a state of abject poverty, and during this time he was drawn into study of the occult at the British Museum. An inheritance opened the doors to medicine for him, but his early experiences had left their mark. A 33rd degree mason and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, in 1895 Vivian’s diligent studies and heavy purse had brought to him an article of genuine occult interest.

The d’Averoigne-Vivian Necronomicon was re-bound, this time in human skin. The practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy was uncommon, but doctors had a good supply of the material at hand, and it became almost fashionable for a time. Vivian’s human-skin came from a patient; a leatherworker who Vivian had successfully treated for cancer of the jaw and throat, and he showed it off to several of his friends, encouraging them to stroke the skin “like a silken cat’s tongue.”

Vivian enjoyed the ownership of the Necronomicon for less than a month. On October 31st, 1895 he was murdered in an alley by a crude flint knife, a strange sigil of a red hand chalked on the nearby wall. His books were, according to his last will and testament, donated to the national library of the British Museum, which had done so much to further his education when he was young and poor. It was cataloged by an assistant librarian, David Stent, and brought to the attention of his superiors. A small card with the reference number was tucked into the front cover. It was brought to the attention of the Principal Librarian of the British Museum, Edward Maunde Thompson.

In a part of the British Museum not accessible to the public is a section known as the Secretum, a room (originally a cabinet) dedicated to holding displays inappropriate for the public, mainly for their content, but also because of their value or fragility. A drawer of artifacts in a particular cabinet has a false bottom, which may be lifted up to reveal a small safe, within which lies the Gutenburg-d’Averoigne-Dee-Vivian Necronomicon under lock and key. The book was originally not secured so well, but an attempt at theft was made in 1897, and stronger measures were taken. Thompson wrote a letter, to be handed down to and read only by the Principal Librarian of the British Museum, which explains the protocols required before the book may be read by anyone.

The Necronomicon remains in the British Museum to this day.


There remain unwritten chapters of this book’s colorful history. Shortly before publication, I was accosted by a learned biographer who insisted that Thomas Vivian and Aleister Crowley had met in 1895, and that the Great Beast’s signature was on page 666. The timing of this is unlikely, as Crowley was still in attendance at the university at the time, while the Necronomicon was in London, but there is an ink scrawl at the top left margin of that page.

The “final leaf,” whose history has been almost impossible to trace, was discovered in behind a mirror in Abigail Prinn’s “Witch House” in Salem in 1841. A pair of movers were bringing furniture into the house and smashed the corner of a fully loaded walnut barrister bookcase into an antique picture frame that had hung on the wall since the 1670s, shattering the glass but revealing the hidden vellum sheet with its curious not-quite-pentagram illustration. The current owner had it authenticated at Miskatonic Univeristy Library, and sold it to a rare book dealer in Bosten for $250. The page was placed up for auction at Sotheby’s in 1844, was sold for £800 in a sealed bid, and has not been seen again.



  1. I think you meant a different date than 1861 for the sale to the Spanish converso.

  2. "He had at his shop in 1630 not only the d’Averoigne copy, but two unbound manuscripts of the Wormius translation which had been published in Madrid in 1622-3."

    This one, right?