Murder and Magic in France – Negative Uses of the Grimoire of Pope Honorius


By David Rankine

The Grimoire of Pope Honorius is a significant seventeenth century French grimoire with a selection of Book of Secrets charms attached to it.  In combining these two strands of practice, it continued the tradition found in earlier manuscripts where this practice is seen regularly. The word grimoire is derived from the root grammar, and is normally used to represent a ‘grammar’ of magic, or workbook of information and techniques. By contrast, Books of Secrets were collections of simple charms using common herbs or household objects, often combined with biblical quotes.

The books or manuscripts commonly known as grimoires were a European phenomena, usually written in the period from the thirteenth to the late eighteenth century.  The countries which dominated the Grimoire tradition were England, France, Italy and Germany, with the so-called ‘black magic’ grimoires from the end of this period being almost entirely French and Italian.  C.J.S. Thompson (1927:256) noted this saying, “During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, several small handbooks were printed and circulated in France and Italy professing to record the true magical ritual.”

The Grimoire of Pope Honorius has never really received the recognition it deserves as arguably the first of the French ‘black magic’ grimoires, which are characterised by all being published as Bibliothèque Bleue de Troyes (Blue Library of Troyes) works.  These widely distributed extremely cheap paperback editions were prevalent across France from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century, and were so called due to the blue sugar paper they were wrapped in.

Despite the tendency to misdate books to attribute greater age to them, we know that there was at least one edition of the Grimoire of Pope Honorius published in 1670, as reference was made to it being in the possession of the infamous French sorceress and poisoner La Voisin in 1679.  The first occurrences of other works in this genre are significantly later, thus we see e.g. the Grimorium Verum (1817, not the spurious 1517 date on the cover), Le Grand Grimoire/Le Dragon Rouge (1750, and mentioned in the 1760 edition of the Grimoire of Pope Honorius) and Le Dragon Noir (date uncertain, published 1887).  It is interesting to note that if the 1629 publication date for the Grimoire of Pope Honorius given by Davis (1998:xv), and quoted by Gardner (1959:98) referencing the American anthropologist Charles Godfrey Leland (1824-1903) is correct, it also predates the first known Lemegeton (1641).  

We can speculate that the Grimoire of Pope Honorius does have earlier roots, considering other works named after Honorius exist which predate it by centuries.  The Dominican inquisitor Nicholas Eymericus (1320-99) listed a work called Honorius the Necromancer’s Treasury of Necromancy in his Directory for Inquisitors (1376) as one of those he publicly burned (Kieckhefer, 2001:157).  Mesler (2012:134) suggests that this refers to the Sworn Book of Honorius, rather than being a different work, but the evidence is lacking for a conclusion either way.  The tendency to burn such works as became public has removed many possible sources, as zealous judges and church officials were keen to burn any such necromantic or demonic work “so that it becomes dust, and so that from it another copy can never be made” (Brucker, 1963:19).  Waite (1911:89) also lists a work entitled Honorii Papae adversus tenebrarum principem et ejus angelos conjurationes ex originale romae servato ([The grimoire] of Pope Honorius against the Prince of Darkness and his angels, conjurations preserved [?] from the Roman original), which he states was published in Rome in 1529, that he had seen referenced but never actually been able to get hold of.

The Enchiridion of Pope Leo III is probably older than the Grimoire of Pope Honorius, although the early date of 1523 is questionable and I have been unable to find any supporting evidence for its existence before 1584. The Book of Secrets section of the Grimoire of Pope Honorius refers to the Enchiridion of Pope Leo III in several places, indicating it was certainly available before 1670, and not the later 1749 date sometimes quoted.  The Enchiridion is not a ‘black magic’ text, focusing as it does entirely on the Psalms, prayers and charms.  Several of the charms in the Enchiridion of Pope Leo III are shared with the Secrets text which comprises the second half of the Grimoire of Pope Honorius, and the charms in this work also refer to the Enchiridion several times.  Another Bibliothèque Bleue book often classed with these works is Le Petit Albert (1702), which is however more accurately a Book of Secrets style text.

Eliphas Levi’s (1810-1875) comments in his writings clearly added to the notoriety of this work, which he also called the Constitution of Honorius after the title of one of its sub-sections, stating that “A man capable of evoking the devil, according to the rites of the Grimoire of Honorius, is so far on the road to evil that he is inclined to all kinds of hallucinations and falsehoods.” (Waite, 1897:479) However, the religious Levi’s negative views of the Grimoire of Pope Honorius clearly seem to have been coloured by his own experiences, not so much of the content, but rather of its perceived effect on an unbalanced mind.

In his work The Key of the Mysteries, Levi devoted eleven pages to recounting his experiences regarding the murder of the archbishop of Paris, Marie-Dominique-Auguste Sibour (1792-1857), and the role that the Grimoire of Pope Honorius played in the murder.  Levi recounts that he met a young ecclesiastic at the house of a friend and had serious forebodings about the stranger.  The young Priest, Jean-Louis Verger (1826-1857), was described by Levi as, “a young and slim man; he had an arched and pointed nose, with dull blue eyes … His mouth was sensual and quarrelsome; his manners were affable, his voice soft, and his speech sometimes a little embarrassed”. (Levi 1959:121)

Verger had been sent to Levi by a book-dealer, and was desperate to obtain a copy of the Grimoire of Pope Honorius.  Levi disparaged the book as worthless, and his cheiromancer friend Desbarroles, who was also present, offered to read Verger’s palm.  The cheiromantic act was revealing, as it suggested that Verger was a dangerous individual who could easily become a religious fanatic, if he lived much longer, for “the line of life was short and broken, there were crosses in the centre of the hand, and stars upon the mount of the moon”. (Levi 1959:122)

As he departed, the young Priest ominously declared that they would hear him spoken of before long.  The lady who had been their host subsequently revealed that prior to their arrival Verger had revealed his attempted evocation of the devil using a popular grimoire, and his desire to see the devil, who did not appear despite a number of phenomena, including “a whirlwind seemed to shake the vicarage; the rafts groaned, the wainscoting cracked, the doors shook, the windows opened with a crash, and whistlings were heard in every corner of the house”.(Levi 1959:123) It is perhaps surprising that Verger did not go to an outdoor site such as a forest or ruin as is often advised in the grimoires, rather than trying to call the devil to manifest inside a church, but this may reflect on the state of mind of the Priest!

January 1857 started badly for Eliphas Levi, with nightmares on the nights of the 1st and 2nd about being called to see his dying father (who had died some years previously).  On the 3rd January, Levi went to attend the mass for the feast of St Geneviève, patron saint of Paris (and interestingly, one of the few saints mentioned in the charms in the Grimoire of Pope Honorius).  As the procession arrived, Jean-Louis Verger stabbed archbishop Sibour in the heart with a large Catalan knife crying “No more goddesses! Away with goddesses!”  This bizarre statement again seems to reflect his unbalanced mental state.  Verger was seized and imprisoned, and after being very disruptive during his trial, was executed by guillotine on 30th January 1857.

The information which came to light after his death shed some light on the disturbed mindset of Jean-Louis Verger.  He had been banned from the priesthood after a series of failed parish positions. His hostility to archbishop Sibour seems to have stemmed from the archbishop’s dismissal of Verger’s accusations of homosexual advances from his superior Abbé Legrand.  He also attacked the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, ecclesiastical discipline and clerical celibacy. (Nash 1990:2751)

Some weeks later Levi again met the book-dealer who had sent the young Priest to him, and the book-dealer informed him that he had sold his last copy of the Grimoire of Pope Honorius to Verger.  The notoriety and popularity of the Grimoire of Pope Honorius had endured for at least one hundred and fifty years at this point, Davies (2009:96) notes that,

“From the records the Clavicule of Solomon emerges as the most influential grimoire amongst the Parisian mages … The Grimoire du Pape Honorius was the next most popular magic book. In 1701 we find a diabolist doctor named Aubert de Saint-Etienne boasting that he possessed copies of both grimoires.”

Another significant owner of the Grimoire of Pope Honorius was Catherine La Voisin, the infamous sorceress and poisoner who was involved in the Affair of the Poisons which scandalised the French royal court in 1679.  La Voisin, along with her employer, one of King Louis XIV’s mistresses, Madame de Mountespan, played the part of altar for black masses performed by Abbé Guiborg, a renegade Catholic Priest.  Guiborg had a large collection of grimoires, and additionally “several grimoires were found amongst the papers of … La Voisin, amongst them The Book of the Conjurations of Pope Honorius, which contained a series of spells for gambling.” (Davies, 2009:92)

Levi’s experiences clearly coloured his opinion of the Grimoire of Pope Honorius, as he also vilified it in Transcendental Magic, and recounted a disparaging tale of a workman and his experiences with it in The Key of the Mysteries.  Both Levi’s and Waite’s negative comments about the Grimoire of Pope Honorius are indicative of the attitude found in the writings of occultists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century’s, as seen by Thompson’s comments (1927:256) about the ‘black magic’ grimoires that, “all these little treatises are badly printed on poor paper and evidently written by men who had but little knowledge of the subject.”

Through its different editions, its influence on other grimoires and on magical traditions in the last three centuries, it is clear that the Grimoire of Pope Honorius is actually one of the more significant grimoires.  My work on the Grimoire of Pope Honorius seeks to redress the balance and demonstrate the versatility and significance of this grimoire, cutting past outdated misperceptions of a negative viewpoint coloured by some bad press to a viewpoint which reflects more accurately the position of the Grimoire of Pope Honorius in the development of magic since the seventeenth century.



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In the realms of Avalon

I have recently entered a new phase of my life, with the move of myself and my family to Glastonbury.  After living on the Welsh Borders, where our only neighbours were red kites, ravens and sheep, Glastonbury is positively cosmopolitan and heaving with people!

As John Dee wrote, “O Glastonbury, Glastonbury: the Treasury of Carcasses of so famous, and so many rare persons”.  Blake too was a lover of Glastonbury, as of course was Dion Fortune, and these august personages give a hint to the huge diverse spectrum of currents and interests to be found here.

So I look forward to the coming months, to see what bones Glastonbury chooses to show, not Arthur, but there are surely many other mysteries and secrets to be told!