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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance

Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance

Corinne Saunders
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance
    Book Description:

    The world of medieval romance is one in which magic and the supernatural are constantly present: in otherwordly encounters, in the strange adventures experienced by questing knights, in the experience of the uncanny, and in marvellous objects - rings, potions, amulets, and the celebrated green girdle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This study looks at a wide range of medieval English romance texts, including the works of Chaucer and Malory, from a broad cultural perspective, to show that while they employ magic in order to create exotic, escapist worlds, they are also grounded in a sense of possibility, and reflect a complex web of inherited and current ideas. The book opens with a survey of classical and biblical precedents, and of medieval attitudes to magic; subsequent chapters explore the ways that romances both reflect contemporary attitudes and ideas, and imaginatively transform them. In particular, the author explores the distinction between the `white magic' of healing and protection, and the more dangerous arts of `nigromancy', black magic. Also addressed is the wider supernatural, including the ways that ideas associated with human magic can be intensified and developed in depictions of otherworldly practitioners of magic. The ambiguous figures of the enchantress and the shapeshifter are a special focus, and the faery is contrasted with the Christian supernatural - miracles, ghosts, spirits, demons and incubi. Professor CORINNE SAUNDERS Saunders teaches in the Department of English, University of Durham.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-805-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Magic and the supernatural colour the romance writing of the medieval period, and play prominent, formative roles within the imaginative worlds of the Middle Ages. As Chaucer so vividly conveys inThe House of Fame, magic has many faces, from playful (created by jugglers and ‘tregetours’ [illusionists]) to sinister – the black magic associated with witches, sorceresses and ‘Phitonesses’ (mediums), of whom the Witch of Endor is the archetype. The references to ‘magik naturel’ suggest more positive, learned forms of magic, especially associated with clerks. That witches and sorceresses may conjure demons, or may be themselves of otherworldly origin, and that...

  5. 1 Classical and Biblical Precedents
    (pp. 13-58)

    Medieval ideas of magic and the supernatural find their origins in the ancient world. They are widespread and interconnecting, a nebulous web that existed across classical, Germanic and Celtic cultures.¹ The beliefs, practices and learning of the late Antique world, with its dialogue between pagan and Christian, shape later understandings of magic and the supernatural. This chapter focuses on classical and biblical contexts both as a way into medieval ideas, and as underpinning intellectual and literary traditions. Whereas many notions of magic and the supernatural in medieval England may find their origins in Germanic tradition, this is much less well...

  6. 2 The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic
    (pp. 59-116)

    Medieval thought engages with and reiterates classical and biblical precedents. Classical ideas of magic as illicit, malevolent, deceitful and potentially harmful, along with biblical emphases on magic as prohibited and pagan or heretical, recur in secular and canon law. Medieval culture also affirms more positive notions of healing, natural magic, which are underpinned by ideas and practices surviving from more local rituals.¹ Familiar ideas of binding magic, sympathy and antipathy, healing rituals, spirits and demons are sustained. In addition, learned notions of natural magic were passed on, to flower from the twelfth century onwards in the study of the occult...

  7. 3 White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology
    (pp. 117-151)

    While romance texts do not often engage with the minutiae of secular and canon law or patristic thought, they do engage with the attitudes and ideas that underlie these. The imaginings of romance writers and adapters spring from and respond to cultural contexts of different kinds: prohibitions, theological concepts, folk beliefs, and learned magic. Figures and artefacts from the classical world play a prominent part: Medea’s story in particular is retold, and the East is consistently associated with magic and the marvellous. To some extent, the classical distinction betweenmageia, which can be positive, andgoeteia, which cannot, is reinstated...

  8. 4 Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’
    (pp. 152-178)

    The clerk of Chaucer’sFranklin’s Talestands at the very edge of acceptability. His power to shape illusions is explicitly natural magic; he does not summon demons; and he is motivated in the end by generosity. Yet his illusions are intended to intervene in destiny, to render the impossible condition of Dorigen’s promise possible, and thus to force her to yield to Aurelius. Such an outcome would have been based on illusion – but its unfairness and suffering would have been none the less real. The attempts of Aurelius and the clerk to alter destiny, rooted in an ethic of debt...

  9. 5 Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms
    (pp. 179-206)

    Magic can afford human practitioners of magic a significant degree of power, especially through its transformative, often bodily, possibilities, which can be both protective and destructive. Healing, inviolability, invisibility, shape-shifting and intervention in destiny through divination: all these effects are presented as available to individuals through learning, and they frequently offer challenges as well as assistance to the protagonists of romance. These interventionist aspects of magic, white and black, marvellous and menacing, are vastly increased by its association with the otherworld. Always linked to larger notions of the supernatural through its connection to demons, magic also intersects with notions of...

  10. 6 Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention
    (pp. 207-233)

    As the ambiguity ofSir Gawain and the Green Knightdemonstrates so acutely, it is difficult to place the supernatural in romance. Romance writers play on the shifting manifestations of the otherworld, which seems most of all to be defined by enigma and ambiguity. The complexity of the faery is heightened by the frequent occurrence in romance of the explicitly Christian supernatural. The genre takes for granted and exploits the sense of a larger, spirit world that includes God, devil, angels, demons and spirits of more ambiguous kinds, as well as the monsters and marvels that are part of the...

  11. 7 Malory’s Morte Darthur
    (pp. 234-260)

    Sir Thomas Malory’sMorte Darthuroffers a grand retrospective on Arthurian legend, and in so doing, brings together different strands of magic and the supernatural. Malory’s distinctively English telling of the great Vulgate Cycle, a version of which formed his ‘Frensshe booke’, draws on the Alliterative and StanzaicMorte Arthurpoems, and increases realism by employing the language and style of chronicles.¹ The work is shadowed by the political strife and civil war of Malory’s own time, and directs a practical chivalric code to its ‘gentle’ readers. Caxton’s preface places theMorteas ‘ystorye’ rather than stories that are ‘fayned...

  12. Epilogue: Towards the Renaissance
    (pp. 261-265)

    The Renaissance brought new ideas and imaginings concerned with the medieval supernatural, but in many ways these extend and develop, rather than reject, earlier perspectives. The sixteenth century, like the thirteenth, was marked by renewed interest in learned magic and the occult sciences, an interest rooted in the development of humanist ideas and the growth of natural science. The new Greek learning brought much greater access to Plato and neo-Platonic works, to the corpus of Hermetic writings, translated into Latin by Ficino and widely circulated, and to the Jewish Cabbala, used particularly by Pico. Familiarity with these and with Paracelsian...

  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 266-292)
  14. Index
    (pp. 293-304)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 305-305)