Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance 1843842211, 9781843842217

The world of medieval romance is one in which magic and the supernatural are constantly present: in otherwordly encounte

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance
 1843842211, 9781843842217

Table of contents :
1 Classical and Biblical Precedents
The Classical Period
The Bible
2 The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic
Transitions: St Augustine
Prohibitions and Punishments
Folk Beliefs and Practices
Learned Magic
3 White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology
Healing Magic
The Virtue of Stones
Wondrous Objects and Marvellous Technology
Chaucer and ‘Magik Naturel’
4 Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’
The Arts of ‘Nigromancy’
Shape-Shifting and Enchantment
The Witch: Medea
Clerical Arts: Magicians and Alchemists
5 Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms
Other Worlds
Faery Mistresses and Enchantresses
Shape-Shifters and Faery Knights
The World of Faery
6 Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention
Miracle and Providence
Marvellous Agents
Penance, Illness and Healing
Revenants and Demons
7 Malory’s Morte Darthur
Merlin and Arthurian Destiny
Marvel, Enchantment and Sorcery
Miracles and Demons: The Grail Quest
The Hand of Destiny
EPILOGUE: Towards the Renaissance

Citation preview

spine 28.5 mm A 15 Feb 10

Corinne Saunders is Professor of Medieval Literature at the

University of Durham. Cover: A magician summoning demons, from a mid-fourteenth-century encyclopaedia of canon law. British Library, MS Royal 6 E VI, f. 535 v.

Magic and the Supernatural

Magic amd the Supernatural  in Medieval English Romance

The world of medieval romance is one in which magic and the supernatural are constantly present: in otherworldly 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.


Studies in Medieval Romance 13

in Medieval English Romance an imprint of BOYDELL & BREWER Ltd PO Box 9, Woodbridge IP12 3DF (GB) and 668 Mt Hope Ave, Rochester NY 14620-2731 (US)


Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance

The world of medieval romance is one in which magic and ‘the marvellous’ are constantly present: in otherwordly encounters, in the strange adventures of questing knights, in the experience of the uncanny, and in unexplained magical objects – rings, potions, amulets, and the famous green girdle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This study (the first fulllength treatment of the topic) considers romance in the context of medieval understandings of, and distinctions between, magic, enchantment, the demonic, marvel and miracle. Chapters cover the intellectual and cultural history of magic and the supernatural; the marvellous; natural and healing magic; black magic; enchanters and enchantresses; and the world of Faery. The works of Chaucer and Malory are extensively treated. Professor Corinne Saunders teaches in the Department of English Studies, University of Durham.

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Studies in Medieval Romance issn 1479–9308

General Editor Corinne Saunders Editorial Board Roger Dalrymple  Rhiannon Purdie  Robert Allen Rouse This series aims to provide a forum for critical studies of the medieval romance, a genre which plays a crucial role in literary history, clearly reveals medieval secular concerns, and raises complex questions regarding social structures, human relationships, and the psyche. Its scope extends from the early middle ages into the Renaissance period, and although its main focus is on English literature, comparative studies are welcomed. Proposals or queries should be sent in the first instance to one of the addresses given below; all submissions will receive prompt and informed consideration. Professor Corinne Saunders, Department of English Studies, University of Durham, Hallgarth House, 77 Hallgarth Street, Durham, dh1 3ay Boydell & Brewer Limited, PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk, ip12 3df


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already published The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance, Carol F. Heffernan, 2003 Cultural Encounters in the Romance of Medieval England, edited by Corinne Saunders, 2005 The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England in Middle English Romance, Robert Allen Rouse, 2005 Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor, edited by Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field, 2007 The Sea and Medieval English Literature, Sebastian I. Sobecki, 2008 Boundaries in Medieval Romance, edited by Neil Cartlidge, 2008 Naming and Namelessness in Medieval Romance, Jane Bliss, 2008 Sir Bevis of Hampton in Literary Tradition, edited by Jennifer Fellows and Ivana Djordjević, 2008 Anglicising Romance: Tail-Rhyme and Genre in Medieval English Literature, Rhiannon Purdie, 2008 A Companion to Medieval Popular Romance, edited by Raluca L. Radulescu and Cory James Rushton, 2009 Expectations of Romance: The Reception of a Genre in Medieval England, Melissa Furrow, 2009 The Exploitations of Medieval Romance, edited by Laura Ashe, Ivana Djordjević and Judith Weiss, 2010

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance

Corinne Saunders

d. s. brewer

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©  Corinne Saunders 2010 All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under current legislation no part of this work may be photocopied, stored in a retrieval system, published, performed in public, adapted, broadcast, transmitted, recorded or reproduced in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the copyright owner The right of Corinne Saunders to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998 First published 2010 D. S. Brewer, Cambridge isbn  978 1 84384 221 7 D. S. Brewer is an imprint of Boydell & Brewer Ltd PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk, ip12 3df, UK and of Boydell & Brewer Inc. 668 Mount Hope Ave, Rochester, ny 14620, USA website:

The publisher has no responsibility for the continued existence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this book, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library This publication is printed on acid-free paper

Designed and typeset in Adobe Minion Pro by David Roberts, Pershore, Worcestershire Printed in Great Britain by CPI Antony Rowe, Chippenham and Eastbourne

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Contents Acknowledgements Introduction

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vii 1

1 Classical and Biblical Precedents The Classical Period The Bible


2 The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic Transitions: Saint Augustine Prohibitions and Punishments Folk Beliefs and Practices Learned Magic


3 White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology Healing Magic The Virtue of Stones Love-Magic Wondrous Objects and Marvellous Technology Chaucer and ‘Magik Naturel’


4 Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’ The Arts of ‘Nigromancy’ Shape-Shifting and Enchantment The Witch: Medea Clerical Arts: Magicians and Alchemists


5 Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms Other Worlds Faery Mistresses and Enchantresses Shape Shifters and Faery Knights The World of Faery


6 Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention Miracle and Providence Marvellous Agents Penance, Illness and Healing Revenants and Demons


7 Malory’s Morte Darthur Merlin and Arthurian Destiny Marvel, Enchantment and Sorcery Miracles and Demons: The Grail Quest The Hand of Destiny


Epilogue: Towards the Renaissance






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For David

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Acknowledgements The debts I have incurred in writing this book, which has been long in the making, are many. I am very grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for the Research Fellowship that allowed me to complete much of the research and writing, to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which generously gave me a Research Leave Award, and to Emmanuel College Cambridge for the Visiting Fellowship so pleasantly held in conjunction with this. I owe thanks too to the Wellcome Trust, whose support of the Centre for Medical Humanities has contributed much to the project. I am also grateful to the University of Durham for its research leave provision, and to the Faculty of Arts and the Department of English Studies for generously funding my research. I am very grateful to all those with whom I have discussed the ideas in this book, and who have offered advice and assistance. Helen Cooper, revered friend and mentor, generously read the whole manuscript with a sharp eye, and made many valuable suggestions. I owe a particular debt to Laura Ashe, for her acute reading and her extensive and constructive suggestions. David Levene and George Boys-Stones generously read the material on the classical period, and offered much valuable advice. Elizabeth Evershed and Michael Huxtable were the best possible research assistants, and the book owes much to their careful and scholarly work. Alec Ryrie kindly allowed me to read his work on the early modern period. I am very grateful to the editors of the volumes for which I have written essays on aspects of this book, both for their interest and advice and for allowing me to include this material here: Elizabeth Archibald, Laura Ashe, Neil Cartlidge, Albrecht Classen, Juan Camilo Conde Silvestre, Ivana Djordjević, Jennifer Fellows, Rosalind Field, Amanda Hopkins, Ad Putter, Cory Rushton, Michelle Sweeney, Ma Nila Vázquez González, and Judith Weiss. I would also like to thank all those who invited me to give lectures on related subjects, in particular my hosts in Murcia, Geneva, Australia, and Japan, and Andrew Sanders for his kind hospitality in London. I am especially grateful to my medievalist friends for their warm support and interest, particularly Barry Windeatt and Elizabeth Archibald. It is a sadness that Derek Brewer did not live to see this book to which his scholarship, advice and friendship over many years contributed much. I would like to thank my colleagues in the Department of English Studies for their friendship, interest and support, in particular Stephen Regan, Patricia Waugh, John McKinnell, Neil Cartlidge and David Ashurst. I am very grateful too to the members of the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies for their encouragement and advice, and especially to Giles Gasper for taking on so many of the Director’s burdens. I would also like to thank Jane Macnaughton and my colleagues in the Medical Humanities for their friendship and for taking an interest in things medieval. I owe special thanks to Caroline Palmer of Boydell & vii

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Brewer, whose idea this book was, for her unfailing support and patience. The staff of Boydell & Brewer have offered much valued assistance. I am indebted to David Roberts for his careful copy-editing, and to Tom Norton for his excellent work on the index. I am grateful to my parents, my brother and all my friends: their affection, interest and encouragement over so many years is very much appreciated. My greatest debt is to David Fuller, who has offered assistance of so many different kinds. The amount the book owes to his unfailing interest, wise advice and acute reading is reflected in the dedication.


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Introduction Ther saugh I pleye jugelours, Magiciens, and tregetours, And Phitonesses, charmeresses, Olde wicches, sorceresses, That use exorsisacions, And eke these fumygacions; And clerkes eke, which konne wel Al this magik naturel … (Chaucer, The House of Fame, ll. 1259–66)


agic 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 in The 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 magic is often opposed to miracle, indicates its place within a wider notion of the supernatural that spans demonic, faery and divine. In Chaucer’s House of Fame, however, magicians are placed alongside musicians, associated with play, and they seem appropriate to this surreal dream vision of the fantastical house of the goddess of Fame. In the same way, it seems fitting that magic and supernatural should recur in the romance genre, associated with entertainment and fantasy.1 In romance, engagement with the magical or marvellous, whether fearful or wish-fulfilling, is expected in order 1 Influential

studies of the romance genre include Ezra Pound, The Spirit of Romance (London: Dent, 1910); Gillian Beer, The Romance (London: Methuen, 1970); Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976); Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2nd edn (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968); John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1976); Patricia A. Parker, Inescapable Romance: Studies in the Poetics of a Mode (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979); Fredric Jameson, ‘Magical Narratives: Romance as Genre’ , New Literary History 7 (1975), pp. 135–63; Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; London: Methuen, 1981); Kathryn Hume, Fantasy and Mimesis: Responses to Reality in Western Literature (New York: Methuen, 1984); Kevin Brownlee and Maria Scordilis Brownlee, Romance: Generic Transformation from Chrétien de Troyes to Cervantes (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England for Dartmouth College, 1985); Jean Radford, ed., The Progress of Romance: The Politics of Popular Fiction (London: Routledge, 1986). See further Corinne Saunders, ed., A Companion to Romance: From Classical to Contemporary, Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance to provide escape from the humdrum. Romance creates possible worlds that are exotic, magical and wondrous, whether in terms of adventure, love or vision. The great conventions of romance are patterns of wish-fulfilment: loss and return, separation and reunion, death and rebirth, and these are often worked out through supernatural intervention that opposes everyday reality with marvellous possibility. The most celebrated romance episodes, written and rewritten across different periods, and providing subjects for other art forms, are repeatedly linked to the wonder and strangeness of magic and the supernatural: the love of Tristan and Isolde, inspired by a magical potion; the visionary quest for the Holy Grail; the enchantments of Merlin and Morgan le Fay. The Romantics saw the marvellous aspects of romance as shaping the child’s imaginative faculty, which would in turn stimulate the passions and heighten understanding. The ‘woman wailing for her demon lover’ in Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ and the song of Keats’ nightingale that evokes ‘faery lands forlorn’ open onto imaginary otherworlds associated with poetic vision – ‘forlorn’ (‘abandoned, deserted’) because Keats thinks of them as once peopled by the imagination, but in a later age inaccessible to it. Medieval romance does indeed present imaginary otherworlds, and engages with ideal chivalric worlds that are always already past, that are seductive in their otherness and exoticism, and that promise what reality cannot.2 Magic and the supernatural play a crucial part in shaping those fantasies, and they create of romance ‘something rich and strange’ . But the rich and strange is also grounded in cultural reality; it is tangible and possible. In the Middle Ages the marvellous was at least potentially part of everyday knowledge, belief and experience. Magic and the supernatural interweave in a rich and complex literary history, but the fictions of magic, enchantment and the supernatural, crucial features of romance’s imaginative worlds, shade into ideas of these as ‘real’ practices and experiences. Northrop Frye’s theory (The Secular Scripture) of romance as mythos, engaged with archetypes, conventions and repeated motifs, is compelling, as is his characterisation of adventure as the journey through conflict to self-realisation, and of the wish-fulfilling, idealistic and nostalgic quality of romance.3 But his evocation of 2 General

studies of medieval romance include W. P. Ker, Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature (London: Macmillan, 1926); Dieter Mehl, The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968); John Stevens, Medieval Romance: Themes and Approaches (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1973); Kathryn Hume, ‘The Formal Nature of Middle English Romance’ , Philological Quarterly 53 (1974), pp. 158–80; Derek Pearsall, ‘The English Romance in the Fifteenth Century’ , Essays and Studies 29 (1976), pp. 56–83; Paul Strohm, ‘The Origin and Meaning of Middle English Romaunce’ , Genre 10 (1977), pp. 1–20; Susan Wittig, Stylistic and Narrative Structures in the Middle English Romances (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978); John Finlayson, ‘Definitions of Middle English Romance’ , Chaucer Review 15 (1980–1), pp. 44–62; 168–81; W. R. J. Barron, English Medieval Romance, Longman Literature in English Series (London: Longman, 1987). See also Derek Pearsall, Old English and Middle English Poetry (London: Routledge, 1977). 3 See Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), pp. 186–206, and Frye, Secular Scripture. Scholars who have emphasised the nonmimetic qualities of romance include Derek Brewer, who explores analogies with folk tale in Symbolic Stories: Traditional Narratives of the Family Drama in English Literature (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1980), and Anne Wilson, who in Traditional Romance and Tale: How Stories Mean


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Introduction the genre ignores its ambiguities, its uneasy combining of ideal and real, its reflexivity and its cultural specificity. This specificity has been taken up by recent critics, who have emphasised the mimetic aspects of romance: the practicality and politics of its chivalry and ideals; its engagement, often conservative but sometimes questioning, with cultural attitudes of the period – in particular, towards class, nation, religion and gender.4 With respect to magic and the supernatural too, romance is a mixed mode. It revels in imagined possibilities, but reflects broader cultural ideas and attitudes, often of very material kinds. Chaucer indicates the complex and conflicted medieval understanding of magic in his Parson’s Tale, which by contrast to the fantastical celebration of The House of Fame condemns ‘thise false enchantours or nigromanciens’ who ‘doon cursedly and ­dampnably agayns Crist and all the feith of hooly chirche’ (603–4). Magic was viewed as multi-faceted, ­fascinating but fearful, promising but dangerous, potentially illus0ry but also a real possibility. That possibility is rooted in medieval understandings of the supernatural, which was taken for granted in its various forms. Fundamental was the Christian supernatural, which included not only God and the devil, but a spirit world just beyond human reach, of angels, demons and ghosts, which might manifest itself in visitations, dreams and visions, in miracles or in prayer, but also in demonic intervention or temptation. There was a strong sense of the numinous, of the age of miracles only just passed, and of the possibility of God’s providential intervention. Coexisting with this Christian supernatural was a sophisticated notion of the classical gods, aligned with the planetary gods of astrology. The stars and planets were seen as influencing all aspects of the temporal world, and shaping the pattern of history as well as individual character and destiny. Another aspect of the supernatural, the otherworld of faery, found its origins partly in depictions of the classical underworld but also in legends of Celtic and Germanic gods and in folk traditions of supernatural beings. Man might step or slip into a world inhabited by larger-than-life beings with magical powers, while the faery could manifest itself (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1976) draws on Jungian theory to explore the dream-like and ritual quality of romance, in particular, the use of magic. See also Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale, trans. Laurence Scott, 2nd edn, rev. Louis A. Wagner (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988), pp. 1–16. 4 See especially Larry D. Benson and John Leyerle, ed., Chivalric Literature (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1980); Lee C. Ramsay, Chivalric Romances: Popular Literature in Medieval England (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983); Stephen Knight, Arthurian Literature and Society (London: Macmillan, 1983); Susan Crane, Insular Romance: Politics, Faith and Culture in AngloNorman and Middle English Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986); Martin B. Schichtman and James P. Carley, ed., Culture and the King: The Social Implications of Arthurian Legend (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994); Rosalind Field, ‘Romance in England, 1066–1400’ and Helen Cooper, ‘Romance after 1400’ , in David Wallace, ed., The Cambridge History of English Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 152–76 and 690–719; Roberta Krueger, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance, Cambridge Companions to Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004); and Yin Liu, ‘Middle English Romance as Prototype Genre’ , Chaucer Review 40 (2006), pp. 335–53.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance within the human world – through encounters with otherworldly beings, and through artefacts with faery origins. It is not surprising that, in a social context where faith in God and devil, and in a spirit world between, was ready and natural, the possibility of magic should also have seemed ready and natural. Medieval ideas of magic and the supernatural already carried with them a complex cultural history. Although folk beliefs played an important role in shaping cultural attitudes, the connection between learning and magic, and the place of magic and the supernatural within literature, were ancient. In the classical period, the theory, practice and imaginative functions of Western magic developed in relation to ideas of licit and illicit ritual and religion, and to enduring popular and philosophical notions of daimons, ambiguous spirits which might be benign or malign. What came to be termed natural magic originated in the natural philosophy of the classical period. In early Christian culture, such ideas were polarised: daimons became demons. Magic was drawn into the wider conflict between the forces of good and evil, and opposed to the licit supernatural power of miracle. In early medieval Europe Christian ideas intersected with the beliefs and traditions of Celtic and Germanic culture, as well as with classical thought. The Church was deeply suspicious of magic, which it associated with paganism and heresy. Yet like ideas of supernatural beings, magical practices survived at both popular and learned levels of society; and from the twelfth century onwards, as a result of new learning, especially from Arabic tradition, magic began to be treated more positively as a branch of natural philosophy. Fundamental was the notion of the marvellous, of wondrous qualities and creatures existing within the created world. Animals, gems and plants might contain or reflect the occult forces of the ­cosmos. The idea of powerful correspondences within the universe, which might be harnessed, underpinned the natural philosophy of the Middle Ages, especially the occult sciences, and theories of natural magic, particularly astrological, alchemical, and medical, may be seen as the precursors of modern science. Magic might also, however, depend on the summoning of demons or spirits, and it was the province too of otherworldly beings. Issues of agency, effect and intention are crucial to legal and theological treatments of magic, and are reflected in actual cases. This study places magic and the supernatural in medieval romances, the imaginative fictions of the Middle Ages, within the context of contemporaneous cultural attitudes, and their complex intellectual and cultural history. These topics that figure so prominently in romance provide imaginative escape, their manifestations attractive in their exoticism and sometimes pleasantly fearful, but there is also a strong case for a more realist approach to magic and the supernatural. Romances reflect and engage with medieval cultural attitudes in intriguing ways, interweaving realism and fantasy. They engage with a sophisticated and lengthy intellectual history, and with long-standing folk ideas, some of which did not fit readily with Christian belief. Romance participates in the dialogue and debate, both popular and learned, concerning magic and the supernatural. The genre is of special interest for its imaginative, fictional play with the subject, and the romance text becomes a place where ideas and imaginings intersect. 4

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Introduction The first two chapters of this book establish the broad cultural context of ideas of magic, in terms of more general ideas of the supernatural and in relation to concepts of nature and cosmos. Classical and biblical precedents are treated in the first chapter. Classical ideas of witches, amoral spirits and natural magic were sustained, and filtered through the polarising perspective of the Bible, which stood as absolute authority. Chapter 2 establishes the medieval contexts of romance treatments of magic and the supernatural: the attitudes and practices of the Middle Ages evident in legal and theological discourse, and popular and learned ideas of magic and the supernatural, from the Anglo-Saxon period to the fifteenth century. Notions of demons and the supernatural were accepted, and if not everyone believed in spells, sorcery and conjuring demons, they almost certainly accepted notions of natural magic and the possibility of supernatural intervention, demonic or divine. Ideas of magic are placed in relation to the wider supernatural, and to the concepts of marvel and miracle. Legal history, however, shows that while law codes, like theological discourse, consistently mention magic (in its typical contexts of harm, demons, medicine, paganism, heresy, treachery), legal cases were rare, and treated by public penance rather than severe penalties, except in cases of political gravity and the threat of treason. The spectre of witchcraft is not given substance by legal evidence. Law codes are reflected in canon law and the ideas are developed in theological writings – penitentials, handbooks and moral treatises. These may to some extent reflect actual practice, but perhaps most of all they rehearse, affirm and disseminate ideas that may well be popular beliefs. It is these ideas that figure in the anecdotes of chroniclers, and merge with their knowledge of learned practices and the development of the occult sciences. The relation of magic to religion is of formative importance, for an active definition of magic seems to arise in part out of cultural notions of foreign or illicit religious rituals. Magic, which offered a means of engaging with the supernatural, became a central concern in developing ideas of paganism and heresy, but it was also endorsed by the powerful belief in a Christian supernatural that encompassed the divine and demonic. Set in opposition to negative conceptions of magic as illicit was the influential idea of natural magic, with its dependence on the belief that the cosmos was an organic unity governed by a network of laws; this licit notion of magic played a crucial role in the development of scientific thought. The power of ritual and tradition, and the compelling possibility of fulfilling basic human wishes and desires, both beneficial and harmful, also ensured the survival of magic within popular belief and practice. Magic was endorsed and elaborated by inherited notions of an otherworld of faery. It might be argued that magic is a phenomenon of mind: its effects are not visible or physical enough to have serious legal consequences. Yet the sustained presence of the idea of magic in a variety of discourses reflects its mental hold. The special interest of magic often relates to its supposed transformative power, in particular, in offering healing and protection, or knowledge of the future. This pheno­menon of mind is crucial for romance writing because it is in the imaginative space of romance that magic can become bodily, beneficent or harmful in 5

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance extreme ways, taking the physical forms that seem so often sought or thought of but rarely achieved in reality. The second part of the book explores the various aspects of magic and the supernatural within romance. In fiction, commonly held ideas of magic and the supernatural intersected with literary tradition to shape imaginings of colourful kinds. While the span of time and cultural discourses is wide, the focus is on English romance from the late thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. Reference is made to sources where particularly relevant, but other literature, particularly Anglo-Norman and Continental romances, offers riches that cannot be discussed here. Magic and the supernatural represent a flashpoint in the mixed mode of romance, exemplifying in often extreme ways its characteristic interweaving of realism and fantasy; these topics also illuminate the popular and courtly emphases of romance.5 Especially striking in romance is the absence of demonic magic. Rather, the focus is on natural magic and more nebulous forms of enchantment, sorcery or ‘nigromancy’ , black magic. Both natural magic and ‘nigromancy’ provide exoticism and entertainment but are also treated as realistic possibilities. Of special interest are the uncomprehended qualities of the marvellous which may seem magical, or may be employed through magic arts to create physical, bodily transformative effects. The otherworld of faery offers romance writers the possibility of presenting more extreme versions of magic, and romance deals too with the wider supernatural: miracles, angels and demons. The chapters in the second part of the book treat the themes already dominant in classical culture and in the Bible, and retained within medieval legal and theological discourses, of both learned and popular kinds – the natural magic of plants and stones, and marvellous technology; black magic – the practice of ‘nigromancy’ and shaping of (usually) harmful magic; the otherworld of faery – both beautiful and monstrous; and the Christian supernatural – angels and demons, miracles and marvels. In Malory’s Morte Darthur, all these emphases meet in a grand retrospective on romance writing, and a new, English shaping of the Arthurian legend. The ambiguity of magic is suggested by the plethora of medieval terms associated with it: enchantment, sorcery, witchcraft, ‘nigromancy’ . These in turn shade into terms associated with medicine, healing and protection, into the nebulous 5 On

this complex issue, see further Velma Bourgeois Richmond, The Popularity of Middle English Romance (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Press, 1975); Thomas Hahn and Alan Lupack, ed., Retelling Tales (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1997); Nancy Mason Bradbury, Writing Aloud: Storytelling in Fourteenth-Century England (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998); David Burnley, Courtliness and Literature in Medieval England (Harlow: Longman, 1998); Maldwyn Mills and Rosamund Allen, ‘Chivalric Romance’ , in W. R. J. Barron, ed., The Arthur of the English: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval English Life and Literature, Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages II (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999), pp. 111–64; Ad Putter and Jane Gilbert, ed., The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance (Harlow: Longman, 2000); Nicola McDonald, ed., Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance (Manchester, NY: Manchester University Press, 2004). See also the essays of Nancy Mason Bradbury, ‘Popular Romance’ , and Rosalind Field, ‘Courtly and Arthurian Romance’ , in Corinne Saunders, ed., A Companion to Medieval Poetry, Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2010), pp. 289–307 and 308–28.


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Introduction ‘marvellous’ , and into the vocabulary of miracle and the demonic. Magic can be natural and supernatural, and the supernatural can extend beyond notions of magic. Although the term ‘supernatural’ is not employed by romance writers, liter­ary works reflect a strong cultural recognition that there are distinctions to be made between the supernatural (miracles, the demonic, the otherworldly or faery) and the natural (marvels, wonders), which may yet come to be understood.6 The book addresses the several aspects of magic implied in modern usage: the use of rituals (often occult, drawing on natural or supernatural forces) to influence events or to change nature; strange, sudden or inexplicable events; illusions or conjuring tricks. The question of intention, benevolent or malevolent, is crucial to interpretation, but motivation for magic is not always easy to gauge. This study probes too the relationship between magic, religion and science, and the opposition between natural and demonic, white and black magic. Themes and motifs recur: licit and illicit magic; Christian, otherworldly and natural magic; the often Eastern exoticism of magic; medicine and healing; shape-shifting and transformation; love and desire; the uncanny. Romances often revel in the exoticism, artifice and technology of magic. Encounters with the supernatural create situations of conflict and testing, in which humans face otherworldly forces. Writers are intrigued by the possibility of magic that is not demonic, and romance probes both the use and misuse of occult natural powers by humans. It probes too the boundaries between demonic, divine and otherworldly, and between providence, destiny and coincidence. When such supernatural encounters are with demon rapists or faery mistresses, romance narratives engage with extreme forms of erotic wish-fulfilment or horror. Perhaps surprisingly, romance does not in general depict a fearful world of humans conjuring demons, though demons may themselves practise supernatural arts. Rather, magic is practical, material, tangible, its effects most often related to knowledge and the power of divination, or, more disturbingly, to power over the body, especially through the arts of illusion and shape-shifting, but also through medical magic. Magic may transform in positive and negative ways, and the possibility of otherworldly powers, whether faery, divine or demonic, allows such transformation to take more extreme, exotic and sinister forms. Magic and the supernatural create rich possibilities for writers to explore the limits of the human will, the relation of body and mind, and the place of the individual within the cosmos. Any work engaging with the intellectual and cultural history of magic is indebted to the many studies written from the nineteenth century onwards. That a belief in magic is a repeated feature of early societies suggests this is a deeply ingrained human response to the world, and the cultural significance of magical rituals and practices, mainly among primitive tribes, was a special focus in the development of the discipline of anthropology. The idea of magic came to provide a touchstone for Victorian thinkers: it appeared to represent the earliest stage in an 6 The

term ‘supernatural’ is defined and the idea developed in the work of Thomas Aquinas: see further Henri de Lubac, Surnaturel: Etudes historiques, rev. Michel Sales, Théologie (1946; Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1991), and Edward Langton, Supernatural: The Doctrine of Spirits, Angels and Demons, from the Middle Ages until the Present Time (London: Rider, 1934).


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance evolutionary progression towards rational and scientific thought, and to rely on a set of attitudes against which man would react in order to discover a more enlightened approach. Such a perspective is exemplified in Sir Edward Tylor’s influential Primitive Culture (1871).7 While Tylor was excessively critical, his notion of a pseudo-science in which ideas are wrongly associated, so that ideal connections are mistaken for real ones, is persuasive. Sir James Frazer developed many of Tylor’s ideas in his monumental The Golden Bough (1890–1915). Frazer identified two basic principles of magic, the ‘Law of Similarity’ and the ‘Law of Contact or Contagion’; the idea of ‘sympathy’ was key to both.8 Imitative magic is most clearly exemplified by the use of dolls or images, which are injured or destroyed in order to harm the individual they represent. Contagious magic relies on the idea that a part represents the whole: thus magic might be practised on individuals through the use of their hair or nail parings. Frazer’s views were, like Tylor’s, deeply critical, rooted in the Protestant notion stemming from the Reformation of the opposition of religion and magic (explored in Keith Thomas’s magisterial Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971)). Frazer’s theoretical system was considerably neater than the fragmented history of magic, but the principles of sympathy, homeopathy and contagion remain influential concepts. Emile Durkheim and the French school of thought characteristic of the Année Sociologique and the Annales took up the idea that other cultures might depend on other thought systems, with which the historian needed to engage on their own terms. The next generation of anthropologists reshaped some of Frazer’s notions to focus on the crucial role of magic within developing civilisations. E. E. EvansPritchard emphasised the meaningfulness of the concepts of magic, science and religion across different societies, drawing his conclusions from observation of the Azande.9 Evans-Pritchard’s distinction between witchcraft and sorcery drew attention to key issues concerning the nature of magic and magical powers: he noted that the power of witches was explained for the Azande by the supposed presence of a substance in their bodies, whereas sorcery required the added assistance of medicines. This concept of witchcraft equates with classical and biblical ideas of the evil eye, and with medieval notions of the inherent magical powers of other­ worldly beings. Crucially, such powers are natural: ‘Belief in witchcraft is quite consistent with human responsibility and a rational appreciation of nature. ’10 Although in other societies witches are defined more generally and merge with sorcerers, Evans-Pritchard’s insights into a world-view that allows for magic are acute and apposite.11 7 Sir Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture, 2 vols, Library of Religion and Culture (1871; New York: Harper,

1958). James Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, 3rd edn, 8 vols in 12 (London: Macmillan, 1911–15), vol. 1, I, ch. 4. Originally published in 2 vols, 1890. 9 E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (1937), abridged and intro. Eva Gillies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976). 10 Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic, p. 30. 11 The problems of making this distinction are discussed by Victor Turner, ‘Witchcraft and Sorcery: Taxonomy versus Dynamics’ (1964), in The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, NY: 8 Sir


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Introduction Bronisław Malinowski’s essay ‘Magic, Science and Religion’ , rooted in his observations in the Trobriand Islands, explores the complex differences and similarities between these three related concepts. He argues that, like religion, magic enjoys explanatory power and offers to fulfil desire. At the same time, like science, magic includes a set of theoretical principles and rules concerning rituals. Logical theories, however, are replaced by ‘the association of ideas under the influence of desire’ .12 Magic and religion both involve wonders, taboos and observances, but fulfil different functions: magic is more immediate and its techniques more limited. Malinowski points out that, when the actuality is examined, magic is ‘an entirely sober, prosaic, even clumsy art, enacted for purely practical reasons’ , and far less appealing than the emotions and desires invested in it: this tension between the reality and the ideal of magic is prominent in medieval representations of the subject.13 Sorcery, Malinowski argues, is crucial: the notion of the spell, the occult, the rituals and words familiar only to initiates. He perceives magic as a unique, primeval force, passed on by tradition and affirming man’s autonomous power of creating desired ends. The idea of a power somehow released by the practitioner of magic is imperative. For Malinowski, however, magic differs completely from mana or cosmic power, whereas in classical and medieval societies, mana may be seen as precisely the power tapped in magic – the sympathetic power of the universe. It is here that medieval magic crosses over with the supernatural. The Trobriand society examined by Malinowski made more absolute distinctions than did medieval thinkers. In an attempt to construct A General Theory of Magic Marcel Mauss draws not just on the ‘primitive’ practices examined by Tylor and his successors but also on cultural attitudes of the past, including those of the Middle Ages. Mauss begins with the notion that magic is a lower, domestic form of religion; there are two poles of this ‘magic religion’ , that of sacrifice (the ideal) and that of evil spells, and in between these activities both licit and illicit.14 Differences between magical and religious rites, however, are evident: the practitioners of magical rites are magicians rather than priests – and the places in which they take place are secret and out-of-the way, rather than public as in the case of religious ritual. Magicians are distinguished either by inherited or acquired powers, often manifest in physical ways, and women are especially linked with magic. Mauss too emphasises that rites have strict rules, of place, materials and process, and are both verbal (employing spells) and non-verbal (sometimes involving sacrifice); they depend on laws of contiguity and opposition of the kind suggested by Frazer. All laws work in sympathy with each other, and underpin the idea of magical properties, of virtues or essences in particular objects. To produce an abstract system of magical laws is Cornell University Press, 1967), pp. 112–27: pp. 118–20. Malinowski, ‘Magic, Science and Religion’ , in Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays (1948; New York: Doubleday, 1974), p. 87. 13 Malinowski, ‘Magic, Science and Religion’ , p. 70. 14 Marcel Mauss, A General Theory of Magic (1950), trans. Robert Brain (London: Routledge, 1972), p. 27. 12 Bronisław


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance impossible, yet the notion of magical properties has profoundly influenced natural philosophy and the development of science. Unlike modern experimental science, however, magic is dependent on faith, and belief in one instance encourages belief in all.15 The final section of Mauss’s study considers the universality of the idea of mana, a magical power but also an action, quality and state: It involves the notion of automatic efficacy. At the same time as being a ­material substance which can be localized, it is also spiritual. It works at a distance and also through a direct connexion, if not by contact. It is impersonal and yet at the same time clothed in personal forms. It is divisible but whole. … [A]s well as being a force, it is also a milieu, a world separated from – but still in touch with – the other.16 This concept has particular explanatory force for the Middle Ages: it offers a rationale for magical effects and properties, and a context for spiritual and other­ worldly forces, and is congruent with the neo-Platonic ideas so formative for the occult sciences. Howard Clark Kee writes lucidly of magic as a proto-science drawing on the deep forces of the universe: In the realm of magic the basic assumption is that there is a mysterious, ­inexorable network of forces which the initiated can exploit for personal ­benefit, or block for personal protection. … Like the operator at the controls of a powerful modern machine, the forces are resident in the cosmos. The questions are: who will use them? For what ends?17 The idea of specialist knowledge is definitive, although, as Keith Thomas and others have argued, the priests of religion may also be seen as having their own specialist knowledge, and thus religious rituals may be compared to ­magical ­rituals, as medical rituals may also be. Distinctions between magic, religion, ­miracle and medicine depend on the purpose, nature, and perception of the rituals by those who enact or experience them, and may readily become blurred. It is not possible, as Mauss concludes, to construct a history of magic, for the evidence is shifting and fragmentary. No holistic system ever existed, but the ideas discussed by anthropologists and cultural historians from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries indicate many of the central questions concerning magic and the supernatural, which are addressed in different ways across centuries of thought and writing. Valerie Flint and Richard Kieckhefer have been particularly influential in tracing a cultural history of magic for the Middle Ages. Flint’s focus 15 On

different thought systems, see Jonathon Z. Smith, ‘Trading Places’ , in Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki, ed., Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, Religions in the Graeco-Roman World Series (Leiden: Brill, 1995), pp. 13–27; and Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality, The Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures 1984, Presented at the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). 16 Mauss, General Theory of Magic, p. 145. 17 Howard Clark Kee, Medicine, Miracle and Magic in New Testament Times, Society for New Testament Studies 55 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 123.


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Introduction in The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe is on ‘pagan survivals’ and ‘superstitions’ (following the model of Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic), and the ways that these intersected with Christian beliefs and rituals to become acceptable.18 Kieckhefer in Magic in the Middle Ages aims to paint a broad cultural picture of the later medieval period, placing magic in terms of religion, science, philosophy and the arts.19 Edward Peters in The Magician, the Witch and the Law traces the legal history of prohibitions and penalties, from the classical period through the Middle Ages.20 The work of Karen Jolly (Popular Religion in Late Saxon England) and Bill Griffiths (Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic) addresses the merging of pagan and Christian, popular and learned, magic and religion in the Anglo-Saxon period.21 C. S. Watkins’ incisive and original History and the Supernatural in Medieval England opens out the study of magic by analysing the ways that folk traditions of the supernatural intersected with learned ideas in the thought world of the twelfth century as exemplified by its historiographers.22 The following chapters, as the footnotes indicate, are indebted to the work of these and many other scholars. The wealth of cultural material marks the enduring fascination of the subject. While a great deal has been written on the history of magic, and a certain amount on its literary functions, no full-length study exists that brings together literature and the rich and complex cultural history of magic and ideas of the supernatural. Michelle Sweeney’s Magic in Medieval Romance from Chrétien de Troyes to Chaucer demonstrates the literary importance of the subject of magic, exploring the shift from French to English romance, and signalling many of the questions addressed further in this book.23 While no other extended study of magic and the supernatural in medieval romance and culture exists, I am also indebted to the work of many critics on these themes in relation to individual literary texts, and more generally to much excellent work on the romance ­genre.24 18 See

Valerie I. J. Flint, The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991) and Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England, 2nd edn (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977). The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe series draws on and signals much other important work; see especially vol. 3: Karen Jolly, Catharina Raudvere and Edward Peters, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages (2001; London: Athlone, 2002). 19 Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989; Canto edn, 2000). 20 Edward Peters, The Magician, the Witch and the Law, The Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978). 21 Karen Jolly, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996) and Bill Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic (Norfolk: AngloSaxon Books, 1996; rev. edn., 2003). 22 C. S. Watkins, History and the Supernatural in Medieval England, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 4th Series (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). 23 See Michelle Sweeney, Magic in Medieval Romance from Chrétien de Troyes to Geoffrey Chaucer (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000). 24 As well as the work cited above, the edited volumes in Boydell & Brewer’s Studies in Medieval Romance series and their predecessors offer a range of excellent work on different aspects of romance, including manuscripts, audience and readership, historical contexts, sources and


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Geraldine Heng’s wide-ranging Empire of Magic explores the post-colonial project of romance, placing narratives of wonder within a framework of feminist, gender and cultural theory.25 Helen Cooper’s magisterial The English Romance in Time establishes the notion of romance memes, ideas and motifs that recur across the Middle Ages and Renaissance, treated with cultural specificity and in variously original ways, but also dependent for effect on their familiarity to audiences and on the generic and literary baggage that they carry with them. Magic and the supernatural represent powerful memes of this kind. Romances pick up the complex attitudes and traditions inherited from classical culture, the Bible, Germanic and Celtic folk traditions, and learned discourses – legal, theological and philosophical. In romance, these are interwoven and transformed imaginatively to create shifting, multi-coloured tapestries of ideas and imaginings.

adaptation, and literary analyses from different perspectives. See Derek Brewer, ed., Studies in Medieval English Romances (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1988); Maldwyn Mills, Jennifer Fellows and Carol M. Meale, ed., Romance in Medieval England (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991); Carol Meale, ed., Readings in Medieval Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994); Rosalind Field, ed., Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999); Judith Weiss, Jennifer Fellows and Morgan Dickson, ed., Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000); Phillipa Hardman, ed., The Matter of Identity in Medieval Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002); Corinne Saunders, ed., Cultural Encounters in the Literature of Medieval England (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2005); Neil Cartlidge, ed., Boundaries in Medieval Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2008); and Raluca L. Radulescu and Cory James Rushton, ed., A Companion to Medieval Popular Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2009). See also Jennifer Fellows, Rosalind Field, Gillian Rogers and Judith Weiss, ed., Romance Reading on the Book: Essays in Medieval Narrative Presented to Maldwyn Mills (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1996). On readership of romances, see further Carol M. Meale, ed., Women and Literature in Britain, 1150–1500, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 17 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). On adaptation and form, see Laura A. Hibbard, Mediæval Romance in England: A Study of the Sources and Analogues of the Non-Cyclic Metrical Romances, revd edn (New York: Burt Franklin, 1960); David Lawton, ed., Middle English Alliterative Poetry and its Literary Background (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982); Carol Fewster, Traditionality and Genre in Middle English Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1987) and Rhiannon Purdie, Anglicising Romance: Tail-Rhyme and Genre in Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2008). 25 See Geraldine Heng, Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).


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1 Classical and Biblical Precedents


edieval 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 evidenced than is classical belief and practice.2 Celtic belief survivals are even more difficult to trace. Beliefs and practices associated with magic and the supernatural in early European culture more generally are suggested almost exclusively through Latin writers, and their terminologies. Aspects of pagan ritual evidently survived in popular memory and culture, ingrained in folk belief and practice, but they were often interwoven with or overlaid by Christian ritual and also with inherited, learned ideas of magic and the supernatural from both classical and Christian tradition. Such notions may have been retained, in part, through folk practices of Roman Britons, interweaving with Germanic traditions brought by the Anglo-Saxons. Much less nebulous is the survival of analogous ideas in the classical writing inherited by the Middle 1 For

general histories of magic, see Richard Cavendish, A History of Magic (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977); Francis King, Magic: The Western Tradition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1975); and Kurt Seligman, The History of Magic and the Occult (1948; New York: Random House, 1997). For magic in the pagan world see Marie-Louise Thomsen and Frederick H. Cryer, The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, vol. 1: Biblical and Pagan Societies (London: Athlone Press, 2001). 2 Treatments of magic and the supernatural in this period, to which this chapter is indebted, include Matthew W. Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World (London: Routledge, 2001) and Valerie Flint, Richard Gordon, Georg Luck and Daniel Ogden, The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, vol. 2: Ancient Greece and Rome (London: Athlone Press, 1999). An introduction and anthology of translated texts is offered by Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985). See also Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science During the First Thirteen Centuries of our Era, vol. 1, bk 1: The Roman Empire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1923), pp. 39–336. An early general survey of literature may be found in Eugene Taverner, Studies in Magic From Latin Literature, Columbia Studies in Classical Philology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1916). Edward Peters in The Magician, the Witch and the Law, pp. 1–20, offers an overview of the development of ideas of the magus from the classical to the early medieval period. The following discussion of classical religion draws on Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians in the Mediterranean World from the Second Century ad to the Conversion of Constantine (1986; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1988): see especially chapter 3, ‘Pagan Cults’ , and chapter 4, ‘Seeing the Gods’ .


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Ages. Classical writing itself conveyed to later readers something of the diversity of notions of magic and the supernatural, popular and learned, positive and negative, in the Graeco-Roman world; it also gave to magic a detailed cultural history. The world order of gods, daimons or spirits, and natural correspondences was in many ways retained, in the concepts of the planetary gods and hierarchies of angels and demons.3 Crucial was the notion of a natural world encompassing a system of correspondences that might be understood, and their powers harnessed. Learned practices, especially astrology, but also ideas of encounter with the gods, maintained a powerful sway, as did the fearful attraction of those who comprehended and might control the forces of nature or the powers of daimons. Many of these ideas are also found in (and are sometimes in dialogue with) the Bible, but here magic functions within a more polarised moral scheme of good and evil, repeatedly repudiated by the rightful followers of Yahweh and Jesus. Especially influential was the notion of daimons, morally ambivalent creatures in classical thought, but explicitly malevolent, ‘demons’ , in the Bible. The powerful figure of the witch is further shaped by biblical prohibitions. Divination, the attempt to probe God’s secrets, is set against miraculous revelation; magical ritual against spiritual healing. The dialogue between different notions of power – divine, spiritual, magical – is suggested through the Bible by the opposition between magicians and prophets, and especially between wonder-workers and Jesus. The Middle Ages inherited a complex range of ideas of magic and the supernatural, popular and learned, classical, biblical and Germanic, which incorporated ideas both of healing or protective, natural magic (not always so termed), and more dangerous, harmful or deceitful magic, which might illicitly call on spirits rather than being spiritually authorised.

The Classical Period Classical History and Practice If magic is defined as ‘the transgressive, illicit use of religious power’ , it existed long before the conscious labelling of it as such; there was ‘magic before magic’ .4 What comes to be termed magic is made up of fragments drawn from different beliefs and religious rituals expressing human sentiments and desires, especially for protection from harm and gain of happiness, health or prosperity. The secret practices of mystery cults, threatening in their marginality and at times prohibited, offered fertile ground for the development of ideas of magical ­powers. Such practices may not in actuality have been so very different from accepted civic rituals, but their otherness made them both exotic and menacing. The 3 In

order to reflect distinctions of meaning, I use the Greek daimon in relation to classical thought, and ‘demon’ in relation to Judaeo-Christian tradition. 4 Richard Gordon, ‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’ , in Flint et al., The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, vol. 2, pp. 161–275: p. 165: Gordon discusses in detail the variety of terms and adoption of ‘mageia’ .


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Classical and Biblical Precedents notion of the witch was powerfully threatening in the Hellenistic period and in the late Roman Republic and early Principate came to be associated with social and moral decay and pollution, the result of civil war. The goddess Hecate, mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony (c. eighth century bc) as helping herdsmen and those in battle, and attested in epigraphs from the sixth century bc onwards, came to be seen as a powerful tri-form goddess, associated with the liminal (in particular, the crossroads), and hence with the boundaries of the underworld: Hecate’s supposed special power over spirits underpins her later association with sorcery.5 The Egyptian occult too had a kind of ‘compelling glamour’: its practices included the use of amulets, charms and herbal or plant remedies.6 Rituals of divination were influenced by the dissemination of Eastern texts: Mesopotamian astrological works were translated into Aramaic, Persian and Greek, and there are some notable parallels between Mesopotamian and Greek magical practices. Magic combined the foreign with the illicit or marginal, and was closely linked to general belief in a wider spirit world, and in the marvellous potentiality of nature and the cosmos. Perhaps through the influence of dualistic Eastern religions (Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Persian), the idea of daimons developed gradually during the Archaic period (ninth–sixth centuries bc).7 Daimons are not inherently demonic: the term may refer to a good or malevolent spirit, a god, or the soul, and it figures prominently in philosophical discussions of divinity. In Politicus, Plato refers to unembodied daimons who play a role in the governance of regions of the world and of the people in them, and in the Symposium he develops the notion that daimons mediate between gods and men, because ‘God with man does not mingle’; this spiritual power of communication includes ‘all divination and priestcraft concerning sacrifice and ritual and incantations, and all soothsaying and sorcery’ .8 Daimons might act for good or ill: supernatural but limited, they occupied the space between the underworld and the moon. Their existence could explain good and malign fortune. Folk belief linked daimons to the dead, particularly the ‘restless dead’ , and with liminal places such as doorways and crossroads.9 The notion of summoning such spirits is very ancient, and the question of whether daimons are responsible for magic will become a crucial issue for Christian writers. Richard Gordon suggests that Pythagoras of Rhodes (late second century ad) is the first to attribute to daimons the causation of malign magic; Porphyry (c. ad 271), by 5 Hesiod,

Theogony, trans. Glenn W. Most, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), ll. 411–52. 6 Cavendish, A History of Magic, p. 12. 7 Gordon, ‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’ , pp. 225–9. 8 Daimones is translated as ‘inferior deities’ by Harold N. Fowler: see Plato, The Statesman, trans. W. R. M. Lamb, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1925), 271d; Plato, Symposium, trans. W. R. M. Lamb, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1925), 203e. 9 See further Sarah Iles Johnston, Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), and Johnston, ‘Defining the Dreadful: Remarks on the Greek Child-Killing Demon’ , in Meyer and Mirecki, Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, pp. 361–87: pp. 362–3.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance contrast, argues that, ‘wicked daemones … suggest impious thoughts and actions to the misguided’ .10 Although the difference between the religious supernatural and magic lay not in new technologies so much as in the intention of the practitioner, the magic arts were given a clear history as ‘other’ , originating from the East and disseminated by the magi, the priests of Zoroaster (Zarathustra), who was supposed to have been an opponent of the rituals of bull sacrifice and narcotics associated with the worship of Mithras, and to have reformed Persian religion (?early sixth century bc: almost nothing is known about Zoroaster’s life and his dates are uncertain). Zoroastrianism appears to have been a peaceful dualistic religion, founded on ideas of good and destructive beings at all levels, material and spiritual, over which Ahurah Mazdah (Zeus) would eventually triumph. The term magos (Persian magav, Greek magus, magoi) originally referred to members of the Persian or Median priestly caste, who were known through the Persian occupation of Ionian cities on the coast and the subsequent wars in the fifth century bc: the connotation of ‘foreign’ , ‘illicit or alien’ was crucial.11 The term came to be widely used to describe the priests or wise men of the Babylonians, the Chaldeans, the Medes and the Persians, all credited with special, occult wisdom.12 Herodotus presents the magi ‘as a tribe or a secret society … whose members perform the royal sacrifices and the funeral rites and who practise divination and the interpretation of dreams’; for Xenophon they are ‘technicians in matters divine’; in Alcibiades I, they belong among the teachers: a boy is taught ‘the magian lore [mageia] of Zoroaster … and that is the worship of the gods’ .13 Three semi-divine, legendary members of the magi were supposed to have been responsible for the dissemination of the magical arts: Zoroaster himself, Hystaspes (Vishtapa), the King of Chorasmia whom Zoroaster was said to have converted and who was credited with a set of apocalyptic oracles (probably of Hellenic composition), and Osthanes (Vishtana), the priest and adviser who accompanied King Xerxes against the Greeks and was reputed to have introduced the occult sciences to them. Democritus was said to have been taught by Osthanes, and himself to have taught the Egyptian Bolus of Mendes.14 Pliny gives this family tree of magic, and attributes the first extant manual to Osthanes; his account is probably based on that of Hermippus of Smyrna (third century), who drew on Persian chronicles produced after the conquests of

10 Porphyry,

De Abstinentia 2: 42.1, trans. Gordon, ‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’ , pp. 228–9. A History of Magic, p. 11. 12 See Kee, Medicine, Miracle and Magic in New Testament Times, pp. 99–100. 13 Xenophon, Cyropaedia, 2 vols, trans. W. Miller, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1914– 25), 8.3.11; Plato, Alcibiades I, trans. W. R. M. Lamb, Loeb Classical Library (1927; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1955), 122a. See Fritz Graf, ‘Excluding the Charming: The Development of the Greek Concept of Magic’ , in Meyer and Mirecki, Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, pp. 29–42: pp. 30–1. 14 Georg Luck, ‘Witches and Sorcerers in Classical Literature’ , in Flint et al., The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, vol 2, pp. 91–158: pp. 114–15. 11 Cavendish,


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Classical and Biblical Precedents Alexander.15 The Hellenistic period associated the teaching of magic with the great philosophers, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Democritus and Plato, who were said to have learned it from the East (Pliny, 30.2.9–10). Early references to magoi are connected to marginal religious practices. For a Greek priest to be called a magos was offensive, as in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, when the king condemns Tiresias’ dark and riddling prognostications, ‘this magos hatcher of plots’ .16 The word first occurs (c. 500 bc) in a list of religious practitioners denounced for their impious views: ‘people of the night – magi, male bacchants, maenads, initiates into the mysteries’ .17 Fritz Graf suggests that ‘To an Ionian of the late sixth century bce, a magos was not so much a wizard as a ritual specialist at the margins of society, with wide-ranging functions, ridiculed by some, secretly dreaded by others. ’ Magi might perform rituals of initiation or purification and perhaps more dubious rituals of cursing or prayer.18 Such individuals may also have been ‘experts in religious healing’ of the type described so negatively in the Hippocratic work, On the Sacred Disease (late fifth century bc): ‘My own view is that those who first attributed a sacred character to this malady were like the magicians [magoi], purifiers [kathartai], charlatans [agyrtai] and quacks [alazones] of our own day, men who claim great piety and superior knowledge. ’19 Only in the Hellenistic period (the period of powerful Greek monarchies from the death of Alexander in 323 bc to the battle of Actium in 31 bc), in which Eastern, particularly Persian, influence was again strong, does the term mageia appear. It is used by Theophrastus in the context of alexipharmaka and antidotes, suggesting rites related to healing.20 The earliest extant text to use mageia in an abstract sense is a pseudo-Aristotelian fragment, which describes the practices of the Persian magi: ‘They did not know goetic mageia. ’21 The term goes (sorcerer or magician) is linked etymologically to goan (to wail or lament), and the goes may have first been ‘a specialist “singer” to mediate between the newly particularized dead and the living, invoking Hekate, the goddess of passages and communications, and likewise

15 Pliny

the Elder, Natural History, trans. H. Rackham et al., 10 vols, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1938–63), vol. 8, book 30.2; Natural History: A Selection, trans. John Healy, Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), 30.2. References to Pliny’s Historia Naturalis are to the Loeb edition and Healy’s translation, cited by book and section numbers. 16 Sophocles, Oedipus, trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1994), l. 387. 17 Heraclitus of Ephesus, 12 b 14a d–k, cited in Gordon, ‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’ , p. 164. 18 Graf, ‘Excluding the Charming’ , pp. 31–2. 19 Gordon, ‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’ , p. 164; On the Sacred Disease, in Hippocrates, trans. W. H. S. Jones, vol. 2, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1923), 1.22–5. 20 Theophrastus, Historia Plantorum, trans. Arthur Hort, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1916), vol. 2, 9, 15.7. 21 Aristotle, Fragment 36, in Aristotelis qui ferebantur librorum fragmenta, ed. Valentinus Rose, Bibliotheca Teubneriana, 3rd edn (Leipzig: Teubner, 1886), dated to 100–170 bc by Walter Spoerri, Späthellenistische Berichte über Welt, Kultur und Götte, Schweizerische Beiträge zur Altertumwissenschaft 9 (Basel: F. Reinhardt, 1959), pp. 56, 60.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Hermes’ .22 There is no evidence to suggest that goes originally denoted a practitioner of malign or demonic magic, but perhaps because of the connection of the term goetic with the rituals of the dead, a notion of false, destructive or evil sorcery, goeteia, developed; the pseudo-Aristotelian usage seems to differentiate the practices of the magoi from a negative form of their arts. Just as the alien quality of the magoi rendered them potentially threatening, ambiguous figures, so the arts associated with them retained this dubious quality. The term mageia remains ambiguous, or reflective of ambivalent attitudes to magic: it may indicate more positive, healing or natural magic, or, in the post-Socratic period, magic said to use good rather than evil daimons.23 The term goeteia is more actively negative, and reflective of a critical perspective on magic: it may indicate fraud and deception, as well as malign practice. Practitioners of goeteia might possess or claim to possess the evil eye, a knowledge of poisons, and command over daimons or nature in order to do ill or deceive.24 Plato places magic in this light: it may be fraudulent, but it may also cause real harm, and those who employ spells, incantations, prophecies and divination must be controlled through judicious laws. Scepticism and distrust, as well as fear, are expressed in relation to magic right across the classical period. The term mageia itself did not have an unbroken history, but comes into use again in the Roman world late in the civil-war period. The first extant Latin usage is Virgil’s reference to ‘magicis … sacris’ (‘magic rites’) in his eighth Eclogue, modelled on Theocritus’ depiction of the pharmakeutria (witch) in his second Idyll.25 The Latin semantic field, however, was already rich in terms indicating supernatural power. In the period of the Roman Principate, illicit religious and magical practices, which seemed to offer the power of the gods, came to be viewed as politically threatening. The senatus consultum of ad 16/17 condemned ‘magic linked with private divination’ .26 Accusations of sorcery were frequent in the later Roman Empire, and often political. Those resented for their power or intimacy within court might be accused of sorcery, but in addition the sorcerer belonged to a demi-monde, his hidden, illicit powers challenging traditional notions of civilisation.27 The liminality of the magician both distanced him from society and rendered him fearful. The hierarchy of practitioners of magic that gradually developed from the Hellenistic period onwards might have included at the lowest level the wise man or woman, who used natural remedies and charms to cure illness, fulfil desire 22 Gordon,

‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’ , p. 185. On the etymology of goes , see Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World, p. 13, and Johnston, Restless Dead, pp. 102–23. 23 Robert K. Ritner, ‘The Religious, Social, and Legal Parameters of Traditional Egyptian Magic’ , in Meyer and Mirecki, Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, pp. 43–60: p. 45. 24 See Gordon, ‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’ , p. 181. 25 Virgil, Eclogues, trans. H. R. Fairclough, revised edn, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935), VIII, l. 66. 26 Gordon, ‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’ , p. 166. 27 See Peter Brown, ‘Sorcery, Demons, and the Rise of Christianity from Late Antiquity into the Middle Ages’ , in Mary Douglas, ed., Witchcraft, Confessions and Accusations, A.S.A. Monographs 9 (London: Tavistock Publications, 1970), pp. 17–45.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents or defeat enemies, or reveal the future. Next might be placed ‘root-cutters’ , who specialised in preparing and selling both medicines and poisons: their knowledge depended on a complex set of rules concerning when and how plants should be gathered or animal substances prepared. Higher still came the goes or magus: such individuals might address a range of human desires from healing to the fulfilment of love to worldly prosperity, and their skills might involve the knowledge and use of the power of daimons. Finally, there was a circle of highly learned authors and users of the Graeco-Egyptian receptaries or handbooks of magic, works that draw on late Egyptian temple rituals. The Hellenistic period saw the formalisation of the occult sciences – astrology, divination, alchemy, daemonology – and the production of learned treatises on these. Material evidence – in the form of the many curse tablets (tabellae defixionum) discovered by archaeologists – relates largely to low magic. The word defixio (v. defigere, to fix or pin down) implies placing someone in the power of the spirits of the underworld.28 The tradition of binding by writing of a curse or through a voodoo-type doll (pierced by nails) is ancient, and curse tablets, usually made of lead, survive from the early fifth century bc onwards.29 The object might be a loved one, an enemy or a rival. Early curses tended to employ the name only, in itself, like the doll, a powerful representation of the individual; later curses (from the first century ad onwards) ranged from a fairly brief list of the parts of the enemy to be restrained, or a request that ‘X [the name of a god or daemon], bind Y [the victim], whose mother is Z’ , to the inclusion of much descriptive detail and imagery.30 Typically, the tablets invoked the gods associated with death and with the earth or the East. From the Imperial period onwards, they frequently employ the voces magicae (words of power), which are mainly characterised by obscurity: most often used are six ‘Ephesian letters’: askion, kataskion, lix, tetrax, damnameneus and aision (or aisia); Ephesus was traditionally associated with magic and handbooks are sometimes termed ‘Ephesia grammata’ . Alphabets of other languages might also be used in spells.31 The unintelligibility of the words was important: Iamblichus (c. ad 300), for instance, argued that their translation into Greek divested them of their power; they might be depicted as demons, with particular features.32 Magical words and characters were typically presented in shapes – triangles, squares, wing-forms and diamonds – which came to be associated with magical power. Curse tablets might illustrate the desired restraint by 28 See

Luck, Arcana Mundi, p. 18, and Daniel Ogden, ‘Binding Spells: Curse Tablets and Voodoo Dolls’ , in Flint et al., The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, vol. 2, pp. 2–90, for the following discussion. 29 The term ‘voodoo’ is of African origin, and came to be used of religious witchcraft in the West Indies, particularly Haiti, and in the southern United States. Voodoo dolls, however, do not occur in Haiti and may have been an invention of American fiction, based on the image or ‘poppet’ (fifteenth century onwards) of European witchcraft. 30 Luck, Arcana Mundi, p. 18. 31 See further Owen Davies, Grimoires: A History of Magic Books (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). 32 See Ogden’s discussion of foreign letters, ‘Binding Spells’ , pp. 47–8.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance twisting patterns, such as coiling snakes or ropes, or by images of the body in the underworld or transfixed with nails. Ritual phrasing and repetition were common, and writing itself may have been seen as invested with special power, a kind of binding. The lead of the tablets symbolised the desired effect on the victim’s body. Voodoo-type dolls share many of the features of curse tablets: they often appear bound, either through decoration or through the placing of their limbs; they may be transfixed with nails, twisted, or enclosed in containers representative of graves. Like the curse tablets, their imagery of ‘binding’ may be intended to effect love or failure, illness or death. Tablets and dolls might incorporate some material aspect of the victim – hair or nail parings, or a shred of material from their clothing. They might be placed near the victim or in locations associated with the dead, in order to gain the power of pollution (miasma) and the spirits of the dead. Tacitus records in his Annals the mysterious death of Tiberius’ adopted son, Germanicus, in ad 19 from a malady apparently caused by a hidden curse tablet: Saevam vim morbi augebat persuasio veneni a Pisone accepti; et reperiebantur solo ac parietibus erutae humanorum corporum reliquiae, carmina et devotiones et nomen Germanici plumbeis tabulis insculptum, semusti ­cineres ac tabo obliti aliaque malefica quis creditur animas numinibus infernis sacrari. The cruel virulence of the disease was intensified by the patient’s belief that Piso had given him poison; and it is a fact that explorations in the floor and walls brought to light the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, leaden tablets engraved with the name Germanicus, charred and blood-smeared ashes, and others of the implements of witchcraft by which it is believed the living soul can be devoted to the powers of the grave.33

While Tacitus withholds judgement, his account demonstrates the general familiarity with curse-magic, although the senatorial decree including the detailed official record of Piso’s trial (the senatus consultum de Piso patre) makes no mention of magic: this was evidently not viewed as an accusation appropriate in a major prosecution. The notion of the curse was, however, enduring. Porphyry’s Life of Plotinus famously describes the physical effect of a curse when Plotinus’ enemy, Olympius of Alexandria, attempts to direct the forces of the stars against him: ‘Plotinus did sense the attempts of Olympius and said that his body had felt, at the time, like a purse whose strings had been pulled together; his limbs had been squeezed just like that. ’34 The imagery of violent binding is clear. 33 Tacitus,

The Annals, trans. Clifford H. Moore and John Jackson, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1943), 2.69. This episode is instanced and translated by Luck, Arcana Mundi, p. 90. 34 Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, trans. A. H. Armstrong, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1966–88), 10. Stephen MacKenna translates these lines as referring to Olympius’ experience of the reversed magic: see Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna, abridged and intro. John Dillon, Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), p. cx. The Greek is ambiguous, ‘he said his body &c’ , but because the sentence begins with an adversative, ‘however’ , it is generally read as indicating Olympius’ attack on Plotinus by contrast to Plotinus’s counter-attack on Olympius described in the previous sentence. Subsequent references to Plotinus’ Enneads are to this edition and to MacKenna’s translation, cited by book, chapter, section and line number.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents Magic functioned across classes and genders. Although literature depicts the witch as the archetypal practitioner, cursing does not seem, as Daniel Ogden suggests, to be ‘particularly associated with women at the ideological level’ .35 Women are most often named on curse tablets as victims, and particularly as objects of love. While the matronymic is commonly used (as is still customary in healing prayers in Judaism), it seems most likely that this reflected the association of the mother with the intimate secrets of the body, as well as ensuring the correct person was being cursed, since the identity of the mother was in less doubt than that of the father. Simple curses could be spoken or written by individuals not versed in sophisticated magical practices, but it seems probable that, particularly later, many curses were the work of the goes or professional sorcerer/magician. Curse texts characteristic of the Imperial period evidently rely on recorded formulae, and are likely to have been produced by specialists who possessed appropriate handbooks. The Papyri graecae magicae corpus offers intriguing examples of such handbooks.36 Written in the third and fourth centuries ad, the papyri appear to draw on and copy earlier texts, which originated in the late Hellenistic period and are broadly reflective of Graeco-Egyptian culture.37 The handbooks offer valuable insights into magical practices and the kinds of works that might have been owned by a magician with his own library. They draw on the terminology of mystery cults: the magician is mystagogus, a term normally used to refer to the priest leading candidates to initiation; the magical formulae may be called teletai, ‘celebrations of mysteries’ . The formulae are typically presented as recipes, beginning with instructions to gather particular, often exotic materials. They assert their own power, and are often presented as secret. Like the curse tablets and dolls, for which instructions are included, the handbooks invoke gods and daimons, and employ magic words and characters; like the tablet or doll, the book may itself have been seen as invested with power.38 They address similar situations: love, illness, prosperity, success, dreams. Typically, the ingredients required in such recipes are strange, unpleasant or difficult to obtain: the eyes of a bat, a dead cat made into a figure of Osiris, herbs plucked at certain times or in certain places, remnants taken from tombs – nails, material, parts of corpses, ingredients such as myrrh, salt, sulphur, lead, wax, clay and linen.39 As well as magical materials, the magician might be expected to possess a wand, a magical wheel, a bull-roarer (a primitive wind instrument), a table, a dish, a drinking vessel, rings, nails and stones – all of which might be carved with magical letters and symbols. The particular meaning of a symbolic element is

35 Ogden,

‘Binding Spells’ , p. 61. Karl Preisendanz and Albert Henrichs, ed., Papyri Graecae Magicae. Die griechischen Zauberpapyri, 2nd edn, 2 vols, Sammlung Wissenschaftlicher Commentare (Stuttgart: Teubner, 1973–4). 37 See Luck, Arcana Mundi, pp. 16–19. 38 Gordon, ‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’ , p. 188. 39 See the examples in Luck, Arcana Mundi, pp. 92–103. 36 See


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance dependent on the overall narrative, based on the configuration and circumstance of the particular ritual.40 Although written culture played an important role in the practice and dissemination of magic, there was also an established tradition of simpler magic, which did not require complex instruction.41 Curses did not have to be spoken: certain individuals were believed to have the power of the evil eye. The ancient notion of those who possessed supernatural powers seems to have co-existed with the idea of magic as learned art, the domain of specialists but available to those who could procure and perform the recipes – not always an easy task, given their exotic, unpleasant, even dangerous complexity. Like simple verbal and written curses, protective amulets were common: rolls of papyrus or metal foil, or gemstones worn around the neck or in rings, often inscribed with magical symbols, letters or words, and using abbreviated versions of common formulae. They might protect against illnesses, curses or magic more generally, and the language of binding frequently occurs in these as well as in curses. Like amulets, herbs were believed to possess great powers, both destructive and curative, and represented important ingredients in magical recipes. Spells supported the idea of the gods by appealing to them, while the concept of malign magic could explain ill fortune. Magic allowed for the explanation of the irrational, and for the pursuit of love, hatred and revenge.

The Witch Folk belief and literature offered powerful models of practitioners of magic, often with innate supernatural powers and sometimes connected with the gods: Medea, Circe and the witch or strix, sometimes presented as human, sometimes as a monstrous figure linked to the screech-owl, and frequently left ambiguous. In these beings, the violent forces of desire and hatred are taken to an extreme. Medea’s origins are uncertain, partly rooted in a Corinthian cult of dead children, which is linked by the Greek poet Eumelos to the Argo.42 Johnston suggests that the figure originates in folk-lore, and is related to notions of a child-killing demon or Lamia figure, who may find her origins in a nurturing goddess: ‘displaced by Hera … she became the mythic elaboration of a demonic force against which Akraian Hera was expected to protect her worshipers – she was a mother who had lost

40 For

anthropological discussion, see Victor Turner, ‘Ritual Symbolism, Morality, and Social Structure among the Ndembu’ (1960), and ‘Color Classification in Ndembu Ritual: A Problem in Primitive Classification’ (1963), in The Forest of Symbols, pp. 48–92. 41 See Ogden, ‘Binding Spells’ , pp. 56–7. 42 For an overview of the history of the Medea story, see Fritz Graf, ‘Medea, the Enchantress from Afar: Remarks on a Well-Known Myth’ , in James J. Clauss and Sarah Iles Johnston, Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 21–43, and this volume more generally for discussion of a range of classical treatments. Ruth Morse, The Medieval Medea (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1996), offers a detailed discussion of the classical material that shaped medieval tellings, pp. 19–184.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents her children, and who thus became, after her death, a “reproductive demon” ’ .43 Medea is also the helper-maiden of folk-lore, aiding the hero on his quest to win a mythic prize or land. The literary Medea, a celebrated practitioner of magic, casts a long shadow: she may be related to Homer’s Agamede, who is skilled in the use of drugs and is a granddaughter of the sun, although Agamede is neither foreign nor a witch. Herbal wisdom empowers Homer’s women in both positive and negative ways: it is ‘one of the outstanding arts – and one of the most dangerous’ .44 Homer associates such knowledge particularly with the East: in the Odyssey Helen acquires the drug ‘with the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting, and banishing all painful memories’ , with which she cheers Telemachus and his companions, from Polydamna, whose native Egypt is ‘most rich in herbs’ , both curative and poisonous.45 Medea, appropriately, is given a foreign, Eastern identity: Hesiod’s Theogony alludes to her as a princess-goddess, who leaves her country to marry Jason and gives birth to Medeus, founder of a nation.46 Pindar in his Pythian Odes (fifth century bc) depicts Medea’s magical assistance of Jason in gaining the Golden Fleece, her love for him and her flight with the Argonauts, emphasising her skill with pharmakon (magic herbs or drugs).47 His Colchians are described as ‘dark-faced’ (4.212), perhaps indicating Medea’s ancestry as ‘granddaughter of the Sun’ . This Medea plays a Siren-like, prophetic and oracular role, a divinely inspired figure with magical powers.48 Aphrodite’s magic, however, is stronger than Medea’s. Euripides’ play, Medea (first performed in 431 bc), by contrast, immortalises Medea’s revenge: the play is set in Corinth and depicts an already-abandoned Medea, who plots the deaths of her two children (perhaps Euripides’ innovation, as is Medea’s status as barbarian), as well as of Glauce, Jason’s bride, and her father, King Creon.49 While Euripides mentions Medea’s skill with pharmaka, thus characterising her as a witch, he also portrays her as a goddess figure: she prophesies Jason’s death and finally appears in a dragon-drawn chariot to ascend to the heavens.50 She is associated with Thessaly, land of witches, 43 See

Sarah Iles Johnston, ‘Corinthian Medea and the Cult of Hera Akraia’ , in Clauss and Johnston, Medea, pp. 44–70: p. 65. 44 Morse, Medieval Medea, p. 12. 45 Homer, The Odyssey, trans. A. T. Murray, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), IV.212ff; trans. E. V. Rieu, rev. D. C. H. Rieu, intro. Peter V. Jones, Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003), p. 70. Subsequent references to The Odyssey are to the Loeb edition and Rieu’s translation, cited by line and page number. 46 Hesiod, Theogony, 997–9. See Graf, ‘Medea, the Enchantress from Afar’ , p. 31; Nita Krevans, ‘Medea as Foundation-Heroine’ , in Clauss and Johnston, Medea, pp. 71–82. 47 Pindar, Pythian Odes, trans. William H. Race, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 4.213–54. 48 See Dolores M. O’Higgins, ‘Medea as Muse: Pindar’s Pythian 4’ , in Clauss and Johnston, Medea, pp. 103–26. 49 See Deborah Boedeker, ‘Becoming Medea: Assimilation in Euripides’ , and Christiane SourvinouInwood, ‘Medea at a Shifting Distance: Images and Euripidean Tragedy’ , in Clauss and Johnston, Medea, pp. 127–48 and pp. 253–96. 50 Euripides, Medea, trans. David Kovacs, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), l. 385.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance through her link to Pelias, the originator of Jason’s quest, whose death she later causes. Apollonius Rhodius in the Argonautica (early third century bc) offers an unusually sympathetic portrayal of Medea, adding an extended narrative of her youth and love for Jason.51 This ‘erotic Medea’ , an important antecedent of Ariadne and especially Dido, combines the character of a desperate young girl in love with features of the witch:52 Medea is ‘a maiden that uses sorcery under the guidance of Hecate’ , and her skill with pharmakon is filled out with the description of her casket of drugs, and the eerie details of her rituals.53 That Medea’s pharmaceutical knowledge is directly learned from Hecate implies that her magical force stems from her own being, finding its origins in the power of the gods. When she later subdues Talos, the man of bronze, ritual incantation summons daimons and stimulates the evil force of Medea’s eyes (4.1665–72). Her evil frenzy seems the dark counterpart of poetic madness, its effect to destroy rather than to create, bringing death rather than life. In the prose account of Dionysius Scytobrachion, roughly contemporaneous with the Argonautica but known through the retelling of Diodorus Siculus, Medea is the sister of Circe and daughter of Hecate, and thus an even more powerful version of the witch.54 Circe is more usually identified as Medea’s aunt and they share many features. In the Odyssey Circe is a natural sorceress, sister of the wizard Aeëtes and daughter of the Sun (X, 136–67).55 Her powers, like Medea’s, include practical knowledge of drugs, which cause Odysseus’ men to forget their native land (X, 233–6). The significance of the wild animals fawning around Circe becomes apparent when the men are transformed into swine. Odysseus can only counter Circe’s magic with the help of Hermes, who provides him with the protective ‘Moly’ (10.304–5). In the Argonautica, Circe foresees the Argonauts’ coming and offers rituals of purification for them. She possesses natural magic, but is also a shape-shifter with knowledge of the future, who inhabits her own separate realm. Both Circe and Medea are from alien, exotic lands, Circe’s an island near the edge of the ocean, Medea’s the realm of Colchis far in the east. As daughter and grand-daughter of the Sun, a Titan, they belong to the dynasty of gods preceding the Olympians. This notion of a past god-like race occurs in the early anonymous Greek epic, Phoronis (seventh–sixth century bc), which tells of a people of ‘goêtes’ , characterised by their magical powers as smiths. The ‘Telchines’ , mythical inhabitants of Rhodes, were said to possess similar powers: they came from 51 See

James J. Clauss, ‘Conquest of the Mephistophelian Nausicaa: Medea’s Role in Apollonius’ Redefinition of the Epic Hero’ , in Clauss and Johnston, Medea, pp. 149–77. 52 Morse, Medieval Medea, p. 35. 53 Apollonius Rhodius, The Argonautica, trans. R. C. Seaton, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann, 1921), 3. 477–8. 54 Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, trans. C. H. Oldfather et al., 10 vols, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1933–67), vol. 2, 4.45–6; and see Graf, ‘Medea, the Enchantress from Afar’ , p. 31. 55 See Morse’s discussion, Medieval Medea, p. 27; and Judith Yarnall, Transformations of Circe: The History of an Enchantress (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).


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Classical and Biblical Precedents the sea, and combined their skills as smiths with shape-shifting, sculpture, and the power to raise storms.56 They later came to be seen more negatively, as possessing the evil eye, specialising in poisons, and directing malevolent natural forces.57 Although later writers would explore the more human side of Medea depicted by Apollonius, it was most of all the notion of her malignant magic that they choose to develop, reflecting the more general cultural distrust of magical arts. Seneca’s tragedy paints Medea as a terrifyingly evil figure with access to supernatural powers: ‘she is ira, she is disorder incarnate, she is a woman in the grip of irrational frenzy’ .58 She defends herself as motivated by love, but also emphasises her divinity; her revenge is an assertion of power: ‘invadam deos et cuncta quatiam’ (‘I shall attack the gods, and shake the world’); Hecate is a focus of her prayers.59 Medea’s enchantments are described in much more elaborate detail than in the Argonautica. She calls on the elements to conjure up snakes and a dragon from the earth, the Dragon of the skies, the Python, the Hydra, the dragon of Colchis, and prepares legendary poisons. Her black arts include fearsome words and songs, which cause the world to tremble, and she calls on the gods of death, the elements, and the power of sacrifice, slashing her wrists to pour onto the altar her own blood along with that of animals. The gift shaped through her magic arts, of poisoned robes of fire, will destroy Creusa, Jason’s new bride. The extensive treatment of her magical practices fills out with graphic realism the horrific, fascinating figure of the witch. The complex mythical and literary history of Medea weaves together the figure of maiden-helper skilled in magic and the frenzied witch-avenger. Ovid explores both aspects to present an extreme portrayal of the witch in the throes of desperate passion, helping Jason through her magic herbs, incantations and ‘secretas … artes’ (‘secret arts’).60 In the rejuvenation of Aeson, however, she becomes a far more sinister figure. Much detail is given for the magical rituals summoning the power of the moon and earth. This Medea travels for nine days and nights in her car drawn by dragons to gather the herbs she requires. Details are offered too of devotions to Hecate, the sacrifice of a black sheep, Medea’s incantations and purifying rituals of fire, water and sulphur as she circles Aeson’s body, and her cauldron of grisly natural and animal ingredients, a concoction which she substitutes for the old man’s blood. Later, after Medea withholds her magic from Pelias, she escapes ‘pennatis serpentibus’ (‘by winged dragons’ , VII, 350), and similarly after 56 Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 5.55.2–3; Gordon, ‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’ , p. 179. 57 Gordon,

‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’ , pp. 179–81. Medieval Medea, p. 51. 59 Seneca, Medea, trans. John G. Fitch, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), ll. 424–5. See Martha S. Nussbaum, ‘Serpents in the Soul: A Reading of Seneca’s Medea’ , in Clauss and Johnston, Medea, pp. 219–49. 60 Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Frank Justus Miller, 3rd edn, rev. G. P. Goold, 2 vols, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), VII, ll. 137–8. Subsequent references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses are to this edition and translation. See also Carol E. Newlands, ‘The Metamorphosis of Ovid’s Medea’ , in Clauss and Johnston, Medea, pp. 178–208. 58 Morse,


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance the death of Creusa, ‘venenis’ (‘by … witchcraft’ , VII, 394), while after poisoning Theseus, she is preserved ‘nebulis per carmina motis’ (‘in a dark whirlwind her witch songs raised’ , VII, 424). This Medea seems a version of Hecate herself, and the desperation and fear of the start are masked by her extreme, violent, and malevolent powers. In the Heroides, by contrast, Ovid further explores the tragic aspect of Medea, giving her lament voice. Her identity is still situated in her magical knowledge, which is characterised in terms of medicines or drugs, and her betrayal by Jason is in part a betrayal of her ‘ars’ (XII, 2) and devotion to Hecate. Her identity will be remade in her revenge of sword, fire, ‘sucusque veneni’ (‘and the juice of poison’): ‘nescio quid certe mens mea maius agit’ (‘Something portentous, surely, is working in my soul’ , XII, 212). The figure of the witch recurs across a range of classical literary works. In Sophocles’ Trachiniae and the Senecan play Hercules Oetaeus, Deianira discusses with her nurse, a witch, the possibility of regaining Hercules’ love through the use of magical herbs gathered in Thessaly or by the Black Sea, and the nurse claims her power to change nature: here, however, both will be deceived by the much more deadly magic of the centaur Nessus, when the shirt impregnated with his blood functions not, as promised, to revive Hercules’ love but to destroy him.61 Seneca’s plays suggest the varying register of the witch’s menace: whereas Medea seems a potent force of evil and destruction, Deianira inspires pity, her love-magic sadly misguided. Theocritus’ second Idyll depicts the Pharmakeutria (Witch), Simaetha, also a mixed figure. The poem is her song as she shapes her love-magic in order to win back her faithless lover; she asks the moon and Hecate to render her magic as strong as that of Circe and Medea.62 The binding spell is detailed with striking realism: characteristic ingredients – herbs, the juice of a crushed lizard – are accompanied by rituals – the scattering of barley, bay leaves and corn-husks in the fire, the melting of a wax image to symbolise the beloved’s melting in desire, the burning of fragments of his clothing, the pouring of libations, and the repeated turning of the magic wheel, which serves as a refrain to the poem. Virgil’s eighth Eclogue rewrites Theocritus’ work, giving to the shepherd Alphesiboeus the song of Simaetha, with the refrain ‘ducite ab urbe domum, mea carmina, ducite Daphnim’ (‘Bring Daphnis home from town, bring him, my songs’).63 Virgil embroiders the rituals further: the clay hardens, with the implication of the shaping of a doll, the image is drawn round the shrines with three coloured threads three times, the ­forest where herbs and poisons grow is haunted by the werewolf Moeris. For Virgil the binding power of words is also crucial:

61 See Sophocles, The Women of Trachis, trans. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge,

MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), ll. 531ff; and Seneca, Hercules on Oeta, trans. John G. Fitch, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), ll. 453–63. 62 Theocritus, The Idylls, trans. J. M. Edmonds, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1928), 2.10 and 15–16; trans. Robert Wells, Penguin Classics (1988; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989), p. 60. 63 Virgil, Eclogues, VIII, l. 68ff.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents carmina vel caelo possunt deducere lunam, carminibus Circe socios mutavit Ulixi, frigidus in pratis cantando rumpitur anguis. Songs can even draw the moon down from heaven; by songs Circe changed the comrades of Ulysses; with song the cold snake in the meadows is burst asunder. (69–71) The motif of drawing down the moon, reflecting popular fear of eclipses, which seemed to harness the power of the moon goddess, recurs, and the persuasive power of words and ritual song is fundamental to ideas of magic. Magic, music and poetry interrelate to bind the listener. In the archetypal figure of the witch, magic and the feminine intersect in a monstrous version of the predatory and transgressive woman. At her most terrifying, the night-witch or strix, of whom Simaetha and her descendants seem mere shadows, appears as ‘the radical enemy of all human civilization … the night-owl that is really a flesh-devouring woman, a child-killing demon’ .64 Such creatures are imagined as frequenting cemeteries where many of their grisly ingredients are procured. The special fearfulness of the witch lies in her ability to bring sudden death by night as well as her habit of preying on the dead. Horace plays dramatically on the menace of the witch in Epode V, in his sinister depiction of a boy pleading for his life to the witches who starve him in order to gain his enlarged liver, an organ associated with foreknowledge of the future, which they will use in concocting a love-potion. The boy ultimately turns magic back on the witches by cursing them: dying a violent death, he will haunt them. Horace too remarks the power of witches to draw down the moon, associating them with screech owls and with Medea: their ghastly rites employ poisonous herbs and plants gathered from the places of the dead, and animal parts that will be burned, as well as the boy’s liver. The chief voice of the witches, Canidia, recurs in Horace’s writings, a disturbing figure who combines witchcraft and desire, her spells intended to bind her beloved and to outdo other witches in love-magic. Canidia enacts the potential violence and menace of untrammelled desire, but has also been seen as symbolic of the degeneration of Rome.65 In the Fasti, Ovid’s striges are monstrous, bird-like figures: grande caput, stantes oculi, rostra apta rapinis, canities pennis, unguibus hamus inest. nocte volant puerosque petunt nutricis egentes et vitiant cunis corpora rapta suis. Big is their head, goggle their eyes, their beaks are formed for rapine, their feathers blotched with grey, their claws fitted with hooks. They fly by night and attack nurseless children, and defile their bodies, snatched from their cradles.66 64 Gordon,

‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’ , p. 204.

65 See Horace, Epodes, ed. David Mankin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 299–301. 66 Ovid,

Fasti, trans. Sir James George Frazer, rev. G. P. Goold, 2nd edn, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1989), VI, ll. 133–6.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Their cries give them the name ‘screech-owl’ , though their origins are uncertain: ‘sive igitur nascuntur aves, seu carmine fiunt neniaque in volucres Marsa figurat anus’ (‘Whether, therefore, they are born birds, or are made such by enchantment and are nothing but beldames transformed into fowls by a Marsian spell’ , 141–2). The image suggests the shape-shifting quality of the witch. Perhaps the most memorable and influential portrayal of the strix is that of Lucan in his epic poem of the Roman civil war, Pharsalia. The land of Thessaly to which Caesar escapes and in which the battle of Pharsalus is fought (48 bc) is a place ‘damnata fatis’ (‘condemned by fate’), where poisonous herbs grow; it is the region that has provided Medea with the herbs she did not bring from Colchis.67 The association of Thessaly with witchcraft is ancient: Plato refers to ‘the creatures who would draw down the moon – the hags of Thessaly’ .68 Lucan emphasises the extraordinary power of witches: feared by all, they seem to control the will of the gods, possessing the power to bind humans and halt the powers of Nature (VI, 443–506). Lucan’s Erictho exceeds even the archetypal witch. She haunts the places of tombs, her appearance deathly, her breath poisonous, to prey on corpses, on the fragments of the dead and the instruments of their death, as well as on the living, particularly unborn children. Her desire takes its most hideous form in necrophilia. Lucan revels in horror: Erictho is an agent of death and of the gods, and in her own deathliness seems to bridge the earthly world and that of Hades. Her powers are more fully elaborated in the ensuing encounter with Pompey’s son Sextus, who consults her about the outcome of the war. Erictho boasts of her sway over life and death, although even her power is limited, for destinies crucial to the universal pattern of events cannot be altered:      conceditur arti, unam cum radiis presserunt sidera mortem, inseruisse moras; et, quamuis fecerit omnis stella senem, medios herbis abrumpimus annos. at, simul a prima descendit origine mundi causarum series, atque omnia fata laborant si quicquam mutare uelis, unoque sub ictu stat genus humanum, tum, Thessala turba fatemur, plus Fortuna potest. Though sidereal rays have decreed a particular death, yet it is granted to my skill to impose delays; again, though every star has forecast old age for a man, we with our herbs snap his life in half. But, by the same token, a chain of events has come down from the world’s first dawn, and all destinies go awry if you try 67 Lucan,

Belli Civilis libri decem, ed. A. E. Housman (Oxford: Blackwell, 1926); Pharsalia, trans. Jane Wilson Joyce, Masters of Latin Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), VI, l. 413. Subsequent reference are to this edition and translation, cited by book and line number. 68 Plato, Gorgias, trans. W. R. M. Lamb, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1925), 513a, ll. 5–7, and see Cavendish, A History of Magic, p. 33.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents to change any one. The whole human race stands under a single stroke: at such times – and we witches admit it – Fortune is the more powerful. (VI, 607–15) Erictho retains, however, the power of prophecy, raising the dead to speak. In one of his most lurid passages, Lucan describes her choice and preparation of the corpse, a body with its throat slit (VI, 637): its chest is filled with blood, its organs smeared with pus and slime, and a mixture of loathsome ingredients of animal parts, leaves and poisons ladled on, accompanied by incantations that call on the gods of the underworld – the phrase ‘carmine factum’ suggests the magic spell. Eventually, the shade appears, ‘exanimis artus inuisaque claustra timentem / carceris antiqui. pauet ire in pectus apertum / uisceraque et ruptas letali uolnere fibras’ (‘terrified of its lifeless limbs, the hateful enclosure / of its old prison. It dreads stepping into the gaping chest and guts, into organs punctured by a lethal wound’ , VI, 721–3). Threatened by Erictho, the corpse warms to life in a moment that looks forward to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: protinus astrictus caluit cruor atraque fouit uolnera et in uenas extremaque membra cucurrit.  … tunc omnis palpitat artus, tenduntur nerui; nec se tellure cadauer paulatim per membra leuat, terraque repulsum est erectumque semel. At once, the clotted gore warmed, its heat softened black wounds, blood coursed through veins out to the tips of fingers and toes. … Soon, the thing is pulsing in every limb. The sinews strain, and the corpse lurches up from the ground – not limb by limb, but heaving itself up from the earth, standing erect all at once. (VI, 750–7) The power of the witch is further emphasised in Erictho’s role in returning the corpse to the underworld: ‘carminibus magicis opus est herbisque, cadauer / ut cadat, et nequeunt animam sibi reddere fata / consumpto iam iure semel’ (‘magic incantations are needed, and herbs, that the dead man / may die, for the Fates cannot reclaim his life – that right / may only be exercised once’ , VI, 822–4); she builds a large pyre, into which the corpse walks. The laws of the Fates are fixed, but the witch may intervene, raising the dead to life to prophesy, shaping and even taking the lives of those whose deaths will not disturb the larger pattern of destiny. Only with the coming of Christianity is the witch’s power further limited, so that although she may work evil, as in Macbeth, she cannot take life itself. Apuleius plays more comically on the strix in Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass), but this does not indicate disbelief in magic. His Apologia (c. ad 155–8) offers an extended defence against accusations that he won his wife through sorcery and experimented with magic, and is predicated upon the value of magic as high and divine art, fitting to kings. The assertions against him, Apuleius argues, denigrate the art of magic. Whereas his boy is said to have fallen to the ground ‘incantatus’ (‘enchanted with a spell’) and woken without recollection, Apuleius states 29

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance that the boy in fact needs a physician to treat his epilepsy.69 Apuleius explicitly endorses Plato’s theory of daimons, arguing that such power may enter the body in sleep or trance, releasing the memory from the body. The return of memory to its ‘immortalis et diuina’ (‘immortal and divine’ , 43.11, p. 67) state enables prophecy of the future (though Apuleius’ boy is not fair enough to be thus empowered!). The Apologia defends high, spiritual magic or theurgy, by contrast with the base form of magic of which Apuleius is accused. Apuleius’ Metamorphoses narrates the adventures of its protagonist, Lucius, in Thessaly, the provenance of magic arts.70 Lucius hears the story of Socrates, victim of a witch capable both of love-magic and vicious revenge, who calls upon the spirits of the dead, and eventually kills Socrates in a grotesquely delayed throatslitting episode. Lucius is warned against Pamphile, wife of his host, said to be a powerful witch specialising in necromancy, love-magic and shape-shifting.71 Realistic detail is given of the material paraphernalia of magic, from plants and inscribed tablets to animal and human remains. We hear of ritual libations, lovemagic, the shaping of illusions, and Pamphile’s smearing of herself with ointment to metamorphose into an owl. The transformation is parodically rewritten when Photis yields to Lucius’ request that she transform him, but confuses the boxes of ointment. Apuleius revels in the unexpected transformation of skin into hide, hands into hooves, and especially the growth of tail, features and organs. The rest of the work treats Lucius’ adventures as an ass, frequently comic, but dependent upon the possibility of metamorphosis through magic, a possibility that is echoed and transcended when Lucius is visited by a vision of Isis, regains his human shape and becomes a member of her cult, and ultimately, an initiate of Osiris. The book is structured around the motif of transformation of different kinds, physical and spiritual. The semi-parodic figure of the witch, with her monstrous but also menacing magic, is countered by a transcendental supernatural of the kind proposed in the Apologia, which brings enlightenment through the power of the gods. Against the notion of malign and fearful pharmaceutical and supernatural powers that coalesce in portrayals of Medea, Circe and the strix is set the possibility of benign, healing, authorised magic that brings closer the human and celestial worlds. 69 Apvlei

Apologia sive pro se de magia liber, ed. H. E. Butler and A. S. Owen (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1967), 42.10; Apuleius, Apologia, in Rhetorical Works, trans. and annotated Stephen Harrison, John Hilton and Vincent Hunink, ed. Stephen Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 66. Subsequent references to Apuleius’ Apologia are to the edition of Butler and Owen, cited by book and chapter, and Harrison’s translation, cited by page number. 70 On the dissemination and influence of Apuleius’ fiction, see Robert Carver, The Protean Ass: The Metamorphoses of Apuleius from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). 71 Apuleius, Metamorphoses, 2 vols, trans. J. Arthur Hanson, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), II.5; The Golden Ass, trans. P. G. Walsh, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 21. Subsequent references to Apuleius’ Metamorphoses are to the Loeb edition, cited by book and chapter, and the World’s Classics translation, cited by page number.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents

Learned and Natural Magic The concept of natural magic, which became prominent in the later Middle Ages, is founded on classical ideas of the marvellous powers in nature, but such ideas originally tended to be distinguished from magic. They relied rather on notions of the universe as a single organism, ordered by a structure of natural forces and correspondences: what affected one part might affect the whole. Ptolemy wrote in Tetrabiblos:  … a certain power emanating from the eternal ethereal substance is dispersed through and permeates the whole region about the earth, which throughout is subject to change, since, of the primary sublunar elements, fire and air are encompassed and changed by the motions in the ether, and in turn encompass and change all else, earth and water and the plants and animals therein.72 Natural correspondences were proven by the relation of the moon to the tides. The theory meshed readily with Plato’s notion of a Demiurge or Idea of Good, which imposed order on the primordial chaos and created the World Soul, which in turn governed the order of the spheres: the Timaeus explores the construction of the world as a natural and intelligible system.73 Study of this system was readily seen as offering the possibility of foreknowledge. Ptolemy argues that by knowing the movements and natures of celestial bodies, men can predict both natural and human behaviours. Even the Stoics, who repudiated the notion that anything existed outside the natural realm, and endorsed a strict notion of physical causality, allowed astrology. The powers of nature might also be harnessed for medical and restorative ends – though also for more harmful purposes. In the Hellenistic period folklore concerning remedies and healing was to some extent codified, particularly through the circulation of works attributed to Democritus and Pythagoras. Crucially, this ‘natural magic’ , as it would be called in the Middle Ages, was not termed mageia or goeteia.74 Pliny’s Historia ­naturalis exemplifies the pseudo-Democritean tradition, which probably originated with Bolus of Mendes (second century bc); this encyclopaedic work was integral to the development of a learned tradition of natural magic.75 Pliny is adamant in distinguishing between the use of natural powers, which he approves, and ‘mageia’ or ‘goeteia’ , ‘magicas vanitates’ (‘the lies of the Magi’ , 30.1, 1), practices that, he observes, were suppressed by the Romans but are still prevalent, particularly in Britain. His treatment of nature is based on the idea of the cosmos as governed by a sophisticated system of correspondences working through ‘sympathiam et antipathiam’ (20.1, 1). Pliny combines factual observation, enumeration of natural 72 Ptolemy,

Tetrabiblos, trans. F. E. Robbins, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1940), I.2, p. 7. 73 See Plato, Timaeus, trans. R. G. Bury, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1929), 90a, p. 245. 74 Gordon, ‘Imagining Greek and Roman Magic’ , p. 166. 75 See William Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature: Books of Secrets in Medieval and Early Modern Culture (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 24–7.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance principles, accounts of the extraordinary attributes and effects of plants and animal substances, and advice and remedies, merging folk and more learned tradition. Some remedies, such as those employing herbs, baths, or natural ingredients like honey, seem reasonable, others more bizarre, but within Pliny’s scheme, just as the juice of poppies causes drowsiness and relieves pain, so ritual touching with erigeron, spitting and replacing the plant in the ground, will cure toothache (25.106, 167). Pliny does not term these marvellous natural remedies magical. Yet Pliny’s categories also begin to break down, for he is not willing to categorise all magic effected by sorcerers as false: ‘though magic is ineffective and infamous (intestabilis), it nevertheless contains at least “shadows of truth” (veritatis umbras) which are due to the “arts of making poisons” (veneficae artes)’ .76 He explains the power of magic over the human mind by its incorporation of medicine, religion and astrology (30.1, 2). Pliny emphasises both the menace of enchantment, which may involve the intervention of daimons (28.4, 19), and the power of superstitious remedies. He frequently relates the recipes, rituals and arts of the Magi, which tend to involve correspondences of the kind he himself so often instances: Magorum haec commenta sunt, ut cotem qua ferramenta saepe exacuta sint subiectam ignari cervicalibus de veneficio deficientis evocare indicium, ut ipse dicat quid sibi datum sit et ubi et quo tempore, auctorem tamen non nominare. fulmine utique percussum circumactum in vulnus hominem loqui protinus constat. The Magi tell the following lies: when a whetstone on which iron tools have often been sharpened is placed without his knowledge under the pillows of a man dying from poisoning, it causes him to reveal what has been administered, when and where, but not the name of the poisoner. It is universally accepted that if a man struck by lightning is turned over on to his wounded side, he immediately speaks. (28.12, 47) It is not self-evident that these beliefs are less far-fetched than the remedies described just before this passage, which again rely on natural sympathy and antipathy: mirum dicimus, sed experimento facile: si quem paeniteat ictus eminus comminusve inlati et statim expuat in mediam manum qua percussit, levatur ilico in percusso culpa. A surprising fact, but one easily tested, is the following: if one regrets inflicting a blow, whether with the hand or by a weapon, and immediately spits into the palm of the hand responsible, the resentment of the person struck is lessened.  …

76 Luck,

Arcana Mundi, p. 38.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents inter amuleta est editae quemque urinae inspuere, similiter in calcia­mentum dextri pedis priusquam induatur, item cum quis transeat locum in quo ­aliquod periculum adierit. It acts as a charm if a man spits on his urine; similarly if he spits in his right shoe before putting it on or when passing a place where he has encountered some danger. (28.7, 36, 38) Pliny, however, distinguishes traditional remedies of the Magi as devious and ­daimonic, reliant on books claiming Zoroaster and Ostanes as their authors, whereas he describes in all but name a natural magic, rooted in the idea of the marvellous workings of nature. The interrelation of magic and philosophy in the classical period was complex. As Apuleius’ Apologia suggests, the magic arts could be seen as a branch of philosophy, or a gift of the great philosopher, but what might seem magical powers were often defined in contradistinction to ideas of magic. Such notions originate in Greek philosophy. Aristotle recounts tales of the supernatural abilities of Pythagoras, who was said to have a mark of divinity, a golden thigh; known as the Hyperborean Apollo, he was greeted by a river as he was crossing it; he was seen in two places on the same day; he had the gift of prophecy.77 Aristotle’s attitude towards such stories is unclear, but they are reported by various later writers, and Pythagoras, viewed as Apollo reincarnated and credited with special knowledge of the soul after death, became the focus of secret societies, his philosophy providing a way of life. Empedocles, a follower of Pythagoras, was similarly said to have supernatural abilities: he describes himself as possessed of healing powers, influence over storm and drought, and the ability to counter age and lead souls from the underworld; later stories of his wonders include curing the plague by restoring fresh water, controlling the weather, and raising the dead.78 The legendary figure of Orpheus possesses similar gifts of poetry, prophecy, music, and philosophy.79 Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana, written in the third century ad, constructs a kind of rational supernaturalism (relying on divine inspiration), which is set against mere negative magic. This late text may be a response to the Christian construction of Jesus, who in Hellenic culture would have been perceived as a wonder-worker. Apollonius is portrayed as a great philosopher with his own cult of followers, accused of witchcraft, and able to perform miracles of healing and exorcism, prophesy and commune with daimons. His holiness is definitive: his birth marked by miraculous events, his way of life ascetic, following 77 Aristotle

on Pythagoras, Fragment 191, in Aristotelis, ed. Rose, and see Luck, Arcana Mundi, p. 12. on Pythagoras, Fragment 112, in Aristotelis, ed. Rose. 79 Mircea Eliade places figures related to Apollo and Hermes as versions of the shaman, in that their powers often include healing and some version of the ‘ecstatic journey’ to the otherworld; this is particularly true of Orpheus, whose symbolic dismembering also fits the paradigm, although Eliade notes that Orphism does not sustain the idea of shamanistic practice. See Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. Willard R. Trask (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964; originally published as Le Chamanisme et les techniques archaïques de l’extase, Paris: Librairie Payot, 1951), pp. 388–94. 78 Aristotle


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance neo-Pythagorean philosophy. Apollonius’ foreknowledge depends on a cultivated sensitivity to the forces of the cosmos (partly achieved through vegetarianism), and on deep philosophical knowledge, as well as divine revelation. Philostratus compares Apollonius’ wisdom to that of Plato and places his philosophy in the tradition of Empedocles, Pythagoras and Democritus: like them he ‘consorted with wizards [magoi] and uttered many supernatural [daimonic] truths, yet never stooped to the black art [techne, craft]’ .80 He is a prophet but does not change destiny: ‘his foreknowledge was not gained by wizardry [goeteia], but from what the gods revealed to him’ (5.12). Said to be taken into heaven, and to continue to preach after his death, Apollonius appears a powerful rival to Christ (8.30–1). As the Life of Apollonius suggests, the pursuit of natural philosophy could be seen as opening onto the divine, and to a greater comprehension of the cosmos. Knowledge of the order governing nature and the human world might bring control over them, including, for instance, a knowledge of healing. The hermetic tradition of religious philosophy that developed from the third century bc onwards emphasised the individual encounter with the divine, and the presence of God in the world, both in the natural order and in the individual soul of man. The ideas of epiphaneia and mystical union were central to hermetism, which focused especially on the texts of revelation attributed to Hermes Trismegistus (the Egyptian god Thoth), the Corpus Hermeticum.81 This branch of neo-Platonic philosophy would draw together pagans, Jews and Christians, but was also influential in the development of a learned tradition of magic: as well as philosophical texts, many technical works on astrology, alchemy, medicine and magic were ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus. Many were also associated with Asclepius, the god of healing. From the later third century bc onwards, Platonists pursued the art of theurgy, which aimed to promote communication with the divine.82 While early Christians were deeply suspicious of theurgy, its practitioners, like Apuleius, argued that it was not magic but was rather dependent upon the cultivation of spiritual virtue in those who practised it. The encounter with the divine might take the form of dream or vision, or trance, in which the soul was free to leave the body and enter the celestial sphere. This too was a learned tradition with its own sacred text, The Chaldean Oracles, and theurgical rituals to summon the gods required the use of special formulae and symbolic objects, as instructed through divine revelation. For theurgists and neo-Platonists such as Plotinus, Iamblichus and their followers, the notion of the organic unity of the cosmos was crucial. Plotinus may be seen as the founder of neo-Platonism, establishing a strand of philosophical mysticism that, filtered through Augustine, pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas, was formative in 80 Philostratus,

The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, trans. F. C. Conybeare, Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1912), 1.2, 7. Subsequent references to the Life of Apollonius are to this edition, cited by book and chapter. 81 Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians, pp. 126–7, and see Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature, pp. 18–24. 82 See Fritz Graf, Magic in the Ancient World, trans. Franklin Philip (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 214.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents medieval thought (although the Enneads were not known in Western Europe until the Renaissance, when they became immensely influential). Plotinus’ philosophy, like the Life of Apollonius, emphasises the idea of the supernatural and the possibility of transcending the material, transitory world for the eternal. The universe is envisaged as a hierarchy in which man may move gradually upwards towards the Absolute or eternal. Plotinus conceives of a World Soul both immanent and transcendent, responsible for the workings of divine providence and holding all in order. In discussing the lack of benevolent or malicious intent in the stars, Plotinus sets out the notion of divine correspondences: All things must be enchained; and the sympathy and correspondence obtaining in any one closely knit organism must exist, first, and most intensely, in the All. There must be one principle constituting this unit of many forms of life and enclosing the several members within the unity, while at the same time, precisely as in each thing of detail the parts too have each a definite function, so in the All (the higher All) each several member must have its own (2.3.7) The leading principle of the universe is a unity – and one that is sovran without break, not sometimes dominant and sometimes dominated. (4.4.10) Plotinus’ universe is populated by spirits, daimons and gods, and each individual has a tutelary spirit from the next level in life: for the perfect wise man this would be God (3.4.6). While the theory is more detailed and ordered than most medieval discussions, it conveys with particularly vivid efficacy the influential notion of the cosmos as a single organism, and the role of magic within that. Plotinus, troubled by ideas of magic because of the implication ‘that the entire heavenly system can be put under spell by man’s skill and audacity’ (4.4.30), argues that magicians do not coerce or persuade divine beings, but rather exploit correspondences within the All. Magic is accounted for by the fact that things may be felt at a distance, positively when the affected and affecting things are similar, negatively when they are dissimilar: But magic spells; how can their efficacy be explained? By the reigning sympathy and by the fact in Nature that there is an agreement of the forces and an opposition of unlike, and by the diversity of those multitudinous powers which converge in one living universe. There is much drawing and spell-binding dependent on no interfering machination; the true magic is internal to the All, its attractions, and, not less, its repulsions. Here is the primary mage and sorcerer – discovered by men who thenceforth turn those same ensorcellations and magic arts upon one another. (4.4.40) Magic echoes ‘the art of doctor or magic healer [which] will compel some one centre to purvey something of its own power to another centre’ (4.4.42.). The stars and powers within the universe are affected by magic, but the All is unchanged, and those misusing the cosmic powers will be punished. For Plotinus, magic 35

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance becomes a metaphor for life: ‘Everything that looks to another is under spell to that: what we look to, draws us magically. ’ Only the self-intent and wholly contemplative avoid magic; the sage cannot be affected by love-magic for his soul cannot be stirred, though he can be affected in ‘the unreasoning element’ (4.4.43). The works of Iamblichus (c. ad 300), who studied with Porphyry, Plotinus’ student, describe the appearances of gods, angels and demons, and endorse the notion of a guiding company of gods or daimons, also of special relevance later.83 For Iamblichus, theurgy resembles a science, in which an individual recognises and may draw on the forces of the cosmos: ‘the magician naturally calls the powers of the universe superior ones, since he who calls them is a human being, but he also commands them, since he has assumed by his secret formulas the holy appearance of the gods’ .84 Eunapius in Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists tells how Iamblichus causes two boy spirits to materialise from two wells, in order to prove his powers.85 Like Apollonius of Tyana, Iamblichus has reached the status of the philosopher-sage, and magic proves his wisdom – just as it will come to do in the Renaissance mage. Such notions created deep unease among Christian thinkers, particularly in the earlier Middle Ages, but the concept of the universe as single organism was wholly sustained. In the later Middle Ages, natural philosophy would develop this notion of ‘natural magic’ , which, even while the concept of the mage retained considerable force, was repeatedly set against the darker notion of the demonic.

The Bible There are many parallels between classical and biblical treatments of magic and the supernatural; by the late Antique period, in particular, classical, Jewish and Christian ideas are in dialogue, a dialogue within which the subject of supernatural power represents a kind of flashpoint.86 Old Testament ideas are carried through to the New Testament, and both shape the reception of classical notions within the Christian thought world of the Middle Ages. Constant across the Bible is the treatment of magic as deeply suspect but also as one face of a multi-faceted supernatural that includes, in particular, the powers of ‘demons’ . Questions are not asked about the possibility of magic but about the extent of its powers and whether it is licit, a question that often relates to the intention to probe divine knowledge. Such distinctions would play a formative role in shaping both secular and canon law in the medieval period, and in literary treatments of licit and illicit, healing and harmful magic. Repeatedly, magic in the Bible is contrasted with the divine power of Yahweh, and found wanting. To the modern reader, that divine 83 Lane

Fox, Pagans and Christians, pp. 126, 129; see for instance Iamblichus 1, 20; 2,1, in Luck, Arcana Mundi, pp. 219–20. 84 On the Mysteries of Egypt, 4.2, translated in Luck, Arcana Mundi, p. 122. 85 See Luck, Arcana Mundi, p. 129. 86 This section is indebted to Thomsen and Cryer, The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, vol. 1: Biblical and Pagan Societies.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents power may well appear equally to be enacted in ‘magic’ – as in the book of Joshua, when Yahweh ‘cast down upon them great stones from heaven’ and commands the sun and moon to stand still (Josh. 10:11–12). But the manifestation of the divine is also presented as very different in kind from magic, though the effects may be similar. Distinctions tend to be made between the sudden, often unlooked-for inspiration or instruction of divine experience and the specialist, learned practice of the magician. Magical and authorised religious acts are perceived as different in kind, although both may use ritual words and operations to persuade or approach the divine.87 The Old Testament sustains the notion of magic as associated with deviance, with the outsider, the illegal, the criminal.88 At the same time, physician, miracle worker and magician may overlap, at least in the eyes of the onlooker.89 Ideas of miracle and prophecy in Judaeo-Christian thought echo those evident in late classical theurgy and philosophy: miracles of the kind associated with the pagan gods, priests and healers are accomplished by Yahweh and his prophets, and by Jesus and his disciples; prophecy passes from the oracles and priests of pagan religion to God’s chosen people. The unquestioned status of the Bible in the Middle Ages as the narrative of salvation history gave it a fundamental formative role in Western thought and culture.90

The Old Testament Prophecies, dreams, visions, angels, demons and wonders all play a part in the ­general understanding of the supernatural and its manifestation throughout the

87 Stephen

D. Ricks is rightly critical of this viewpoint, held by Keith Thomas and Valerie Flint, according to which all religious traditions might be considered to have ‘magic’ elements. For Thomas and Flint, ‘the automatic efficacy of ritual words (incantations) and ritual procedures (magical operations)’ simply represented ‘a different relationship to deity … magic was … manipulative and coercive, while religion (based on Reformers’ views of efficacious faith) was perceived as supplicative’ . See Ricks, ‘The Magician as Outsider in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament’ , in Meyer and Mirecki, Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, pp. 131–43: p. 134. 88 See further Ricks, ‘The Magician as Outsider’ , pp. 131–43. 89 See Howard Clark Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World: A Study in Sociohistorical Method (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983). This study repeats much of the material in Kee’s Medicine, Miracle and Magic in New Testament Times. 90 I use the first published English translation of the Vulgate Bible, Douay–Rheims (DR) (Old Testament, 1609; New Testament, 1582). Where the terms used in the Vulgate (V), the Authorized Version, 1611 (AV), or the late fourteenth-century Wycliffe-Purvey Bible (WP) are of interest, I also cite these. Editions used are The Holy Bible Translated from the Latin Vulgate (Baltimore, MD: John Murphy, 1914); Biblia Sacra, Iuxta Vulgatam Clementinam, ed. Alberto Colunga and Laurentio Turrado, 8th edn, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos 14 (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1985); Authorized King James Version, ed. Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett, World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); MS Bodley 959: Genesis-Baruch 3.2 in the Earlier Version of the Wycliffite Bible, ed. Conrad Lindberg, 6 vols, Stockholm Studies in English (Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiksells, 1959-); John Wycliffe, The New Testament in English, rev. John Purvey, ed. Josiah Forshall and Frederic Madden (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1879). I use the customary postReformation names of the Biblical books.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Bible, from the book of Genesis onwards.91 The sense of a larger spirit world underpins the process of divine revelation and assertion of power. Whereas in Eden God was seen openly, after the Fall encounters occur in liminal circumstances where the veil between earthly and celestial worlds is lifted. While Yahweh most often communicates through prophecy, this is frequently accompanied by miracle or brought by divine messenger or mal’ak , normally translated as ‘angel’ . Both the Old and New Testaments take a dualistic perspective, in which Yahweh and his forces are set against demons: whereas daimons may be positive forces in classical thought, such spirits are generally viewed as malevolent in Hebrew tradition and often associated with disease; they are imagined as hairy beings (the literal translation of the Hebrew se’irim , Lev. 17:7; 2 Chr. 11:15), satyr- or goat-like creatures, and are understood to be the gods of the Gentiles.92 Demons may inhabit idols; they are also linked with certain times of day and places, in particular, the wilderness. They play prominent roles in Chaldean and Babylonian myth. The Hebrew Bible enigmatically refers to azazel , perhaps a goat-like evil spirit inhabiting the wilderness, to which one of two goats is sacrificed, as part of the ritual for Yom Kippur: ‘one to be offered to the Lord, and the other to be the emissary goat’ (Lev. 16:10); the term ‘scapegoat’ , invented by Tyndale and employed in the Authorized Version, better captures the possibility of sacrifice to a demon.93 While the name azazel comes to be connected with one of the most powerful demons, Henry Ansgar Kelly argues persuasively that the idea of ‘the devil’ or Satan develops gradually, from a much more general sense of adversaries to Yahweh.94 The notion of alien gods was absorbed into the concept of a divine council under Yahweh, which might oppose his will: thus ‘Satan rose up against Israel’ (1 Chr. 21:1). In the book of Job, ‘the satan’ is ‘no fallen spirit but a being with the same standing as the other sons of God who present themselves before Yahweh’ , and Satan’s testing of Job is authorised: ‘Behold, all that he hath is in thy hand’ (Job 1:12).95 The role of temptation associated with the cynical ‘satan’ could readily be seen as actively evil. Satan’s statement, ‘I have gone round about the earth, and walked through it’ (Job 1:7), suggests a dualistic universe where God and devil, angels and demons are set against each other, their conflict enacted on the body and society. It is this 91 This

section is indebted to Frederick H. Cryer, ‘Magic in Ancient Syria-Palestine – and in the Old Testament’ , in Thomsen and Cryer, The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, vol. 1, pp. 97–146. 92 See also the discussion of the language of the Septuagint in Henry Ansgar Kelly, The Devil, Demonology and Witchcraft: The Development of Christian Beliefs in Evil Spirits, rev. edn (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974), pp. 19–20. 93 The term is translated by Tyndale and in the Authorised Version as ‘scapegoat’ , but is interpreted in the Talmud and other commentaries as the name of the cliff where the goat is sacrificed. 94 Kelly, The Devil, Demonology and Witchcraft, pp. 11–23. For the development of ideas of the devil, see further Jeffrey Burton Russell, Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984). 95 Kelly, The Devil, Demonology and Witchcraft, pp. 13–16, and Kee, Medicine, Miracle and Magic in New Testament Times, p. 70. See Num. 22:22, 32; Job 1.6; 1 Chr. 21:1 for references to divine messengers of both kinds, ‘angel’ and ‘satan’ , discussed further below.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents apocalyptic world view that provides the context for the hope of a messiah, who will finally enact God’s triumph.96 A special focus of the Old Testament is the superiority of Israelite knowledge and prophecy, authorised divination, over the rituals of the ancient Near East. Eastern culture is generally associated with knowledge: Solomon’s wisdom ‘surpassed the wisdom of all the Orientals, and of the Egyptians’ (1 Kgs. 4:30), and surpasses that of the Queen of Sheba, who ‘came to try him with hard questions’ [V: ‘tentare eum in aenigmatibus’; W: ‘assayen hym in derke sentences’] (1 Kgs. 10:1). The riddle motif, probably drawn from Eastern legend, recurs in biblical tradition.97 Moses too is ‘instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians’ , and ‘mighty in his words and in his deeds’ (Acts 7:22). Astrology in particular is an occult art of the East. The Chaldeans are repeatedly associated with astrology, divination and magical arts more generally: they are the trained interpreters of ancient Mesopotamian prophetic writings.98 Thus Nebuchadnezzar calls ‘the diviners and the wise men, and the magicians, and the Chaldeans’ [V: ‘arioli, et magi, et malefici, et Chaldaei’] to interpret his troubling but forgotten dream. Wycliffe-Purvey and the Authorized Version demonstrate the difficulty of finding common terms for practitioners of magic: WP: ‘deuynoures … & wicches & enchaunteres & caldeis’; AV: ‘the magicians, and the astrologers, and the sorcerers, and the Chaldeans’ (Dan. 2:2). Particularly striking is the tendency of Wycliffe-Purvey to use the term ‘witch’ , often to translate the classical magos, whereas Douay-Rheims frequently translates this more favourably as ‘wise man’ and does not employ ‘witch’; this term also occurs rarely in the Authorized Version, which frequently uses ‘sorcerer’ , rarely employed in Douay-Rheims, where ‘malefici’ tend to be rendered as ‘magicians’ . The term arioli implies the use of altars for divination. In the ensuing dialogue with Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldeans speak ‘in Syriac’; ‘a gloss telling the reader that what follows … is in Aramaic and not in Hebrew’ (Dan. 2:4).99 It is probable that Babylonian astrology and divination, like Assyrian (for which there is more evidence), was very sophisticated, drawing on a network of practitioners across the empire, who studied the movements of stars and unusual natural phenomena. Because Israel and Judah could not have had such a network, given their much less prosperous situations, they relied on foreign specialists. True wisdom is repeatedly set against the illicit, false or transient magic of those who may be learned in occult arts but turn against or do not recognise the 96 Kee,

Medicine, Miracle and Magic in New Testament Times, p. 114.

97 See

Jerome T. Walsh and Christopher T. Begg, ‘1–2 Kings’ , in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer and Roland E. Murphy (1988; Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990), pp. 160–85: p. 167.18. Subsequent references use the abbreviation NJBC. 98 While the name ‘designated originally the Aramaic-speaking people who invaded Babylonia in the early centuries of the first millennium and to whom the kings of the Neo-Babylonian Empire belonged … at a later period, this term was applied to the professional astrologers and fortunetellers who were skilled in Babylonian omen literature’ , Louis F. Hartman and Alexander A. Di Lella, ‘Daniel’ , NJBC, pp. 406–20: p. 410.12. 99 Hartman and Di Lella, ‘Daniel’ , p. 410.12; see Dan. 4:7 and 5:7 for further references to the Chaldeans as interpreters of dreams and omens.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance true God. In Genesis, the contrast is explored through the question of interpretation of a pair of Pharaoh’s dreams, each narrated twice, of seven fat and lean cows, and seven fat and lean ears of corn. Many of the details of Pharaoh’s dreams, like the visions of Daniel, in fact correspond to those in Mesopotamian dream books or books of omens, suggesting an established parallel tradition of divination in Israel and Judaea.100 Pharaoh sends ‘to all the interpreters [V: ‘conjectures’; AV: ‘magicians’] of Egypt and to all the wise men’ , but none can interpret his dream, whereas Joseph’s understanding identifies him as ‘a man that is full of the Spirit of God’ , and he is appointed ruler of Egypt (Gen. 41:38). Nebuchadnezzar similarly finds Daniel and his companions ‘ten times better than all the diviners, and wise men [V: ‘ariolos et magos’; WP: ‘deuynoures & wicches’; AV: ‘magicians and sorcerers’], that were in all his kingdom’ , for God has given them ‘knowledge, and understanding in every book and wisdom but to Daniel the understanding also of all visions and dreams’ (Dan. 1:20, 17). The various practitioners of magic claim that only the gods can reveal Nebuchadnezzar’s forgotten dream, whereas Daniel narrates it; they fail to interpret Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of a tree or interpret the writing on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast, whereas Daniel comprehends all (Dan. 4:7; 5:7). Nebuchadnezzar views Daniel as ‘prince of the diviners’ [V: ‘princeps ariolorum’; WP: ‘prince of deuynoures bi auters’; AV: ‘master of the magicians’], inspired by the power of the gods (Dan. 4:6). The interpretation of dreams is like that of riddles: wisdom and discernment demonstrate divine favour and inspiration, seeing beyond the enigmatic or obscure to find order and meaning. The prophets and wise men of the Old Testament, like Apollonius of Tyana, seem in harmony with the cosmos, possessing an ‘awareness of the first principles of the natural order, … sympathia and antipathia’ , and hence an understanding of ‘human welfare’ , whereas those of other religions fail.101 Balaam provides a striking example, his magic powers useless when not willed by God; God’s angel performs greater magic on Balaam’s ass, which turns from the road and speaks reproachfully to its master. Holy prophecy replaces Balaam’s divining or ‘soothsaying’ (DR; AV: ‘enchantment’): the Vulgate’s term ‘augurium’ is specifically translated in Wycliffe-Purvey as ‘dyuynge by briddes’ (Num. 23:23), a clear contravention of cultic laws. Moses’ encounter with Pharaoh is more extravagant, a competition of supernatural feats that enacts the struggle between Yahweh and Pharaoh over the Hebrews. Yahweh commands Moses and Aaron to put on a kind of magic show, to prove the power of their God. When Aaron’s rod becomes a serpent, ‘the wise men and the magicians’ [V: ‘sapientes et maleficos’] employ ‘Egyptian enchantments and certain secrets’ (Exod. 7:11) to effect the same transformation, but their serpents are swallowed by Aaron’s. Though the magicians can emulate Moses and Aaron in turning the waters to blood (Exod. 7:22), and in covering the land with frogs (Exod. 8:7), they fail to create lice from the dust; the insects covering both men and beasts are interpreted as ‘the finger of God’ (Exod. 8:17–19). Pharaoh’s continued resistance brings upon Egypt a further series of plagues, enacted through Moses: flies, death 100 Cryer, 101 Kee,

‘Magic in Ancient Syria-Palestine’ , p. 144. Medicine, Miracle and Magic in New Testament Times, p. 21.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents of beasts, rain, hail and fire, locusts, darkness, death of the firstborn. In the plague of boils, the magicians once again attempt to resist, but in a near-comic episode fail to stand before Moses on account of the swellings (Exod. 9:11). The Exodus is marked by miracles with which Moses is repeatedly associated: the Passover, the pillar of fire, the parting of the Red Sea, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army, and the provision of water, quails and manna in the desert. The practice of magic is taken for granted: at issue are its limits and failures. Daniel and Moses figure as better, more successful magicians, inspired by divine power. By contrast, the book of Micah depicts the failure of vision for those who turn to evil: Therefore night shall be to you instead of vision, and darkness to you instead of divination; and the sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be darkened over them. (Mic. 3:6) The prophet, by contrast, is ‘filled with the strength of the spirit of the Lord, with judgment, and power’ (Mic. 3:8). That the names of Yahweh, Moses and Solomon recur in magical rituals suggests the cosmic power with which they were seen to be invested.102 Prophecy and miracle may seem to distinguish those who work them as greater magicians, but their power and wisdom lacks the paraphernalia of magic; it is inspired and immediate. Not all divine knowledge comes readily and instinctively, however: priests also practise forms of complex and authorised divination, which are firmly distinguished from magic. The obscure ‘Urim and Thummim’ (AV), which Moses prays should be with Yahweh’s holy one, appear to be some form of oracular ability, made sense of in the Vulgate as holy learning: ‘thy perfection and thy doctrine’ (Deut. 33:8). Because it is implied that the priest may take a day to seek a response, without receiving an answer (1 Sam. 14:37), this is likely to be the practice of divination through animal sacrifice (extispicy).103 Such knowledge is evidently complex and specialised; it is also available only to priests of the right genealogy (Neh. 7:64–5). The Old Testament includes other references to what are apparently instruments of divination: the ‘teraphim’ , perhaps an idol, portable or life-sized, of the deity, and the ‘ephod’ , perhaps the ‘ornate garment … used to enclothe representative images of deities’ , although the details are uncertain.104 As well as authorised methods of divination, approved rituals might include apotropaic rituals (protective magic, turning away evil), or rituals of healing, sometimes using exorcism. In Isaiah’s healing of King Hezekiah, who is ‘sick unto 102 See

Mary E. Mills’ discussion of Moses as prophet-magician and the name of Yahweh as ‘the only real communication channel with cosmic energy’ , Human Agents of Cosmic Power in Hellenistic Judaism and the Synoptic Tradition, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Supplement Series 41 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), pp. 107–8. 103 Cryer, ‘Magic in Ancient Syria-Palestine’ , p. 128; Joseph Blenkinsopp interprets the Urim and Thummim as lots, ‘Deuteronomy’ , NJBC, pp. 94–109: p. 109.60. For a full discussion of divination practices, see Frederick H. Cryer, Divination in Ancient Israel and its Near Eastern Environment. A Socio-historical Investigation, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 142 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1994). 104 Cryer, ‘Magic in Ancient Syria-Palestine’ , pp. 131–2.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance death’ , the prophet is instructed in a vision, and performs a medical ritual: ‘Bring me a lump of figs. And when they had brought it, and laid it upon his boil, he was healed’ (2 Kgs 20:1–7); he is subsequently given a divine sign. The process of divination, physical ritual, and affirmation of cleanness accords with Mesopotamian accounts of magical healing. Similarly, the healing acts of Elijah and Elisha combine knowledge of authorised ritual with divine inspiration, and details of the materials and procedures used correspond with Mesopotamian rituals of exorcism and protection (for instance, the use of poultices or throwing salt or grain into a polluted place, combined with placing the staff in the mouth or stretching over the body of the sick person). Oaths and ordeals may also be seen as approved or ­ritual magic. Transgression of the oath resembles cursing of the self or of Israel. The ordeal functions as an act of divination of innocence or guilt: in Numbers, if the woman accused of adultery is guilty, the bitter draught of holy water and dust prepared by the priest will cause her ‘thigh to rot, and … belly swell and burst asunder’ (Num. 5:21). Cursing, strongly forbidden when unauthorised, here becomes an accepted element of priestly ritual, an authorised act employing supernatural power. Such ordeals carry through into later societies, particularly in tests of ­chastity and witchcraft. The book of Tobit is of special interest in its opposition of angel and demon. Raphael is sent to bind ‘a devil named Asmodeus’ [V: ‘daemonium’; WP: ‘a deuel’; AV: ‘Asmodeus the evil spirit’], who has inexplicably strangled the seven husbands of Sara, daughter of Raguel (Tobit 3:8). This is not a simple act of divine intervention, however: Sara’s intended husband, Tobias, must follow the rituals prescribed him by Raphael: he is instructed to take from a great fish ‘the entrails … and lay up his heart, and his gall, and his liver’ , for the ‘smoke thereof driveth away all kind of devils’ [WP: ‘þe deuel’] (Tobit 6:5, 8). The intervention of Raphael is enacted only through medico-magical rituals, which become a form of veneration as well as exorcism and healing. The narrative strikingly realises a world in which malicious spirits act independently: they are associated with death and disease, but also, as in the case of Job, with the testing of those chosen by Yahweh, proving their need for his supernatural intervention.105 Authorised ritual, miracle and prophecy are powerful tools of Yahweh. The illicit use of supernatural power, by contrast, is presented in firmly negative terms as subversive and severely penalised. Divination is of particular concern, characteristic of deterministic ‘astral cults’ and implying worship of forbidden deities: Amos 5:26, for instance, refers to ‘the image of your idols, the star of your god’ , astral worship that will bring exile and captivity (see also Jer. 10:2). Astrology blurs into sorcery: when Babylon and its Chaldean dynasty are destroyed, their wickedness is proven by their use of magical arts, which are ineffective against the power of Yahweh (Isa. 47:12–13; see also 47:9).106 Sorcery, idol-worship and pollution are 105 Kelly

emphasises the link between demons and disease, citing both Tobit and Job, The Devil, Demonology and Witchcraft, p. 70. 106 The Chaldeans were ‘a Semitic people who migrated ca. 1000 and founded the presented dynasty. Chaldea later became the word for all Babylon (Dan. 1:5)’ , Carroll Stuhlmueller, ‘Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah’ , NJBC, pp. 329–48: p. 338.30; Stuhlmueller offers an extensive discussion of the


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Classical and Biblical Precedents set against the promise of a redeemer for the house of Israel. Sorceress and whore are equated: ‘you sons of the sorceress, the seed of the adulterer, and of the harlot’ , a notably negative translation of the Vulgate ‘filii auguratricis’ , which is strikingly developed in Wycliffe-Purvey as ‘sones of a wicche’ (Isa. 57:3). The prophet ‘will be a speedy witness against sorcerers [V: ‘maleficis’; WP: ‘mys-doers’], and adulterers’ (Mal. 3:5), and the hidden, exclusive aspect of magic contrasts with the hidden, inclusive God who is heard by all the faithful of Israel.107 Cultic prohibitions against magic are prominent across the Bible, and sorcery, pollution and prostitution collocate. Recent scholarship points to the irony that Old Testament purity laws do not parallel Near Eastern law codes so much as ‘ritual and magic texts outside the Bible’ .108 Probably aimed at the Semitic practices of the Canaanites rather than exotic astral cults, such prohibitions address unauthorised rituals, and power other than that of the one true God, which may be enacted in curses or the evil eye: the wicked man ‘winketh with the eyes’ (Prov. 6:13). Practitioners of magic are peculiarly threatening – ‘Wizards [V: ‘maleficos’] thou shalt not suffer to live [AV: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’]’ (Exod. 22:18): whereas the Vulgate condemns seeking ‘ad magos’ [DR: ‘wizards’] and asking knowledge of ‘ariolis’ [DR: ‘soothsayers’], in Wycliffe-Purvey this passage is rendered with specific reference to consultation of demons: ‘ne declyne þou to dyuynors ne ascherche eny þynge of takers þer answerys of deuelys’ [Lev. 19:31; AV: ‘Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards’]. Similarly, a subsequent prohibition urging destruction of ‘The soul [V: ‘anima’] that shall go aside after magicians and soothsayers [V: ‘magos, ariolos’]’ is connected to demons in Wycliffe-Purvey, which explicitly recommends death to those who ‘declyneþ to dyuynors & herkneris to deuylys’ as does the Authorized Version to ‘A man also or a woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard’ (Lev. 20:6). Augury [V: ‘augurabimini’; WP: ‘dyuyne in briddys’] and divination through dreams [V: ‘observabitis somnia’] is prohibited (Lev. 19:26; AV: ‘neither shall ye use enchantment, nor observe times’), for such rituals seek forbidden knowledge and power. Necromancy is especially sinister in its use of the spirits of the dead.109 Despite the gendered notions of the sorceress and witch, apart from the woman of Endor there are very few references in the Bible to actual female practitioners of magic, just as there are few prophetesses: Huldah (2 Kgs 22:14–20), and Deborah (Judg. 4:4) are the only instances. In conjunction with cultic laws against magic, the passing of children through the fire is repeatedly prohibited. This has sometimes been read as a ritual of purification, but seems most likely to indicate child sacrifice, practised by the taunt against Babylon, noting the traditional association of Chaldeans with ‘sorcery and magic’ , pp. 338.30. 107 Stuhlmueller, ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ , p. 337.27. 108 See Cryer, ‘Magic in Ancient Syria-Palestine’ , pp. 121–2; Richard J. Clifford and Roland E. Murphy, ‘Genesis’ , NJBC, p. 54.43; Ricks, ‘The Magician as Outsider’ , p. 136; and on the Canaanites, Brian B. Schmidt, ‘The Witch of En-dor, I Samuel 28, and Ancient Near Eastern Necromancy’ , in Meyer and Mirecki, Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, pp. 111–29: p. 128. 109 Schmidt, ‘The Witch of En-dor’ , p. 128.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Canaanites, and particularly associated with the god Molech, to whom altars were built in high places: Wycliffe-Purvey renders Canaanite practice in terms of Muslim belief by referring to ‘þe maumet [?‘idol’ , from Mahomet] of moloch’ (Lev. 18:21; the term recurs, as for instance in 2 Kings 16:3, ‘þe mawmetis of heþene men’).110 Sacrifice of this kind is repeatedly linked to divination and other magical practices: ‘Neither let there be found among you any one that shall expiate his son or daughter, making them to pass through the fire: or that consulteth soothsayers [V: ‘ariolos’], or observeth dreams and omens [V: ‘somnia atque auguria’], neither let there be any wizard [V: ‘maleficus’]. Nor charmer [V: ‘incantator’], nor any one that consulteth pythonic spirits [V: ‘pythones consulat’], or fortune tellers [V: ‘divinos’], or that seeketh the truth from the dead [V: ‘quaerat a mortuis veritatem’]’ .111 Again, the difficulty and variation of terms is revealed by other versions: Wycliffe-Purvey is more emphatic about the demonic, ‘oþer þat askeþ dyuynours þat he kepe sweuenys & dyuynyngys: ne be þer cleper of deuylys ne enchaunter ne conseile he rerers of dede men ne dyuynors & seche of þe dede þe trouþe’; but only the Authorized Version employs the term ‘witch’: ‘nor that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer’ (Deut. 18:10–11). All these acts are ‘abominations unto the Lord’ , which cluster together as illicit, alien and extreme attempts to gain knowledge and power. These rituals are also, however, available – by contrast to the astrological learning of those who follow Eastern religions. The wickedness of a series of Old Testament kings of Israel is marked by a return to the practice of magic, which often includes ritual sacrifice and divination.112 Kings Ahaz of Judah and Hosea of Samaria demonstrate their departure from the ways of the Lord by their contravention of prohibitions: Ahaz has his son ‘pass through the fire according to the idols of the nations’ [AV: ‘abominations of the heathen’] and the king’s altar is used for divining and sacrifice (2 Kgs. 16:3, 15).113 Under Hosea’s return to heathen practices, idolatry and magic may again be combined with ritual sacrifice: the Israelites worship Baal with molten images, but also pass their children through 110 See

Roland J. Faley, ‘Leviticus’ , NJBC, pp. 61–79: p. 74.40; Blenkinsopp, ‘Deuteronomy’ , p. 101.34. Diodorus Siculus in his History of the Carthaginian Kronos or Moloch describes flames kindled within the image of Molech, ‘a human figure with a bull’s head and outstretched arms’ , in which the children to be sacrificed were laid, to roll into the fire: see George Rawlinson, Phoenicia: History of a Civilization (1889; London: I. B. Tauris, 2005), pp. 112–14: p. 113. 111 The term ‘python’ is repeatedly used to indicate a prophetic or divining spirit, which takes possession of a person; it finds its origins in the mythological Python slain by Apollo, and consequent Greek poetic use of ‘python’ to indicate a monstrous antagonist. ‘Pythius’ is subsequently used of the oracle and priestess at Delphi, sometimes also known as Python; ‘Pythian’ denotes the games and metre associated with Delphi and Apollo. Diviners or soothsayers come themselves to be known as ‘pythons’; the terms was frequently used in the medieval and early modern periods of women soothsayers, hence ‘pythoness’ , ‘phytoness’ , ‘pythonissa’ , ‘phytonissa’ , employed, for instance, by Chaucer to refer to the Witch of Endor, seen as the archetypal necromancer. 112 See Blenkinsopp, ‘Deuteronomy’ , p. 103.37. 113 Walsh and Begg note that ‘the Hebr[ew] formulation used (cf. Deut. 18:10) leaves it unclear whether an actual burning up or simply a passing over the fire is referred to’ , ‘1–2 Kings’ , p. 181.60.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents the fire and practise ‘divinations and soothsayings’ [V: ‘auguriis’; WP: ‘dyuynyng in chiteryng of briddis’; AV: ‘enchantments’] (2 Kgs 17:16–17). The wickedness of King Manasseh, Hezekiah’s son, is most striking: it includes as well as passing his son through the fire, the use of divination, augury [V: ‘auguria’; WP: ‘dyuyngyng of chiteryng of briddis’], mediums [V: ‘fecit pythones’; WP: ‘maade enchaunteris’] and soothsayers [V: ‘aruspices’; WP: ‘cleperis of deuelis’]; these are accompanied by the worship of graven images (2 Kgs 21:6–7; the narrative is repeated in 2 Chr. 33:6–7). Disturbingly, Manasseh’s rule is long, usually the mark of a divine reward, although he commits all the crimes enumerated in Jeremiah 7.114 His evil rule illuminates the virtues of both his predecessor, Hezekiah, and his successor, Josiah, and his crimes are symbolic of the sins of Israel.115 When Manasseh’s similarly evil son Amon is slain by his own servants, the people choose as his successor Josiah, who returns Judah and Jerusalem to cultic law. Prohibitions against magic are reaffirmed as Josiah drives out ‘the diviners by spirits [V: ‘pythones’; WP: ‘cleperis of deuelis’], and soothsayers [V: ‘ariolos’; WP: ‘deuynouris’; AV: ‘wizards’], and the figures of idols, and the uncleannesses, and the abominations’ (2 Kgs. 23:24). Of special interest to later commentators on magic is Saul, who reverts to the practices that he too has abolished. Whereas in the Vulgate he is said to have sent away ‘magos et hariolos’ [DR: ‘magicians and soothsayers’], the Authorized Version is more specific: ‘Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land’; and Wycliffe-Purvey is considerably more extreme: ‘Saul tooc awei þe deuynouris & cleperis of deuelis fro þe lond & sloowȝ hem þat haddyn charmeris of deuelis in þe wombe’ (1 Sam. 28:3). In his fear of the Philistines’ attack on Israel, he consults the Lord, but receives no answer. When the authorised magic of divination does not work, he requests ‘a woman that hath a divining [AV: ‘familiar’] spirit’ [V: ‘mulierem habentem pythonem’; WP: ‘a womman hauynge a charmynge gost’], and asks the woman of Endor to divine ‘by thy divining spirit’ [V: ‘in pythone’; WP: ‘in a charmynge spirit’; AV: ‘by the familiar spirit’] by raising the spirit of Samuel (1 Sam. 28:6–8): the differences of phrasing suggest the difficulty of rendering the concept of conjuring spirits.116 There is no evidence for necromancy in texts from the Levant or from Egypt, but such a use of the spirits of the dead for divination is found in Mesopotamian religious tradition.117 The episode is notable for its human detail concerning the woman’s fear for her life, and her shock at recognising Samuel and Saul. The prosaic narrative of Samuel’s appearance and his dialogue with Saul is very far from Lucan’s account of Erictho’s horrific raising of the dead: 114 See

Robert North, ‘The Chronicler: 1–2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah’ , NJBC, pp. 362–98: p. 382.77. Walsh and Begg, ‘1–2 Kings’ , p. 184. 69, 71, for discussion of Manasseh and Amon. 116 The woman is described as a ‘ventriloquist’ in the Septuagint. See discussion in Antony F. Campbell and James W. Flanagan, ‘1–2 Samuel’ , NJBC, pp. 145–59: p. 153.36. Those ‘in whom there is a pythonic or divining spirit’ are condemned in Lev. 20:27. 117 Schmidt cites an instance of use of a dead queen as medium to predict success in war and suitability of a ruler, ‘The Witch of En-dor’ , pp. 115–17. 115 See


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance And he [Saul] said to her: What form is he of? And she said: An old man cometh up, and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul understood that it was Samuel, and he bowed himself with his face to the ground, and adored. And Samuel said to Saul: Why hast thou disturbed my rest, that I should be brought up? (1 Sam. 28:14–15) There is no question of the woman’s power or of its limits: she raises Samuel, sees the gods ascending, recognises Saul, but cannot intervene in the future, as even Samuel cannot (1 Sam. 28:16).118 The scene ultimately proves the power of God and the limits of magic that relies on demons. The woman is treated sympathetically: service to the king is her defining quality, and she resists the practice of magic. Though her power is innate, she can choose not to use it. She will, however, come to be viewed by later interpreters in a far more sinister terms as the archetypal necromancer, the Witch of Endor, a figure closer to the classical strix, and a model for the sinister enchantresses of romance.

The Life of Christ The emphases of the Old Testament are carried forward into the New, and crystallised in the coming of Christ, whose miracles are set against the work of magicians. The opposition between divinely authorised and demonic power becomes more prominent. The subject of magic opens directly onto issues of faith, and later writing is informed by the distinctions made in the New Testament between kinds of supernatural – magic, marvel and miracle. The sense conveyed by much late classical writing, of a cosmos inhabited by spirits and of the possibility of occult power, is echoed in the New Testament. Magicians, wonder-workers and exorcists are understood as ‘human beings who attract and use these cosmic energies … for practical ends such as blessing and cursing, binding and loosing, healing and destroying’ .119 Christianity, it might be argued, provided a framework for the understanding of cosmic power, and guidelines for its use. The ancient association of magic and the East is maintained in the New Testament. Babylonian religion, with which the Greek magoi were linked, is again presented as fatalistic, its priests skilled in astrology, interpretation of dreams and other occult practices. This association is reflected in the coming to Christ’s Nativity of the Magi, ‘wise men from the east’ [Matt. 2:1; WP: ‘astromyenes’], from Persia, East Syria or Arabia, whom later tradition numbered as three because they brought three gifts (Matt. 2:11), and identified as kings, Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior (drawing on Ps. 71:10 and Isa. 49:7; 60:10); Caspar is traditionally depicted as black so that the kings represent ‘the Gentile world in all its racial

118 Campbell

and Flanagan note that an addition by the prophetic redactors (vv 17–19aα) ‘links an older, more general saying explicitly with the prophetic redaction of the account of Saul’ s rejection and David’s anointing (1 Sam. 15; 16: 1–13)’ , ‘1–2 Samuel’ , NJBC, pp. 153.36. 119 Mills, Human Agents, pp. 12–13; see also Ricks, ‘The Magician as Outsider’ , p. 140.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents diversity’ .120 The wisdom of the Magi is specifically astrological, ‘we have seen his star in the east’ , and their knowledge is affirmed by the divine revelation of dream (Matt. 2:2, 12). The star of wonder may find its origins in midrashic development of the story of Balaam, which includes the prophecy, ‘A star shall rise out of Jacob’ (Num. 24:17), and/or may have been a comet or conjunction of planets. Most important is its narrative role as marvellous sign, authorising the birth of Christ, and advertising it beyond Israel to other nations. The episode marks the contrast between Christianity and fatalism: astral religion is marked by ‘the cold regularity of the stars’ and hence, ‘the tyranny of heimarmenē, “fate” ’ .121 That the star is a sign of God’s favour and acquires a guiding role shows the cosmos to be under the governance of divine providence, with God as First Mover. Ignatius of Antioch and other early writers argued that, once the Magi had found the infant Christ, they lost the ability of divination, for its purpose had been served; others would emphasise that the star was only a sign and that the Magi’s astrology was ineffectual, a trick to be exposed or destroyed by Christ.122 The stars would, however, continue to play a prominent role in understandings of the universe, viewed as shaping events, characters and nature within the context of divine providence. In Jesus, the roles of Daniel and Moses are completed and perfected: from one point of view, he is the great master-magician; from another, he is the divine miracle-worker whose power opposes that of earthly, false magicians. Jesus is both like and unlike those with whom he co-exists, a unique ‘wonder-worker’ within a ‘larger tradition of wonder-workers and exorcists’ , whose words and acts endorse the world view of a cosmos the powers of which may be harnessed by good and evil spirits and by those who can command them.123 Like the prophets, Jesus speaks the will of God, he is the Christ, the Word made flesh, and his miracles are immediate manifestations of his divine power, effected through simple instructions to go, rise, drink or be healed, or through touch: they do not require astrological readings, spells, enchantments, divination or the use of spirits. The miracles, like the plagues, seem powerful acts of magic, but of a life-enhancing kind: indeed they achieve much that magical practices aim for – calming storms, turning water into wine and stones into bread, multiplying loaves and fishes, walking on water, healing the sick, restoring speech, hearing and sight, forgiving sins, exorcising demons, and even raising the dead. They resonate with the wonders narrated in the Old Testament: the feeding of the five thousand, for instance, recalls the feeding of the Israelites in the desert. Their symbolic weight is evident, here in the concept of social harmony evoked by the image of feeding a multitude, the twelve baskets 120 Benedict

T. Viviano, ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’ , NJBC, pp. 630–74: p. 635.12. Tertullian first calls the Magi ‘kings’; Origen first numbers them as three; their names occur first in the sixthcentury Excerpta Latina Barbari and in pseudo-Bede, Collectanea. 121 Viviano, ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’ , p. 636.12. 122 Edward Peters, ‘The Medieval Church and State on Superstition, Magic and Witchcraft: From Augustine to the Sixteenth Century’ , in Jolly, Raudvere and Peters, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages, pp. 173–245: p. 178; Flint, The Rise of Magic, p. 368, and see Flint’s discussion of the afterlife of the Magi, pp. 364–75. 123 Mills, Human Agents of Cosmic Power, pp. 107–8.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance suggesting the twelve tribes of Israel.124 Yet it is crucial that symbolic resonances are underpinned by immediacy and realism: the later Church looked back to this age of miracles but also hoped for continued physical reminders of the divine through God’s intervention in the world. Jesus’ miracles perfected many traditions of natural and supernatural power – the notion of encounter with the gods; the knowledge of natural, healing magic; the ability to control the weather and the natural world through understanding of the cosmos; and the power over daimons. The parallels between Jesus and Apollonius of Tyana are evident.125 The healing of sickness, physical and mental, is a familiar biblical motif but plays a considerably more prominent role in the gospels than in the Old Testament. The healing power of Jesus is described in the earliest Christian and Talmudic texts, and echoes that of Elijah and Elisha. St Matthew’s description of Jesus as healer evokes this established tradition of wandering miracle-workers, healers, magicians and exorcists:126 And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness, and every infirmity, among the people. (Matt. 4:23–4) Like the rituals and prophecies of the Old Testament, Jesus’ powers are authorised, and are particularly directed against demons causing disease: And when evening was come, they brought to him many that were possessed with devils [V: ‘daemonia habentes’; WP: ‘hem that hadden feendis’]: and he cast out the spirits with his word: and all that were sick he healed. (Matt. 8:16) Healing of sickness becomes a powerful metaphor for Christianity’s healing of the soul, but throughout the gospels the power of Jesus is manifested physically and in plain terms. All illness, physical and mental, was viewed in terms of the bodymind continuum, and the acts of healing and exorcism thus could be understood to treat both body and soul. Jesus imagines the demon’s response in literal and vivid terms:

124 See

Viviano, ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’ , for discussion of the ways St Matthew enlarges on the narrative of St Mark, expanding it ‘with miracles drawn from elsewhere’ to achieve the patterning of ten miracles, and to emphasise the themes of ‘christology (or the authority of Jesus), faith, discipleship, and soteriology [the doctrine of salvation]’ , p. 647.52; St Matthew’s gospel combines the earliest (extant) gospel, that of St Mark, with the (lost) Logien-Quelle (Q), a collection of the sayings of Jesus, on which the gospel of St Luke also draws. 125 See Kee, Medicine, Miracle and Magic in New Testament Times, pp. 82–6; Kee further contrasts this kind of miracle with, for instance, the self-seeking magic described by Apuleius, but notes too Apuleius’ sense of magic ‘as a powerful force available in the world’ , pp. 96–9: p. 99. 126 Viviano, ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’ , looks back through the lens of later responses to argue, ‘That Jesus was a healer was an embarrassment to later Christians; therefore, it is certainly historical. He was among other things an itinerant wonder-working prophet in the pattern of Elijah’ , p. 639.22. Josephus offers a description of a successful Jewish exorcist: see Jewish Antiquities, 8.2.5, cited by Kelly, The Devil, Demonology and Witchcraft, p. 71.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents And when an unclean spirit [V: ‘immundus spiritus’] is gone out of a man he walketh through dry places seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith: I will return into my house from whence I came out. And coming he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then he goeth, and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is made worse than the first. So it shall be also to this wicked generation. (Matt. 12:43–5) Only the final sentence opens out the healing process of exorcism to include a symbolic meaning. The question of Jesus’ authority is of crucial importance: the Pharisees wonder at his power over devils, suspecting it stems from ‘Beelzebub the prince of the devils’ (Matt. 12:24), whereas Jesus attributes his power to God (Matt. 11:28).127 The power of healing and exorcism stems from God but is not exclusively held by Jesus, who gives to his apostles ‘power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases’ (Luke 9:1). They express concern regarding the possible abuse of such power, as in the instance of a man who casts out devils in Jesus’ name – ‘We forbade him, because he followeth not with us’ (Luke 9:49; see also Mark 9:37–8); but Jesus’ response is telling: ‘He that is not against you, is for you’ (Luke 9:50; Mark 9:39–40). Divine power is accessible to all who do not disbelieve, and miracle must be interpreted. It is unsurprising that later magic rituals often used the names of Christ, who could be seen as a powerful practitioner of magic. In the New Testament the vague sense of adversarial forces among the powers subject to Yahweh found in the Old Testament is focused in the idea of one controlling power of evil, the devil (‘diabolus’) or Satan, who opposes God.128 This is most vividly elaborated in the gospel accounts of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert, traditionally inhabited by demons (in Luke 8:29, the unclean spirit is ‘driven by the devil into the deserts’; in Matt. 11:43, ‘he walketh through dry places’ , as in Luke 11:24).129 In the Vulgate, St Luke refers to ‘diabolus’ (e.g. Luke 4:2), whereas St Matthew uses Satan and ‘diabolus’ interchangeably (e.g. Matt. 4:1, 10); Wycliffe-Purvey sometimes employs ‘feend’ (e.g. Matt. 4:1) rather than the conventional translation of ‘devil’ . The narrative of Jesus’ refusal to pursue material ends dramatises the difference between his supernatural power and worldly magic, with its emphasis on the satisfaction of material desires. The devil urges Jesus to assuage his hunger, then to accept the glory of earthly kingdoms, and finally to cast himself down from the temple in Jerusalem. Repeatedly, Jesus is urged to use his power: ‘If thou be the Son of God’ (Luke 4:3, 9), for example, to turn stones into bread (Matt. 4:3), and repeatedly he rejects the use of magic.130 The resistance to the devil advocated in the Old Testament is embodied in Jesus, who perfects the learning experience of Israel. St Luke’s reference to Jerusalem looks forward to Jesus’ death, the last stage of his exodus, and the place where ‘the 127 See

also Ricks, ‘The Magician as Outsider’ , pp. 139–40, and Kelly, The Devil, Demonology and Witchcraft, pp. 70–2. 128 See Kelly, The Devil, Demonology and Witchcraft, pp. 18, 71. 129 See Robert J. Karras, ‘The Gospel According to Luke’ , NJBC, pp. 675–21: 688.53. 130 Ricks, ‘The Magician as Outsider’ , p. 140.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance powers of darkness’ will be ‘mightily at work’ .131 Jesus is credited with the ability to achieve all that the magician might wish, but directs his power towards the spiritual, and towards self-sacrifice rather than self-gratification. The analogies with Apollonius of Tyana are especially striking: this was a world in which the spiritual wonder-worker and healer played a prominent role. It is unsurprising that, though the powers of Jesus, like those of Apollonius, are so carefully distinguished from magic, a tradition endured within non-Christian writing of Jesus as magician. For his followers, Jesus was the insider, inspired by God; for others, he was the outsider, possessed of magical powers, most remarkably, that of Resurrection.132 Morton Smith argues that Christian propaganda denied common perceptions of Jesus as magician, adducing the evidence of the use of Christ’s names in spells both during and after his lifetime.133 The effects of the miracles (healing, exorcism, the raising of Lazarus) correspond with traditional magical feats, or at least, with their aims, but Jesus’ supernatural power is authorised for those who participate in the Christian faith.134 Such authority will be crucial in developing notions of natural magic as well as a sustained belief in miraculous healing.

The Apostles Distinctions are sustained and developed in the teachings and the acts of the Apostles. The difference between magic and miracle is emphasised in the writings of St Paul, who places ‘witchcrafts’ (V: ‘veneficia’; translating Greek pharmakeia, suggesting spells and potions) as one of the works of the flesh, which Christians are to reject (Gal. 5:20). In attempting to know or alter the future, whether through divination, casting spells, or conjuring demons, the practitioner promotes his own good in a way that directly counters Christian humility.135 His practices deal in material benefit and fleshly desires, and challenge the will of God. While magic is condemned, the physical manifestation of spiritual power remains crucial: the miracle of Pentecost, the ability to speak in tongues, offers a striking example. Ecstatic behaviour of this kind could be difficult to distinguish from possession, and it is the purpose and effect of miracle that prove the divine hand of God rather than the fearful intervention of the devil. The disciples, like Jesus and the prophets, are seen as possessed not by daimons but by pneuma, the spirit or breath of God, an idea that corresponded neatly with the concept of the universe as a single organism, bound together through a network of forces stemming from the divine Prime Mover.136 Paul adopts the idea of Yahweh as ‘God of the sabaoth’ , governing lesser 131 See

Karras, ‘The Gospel According to Luke’ , pp. 688–9.53, for comparisons between gospels and exegesis. 132 Ricks, ‘The Magician as Outsider’ , p. 141. 133 Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician (London: Victor Gollancz, 1978): see especially p. 65. 134 See especially Smith, Jesus the Magician, pp. 93–7. 135 See Kee’s discussion of the competition between magic and the Holy Spirit, Medicine, Miracle and Magic in New Testament Times, p. 116. 136 See E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety: Some Aspects of Religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), pp. 58, 15.


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Classical and Biblical Precedents powers that may be adversarial, and are identified with Satan: ‘our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places’ (Eph. 6:12). Paul’s celebrated ‘thorn in the flesh’ (AV) is a physical manifestation of the forces of darkness, ‘an angel [V: ‘angelus’; AV: ‘the messenger’] of Satan’ (2 Cor. 12:7).137 Paul’s own wonder-working is also notable: ‘And God wrought by the hand of Paul more than common miracles: So that even there were brought from his body to the sick, handkerchiefs and aprons, and the diseases departed from them, and the wicked spirits went out of them. ’ (Acts 19:11–12). By contrast, when exorcists (the seven sons of the Jewish chief of the priests, Sceva) attempt to employ the name of Jesus in imitation of Paul, the demon opposes them: ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?’ (Acts 19:15). The failure of earthly magic, the meaningless repetition of words lacking spiritual power, and the recognition by the demons of the abilities of Jesus and Paul all function to persuade unbelievers and to promote the faith. The power of Jesus’ name is upheld in that the exorcists cannot take it over, even while it is recognised by demons. Belief is marked by an active renunciation of magical arts in Ephesus, traditionally associated with the practice and writings of magic: ‘And many of them who had followed curious arts [V: ‘curiosa sectati’; WP: ‘curiouse thingis’], brought together their books, and burnt them before all: and counting the price of them, they found the money to be fifty thousand pieces of silver. So mightily grew the word of God, and was confirmed’ (Acts 19:19–20). Christianity, the religion of the book, leads to the burning of books containing recipes for other kinds of power, in token of their inefficacy by contrast to the miracles of those empowered by Jesus. The opposition between magic and Christianity is reiterated in the narrative of how the apostles encounter in Paphos a Jewish magician and false prophet called Bar-Jesus (Acts 13:6, 8). Again the episode evokes the broader context of the late Antique world, with its wonder-workers, prophets and magicians.138 The different terminology used is revealing: the Vulgate first describes him only as ‘quendam virum magnum pseudoprophetam’ , not as ‘magician’ , but later remarks that his name is interpreted as ‘Elymas magus’ , translated as ‘Elymas the magician’; by contrast to ‘Elymas the sorcerer’ in the Authorized Version, Wycliffe-Purvey uses the more negative form, ‘Elymas witche’ . Paul exercises the power of the Holy Spirit against him, commanding the man to be blind for a season in token of his spiritual darkness as ‘child of the devil’ , ‘And immediately there fell a mist and darkness upon him’ (Acts 13:10–11). We hear no more of the sorcerer, though the deputy is converted. The disempowerment of the practitioners of magic casts into relief the power of Jesus, and the striking physical manifestation of blindness punishes but also in its temporary quality suggests the possibility of penance and redemption. The same pattern is at work in the account of ‘a certain girl, having a pythonical spirit [V: ‘habentem spiritum pythonem’; AV: ‘possessed with a spirit 137 See

Kelly, The Devil, Demonology and Witchcraft, pp. 21–3. Richard J. Dillon, ‘Acts of the Apostles’ , NJBC, p. 748.70, and Edward Peters’ discussion of the term magus in relation to this episode in The Magician, the Witch and the Law, pp. 3–4.

138 See


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance of ­divination’] who brought to her masters much gain by divining [AV: ‘soothsaying’]’ (Acts 16:16). Paul’s exorcism of the demon, and hence the end of the woman’s magical abilities, indicates Jesus’ rule over other kinds of supernatural powers, but also distinguishes the enduring, spiritual abilities of the apostles from the temporary, secular powers of magical arts, employed to material ends. When Paul and Silas are beaten and imprisoned for depriving the woman’s masters of their gains, the marvellous potential of Jesus’ power is fully revealed: there is a great earthquake, the prisoners are loosed, and the keeper of the prison is converted (Acts 16:26, 33). Again, magic is replaced by miracle. In the account of Simon of Samaria (Simon Magus in the Vulgate), Acts addresses the distinction between magic and miracle in relation to the preaching of Philip, who, like Paul, performs many miracles, driving out ‘unclean spirits’ , and healing the palsied and lame (Acts 8:7). Philip’s wonders appear to be rivalled by those of a powerful practitioner of magic: Now there was a certain man named Simon, who before had been a magician [V: ‘fuerat magus’; AV: ‘used sorcery’] in that same city, seducing [AV: ‘bewitched’] the people of Samaria, giving out that he was some great one: To whom they all gave ear, from the least to the greatest, saying: This man is the power of God, which is called great. And they were attentive to him, because, for a long time, he had bewitched them with his magical practices [V: ‘magiis suis dementasset eos’; AV: ‘bewitched them with sorceries’]. (Acts 8:9–11) Once again, Wycliffe-Purvey is notably more negative: rather than the ‘magus’ who employs ‘magiis’ , Simon is ‘a witche’ , who has ‘maddid hem with his witche craftis’ . The passage suggests the confusion between miracle and magic, and the possible misuse of supernatural power. The context of Samaria, the belief of some in Simon Magus’ divinity, and his identification of himself as ‘some great one’ may suggest that he was ‘a revelation bearer … already more than a magician, perhaps a monger of gnosis in its birth-stage’; the Church Fathers from Justin Martyr onwards would identify him as ‘archheretic and founding gnostic’ .139 The episode evokes a society of rival cults and cult figures, men who claimed supernatural powers, and were respected and feared for their powers. Simon, like the other inhabitants of Samaria, is baptised and wonders at Philip’s miracles; when Peter and John arrive, Simon offers to pay them to obtain gifts comparable to theirs (Acts 8:13, 18–19). Sorcery is set against spiritual power. While Philip has been the subject in this mission narrative, little detail is offered concerning his works, and the role of opposing Simon Magus is given to Peter, perhaps through the adaptation of the story by St Luke, the supposed author of Acts.140 This episode is vastly elaborated 139 Dillon,

‘Acts of the Apostles’ , p. 743.51. Dillon argues concerning Simon Magus that the author of Acts may have ‘demoted him to keep the apostolic period free of heresy’ or that ‘the heresiologists demonized him by making him the author of a later, full-blown heterodoxy’; see further Charles H. Talbert, Luke and the Gnostics: An Examination of the Lucan Purpose (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1966), pp. 92–3, and Kelly, The Devil, Demonology and Witchcraft, pp. 48–9. 140 Dillon suggests that ‘Either Luke rewrote a tradition that told of the magician’s attempt to purchase the power of the Spirit from Philip … or he connected Philip’s mission secondarily with a “Peter


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Classical and Biblical Precedents in the apocryphal Acts of Peter, which draws on but reverses the pattern of Jesus’ confrontation with Satan in the wilderness.141 Simon’s power is emphasised as we see him in flight as ‘a dust-cloud in the sky, looking like smoke shining with a glare of fire’ , and then suddenly in the midst of the crowd (4, p. 401). Instead of refusing to perform material acts of magic, Peter, his miraculous power already evident on the journey by ship to Samaria, undertakes a veritable competition of magic feats against Simon: employing a talking dog that summons and chastises Simon, casting out a demon, causing a dead (and smoked!) fish to swim, and a baby to speak against Simon and render him speechless, driving him out of Judaea. Peter’s visionary knowledge also rescues the property of Eubola, Simon’s hostess, stolen through magical trickery, and cures blindness. In a confrontation with Simon in the forum, the magus kills a widow’s son, and Peter revives him, curing many more of the sick. The opposition is between negative and positive magic, causing illness or healing, loss or restoration, death or resurrection. The reality of Peter’s magic is set against the illusion of Simon’s: When some days had passed Simon the magician promised the people that he could persuade Peter not to believe in the true God but in a fallacious one. As he performed many tricks those among the disciples who were steadfast laughed him to scorn. In the dining halls he made some spirits appear which had the semblance of life, but in reality did not exist. … Having spoken a great deal about magic he seemingly cured the lame and blind for a time, and many dead persons too, he made alive and made them move about. (31(2), 422) Simon’s final demonstration of his ability to fly, ‘And behold, he was lifted up and they saw him ascending over Rome and its temple and hills’ , proves false too when Peter meets the challenge of proving the power of his God. His prayer that Simon should fall and break his leg in three places is answered, and Simon eventually dies after an operation (32(3), 422–3). Magic is again ‘cast … in the role of an adversary power conquered by the gospel’ , but here the power is remarkably theatrical, an active magic that employs many of the arts of conjuring and entertainment, as well as healing and divination.142 Peter defeats Simon on his own territory. Later interpreters would emphasise the role of demons in Simon’s magic, for instance in holding him up in flight, but the Acts of Peter do not make this

story” through the redactional vv 12–13’; it seems that ‘his concern to subordinate the Hellenists’ mission to “the apostles in Jerusalem” (v 14) has produced the curious separation of baptism from the bestowal of the Spirit noted in v 16’ , ‘Acts of the Apostles’ , p. 742.51. 141 Only the Greek account of Peter’s Martyrdom and one other fragment survive; the text was probably translated into Latin in the fourth or fifth century and is preserved in Codex Vercellensis 158 (sixth or seventh century). Quotations are from the translation in The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation, ed. J. K. Elliott (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 390–430, which offers full scholarly discussion. 142 Dillon, ‘Acts of the Apostles’ , p. 743.51, and see Flint’s discussion of the afterlife of Simon Magus, The Rise of Magic, pp. 338–44.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance explicit, rendering Simon’s power more sinister in its competition with that of the true God. The prohibitions found across the Bible underpin St John of Patmos’ vision of hell in the Book of Revelation, where practitioners of magic are firmly placed among the non-elect: ‘the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, they shall have their portion in the pool burning with fire and brimstone, which is the second death’ (Rev. 21:8). In the final prophecy of the angel, the image of the blessed who enter the heavenly city is set against a reminder of those beyond, who again include sorcerers, along with ‘dogs, … and unchaste, and murderers, and servers of idols, and every one that loveth and maketh a lie’ (Rev. 22:15). In both these instances, the Vulgate ‘veneficis’ is treated more negatively than are the terms related to divination, and hence translated as ‘sorcerers’ , a less usual term; Wycliffe-Purvey goes further, again employing ‘witchis’ . Such shifts perhaps imply an engagement with growing contemporary concern about witchcraft. Sorcery has become a powerful marker of falsehood and evil, associated with heresy, bestiality, idolatry, sexual pollution, and violence. Dante draws on these passages to include astrologers, sorcerers and seers among other perpetrators of fraud in the fourth bolgia of Malebolge, the eighth and penultimate circle of hell (Inferno XX). Because they have attempted to alter the course of divine law, they are placed deep in hell, their heads turned backwards in token of their perversion. Alchemists are placed deeper still, in the tenth and last bolgia, their falsity towards others marked by horrific disease of the body. That Dante does not explore in detail the notion of witchcraft, although he refers in Purgatorio to the Siren as ‘antica strega’ , perhaps suggests that magicians and alchemists were more familiar figures in medieval culture than the witch, a heightened, literary archetype.143

The Apocryphal Gospels and the Church Fathers Judaeo-Christian tradition intersected with enduring classical notions of the supernatural to shape complex distinctions between magic and divine intervention, which was visible most obviously in miracle but also in prophecy, dream, response to prayer, and epiphanic experience. Peter Brown argues that ‘Christianity mobilised a current drift in the Late Antique world, towards explanations of misfortune through suprahuman agencies in such a way as to bypass the human agent’: daimons become demons.144 Christian philosophers gradually elaborated classical and Hebrew demonology to fit their world view, creating a complex hierarchy of angels and demons, detailed, for example, in Dionysius the Areopagite’s Celestial Hierarchy. The image of an angel binding Satan (Rev. 20:1–3) was connected to descriptions of God’s casting of the angels down to hell and binding them in chains of darkness (2 Pet. 2:4) until Judgment Day (Jude 6). Some later demonology describes two stages: the original choice whether or not to follow God, which 143 Dante,

Purgatorio, XIX, ll. 7–33 (cited by Peters, ‘Medieval Church and State’ , p. 217). ‘Sorcery, Demons, and the Rise of Christianity’ , p. 28.

144 Brown,


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Classical and Biblical Precedents distinguishes angels and demons; and the rebellion of Lucifer, which explains the fallen angels. Apocryphal works tell of other rebellions of angels: of the ‘Grigori’ , who are conjured by Solomon, and of the ‘Goetia’ , who descend to earth to beget the giants. Magic was explicitly connected to the fallen angels, most notably in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, known in the Middle Ages through a Latin version and almost certainly a strong influence on Anglo-Saxon writing.145 The Book of Enoch resonates with the numerous accounts of encounters of gods with earthly women in classical myth in its elaboration of the episode in Genesis 6, ‘Now giants were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are mighty men of old, men of renown’ (Gen. 6:4). Because the Septuagint read ‘angels of God’ rather than ‘sons of God’ , the phrase came to be interpreted as a reference to the fallen angels. Despite the warnings of their leader, Semjâzâ, two hundred swear to enact their desire for earthly women, and they beget all-consuming giants. The angels seduce women in part through their magical knowledge: ‘they taught them charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants’ (1 Enoch 7:1). Later, these skills are furthered by divination of different kinds: Semjâzâ taught enchantments, and root-cuttings, Armârôs the resolving of enchantments, Barâqîjâl (taught) astrology, Kôkabêl the constellations, Ezêqêêl the knowledge of the clouds, , and Sariêl the course of the moon. (1 Enoch 8.3) The ensuing punishment of the angels is partly for their revelation of the ‘eternal secrets which were (preserved) in heaven, which men were striving to learn’ (1 Enoch 10:13; 9:6). The later (Judaeo-Christian) section of the Book of Enoch, the Parables, identifies Satan, under whose rule the angels fall through their sin, as the arbiter of tortures. From the giants, Enoch is told, evil spirits issue, which ‘afflict, oppress, destroy, attack, do battle, and work destruction on the earth, and cause trouble: they take no food, but nevertheless hunger and thirst and cause offences’ (1 Enoch 15:11). Thus the fallen angels, themselves in the abyss, provide an explanation for the existence of demons or malevolent forces in the world. A distinction seems to be made between idols and the spirits of the giants, whereas later notions of demons blur pagan gods, fallen angels and evil spirits, and associate them with lust 145 The

Book of Enoch was originally written in Aramaic and/or Hebrew, translated from Greek (of which a few sections survive) and into Ethiopic (in which a fairly full version survives, the basis of modern editions). Evidence of a Latin version known in the Middle Ages is provided by the twentyfive line fragment in British Library, Royal 5.e.xiii, which contains two passages from the Book (1.9 and 106.1–18). On the influence of the Book of Enoch on Anglo-Saxon writing, in particular the discussion of giants in Beowulf, see R. E. Kaske, ‘Beowulf and the Book of Enoch’ , Speculum 46 (1971), pp. 421–31; Andy Orchard, Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the BeowulfManuscript (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1995), esp. pp. 64–5, 76; and Daniel Anlezark, Water and Fire: The Myth of the Flood in Anglo-Saxon England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), esp. pp. 302, 307, 320–1. See also Kelly’s discussion, The Devil, Demonology and Witchcraft, pp. 17, 25–8. Quotations are from The Book of Enoch, trans. R. H. Charles (London: SPCK, 1917).


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance and temptation. While the angels of Enoch are threatening in their supernatural, corrosive powers, spawning giants and evil spirits, however, they also offer knowledge that includes natural, medical magic: like the daimons of classical thought, they are ambiguous and potentially menacing, but can also provide access to positive forces of healing. Magic is characterised as dangerous, associated with ambition, the besetting sin of the fallen angels, for it offers the illicit power of eternal secrets that should not be revealed. Yet paradoxically, Enoch’s vision comprises a series of astronomical secrets: hidden and forbidden knowledge is revealed to the prophet: ‘And then mine eyes saw the secrets of the lightning and of the thunder, and the secrets of the wind’ (1 Enoch 41:3–9).146 The demonic was also developed through the idea of the Antichrist, the prince of Christ’s opponents, mentioned in the epistles of St John in the context of the end of the world (1 John 2:18, 22; see also 4:3 and 2 John 7). This figure of ‘Antichrist, that denieth the Father, and the Son’ was frequently linked to the ‘man of sin’ described in the epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians as coming to oppose God, ‘Whose coming is according to the working of Satan, in all power, and signs, and lying wonders’ (2 Thess. 2:9), and was readily identified with the strange beasts of the Apocalypse described in the book of Revelation. In the writings of various Church Fathers, in particular St Ambrose, the Antichrist was imagined as fathered by Satan on a human woman, or as the product of a corrupt human union: the former idea, in particular, became a powerful romance motif through the Merlin legend. The belief that the Antichrist will perform false marvels (reiterated in Matt. 24:24) suggested links with magicians such as Simon Magus.147 St Cyril of Jerusalem, for example, predicts that he will be a magician who gains power over the Roman Empire and persecutes Christians, seducing the Jews through his illusions.148 Whereas daimons were viewed as ambivalent by many pagans, then, many Gnostic and Christian sects identified them as actively hostile, the cohorts of the devil and the source of deeply threatening supernatural powers. Christianity, Peter Brown argues, reduced the number of charges of sorcery by emphasising the magic practised by ‘suprahuman agents’ , against which Christianity ‘armed the individual with weapons of satisfying precision and efficacy’ .149 The notion of illicit, learned supernatural power, however, remained threatening. The writings of Origen (c. 185–c. 254) vividly depict this world where different notions of supernatural power vied with each other, and in which magic was set against miracle. His treatise Contra Celsum elaborates the opposition of pagan and Christian views. The influence of hermetic ideas on Origen is evident, in particular, his sense of spirit forces beyond the self, ‘invisible husbandmen … and other 146 See

Kee, Medicine, Miracle and Magic in New Testament Times, p. 22.

147 See Richard Kenneth Emmerson, Antichrist in the Middle Ages: A Study of Medieval Apocalypticism,

Art, and Literature (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981), pp. 7, 27–8, 75–6. Antichrist, see further The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, 3rd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). 149 Brown, ‘Sorcery, Demons, and the Rise of Christianity’ , p. 28. 148 On


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Classical and Biblical Precedents governors’ , who control nature like the pagan gods.150 Origen argues that God created intelligent beings, men and spirits, at once, giving all free will; while some imitated God, others turned away and fell, though all would eventually be purified. Origen is confident in his belief in a hierarchy of demons and angels: evil daimons ‘bring about plagues, or famines, or stormy seas, or anything similar’ (I, 31), and their cultivation through ritual and prayer is expressly forbidden. Pagan magic, effected through daimons, is set against the miracles of Jesus, which affirm Old Testament acts of divine power.151 Celsus does not deny the miracles, but rather their divine origin, arguing that Jesus was simply a magician: ‘He was brought up in secret and hired himself out as a workman in Egypt, and after having tried his hand at certain magical powers he returned from there, and on account of those powers gave himself the title of God’ (I, 38). Celsus is positive about the learned arts of astrology and magic, attributing the former to the Chaldeans and the latter to the Magi. For Origen, by contrast, these are deceitful and destructive arts (VI, 80), which draw on the power of daimons through their formulae. Origen does not deny the possibility of magic, but rather uses the fact that magic can be wrought through demonic power as an argument for miracle, effected through divine power (II, 51). Celsus asserts the overlap between Christian and pagan power: he observes that pagan magic often uses the name of God along with those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, while ‘Christians get the power which they seem to possess by pronouncing the names of certain daemons and incantations’ (I, 6). Origen’s response depends on his observation and analysis of actual magical practice: he claims to have seen books of magical formulae, in which Hebrew names are inserted to produce supposed magical effects (I, 22), and argues for the material, limited quality of magic: Why need I enumerate all those who have taught rites of purification, or spells which bring deliverance, or formulas that avert evil, who produce noisy crashes, or pretended miracles, or all the various prophylactics of clothes, or numbers, or stones, or plants, or roots, and other objects of every sort? (VI, 39) Miracles, by contrast, are not performed by Jesus ‘merely to show his own powers’ but for a higher, moral purpose. They are different not in kind so much as intent: those fixed upon magical exploits are earthbound, their faith ‘in the selfevident, living and manifest supreme God’ replaced by belief ‘in an unlimited number of daemons’ (VIII, 59). It is the tangible sense of the practice of magic within a world in which different supernatural forces vie for power, and in which different interpretations are available, that renders Contra Celsum so striking. 150 Origen,

Contra Celsum, ed. M. Borret, 5 vols, Sources chrétiennes (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1967– 76); trans. and intro. Henry Chadwick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953, corrected edn 1965), VIII, 25 and 31. Subsequent references to Origen will be to this edition and translation, cited by book and section number. See also Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, pp. 117–18. 151 See further Eugene V. Gallagher, Divine Man or Magician? Celsus and Origen on Jesus, Society of Biblical Literature, Dissertation Series 64 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982).


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Origen’s writings provide a bridge between early Christianity and medieval thought: his philosophical theology is very close to early debates concerning the nature of Jesus, and to pagan, especially neo-Platonic, thought. In the sixth century he would come to be viewed as heretical, his writings almost wholly rejected by St Augustine. He firmly believes in the possibility and power of magic, which he associates with demons, and he recognises the often blurred division between miracle and magic, drawing attention to the importance of intention and the question of the provenance of supernatural power, both crucial issues for medieval thinkers. Contra Celsum offers us a way into a thought world of ferment and debate about the new religion of Christianity, a thought world that is coloured and animated by pagan notions of the supernatural, in particular, the concept of daimons and the possibility of magic. The ideas of prophecy and miracle found in the Old Testament, and remade in the words and acts of Jesus and his disciples, are placed within a vibrant, shifting context of classical, Jewish and mystical traditions.


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2 The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic


edieval 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 sciences. Classical texts were reclaimed by their Christian readers, and the traditions of epiphany and encounter with the divine were maintained. There are many analogies between the welldocumented classical tradition and what can be reconstructed of folk belief, in Britain no doubt itself a mixture of (in some areas) Celtic tradition, notions surviving from Roman Britain, Christianised early on, Germanic practices brought by the Anglo-Saxons, and Christian tradition, long re-established by the time vernacular literary texts began to be written. Folk practices are suggested by the kinds of prohibitions found in both secular and canon law and in theological writing, though it is often difficult to disentangle folk and learned tradition. The medieval supernatural is defined by a complex intersection of ideas: providence and divine intervention, angels and demons, the otherworld and the marvellous. These are complemented by an acute sense of the power of natural forces in the cosmos, which may be probed and harnessed. This chapter begins with the writing of St Augustine, in which classical and Christian meet, and which provides the foundation for much medieval thought. Further sections address the prohibitions and penalties against magic found in secular law and canon law, penitentials and handbooks; the prevalent cultural attitudes, ideas and practices suggested by sermons and other writings such as the twelfth-century chronicles; and the development of learned, often clerical, magic.

1 Important

studies to which this chapter is indebted include Flint, The Rise of Magic; Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages; Jolly, Raudvere and Peters, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages; Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic; and for the Anglo-Saxon period, Jolly, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England, and Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic. For legal material, see especially Peters, The Magician, the Witch and the Law.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance

Transitions: St Augustine St Augustine of Hippo (354–430), converted to Christianity in 386, was a product of the late Roman world, his De Civitate Dei in part directed against the ‘barbarians’ who sacked Rome in 410. While his argument is shaped by the Bible and Christian thought, especially that of St Ambrose (c. 339–97, bishop of Milan), Augustine also engages extensively with Greek and Roman philosophy. Although he refutes many of the ideas of the neo-Platonists, his writing is influenced by Apuleius and employs the Platonic model of the cosmos developed in the Timaeus, which circulated widely in the Middle Ages, along with Chalcidius’ commentary on it. Augustine discusses the relation of his views to the natural theology of the Platonists, whose ideas most resemble those of Christians, but who believe in a hierarchy of gods, men and daimons, who inhabit the air, the middle space between gods and men, and are correspondingly light, swift and perceptive.2 Augustine’s sense of a spirit world is similarly acute, but the Platonic notion of daimons, who may be good or evil, is replaced by a much more conflicted view of the universe in which some spirits have turned away from God to become demons.3 Demons both employ malevolent supernatural forces themselves and urge men on to practise forbidden magical arts. Augustine engages at length with Apuleius’ discussion of demons in De Deo Socratis. Demons are permitted to exist by God, but are never to be considered as friends of the angels or mediators, as the Platonists posit they may be. Angels, by contrast, who correspond with the good spirits written of by the neo-Platonists, and are much more powerful than demons, promote Christian worship and perform miracles (9.9, 354; 10.7–8, 380–3). The materiality of angels and demons is of special interest to Augustine. Angels inhabit the ether, the higher part of the cosmos. Augustine emphasises their role as messengers (from Greek angelos, Latin angelus, meaning nuntius, 15.23, 637), and their appearance in material form, but remarks the uncertainty of whether they are given bodies of fire, or whether they ‘caritate tamquam igne spiritali fervere’ (‘burn with love as with a spiritual fire’ , 15.23, 638). He opposes the notion that angels begot on the daughters of men a race of giants, and places the Book of Enoch as apocryphal (15.23, 638–41). Demons, by contrast, merge the animal and the rational, they experience passions (associated with possession of a soul), but are immortal and are composed of air. Though as fallen angels they are apparently in hell, ‘in huius mundi ima detrusos, qui eis velut carcer est’ (‘thrust into the lowest parts of this world, which is a kind of prison for them’), in fact they dwell ‘in hoc infimo aerio caelo’ (‘this air, the lowest region of 2 St

Augustine, The City of God Against the Pagans, 7 vols, trans. G. E. McCracken et al., Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann, 1957–72), 8.1, 8.14; Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson, Penguin Classics (1972; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), pp. 298, 318. Subsequent references to Augustine’s De Civitate Dei are to the Loeb edition, cited by book and section number, and Bettenson’s translation, cited by page number. 3 For a discussion of theological ideas of the Devil and his company’s fall through free will, and the complex identification of the Devil and the principle of evil, see Russell’s chapter, ‘The Devil and the Scholars’ , Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages, pp. 159–207.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic the sky’), and are allowed to tempt man (11.33, 468). They may seem appealing in their subtlety but are exclusively evil, whether overtly or in acts disguised as good (8.14, 319). Augustine also explores the ideas that demons inhabit idols and originate from the dead (8.27, 340), notions he attributes to Hermes Trismegistus, ‘the Egyptian’ (8.23ff), and he firmly distinguishes the pagan cult of the dead, reliant on demons, from the Christian cult of martyrs. The gods and spirits of popular, pagan tradition are identified as demons. Augustine refers both to classical and Celtic beliefs: ‘Silvanos et Panes, quos vulgos incubus vocant’ (‘Silvani and Pans, commonly called incubi’) and ‘quosdam daemons, quos Dusios Galli nuncupant’ (‘certain demons, whom the Gauls call Dusii’), who desire and have intercourse with women. Augustine hesitates in deciding: utrum aliqui spiritus elemento aerio corporati (nam hoc elementum, etiam cum agitatur flabello sensu corporis tactuque sentitur) possint hanc etiam pati libidinem ut, quo modo possunt, sentientibus feminis misceantur. whether some spirits with bodies of air (an element which even when set in motion by a fan is felt by the bodily sense of touch) can also experience this lust and so can mate, in whatever way they can, with women, who feel their embraces. (15.23, 638) Whereas Porphyry was not willing either wholly to accept or to condemn demons, ‘anicula Christiana’ (‘any Christian old woman’ , 10.11, 387) both believes in and firmly denounces them. Augustine’s words mark the shift from pagan to Christian perspectives: vague belief in good and bad spirits is replaced by a world view in which good is constantly menaced by invisible demons. Their existence is justified by their role in urging on the persecutors of the City of God, thus bringing about holy martyrdoms and inspiring the saints. Demons remain to test the individual members of the established Church, and Christ’s mediation is needed to protect mankind from demonic power, by purifying the sinful flesh through grace (10.22, 402). Developing the thought of Ambrose and Justin Martyr, Augustine consistently associates demons with magic, which he categorically condemns and sharply distinguishes from religion; he reiterates this condemnation of mageia, comprising all aspects of magic, in De divinatione daemonum. He is especially eager to condemn astrology, not so much because the secret knowledge of divination challenges the power of God, as the Bible suggests, but because divination is a false, potentially demonic, art, which by promoting the idea of destiny opposes both divine providence and free will. Augustine is damning about the conclusions of astrologers, and offers extensive examples based on the differences between twins born under precisely the same stars. Astrologers may seem to offer answers because they are inspired by demons (5.7, 188), whose evil nature is in turn proven by their pleasure in ‘magicarum artium sceleratum puniendamque violentiam’ (‘the abominable and legally punishable violence of magic arts’ , 9.1, 344). Divination by signs within nature may encourage demonic intervention, and the coming of the Antichrist will be marked by a proliferation of ‘signis et prodigiis mendacii’ (‘signs 61

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance and lying portents’ , 20.19, 934), which will either be illusory or lead men into falsehood. Augustine firmly condemns the neo-Platonists, especially Porphyry, who argue for a white magic or theurgy (10.10, 384), and contrasts magic, effected by demons, to miracles, which occur through faith: Fiebant autem simplici fide atque fiducia pietatis, non incantationibus et carminibus nefariae curiositatis arte compositis, quam vel magian vel detesta­ biliore nomine goetian vel honorabiliore theurgian vocant qui quasi conantur ista discernere et inlicitis artibus deditos alios damnabiles, quos et maleficos vulgus appellat – hos enim ad goetian pertinere dicunt – alios autem lauda­ biles videri volunt, quibus theurgian deputant; cum sint utrique ritibus falla­ cibus daemonum obstricti sub nominibus angelorum. They were achieved by simple faith and devout confidence, not by spells and charms composed according to the rules of criminal superstition, the craft of which is called magic, or sorcery – a name of detestation – or by the more honourable title of ‘theurgy’ . For people attempt to make some sort of a distinction between practitioners of illicit arts, who are to be condemned, classing those as ‘sorcerers’ (the popular name for this kind of thing is ‘black magic’) and others whom they are prepared to regard as praiseworthy, attributing to them the practice of ‘theurgy’ . In fact both types are engaged in the fraudulent rites of demons, wrongly called angels. (10.9, 383)4 Augustine creates a dramatic opposition between demonic and angelic power, magic and miracle; angels, he argues, assisted Moses in his competition with the magicians (10.8, 382). As demons cannot be mediators, so they cannot be constrained to purify the soul as well as to bind with evil spells, and Augustine refutes Porphyry’s notion of angels who make revelations to theurgists: in fact, these are false and ‘maligna daemonia’ (‘malignant demons’), ‘deducti arte’ (‘attracted by magical art of some kind’ , 10.26, 409). Demonic marvels are invariably deceitful and malevolent (10.11, 387). Their powers are behind magic apparently achieved herbis et lapidibus et animantibus et sonis certis quibusdam ac vocibus et ­figurationibus atque figmentis, quibusdam etiam observatis in caeli conversione motibus siderum. by means of herbs and stones and animals, by certain prescribed sounds and phrases, by the use of figures and models, or again by the observation of certain movements of the stars in the changing face of heaven. (10.11, 389) Men are thus deceived into magical practices. Augustine relates a series of ­wonders effected by demons: the images of the Penates carried by Aeneas and 4 It

is difficult to translate goetia and maleficos, the terms commonly used for evil magic and its practitioners: ‘sorcery’ and ‘sorcerers’ might be more appropriate than ‘witchcraft’ and ‘witches’ . Augustine treats magic extensively in Books VIII–X of De Civitate Dei. Further condemnation, instancing Samuel and Paul, is found in De Doctrina Christiana 2, 88–9.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic magically transported from one place to another; a whetstone, cut by Tarquinius with a razor; illusions such as ‘lunam deponere’ (‘bringing down the moon’ , 10.16, 395). Natural marvels are to be distinguished from ‘humanarum et magicarum id est per homines daemonicarum artium et ipsorum per se ipsos daemonum multa miracula’ (‘a host of other marvels of human and of magical origin – that is, miracles of the demon’s black arts performed by men, and miracles performed by the demons themselves’ , 21.6, 974). A lamp of Venus that is never extinguished thus may be contrived through asbestos (a natural marvel), or through the magic art of men, or through demons lured into the shrine by pagan rituals ‘per varia genera lapidum herbarum lignorum animalium carminum rituum’ (‘in the shape of various kinds of stones, plants, pieces of wood, animals, spells and ceremonies’ , 21.6, 975). Demons instruct humans in shaping mechanical illusions, ‘mêchanêmata’ (‘contrivances’), ‘si tot et tanta mirifica … ut ea qui nesciunt opinentur esse divina’ (‘of a nature so astounding that those unfamiliar with them would suppose them to be the works of God himself ’ , 21.6, 975), such as a temple suspended in mid-air between lodestones. Demonic teaching can also include more ominous sorcery of the kind evoked by Dido in her description of a Libyan priestess, whose spells raise spirits, move trees from the mountains, and turn rivers and stars in their courses, ‘si magorum opera, quos nostra scriptura veneficos et incantatores vocat, in tantum daemones extollerere’ (‘it seems that the demons can raise the operations of the magicians (our Scriptures call them “sorcerers” and “enchanters”) to such a pitch of efficiency’ , 21.6, 976).5 Paradoxically, for Augustine magic also lends credibility to the powers of God, who endowed nature with its marvellous properties, and gave men ‘ingenia, qui ea miris utuntur modis’ (‘the wit to employ those properties in marvellous ways’ , 21.7, 976), while rendering angels still more marvellous. Augustine’s condemnation of demonic marvels is accompanied by a keen awareness of the genuine marvellous and its counterpart, the monstrous, both treated as aspects of God’s creation. Augustine draws upon Pliny to recite a whole series of extraordinary natural phenomena. The marvellous renders more credible the everlasting torments of hell: Augustine offers the example of creatures that live within fire, such as worms or salamanders, or volcanoes, which burn yet are not consumed (21.2, 965). The possibility of incorruptibility is also proven by the peacock, whose flesh does not putrefy: Quis enim nisi Deus creator omnium dedit carni pavonis mortui ne putesceret? Quod cum auditu incredibile videretur, evenit ut apud Carthaginem nobis cocta apponeretur haec avis, de cuius pectore pulparum quantum visum est decerptum servari iussimus. Quod post dierum tantum spatium quanto alia caro quaecumque cocta putesceret prolatum atque oblatum nihil nostrum offendit olfactum. Itemque repositum post dies amplius quam triginta idem quod erat inventum est, idemque post annum, nisi quod aliquantum corpulentiae siccioris et contractioris fuit. 5 Aeneid,

IV, ll. 478–98; Dido in fact describes the priestess’s rites not so that she can practise lovemagic but in order that Anna build her funeral pyre.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance For who but the Creator of all things gave to the peacock the power of resisting putrefaction after death? I had heard of this property and had thought it incredible, until one day at Carthage I was served with a roast peacock, and I gave orders that what seemed a sufficient quantity of meat should be cut from the breast and kept. After an interval of some days, long enough to have ensured the putrefaction of any other kind of cooked meat, this was brought out and presented to me; and I found it had no offensive smell. It was then put back in store, and after more than thirty days it was found to be in the same condition; and there was no change in a year’s time except that the flesh was somewhat dry and shrivelled. (21.4, 968) Augustine describes a whole series of other marvels: the power of chaff both to cool and heat; the paradox of fire that blackens what it burns, producing charcoal, but also purifies stones; the powers of diamonds, which only goat’s blood can resist; the mysterious force of magnets (21.4, 968–71). Such natural marvels should prove to unbelievers ‘cum divina vel praeterita vel futura miracula’ (‘the miracles of God in the past and his marvellous works that are still to come’ , 21.5, 971). What seem to be pagan marvels, such as a wondrous spring in Gaul, may in fact demonstrate God’s power as First Mover: marvel occurs through God-given qualities intrinsic to the object, element or animal. Although Augustine is highly critical of the use of occult forces, which may invoke demons, he is certain of the existence of such forces – in stones, plants and stars. Christianity affirms the notion of the universe as single organism in its principle of God as Prime Mover, orchestrating the system of the spheres. It would be a small step for later natural philosophers to look back to classical works, in an attempt to harness such forces. God’s countless marvels, which span the elements, assert his power to raise the dead and punish the evil (21.6, 976). God both sets in train and may alter nature, for instance through portents or interventions such as comets or eclipses. Miracle exists on the same continuum as the marvellous and the portentous, but may be defined as God’s immediate intervention in the world. Like marvel, miracle underpins Augustine’s faith, making believable ‘unum incredibile, quod de carnis resurrectione atque in caelum ascensione’ (‘one incredible event, Christ’s resurrection and ascension’ , 22.5, 1029). Augustine offers a series of contemporary miracles of healing but their message is one: the proof of Christian belief. Miracles may be ascribed to pagan gods, but these, which rely on demons, ‘sicut a Moyse magi Pharaonis, sic eorum dii victi sunt a martyribus nostris’ (‘are outdone by our martyrs, as Pharaoh’s magicians were by Moses’ , 22.10, 1049). Augustine fiercely defends Christians, in particular Peter, from charges of sorcery (18.53, 839). For Augustine and his successors, then, the Christian supernatural comprises God in his three persons, his presence in the world marked by marvel, portent, and miracle; and angels and demons, who may imitate the divine through their use of supernatural powers, or tempt men into the use of magical arts. Augustine does not doubt the possibility of magic, nor doubt its demonic qualities, and this notion of dangerous, black arts will cast a very long shadow. In the early medieval period, magic was repeatedly linked to paganism. While anxieties over pagan ritual 64

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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic came to be replaced by concern about heresy, interest in the malevolent power of demons, if anything, increased, and is instanced in the theological discussion of incubi right across the medieval period. Questions concerning demons were complicated by ancient folk ideas of spirits of the air and other kinds of otherworldly being, ideas which themselves combined folk, learned and literary traditions. At the same time, the notions of natural magic and marvel treated by Augustine were sustained, to flourish from the twelfth century onwards with the growth of the occult sciences. The ideas of white and black magic retain their strength across the medieval period. Extensive prohibitions translate into limited penalties, and the small number of actual trials of magic is balanced by the enormous cultural and intellectual power of the concept within legal, theological and literary discourses.

Prohibitions and Punishments Laws and Cases Secular laws of the early medieval world echoed the trends of thought evident in Augustine’s writings. Although through the notions of the marvellous and of occult forces in nature, the idea of natural magic endured, there were no legal distinctions between mageia, goeteia, and theurgia – ambiguous magic, black or fraudulent magic, and magic employing the supernatural to benign, spiritual ends – distinctions of the kind made by classical philosophers. A central issue was harm, and the classical term for malevolent magic or witchcraft, maleficium, was used into the Renaissance.6 The medieval terms ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ do not, however, imply Satanic witchcraft as it came to be understood (as involving rituals of the witches’ sabbath, in particular intercourse with the devil).7 In the Middle Ages the terms ‘witch’ and ‘witchcraft’ are broadly synonymous with maleficus and maleficium. ‘Sorcerer’ and ‘sorcery’ are more likely to imply divination, reflecting the origin of the term (Anglo-Norman sorcer from Latin sortiarius, from sort-, sors, ‘lot, chance’), perhaps implying consultation of demons but also denoting magic much more generally. Before 1375 there were very few cases of prosecution 6 See

Peters’ discussion of the problematic semantic history of witchcraft and the importance of other terms such as maleficium, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, pp. 168–70. George Lyman Kittredge’s study, Witchcraft in Old and New England (New York: Russell & Russell, 1929), though dated, remains extremely valuable for its extensive research into a wide range of English writings and published records. This is supplemented by the formidable study of C. L’Estrange Ewen, Witchcraft and Demonianism: A Concise Account Derived from Sworn Depositions and Confessions Obtained in the Courts of England and Wales (London: Heath Cranton, 1933, repr. London: Frederick Muller; New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970), which offers details of a very large number of cases based on examination of some ‘quarter of a million’ parchments (p. 9). See also C. L’Estrange Ewen, ed., Witch-Hunting and Witch-Trials: The Indictments for Witchcraft from the Records of 1373 Assizes Held from the Home Circuit, ad 1559–1736 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1929). The following discussion is indebted to these works, as well as those listed in note 1 of this chapter. 7 Jeffrey Burton Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), pp. 16–17.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance for witchcraft in Europe (mainly in England and Germany). Charges are usually of sorcery, sometimes with invocation of demons, and often seem politically motivated.8 Only after 1375 does the charge of diabolism become prominent, and the number of trials for witchcraft increases between 1375 and 1500.9 It is from 1500 onwards that the Continental witch-hunt gains momentum, and only during the reign of Elizabeth I that witchcraft becomes a major concern in England, although it is never so luridly expressed or fiercely pursued as on the Continent. The earliest secular laws condemn magic according to the degree of harm it causes. The Theodosian Code (ad 438) repeated late imperial prohibitions against consulting soothsayers, astrologers, diviners, augurs and seers, classifying the practitioners of magic as maleficos, and magic or witchcraft as maleficium. The Code is definite in its condemnation: Eorum est scientia punienda et severissimis merito legibus vindicanda, qui magicis adcincti artibus aut contra hominum moliti salutem aut pudicos ad libidinem deflexisse, animos detegentur. The science of those men who are equipped with magic arts and who are revealed to have worked against the safety of men or to have turned virtuous minds to lust shall be punished and deservedly avenged by the most severe laws.10 A gloss notes that those enquiring into the future may call upon demons, and that diviners merit capital punishment. Malefici may be of any class; maleficium of any kind, and emphasis is placed on secrecy and potential treason.11 Even the Code, however, excepted certain forms of protective magic, such as the use of simple prognostications (based on animal behaviour, the weather or symptoms of illness) 8 For

a discussion of attitudes to and historical instances of divination, and of ideas of the future in medieval culture, see J. A. Burrow and Ian P. Wei, ed., Medieval Futures: Attitudes to the Future in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2000). 9 An enormous amount has been written on witchcraft in the early modern period. As a starting point, see Bengt Ankarloo, Stuart Clark and William Monter, The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, vol. 4: The Period of the Witch Trials, pp. 53–95; see also Richard Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300–1500 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976); and Alan McFarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study, 2nd edn, ed. J. A. Sharp (London, 1999). Views have changed dramatically: see Russell’s critique in Witchcraft in the Middle Ages of the ideas surveyed in Rossell Hope Robbins, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (London: Spring Books, 1959), pp. 39–40. Of special importance have been the revisionist study of Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom, revised edn (1st edn, 1975; London: Pimlico, 1993), and the scholarship of Stuart Clark, in particular, Thinking With Demons, The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). On dating the European witch-hunt, see Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials, pp. 10–26, and Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, which sets the date considerably later than had been thought. 10 Theodosiani, Libri XVI, cum Constitutiones Sirmondianis, ed. Theodor Mommsen and Paul M. Meyer, 2 vols in 3 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1954); The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions, trans. Clyde Pharr, Corpus of Roman Law 1 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952), 9.16.4. 11 Flint, The Rise of Magic, p. 17.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic to safeguard crops. Justinian’s Code and Digest (sixth century, but not known until the twelfth century) incorporated many aspects of the Theodosian Code, similarly condemning practitioners of magic, astrology and divination, so that a clear tradition of Roman law was established, on which later secular law codes drew.12 Such codes address not elevated, learned magic so much as rituals addressed to individual human desires concerning love, health, prosperity and good fortune, much of the kind suggested by both material and written evidence for the classical period. The Church echoed the prohibitions against magic found in Roman law and in emerging secular law codes in the rulings of Frankish and Visigothic synods and councils. The emphasis was on popular practices: the use of amulets, astrology, pagan rituals. Such rulings were recorded in various canon law collections, most influentially that of the Scythian monk Dionysius Exiguus (c. 500), which was widely circulated and, with additions by Pope Hadrian I (the collection known as the Dionysio-Hadriana), employed by Charlemagne, to whom Hadrian sent it in 774. The Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum, which accompanies a copy of the rulings of the Council of Leptinnes (c. 743), lists thirty unacceptable pagan or magical practices: pagan rituals, medical magic, divination, incantation, sorcery, weather-magic and love-magic. Charlemagne’s Admonitio generalis (789) followed these canons in its comprehensive prohibition across his empire. Charlemagne’s laws also draw explicitly on biblical tradition: sorcery, magic and enchantment are forbidden (ch. 18) and are punishable by death (ch. 65). Later canon laws repeat and elaborate Charlemagne’s, but express concern too about false accusation, and capitularies recommend penance and penalties of imprisonment rather than death, after careful questioning and confession. Prohibitions against magic recur across Anglo-Saxon laws. The earliest European laws to be written in the vernacular, they follow the emphasis of Roman law and of other Germanic law codes, sometimes elaborating but not altering the general condemnation of magic, and they employ a striking range of specialised vocabulary of magic. Magic generally is termed scinnlac (magical act) or scinncræft (magical skill), or galdorcræft (skill in enchantment). Magic associated with drugs, especially poison, is referred to as lyblac or lybcræft (practitioner of medical magic, lyblæca (m.), lybbestre (f.)); bealocræft (evil art, sorcery) also occurs. Old English provides the term wiccean (to practise magic: Germanic, of obscure origin), and hence, wiccecræft, the synonymous wiccedom and wiccung (practitioner, wicca (m.), wicce (f.)), and wigle and wiglung: these seem to refer to divination, as does the more neutral tungolcræft.13 12 Codex

Iustinianus, in Corpus Iuris Civilis, 3 vols, ed. Theodor Mommsen, Paul Krueger and Rudolf Schoell, vol. 2 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1872–7), 9.18. Justinian’s Digest addresses ‘ueneni mali’ (baneful drugs) and ‘mala sacrificia’ (evil sacrifices): see The Digest of Justinian, ed. and trans. Theodor Mommsen and Alan Watson, 4 vols (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), vol. 4, 48.8.3 and 13, pp. 819–21. 13 For discussion of vocabulary, see Peters, ‘Medieval Church and State’ , pp. 202–3, and Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, p. 95.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance The association of magic with paganism is a primary focus: in the earliest laws treating magic, those of Wihtred of Kent (late seventh century), pagan rituals are equated with demonic sacrifice, as they are in the eleventh-century laws of Cnut, which forbid worship of heathen gods or ‘deofol-gyld’ (‘images of the devil’), and worship of nature (sun, moon, fire, flood, springs, stones, trees). They include in the definition of the heathen anyone who ‘wiccecræft lufige’ , and forbid rituals of sacrifice or divination as ‘swylcra gedwimera’ (‘of such illusions/delusions’), a term repeatedly used of sorcery.14 The laws of Alfred are severe, reiterating the biblical prohibition, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ (Exod. 22:18), and seem to associate women in particular with the practice and encouragement of magic, ‘Ða fæmnan þe gewuniað onfón gealdorcræftigan 7 scinlæcan 7 wiccan, ne læt þu ða libban’ (‘Do not let the woman accustomed to using magical arts and sorcery and witchcraft live’).15 Tenth-century laws equate the practices of magic and divination with serious crimes such as murder, punishable by exile, death or fine, though repentance is allowed for.16 The gravity of the prohibitions is suggested by an Old English deed of exchange (963–75), in which Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, gains an estate forfeited because a widow and her son ‘drove iron pins into [an image of] Wulfstan’s father, Aelfsige’; the discovery of the ‘murderous instrument’ , leads to the drowning of the widow and outlawry of her son.17 This minute piece of evidence is telling in its confirmation of the enduring practice of the ‘defixio’ (‘curse’), in this case effected by the use of an image. Trial by ordeal of swimming, implied here (the precursor of ducking witches), is also mentioned in the laws of Æthelstan and Æthelred.18 The laws may treat the possibility of death caused by witchcraft in the notion of secret murder (‘morð’ , ‘murdrum’) instanced in the laws of Cnut along with pagan rituals (‘swylcra gedwimera’) such as venerating heathen gods; this is specified in the laws of Æthelstan along with ‘wicce­ cræftum’ and ‘liblacum’ .19 Cnut’s Proclamation (1020) is striking for the collocation ‘mægslagan 7 morðslagan 7 mansworan 7 wiccean 7 wælcyrian 7 æwbrecan 14 See

F. Liebermann, ed., Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, 3 vols (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1898–1916), 2 Cnut, 5 and 5.1, vol. 1, pp. 310, 312; see also 2 Cnut 4.1, which refers to ‘wiccean oððe wigleras’ , translated in Quadripartitus as ‘sage uel incantatrices’ , vol. 1, pp. 310–11. The discussion below is indebted to the summary of Anglo-Saxon laws in Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 27–8, and to Kittredge’s comprehensive notes. 15 Alfred, Laws, Introduction 30, in Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, vol. 1, pp. 38–9. 16 6 Æthelred 7, in Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, vol. 1, p. 248; see also Edward and Guthrum, 11 and Quadripartitus, 2 Cnut 4a; 1 Edmund 6 (Synod of London, ad 942–96), in Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, vol. 1, pp. 134–5, 310, 186, for similar phrasing. All recommend punishment by exile or death otherwise. 17 Dorothy Whitelock, ed. English Historical Documents, vol. 1: c. 500–1042, 2nd edn (London: Eyre, Methuen, 1979), 112, p. 563. 18 See Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 232–8; for English laws, see 2 Æthelstan 23 and 3 Æthelred, 6, in Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, vol. 1, pp. 162, 230. For the ritual of judicium aquae frigidum, see Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, vol. 1, pp. 401–5, 413–15, 417–18, 422–4, 427. 19 2 Cnut 5.1 and 2 Æthelstan 6, Quadripartitus, ‘de sortilegis et liblacis et mortem dantibus’ , in Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, vol. 1, pp. 312, 152–3; the term occurs in Wulfstan’s


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic 7 syblegeru’ , suggesting the elision of Anglo-Saxon and Norse tradition in the use of the term ‘wælcyrian’ to denote the strix figure, the witch who flies by night.20 The canons attributed to Wulfstan, like earlier laws, forbid paganism, adding some colourful instances of forbidden magical practices: … and forbeode wilweorðunga and licwiglunga and hwata and galdra and manweorðunga and þa gemearr þe man drifð on mislicum gewiglungum and on friðsplottum and on ellenum and eac on oðrum mislicum treowum and on stanum and on manegum mislicum gedwimerum þe men on dreogað fela þæs þe hi na ne scoldon. … we forbid the veneration of springs and magic involving dead bodies and omens and charms and the veneration of human beings and the evil that people perpetrate through various spells and at common sanctuaries and near elder trees and also near various other trees and at stones and in all sorts of errors in which people persist the more they should not.21 The details resemble those found in the Indiculus superstitionum, however, suggesting reiteration of earlier prohibitions as well as the possibility that pagan practices continued in folk tradition. Post-Conquest law codes, councils and synods sustain the same emphases, placing particular emphasis on divination. In 1075 the Council of London, presided over by Lanfranc, forbade hanging up the bones of dead beasts to ward off cattle plague, as well as divination of different kinds (sortes, uruspicia, divinationes), and ‘aliqua huiusmodi opera diaboli’ (‘all such works of the devil’).22 In 1126, a synod of London condemned sorcery, soothsaying and augury, which were to be punished by excommunication.23 Divination continues to be associated with paganism in earlier post-Conquest laws, as in the Quadripartitus (c. 1114), which translates Cnut’s laws against pagan practices, and includes ‘ars incantationis’ among the list of forbidden rituals.24 The eleventh-century Latin version of the laws of Æthelred Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, probably an interpolation: see Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 28–9 and notes. 20 Cnut’s Proclamation (ad 1020), 15, in Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, vol. 1, p. 274. On the supernatural in Norse literature, see the definitive study of John McKinnell, Meeting the Other in Norse Myth and Legend (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2005). 21 Theodore, xxvii, in B. Thorpe, ed., Ancient Laws and Institutes of England: Comprising Laws Enacted Under the Anglo-Saxon Kings from Æthelbirht to Cnut (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1840), p. 292, and Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, pp. 104, 107. 22 David Wilkins, ed., Concilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, 4 vols (London, 1737; repr. Brussels: Culture et Civilisation, 1964), vol. 1, pp. 363–5, and see William of Malmesbury’s record of the prohibition, ‘Ne sortes seu divinationes ab aliquo exerceantur’ , De Gestis Pontificum Anglorum. Libri Quinque, ed. N. E. S. A. Hamilton, Rolls Series 52 (London: Longman, 1870), book I.42, p. 68. 23 Wilkins, Conciliae Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, vol. 1, p. 408; Symeon of Durham notes that canons are passed against ‘sortilegos, ariolas, et auguria’ in the Council held at Westminster in 1126, Historia Ecclesiae Dunhelmensis, ed. Thomas Arnold, 2 vols, Rolls Series (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1882, 1885), vol. 2, p. 280. 24 Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, 2 Cnut 5.1 and Quadripartitus, vol. 1, p. 313.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance instances necromancy.25 Maleficus and venefica (poisoner) are often used synonymously. The early twelfth-century Leges Henrici echo Anglo-Saxon laws, recommending a penalty of death for murder performed ‘ueneno uel sortilegio uel inuultuacione seu maleficio aliquo’ (‘by poison, divination, images, or any other kind of witchcraft’); compensation may be made if the victim survives.26 The Leis Willelme reduce the penalty for ‘ueneficio’ from death to exile.27 The accused could choose trial by ordeal, and various laws mention ordeal by water, a penalty also employed in the twelfth century for theft, adultery, and homicide.28 Ordeals by fire and water or hot iron were forbidden, however, by Henry III in 1219, following the Fourth Lateran Council (1215); the swimming test re-emerged in the seventeenth century.29 Laws dealt severely with heresy, which was punishable by burning in Acts passed by Henry IV and Henry V, and could include witchcraft, but there are no records of cases of witchcraft thus punished in this earlier period.30 Common practice was for ecclesiastical courts to try cases of sorcery or witchcraft, though punishment would be administered through secular law. In 1168, a woman was fined by the Sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire for sorcery.31 In 1209, a woman was charged with sorcery, and freed after suffering the ordeal of grasping a red-hot iron.32 Political or religious implications considerably increased the severity with which the practice of magic was treated. In 1213, a hermit, Peter, ‘qui, eo quod multis futura multa praedixerat, sapiens dicebatur’ (‘who, because he prophesied many things concerning the future, was known as “the wise” ’), was hanged with his son for prophesying the end of King John’s reign.33 Several ­chroniclers report a complaint brought by the Archdeacon of Oxford to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1222 concerning a woman whose older sister had for a long time been given to ‘maleficis incantationibus’ (‘witchcraft using spells’) and had deluded their brother ‘suis magicis artibus’ (‘with their magic arts’); he 25 6

Æthelred 28.2, in Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, vol. 1, p. 255; see also Canons of Edgar, in Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 396. 26 Leges Henrici 71, in Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, vol. 1, p. 590. 27 Leis Willelme 36, in Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, vol. 1, p. 514. 28 See Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, Ritual 13.7, for ‘maleficium’ (c. 1130–50), vol. 1, p. 423, and Ritual 1.20, vol. 1, p. 404, for ‘ueneficium’ (c. 1060, noted in one MS), and Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 234, for a number of twelfth-century records of trial for felony (not necessarily witchcraft) by cold-water ordeal, found in the Pipe Rolls of Henry II. 29 See Leis Willelme 15, 3 for examples of ordeal by water (not specifically for ‘maleficium’), in Liebermann, Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, vol. 1, pp. 502–3; Benedict of Peterborough refers ‘ad juisam aquae’ in relation to the Assize of Clarendon (1166), The Chronicle of the Reigns of Henry II and Richard I, ad 1169–1192, ed. William Stubbs, 2 vols, Rolls Series 49 (London: Longmans, 1867), vol. 2, Appendix 2, cxlix–cl; I, 108; and see Glanville, Tractatus de Legibus, ed. 1604, fol. 114r, cited by Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 233–4, with numerous instances, p. 234. 30 2 Henry IV (c. 15) and 2 Henry V (c. 7), cited by Ewen, Witch-Hunting and Witch-Trials, p. 35. 31 Pipe Rolls, cited by Ewen, Witch-Hunting and Witch-Trials, p. 27. 32 Curia Regis Rolls 51, m.8d, cited by Ewen, Witch-Hunting and Witch-Trials, p. 27; see also Robbins, Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, p. 161. 33 Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora (1067–1216), ed. Henry Richard Luard, 7 vols, Rolls Series 57 (London: Longman, 1874), vol. 2, pp. 535, 541, 546–7, recounted in various other chronicles.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic was supposed to have been crucified and to have exhibited the stigmata. It is easy to imagine that this case seemed peculiarly demonic, and both the witch and her brother were imprisoned until they died.34 By contrast, in 1279, John of Kerneslawe in Northumberland was accused of striking and killing a witch, and his goods confiscated.35 Magic practised or purchased by those in religious office was a serious concern. In 1280 the Abbot of Sulby was excommunicated for the theft of a large sum of money, used in order to pay a certain Elias Favelle, ‘incantator’ and ‘sortilegus’ , to find the body of the Abbot’s drowned brother.36 In 1286, Godfre Darel, a Cistercian monk of Rievaulx, was reported to the Archbishop of York for practising ‘maleficiis et incantationibus nefariis’ (‘with witchcraft and evil incantations’).37 The Synod of Exeter (1287) prohibited a familiar catalogue of rituals: ‘conjurations for detecting theft (by means of sword or basin [mirror magic] or of “names written and enclosed in balls of clay and placed in holy water”), and divinations and sortilege such as “some wretches use for the sake of women with whom they are madly in love” ’ .38 In 1311, perhaps reflecting the concern over the Knights Templar in France, Bishop Baldock issued a mandate ‘against sorcerers and enchanters’ , which suggested that ‘the horrid crime of sorceries, incantations, and art magic’ was increasing, as were divination and conjuration such as invoking spirits ‘in fingernails, mirrors, stones, and rings’ .39 Divination is a recurrent emphasis: attempts to foretell the future could threaten social and religious order, and call into question divine authority, and the charge held considerable political power. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, secular courts became more engaged with cases of magic. There were, however, very few instances in which the death penalty was enacted, and in fact punishments seem to have been relatively light. Up to 1400, cases are only recorded on average every other year. Records provide a vivid picture of a world where magic was condemned but available, often of a basic kind – simple acts of divination, and use of charms, images or ritual magic, especially for medicinal purposes. Fraud was a major concern, and several charges were brought against false medical practitioners and diviners. A case in 1371, of ‘a man arrested for possessing a skull [‘visage dun home morte’], the head 34 Radulphus

de Coggeshall, Chronicon Anglicanum, ed. Joseph Stevenson, Rolls Series 66 (London: Longman, 1875), p. 191; also recounted by Holinshed, Matthew Paris and others: see Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 46. 35 Assize Roll, Northumberland, 7 Edw. 1, in Three Early Assize Rolls for the County of Northumberland, Saec. xiii, ed. Mr Page, Surtees Society 88 (Durham: Surtees Society, 1891), p. 343. 36 The Register of William Wickwane, Lord Archbishop of York, ed. William Brown, Surtees Society 114 (Durham: Surtees Society, 1907), p. 24. 37 The Register of John le Romeyn, Lord Archbishop of York, 1286–1296, ed. William Brown, Surtees Society 123 (Durham: Surtees Society, 1913), vol. 1, pp. 158 and xi–xii. 38 Modus Exigendi Confessiones, in Wilkins, Conciliae, vol. 2, p. 162; cited by Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 48. 39 Registrum Radulphi Baldock, ed. R. C. Fowler, Canterbury and York Society Series 7, 2 vols (London: Canterbury and York Society, 1911), vol. 1, pp. 144–5, cited by Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 51–2, 187, 227, and Ewen, Witch-Hunting and Witch-Trials, p. 29.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance of a corpse, and a grimoire [handbook of magic]’ , is more colourful than most, but the man was freed on allowing these to be burned and forfeiting his practice.40 In 1390, one John Berkyng (a converted Jew) was similarly charged by a servant of Edmund, Duke of York, ‘with practising soothsaying’ and for false accusation of theft, but was treated more severely, perhaps because of the royal connection of his accuser, perhaps because of his ethnic origin: after confessing, he was placed in the pillory, imprisoned for two weeks and then banished.41 In 1405/6, a royal commission granted the right to the Bishop of Lincoln ‘to examine and imprison all sorcerers, magicians, enchanters, necromancers, diviners, ariolers [soothsayers] and phitoners [?pythons, summoners of spirits], within his diocese’ .42 Yet penalties remained relatively light, usually taking the form of public shame. In the course of the fifteenth century, charges span different social levels, both lay and clerical, both men and women, and include soothsaying (for instance, to find stolen goods or buried treasure),43 medical magic, conjuring demons, occult experiments, injury or impotence effected by witchcraft, and the making of false allegations of witchcraft.44 Excommunication was a common penalty. In 1438, the medical healer Agnes Hancock was brought before the bishop, accused of consulting with spirits, and, because she could not explain some of the strange words (‘nomina barbarica et extranea’) in her charms, forced to renounce heresy.45 In 1447, John Fox of Wadenhoe was excommunicated for necromancy and enchantment.46 Some cases reflect learned knowledge: in 1466, Robert Barker of Babraham was discovered to own a magical book, chart, engraved plates and a wand; as well as fasting for a year, he was required to perform a public penance by carrying these through the market places of Cambridge and Ely, after which 40 Robbins,

The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, p. 161; Year Book 45, Edward III, 1679, 17; S.P. 12, xvi, no. 56, cited by Ewen, Witch-Hunting and Witch-Trials, p. 34. 41 Calendar of Letter-Books Preserved Among the Archives of the Corporation of the City of London at the Guildhall, ed. Reginald R. Sharpe, Letter-Book H. Circa ad 1375–1399 (London: Corporation of the City of London at the Guildhall, 1907), p. 351; the same case is recorded in Henry Thomas Riley, ed., Memorials of London and London Life in the XIIIth, XIVth and XVth Centuries … ad 1276–1419 (London: Longmans, 1868), 13 Richard II, ad 1390, p. 518. 42 Patent Roll, c. 66, 374, m.22, cited by Ewen, Witch-Hunting and Witch-Trials, p. 35. 43 See for example the Proclamation of John Carpenter, Town-Clerk (1418) against ‘Thomas Forde Sothseyer’ , accused of persuading a woman of Eastcheap that he would provide her with treasure buried by her husband and £200 if she would pay for ‘sotell instrumentes’ of his craft, his food and drink, and marry him; and of promising another woman to find her lost gown of cloth of gold; the penalty is three days in the pillory, wearing the liar’s token of a whetstone round his neck: see Calendar of Letter-Books, ed. Sharpe, Letter-Book I. Circa ad 1400–1422 (1909), pp. 196–7. 44 C. Trice Martin, ‘Clerical Life in the Fifteenth Century, as Illustrated by Proceedings of the Court of Chancery’ , Archaeologia: or Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity 60 pt. 2 (1907), pp. 353–78: pp. 371–3. Martin includes a range of fifteenth-century cases of witchcraft, two using ‘mamettes’ or images for love-magic, and one false divination; the term ‘Nygromancy’ is used alongside ‘Wychecraft’ and ‘Sorcery’ : see pp. 375–7. 45 Notes and Queries for Somerset and Dorset 12 (1911), pp. 33–4, from Bishop Stafford’s Register, Harleian MS 6966, discussed in Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 145–6. 46 R. C. Fowler, ‘Secular Aid for Excommunication’ , Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 3rd Series 8 (1914), pp. 113–17: p. 117.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic they were burned.47 Mediums were sometimes used. In 1467, a certain William Byg, unsuccessful in his own attempts at conjuring images, was accused of having used a boy of under twelve years, who with ‘unum lapidem cristallum’ had repeated various prayers, sometimes seeing stolen goods, thieves, and angels who revealed the whereabouts of the goods and thieves. He was only required to appear in public with a scroll on his head, ‘Ecce sortilegus’ .48 Cases continue to involve divination; love-magic; and medical magic, including the use of poison. In 1484 or 1486, one Thomas Fereby consulted ‘diverse nigromansiers’ about his stolen goods, and hence charged a parish priest with theft; the priest then sought an injunction against Fereby for his illicit practices. Records such as Sir Matthew Hale’s suggest that itinerant practitioners of magic were fairly common at the end of the fifteenth century, but were not punished with particular severity; indeed there seems to have been more anxiety about fraud and false accusation than about genuine magical practice. As late as 1500, a monk of Sulby, Northamptonshire, was brought before the bishop for using ‘libros experimentorum’ (‘books of magical experiments’) and paying an itinerant magician for instruction; his books were seized, but his claim to have employed them in the interest of ‘sciencia’ , ‘tantam speculacionem tamen nunquam ad operacionem’ (‘exclusively for speculation but never for operation’), was believed.49 Of far greater concern were charges of magic brought against those in court circles, and equated with treason. Matthew Paris records that in 1232 Hubert de Burgh, Henry III’s justiciar, was accused of employing ‘incantationes et sortilegia’ to win the king’s favour,50 while in 1301–3, Edward I’s treasurer, Walter Langton, Bishop of Coventry, was accused of employing demonic magic to gain the favour of the king, and to amass a large fortune. Langton was tried by an ecclesiastical court for a series of lurid crimes: adultery, simony, murder and sorcery, and ­‘having done homage to the devil, kissed him on the back (in tergo), and often spoke[n] to him’; the bishop was suspended by the pope, and his case taken to the Curia of Rome, but he was firmly defended by Edward I and eventually acquitted, with very large expenses.51 Adam Stratton, Edward I’s chamberlain of the 47 Bishop

Gray’s Register, in Parsons, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society 19, New Series 13 (1915), pp. 37–8; see Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 207. 48 Rev. James Raine, ‘Divination in the Fifteenth Century by Aid of a Magical Crystal’, The Archaeological Journal 13 (1856), pp. 372–4, discussed in Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 187–8; see also Rev. James Raine, ‘Proceedings connected with a remarkable charge of sorcery, brought against James Richardson and others in the Diocese of York, ad 1510’ , The Archaeological Journal 16 (1859), pp. 71–81, for an extensive case (1510) of sorcery treated as heresy, employing divination, deception and conjuring of demons. 49 Collectanea Anglo-Premonstratensia, ed. Francis A. Gasquet, Camden 3rd Series 12 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1906), vol. 3, pp. 117–18: p. 117; Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England notes a number of cases of magical cures using charms, pp. 39–40. 50 Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, vol. 3, p. 223; Patent Roll 54 Hen. III, 429, 527, cited by Ewen, Witch-Hunting and Witch-Trials, p. 28. 51 The many letters concerning the case include the series in Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland: Papal Letters, 1198–[1513], ed. W. H. Bliss, vol. 1: ad 1198–1304 (London: HMSO, 1893), pp. 607, 600, 605, 610 (only 607 concerns sorcery) and Thomas Rymer,


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Exchequer, had been similarly accused in 1289. Among Stratton’s treasure was said (by the chroniclers, not the Close and Patent Rolls, which do not include witchcraft among Stratton’s crimes) to have been found ‘a container made of silk in which were parings of nails, pubic hair of women, and the feet of toads and moles’ – all typical ingredients in magical recipes – as well as ‘alia diabolica’ (‘other diabolical things’).52 Piers Gaveston was also termed ‘maleficus’ , accused of practising sorcery to gain the love of Edward II.53 The practice of magic against the king was treated with the utmost gravity. The first English trial for witchcraft in a secular court (1324) was of clear political import. A group of twenty-seven inhabitants of Coventry was accused of employing a ‘nigromauncer’ (‘whose lodger gave the testimony’) in order to kill the oppressive prior, his cellarer and seneschal; the Despensers, father and son; and the king, Edward II. The citizens paid the men £20 and £15 respectively and provided wax and canvas for seven images, of which one, made as an experiment, was said to have killed a certain Richard de Sowe: a spit of lead placed in the image’s head was supposed to have caused him severe pain and frenzy, and one placed in the heart to have led to his death.54 Such charges could discredit powerful enemies, and in 1314 or 1315 John Tannere, an opponent of Edward II who confessed that he had ‘served the devell iii yere and more’ , and had been promised the crown, was hanged.55 After Edward’s death, Roger Mortimer unsuccessfully accused Edward’s brother, Edmund, of consulting a friar who had conjured the devil in order to claim that Edward remained alive.56 Love-magic too could be a damaging accusation: Queen Eleanor was said to have employed ‘mauvaises sorceresses’ , one of whom used toads to suck the blood of Fair Rosamond, the mistress of Henry II.57 Alice Perrers was said to have employed a friar, ‘magus inquissimus, maleficiis deditus’ (‘a most enquiring magician, given over to witchcraft’), to use ‘effigies’ (‘images’) along with powerful herbs and incantations, in order to ed., Foedera, Conventiones, Literae, Et Cuiuscunque Generis (London: Churchill, 1705), vol. 2, pp. 900, 907–8, 931–4, cited with other references by Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 241–2 (see his extensive notes). 52 The case is described in many annals and chronicles, as well as legal documents: see for instance Bartholomew de Cotton, Historia Anglicana, ed. Henry Richards Luard, Rolls Series 16 (London: Longman, 1859), p. 172; Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England’s discussion and comprehensive note, pp. 48–9, n. 197; and Ewen, Witch-Hunting and Witch-Trials, pp. 28–9. 53 Johannis de Trokelowe, Vita Edwardi II, in Annales Edward II. Henrici de Blaneforde Chronica, et Edvardi II Vita, ed. Thomas Hearne (London, 1729), p. 110. 54 Coram Rege Roll, in Francis Palgrave, ed., The Parliamentary Writs and Writs of Military Summons …, 2 vols (London: George Eyre for the Record Commission, 1827–34), vol. 2.2, Appendix, pp. 269– 71; Calendar of Patent Rolls 1324–27, p. 44, cited in Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 77–8; and Ewen, Witch-Hunting and Witch-Trials, pp. 29–30. 55 A Chronicle of London, from 1089 to 1483 (London: Longmans, 1827), pp. 44–5, cited in Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials, pp. 13, 109; Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 242. 56 See Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 53–4, and his notes for the numerous chronicle references. 57 Croniques de London Depuis L’An 44 Hen. III Jusqu’à L’An 17 Edw. III, ed. George James Aungier, Camden Society OS 28 (London: Camden Society, 1844), pp. 3–4: p. 4.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic gain the love of Edward III; the friar, also said to have provided two rings of memory and oblivion as Moses had, was sentenced only to strict supervision.58 Perhaps most revealing is the case of Sir Robert Tresilian, Lord Chief Justice of England: highly unpopular for his politics, Tresilian was condemned to hang for treason in 1388 by the Merciless Parliament. Thomas Favent blackens Tresilian’s character with an account of his boast that the things found upon him would protect him from death – ‘certa experimenta et certa signa depicta in eisdem ad modum carac­ terum celi’ (‘images and signs painted with celestial characters’), a painted head of a devil, and inscriptions of many demonic names; with these removed, he was hanged and his throat cut for certainty.59 The penalty itself, however, was not for the practice of magic. Anxiety concerning witchcraft in England seems to have increased in the fifteenth century, when a number of celebrated political accusations were made. Henry V was concerned to gain protection from magical plots: in 1419, a chaplain, Richard Walker, was arrested for sorcery, including the possession of images, a beryl stone, and books of magic, but freed once he explained that none of his experiments had succeeded and he believed the arts to be false.60 In 1441, Eleanor Cobham, Duchess of Gloucester, was accused of conspiring with Canon Thomas Southwell and a clerk, Roger Bolingbroke, with the assistance of Margery Jourdain (or Jourdemain), the ‘Witch of Eye’ (the manor of Eye-next-Westminster), to cause the death of Henry VI – the subject of the first half of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II. Eleanor was also supposed to have employed Margery to prepare ‘medicines and drinkes’ to gain the love of Duke Humphrey. Accused of ‘Sorcery and Necromancy’ , she was made to do penance; Roger (having been exhibited with his magical artefacts – robes, sword and sceptre and images, and supposed to have been assisted by the Canon’s abuse of religious rituals) was hanged for treason; and Margery burned for her ‘sorcerie and witchcrafte’ (having already been arrested for sorcery in 1430, when seven witches were supposed to have plotted against the king, and when Joan of Arc, supposed to have used ‘fals Enchauntements 58 Monk

of St Albans, Chronicon Angliae, Ab Anno Domini 1328 Usque Ad Annum 1388, ed. Edward Maunde Thompson, Rolls Series 64 (London: Longman, 1874), pp. 97–100, 104–5: p. 98. A number of works recount how Moses, a legendary magician, made two rings with engraved stones, which had the powers of memory and forgetfulness, and gave the latter to Tarbis, the Egyptian princess in love with him: see, for example, Gervase of Tilbury, Otia Imperialia, III, 111; Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Historiale, in Speculum Quadruplex: Naturale, Doctrinale, Morale, Historiale (Douai, 1624), 2.2; John Bromyard, Summa Praedicantium, s.v. Caro, C, ii, 14; and in the Gesta Romanorum, cap. 10; see Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 106. Chaucer links Moses to the magic ring in the Squire’s Tale. 59 Thomas Favent, Historia siue Narracio de Modo et Forma Mirabilis Parliamenti, ed. May McKisack, Camden Miscellany 14, Camden 3rd Series 37 (London: Offices of the Society, 1926), p. 18; details repeated in Cobbett’s Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason and Other Crimes and Misdemeanors from the Earliest Period to the Present Time (London: Hansard, 1809), vol. 1, State Trials 11, Richard II 1388, col. 117–18. 60 Plots to destroy the king through ‘ynagination’ are mentioned in Rotuli Parliamentorum ut et Petitiones, et Placita in Parliamento Tempore Henrici R. V, vol. 4, Parliament VII Henry V, p. 118, and various chronicles; see the discussion in Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 79–80, 187; and for Walker, see Wilkins, Conciliae, vol. 3, pp. 393–4.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance and Sorcerie’ was captured); the others were imprisoned.61 Such notorious cases remained the exception, however, despite public concern over sorcery. In 1441, the king commanded that a sum of twenty pounds be paid to doctors, notaries and clerics working against the ‘Superstitiosam Sectam Nigromanticorum, Incantantium, & Sortilegiorum’ .62 In 1477, in another highly prominent case, the astrologer John Stacy, also celebrated as ‘magnus necromanticus’ , who had foretold the death of William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, was said to have used leaden images to bring about the death of Lord Beauchamp and with two others to have calculated and used images and necromancy to bring about the deaths of the king, Edward IV, and the Prince of Wales; Stacy was beheaded but the clerk involved, Thomas Blake, was pardoned.63 In 1478, the Duchess of Bedford was accused and cleared of ‘Wychecraft and Sorcerie’ employing leaden images (broken and fastened with wire) to harm Edward IV and Elizabeth Grey;64 in 1483, Queen Margaret, Elizabeth Woodville and Jane Shore were slandered by accusations of having causing Richard III’s arm (widely known to have been deformed from birth) to wither, and Thomas Nandik, ‘Nigromansier’ was said to have joined with Buckingham in plotting the king’s death.65 Various Lancastrian leaders, with the Countess of Richmond, and Dr Morton, who would become Archbishop of Canterbury, were tried that year for sorcery. The politics of magic, then, are evident: notorious cases could be severely treated, and numbers of accusations rose in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The question of belief in witchcraft in such cases is much more nebulous. While other cases indicate the practice of magical arts, in particular divination, throughout the period, allegations of physical harm caused by magic are in fact very rare; they comprise one death (1324), one broken leg (1432) and bewitching to cause impotence (1435).66 Although under Henry VIII a statute was also issued according to which the 61 John

Stow, Annales, or A Generall Chronicle of England, continued and augmented by Edmund Howes (London, 1631), p. 381. The many sources for the case of Eleanor Cobham include King’s orders of 9 August 1441 and 26 October 1443, in Rymer, Foedera, vol. 10, p. 851 and vol. 11, p. 45 (for Eleanor’s crimes, not including witchcraft); Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, 1386–(1542), ed. Sir H. Nicolas, 7 vols (London: Commissioners on the Public Records of the Kingdom, 1834–7), vol. 6, 51, p. 128; Rotuli Parliamentorum, vol. 5, XXV Henry VI, p. 135 (for Eleanor debarred from her Dower). 62 Rymer, Foedera, vol. 10, p. 852. 63 Stow, Annales, p. 430, and see Cora L. Scofield, The Life and Reign of Edward the Fourth, King of England and of France and Lord of Ireland, 2 vols (London: Longmans, 1923), vol. 2, pp. 186–90, 206–9; Indictments in Deputy Keeper’s Third Report, Appendix II, 214; Rotuli Parliamentorum, vol. 6, pp. 173–5 (for the case of Ankarette Twynho, accused by the Duke of Clarence of poisoning the Duchess); and various chronicle references, discussed by Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 138–40, 228. For the accusations of enchantments and sorcery against Joan of Arc, see Cotton MS Titus e.5, Foedera (1710), X, 408, cited by Ewen, Witch-Hunting and Witch-Trials, p. 36. 64 Rotuli Parliamentorum, vol. 6, Appendix, Rot. Pat. 9 Edw. IV p.2.m.5, p. 232. 65 Related in Thomas More’s History of King Richard III and in various chronicles: see Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 60–1 and n. 271. For Nandik, see the bill of attainder, Rotuli Parliamentorum, vol. 3, ad 1483 I Ric. iii, p. 245; ‘ymaginacion’ may be used for image magic. 66 Ewen, Witch-Hunting and Witch-Trials, p. 39.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic penalty for maleficent witchcraft was death, legal records reveal only one conviction, which was remitted. Edward VI repealed the statute in 1547. Much more significant was the medical act of 1511, which prevented the practice of medical magic: a grete multitude of ignoraunt persones … common Artificiers as Smythes Wevers and Women boldely and custumably take upon theim grete curis and thyngys of great difficultie In the which they partely use socery and which crafte partely applie such [medicyne] unto the disease as be verey noyous and nothyng metely …67 No-one was to practise as a physician or surgeon unless approved by his bishop in consultation with experts (in London, the College of Doctors of Physic). With regard to witchcraft, the situation did not change dramatically until 1563, when the act recommending death or imprisonment as penalty for ‘maleficent sorcery’ was restored.68 The reign of Elizabeth I (1558–1603) marked an increase in suspicion and fear, and in severity of punishment. While confessions may have been extorted through imprisonment, lack of sleep, trussing of limbs, or restricted diet, there was in England no Inquisition and no torture of the kind that occurred on the Continent, nor were there mass executions. In France and in the German territories and Swiss Confederation, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many were executed in witch-hunts fuelled by panic; Spain, Italy, Poland and the Netherlands experienced slightly more limited periods of witch-hunting. Conservative estimates put the total of those executed at about 50,000, though much higher numbers have been suggested. Witch-hunts and executions tended to occur in spates, but it is probable that the lay notion of witchcraft remained more consistent than has sometimes been thought through the medieval and early modern periods. The witch of the early modern period too was a familiar figure, a practitioner in magic, often a local woman skilled in herbal lore, who was supposed through knowledge of ancient rituals, ingredients and recipes to cause maleficium, whether this was illness, harm to house or crops, or misfortune in child-bearing or in love. And in this period too, accusations could be politically and personally motivated.

Theological Discourse The magical arts and their practitioners evoked both fear and fascination in theologians. They are addressed across many texts and genres of theological writing: canon law, penitentials, handbooks, moral treatises and sermons. The recurrence of the topic of magic and the ideas associated with it may suggest its survival, but also indicate enduring interest. More strikingly than the laws, theological discourse tells a story of gradually increasing anxiety about magic, and reflects a 67 3

Henry VIII, c. 11, Statutes of the Realm III (London, 1817), pp. 31–2.

68 See Bengt Ankarloo, ‘Witch Trials in Northern Europe, 1450–1700’ , in Ankarloo, Clark and Monter,

The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, vol. 4, pp. 53–95: p. 65; see also Barbara Rosen, ed., Witchcraft in England, 1558–1618 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991), pp. 54–6.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance shift in emphasis from paganism to heresy, as well as new concerns about occult learning. The penitentials written from the early sixth century onwards provide intriguing insights – perhaps imagined – into practices and penances, and echo the concerns of secular laws.69 A recurrent question, including in Anglo-Saxon penitentials, is that of whether magic has harmed an individual, in the most extreme case causing death.70 The late seventh-century penitential of Theodore recommends differential punishments: ten years for serious sacrifice to demons; seven years for medical magic (a woman following the ritual of placing her daughter on a roof or in an oven);71 three years for the woman ‘quae semen viri sui in cibo miscens ut inde plus amoris accipiat’ (‘who mixes semen of her husband in food for the increase of love’).72 Divination is treated with varying degrees of severity depending on the practitioner: whereas a woman performing ‘diabolical incantations or divinations’ must do penance (normally fasting) for between forty days and a year, the ‘mathematicus’ performing, or inviting magicians to ­perform, ‘auguries, omens from birds, or dreams, or any divinations according to the custom of the heathen 69 See

the discussion of enduring pagan practices addressed in penitentials in John T. McNeill and Helena Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal Libri Poenitentiales and Selections from Related Documents, Records of Western Civilization (New York: Columbia University Press, 1938, 1990), pp. 38–43. 70 See Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 29; H. J. Schmitz, ed., Die Bussbücher und das Kanonische Bussverfahren, 2 vols (vol. 2: Die Bussbücher und das kanonische Bussverfahren) (Mainz: Franz Kirchheim, 1883, repr. Graz: Akademische Druck, 1958), vol. 1, pp. 307, 378, 413, 429–30, 683, 504, 597; vol. 2, 181, 236, 320, 324, 351, 360, 377. For Anglo-Saxon penitentials, see Confessional of Pseudo-Ecgbert, 29–30 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, vol. 1, p. 355), repeated in Excarpsus Ecgberti, vi, 7 (Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 2, p. 667), Pseudo-Bede-Ecgbert, ii, 15, 3 (Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 2, pp. 690–1), and Pseudo-Theodore, xxvii, 13 and xxi, 6 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, pp. 292, 288). The Latin penitentials Finnian, Columban, Theodore, Bede and Ecgbert contain similar clauses: see Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 1, pp. 307, 378, 413, 429–30, 683; vol. 2, pp. 181, 236, 296, 320, 324, 334, 351, 360, 377. 71 Theodore is represented in Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 2, pp. 556, 184, 237; see also PseudoTheodore, xxvii, 14 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 292); Confessional of Pseudo-Ecgbert p. 33 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 356); Excarpsus Ecgbert, viii, 2; Pseudo-Bede-Ecgbert, I, 34; Excarpsus Ecgbert vii.6 (Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 2, p. 667); for cure at crossroads, see canons of Edgar xvi (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 396, n. 5); Penitential of PseudoEcgbert iv, 20 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 380); for fasting in honour of the moon, see Pseudo-Theodore, xxvii, 26 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 293). 72 Modestly translated as ‘an unclean mixture’ by McNeill and Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance. See Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 30 and full notes: see penitential of Pseudo-Ecgbert, iv, 18 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, pp. 379–80); Pseudo-Cummean (Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 2, p. 626); also Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 1, pp. 306, 429–30, 462, 504, 597, 683; vol. 2, pp. 236, 296, 320, 324, 334, 342, 351, 360, 425. For semen, see Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 1, pp. 314, 413, 749; vol., 2, pp. 184, 241, 555, 541; Pseudo-Theodore, xvi, 30 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 282); Confessional of Pseudo-Ecgbert 29 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 355); Pseudo-Cummean 1 (with blood) (Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 2, p. 608); F. W. H. Wasserschleben, ed., Die Bussordnungen der abendländlischen Kirche (Halle: Ch. Graeger, 1851), p. 560, with urine, p. 692; Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 1, pp. 382, 453, 683, 749 (with blood). Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England notes various other references to menstrual blood and blood as remedy.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic is to do penance for five years’ , and a priest is to be expelled.73 The penitential includes rulings against shouting at the moon to ward off eclipses (supposed to be the drawing down of the moon by witchcraft) and the use of amulets and binding (‘ligamen’ and ‘phylacterium’).74 While incantations are forbidden, protective stones and herbs are permitted in order to guard against demonic possession.75 The penitential ascribed by Albers to Bede (eighth century) addresses similar practices: divination of various kinds, medical magic, amulets, the use of ‘chanting diviners’ during eclipses, and celebration of pagan feasts.76 Magic is of particular concern when employed by priests: the ‘Dialogue of Ecgbert’ (ascribed to Ecgbert, Archbishop of York, 732–66) forbids the ordination of ‘those who worship idols’ and ‘those who through soothsayers and diviners and enchanters give themselves over as captives of the devil’ .77 Ecgbert and Pseudo-Ecgbert prohibit love-magic and divination (or perhaps ritual offering) through the burning of grains, and magical cures.78 The ‘Confessional of Ecgbert’ (?tenth century) condemns sacrifice to demons and pagan rites of the dead (burning corn where the dead man has lain), medical magic, and ‘drycræft ond galdor ond unlibban’ (‘witchcraft and enchantment and magical philtres’).79 The length of penance is determined by the seriousness of magic – in particular, whether it has caused death or not – and the lay or clerical status of its practitioners. Divination is repeatedly prohibited.80 Penitentials also engage with pagan practices such as swearing oaths on trees, springs or stones, and celebrating pagan feast days.81 Successive penitentials condemn the same kind of magical rituals, perhaps suggesting they were 73 Pseudo-Theodore,

xxvii, 20 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 293). xxvii (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 292); against herbs gathered with spells, Penitential of Pseudo-Ecgbert, ii, 23 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 371); see Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 1, p. 285, vol. 2, p. 496; on ligatures, Pseudo-Bede-Ecgbert, ii, 30, 3; ii, 39, 1 (Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 2, pp. 695–6); Pseudo-Theodore, xxvii, 8, 22, 24 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 293); Excarpsus Ecgberti, viii, 4 (Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 2, p. 667); see also Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 1, pp. 312–4; vol. 2, pp. 296, 322, 325, 329, 343, 353, 362. 75 Penitential of Theodore, xv, 1–4; x, 5, McNeill and Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance, pp. 198, 207. 76 Pseudo-Bede, x, 1–4, McNeill and Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance, pp. 228–9. 77 Dialogue of Ecgbert , xv, McNeill and Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance, p. 239. 78 Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, pp. 112–13. 79 Confessional of Ecgbert , 32, 33, 29, McNeill and Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance, pp. 24–47. 80 See Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 30, and extensive notes: see, for instance, Penitential of Pseudo-Ecgbert, ii, 23 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 371), from Halitgar (Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 2, p. 285) on astrology and gathering herbs with spells; against consulting and practising augury, soothsaying, divination, Dialogus Ecgberti, 15 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 323), Pseudo-Theodore, xxvii, 6, 11 and 23 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, pp. 292–3); Pseudo-Cummean (Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 2, p. 626); Excarpsus Ecgberti, viii, 4 (Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 2, p. 668); Pseudo-Bede-Ecgbert, I, 18 (Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 2, p. 682); against lots, Pseudo-Theodore, xxvii, 12 (Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes, p. 292). There are many other references. 81 Theodore, xxvii, in Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, p. 105. For a summary of the material in English penitentials, see Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 29–31 and the accompanying notes. 74 Pseudo-Theodore,


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance still employed and familiar – in particular those related to medical magic. As C. S. Watkins emphasises, however, such repetition, like that found in canon law more generally, is typical of penitentials and means that it is difficult to gauge actual practice. The aim of the penitential was comprehensive inclusion of possible sins rather than reflection of prevalent ones.82 Condemnation was accompanied by clerical interest in magical arts. Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims (806–82), addresses the subject in his influential treatise De divortio Lotharii et Teutbergae. The treatise opposes the divorce and remarriage (c. 860) of King Lothair of Lorraine, partly on the grounds that Waldrada, Lothair’s mistress, has practised sorcery (maleficium) to prevent the king from consummating his marriage.83 Hincmar marshals the arguments of Augustine and Isidore in a lengthy discussion of magic as inspired by the devil: what is especially striking is his apparent certainty of the genuinely destructive potential of magic at all levels of society. Hincmar adds to his sources details of illusions, divination by animal bones or organs, and medical magic such as charms, ligatures or amulets, perhaps reflecting contemporary practices. For Hincmar, the binding of love-magic, in this case enacted in impotence, may be remedied by the binding power of marriage, and its ‘ecclesiastical medicine’ .84 His celebrated opposition to divorce was prominent in later canon law collections. Treatises and handbooks repeated and expanded on traditional ideas, rulings and prohibitions. Of special importance in the history of witchcraft is Regino of Prüm’s De ecclesiasticis disciplines (c. 906), an encyclopaedic work intended to offer practical pastoral assistance to the Archbishop of Trier. The first book includes familiar instances of pagan rituals, fortune telling, magical tricks, placing a child on a roof or in an oven, and burning grains where the dead have lain.85 The second book is probably based on a Carolingian capitulary, but was wrongly attributed to the fourth-century Council of Ankara, and therefore afforded particular authority. Known by its opening, Episcopi eorum, the text combines learning and folk belief, and engages with the problem of magic of different kinds – divination, enchantment, potions, herbs and ligatures, love magic and the legend of the wild hunt. While magic is placed as the work of the devil, and those who engage in it are to be punished by expulsion from the diocese, the capitulary also condemns certain ideas of magic as false, in particular the idea of riding or flying by night: … quaedam sceleratae mulieres retro post satanam conversae, daemonum illusionibus et phantasmatibus seductae, credunt et profitentur, se nocturnis 82 Watkins,

History and the Supernatural in Medieval England, p. 77, and see in general chapter 2, ‘Inventing Pagans’ , pp. 68–106. 83 See Hincmar, De Divortio Lotharii Regis et Tetbergae Reginae, XV, Patrologia Latina 125, cols 619– 772: 621c. 84 Flint, The Rise of Magic, p. 294. See further Catherine Rider’s study, Magic and Impotence in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). 85 Regino of Prüm, De ecclesiasticis disciplines et religione christiana, Patrologia Latina 132, cols 185– 400. Selections translated in McNeill and Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance, pp. 314–20.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic horis cum Diana dea paganorum, vel cum Herodiade, et innumera multitudine mulierum equitare super quasdam bestias, et multarum terrarum spatia intempestae noctis silentio pertransire, eiusque iussionibus velut dominae obedire, et certis noctibus ad eius servitium evocari. … certain depraved women who have turned back after Satan and been seduced by the illusions and fantasies of demons believe and profess that they ride on various beasts during the night hours along with Diana, the goddess of the pagans [later addition: or with Herodias] and a countless multitude of women, and pass across many areas of the earth in the dead of the unwholesome night; and that they obey her commands as those of a mistress, and on certain nights are summoned to her service. Episcopi eorum firmly describes these notions as delusory: Siquidem ipse satanas, qui transfigurat se in angelum lucis, quum mentem cuiuscunque mulierculae ceperit, et hanc sibi per infidelitatem subjugaverit, illico transformat se in diversarum personarum species atque similitudines, et mentem, quam captivam tenet, in somnis deludens, modo laeta, modo tristia, modo cognitas, modo incognitas personas ostendens, per devia quaeque deducit, et, quum solus spiritur patitur, infidelis mens hoc non in animo, sed in corpore invenire opinatur. When Satan himself, who transforms himself into an angel of light, has taken hold of the mind of each of these women and subdued her to himself by her infidelity, he then transforms himself into the appearance and likeness of various persons and deludes the mind he holds captive during times of sleep, alternating happy visions with sad, and known persons with unknown, leading them through every kind of crooked path; and though the unfaithful woman experiences all this only in the spirit she believes that it happens not in the mind but in the flesh.86 To enter into such illusion is to submit to demonic temptation or seduction. This combined emphasis on the demonic and fraudulent aspects of magic is sustained in many later treatments of magic, while Episcopi eorum had a long afterlife in anti-witchcraft propaganda. Although the association of magic with the demonic is taken very seriously by medieval theologians, however, it is clearly recognised that folk superstitions and practices may be more delusory than actively harmful. This balance is evident too in the compendious Decretum of Burchard of Worms (composed c. 1008–12), which also gained a wide influence – perhaps partly because he attributed it to Augustine. The Decretum draws on a variety of texts, 86 Gratian,

Decretum magistri Gratiani, in Corpus iuris canonici, ed. Æmilius Friedberg, 2 vols (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1879, 1885), vol. 1, 2, 26, 5, 12 (Episcopi eorum), pp. 1030–1; trans. Kelly, pp. 53–4, Gratian includes Augustine’s comment on the Witch of Endor, Decretum vol. 1, 2, 26, 2, 6 (Illud quod est), pp. 1021–2. See also Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, pp. 75–80, who includes a text and translation of Regino’s version, pp. 291–3.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance and includes almost the whole of Augustine’s De divinatione daemonum; its tenth book contains Regino’s canon Episcopi eorum and other sources in its prohibition of pagan rites. The nineteenth book, an ecclesiastical penitential, lists a colourful range of illicit magical rituals and superstitious beliefs of just the kind condemned in earlier ecclesiastical writings: divination of various types, pagan rituals such as crying out against the drawing down of the moon, spells and incantations, binding and weaving magic, image magic, medical magic, love magic, weather magic, and invocation of demons.87 Burchard advocates brief penances, however, and is fairly sceptical about the powers of ‘malefici’ , necromancy and love-magic, although he is emphatic about the dangers presented by the demons, and the need for the remedies of the Church. The twelfth-century penitential of Bartholomew Iscanus, Bishop of Exeter (1161–84), includes an abbreviated but very similar passage on magic, which also condemns as demonic illusion the belief of some women that they ride out by night with Herodias or Diana.88 Aspects of Burchard’s compendious collection of canon law, including the capitulary Episcopi eorum, made their way, like Hincmar’s treatise, into the widely circulated treatise of Ivo of Chartres (c. 1040–1115), and subsequently into Gratian’s Decretum, which comprises some four thousand patristic texts, decrees and pronouncements (completed c. 1139).89 With Gratian, canon law gained a new authority and influence: it was collected, authoritative and accessible. While prohibitions of pagan rituals are repeated, as they continue to be right across the medieval period, the emphasis has shifted to heresy. Gratian treats the question of magic in relation to ‘causae hereticae’ , positing a magician-cleric who refuses to repent, is excommunicated, and is readmitted to the Church at his death. Questions draw on the writings of Augustine and Isidore to address the definitions of ‘sortilegium’ and divination, their status as sins, and the dangerous connection of magic with demons. Gratian recommends excommunication for magic. He also draws on Hincmar’s treatise to present impotence resulting from enchantment as an impediment to marriage and potential grounds for annulment. The Decretum defined canon law treatment of magic across the medieval period, and the summae of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries altered Gratian’s ideas only in limited ways.90 Exegetical writing also linked magicians with heretics, and the biblical instruction to put a witch to death (Exod. 22:18) was interpreted as the excommunication and exile fitting for such figures, as in the early twelfth-century Glossa ordinaria, the standard biblical commentary of the Middle Ages: 87 Burchard of Worms, Decretum, in Patrologia Latina 140, cols 537–1058, ch. 5.60–70, 90–104, 149–81;

see also selection in McNeill and Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance, pp. 321–45. Magic, fol. 32, col. 1, McNeill and Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance, pp. 349–50. 89 Gratian, Decretum magistri Gratiani, vol. 1, 2, 26, 5, 12 (Episcopi eorum), pp. 1030–1; the Witch of Endor, Decretum, vol. 1, 2, 26, 2, 6 (Illud quod est), pp. 1021–2. For a full discussion of Gratian’s treatment of magic, see Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, pp. 71–6. 90 The summae of Paucapalea, Rolandus, Stephen of Tournai, the Summa Parisiensis, and Rufinus, for instance, are all affirmative of Gratian, and limited in their discussion: see Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, pp. 75–8. 88 Of


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic Maeleficos non patieris vivere. Qui praestigiis magicae artis et diabolicis figmentis agunt, haereticos intellige, qui a consortio fidelium qui vere vivunt, excommunicandi sunt, donec maleficium erroris in eis moriatur.91 Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. Those who use the illusions of the magic art and of the devil are to be understood as heretics, who should be separated from those who live truly in the community of the faithful. They must be excommunicated so that their error will die with them. Exegesis of the competition of Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh’s magicians treats the various plagues as different pagan delusions. The issue of magic itself is not, however, developed in any detail: even in relation to the Witch of Endor, necromancy is glossed only briefly, as magical arts that rely on contact with human blood or with the dead in order to divine by spells. The term ‘Pythonissa’ is explained as having its origins in Pythius/Apollo, cultivator of these arts, and the role of demons in the raising of Samuel and in prophesying the future is noted.92 In 1258, Pope Alexander forbade the pursuit of witchcraft by the Inquisition unless it was related to heresy: in such cases, however, the text of Exodus 22:18 was taken literally: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’; theological writings on the evils of magic provided important justification for this. Anxiety concerning magic was further marked in 1277, when, in a gesture reminiscent of St Paul in Ephesus, Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, at the suggestion of Pope John XXI, formally condemned writings on magic along with over two hundred propositions concerning demonic magic, from Arabic, Greek and Latin works.93 In England, the statement was reiterated by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Kilwardby, and the doctrine confirmed by papal decree in the same year. In 1320, Pope John XXII issued a bull against the practice of magic: ‘Super illius specula’ .94 The summae and handbooks of penance written in the later Middle Ages, following the model of the Liber poenitentialis of Alain de Lille (d. 1203), are perhaps most revealing. Their teachings, like those of earlier penitentials, played an important role in pastoral instruction. Emphasis was placed on the threat posed by demonic magic. English works echo Continental theological writings, and rehearse their prohibitions. Bartholomew of Exeter includes in his handbook a chapter on divination, which draws particularly on Augustine.95 Thomas of Chobham’s Summa confessorum offers a detailed discussion of magic, treating practices according to their places among the seven deadly sins: Article V, ‘de sortilegiis et veneficiis’ , contains 91 See

Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, pp. 68–70, and Peters, ‘Medieval Church and State’ , p. 209. 92 Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, p. 69. 93 Peters, ‘Medieval Church and State’ , p. 213; Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, pp. 90–1. 94 Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, p. 112. 95 Adrian Morey, Bartholomew of Exeter, Bishop and Canonist: A Study in the Twelfth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937), cap. 104, pp. 271–4.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance eleven ‘quaestiones’ describing different kinds of magic, emphasising the role of demons and warning against temptation.96 Robert Mannyng of Brunne (d. c. 1338) follows William of Waddington’s Le Manuel des Pechiez in condemning demonic sacrifice, various kinds of divination, and conjuring images: ‘Ȝyf you yn swerd, other yn bacyn, / Any chylde madyst loke theryn, / Or yn thumbe, or yn crystal – Wycchecraft men clepyn hyt alle. ’97 Robert offers as proof the comic story of ‘a wycche / That leuede no better than a bycche’ , who makes a magical bag to suck the milk from cows (the theft of milk is associated with witchcraft in various penitentials); brought before the bishop, she reveals the charm and demonstrates the trick, but the bishop cannot emulate it, for belief is required.98 The explicit moral is that magic is dependent not on the charm but on the devil, whose work is enabled by the witch’s faith in her arts. Implicit, however, is the sense that magic is possible, and more memorable than the bishop’s command to the witch not to believe is Robert’s narrative of seeing the bag move. Also striking is the tale’s immediacy, a feature characteristic of comparable works: Dan Michel of Kent’s Ayenbite of Inwit (c. 1340), for example, which follows the Somme des Vices et des Vertus of Frère Lorens, warns against devil-worship, ‘wichen’ and ‘charmeresses’ who work by the devil’s craft, abuses such as the retention of the Eucharistic wafer by priests and witches for magical purposes, and divination in a thumb-nail for stolen goods.99 John Bromyard’s Summa praedicantium (c. 1350) discusses ‘sortilegium’ at length, and warns against entering into a pact with demons (‘pacta demonibus’). Magic arts are placed as false superstition and idolatry; such heretics, ‘who kill the soul’ , merit death.100 Bromyard includes a variety of exempla, including instances from Gregory’s Dialogues, Augustine, and Peter Comestor. At the start of the fifteenth century, John Mirk’s Instructions for Parish Priests still records traditional prohibitions of witchcraft, divination and charms, and questions to ask concerning conjuring spirits or using sorcery to find stolen goods, or ‘to gete wymmen to lyge hym 96 Thomas

of Chobham, Summa Confessorum, ed. F. Broomfield, Analecta Mediaevalia Namurcensia 25 (Louvain: Editions Nauwelaerts, 1968), pp. 466–87. 97 Robert Mannyng of Brunne, Handlyng Synne, ed. Idelle Sullens, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 14 (Binghamton, NY: Centre for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, State University of New York at Binghamton, 1983), ll. 351–4; relevant extracts of William of Waddington, Le Manuel des Pechiez, in Robert of Brunne’s ‘Handlyng Synne’ , ed. Frederick J. Furnivall, Early English Text Society OS 119, 120 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1901), vol. 1, ll. 1090–1. 98 Robert Mannyng of Brunne, Handlyng Synne, ll. 501–62; for the prohibition, see Le Manuel des Pechiez, ll. 1078–1273. See the thirteenth-century Arundel Penitential, 79, in Schmitz, Die Bussbücher, vol. 1, p. 459, cited in Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 166; Kittredge notes the same clause in the Penitential of Bartholomew Iscanus, Bishop of Exeter (12c). 99 Dan Michel of Kent, Dan Michel’s Ayenbite of Inwit or, Remorse of Conscience, 2nd edn, ed. Richard Morris and Pamela Gradon, Early English Text Society OS 23 (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 19, 40–1, 43; see also legends in Caesarius of Heisterbach, Dialogus miraculorum, ed. J. Strange (Cologne: J. M. Herberle, 1851), vol. 2, IX, 6, II, 17. Giraldus Cambrensis refers to a penance for careless administration of the Eucharist, Gemma Ecclesiastica, in Opera, ed. J. S. Brewer et al., 8 vols, Rolls Series 21 (London: Longman, 1861–91), vol. 2, I.1, p. 12. 100 John Bromyard, Summa Praedicantium, 2 vols (Venice, 1586), vol. 2, cap xi, cols 369–73, section 14; p. 373v; see also Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, p. 142.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic by’ .101 The recurrence of such prohibitions in part reflects the continuity of theological discourse from Augustine onwards, but also suggests the endurance and attraction of magical ideas and practices, and the lively dialogue around them. Magic was included as a subject in books of questions for inquisitors, such as that of Bernard Gui (c. 1323), and Nicolau Eymeric’s Directorium inquisitorum (1376), which would remain in circulation until the seventeenth century. Eymeric describes his confiscation of various books of necromancy, a term that denotes all kinds of magical practice, which is assumed to employ demons either implicitly or explicitly.102 At the end of the fourteenth century, the University of Paris formalised its views on magic in the conclusion issued by the Faculty of Theology and circulated in Jean Gerson’s treatise on magic, De erroribus circa artem magicam (1402). Twenty-eight propositions are condemned as errores. The treatise instances forbidden books of magic containing geometrical figures, names of demons, and details concerning witchcraft.103 Magic is condemned as idolatry on account of its connection with demons and its use of magical objects such as stones, rings, or mirrors. It is emphasised that neither God nor the prophets employ magic. Protective magic and misdirected Christian rituals are prohibited, and Augustine’s views on theurgy are rehearsed. The idea of a more knowing practice of magic, alongside the sense of the error of such superstitions for Christians, the recollection that Roman law had recommended death as penalty for magic, and the specific details included in theological writings, all played a role in fuelling the later witch trials. The theological and popular currents of the later Middle Ages led gradually to the emergence of the idea of a cult of Satanic witchcraft, particularly on the Continent. This complex phenomenon cannot be adequately addressed here, but it is worth noting both some continuities and some notable shifts. Charges made against heretical sects had included elements that would feed into notions of Satanic witchcraft: cannibalism, human sacrifice, orgiastic feast, and animal worship. These accusations were fuelled as religious dissent increased and heretical sects such as the Fraticelli and the Cathars formed. The Inquisition developed partly in response to the Waldensian sect in the thirteenth century.104 In the fifteenth century, when it became possible to bring formal accusations of maleficium, on the Continent the Inquisition turned its attentions to individual practitioners, 101 John

Mirk, Instructions for Parish Priests, ed. Edward Peacock, Early English Text Society OS 31 (London: Trübner, 1868), ll. 360–71, 969–74. 102 See Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, pp. 158–61 for a discussion of the development of the inquisitorial process, and pp. 196–202 for a translation of the two quaestiones on heretical magic in Eymeric’s treatise, the foundation of most later inquisitorial treatments. 103 Jean Gerson, De erroribus circa artem magicam, in Œuvres Complètes, ed. P. J. Glorieux, 10 vols (Paris: Desclée, 1960–74), vol. 10, no. 500, pp. 77–90. 104 See especially Cohn’s account, Europe’s Inner Demons, pp. 35–78, which demonstrates a number of celebrated sources to be unreliable. Russell places special emphasis on the Cathar heresy, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, pp. 120–32; see also his general discussion of the pursuit of heresy in the later Middle Ages, pp. 136–65, of the fourteenth century, in particular the Knights Templar, pp. 167–98, and of the Inquisition, pp. 199–225.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance especially, but not exclusively, women. The concept of the pact with the devil was formally stated by the University of Paris in 1398, and this legal and theological concept justified subsequent trials of witchcraft. Folk belief, local fears, and suspicions of ill-wishing, as well as the power of extorted confessions, all conspired to encourage belief in Satanic witchcraft with its attendant features of the witches’ sabbath and nocturnal flight – or at least, belief in the damage an accusation could effect. These motifs recur in early modern witchcraft trials. Such notions have long roots: in the classical strix, in folk beliefs and rituals, in theological discussions of pagan practices, demons and heresy – but not in what was purportedly a defined medieval cult of Satanic witchcraft. Discussion of the canon Episcopi eorum was renewed, and theologians questioned whether the statement that the witches’ sabbath was a delusion might be disregarded, since the canon also mentioned many of the rituals of which witches were accused. What was different were the notions of an organised sect and demonic agency. The popular idea of the ill-wishing female witch merged with the academic, theological and legal notion of a secret conspiracy led by Satan, which might include men, women and children. This witch, who had committed the ‘crimen magiae’ , ‘was not simply a malicious, dangerous person but an embodiment of evil; above all, an embodiment of apostasy’ .105 In England, this concept of the witch never gained such momentum, for the idea of the witches’ sabbath did not take hold until the Lancashire witch-trials of 1612, and the Inquisition did not exist.106 The most notorious treatise on witchcraft, the Malleus maleficarum (‘Hammer of She-Witches’), makes clear its origins in medieval philosophy. Written by two Dominican friars, Jakob Sprenger and Heinrich Institoris (Kramer), appointed as inquisitors by Innocent VIII (1484), the Malleus responds to a papal bull, Summis desiderantes affectibus, which condemned the evils of witchcraft, including demonic intercourse and magic causing physical harm or illness. The work drew in particular on the influential writings of Johannes Nider (d. 1438) on witchcraft and heresy.107 The treatise echoes Aquinas’ firm emphasis on the actuality of witchcraft, and in its detailed consideration of rituals served as a guide for persecutors, although for the same reason it was of interest to practitioners of magic: the Elizabethan magus John Dee owned a copy.108 It was in part the weight of theological discourse from Augustine onwards that allowed the concept of Satanic 105 Cohn,

Europe’s Inner Demons, pp. 230–1. Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 265–6. 107 See further Michael D. Bailey’s study of Nider in the context of emerging beliefs concerning witchcraft and fifteenth-century ideas of heresy and reform, Battling Demons: Witchcraft, Heresy, and Reform in the Late Middle Ages, Magic in History Series (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003). 108 Kelly, The Devil, Demonology and Witchcraft, pp. 61, 63; for a discussion of the Malleus Maleficarum and a translation of the papal bull, see Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, pp. 170–3, and Robbins, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, pp. 336–40. See also The Private Diary of Dr. John Dee and the Catalogue of his Library of Manuscripts, ed. James Orchard Halliwell, Camden Society 19 (London: Camden Society 1842), p. 59, cited in Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 249. 106 See


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic witchcraft to gain and retain its hold.109 But this concept was very far from developed in the Middle Ages.

Folk Beliefs and Practices It is difficult directly to relate laws and theological writings, which collect and repeat prohibitions that are already codified, to actual practice. Yet the recurrence of the topic of magic across such a wide range of writings affirms the familiarity of beliefs and practices with very ancient roots, and signals a world view in which protection from malevolent forces, and encouragement of benevolent ones, was highly desirable. The evidence of both legal and ecclesiastical prohibitions suggests the continuation of two strands of magic, popular and learned, though the two inevitably blur into each other. The emphasis of many legal cases and of religious prohibitions, especially for the earlier Middle Ages, falls most heavily on folk beliefs and rituals. Later in the period, however, as a result of new learning, there is more anxiety about books and knowledge. This section looks at popular ideas and practices as they are suggested by Anglo-Saxon and early post-Conquest texts, in order to probe the cultural foundations of later English romance writing. The evidence of medico-magical collections such as the Old English Lacnunga suggests the survival of charms and remedies that were thought to draw on occult forces in nature in order to protect against the mysterious influences of the cosmos. Old English secular writing indicates a many-faceted sense of the supernatural that is sustained in the chronicles of the twelfth century. The notion of a thought world constructed of a diverse range of supernatural beings drawn from a variety of overlapping traditions – classical, Celtic, Norse, Germanic – complicates and intersects with the traditional opposition of angels and demons. Throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, sermons and other religious writings such as those of Bede, Ælfric, and Wulfstan echo the concerns of laws and penitentials, as well as of the Bible and commentaries on it, about the use of magic to harmful ends, but they also suggest the merging of once-pagan and Christian ritual, and the enduring nature of natural magic and folk belief. The opposition central to Bede’s history is that between pagan and Christian, and the narrative conveys a strong impression of pagan practice (brought by the Germanic invaders) within Britain. The ancient traditions are consistently presented as hollow by contrast to God’s power: Saint Cuthbert preaches against ‘erratica idolatriae medicamina … quasi missam a Deo conditore plagam, per incantationes, uel fylacteria, uel alia quaelibet daemonicae artis arcana cohibere ualerent’ (‘the false remedies of idolatry, as though they could ward off a blow inflicted by God the Creator by means of incantations or amulets or any other mysteries of devilish art’).110 King Edwin’s acceptance of the new faith is enacted in the pagan High Priest Coifi’s destruction 109 Russell,

Lucifer, p. 296. Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), IV.27, pp. 432–3. Subsequent references are to this edition, cited by book and chapter number.

110 Bede’s


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance of pagan altars, shrines and enclosures (II.13, I.30). But Bede also reports the sympathetic letter sent by Pope Gregory to Abbot Mellitus, advising that the pagan idols but not the temples of the English should be destroyed; the places are to be sprinkled with holy water and used as churches (I.30). Similarly, in accordance with their ritual of sacrificing oxen to demons, they are to be allowed to celebrate feast days: ‘circa easdem ecclesias, quae ex fanis commutatae sunt, de ramis arborum faciant, et religiosis conuiuiis sollemnitatem celebrent’ (‘let them make themselves huts from the branches of trees around the churches which have been converted out of shrines, and let them celebrate the solemnity with religious feasts’ , I.30), although the animal sacrifices once made to the devil are to be replaced by use of the animals for food. The firm establishment of Christianity depends upon the survival of folk tradition. Later Anglo-Saxon sermons continue to address many of these practices. As with the penitentials, care needs to be taken in assessing such writings, for their authors were also strongly influenced by works such as the sermons of Caesarius of Arles and Martin of Braga, which reiterate Augustine’s anxieties about divination, medical and protective magic, love-magic and rituals such as shouting at the moon, and detail folk practices.111 Interest in popular tradition is clear, however. Alfred, Ælfric and Wulfstan develop the idea that the pagan gods were not divine but human; Old English genealogies often name pagan gods as ancestors. Ælfric in his sermon De falsis diis draws on Martin of Braga to identify Mercury with Oðinn/Woden, and suggests that sacrifices are still made to him.112 In De auguriis (Lives of the Saints), Ælfric enumerates types of divination, and warns against the demonic deceits of necromancy, instancing the Witch of Endor, and suggesting that such practices still occur at cross-roads and burial sites ­(particularly

111 For

Caesarius of Arles, see Sancti Caesarii Arelatensis Sermones, ed. Germain Morin, 2 vols, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 103–4, 2nd edn (Turnholt: Brepols, 1953); Saint Caesarius of Arles, Sermons, trans. Sister Mary Magdeleine Mueller, 3 vols, Corpus Christianorum: The Fathers of the Church 31, 47, 66 (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1956, 1964, 1973), sermons 13, 33, 44, 50, 52–4, which describe divination, love-magic, demonic magic, and pagan rituals of different kinds. Flint, The Rise of Magic, notes Caesarius’ role in circulating his sermons by using learned names such as Augustine’s instead of his own, and by presenting them to visitors, pp. 42–3, and draws attention to Caesarius’ sermons 54, 192, 33, 13, pp. 88–9. Martin of Braga’s influential sermon, De correctione rusticorum (late sixth century), follows Augustine and Caesarius in condemning rituals such as leaving votive offerings or recalling pagan sacrificial rites: see Martini Episcopi Bracarensis opera omnia, ed. Claude W. Barlow, Papers and Monographs of the American Academy in Rome 12 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950), pp. 183– 203; Barlow, ed., Iberian Fathers, vol. 1 of 2, The Fathers of the Church Series 62 (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1969), pp. 71–85, in particular chapters 7–8 and 16, which treat the pagan gods and rituals, divination, herbal and weaving magic, and demonic incantation. 112 Ælfric, De Falsis Diis, in Homilies of Ælfric: A Supplementary Collection, ed. John C. Pope, 2 vols, Early English Text Society OS 259, 260 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967, 1968), pp. 667–724: pp. 684–5, ll. 139–49. On Woden, see Richard North, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 22 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 78–110.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic a­ ssociated with demons in classical and Germanic tradition).113 Like earlier patristic writers, Ælfric emphasises that witches cannot raise the dead; rather, they call on the devil who appears in the form of the dead man.114 The account of Saint Martin of Tours in Ælfric’s Lives of the Saints tells of how the saint cuts down idols and a holy tree, venerated by the pagans. The biblical motif of triumph over magicians by Christian prophets and saints, who thus re-enact Christ’s victory over Satan, recurs in Ælfric’s sermons: Saint James over Hermogenes; Saint Matthew over the Ethiopian magicians Zaroes and Arphaxat, who later threaten Simon and Jude in Persia; Saints Peter and Paul over Simon Magus.115 But there is a strong sense too that magic is contemporary. Wulfstan includes magic among the sins of the Anglo-Saxons that cause God’s anger, instancing ‘wiccan 7 wælcyrian’ (‘witches and valkyries’), terms that also point to the overlap between Norse and Anglo-Saxon traditions.116 Christian versus pagan, angels versus demons, miracles versus magic, exorcism versus possession, the true Cross versus false powers of evil – all these are shaping oppositions throughout medieval writing. But there are also problematic overlaps: miracle and magic are hard to distinguish in effect, prayer and ritual might bring about an apparently magical result, and charms often invoke the powers of angels, Moses and Jesus, as well as demons. There are clear parallels between rituals of acceptable and unacceptable kinds: saints and prayer may manipulate the weather, calming storms or bringing rain, or enact marvellous cures; holy water is sprinkled to guard against evil. Divination was repeatedly condemned, yet signs from God were anxiously awaited, and dreams might be sent by God or by demons. Christian lot-casting, using the Bible or other sacred works, was viewed ambivalently. Augustine describes in the Confessions hearing a voice that told him to pick up a book and read; he opens the Bible and is guided by a passage in the New Testament that instructs him to renounce riot, strife and indecency and follow Christ.117 While weaving and binding were vehemently condemned, there are instances of ‘Godwebbe’ , cloths with marvellous properties adorning tombs 113 Ælfric,

De Auguriis, in Ælfric’s Lives of Saints, ed. and trans. Walter W. Skeat, 2 vols, Early English Text Society OS 76, 82, 94, 114 (London: Kegan Paul, 1881–90, repr. Oxford University Press, 1966), vol. 1, XVII, pp. 365–83. See also the treatment of augury in sermon VI, ‘Octabas et Circumcisio Domini’ , in Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies: The First Series Text, ed. Peter Clemoes, Early English Text Society SS 17 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 229–30, ll. 162–99. For the Witch of Endor, see sermon XXIX, ‘Macarius and the Magicians, Saul and the Witch of Endor’ , in Homilies of Ælfric, ed. Pope, vol. 2, pp. 786–98. 114 De Auguriis, Ælfric’s Lives of Saints, vol. 1, ll. 88–123, pp. 370–3. 115 For these sermons see Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies, ed. Clemoes, XXVI, ‘Passio Petri et Pauli’ , pp. 388– 99; and Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies: The Second Series Text, ed. Malcolm Godden, Early English Text Society SS 5 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), XXVII, ‘Natale Sanct Iacobi Apostoli’ , pp. 241–7; XXXII, ‘Passio Sancti Mathei, Apostoli et Evangelistae’ , pp. 275–9; XXXIII, ‘Passio Sanctorum Apostolorum, Simonis et Iude’ , pp. 280–7. 116 Wulfstan, The Homilies of Wulfstan, ed. Dorothy Bethurum (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), p. 273. 117 See St Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 8.12.9, pp. 152–4.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance or altars.118 The binding power of words, fundamental to magical rituals, is also evident in promises and oaths. Many protective rituals might seem to emulate magical practices in their use of relics, holy writings or prayers. It is in the area of medicine that this overlap is most evident, and that the survival of magical ideas is most richly attested. Disease was mysterious, readily attributable to supernatural forces; medicine depended upon notions of natural correspondences. Natural objects invested with special powers, in particular herbs, played crucial roles in protection and healing. At the same time, the limits of human intervention in illness in this period, and the enigmatic nature of sickness and cure, illuminated the powerful role of destiny or providence in human existence, and also encouraged responses that drew on occult, sometimes illicit powers. If illness or misfortune may be attributed to malevolent otherworldly forces, demons or elves, then apotropaic objects or rituals that oppose such forces may seem highly desirable. Patristic writers distinguish between authorised medicine (which would include taking proper account of the phases of the moon and the correspondences between the cosmos and the individual body) and illicit, magical medicine, but in reality, the line was blurred, because of the importance of healing plants or stones in medicine and the widespread and accepted role of Christian rituals (such as the use of Christian objects and relics to heal or protect). Both aspects could readily merge with the use of amulets and binding magic. The repeated condemnation of medical magic, especially ligatures and amulets, implies the popularity of such practices, an impression borne out by archaeological evidence.119 Germanic graves, especially of women, often contain talismanlike items such as amber, amethyst and crystal beads, and amulet bags or boxes of apparently magical charms – animal teeth, bones, rings, coins.120 Some of the earliest and richest medieval medico-magical material is found in the Old English Lacnunga and Leechbook.121 The remedies described in these works are on the cusp between learned and folk magic. Many parallels with classical recipes are evident, reflecting the universality of such notions in societies where medical science is relatively primitive.122 The three books contained in the 118 See

Flint, The Rise of Magic, pp. 274, 286–9. Auguriis, in Ælfric’s Lives of Saints, vol. 1, ll. 75–81, 124–8, pp. 368–72; on medical magic, including ligatures, see sermon XXI, ‘Passio Sancti Bartholomei’ , in Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies, ed. Clemoes, pp. 449–50, ll. 303ff. 120 See Flint, The Rise of Magic, pp. 246–8; and Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, p. 115, and his discussion of the tradition of women as seeresses, pp. 115–18. For the evidence, including archaeological, connecting women and magical practice in Anglo-Saxon England, see in particular Audrey Meaney, ‘Women, Witchcraft and Magic in Anglo-Saxon England’ , in D. G. Scragg, ed., Superstition and Popular Medicine in Anglo-Saxon England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989), pp. 9–40. 121 Flint, The Rise of Magic, pp. 301–28, offers an extensive discussion of Christian medical magic; see also Kittredge’s discussion of charms in Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 32–3 and extensive notes. 122 See Victor Turner, ‘Lunda Medicine and the Treatment of Disease’ (1964), reprinted in The Forest of Symbols, pp. 299–358, and ‘A Ndembu Doctor in Practice’ , in Magic, Faith and Healing, ed. Ari Kiev (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1964), reprinted in The Forest of Symbols, pp. 359–93. 119 De


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic Leechbook are medical treatises, the first two, on the exterior body and on internal disorders, comprising Bald’s Leechbook (taking its name from the incipit stating that Bald commissioned it), the third a separate work containing prescriptions.123 While the manuscript (BL MS Royal 12.d.XVII) dates to the mid-tenth century, part of the second book appears to date from the age of Alfred. The extant copy seems to have been made for pastoral use. The Lacnunga, which includes an Old English version of an herbal attributed to Apuleius, is more idiosyncratic, containing a rather various set of remedies, prayers and charms, and including more ‘magical’ material.124 Importantly, this material does not conjure demons: its ­medical magic depends on ideas of sympathy, antipathy and occult natural forces. Remedies tend to advise the application of fairly simple herbal concoctions – salves, poultices or potions. The recommended rituals of preparation and use, however, combine Christian and magical practices. Certain kinds of illness tend to be addressed by charms: those seen as caused by ‘flying poisons’ , ‘worms’ (from intestinal to stinging insects or snakes), and supernatural forces (demons are especially associated with mental illness); childbirth, too, is the subject of a number of charms. Certain elements recur: exotic ingredients, the use of Christian rituals and objects (the cross, Communion wafers, incense, holy songs or prayers), symbolic gestures, such as drawing a circle around a place or injury to limit and protect, repetitions of actions or words, including prayers, and the use of names of gods, Christian and pagan, and powerful words. Some recipes employ writing: a remedy for dysentery recommends that an epistle reputedly brought by an angel to Rome be written and hung round the sufferer’s neck; the letter is a strange ­mixture 123 The

Lacnunga was first edited by the Revd T. O. Cockayne, Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England: Being a Collection of Documents For the Most Part Never Before Printed, Illustrating the History of Science in this Country Before the Norman Conquest, 3 vols, Rolls Series (London: Longman, 1864–6). More recent editions of Lacnunga may be found in J. H. G. Grattan and Charles Singer, Anglo-Saxon Magic and Medicine: Illustrated Specially from the Semi-Pagan Text ‘Lacnunga’ , Publications of the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum NS 3 (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), a volume that includes an extensive but dated discussion of magic, and Edward Pettit, ed. and trans., Anglo-Saxon Remedies, Charms, and Prayers from British Library MS Harley 585: The Lacnunga, vol. 1: Introduction, Text, Translation and Appendices, Mellen Critical Editions and Translations 6a (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001), from which my references to the Lacnunga will be taken; for this quotation see cxxviia, pp. 90–5, ll. 760, 782. The Metrical Charms of Lacnunga are edited in E. van K. Dobbie, The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, vol. 6 (New York: 1942), cxxx–cxxxvii, pp. 116–28, 207–20. Gotfrid Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1948), contains an extensive introduction to the idea of magic, somewhat dated but full of interest, and to the Anglo-Saxon charms, and an edition and translation of the magical charms from a variety of manuscripts. For a separate edition of Bald’s Leechbook, see Marilyn Deegan, ed., A Critical Edition of MS B.L. Royal 12.d.xvii: Bald’s Leechbook (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1988). 124 Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic writes, ‘The Leechbook may be characterised as the handbook of the Anglo-Saxon medical man, the Lacnunga may be characterised as the handbook of the AngloSaxon medicine man’ (p. 24), but this distinction seems too absolute. Though dated in emphasis, Grattan and Singer offer a useful survey of the origins of such medico-magical material in classical and other writings, and of its predominant and recurrent features, pp. 1–91.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance of Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin and Greek, apparently a kind of prayer.125 A drink that protects against malevolent spirits requires the tracing of a prayer on a paten, washing this in running water taken by a virgin against the current, and adding herbs and consecrated wine.126 The medical remedies can be placed in a wider context of protective magic. Charms found elsewhere are similar, though as well as countering illness they may be directed towards protection from theft, sorcery, the dangers of travel, and evil spirits. Most striking among the collection of charms in Lacnunga are those attributing sickness to otherworldly forces. The remedy ‘Wið færstice’ (‘against a sudden stitch [or pain]’) is imagined as treating ‘ylfa gescotes’ (‘elf-shot’).127 This extended charm merges cultural traditions to suggest a range of supernatural causes for sudden, stabbing pain. The first section depicts an army of yelling women throwing spears; the second refers to the work of witches, ‘hægtessan geweorc’ , and the Norse Æsir, ‘esa’ , as well as to ‘ylfa gescotes’ . The ritual combines a plant salve, the commanding of spirits through the invocation of a smith (probably Weland) and six deadly spears, and the use of a knife in some way to cancel the pain caused by the spears of elves, witches or other harmful spirits. The ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ in Lacnunga sustains the idea of gods as sending cures, employing the image of Woden as medico-magical healer.128 The charm rehearses the various powers of herbs, in particular against poisons and flying diseases, ‘wiþ attre 7 wið onflyge’ (lxxvi, 539, p. 60), and refers to Woden’s destruction of the serpent with ‘VIIII wuldortanas’ (‘nine glorious twigs’), perhaps the herbs named in the charm; the hanging Lord is imagined as creating herbal remedies (571–80, pp. 64–5). The language seems to merge Christ and Woden, the Crucifixion and Woden’s hanging on the World Ash, perhaps in order to authorise medical magic. Lacnunga offers a recipe for a holy drink ‘wið ælfsidene 7 wið eallum feondes costungum’ (‘against elvish magic and all temptations of the devil’), making clear the connection between elf and demon.129 Dwarves also seem to have been connected with illness: the term and various compounds of dweorg are used of fever or other sickness, as in the charm, ‘wið dweorh’ .130 The Leechbook merges ideas of supernatural creatures in the recipe for a ‘sealf wiþ ælfcynne and nihtgengan and þam mannum þe deofol mid hæmð’ (‘salve against elves and night-wanderers and people who have had intercourse with the devil’), a remedy also to be used 125 Lacnunga,

clx, in Pettit, Anglo-Saxon Remedies, pp. 110–11, and Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic, pp. 274–5. 126 Lacnunga xxix, in Pettit, Anglo-Saxon Remedies, pp. 16–17, and Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic, pp. 232–6. 127 For the charm against elf-shot, see Lacnunga cxxviia, in Pettit, Anglo-Saxon Remedies, pp. 90–1, and Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic, pp. 140–51 (elf-shot is interpreted by Storms as rheumatism). 128 See North, Heathen Gods, pp. 85–7. 129 Lacnunga xxix, in Pettit, Anglo-Saxon Remedies, pp. 16–17, and Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic, pp. 232–5. 130 Lacnunga lxxxvi, in Pettit, Anglo-Saxon Remedies, pp. 72–5, and Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic, pp. 167–73; see also Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, pp. 54 and 200–201.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic against ‘yfel costung’ (‘evil temptation’).131 The charms also contain more nebulous references to flying poison, and disease was evidently imagined as being carried through the air. Folk traditions merge in these collections, which suggest belief in a world inhabited by a range of supernatural forces, against which both Christian and non-Christian rituals may protect. Although these works are unusual in their extensive collection of medico-magical rituals, there is evidence that such charms continued to be used and copied. A similar combination of Christian and magical ritual is strikingly conveyed, along with a belief in the practice of harmful magic, in a twelfth-century manuscript containing a non-medical charm, which addresses infertility of land caused ‘on dry oððe on lyblace’ (‘by sorcery or witchcraft’). This is to be addressed through a combination of prayers, Masses and symbolic rituals, including pouring a herbal potion onto four sods placed on crosses, and laying a loaf made with holy water in the first furrow.132 Flint emphasises the process throughout the early medieval period of rehabilitating folk magical practices, and combining them with Christian ritual: this is evident in the proliferation of small books, perhaps carried by those who attended the sick, containing astrological charts and remedies of the sort found in Lacnunga.133 They are not specialist, forbidden manuals of magic, but rather belong to a daily life in which Christian and non-Christian, folk and learned, medicine and magic, are interwoven. It is highly unlikely that these rituals were considered pagan by those who used them. What may once have been illicit rituals have been authorised, or at least condoned, as elements of healing practice that tap into deep aspects of belief and by channelling superstition promote Christian faith. The traditions of medical and protective magic appear to have endured from the Anglo-Saxon period without much change. Herbals and charms continued to be copied in the late Middle Ages, and the recipes remain similar, using plants and animal substances, and combining different notions of power. They often include astrological details, naming appropriate times and places, as well as other ritual aspects of gathering, preparation and application. Ideas of sympathy and antipathy are prominent. Arcane language and Christian ritual recur. While charms and remedies may have survived in folk memory, new ones seem to have been invented and copied. The use of amulets, ligatures or talismans (engraved images) also endured, overlapping with the use of protective religious objects. They could be very simple: plants, herbs or animal parts were believed to be invested with occult powers; often these had to be gathered, prepared, or worn in ritual ways. The Eucharistic wafer was believed to have enormous apotropaic 131 Storms,

Anglo-Saxon Magic, pp. 244–7. (‘Field Ceremonies’), MS BM Cotton Caligula a VII, ff. 176a–178a (12th C), in Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic, pp. 172–86. 133 Flint, The Rise of Magic, p. 314. Flint instances the two codices, MSS Cotton Titus d xxvi and xxvii, which may originally have formed one book, from Hyde Abbey, Winchester, MS BL Cotton Vitellius c iii, MS Cotton Caligula a xv, MS Cotton Tiberius a iii, MS Cotton Vitellius e xviii, and MS Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 41, all late tenth and early eleventh century, and all of which combine charms with other religious, medical, prognostic, calendrial or lunary material of authorised kinds. 132 ‘Æcer-bot’


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance power, although such use was forbidden, and relics of the saints were used similarly. Just such a use is recorded in the accounts of Bishop Langley of Durham (c. 1426): a payment is entered for ‘signing’ sixteen cattle with the signet of St. Wilfred to ward off the illness known as the murrain, but tantalisingly, the entry is crossed out, perhaps suggesting unease about a practice that blurred religious and magical rituals.134 Medical magic was a grey area, for both medicine and magic depended upon notions of correspondences within the cosmos, and the harnessing of natural forces; both applied remedies to the body with accompanying rituals. Charms and remedies depend on the idea of the cosmos as organic, made up of interconnected natural forces, but also suggest a world view that includes a variety of supernatural powers: God, the planetary gods, the Germanic gods, angels, demons, and other spirits. In saints’ lives and miracle stories, as in theological discourse, demons are the focus, though they can take many forms; their presentation is influenced by a variety of folk traditions, including Germanic legend and Celtic and Norse myth.135 Anglo-Saxon writing evokes a rich thought world of demons, monsters, giants and elves. Beowulf makes clear the overlap between monsters of different kinds and demons, and connects magic with the monstrous.136 The Grendel-monsters descend from Cain and have human form: they seem both demons and creatures of folk belief, inhabiting the fens and perhaps synonymous with pagan nature spirits, as the Green Knight later may be. The description of the mere where Grendel’s mother has her lair draws on the account of hell found in the Visio Pauli. She is also identified, however, as a ‘nicor’ , ‘water-spirit’ , and she has clear magical powers. Neither she nor Grendel may be harmed by weapons, and Beowulf ’s victory over Grendel depends in part on his own proto-monstrous power as ‘æglæca’ (‘awesome one’), exemplified in his mighty handgrip. The underwater hall is an eerie underworld that contains the magical sword with the power to kill Grendel’s mother, its magical associations pointed up by the images of giants and the Flood painted on it. In their size the Grendel-monsters also overlap with giants, for which Old English employs a range of terms: ent, eoten (a term that recurs in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), fifel and gigantes. The Anglo-Saxon Maxims (v. 41) refer to the ‘þyrs’ (cognate with Old Norse and usually translated as ‘giant’), which like the Grendel-monsters dwells in the fens. While Beowulf traces all such creatures to Cain, the Book of Enoch, probably an influence on the poem, depicts giants as begotten by the fallen angels and responsible for the presence of demons in the world. Norse legend employs a different world view of gods, giants, and 134 James

Raine, ed., Historiae Dunelmensis Scriptores Tres, Gaufridus de Coldingham, Robertus de Graystanes, et Willelmus de Chambre, Surtees Society 9 (London: J. B. Nichols, 1839), Appendix, ccccxl, discussed in Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 37–8. 135 See Russell’s survey of the devil in folklore, Lucifer, pp. 62–91. 136 See further Orchard, Pride and Prodigies. Orchard notes that the poet may have known the Book of Enoch: see pp. 64–6. See also Anlezark, Water and Fire, in particular the discussion of Beowulf, pp. 291–367.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic dwarves.137 Whatever individuals in Anglo-Saxon England believed about the origins of giants, they would have been acutely aware of a past in which Britain was inhabited by such a race – a notion that endures through the later medieval chronicles of Britain, which present Albion as a land of giants led by Gogmagog and defeated by Brutus. The ruins around them, repeatedly termed ‘enta geweorc’ (‘the work of giants’) in Anglo-Saxon poetry, functioned as powerful reminders of the passing of a great civilisation, and a sign of the transience of all things. Giants and monsters were associated with the water and the earth. The elves instanced in the charms are creatures of the air. Such beings occur across Scandinavian legend: the Prose Edda suggests a distinction between light and dark elves, the former inhabiting ‘Alfheim’ , the latter living below the earth and perhaps synonymous with dwarves.138 Old English ælf may suggest a creature closer to the demon than to the romanticised, modern-day elf: Richard North argues that ylfi[g]e means ‘demoniacally possessed’ .139 Ælf is used in a set of glosses to indicate classical spirits – nymphs, oreads, dryads, hamadriads, maiads and naiads – as well as in Norse contexts, demonstrating the overlap between cultural traditions.140 Like daimons, elves possess malevolent aspects, as is evident in their association with illness. At the same time, ælf in compound names or adjectives seems to imply a positive quality, or to indicate ‘feminine beauty’ , as in the description in the Old English Judith of the Old Testament heroine as ‘ælf-scinu’ . North suggests that in Christian names the term may have been used as an inoculation against the ‘malign effects on personal health’ that the ælf might effect.141 The combination of beauty and fearfulness, help and harm, will be sustained in romance depictions of the otherworld. The concept of ambivalent spirits which are neither angelic nor demonic, but simply ‘other’ , echoes the classical idea of the daimon, and emerges powerfully in the romance otherworld of faery, as well as in the Renaissance concept of ‘middle’ spirits.142 137 See

Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, p. 57. Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, pp. 52–3. 139 North, Heathen Gods, p. 52. 140 See H. D. Merritt, Old English Glosses: A Collection (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1945), p. 61 (Leiden, Voss. Lat. Quarto 106, 10r), cited in North, Heathen Gods, pp. 52–6, and Alaric Hall’s comprehensive study, Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity, Anglo-Saxon Studies 8 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2007). See also R. A. Peters, ‘OE ælf, -ælf, ælfen, -ælfen’ , Philological Quarterly 42 (1963), pp. 250–7; H. Stuart, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Elf ’ , Studia Neophilologica 48 (1976), pp. 313–20. 141 North, Heathen Gods, p. 54; see also North, Pagan Words and Christian Meanings, Costerus New Series 81 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1991). 142 For a popular account, see Maureen Duffy, The Erotic World of Faery (1972; London: CardinalSphere Books, 1987), esp. pp. 1–109. Classic studies of folklore include those of Katharine M. Briggs, The Fairies in Tradition and Literature (London: Routledge, 1967); A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and Other Supernatural Creatures (London: Allen Lane, 1976); Pale Hecate’s Team: An Examination of the Beliefs on Witchcraft and Magic Among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries (London: Routledge, 1962); and The Vanishing People: A Study of Traditional Fairy Beliefs (London: Batsford, 1978). See also the seventeenth-century collection of beliefs by Robert 138 Griffiths,


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance These diverse folk notions of the supernatural were sustained after the Conquest. Chronicles and story collections include a wealth of tales of magic and the supernatural, ostensibly for instructive purposes but evidently also for narrative interest.143 These works gesture at the range, familiarity and appeal of such material, and bring together folk traditions and clerical learning. As C. S. Watkins has argued, the chronicles of the twelfth century, a period when historiographers were especially productive, offer a rich resource for the study of early post-Conquest religious culture. The chroniclers were interested in both the Anglo-Saxon past and local tradition, and aimed to forge a new Anglo-Norman perspective: Watkins emphasises the combination of nostalgia and curiosity in their writings. Walter Map mixed didactic story and political commentary in De nugis curialium; Gervase of Tilbury in Otia imperialia aimed to entertain his patron, the German Emperor Otto IV, with cultural and geographical detail and with tales of wondrous happenings. Gervase also drew on his Continental travels and wide intellectual training. In creating their encyclopaedic, anecdotal works, which combined instruction with entertainment, such writers drew on their knowledge of natural philosophy and clerical learning, which ‘supplied alternative ways of rationalising the world’: physical causes challenged moral explanations.144 Marvels were of special interest, signalling aspects of the created world that might come to be understood. As Watkins demonstrates, the terms used by chroniclers distinguished between the supernatural (though not employing this term, which Aquinas promoted) in the form of miracles (miracula) and demonic interventions (signa/portenta), and the natural but marvellous. These natural occurrences might be characterised as monstrum (a portentous wonder or monstrosity), prodigium (prodigy), or marvel (mirum/mirabilium).145 The varied and colourful exemplae of the chroniclers provided a rich vein of material for later writers; such stories also signal a shared folk tradition of extraordinary potential, especially influential in shaping the genre of romance. A dominant emphasis is the shifting quality of physical form. The strangeness of the natural world is captured in its seeming irrationalities, the transformations of what seems materially fixed. The boundaries of the human and of the material world are also probed. Encounters with strange creatures and otherworldly beings, and tales of shape-shifting, recur across the chronicles.146 There are numerous Kirk, The Secret Commonwealth: A Short Treatise of Charms and Spels, ed. Stewart Sanderson, Mistletoe Series (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1976). 143 On chronicles within their wider religious contexts, particularly in relation to penitentials, sermons and exempla, see the excellent study by Watkins, History and the Supernatural in Medieval England, to which this discussion is indebted. 144 Watkins, History and the Supernatural in Medieval England, p. 5. On monsters and the medieval thought world, see Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills, ed., The Monstrous Middle Ages (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003). 145 Watkins, History and the Supernatural in Medieval England, p. 18. 146 For an intriguing example of a violent encounter with the faery, see James Wade, ‘Abduction, Surgery, Madness: An Account of a Little Red Man in Thomas Walsingham’s Chronica Maiora’ , Medium Ævum 77 (2008), pp. 10–29.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic tales of demons, while demonology, classical notions of daimons and folk traditions of other spirits meet in the many anecdotes of encounters with otherworldly or faery creatures. Walter Map in De nugis curialium recounts the legend of the proto-demonic Wild Hunt of Herla, king of the ancient Britons, along with other magical stories from Welsh tradition. Shapeshifting is a prominent motif: Gervase of Tilbury tells of ‘lamiae’ and ‘larvae nocturnae’ , and of witches who become cats, and the werewolf is a familiar motif; demons themselves are frequently shapeshifters.147 Demons guarding treasure may appear in the form of toads, giants or dragons, and can be bound with incantations.148 Ghosts and spirits provide particularly colourful subject matter.149 This is a world of portentous events and punishments which demonstrate demonic temptation and divine judgement, but also strange possibilities of human influence. Ghosts, magic and the demonic converge in Walter Map’s tale of the pursuit by an English knight, Sir William Laudun, of the ghost of a Welsh ‘maleficus’ , who continues his practices of murder by witchcraft after death; when attempts at purification fail, Sir William hears his own name called, pursues the demon to the cemetery and cuts off his head.150 Map also describes a child-killing demon very like the classical strix, who, after cutting the throats of three infants, is caught attempting to kill a fourth, and exposed as a demon in the form of a noble lady in town.151 Map explicitly links the devil with witchcraft in the tale of a pact made by the knight Eudo with the devil, who restores his lost wealth. Eudo’s eventual repentance after a life of murder and theft leads also to his punishment and 147 Gervase

of Tilbury, Otia Imperialia. Recreation for an Emperor, ed. and trans. S. E. Banks and J. W. Binns, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), III.93, III.112, pp. 743, 803–5. For discussion of werewolves, see Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 175, who cites Cnut 1, 26, in Liebermann I, p. 306, describing the devil as ‘se wodfreca werewulf ’; Gervase of Tilbury, Otia Imperialia, III.120, pp. 813–15; Giraldus Cambrensis, Topographia Hibernica, in Opera, vol. 5, II.19, pp. 101–5: Gerald also tells of phantom pigs and witches in the form of hares; see also Gerald’s Expugnatio Hiberniae, in vol. 5, II. 23, p. 356. 148 See Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 204–13, and for the dragon guarding the treasure on the domain of a Saracen physician (1344), Thomas Walsingham, Historia Anglicana, Chronica Monasterii S. Allbani, ed. Henry Thomas Riley, vol. 1: ad 1272–1381, Rolls Series (London: Longman, 1863), p. 264. 149 See for instance Radulphus de Coggeshall, Chronicon Anglicanum, pp. 120–1, 134–5; Giraldus Cambrensis, Itinerarium Kambriae, in Opera, vol. 6, pp. 96–9, Gervase of Tilbury, Otia Imperialia, I.18; various other examples are offered by Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 215–25. 150 Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium: Courtiers’ Trifles, ed. and trans. M. R. James, rev. C. N. L. Brooke and R. A. B. Mynors, Oxford Medieval Texts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), II. 27, pp. 202–3. 151 Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, II.14, pp. 160–3, linked to tales of striges and lamiae by Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England pp. 223–4. Popular stories of impersonation by nocturnal demons are told in relation to St German in Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea, ed. Thomas Graesse (Dresden: Arnold, 1846), cap. 107 [102], p. 449; The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan, 2 vols (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), vol. 2, ch. 107, pp. 27–30; and in An Alphabet of Tales, ed. Mary Macleod Banks, Early English Text Society OS 126 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1904), Part I, no. 247, p. 173, with other demonic tales following.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance death, when he is condemned to leap on a witch’s pyre by the Bishop of Beauvais. The narrative draws on theological discussions in the devil’s disquisition on the fallen angels, and his explanation that demons include the classical spirits of old: ‘Monicolae, Silvani, Driades, Oreades, Fauni, Satiri, Nayades’ , and inhabit ‘waste places’ .152 William of Malmesbury in his Gesta regum Anglorum sets in the context of Gregory the Great’s stories of demons in the Dialogues the analogous tale of the Witch of Berkeley, who repents her crimes at her death, and whose body, despite all efforts, is taken by demons. Demons are characterised as desiring dead bodies, which, as in the case of the Witch of Endor, they may inhabit to do harm. The example of the Witch of Berkeley is widely told in other chronicles and in sermon collections,153 Robert Mannyng of Brunne draws on the Anglo-Norman Le Manuel de Pechiez for a similar tale, which he dates to the reign of Edward I.154 The possibilities of Christian miracle and the apotropaic promise of rituals and devotions countered prohibited magic, and the question of licit versus illicit magic recurs.155 Gervase of Tilbury, in particular, promoted the virtues of natural magic, drawing on the ideas of Augustine. Astrology and divination are recurrent themes. The Benedictine chronicler William of Malmesbury contrasts the authorised practice of biblical sortes with the abuse of religious ritual by a ‘venefica’ (‘sorcerer’), whose malevolent spell consists in singing a psalm backwards.156 William also tells a more light-hearted tale of ‘The Two Witches of Rome’ , which hints at some continued knowledge of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses. The witches turn all those staying in their inn into domestic beasts, which they sell, but when a young magician-entertainer is transformed into an ass, he retains his wit, performing various tricks, and is eventually restored to his true form. The story, which William dates to the eleventh century, may be based on a brief reference in Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, and finds its way into various later chronicles.157 The twelfth-century Gesta Herewardi narrates the use of a local witch by William the Conqueror in his battle for the Isle of Ely. Hereward overhears the witch (‘illa venefica mulier’) and her hostess discussing sorcery, and follows them as they consult ‘custode fontium’ (‘the guardian of the springs’). The witch (termed ‘phitonissa’) is placed high 152 Walter

Map, De Nugis Curialium, IV.6, pp. 314–4; Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England notes the parallels in Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1, ll. 192–3 and Troilus and Criseyde, IV, ll. 1544–5. 153 William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Regum Anglorum. Libri Quinque, ed. William Stubbs, Rolls Series (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1887), vol. 1, II, 204, pp. 253–6, and recorded in many later chronicles. 154 Robert Mannyng of Brunne, Handlyng Synne, ll. 7982–8087; from William of Waddington, Le Manuel des Pechiez, ll. 6222–304. See also An Alphabet of Tales, no. 728, pp. 487–8. 155 See further Watkins’ incisive discussions of ‘wonder-seeking piety’ and of attitudes to the magical arts in History and the Supernatural in Medieval England, pp. 107–69. 156 William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, IV.156, p. 295. 157 Augustine, De Civitate Dei, 18.18; Pliny, 8.22, 24; and William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, vol. 1, II.171, pp. 201–2. Other tellings include Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, vol. 1, pp. 518–19; Flores Historiarum, ed. Henry Richards Luard, Rolls Series (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1890), vol. 1, pp. 567–8; Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Naturale, in Speculum Quadruplex, 2.109, col. 148; see Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 183–4.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic above the enemy to work her arts but in the event, falls and breaks her neck in the conquest – the moral being, perhaps, that William does not need magic for his victory, and that such practices are forbidden and dangerous. But the story also suggests the familiarity of such sorceress figures.158 As the repeated engagement of an enormously varied range of texts suggests, magic and the supernatural played a prominent role within popular culture. Ideas of prophecy, divination, and individuals with special powers, both beneficent and malevolent, were retained. The use of magical rituals and occult forces to protect and heal endured, as did the concept of the marvellous. The old beliefs in the Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic gods merged positively with notions of heroic ancestors and much more negatively with notions of demons, who in turn were connected with monsters and giants. The classical gods were retained within the astrological framework that dominated the medieval understanding of the cosmos. Ideas of spirits of the air, both malevolent and benevolent, were sustained, and can be readily identified with the otherworldly figures who recur in romances. As both Anglo-Saxon and post-Conquest writing suggest, the occult in its largest sense – demons, ghosts, spirits, and magic of different kinds – along with miracles, marvels and monsters, held tremendous imaginative appeal.

Learned Magic Alongside, and, as medico-magical treatises imply, sometimes merging with folk tradition, more learned notions of natural magic were sustained in medicine and astrology. Fundamental to the learned, clerical tradition of magic was St Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae (early seventh century), the twenty books of which collect and comment on the ideas and attitudes prominent in the early Christian period. The work comprises the most extensive and widely circulated treatment of magic in the early Middle Ages, and it rehearses the intellectual history of magic and learned practice as well as engaging with popular belief. Isidore repeats Augustine’s dictates, and draws on Roman and Germanic laws, classical writings and the Bible, but also seems to reflect on contemporary belief and practice.159 De magis (‘About magicians’) is placed within the context of ‘The Church and the Sects’ (Book VIII), and the links between magic, paganism and heresy are clear. Isidore identifies pagan gods as originally human and attributes their deification to demons, who use their magical arts to deceive men. He offers the traditional account of magic as originating with Zoroaster and his followers, and names celebrated magicians such as Circe. Isidore notes that after the Magi’s prediction of Christ’s birth, astrological magic was forbidden: ‘magi’ and ‘malefici’ are now to be 158 Geffrei

Gaimar, Gesta Herewardi in Lestorie des Engles, ed. Thomas Duffus Hardy and Charles Trice Martin, 2 vols, Rolls Series 91 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1888–9), pp. 385, 389. Kittredge suggests this is a water-demon, and emphasises the long history of magic associated with wells – holy wells, wishing wells, cursing wells – and their link to pagan rituals, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 33–4. 159 Flint, The Rise of Magic, notes the absence of sources for some parts of Isidore’s discussion, p. 51.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance equated.160 Isidore follows Augustine in arguing that all magic arts are to be avoided and condemned: ‘In quibus omnibus ars daemonum est ex quadam pestifera societate hominum et angelorum malorum exorta’ (‘In all these the craft of demons has issued from a certain pestilential alliance of humans and evil angels’ , 8.9.31). Magic promises secret power through divination, and the consultation of the spirits of the dead, although Isidore observes that magical effects may be illusions achieved through demonic powers. The seeking of hidden knowledge is a crucial motif: necromancers summon the spirits of the dead, using the power of blood; hydromancers employ water, and sometimes blood, to conjure demons; different kinds of divination – geomancy, hydromancy, aeromancy, pyromancy – use different elements; enchanters rely on the power of words; arioli make sacrifices to demons; haruspices, soothsayers, read the entrails of animals to forecast favourable times; augures and auspices interpret the sounds and flights of birds, especially in relation to journeys; astrologi read the stars; genethliaci or mathematici study the stars and planets in relation to days of birth, as do horoscopi to predict individual fates; sortilegi cast lots or divine through particular, often sacred, writings; salisatores read the body’s movements to predict the future. Isidore makes a crucial distinction between astronomy, the study of the actual movements of the heavens, and astrology, the study of the powers inherent in these. Like Augustine, he accepts basic, natural astrology: reading meteorological signs and charting sun, moon and stars to aid in travel or cultivation and harvesting. The role of planets and stars in the cycle of the seasons was generally accepted, as was the special influence of the moon, most obviously but not exclusively in the tides (hence the frequent directive to pick plants or perform medical operations or rituals, especially bleeding, at certain stages of the moon, and the notion of lunacy). Isidore emphasises that the moon is under providential rule. Comets and meteorites were viewed similarly, their role as portents affirmed by the appearance of the star of the East to mark the Nativity, whereas augury is forbidden. Isidore’s De natura rerum (extant in seventeen manuscripts dated before the ninth century) draws on classical writings on astrology, such as Cicero’s Aratea, and Gregory of Tours’ De cursu stellarum (late sixth century), which offers details of different kinds of comets and their meanings. Isidore distinguishes too between genuine medical practice, which requires knowledge of the cosmos and its relation to the humours, and medical magic, which is linked to demons and characterised by binding and ligatures of the kind condemned by Augustine.161 Isidore’s endorsement of astrology was influential. The influence of the stars and planets on the earth and on individuals, the powerful force of the moon, and the significance of comets and falling stars were taken for granted, proven by 160 Isidore

of Seville, Etimologiás [Etymologiae], ed. Jose Oroz Reta and Manuel-A. Marcos Casquero, 2 vols (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1982–3), vol. 1, 8.9.25; The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. Stephen A. Barney et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 8.9.25. Subsequent references to Isidore’s Etymologies are to this edition and translation, cited by book and section numbers. 161 For Isidore’s De natura rerum, see Patrologia Latina 83, col. 963ff, and Traité de la Nature, ed. J. Fontaine (Bordeaux: Féret, 1960).


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic the Bible itself. In the course of the ninth and tenth centuries, more astrological works began to be written, the Magi were reclaimed, and the signs of the Zodiac Christianised; the tenth century saw the appearance of treatises including Arabic material, and on the astrolabe. Flint argues persuasively that this revival of astrology was stimulated by Christian interest in divination.162 English writers emphasised natural phenomena – lightning and eclipses are linked in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to famine and Viking attack, and become apocalyptic signs in Wulfstan’s Sermo Lupi ad Anglos. Bede, deeply aware of the connections between meteorology, cosmology, and the calendar as a result of the heated clerical debate concerning the calculation of Easter, considers augury in some detail in De temporibus, and treats extensively the phases of the moon and their relation to tides.163 Ælfric’s vernacular summary emphasises the power of the moon over all earthly things, and hence natural correspondences in the universe (8.11–14). Bede is interested too in comets, and expands his ideas on augury in De temporum ratione and De natura rerum, which draws in particular on Pliny and Isidore. It is not coincidental that a treatise on divination through thunder, De tonitruis libellum, was long ascribed to Bede. The acceptability of these forms of what might be termed natural magic, then, was not questioned. From the twelfth century onwards, natural philosophy was complicated and encouraged by new intellectual and cultural developments in natural philosophy. Medicine was the most reputable branch of what came to be explicitly identified as natural magic. Like other branches of natural philosophy, medicine was concerned with unlocking the secrets of nature, both in diagnosis and in treatment and remedies. The learned tradition of medicine, which drew especially on the works of Galen and Aristotle and was rooted in the theory of the bodily humours, was, like the occult sciences, connected especially with the East, in the Arabic world, and the earliest medical schools were situated in places with access to this learning. Chaucer’s depiction of the ‘Doctour of Phisik’ in the General Prologue is characteristic in its depiction of medicine as ‘magyk natureel’ (416), requiring the knowledge of anatomy, humours and disease, medicines, especially herbal remedies, and astrology. The Physician’s love of gold, however, suggests the costliness of medical treatment. While there did exist learned, university-trained physicians and surgeons, and some celebrated foreign physicians were attached to the court, these were comparatively unusual figures. More common were the tradesmen and women who practised medicine as a sideline – barber-surgeons and others in London, nurses, midwives, toothdrawers, apothecaries, country practitioners, and particularly monks. Folk remedies continued to have a high status in a world where illness was so much treated within the community. The frequently monastic provenance of charms, as well as of medical texts, demonstrates the complex 162 Flint,

The Rise of Magic, p. 145. De temporum ratione, Patrologia Latina 90, col. 421aff; Bedae Opera De Temporibus, ed. Charles W. Jones, Medieval Academy of America 41 (Cambridge, MA: Medieval Academy of America, 1943): see especially ch. 28 on the effect of the moon. Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, and Flint, The Rise of Magic, both argue for Bede’s special interest in astrology. See especially Flint, The Rise of Magic, pp. 132–3, and Griffiths, Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic, pp. 88–9.

163 Bede,


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance relation between magic, medicine and religion, and the difficulty of distinguishing licit and illicit medical magic, despite the cautionary statements of theologians from Augustine onwards. The lack of hospitals and exclusiveness of physicians meant that for most illness and healing belonged within the family and community, as aspects of folk experience. Because the limits of medicine were so clear, prayer and faith in providence played an important role in ideas of healing. Christ was the divine Physician and miracles of healing, as Augustine had argued, pointed to the mystery of faith, to man’s hope in the Resurrection. Indeed, the cure of illness was as likely to lie in a visit to the shrine of a saint as in the advice of a physician. Equally, it might lie in the occult virtue of a plant. John of Salisbury echoes Augustine in referring to ‘inania carmina … quae tota medicorum secta condempnat’ (‘silly charms … condemned by the whole medical profession’), but medicine and magic are likely to have blurred into each other more than his comment suggests.164 Some physicians, such as John of Mirfield of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, expressed uncertainty about the efficacy of traditional remedies (though John still copied various charms); others, such as Edward II’s physician John of Gaddesden, recommended them. As Kieckhefer remarks, ‘if the charms worked, that was more important than how they worked’ .165 Like plants, stones too were invested with special powers, which could serve medicinal purposes; both plants and stones figure in charms and the qualities associated with them readily spanned both popular and learned belief. Stones played an important part in notions of natural magic: from Babylonian and Egyptian practice onwards, gems were viewed as containing ‘sidereal powers’ , and from the fetish stone developed the notion of the magical amulet or talisman.166 Hippocrates viewed stones as made up of the elements of water and fire; Theophrastus noted the magico-medical powers of the emerald; Dioscorides in his Materia magica remarked the medicinal powers of various gems and minerals; and Persian tradition too emphasised the powers of stones. Though Pliny dismisses certain claims, such as the belief of the Magi that amethysts prevent drunkenness, he is confident about the natural powers inherent in stones, and discusses the properties of gems and minerals at considerable length, from the medicinal qualities of amber, to the power of emeralds to refresh the eyes and function as mirrors.167 The natural magic of the later Middle Ages accepts the marvellous qualities of gems. Isidore of Seville devotes Book 16 of his Etymologies to stones and metals, drawing on Pliny and Dioscorides, although he too is critical of the lies of magicians, such as the claim that a spell employing a heliotrope lends invisibility (16.7.12). Isidore condemns certain gems used in pagan practices, said to 164 Policraticus II.i, in John of Salisbury, Policraticus Sive De Nugis Curialium et Vestigiis Philosophorum,

Libri VIII, ed. Clemens C. I. Webb (London: Minerva, 1909), vol. 1, p. 66; Frivolities of Courtiers and Footprints of Philosophers, trans. Joseph B. Pike (New York: Octagon, 1972), p. 56. 165 Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, pp. 73–5. 166 For this and the following discussion, see in particular Joan Evans, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Particularly in England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922), 15ff; chapter 6 details stones of the medieval period. 167 See Pliny, Historia Naturalis, Books 36 and 37.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic summon animals, demons and spirits, to assist in divination, and to ward off storms, hail and demons (15.21–6). On the other hand, he is content to remark that jet drives away snakes, reveals the possessed and indicates virginity; the gemstone asbestos resists the poisons of magicians (16.4.19); memphitis numbs the body (4.11); and selenite waxes and wanes with the moon (10.7). Diamonds, like amber, guard against poison, put fear to flight, and lend protection from witchcraft (13.3), while astrion, a crystalline stone with a star at its centre, is said by magicians to prevent wounding in battle (13.7). Many of the associations of stones are repeated and developed from one lapidary to another, and figure variously in charms and remedies. Albertus Magnus’ alphabetical lapidary, contained in his treatise Mineralia, Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum naturale, and Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ De proprietatibus rerum all offer definitions, classification of gems and minerals, and descriptions of properties and virtues. Emphasis is placed on the power of stones engraved with astrological signs: this reflects their sensitivity to cosmic forces, and is particularly the case if they have been engraved in the East where planetary rays are more direct.168 Albertus Magnus offers a defence of the powers of stones, drawing an analogy with the power of magnets. The virtues of stones are recounted in distilled form in the Secreta secretorum attributed to Albertus and widely circulated from the late thirteenth to the seventeenth century; here, however, the tone is considerably more simplistic and lacking in scepticism. This popular work provides a good context for the treatment of gems in romance: the marvellous powers of each of forty-five stones are briefly stated within a much more general discussion of magical remedies that tend to employ sympathetic magic, and range from proving chastity to curing vertigo.169 Some of the qualities of stones are physical: onyx burns, topaz causes water to flow, asbestos quenches. Others are medicinal: topaz is good against madness, amethyst against drunkenness, and lapis lazuli against melancholy. Some are intellectual or emotional: onyx provokes sorrow and debate, emerald sharpens the wits and offers prophetic powers. Some protect against perils and adversaries: chalcedony guards against ‘fantastical illusion’ , draconites against all poisons and adversaries, orites against ill luck, bites and perils of death, while quartz brings favour and honour, alabaster victory, and alectoria, the cockstone, serves ‘if thou would obtain anything of any man’ . Jet reveals infidelity and virginity; the eaglestone, aetites, engenders love. The diamond is multi-faceted when bound to the left side, functioning as an amulet: ‘it is good against enemies, madness, wild beasts, venomous beasts, and cruel men, and against chiding and brawling, and against venom, and invasion of fantasies’ .170 The sapphire brings peace, purity and devotion. Opthalmus (opal) causes invisibility. Most influential in the development of natural magic and of the more dubious 168 Evans,

Magical Jewels, p. 97.

169 Albertus Magnus, The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus: of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones and Certain

Beasts: Also A Book of the Marvels of the World, ed. Michael R. Best and Frank H. Brightman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), Introduction, pp. xiv–xv, and for the following references, see Book II, ‘Of the Virtues of Stones’ , pp. 25–49. 170 Albertus Magnus, Book of Secrets, p. 31.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance art of necromancy was the interest in the occult sciences inspired by the ­discovery of Arabic texts.171 The new spirit of enquiry led to the cultivation of Arabic learning, and the translation of many texts into Latin, including treatises on astrology and alchemy, and works associated with Hermes Trismegistus, the mythical founder of magic arts. The occult sciences were important influences on English writers such as Gower, Chaucer and Lydgate. The tradition of including magic within the seven liberal arts developed early in the twelfth century through Arabic tradition, particularly in Spain with its proximity to these sources. A Spanish convert from Judaism, Pedro Alfonso, in his Disciplina clericalis refers to the debate among philosophers as to whether necromancy, natural science or grammar should be considered the seventh art (the traditional grouping is grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, music, astronomy and geometry – the trivium and quadrivium). While this work was not known widely known, a tradition of including magic among the practical sciences did develop, and was adopted by the school of Abelard. The magic arts (astrology, sorcery, divination, augury, illusion) were placed alongside the mechanical arts.172 The occult sciences seem to have been taught most in those schools with the closest links to the Arabic world – Verona, Naples, Toledo, Salerno. The French Roman d’Eustache le Moine (c. 1300) offers a detailed account of the brigand Eustace’s training in Toledo, which includes necromancy and other magical arts – divination, conjuration, charms and experiments, and not least the useful art of rendering his ship invisible; the story is cited by various chroniclers.173 The Muslim writers of the eighth century reworked much Greek astrology and alchemy, and over a hundred works were translated from Arabic into Latin in the course of the eleventh century, from the work of Adelard of Bath onwards.174 The possibilities opened up by the occult sciences by no means met with universal approval. The Policraticus of John of Salisbury (c. 1115–80), a study of courtly life and politics, includes magic among the vices of courtiers: the first two books discuss the arts of illusion and juggling, as well as more serious kinds of magic, drawing on patristic tradition, especially the ideas of Augustine and Isidore. John describes ‘nigromantia’ as both demonic and deceitful, and reiterates traditional categories, but also tells of a priest who taught him as a boy, and practised crystal-gazing. While John’s companion saw some misty figures, John himself, horrified by the names of demons and oaths, saw nothing, and he firmly condemns those who defend such ‘specularii’ as harmless or acting in the service of 171 Scholarship

on the intellectual history of magic and the occult sciences, including my own, is greatly indebted to the magisterial work of Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science (New York: Columbia University Press, 1923–58), 8 vols, in particular vols 1–4, which span the classical period to the fifteenth century. 172 Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, pp. 64–5; R. W. Southern, Medieval Humanism and Other Studies (Oxford: Blackwell, 1970), p. 42ff. 173 Le Roman d’Eustache le Moine, ed. A. Holden and J. Monfrin, KT-EMATA 18 (Louvain: Peeters, 2005): on his knowledge of necromancy, see e.g. ll. 6–7 and 13–18. 174 Influential Arabic writers include al-Kindi (801–73), Abu Ma’shar (787–886), and the alchemical writer Jabir ibn Hayyan [Gebir] (c. 721–815).


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic truth.175 The image of the magician-cleric is prominent and persuasive, for it is clerics who have access to learning and to the forbidden – handbooks of magic, sacred objects and rites, and knowledge of both divine and demonic. The Faustian theme of the compact between the magician-cleric and the devil occurs across a range of genres and texts, including in the vitae of saints Basil and Theophilus.176 William of Malmesbury narrates the popular tale of Gerbert, an Aquitanian scholar who studied magic in Toledo, became a teacher in Reims with the help of a handbook of magic stolen from his master, taught the emperor-tobe, Otto III, and finally became Pope Sylvester II. Although in reality Sylvester seems to have been an influential and successful pope, and a prominent scholar who wrote on mathematics and logic, he too was accused of making a pact with the devil to obtain knowledge of the arts of magic. The story was widely told and elaborated:177 Walter Map gives Gerbert a faery protector, ‘Meridiana’ . Several other popes (Benedict IX, Gregory VI and Gregory VII) were accused of magic, and said to have studied at a school in Rome founded by Sylvester. Closer to home, William of Newburgh, Walter Map, Thomas Walsingham and William of Malmesbury all tell the story of Gerard, Archbishop of York (d. 1108), ‘homo quidem acutus et litteratus’ , disliked for his financial demands, and accused of ­magic.178 Other works associate magical feats with heresy. Ralph of Coggeshall reports a Jewish necromancer in 1222, who clothed a boy in a dead man’s skin in order to learn the future.179 Despite opposition, however, by the thirteenth century ‘a flood of Arabic texts … had poured into Western Europe’ .180 Even where the occult ­sciences were not formally taught, universities and schools equipped scholars with the knowledge to pursue them. Astrology remained the most influential of the occult sciences. Classical notions of the universe as a single organism, and thus of the power of natural 175 Policraticus

II.28, in Webb, ed., vol. 1, pp. 161–6; trans. Pike, pp. 144–9. John discusses image magic and various kinds of divination with classical references, I.12, in Webb, ed., vol. 1 pp. 51–2; trans. Pike, pp. 41–4. 176 For Basil, see An Alphabet of Tales, no. 64, pp. 45–7; for Theophilus, see Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church, Homilies of Ælfric, ed. Thorpe, vol. 1, pp. 448–9; The Early South English Legendary or Lives of Saints, ed. Carl Horstmann, Early English Text Society OS 87 (London: N. Trübner, 1887), vol. 1, pp. 288–93; and see the comprehensive notes on these legends in Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, pp. 239–40. 177 Including in William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, vol. 1, II.167–9, 172, pp. 193–8; Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Historiale, 24.98; and Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, IV.11, pp. 350–65, cited by Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 240. Peters compares William’s portrait of Sylvester to the eleventh-century Italian writer Anselm of Besate’s ‘fictitious indictment of his cousin Rotiland as a magician and servant of the devil’ in his Rhetorimachia, an exercise in the rhetoric of dispute which illuminates eleventh-century ideas in Northern Italy of magical practice as demonic, although the work was not widely circulated, pp. 21–8: p. 23. 178 William of Newburgh, Historia Rerum Anglicarum, Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I, ed. Richard Howlett, Rolls Series (London: Longman, 1884), vol. 1, p. 28; Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, V.6, pp. 470–1; Thomas Walsingham, Historia Anglicana, vol. 1, p. 246; William of Malmesbury, Gesta Pontificum, III.117–18, pp. 259–60. 179 Radulphus de Coggeshall, Chronicon Anglicanum, p. 191. 180 Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, p. 119.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance correspondences, were pursued and developed. The concept of celestial influence was fundamental: while there was no doubt concerning the effects of the planets and stars and their houses, the signs of the Zodiac, as well as the houses of the moon, on nature and men, there was debate about the extent of astrological influence. Astrological charts or horoscopes, which calculated the degrees or places of planets within their houses, in relation to other planets and the moon, and the study of the inherent qualities of stars and planets, were treated seriously at all levels of society. These forces were viewed as governing all aspects of individual and social existence. A scholar such as Chaucer would have been familiar with principles of astronomy, which included theories of the spheres and celestial harmony, knowledge of the places of the stars and planets, and how to calculate and measure their movements – technical knowledge evident in the Treatise on the Astrolabe.181 His knowledge would also have included familiarity with astrology, though not necessarily the practice of divination. Astrological lot-casting allowed prognostication of events from Creation to Doomsday, and calculation of propitious times for actions (‘elections’), and might address anything from natural occurrences such as famine, flood and harvest to individual lives and questions. The practice of geomancy was related: this employed a system of rules following the model of astrological houses, to interpret patterns drawn by a child, or made by spinning a wheel or coin, or by casting dice, beans or nuts, in order to answer individual questions. Such learning was expected of clerks, as in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, where John the carpenter is willing to accept Nicholas’ ability to foretell the future and his prediction of a second flood, and in the Franklin’s Tale, discussed in Chapter 5. The crucial issue was how far the study of the stars and related natural forces might reveal destiny, and then, whether destiny or nature might be altered. Study was licit; intervention was not.182 The line between these two possibilities could readily become blurred, however, and astral magic was the most controversial aspect of astrology. Astral magic blurred into more general notions of natural magic as harnessing the powers of the cosmos emanating from the stars and planets, and contained within natural objects, especially plants and stones, or in images. The ninth-century Arabic treatise of Al-Kindi, translated as De radiis stellarum, argued (in terms compatible with neo-Platonic theories of sight) that stars emitted rays, which caused sub-lunar motion, and had ‘connected mundane forms in sounds, images, gestures and suffumigations’ .183 These too produced rays, which 181 J. D.

North’s magisterial study, Chaucer’s Universe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), describes in detail the cosmological theory familiar to Chaucer and his intellectual circle; the following discussion is indebted to this work. 182 J. D. North, ‘Astrology and the Fortunes of Churches’ , in Stars, Minds and Fate: Essays in Ancient and Medieval Cosmology (London: Hambledon Press, 1989), pp. 59–90: p. 62, and see his essay, ‘Celestial Influence – the Major Premiss of Astrology’ , in the same volume, which sets out differing classical and medieval views, pp. 243–98. 183 See Frank Klaassen, ‘English Manuscripts of Magic, 1300–1500’ , in Claire Fanger, ed., Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic, Magic in History Series (Stroud: Sutton, 1998), pp. 3–31: p. 5. For full discussion of Arabic tradition and its dissemination, see the collection


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic might be manipulated through appropriate forms – stones, plants or images. These notions were often combined, in particular, by engraving gems (now often termed talismans), metals or rings. Such magical ‘operations’ were distinct from necromancy, divination through the dead or the use of demons (though the term ‘nigromancy’ , black magic, is frequently employed to denote negative magical arts more generally), which might employ wax images. The Liber prestigiorum of Adelard of Bath (c. 1080–1150), which translates the treatise of Thebit Ibn-Qurra (Thebit ben Corat), offers just such a theory of image magic.184 The Arabic treatise Ġāyat al-Hakīm (‘The Goal of the Sage’) written c. 1200 and attributed to al-Majriti, an Andalusian mathematician, translated into Latin for the Castilian king Alfonso (‘el Sabio’ , the Wise), and widely circulated, particularly in the Renaissance, offers a more extensive version of the manual of astral magic. Known as Picatrix, the manual contains instructions on how to bring down the spiritual force of the cosmos, and includes the writing of spells, invocation of the planets through prayer and incense, and magical recipes.185 Such works are couched in mysterious, encrypted language to safeguard their dangerous secrets, and addressed to an informed intellectual elite: knowledge would be dangerous to the masses. Closely related to astral magic was the occult science of alchemy. Like astrology, alchemy rested on accepted principles of natural philosophy: the Aristotelian notion of the four elements of which all was constructed, and which were all composed of prime matter, so that they might be reconstituted into higher forms. Greek writings elaborate theories of metals and alloys, and the notion of perfecting metals through a series of colours – usually black (base metal, lead), white (silver), and red (gold) – into the ‘philosopher’s stone’ . The first known text, a book of recipes for a jeweller, dates to the fourth or fifth century ad.186 Greek theories were elaborated from the late eighth century onwards by Arabic philosophers, who developed the notion of metals as mixtures of vapours, which when perfect formed gold, but when imperfect were base metals, which might be corrected. Similarly, the four elements might be combined to perfect the humoral balance in the sick as well as to perfect substances. Thus the concoction of a marvellous elixir of life, with the possibilities of cure and rejuvenation, was a primary alchemical edited by Charles Burnett, Magic and Divination in the Middle Ages: Texts and Techniques in the Islamic and Christian Worlds (Aldershot: Variorum, 1996). 184 See Charles Burnett, ‘Talismans: Magic as Science? Necromancy among the Seven Liberal Arts’ , in Burnett, Magic and Divination, pp. 1–15. 185 See Picatrix: Das Ziel des Weisen von Pseudo-Magriti, ed. and trans. Hellmutt Ritter and Martin Plessner, Studies of the Warburg Institute 27 (London: Warburg Institute, University of London, 1962); Picatrix: The Latin Version of the ‘Ghayat al-hakim’ , ed. David Pingree, Studies of the Warburg Institute 39 (London: Warburg Institute, University of London, 1986); Picatrix: Un traité de magie medieval, trans. and intro. Béatrice Bakhouche, Frédéric Fauquier, Brigitte Pérez-Jean, Miroir du Moyen Age (Turnhout: Brepols, 2003). 186 For a brief overview of alchemy, see Irma Taavitsainen, ‘Science’ , in Peter Brown, ed., A Companion to Chaucer, Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000, 2002), pp. 378–96: pp. 386–7, 391–3. For a selection of influential texts, see Stanton J. Linden, ed. and trans., The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance ideal. Supposed to have been revealed by the Egyptian god Thoth, god of wisdom, or by Hermes, to a select few, alchemy was a hermetic, occult science: instructions and descriptions are often vague, blurring the method of production and nature of the elixir, which may be liquid, stone or powder. Robert of Chester translated an alchemical dialogue attributed to the hermit Morien into Latin as Liber Morieni, in the mid-twelfth century, as well as astronomical tables and other astrological works. Many more such treatises followed.187 There swiftly developed a tradition of symbolic, highly enigmatic language, as exemplified in the brief Smaragdine Table, said to have been found on a slab of emerald hidden in the tomb of Hermes Trismegistus and contained in an enlarged version of the pseudo-Aristotelian Arabic treatise, Kitāb Sirr Al-Asrār (‘Book of the Secret of Secrets’). This tenthcentury handbook for rulers, translated in the mid-thirteenth century by Philip of Tripoli as Secretum secretorum, was widely circulated.188 There was also a less learned alchemical tradition exemplified in the Libellus de alchimia attributed to Albertus Magnus, who was credited too with a popular Secreta secretorum, perhaps written by one of his followers in Cologne. Church authorities were suspicious of alchemy: Avicenna, Vincent of Beauvais and Ramon Lull all condemned belief in the possibility of transmutation of metals; Pope John XXII banned alchemy, as did a number of religious orders, while instructive treatises repeatedly categorised it as fraud. At the same time, the study of alchemy was fuelled by interest in natural philosophy and the secrets of nature more generally, and alchemical treatises proliferated. In Book IV of the Confessio Amantis, on Sloth, Gower treats alchemy not as a sin but as an aspect of Sloth’s antidote, Labour, alongside discovery, invention, letters and language. Gower draws on popular treatises to summarise the principles: seven bodies, the planets, each linked to a metal; four spirits; the accordance of all other metals to gold and silver; the craft of transmutation through seven processes or forms, such as ‘distillacion’ and ‘congelacion’ (2513–14), ending ‘With tempred hetes of the fyr, / Til he the parfit Elixir / Of thilke philosophres Ston / Mai gete’ (2521–4). While works such as the Secretum secretorum mention only one stone, Gower follows the model of, for instance, the Rosarium philosophorum in describing three stones of the philosophers, ‘maden thurgh clergie’ (2533): vegetable, the vertue of which is to preserve health and keep man from sickness; animal, to protect the senses and wits; and mineral, to transform base metals and multiply gold.189 Lydgate in the Secrees of the Philosophres describes the same notion. Gower warns of the danger of loss of riches through fruitless alchemical experiments, but also names 187 Robert

of Chester has sometimes been identified with Robert of Ketton, who also translated works from Arabic into Latin, but recent scholarship suggests these are different individuals: see Charles Burnett, ‘Ketton, Robert of (fl. 1141–1157)’ , Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, for entries on both. 188 See further Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature, pp. 45–53. 189 See further Macaulay’s notes on Gower’s treatment of alchemy and his sources in Confessio Amantis, in The English Works of John Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay, 2 vols, Early English Text Society 81, 82 (London: Oxford University Press, 1900, 1901), vol. 2, pp. 509–10. References to Gower’s Confessio are from this edition, cited by line number.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic with admiration the great alchemists: Hermes, Geber (author of the popular Super artem alkemie, a Latin translation of an Arabic treatise), Ortolan (Hortulanus or John Garland, credited with a fourteenth-century Latin commentary on the Smaragdine Tables), Morien, and Avicenna. Crucially, Gower argues, ‘the science of himself is true / Upon the forme as it was founded’ , but ‘Upon this craft, fewe understonde’ , although many assay’ (2599–600, 2614). They cannot follow ‘the lyne of the parfite medicine / Which grounded is upon nature’ (2623–5). Perhaps it is not surprising that Gower, whose work is profoundly influenced by classical stories of metamorphosis and by the idea of nature and its order, should present in idealised terms the chemical art of metamorphosis and celebrate the idea of a secret key to natural order. He is similarly positive about natural magic. Alchemy and astrology were fundamental to pursuit of the secrets of nature, their popularity signalled by the wide circulation of works in the tradition of the Secretum secretorum. The occult sciences could also be taken in less acceptable directions. Thus in the Liber lune, an Arabic work attributed to Hermes Trismegistus and known in fourteenth-century England, astral magic employing images is combined with incantation and the summoning of angels in order to achieve different kinds of harmful binding magic.190 Relatively few explicitly necromantic books have survived, although references to these forbidden works are many. Records of this kind of magic are more often ephemeral, taking the form of individual formulae copied into other works. Such a formula is added by a fifteenth-century hand to a manuscript containing the Conclusions of Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe and a treatise on geomancy (BL MS Sloane 314). A fifteenth-century English manuscript (Bodleian MS Rawlinson D 252) includes both Latin and English formulae to conjure demons, especially in relation to divination and the discovery of stolen goods.191 This informal miscellany copied in a single hand appears to have been made for private use, and includes prayers, incantations, and diagrams of magical figures, as well as instructions in the performance of demonic magic, which explain how to conjure and bind demons, and how to dismiss them. Astrological detail is of a fairly rudimentary kind, and the emphasis is on the performance of ritual rather than on theory. The formulae, like those found in classical handbooks and the Lacnunga, combine use of special ingredients, trappings, ritual actions and words. A fifteenth-century miscellany containing herbal and medical material includes a similar work falsely attributed to Osbern Bokenham, Liber de angelis, annulis, characteribus et imaginibus planetarum (‘The Book of Angels, Rings, Characters and Images of the Planets’).192 This work (made up of extracts from several different texts) again demonstrates the blurring between medical magic, natural magic and ‘nigromancy’ . Despite its title, 190 Klaassen

offers details of a number of theoretical works containing the Liber lune: see ‘English Manuscripts of Magic’ , pp. 4–14. 191 See further Klaassen, ‘English Manuscripts of Magic’ , pp. 21–4. 192 For an edition and study of this work, contained in Cambridge Univ. Lib. MS Dd.xi.45, see Juris G. Lidaka, ‘The Book of Angels, Rings, Characters and Images of the Planets: Attributed to Osbern Bokenham’ , in Fanger, Conjuring Spirits, pp. 32–75.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance it repeatedly calls on demons as well as angels, and merges their powers with those of the planets, especially through the making of inscribed images or rings; again ritual ingredients, words and actions are required. They are employed for a range of dubious purposes: to cause illness, inspire love or enmity, or bring prosperity or ill luck. A rare and intriguing case study is provided by a fifteenth-century Munich handbook of magic (Bavarian State Library, Codex Latinus Monacensis 849).193 This is not an elevated theoretical work on natural magic, but rather a miscellany that includes a series of magic experiments, a catalogue of spirits, a handbook of astral magic, a calendar recording propitious days for the writing of spells, and a fragment of a chemical text. Unlike the remedies contained in the Lacnunga, these recipes do not deal in protective or healing magic, and they explicitly conjure demons to a variety of more and less serious effects, although these do not include physical injury or death. The continuity with the Graeco-Egyptian handbooks is striking, and such works of magic probably passed into the West through Arabic tradition. Spells allow for the summoning of demons to act upon individuals in positive and negative ways: to effect madness; cause love or hatred; achieve particular deeds; create illusions, including the raising of the dead; gain hidden knowledge by looking into the past or divining the future. They include traditional, ritual elements: the tracing of magic circles, sometimes containing geometric figures or significant characters or words; conjurations of spirits and sacrifices; use of names of power; repetitions; and the preparation of magical substances. The idea of natural sympathies or correspondences is essential. Kieckhefer describes such necromancy as ‘a merger of astral magic and exorcism’: by contrast to the exorcists, who oppose and banish demons, however, necromancers ‘use the same formulas with very different intent’ , in order to summon and employ them.194 There was also a tradition of angelic magic – not termed magic by those who practised it, but condemned as such by those who did not – which sustained the ideas of theurgy. As in classical practice, such operations depended upon rituals that combined prayer, ascetic practices, and complex religious incantations, usually to gain vision or knowledge.195 Especially prominent in this tradition was the Ars notoria attributed to Solomon, which offered prayers and rituals to conjure the powers of the angels in order to gain knowledge and vision.196 The Liber sacer sive juratus (‘The Sacred or Sworn Book’), composed by an unknown thirteenth-century magician who styles himself Honorius of Thebes, claims the authority of the angels, commands secrecy, and describes rituals to summon angels, demons and spirits, and to achieve divine vision. The work was influential 193 Richard Kieckhefer, ed., Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century, Magic in

History (Stroud: Sutton, 1997). Magic in the Middle Ages, pp. 165–72: pp. 165–6. 195 See the discussion in Fanger, Conjuring Spirits, Introduction, pp. viii–ix, and part II, pp. 143–265. 196 On dissemination of the Ars Notoria, see Fanger, ‘Plundering the Egyptian Treasure: John the Monk’s Book of Visions and its Relation to the Arts Notoria of Solomon’ , in Fanger, Conjuring Spirits, pp. 216–49, esp. pp. 218–22. See also Michael Camille, ‘Visual Art in Two Manuscripts of the Ars Notoria’ , pp. 110–39 in the same volume. 194 Kieckhefer,


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic enough to be condemned by William of Auvergne along with works attributed to Solomon; both are mentioned in Gower’s Confessio Amantis in his list of forbidden books of ‘Nigromance’ (VI, 1308, 1331–2).197 Such ideas were not always taken seriously: the Secretum philosophorum, composed in the late thirteenth century in England, offers recipes that seem to draw on hermetic tradition to gauge the secrets of nature, but are in fact chemical tricks.198 The notion that summoning spirits could be positive, lending divine power to those willing to follow demanding and ascetic rituals of theurgy, came to be more widely accepted in the Renaissance period, but in medieval thought conjuring spirits remained deeply suspect. The possibility that the occult sciences might employ demons colours clerical attitudes, which can be deeply critical as well as erudite. Robert Grosseteste (c. 1170–1253), who probably studied in Oxford and Paris, and lectured in Oxford, began his extensive philosophical and theological writings with scientific works on astronomy, comets and rainbows, including a treatise De prognosticatione seu de impressionibus, but later turned against astrology, condemning it in his Hexaëmeron (‘On the Six Days of Creation’) as blasphemous, ‘a deceit of demons’ .199 Michael Scot (d. c. 1235), by contrast, who would have encountered Arabic learning in the schools of Toledo and Salerno, is much more positive. His Liber introductorius, presented as an introduction to astrology but offering an extensive dialogue on cosmological theory, includes in the third section of its ‘Liber quattuor distinctionum’ a discussion of the problems of astrology: Scot argues for two kinds of magic, condemning superstition but accepting ‘ymaginaria astronomia’ (natural magic employing images), which involved ‘mathesis’ and ‘mathematica’ (legitimate knowledge, as opposed to illicit sciences of divination associated with the devil). The ‘magus sapiens’ is contrasted to the ‘maleficus’ and ‘illusor’ .200 Scot also discusses the medical uses of astrology. By the thirteenth century, he had gained a reputation as the archetypal clerical magician, dabbling in demonic arts, and various colourful stories of his feats circulated. Dante condemns him to the circle of diviners in hell (Inferno, XX). Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1292), the Franciscan ‘doctor mirabilis’ , who was strongly influenced by Grosseteste, may also have been the object of suspicion. Bacon wrote extensively on Aristotelian questions, natural sciences, mathematics and languages, and argued for the role of experimental ­science and the secrets of natural philosophy in bringing enlightenment and 197 See

Robert Mathiesen, ‘A Thirteenth-Century Ritual to Attain the Beatific Vision from the Sworn Book of Honorius of Thebes’ , in Fanger, Conjuring Spirits, pp. 143–62. 198 See John B. Friedman, ‘Safe Magic and Invisible Writing in the Secretum Philosophorum’ , in Fanger, Conjuring Spirits, pp. 76–86. 199 Robert Grosseteste, On the Six Days of Creation, trans. C. F. J. Martin, Auctores Britannici Medii Aevi 6(2) (Oxford: The British Academy, Oxford University Press, 1966), Proemium, c. 117, p. 38. See also Richard C. Dales, The Scientific Achievement of the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1973), p. 153. 200 Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, 86–7; see Thorndike on Scot, History of Magic and Experimental Science, vol. 3, V, pp. 307–37; and Dales, The Scientific Achievement of the Middle Ages, pp. 151–6.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance hence strengthening the Church. His works, which included an extensive, discursive edition of the pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum secretorum, were informed by a keen interest in astrology and the power of celestial forces, and the De radiis stellarum of Al-Kindi strongly influenced his theory of optics.201 The notion of rays emitted by the stars also allowed him to explain the evil eye: an evil soul might affect others through some kind of emanation.202 According to the late-thirteenthcentury Chronica XXIV Generalium, Bacon was accused of suspect practices and imprisoned; an earlier reference claims that this was for alchemy. There is no firm evidence, and recent scholarship has suggested that Bacon is more likely to have been condemned for his radical religious doctrines than for his belief in magic, but the two may well have been perceived as connected. Bacon was later credited with a treatise De nigromantia, and his reputation as a magician was exploited in the anonymous sixteenth-century romance, The Famous Historie of Fryer Bacon, the basis for Robert Greene’s popular play, The Honorable Historie of Frier Bacon and Frier Bungay. The prolific scholastic thinker William of Auvergne (c. 1180–1249, Bishop of Paris from 1228) treats magic extensively in negative terms, recalling in his De fide et legibus the books of astronomy, magic and witchcraft he has seen in his youth in Paris (‘et haec omnia in libris judiciorum astronomiae, et in libris magorum atque maleficorum tempore adolescientiae nostrae nos meminimus inspexisse’).203 In both De fide et legibus and De universo William engages critically with Aristotelian philosophy. Although he speaks strongly against superstition, he also recognises the possibility of natural magic and considers how incantations may work, suggesting they may disturb the imagination and hence affect the body.204 For William, magic is largely ineffectual without the assistance of demons or idols, and hence, forbidden. A century later, however, Albertus Magnus (d. 1280), who taught in a variety of German Dominican houses, was briefly Bishop of Regensburg, and numbered Thomas Aquinas among his pupils, took a more sympathetic view. Enormously influential in both philosophy and ecclesiology, Albertus defended the new Aristotelianism that had entered Western thought through Arabic and Jewish tradition. He developed through his own observations Aristotle’s natural philosophy, and at the same time endorsed a neo-Platonic mode of thought, which would come to be distinguished from that of the followers of Aquinas. Albertus emphasised the occult powers of the universe, drawing on works such as De radiis stellarum in his Speculum astronomiae. His reiteration of the theological ­condemnation of demonic magic is accompanied by a strong interest in licit, natural magic that uses such forces.205 201 On

Bacon’s Secretum Secretorum, see Eamon, Science and the Secrets of Nature, pp. 50–3. Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, p. 182. 203 William of Auvergne, De Legibus, in Opera omnia (Venice, 1591), c. 24–7, pp. 17–98; see also De universo, II.iii, c. 22–6. 204 William of Auvergne, De Legibus, c. 24, p. 67. 205 Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, p. 95; Thorndike, History of Magic and Experimental Science, vol. 2, pp. 517–92. 202 See


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic The philosophy of the Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–74) – whom Dante places next to Albertus in Paradise (Paradiso, X) – came in the later Middle Ages to rival that of Augustine. His brief treatise, De occultis operationibus (‘Concerning the Occult Operations of Nature’), classifies the occult powers of astrology, condemning them when employed not by angels but by demons and necromancers. Aquinas places as natural certain occult operations, such as the power of magnets or herbs, and develops the idea of cosmic sympathies to explain many aspects of the natural world. Higher agents such as stars and planets, he argues, work upon lower ones such as plants or stones, either by using them as tools or by impressing them with the form of the higher agent, as the sun makes the moon luminous. Aquinas is also confident in the ability of demons to influence nature, for instance, by summoning storms. He writes extensively on divination, both in his treatise De sortibus and in the Summa theologica, q. 95, and like Augustine links idolatry, divination, magic, superstition, and observances employing demons.206 Aquinas draws closely on Isidore’s discussion to enumerate and condemn different types of divination – dreams, necromancy, pythons, and reiterates too the possibility of employing magical arts to cause impotence in marriage, setting this against the beliefs of some that magic is exclusively false superstition.207 The subject of demons, so crucially interconnected with that of magic, was treated in considerable detail and with great seriousness in later medieval philosophy.208 The traditional notion that demons were able to urge men towards evil-doing gave rise to questions concerning both the extent of demonic power and the physical presence of demons. The notion of invisible spirits who shared intellectual qualities with the angels, but could employ them to malevolent ends, was deeply menacing.209 Both Bede and Peter Lombard had argued that demons could not actually enter the hearts of men, but rather that they suggested evil behaviour such as the practice of magic. Thirteenth-century thinkers placed limits on demonic power by emphasising the connection between demons and the bodily passions. Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, Aquinas and others assert that demons are unable to enter the spirit or mind, but rather influence the affective 206 See

Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, pp. 96–7. Thomas Aquinas, ‘Quodlibet XI’, q. 9, art. 1 (Whether witchcraft is an impediment to marriage), in Quaestiones quodlibetales, ed. R. M. Spiazzi, 8th edn, rev. (Turin: Marietti, 1949), 221, p. 220; Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, pp. 97–8. 208 For a general discussion, see Russell, Witchcraft in the Middle Ages, pp. 101–20. 209 Kelly, The Devil, Demonology and Witchcraft, pp. 109–11. See also Augustine, Letter 9.3 (Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers), The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Part II: Letters, vol. 1: Letters 1–99, ed. John E. Rotelle, trans. Roland Teske, Augustine Heritage Institute (New York: New York City Press, 2002), Letter 9.3 (‘airy or ethereal beings, which have very keen senses’ and ‘enjoy a much greater ease in moving whatever they want, while we perceive nothing and yet are modified in some way by them’ , pp. 31–2); Pseudo-Augustine, De ecclesiasticis dogmatibus liber gennadio tributus, Patrologia Latina 42, col. 1221, c. 50; Peter Lombard, Sentences, Patrologia Latina 192, cols 667–92, Dist. 8; Aquinas, ‘De malo’, q. 16, art. 8, in Quaestiones disputatae, ed. R. M. Spiazzi et al., 8th edn, rev. (Turin: Marietti, 1949), vol. 2, 97–8, pp. 686–9. For a discussion of demonology, see Peters, The Magician, the Witch, and the Law, pp. 91–8. 207 St


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance qualities.210 Aquinas, like Augustine, places demons both in hell and in the air, where they act to tempt men. They may create physical effects, and play on the humours, stimulating sense, emotion and appetite, and summoning images from the memory, which may draw the mind to sinful thoughts.211 Vincent of Beauvais similarly argues that the devil enters through the humours, by imprinting images on the imagination.212 Women, by nature more subject to the bodily passions, are placed as especially susceptible to demonic temptation and indeed to superstition. For William of Auvergne, this is evident in the belief of women in fairies and witches; Vincent of Beauvais similarly refers to women who believe they have ridden by night with Diana, echoing the details found in the capitulary Episcopi eorum.213 William describes at length the kinds of demons, including fallen angels, monsters, fauns, idols, and poltergeists; such creatures may be summoned by necromancy. Angels who appear ‘per invocaciones’ are of necessity evil.214 The notion of the incubus, partly rooted in the idea of the fallen angels who slept with the daughters of men to beget giants, held special menace and recurs across theological writings. As we have seen, Augustine is sceptical about such spirits, which he mentions in the context of folk beliefs, while Macrobius identifies the incubus (also known as ephialtes) as a spectral nightmare, a phantasma or visum, which occurs in the moment between sleeping and waking: ‘in hoc genere est et επιαλτησ quem publica persuasio quiescentes opinatur invadere, et pondere suo pressos ac sentientes gravare’ (‘To this class belongs the incubus, which, according to popular belief, rushes upon people in sleep and presses them with a weight which they can feel’).215 As Dyan Elliott has shown, anxieties ­concerning sexuality and gender are gradually focused in this concept, and are connected to more general concerns regarding pollution through masturbation or nocturnal 210 See

Aquinas, ‘De malo’, q. 16, art. 8 (Whether demons can know our interior thoughts), 97–8, pp. 686–9. 211 Augustine, De Divinatione Daemonium, Patrologia Latina 40, col. 581ff, 5, c. 2; Augustine, The Retractations, trans. Sister Mary Inez Bogan, The Fathers of the Church Series (Washington: Catholic University of America, 2002), 2.56 (in which he expresses uncertainty; see further the extensive note on Augustine’s treatment of demons, pp. 181–2); and Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, ed. Thomas Gilby et al., 51 vols (London: Blackfriars; Eyre & Spottiswoode; New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), Ia.63–4, vol. 9, pp.247–99, and ‘De malo’, q. 16, art. 10–12, 99–101, pp. 692–9. 212 Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Naturale, 2.118, col. 152, and 2.119, col. 153; discussed in Dyan Elliott, Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality and Demonology in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), p. 44. The following discussion is indebted to Elliott’s work. 213 Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Naturale 2.111, col. 149, and William of Auvergne, De universo, II.iii, c. 24, p. 1006. 214 William of Auvergne, De universo, II.iii, c. 8, p. 973; II.ii, p. 892. 215 Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius, Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis, ed. Iacobus Willis, in Macrobius vol. 2, Academia Scientiarum Germanica Berolinensis, Bibliotheca Scriptorum Græcorum et Romanorum Teubneriana (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1963), I.iii.7, 10; translation from Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, trans. William Harris Stahl, Records of Western Civilization (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952, 1990), p. 89; this passage is cited by Steven F. Kruger, Dreaming in the Middle Ages, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature 14 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 22. For further discussion of the physiological interpretation of the incubus as nightmare, see Kruger, pp. 46 and 70–2.


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The Middle Ages: Prohibitions, Folk Practices and Learned Magic emission. Isidore’s etymology emphasises the connection between incubi and lust: ‘Incubi dicuntur ab incumbendo, hoc est stuprando’ (‘They are called incubi, from lying upon, that is, sexually defiling’, 8.11.103). The demon might appear in the form of a succubus, to gather wasted human seed, then take the form of an incubus to impregnate a human woman. Popular tales merged with clerical anxieties. Gervase of Tilbury emphasises the passion of demons for women, and instances Merlin and the Antichrist: ‘De his multa scimus cotidie uideri’ (‘We know that many things are seen every day relating to these phenomena’),216 although William of Newburgh questions the truth of Merlin’s demonic origin, and offers evidence of Geoffrey’s fallacious statements more generally.217 A variety of clerical writers treat the same issue: William of Auvergne instances the generation of giants and of a child on a woman by a bear in order to argue that the fathering of Merlin by a demon ‘non esse impossibilem’; Vincent of Beauvais includes a series of examples of demon lovers; Walter Map affirms the dangers of sleeping with incubi or succubi.218 Because demons cannot die, John Trevisa argues that Merlin was not a fiend, although he was generally classed among the undead.219 Such tales were not only relegated to the past: Matthew Paris recounts the birth of a demonic child in 1249 in Herefordshire, whose teeth were fully grown and whose height was that of a boy of seventeen after only six months; his mother fell swiftly into a fatal decline.220 Later medieval thought moved away from Augustine’s distinctions between ethereal and aerial, angelic and demonic bodies, for the body generally was associated with frailty. Aquinas argues that angels are pure in form but may take on bodies made of air in order to serve humans; demons too take on physical form for the purposes of corruption.221 The notion of pure intellectuality allowed demons and angels absolute free will and understanding of their actions, and implied the impossibility of change or salvation. Elliott argues persuasively that the idea of the absolute, incorporeal evil in demons and the devil played an important role in the early modern creation of the witch: women were no longer seen as dangerous because of their potentially sinful, tempting gaze and presence, but rather because their bodies could become a means of demonic agency. The idea of the devil’s possession of the female body was both empowering and disempowering: ‘Dependent 216 Gervase

of Tilbury, Otia Imperialia, I.17, pp. 96–7. of Newburgh, Historia Rerum Anglicarum, vol. 1, I.12. 218 William of Auvergne, De universo, II.iii, c. 25, p. 1009; Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Naturale, 2.126–8, col. 156–7; Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, II. 11–13, pp. 158–9. 219 John Trevisa, Polychronicon, vol. 1, Rolls Series, I.xxxvi, p. 415, cited in Dialogus inter Militem et Clericum, Richard FitzRalph’s Sermon: ‘Defensio Curatorum’ and Methodius: ‘þe Begynnyng of þe World and þe Ende of Worldes, ed. Aaron Jenkins Perry, Early English Text Society OS 167 (London: Oxford University Press, 1925), p. cxxxiii. 220 Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, vol. 5, p. 82; for a translation, see Chronicles of Matthew Paris: Monastic Life in the Thirteenth Century, ed. and trans. Richard Vaughan (Gloucester: Alan Sutton, 1984), p. 190; cited by Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, p. 117. 221 Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 50, art. 2, resp., 9:10, 11, and 1a, q. 51, art. 2, resp. ad obj. 1 and 3, vol. 9, pp. 36–7; see Elliott’s full discussion of the loss of demonic and angelic bodies, Fallen Bodies, pp. 127–56. 217 William


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance on her dark lord, [the woman] was now incapable of perpetrating evil by natural propensity alone. ’222 The incubus will play an influential role in romance, but in the medieval period his victim may still be reclaimed by the power of good. The supernatural, with its complex mix of angels, demons and otherworldly creatures, was strongly present in the cultural imagination, and the possibility of invoking demons by chance or intention was taken seriously. Though there was a strong tradition of prohibition, both legal and theological, ideas and practices of magic appear to have endured at all levels of medieval society. The familiar rituals of protection, healing, and wish-fulfilment of different kinds, not always positive, were remembered and applied. While some intellectual practices of magic were viewed as suspect or corrupt – in particular astral magic that attempted to change destiny – natural magic was an important aspect of medieval science – medicine, astrology and natural philosophy generally. Romance literature demonstrates ­vividly the survival and complexity of all these strands. Imaginative writing reflects, and reflects on, the animated dialogue and debate surrounding questions of magic and the supernatural in the later Middle Ages. Such topics offer both audience appeal and enormous creative potential. The following chapters will engage with the continuities of the ideas of natural magic, including technology and medical magic, and with the various strands of the supernatural – demonic, divine and otherworldly – in medieval English romance.

222 Elliott,

Fallen Bodies, p. 155.


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3 White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology


hile 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 between mageia, which can be positive, and goeteia, which cannot, is reinstated in the later Middle Ages, in the distinction between natural and fraudulent or demonic magic, ‘nigromancy’, which is carried over into romance. The biblical treatment of magic remains significant, and the opposition between divinely authorised and false or ineffectual magic finds its way into narratives that set the dangers represented by magic, especially the practice of enchantment, against the role of divine providence in preserving the individual. Romance rarely involves explicit conjuring of demons, although otherworldly beings are prominent; writers are more likely to hint at dark, potentially demonic, arts. They do not depict trials of practitioners of magic, but they do include punishment of those who meddle with ‘nigromancy’; they also allow for repentance. Such arts most often involve shape-shifting, a prominent romance motif, and they are shown to be fearful and dangerous.1 It is particularly the area of natural magic that allows romance writers most freedom and scope for creative development. The motifs of magical or marvellous healing and protection recur across a wide range of works. Such emphases demonstrate how deeply folk rituals and beliefs reliant upon a broad idea of natural magic are embedded in medieval culture; romances reflect too the new learning that circulated from the twelfth century onwards. They rely in particular on more and less sophisticated ideas of the occult forces within the cosmos, and hence the potential for magic. The wonders of nature are a recurrent motif, and new interest in technology is apparent in the prominence of magical objects and sequences of adventure. Natural magic is to a great extent condoned, if not authorised, although it may prove dangerous. The terminology used tends to emphasise medicine, 1 On

the social and spiritual resonances of magic in romance, see also Sweeney, Magic in Medieval Romance from Chrétien de Troyes to Geoffrey Chaucer, and two wide-ranging collections of essays on magic in French literature, Gerard Chandès, ed., Le Merveilleux et la magie dans la littérature, CERMEIL 2 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992), and Magie et illusion au moyen âge, Centre Universitaire d’Etudes et de Recherches Médiévales d’Aix, Sénéfiance 42 (Aix-en-Provence: CUER MA Université de Provence, 1999).


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance healing and protection, or natural marvel and wondrous workmanship. When the practice of natural magic is taken to its limits, as it is in Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale, discussed at the end of this chapter, it becomes dangerous. Intention is crucial in the context of magic, with its power to harm as well as to protect and heal.

Healing Magic Romance writers repeatedly exploit the idea of healing or medicinal stones, plants, balms and potions that draw their virtue from nature, to marvellous effect. It is a small step to ligatures, charms or magical remedies, the power of which to protect may have more dubious origins, and the distinction is often blurred. Natural objects may themselves possess destructive or dangerously transformative qualities, problematic in their use rather than their existence. This is most obvious in the area of love-magic, which employs natural forces to bind the beloved but strays into the forbidden area of changing destiny. Both positive and negative aspects of natural magic play formative narrative roles, which go much beyond a simple engagement with the marvellous, to shape, colour and structure plot, reveal aspects of individual character, and illuminate the complex interplay of self, nature and destiny. That the figure of the physician-practitioner of natural magic occurs rarely in romance reflects medieval reality. The ideal of the physician who practised ‘magyk natureel’ was undoubtedly resonant, as Chaucer’s description of his ‘Doctour of Phisik’ in the General Prologue suggests. The sixteenth-century prose romance Valentine and Orson depicts Valentine’s disguise of himself as doctor in order to rescue his lady Clerimond, who has been abducted by the King of India. Valentine presents himself in physician’s gown and furred hood, as the doctor who ‘can hele all maner of sickness’ .2 He does indeed cure his beloved’s madness, described in remarkably detailed terms, through the physic of love. It is also Valentine who cures his brother Orson (carried off at birth by a bear and brought up among the beasts) of his dumbness, by following the instructions given by a magical head of brass to cut a thread under Orson’s tongue (xxx, 141). The role of the brass head heightens the marvellous, but the detail of the thread also indicates a medical theory of dumbness, and creates the mixture of magic and realism typical of this romance. The lateness of this work, however, also suggests the increasing prominence of the physician in the Renaissance, and it is not coincidental that, as we shall see, Valentine and Orson is also atypical in the extent of its engagement with learned magic. The comparative rarity of learned medicine opens out the practice of natural magic in romance: the knowledge of remedies, charms and potions is not exclusive to the doctor, but available to others, and is particularly the sphere of those in some way on the margins of society – monks, hermits, women – or those into whose hands marvellous objects with special virtues find their way. 2 Valentine

and Orson, ed. Arthur Dickson, Early English Text Society OS 204 (London: Oxford University Press, 1937), ch. ci, p. 293. Subsequent references are to this edition, cited by chapter and page number. The work is based on a fifteenth-century prose redaction of a lost French original probably dating to the fourteenth century. The English version exists in three prints (c. 1510-c. 1565).


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology Guy of Warwick plays on the monastic tradition of learned medicine, natural magic at its most elevated, in the first part of the romance, which traces Guy’s quest to gain the hand of his beloved Felice. When Guy’s companion, Herhaud of Ardern, is wounded by Lombards and seems near death, Guy takes his body to an abbey to be buried, but in fact the knight is healed there by a ‘monk sorgien’: Þe vertu he knewe of mani a gras; Þe wounde he biheld stedefastliche, Þat in his body was so griseliche. Bi the wounde he seye y-wis Þat to þe deþ wounded he nis, & seye þat he hym hele miȝt; & so he dede ful wele, y pliȝt.3 This is a trained practitioner with a sophisticated knowledge of herbs and plants (‘mani a gras’), and the ability to diagnose and heal; Guy too is healed by a hermit in the abbey. In this romance, the arts of medicine are available commercially: when his friend Tirri is wounded, Guy calls for ‘leches þere, / Þe wisest þat in þat cite were’ (4847–8), offering them a hundred gold coins, and again we hear realistic details of how ‘Þai groped his veynes & his wounde, / Þai feld hem boþe hole & sounde: / Wele hii seþ he nis nouȝt dede’ (4857–9). Their knowledge is nicely contrasted to the sorrow of Tirri’s lady, and healing is presented as the result of the skill of the practitioner in recognising the nature of the wounds. While these incidents are realistically portrayed in terms of knowledge and learning, they are not so different in kind from the many marvellous cures undertaken by hermits and other healers in romance. Emphasis shifts, however, between realism and the marvellous, and healing may be depicted much more as ‘magyk natureel’ of an occult, more enigmatic kind. Thus at the end of Sir Percyvell de Gales, it is no coincidence that the potion ladled into Percyvell’s mother to cure her madness has been prepared by a giant. Here, the otherworldly origin of the potion is combined with realism, for the effect is to cause the lady to sleep for three days; and her healing is completed by the preparation of ‘riche bathes’ . In Sir Eglamour of Artois, the hero is treated with ‘a bath … of erbys þat were goode’ (527–8) after his battle with the giant, Marras; the ‘lechecraft’ (802) he receives adds a realistic frame to his encounters with a sequence of monstrous enemies – two giants and a dragon. 3 The

Romance of Guy of Warwick: The First or 14th-century Version, ed. Julius Zupitza, Early English Text Society ES 42, 49, 59 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1883, 1887, 1891), ll. 1659–65. Subsequent references to Guy of Warwick are to this edition (Auchinleck MS unless otherwise stated, cited by line or stanza number). The Middle English version exists in five manuscripts, of which Auchinleck is the earliest (c. 1300), and is based on an early thirteenth-century AngloNorman romance: see Gui de Warewic: Roman de XIIIe siècle, ed. Alfred Ewert, 2 vols, Les Classiques français du Moyen Age (Paris: Champion, 1932 and 1933), and Boeve de Haumtone and Gui de Warewic: Two Anglo-Norman Romances, trans. Judith Weiss, The French of England Translation Series, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies (Arizona: ACMRS, 2008), pp. 97–243. For the romances contained in the Auchinleck MS, see The Auchinleck Manuscript, ed. David Burnley and Alison Wiggins, National Library of Scotland (5 July 2003),


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Ywain and Gawain combines the motif of women as healers with a strong emphasis on healing as magic. The romance, which explores the balance between love and prowess, closely follows Chrétien’s Le Chevalier au Lion, recounting Yvain’s winning of Laudine’s hand, his failure to return to her on the appointed day, his madness, and his subsequent quest to regain her love. Like Chrétien’s, the English redactor’s account of the cure of Ywain’s madness through the use of a magical ointment is balanced between marvel and realism. A maiden recognises the sleeping Ywain through a scar, and reads his state of mind: ‘Sorow will meng a mans blode / And make him forto wax wode. ’4 The attraction of Ywain as protector persuades the lady to send the damsel back with a precious box of ointment: ‘… I have an unement dere: Morgan the wise gaf it to me And said als I sal tel to the: [Sho] sayd this unement es so gode That if a man be braynwode, And he war anes anoynt with yt, Smertly sold he have his wit. ’ (1752–8) The reference to Morgan le Fay points to the magical quality of the ointment, and hence its potency, yet the epithet ‘the wise’ , a direct translation of Chrétien’s ‘la sage’ , emphasises the enchantress’s knowledge of positive natural magic.5 The maiden disobeys her mistress’s strict instruction to spare the ointment, using the entire box to anoint not only Ywain’s head but also his body liberally, ‘ilka dele’ (1780). The episode becomes a slightly risqué joke, but (in an aside not present in the English version) Chrétien is also carefully realistic in his explanation that it is only necessary to anoint the temples and forehead (2964), since Yvain only suffers in his brain: Tant li froia au chaut soloil les temples et trestot le cors que del cervel li trest si fors la rage et la melencolie; mes del cors fist ele folie qu’il ne li estoit nus mestiers. (2998–3003) 4 Ywain

and Gawain, in Ywain and Gawain, Sir Percyvell of Gales, The Anturs of Arther, ed. Maldwyn Mills, Everyman’s Library (London: Dent, 1992), pp. 1–102: ll. 1739–40. Subsequent references to Ywain and Gawain are to this edition, cited by line number. The work exists in a single fifteenthcentury manuscript, and translates the French romance of Chrétien de Troyes, Le Chevalier au Lion, written c. 1170. See further David Matthews, ‘Translation and Ideology: The Case of Ywain and Gawain’ , Neophilologus, 76 (1992), pp. 452–63. 5 See Chrétien de Troyes, Le Chevalier au Lion (Yvain), ed. Mario Roques, Les Romans de Chrétien de Troyes IV, Les Classiques français du Moyen Age (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1982), l. 2949; The Knight with the Lion, in Arthurian Romances, trans. William W. Kibler and Carleton W. Carroll (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), pp. 295–380. Subsequent references to Yvain are to this edition and translation, cited by line and page number respectively.


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology She rubbed his temples and his whole body so vigorously under the hot sun that she expelled the madness and melancholy from his brain; but she was foolish to anoint his body, for it was of no avail to him. (332–3) While the maiden need only be seen as appreciative of Yvain’s body, thinking the anointment ‘ful wele set’ (1784), her action may not be folie in that it signals the continuum between mind and body in a period when the humours were seen as shaping both. Despite its comedy, the scene plays on the power of generosity and liberality, perhaps evoking the image of the woman (traditionally identified with Mary Magdalen) who anointed the feet of Jesus from an alabaster jar of precious ointment (Luke 7:36–50), or that of Mary of Bethany who similarly uses a pound of costly ointment (John 12:3). The scene is wittily multivalent. Chrétien and his English adapter engage with a genuine tradition of medico-magical potions, and Chrétien teases out the medical ramifications of anointing the head, while depicting an alternative scenario with sexual implications, of cure through warmth and rubbing the body. Also crucial to the episode, and to the work more generally, is the active force of generosity, a virtue frequently associated with healing. Beves of Hampton plays on the motif of the woman healer in its portrayal of the pagan princess Josian: the romance combines Beves’ quest to regain his English lands with the narrative of his love of Josian, an unusually inventive and proactive heroine who is distinguished by her learning, which includes medical knowledge. What is most striking in Beves is the realism with which the medical arts of Josian are portrayed: while they have a marvellous aspect, they are not explicitly presented as magical. Like Felice in Guy of Warwick, who has been taught the seven arts, including astronomy, by the monks of Toulouse (Caius MS, 80–92), Josian is from the East, highly learned, and she has sophisticated medical knowledge: While ȝhe was in Ermonie, Boþe fysik and sirgirie Ȝhe hadde lerned of meisters grete Of Boloyne þe gras and of Tulete, Þat ȝe knew erbes mani & fale, To make boþe boute & bale.6 6 The

Romance of Sir Beues of Hamtoun, ed. Eugen Kölbing, Early English Text Society ES 46, 48, 65 (London, 1885, 1886, 1894), ll. 3671–6. Subsequent references to Beves of Hampton are to this edition, cited by line number. The work was written c. 1300, and exists in seven manuscripts in two different versions; it is based on the thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman Boeve de Hamton: see Der Anglonormannische ‘Boeve de Haumtone’ , ed. Albert Stimming, Bibliotheca Normannica 7 (Halle: Max Niemeyer, 1899), and Boeve de Haumtone and Gui de Warewic, ed. Weiss, pp. 25–95. The earliest extant version of the English Beves, that in the Auchinleck manuscript (A), the basis of the standard edition, is not as close to the French as another group of manuscripts for which no early and reliable version exists (the evidence for this is mainly represented by the fifteenth-century version, Chetham Library, Manchester MS 8009 (m), and by an early print by Richard Pynson). I focus on the Auchinleck version. On the tangled issue of the relation between Anglo-Norman and English versions of Beves, see further Ivana Djordjević, ‘Mapping Medieval Translation’ , in Weiss, Fellows and Dickson, Medieval Insular Romance, pp. 7–23, and ‘Original and Translation: Bevis’s Mother in Anglo-Norman and Middle English’ , in Saunders, Cultural Encounters in the


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Josian’s power is emphasised by the fact that her knowledge includes the ability to harm (‘bale’), as well as heal. Partonope of Blois contains a comparable description of the medicinal arts of the eponymous hero’s beloved lady, Melior, who is also, however, a great enchantress; her knowledge of herbs, roots and spices complements her magical knowledge.7 By including details of Josian’s masters and isolating medical from occult arts, Beves highlights the learned, respectable quality of her knowledge: this is natural magic of the kind attributed by Chaucer to his Physician. The figure of the woman healer is not unrealistic. Records survive of female medical practitioners, a number of them Jewish, across Europe, sometimes but not necessarily associated with midwifery or female patients; Hildegard of Bingen offers a celebrated example.8 The earliest medical faculty, established at Salerno in the mid-900s, was associated with women through the legendary female healer Trotula, said to have practised there in the twelfth century.9 Marie de France plays on this association in her lai of Les Deus Amanz, when the protagonist obtains from his lady’s aunt in Salerno the marvellous potion that will allow him to climb a mountain carrying the king’s daughter, thus winning her hand. The aunt’s powers are depicted in realistic terms as natural magic: her knowledge of ‘herbes e racines’ (‘herbs and roots’) allows her to concoct ‘Teus lettuaires … / E teus beivres’ (‘such electuaries and such potions’) as to revive and increase the young man’s strength.10 This is medical magic of the kind so often described in Romance of Medieval England, pp. 11–26, and Jennifer Fellows and Ivana Djordjević, ed., Sir Beves of Hampton in Literary Tradition, Studies in Medieval Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2008). See also Jennifer L. Fellows, ‘Sir Beves of Hampton: Study and Edition’ , 5 vols (unpub. Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Cambridge, 1980). On Josian, see Judith Weiss, ‘The Wooing Woman in Anglo-Norman Romance’ , in Mills, Fellows and Meale, Romance in Medieval England, pp. 187–206. See also my essays, ‘Desire, Will and Intention in Sir Beves of Hampton’ , in Hardman, The Matter of Identity in Medieval Romance, pp. 29–42, and ‘Gender, Virtue and Wisdom in Sir Bevis of Hampton’ , in Fellows and Djordjević, Sir Beves of Hampton, pp. 161–75. 7 The Middle-English Versions of ‘Partonope of Blois’ , ed. A. Trampe Bödtker, Early English Text Society ES 109 (London, 1912 for 1911), ll. 5921–7. Subsequent references to Partonope of Blois are to this edition, cited by line number. The work dates to the fifteenth century and exists in five manuscripts in couplet form and in one manuscript in an abbreviated version in quatrains; it is based on a twelfth-century French romance: see Partonopeu de Blois: A French Romance of the Twelfth Century, ed. Joseph Gildea (Villanova, PA: Villanova University Press, 1967). Melior will be discussed further in Chapter 4. 8 Nancy G. Siraisi, Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 27, and see Monica H. Green, who estimates that women form 1.2 and 1.5 per cent respectively of the total number of medical practitioners recorded in England and France, ‘Women’s Medical Practice and Medical Care in Medieval Europe’ , Signs 14 (1989), pp. 434–73. 9 A number of medical treatises, particularly concerning gynaecology, obstetrics and female disorders, are attributed to Trotula, although recent scholarship has questioned these attributions and Trotula’s identity: see Monica H. Green, ed. and trans., The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001). 10 Marie de France, Les Deus Amanz, in Lais, ed. Alfred Ewert, Blackwell’s French Texts (1944; Oxford, 1978), pp. 75–81: ll. 100, 105–6; The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby, 2nd edn (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999), pp. 82–5: p. 83. Subsequent references to Marie’s lais are to this edition and translation, cited by line and page number respectively. The lais date to the


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology theological discourse and books of remedies, but it is also highly learned. In this particular instance, setting the magic aside proves love, but the narrative depends upon the realistic depiction of the potion’s potential to restore strength. Just as the female medical practitioner is a realistic, if rare, figure, so the places associated by the poet with medical learning are realistic. From the early thirteenth century, ‘Boloyne þe gras’ (‘Bologna la grassa’) was indeed Italy’s great ­centre of medical learning, while ‘Tulete’ (Toledo) evokes the Arabic learning that flourished in Spain during the period of Muslim rule.11 Josian herself, identified as from the Eastern, Saracen country of ‘Ermonie’ (Armenia), rather than Egypt as in the Anglo-Norman version, is given an exotic origin, but one that is nearer than Egypt to Spain and Italy. She is imagined as having access to their ancient, especially Arabic, traditions of natural magic, particularly learned medicine, rather as she has learned the art of minstrelsy there. Josian finds a parallel in Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale in the figure of Canacee, who also has an exotic Eastern origin as the daughter of Ghenghis Khan, and is able to treat the wounded falcon with her ­healing arts. Josian’s possession of marvellous medicines allows her confidently to go about healing Beves, wounded fighting for her father against invading Saracens: ‘ “Lemman”, ȝhe seide, “wiþ gode entent / Ichaue brouȝt an oyniment, / For make þe boþe hol & fere” ’ (715–17). At the instigation of her father, she prepares for Beves ‘riche baþes’ (732) which soon make him ‘boþe hol and sonde’ (734).12 Later, she delivers her own twins, having sent Beves and his companion Tirri out hunting, away from her ‘paines’ (3636). The realism with which Josian’s medical skills are evoked allows her more extraordinary abilities to appear credible. Her herbal knowledge produces transformative effects, most strikingly when she is seized by the giant Ascopard: On ȝhe tok vp of þe grounde, Þat was an erbe of meche mounde, To make a man in semlaunt þere, A foule mesel alse ȝif a were. (3677–80) This is medical magic of an extreme kind, for the herb transforms Josian’s ­appearance to that of a leper, ‘A foule mesel’ (3688), and thus causes the Muslim king Yvor to reject her, preserving her chastity. Josian’s herbal skills allow her to play with the appearance of an illness that is often terrifyingly evocative of God’s ­powers. When rescued, she swiftly applies ‘an oiniment’ that makes ‘Hire coulur, þat was loþli of siȝt / … boþe cler and briȝt’ (3891–2).13 It might be imagined as, for second half of the twelfth century, and were circulating in England by the 1170s or 1180s; Marie was French but lived and wrote in Britain. 11 See further Siraisi, Medieval and Early Renaissance Medicine, pp. 29–30. 12 On the motif of bathing, see Elizabeth Archibald, ‘Did Knights Have Baths? The Absence of Bathing in Medieval Romance’ , in Saunders, Cultural Encounters in the Romance of Medieval England, pp. 101–15. 13 The late fourteenth-century romance Generydes employs the same motif: the hero transforms himself into a leper with an ‘oyntement’ , and later washes away the effects with ‘a water’ , Generydes:


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance instance, containing the herb henbane or verveine, supposed to cure boils – a marvellous remedy but not one that would have seemed impossible to the audience of the romance. The fundamental property of medical remedies is that of transforming the body to which they are applied: from healing it is a small step to altering appearance.

The Virtue of Stones The notion of the marvellous physician who can cure all ills is echoed in the idea of the healing elixir or the marvellous gem (key to alchemical ideas), which would restore the balance of the bodily humours. As we have seen, stones played a prominent role in natural magic, and their properties were widely recognised. Chaucer gestures to the wide circulation of lapidaries in describing the marvellous hall of Fame, set with ‘the fynest stones faire / That men rede in the Lapidaire’ and with a throne ‘mad … of a rubee all, / Which that a carbuncle ys ycalled’ (House of Fame, 1351–2, 1362–3), a detail that probably refers to the De lapidibus of Marbodus of Rennes (1035–1123), and perhaps also to John of Trevisa’s translation of Bartholomaeus Anglicus’ De proprietatibus rerum (c. 1390).14 Christian lapidaries focused on the stones listed in particular biblical passages. Pearl offers a memorable literary instance of such lapidary lore in its evocation of the visionary dream landscape and the celestial city, based on the description in Revelation (Rev. 21:19– 21). Gems of special virtue were as likely to be found among the paraphernalia of the physician as the magician. Such objects are especially appealing, for, unlike alchemical or medical secrets, their use is open to all who are fortunate enough to obtain them; no skill is needed. Although the wearing of amulets or ligatures was viewed by theologians as dubious, particularly because of the connection with binding magic, we may see rings containing stones of power as fulfilling a rather different role: the stone instilled with positive power, like the healing plant, could be seen as a material sign of God’s grace, a token of the beneficent forces of the universe, with a power something akin to that of holy relics. ‘Virtue’ , the term repeatedly employed in describing the powers of stones, also carries something of its modern sense. ‘Wo worth the faire gemme vertulees! / Wo worth that herbe also that dooth no boote!’ (II, 344–5): thus in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde Pandarus urges Criseyde to use the natural power of her beauty in healing Troilus. Celebrated actual jewels, such as the Alfred jewel, seem to indicate just this association of gems with special power. In the Roman de la Rose, Richesse wears a girdle adorned with marvellous gems, which possess similarly restorative powers. The Middle English version (perhaps by Chaucer) describes the buckle, which is decorated with ‘a stoon / Of vertu gret and mochel of myght, / For whoso bar the stoon so bright, / Of venym durst hym nothing doute’ , while the mordaunt (trim A Romance in Seven-Line Stanzas, ed. W. Aldis Wright, Early English Text Society OS 55 (London, 1878), ll. 4274, 4315. 14 See Marbode of Rennes’ De lapidus, ed. John M. Riddle, trans. C. W. King, Sudhoffs Archiv 20 (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1977); and for the carbuncle see Bartholomaeus Anglicus 16.23 and Trevisa’s translation, 2.839; also Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum naturale, 8.51.


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology or clasp) also contains a precious stone, the virtue of which is good against palsy and toothache, and cures blindness (1086–1103). Such light is cast from the ruby in Richesse’s crown that ‘Men myghte seen to go, for nede, / A myle or two in lengthe and brede’ (1123–4). In Piers Plowman, Langland describes Lady Meed’s fingers as decorated with many gem-encrusted rings, including two kinds of ­sapphire, ­oriental and sea-coloured, that function ‘envenymes to destroye’ .15 Stones are repeatedly presented as antidotes to injury, illness, and poisons. The marvellous properties of stones, from healing to lending invisibility, provide romance writers with colourful and wide-ranging narrative possibilities. The many protective rings of romance function through the simple but immensely influential notion of the stone of special power. Romances offer specific detail concerning stones, in formulaic yet meaningful ways. Repeatedly, rings are said to contain gems ‘of swich vertu’ that they give marvellous protection, usually from wounds and other kinds of harm, although they may have other powers too, such as that of bestowing invisibility on the wearer. The ring is an object of peculiar potency: it combines the figure of the circle, repeatedly used in magic rituals, with the notion of the stone with occult powers, and may also include figures or symbols of power etched on the stone. The vague catch-all phrase, ‘a stone of swich vertu’ , is actually highly significant, for it indicates that the ring is not just vaguely, fantastically magical but contains a particular stone of power. There is a kind of ready, practical acceptability to protective gems, which are not depicted as very different from healing herbs, except in the lack of learning required to employ them. King Horn, Florys and Blauncheflour and Sir Percyvell de Gales offer typical examples, but also demonstrate the potential complexity of such apparently ­simple devices. In King Horn, the princess Rimenhild falls in love with the exiled Horn, given refuge at her father’s court, and presents him with a protective ring as he sets out to fight the attacking Saracens. The magical qualities of the ring are emphasised, the stones of which are ‘of suche grace’ that they guard the body against blows in battle; the Anglo-Norman Romance of Horn emphasises their preciousness.16 Yet as Helen Cooper observes, the point of the ring appears to be quite other.17 The 15 William

Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt, Everyman’s Library (London: Dent, 1978, revised 1984), Passus II, l. 14. Evans discusses these and the Norse examples above, Magical Jewels, pp. 110, 114–18. 16 King Horn, in Jennifer Fellows, ed., Of Love and Chivalry: An Anthology of Middle English Romance, Everyman’s Library (London: Dent, 1993), pp. 1–41: l. 571. Subsequent references to King Horn are to this edition, cited by line number. King Horn dates to the early thirteenth century and exists in three manuscripts of c. 1300; the related Horn Child dates to the early fourteenth century and is found solely in the Auchinleck MS. The work may be of English origin, although the earliest extant version is Anglo-Norman (c. 1170): see Thomas, The Romance of Horn, ed. Mildred K. Pope, AngloNorman Texts 9, 10, 12, 13 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell for the Anglo-Norman Text Society, 1955, 1964) and The Romance of Horn in The Birth of Romance: An Anthology: Four Twelfth-Century AngloNorman Romances, trans. Judith Weiss, Everyman’s Library (London: Dent; Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1992), pp. 1–120. Subsequent references to the Romance of Horn are to this edition and translation, cited by stanza number; for the ring see stanzas 87 and 152. 17 See Cooper, The English Romance in Time, ch. 3, ‘Magic that Doesn’t Work’ , pp. 149–50.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance ring is also engraved with the name, ‘Rymenhild the yonge’ (566), and Rymenhild instructs Horn that its magic will only work if he looks on it and thinks of ‘his lemman’; when Horn looks on the ring during his battles, the emphasis is indeed on the strength he gains from thinking of his beloved rather than on any magic inherent in the object itself (613–16, 875–6, 1485–6). The ring does, as Rimenhild promises, prevent fear of blows, but, it seems, through the inspiration provided by recollection of the beloved. The ring gains the attention of the audience because it is magic, but comes to stand as a symbol of the transformative power of love, and of Horn’s prowess. This is also indirectly associated with Christian faith, for Horn is twice empowered to win battles against the Saracens, first single-handedly and then with only two others. A sense of divine protection hovers over the romance, reiterated not only in the ring, but also in the sense that Horn’s sword cannot fail him (638), in the prophetic dream of Rimenhild, of losing a great fish from her net (659–64), and perhaps most of all in the nearly repeated lines describing the blowing winds and driving seas that carry Horn from one country to another, the forces of providence (117–18, 1011–14, 1513–15); these are considerably highlighted in the Anglo-Norman Romance of Horn, by contrast to the more naturalistic King Horn (see also Chapter 6). The healing grace of the ring, which also serves to identify Horn to Rimenhild, becomes an emblem of Horn’s own grace – his Christian virtue and nobility, love and strength against the heathens, eventually affirmed in both his marriage and his regaining of his own kingdom. The ring finds a parallel in Havelok the Dane, a story of an exiled hero that employs many of the same motifs as King Horn. Havelok’s royal identity is proven not only by his deeds and abilities, but also by the miraculous king-light that issues from his mouth. Particularly striking, however, is the cross visible on his shoulder, which is compared to ‘the gode charbuncle ston’ in its extraordinary brightness: ‘Also bright so it were day’ .18 White carbuncles are said to protect the body from burning in the Secreta secretorum, but also to shine like fire, rubies that ‘ cast a brilliant, colourless refulgence’ .19 Isidore writes, ‘Omnium ardentium gemmarum principatum carbunculus habet’ ( ‘Of all the fiery gems, the carbuncle holds the principal rank’ , 16.14.1). In Guy of Warwick’s battle against the giant Colbrand, his armour includes a gold helmet set with rows of precious stones (said to be ‘of gret Vertu’ in the Caius MS, 10535), including ‘a char-bukel ston’ that shines ‘As briȝt as ani sonne … / Þat glemes vnder schawe’ (st. 249). The ring 18 Havelok

the Dane, in Middle English Verse Romances, ed. Donald B. Sands, Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies (1966; Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1986), pp. 55–129: l. 2095. Subsequent references to Havelok are to this edition, cited by line number. The work dates to the late thirteenth century and exists in two fourteenth-century manuscript versions. It is based in English legend and recounted in Geffrei Gaimar’s Estoire des Engleis (1135–40); the earliest romance version is the late twelfth-century Anglo-Norman Lai d’Haveloc: see Le Lai d’Haveloc and Gaimar’s Haveloc Episode, ed. Alexander Bell, Publications of the University of Manchester, French Series 4 (Manchester: Manchester University Press; London: Longmans, 1925), and The Birth of Romance, ed. Weiss, pp. 141–58. 19 Albertus Magnus, Book of Secrets, p. 40; Pliny cited in n. 26.


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology in King Horn is similarly marked by its actual precious stone of virtue, but also, like the king-light, it possesses a moral, symbolic function: the virtue of the stone apparently works – but its emphasis lies elsewhere, in its indication of the hero’s virtue. While magical objects can resolve disorder or move the plot forward, their loss is often equally crucial in creating suspense, as Cooper has argued: thus King Arthur’s marvellous scabbard, with its protective properties (perhaps situated in the precious stones adorning it), is lost.20 A ring described in terms almost identical to those of King Horn figures in Ywain and Gawain, but here it is loss of the ring that confirms its powerful symbolic role. Ywain, urged by Gawain to take up his life of prowess once again, obtains leave from his lady Alundyne, but promises to return within a year unless he is prevented by prison or sickness. Alundyne responds by lending Ywain a ring that will prevent these: ‘I sal tel to yow onane The vertu that es in the stane: It es na preson yow sal halde, Al if yowre fase be manyfalde; With sekenes sal ye noght be tane, Ne of yowre blode ye sal lese nane; In batel tane sal ye noght be, Whils ye it have and thinkes on me; And aywhils ye er trew of love, Overal sal ye be obove. ’ (1531–40) The perhaps otherworldly, enigmatic quality of Alundyne’s kingdom, reached through a bizarre sequence of adventures, is important in lending credibility to her possession of a marvellous ring, but the ring also functions in ways typical of gemstones. As in Horn, the poet of Ywain makes the power of the ring actively moral, dependent upon thinking of the lady and truth in love, whereas Chrétien includes memory of the beloved in the power of the ring (2609–11; 328), a quality in which it ultimately fails. In changing the condition from holding the ring dear to remembering the beloved, the English romancier renders the connection between Ywain’s forgetfulness and loss of the ring more dramatic and direct. The function of the ring is double: it proves Alundyne’s ‘grete luf ’ (1543), protecting and distinguishing Ywain from all others, and allows her to test Ywain’s love, for if he does not return to her it is because he does not choose or remember to, rather than because he is prevented. The damsel who accuses Ywain of treachery takes the ring from his finger: having forgotten Alundyne, he no longer merits her token (1630). The loss of the ring symbolic of his lady leads to Ywain’s madness (1649–54). The immediate experience of illness upon removal of the ring seems to prove its protective quality, but this is not the dramatic or narrative focus. The notion of bodily transformation inherent in the idea of healing is taken ­further in the property of invisibility that gems may confer. Such is the effect of 20 See

Cooper, The English Romance in Time, pp. 137–72.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance the ring lent to Ywain by Alundyne’s maiden Lunette at the start of Ywain and Gawain, to preserve him from the angry courtiers pursuing the killer of their lord: ‘ Als the bark hilles the tre, Right so sal my ring do the. When thou in hand has the stane, Dere sal thai do the nane; For the stane es of swilk myght, Of the sal men have na syght.’ (741–6) Although the property of the ring seems more fantastic than that of protecting from harm, it still belongs within the realms of natural magic. The Secreta secretorum instructs that ‘If thou wilt be made invisible’ , the opal should be held in the hand, wrapped in a laurel or bay leaf. Its many colours are supposed to have the quality of blinding onlookers in order to effect invisibility, as when ‘Constantius’ (probably Constaninus Africanus) held the ring in his hand.21 Both Chrétien and his Middle English translator emphasise that the stone must be held in the palm. The ring allows for comedy as well as adventure: Ywain sits quietly on the bed as those searching for him flail about with their weapons, none aiming blows at the apparently empty bed. The suspicions of those who search for Ywain that he has escaped through some black magic (‘he cowth of wechecraft, / Or … of nygromancy’ , 802–3) seems to set the marvellous natural magic and technology of the ring against demonic arts. Such arts are practised, for instance, by the wicked stepmother in William of Palerne, who employs a magical ring to turn her stepson into a wolf. In Yvain and Ywain and Gawain, however, the shape-shifting of invisibility, though more extreme, is compatible with the qualities of magical healing and protection ascribed to gems. Natural, exotic magic is prominent role in Florys and Blauncheflour, which recounts Florys’ quest for his beloved, the Christian Blancheflour, sold to merchants by Florys’ father, the pagan King of Spain, to prevent this unsuitable love, and bought by the Emir of Babylon. The romance plays with the motif of rich stones of virtue, focused in the wondrous cup paid by merchants in return for Blauncheflour. Taken from Troy and owned by Caesar, the cup is adorned with scenes of lovers, and contains a ‘charbuncle stoon’ that will light the butler’s way in the darkest cellar.22 Along with this, Florys receives from his father a fine saddle decorated with gold and ‘stones of vertu’ (370). These are complemented by a ring of protective ‘vertue’ given by his mother, which she declares generally apotropaic: ‘Of fire brennyng, ne water in the see; / Ne yren ne steele shal dere thee’ (377–8). 21 Albertus

Magnus, Book of Secrets, pp. 26–7. and Blauncheflour, in Fellows, Of Love and Chivalry, pp. 43–72: l. 172. Subsequent references to Florys and Blauncheflour are to this edition, cited by line number. The romance is of French origin (c. 1160), and was translated into several languages in courtly and popular forms: for the earlier version see Floire et Blancheflor, ed. Margaret M. Pelan, 2nd edn, Publications de la Faculté des Lettres de l’Université de Strasbourg, Textes d’Etude 7 (Paris: Société de l’Edition: Les Belles Lettres, 1956). The Middle English Florys dates to c. 1250 and exists in four manuscript versions, including the Auchinleck MS; it translates a French original.

22 Florys


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology The natural magic of their gems is complemented by the favour of providence on Florys’ journey across the ‘wylde flood’: ‘Wynde and weder with him stood’ (429– 30). Yet as in Horn, the magical ring is set aside: neither Florys nor Blauncheflour use it, but rather each at the moment of death presses the other to accept its special virtue (970–1). At last it falls between them, picked up by a king who describes the episode to the Emir; the emotional drama is re-enacted when each tries to be first to receive the sword’s blow. As the king who has found the ring intervenes, it becomes the symbol of a love so generous that it inspires the Emir’s decision to free the lovers. The ring has worked, although in an unexpected and not obviously magical way, and it allows for the teaching of a moral lesson regarding pity and generosity of Christian and heathen alike, inspired by the love of Florys and Blauncheflour, and endorsed by the pervasive sense of grace and providence in the story. Narrative cohesion and subtlety are less conspicuous in Sir Percyvell of Gales, but the English writer makes a striking change by choosing to add a protective ring not in Chrétien’s account. Chrétien’s narrative of the naïve Percyvell’s theft of a ring from a maiden he encounters in a pavilion on his way to seek knighthood at King Arthur’s court is complicated in the English by the detail that the ring possesses magical properties, although we do not learn of these until later in the narrative. It is scarcely clear that Percyvell has taken a ring: ‘He said, “Forsothe, a tokyn to wedde / Sall thou lefe with mee.” / Ther he kyste that swete thynge; / Of his fynger he tuke a ringe – / His awenn modir takynnyng / He lefte with that fre. ’23 The emphasis falls on Percyvell’s callous exchange of his mother’s gift, a ­second ring that plays a crucial structural role in the narrative by triggering the scene of recognition and reunion of Percyvell with his mother. When he later discovers the maiden bound to a tree, she laments that she has lost the better ring although that which he exchanged for it is ‘richeste’ (1851): ‘ Siche a vertue es in the stane, In alle this werlde wote I nane Siche stone in a rynge; A man that had it in were One his body forto bere, There scholde no dyntys hym dere, Ne to the dethe brynge.’ (1857–63) This magical quality might now be seen as explaining all Percyvell’s victories in 23 Sir

Percyvell of Gales, in Ywain and Gawain, Sir Percyvell of Gales, The Anturs of Arther, ed. Mills, pp. 103–60: ll. 471–6. Subsequent references to Sir Percyvell of Gales are to this edition, cited by line number. The work is loosely based on Chrétien’s last, unfinished romance, Le Conte du Graal (c. 1180): it does not include Perceval’s education in arms by Gornemant, his love reverie, his encounter with a hermit, the episode of the Grail Castle, or the adventures of Gawain, but adds new material including extended accounts of Percyvell’s parents, and Percyvell’s avenging of his father’s death and rescue of his mother (who does not die of grief) from a giant. Sir Percyvell dates to c. 1330–1340 and exists solely in the celebrated mid-fifteenth century Thornton Manuscript (Lincoln Cathedral MS 91), which collects a number of romances.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance battle subsequent to his taking of the ring, but again the emphasis lies elsewhere, on the other ring. Although Percyvell offers to return the magical ring to the Black Knight in exchange for that of his mother, the suggestion simply leads into Percyvell’s battle with the giant to whom the Knight has given it. This ring triggers illness rather than protecting: the sight of it, offered to Percyvell’s mother as a love-token by the giant, has led her to believe that her son is dead and caused her madness; she is healed only by the giant’s potion. We hear no more of the other ring, though, as in Ywain, its magical properties have tangentially been suggested by Percyvell’s victories, and, perhaps, he has come to merit and take on the virtue of the ring in his gradual maturation and experience of both parental and romantic love. It is not coincidental that in Beves, Josian’s skill in natural magic also includes possession of a marvellous ring that preserves her chastity when she is forced to marry King Yvor of Mombraunt: ‘ Ichaue … a ring on, Þat of swiche vertu is þe ston: While ichaue on þat ilche ring, To me schel noman haue welling. ’ *  (1469–72)


The learning of a physician such as Josian would indeed include knowledge of the virtues of both plants and stones. The quality of the stone of virtue echoes that attributed in the Secreta secretorum to chalcedony pierced with emery: ‘it is good against all fantastical illusions, and it maketh to overcome all causes, or matters in suit, and keepeth the body against … adversaries’ .24 Whereas the Auchinleck version portrays Josian as protecting her chastity through the use of a magic ring, the Anglo-Norman Bœuve describes a magic girdle, as does the Chetham Library version (M). The implication is that the ring was not in the earliest English version, but was added by the redactor of Auchinleck or his English source, perhaps in response to the possible association of the girdle with much more problematic aspects of natural magic – the ligatures and binding or weaving magic explicitly forbidden by the Church. It seems that this redactor was concerned to present Josian not as an enchantress, but as a wise woman, who brought with her the accepted knowledge of natural magic, in particular the medical arts of the East. The occult powers of nature allow her to conceal and transform as well as to heal, but remain within the realms of the licit. Josian’s arts provide unusual yet authorised means by which the romance lady may gain a powerful agency.

Love-Magic The most problematic form of ‘magyk natureel’ is love magic: as we have seen, this is repeatedly forbidden in early laws, penitentials and treatises, and was taken very seriously by the Church. Romance is more forgiving, emphasising the relation 24 Albertus

Magnus, Book of Secrets, p. 37.


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology between love-magic and medicine, but the dangers remain apparent, and can provide powerful narrative tensions. William of Palerne offers a harmless, positive version of love-magic in telling of the love of Melior, daughter of the emperor of Rome, for William, the exiled prince of Sicily who has been nurtured as a child by a werewolf, and eventually adopted by the emperor. On hearing of Melior’s lovesickness, her cousin Alisaundrine promises healing through a ‘grece’ (‘herb’) of special ‘vertue’ in its savour and sweetness.25 In fact, despite Melior’s requests, the herb is never produced: healing is effected instead through the dream-induced love of William, and Alisaundrine’s methods are left vague: ‘Ful conyng was sche and coynt, and couþe fele þinges / of charmes and of chantemens to schewe harde castis’ (653–4); the ‘selcouþe swevene’ (658) is inspired ‘þurȝh þe craft þat sche couþe’ (655). William seems to see Melior kneeling before him, requesting his love, but wakes to find he is embracing his pillow; later, sleeping in the garden, he dreams of Melior offering him a red rose, and wakes to find her indeed before him, addressing him as her beloved. Alisaundrine continues to employ precise medical similes, suggesting that the lovers are ‘leeches’ for each other, their cures more effective than those of ‘alle þe surgyens of Salerne’ (1033). The vocabulary of charms and enchantments portrays Alisaundrine’s arts as going beyond medicine, but the emphasis on plants and healing places them as natural magic. Her power also seems limited to inspiring dreams, and is only used on these occasions. By contrast, the disguise of the lovers as white bears is Alisaundrine’s idea, but is effected through the use of bear costumes rather than magical transformation. Her natural magic, like Josian’s, is portrayed as just one aspect of her intense practicality, which also includes the preparation and fastening on of the disguises. It is striking that the French romance does not give Alisaundrine magical skills: their addition in the English version allows the poet to set beneficent and maleficent magic against each other. In describing Alisaundrine’s actions, the poet carefully avoids the terminology of witchcraft, sorcery and ‘nigromancy’, used to describe the actions of Braunde, wife of the King of Spain, who has transformed her stepson into a werewolf. The practices of Braunde and Alisaundrine are placed in opposition as black and white magic, just as the bear-suits in which Melior and William elope contrast with the actual transformation of the prince Alphonse into a wolf by his evil stepmother.26 Most resonant of all is the Tristan legend, which in all its various forms attributes the love of Tristan and Yseut/Isolde to the potion prepared by Yseut’s mother in 25 William

of Palerne: An Alliterative Romance, ed. G. H. V. Bunt, Medievalia Groningana 6 (Groningen: Bouma, 1985), ll. 638–9. The work dates to c. 1355 and exists in a single manuscript; it is based on an early thirteenth-century French romance: see Guillaume de Palerne: Roman du XIIIe siècle, ed. Alexandre Micha, Textes littéraires français (Geneva: Droz, 1990). Subsequent references to William of Palerne and Guillaume de Palerne are to these editions, cited by line number. See further Thorlac Turville-Petre, ‘Humphrey de Bohun and “William of Palerne” ’ , Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 75 (1974), pp. 250–2; and Arlyn Diamond, ‘Loving Beasts: The Romance of William of Palerne’ , in Putter and Gilbert, The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance, pp. 142–56. 26 See Bunt’s discussion of terminology in William of Palerne, pp. 33–4. The ‘nigromancy’ of Alphonse’s stepmother will be discussed in Chapter 4.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance order to cement her daughter’s marriage to King Mark.27 The earliest accounts, those of Beroul and Thomas, which date to the twelfth century, are fragmentary, but may to some extent be reconstructed, the former through the earlier, also fragmentary, version of Eilhart von Oberge, which uses a similar source; the latter through the Norse Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar, which appears to be a fairly close translation. The motif of natural, medicinal magic runs through the legend, associated with Yseut and especially with her mother: Eilhart depicts Yseut as healing the poisoned wound inflicted by Morholt’s spear, and Yseut and her mother both tend the wounded Tristan after his battle with the dragon. Thomas seems to have depicted Yseut’s mother as healing the poisoned wound, and to have given considerable detail concerning her medical abilities, for the Norse version presents her as a learned physician with the knowledge of how to heal all kinds of illnesses, wounds and poisons, and of the virtues of all plants, as well as of the techniques of medicine. She washes the wound, employing simples, and applies a marvellous plaster in order to draw out the pus and poison.28 In Sir Tristrem, although much less detail is given, the queen similarly treats the wounded Tristrem with baths, salves and drinks. The legend depicts Yseut as to some extent sharing her mother’s skills. In the Norse it is while collecting herbs in the forest in order to prepare salves against poison, wounds and sickness that Yseut’s maidservant Brangien becomes the prey of Yseut’s huntsmen (ch. 47, pp. 73–4) and Thomas describes Yseut and Brangien gathering herbs and wild plants together in their exile. In all versions, Tristan believes that the return of Yseut when he is fatally wounded will heal him. The catalyst for the fateful love affair is the misdirected natural magic of Yseut’s mother. It is crucial that she is a physician not a sorceress, for this allows romance writers to portray the love of Tristan and Yseut in more positive terms, as a tragic consequence of misdirected natural magic. The saga recounts the preparation by Yseut’s mother of a potion to be drunk on the night of her daughter’s marriage to King Mark (ch. 46, p. 71). The ingredients (flowers and herbs) make clear that this is a natural concoction, rather than one that employs sorcery: the twentiethcentury oratorio version by Frank Martin asserts this in its title, Le Vin Herbé. The English Sir Tristrem gives little detail of this ‘drink of miȝt, / Þat loue wald kiþe’ , but marks the extraordinary nature of this potion made ‘in iuel time’ by the richness of the cup in which it is contained.29 Here, the term ‘iuel’ may hint at darker arts that shade into ‘nigromancy’ , but the possibility is never developed; what is certain is the unfortunate effect rather than any evil intention. 27 For discussion of women as lovers, including in the Tristan legend, see Flora Alexander, ‘Women as

Lovers in Early English Romance’ , in Meale, Women and Literature in Britain, pp. 24–40. Saga of Tristram and Ísönd, trans. Paul Schach (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973), ch. 30, p. 47; ch. 38, pp. 58–9. Subsequent references to Tristanssaga are to this edition, cited by chapter and page number. For the Norse, see Tristrams saga ok Ísöndar, ed. Eugen Kölbing (Heilbronn: Henninger, 1878). 29 Sir Tristrem, ed. George P. McNeill, Scottish Text Society OS 8 (Edinburgh: Scottish Text Society, W. Blackwood, 1886), ll. 1645–6; 1682. The work dates to the late thirteenth century and is found solely in the Auchinleck MS. 28 The


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology In all versions, this natural magic proves dangerous when, as Tristan and Yseut sail to Cornwall, they drink the potion in error and immediately fall in love (Tristanssaga, ch. 46, pp. 582–3). The recently discovered Carlisle Fragment reveals that Thomas plays evocatively on the linguistic similarity in French of terms for the sea, bitterness and love (a pun that Gottfried von Strassburg later exploits). The motifs all weave together in Tristan’s description of the extraordinary, sudden sickness of Isolde:  … Mes ele l’ad issi forsvëé Par ‘l’amer’ que ele ad tant changee Que ne set si cele dolur Ad de la mer ou de l’amur, Ou s’ele dit ‘amer’ de ‘la mer’ Ou pur ‘l’amur’ dïet ‘amer’ .  … she led him so much astray by continually playing on the word ‘love’ that he does not know if she is suffering because of the sea or because of love, or if, when she says ‘loving’ , she means ‘the sea’ , or whether instead of ‘love’ she is saying ‘bitterness’ .30 The notion of bitterness both evokes the idea of taste, recalling the potion, and points to the double-edged nature of this passionate hatred that becomes love. In its resemblance to a Celtic geis or love-curse, the potion allows for the exoneration of the lovers. Some versions, most notably Wagner’s, which is rooted in Gottfried’s spiritualised romance, celebrate a sublime love in which life and death intersect, but none underestimates the sufferings of Tristan and Yseut. The medieval narratives of Beroul and Thomas remain much more ambivalent about adulterous love. Beroul renders the potion a spell, concocted through natural magic, with a fixed length: after three years have passed, the lovers begin to notice the hardship of their lives in the forest of Morois: Seignors, du vin de qoi il burent Avez öi, por qoi il furent En si grant paine lonctens mis; Mais ne savez, ce m’est avis, A conbien fu determinez Li lovendrins, li vin herbez: La mere Yseut, qui le bolli, A trois anz d’amistié le fist. Lords, you have heard about the wine they drank, which brought upon them 30 ‘The

Carlisle Fragment of Thomas’s Tristran’ , ed. and trans. Ian Short, in Norris J. Lacy, ed., Early French Tristan Poems, 2 vols, Arthurian Archives 1 and 2 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1998), vol. 2, pp. 173–83: ll. 47–52.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance so much torment for a long time; but I do not think you know how long the potion, the wine mixed with herbs, was supposed to last. Iseut’s mother, who brewed it, made it to last for three years of love.31 The transformative aspect of love is replaced by realism as the lovers become aware of the rigours of the natural world. The impermanent quality of the desire inspired by the potion places the drink more firmly within the realms of natural magic, as a drug-like recipe with a limited, transient effect, rather than a marvellous philtre that causes an enduring change of character. The narrative of tragic love in its various forms is both inspiring and fearful; it also warns of the dangers of intervention in destiny even when this is done with good intention. The Tristan legend romance engages with the kind of magic forbidden across secular and theological writings, but it does not defend it. Just as the potion employs natural ingredients, herbs and wine, but combines them to unnatural effect, inciting love arbitrarily, so the experience of love is rooted in natural instincts and desires but these are manipulated, manifesting themselves with unnatural, arbitrary, and ultimately tragic force. While the potion may be read, even dismissed, as a plot device to excuse the lovers, and a way of figuring concretely sudden, absolute and extreme love, like the image of the arrows shot by the God of Love, in the context of medieval notions of natural magic the potion should also be taken seriously as a means of human intervention in desire. The story exploits and proves the dangerous powers of natural magic repeatedly recognised in laws and canons that prohibit the practice of love-magic.

Wondrous Objects and Marvellous Technology As the romance treatments of love-magic suggest, even the use of the virtues present in nature – plants, herbs, stones – is an uneasy business, and can shade into ideas of ‘nigromancy’ . Yet at the same time, the fascination with the marvellous in romance triggers an interest in the manufacture of marvel and the experience of wondrous objects. These are often shaped by the marvellous technology of the East or the otherworld in its various guises, and may also be specified as crafted through ‘enchantment’ . Such enchantment is frequently unexplained, rather than attributed to human magical arts, which are more likely to be characterised ambivalently or negatively, as ‘nigromancy’ . Chaucer in the Squire’s Tale explores the possibilities of marvellous technology, while in the Franklin’s Tale he presents a powerful natural magician, the Clerk of Orléans, whose abilities go much beyond healing and protection, to shape a destructive form of love-magic through his astrological arts. Wondrously made objects frequently echo the protective powers found in 31 Beroul’s

Tristran, ed. and trans. Norris J. Lacy, in Lacy, Early French Tristan Poems, vol. 1, pp. 1–216: ll. 2133–40.


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology stones of virtue or healing plants. Guy of Warwick is armed at the sultan’s court in armour made ‘in fer lond’ (Caius MS, 8095): the sword has belonged to Hector, the shield to Darius, the helmet to Alexander, and the hauberk, stolen and brought to Alexandria as part of the sultan’s great treasure, to King Clarel, Charlemagne’s opponent, who figures in the romance of Otuel. The mail shines so brightly that it illuminates the hall ‘as sonne of glas’; and the helmet is ‘of so michel miȝt, / Was neuer man ouer-comen in fiȝt / Þat hadde it on his ventayle’ (st. 92). It is not explicitly magic, but its ‘full good werke’ (Caius MS, 8094) offers an instance of marvellous technology, much less dubious than, for instance, the girdle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, while still broadly within the category of natural magic. The otherworld repeatedly figures as a place where marvellous objects may be wrought, particularly by the dwarves, elves and giants of Germanic legend. Thus Beowulf sees in the underwater hall where he battles Grendel’s mother a sword made by giants, ‘victory-blessed’ , ‘sigeeadig bil, / ealdsweord eotenisc … giganta geweorc’ (1557–62): he interprets it as the gift of divine providence, ‘ylda Waldend’ (1661). Larger than any other, patterned with runes, it kills Grendel’s mother when Hrunting, the ancient sword lent to Beowulf by Unferth, has failed (1457–63). Only an otherworldly sword may slay this supernatural enemy: the battle-hardened quality and poisoned stripes of Hrunting are not enough, and the blade of even the magical weapon melts away in the hot, poisonous blood of the monster (1605– 11). The sword’s marvellous origins are emphasised when Beowulf presents to the hilt to Hrothgar: it is the work of giants or wondrous smiths (‘enta ær ­geweorc’ , ‘wundorsmiþa geweorc’), twisted and decorated with runes (‘wreoþenhilt ond wyrmfah’) that identify its owner (1679, 1681, 1698). Runes and serpentine patterns are associated with pagan magic, but the sword also depicts the Flood and death of the giants (the progeny of the fallen angels), so that it becomes an emblem of divine retribution, which is re-enacted in the death of the Grendel-monsters. The sword is both invested with supernatural power and authorised. A contrast is offered by the swords of Roland and Charlemagne, the power of which is rooted in the Christian relics that adorn them. The arming or girding of the hero with a sword crafted by magic is complemented by the clothing of women in marvellous attire, or in their gift of items of clothing. Again these tend to be associated with the East or specified as otherworldly. Thus a magical girdle figures briefly in the Sowdone of Babylon, one of a group of romances concerned with the matter of Charlemagne, and setting Christian against Saracen. After the French have relieved Rome from the Saracens, Roland and his companions, the Twelve Peers, pursue the sultan and his son Ferumbras (who is eventually converted to Christianity). Imprisoned by the sultan, the French peers are deprived of food for a week, until their supplies are exhausted, but are befriended by the sultan’s daughter Floripas. Suddenly, as he laments Charlemagne’s delay in coming to the rescue, Floripas reveals that she possesses a marvellous girdle: ‘Sires, drede noghte For noon houngre that may befalle. 135

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance I knowe a medycyne in my thoughte To comforte you with alle. I have a girdil in my forcere, Whoso girde hem therwith aboute, Hunger ner thirste shal him neuer dere, Though he were vii yere withoute. ’32 The ‘vertue’ (2312) of the girdle is proven when all who put it on experience the effect of feasting. Although the sultan recalls the existence of the girdle, sending his cunning ‘engynoure’ , ‘fals Mapyne’ (2231, 2325), to fetch it, we are given no explanation of its provenance: only the symbolic force of girding the stomach is clear. The easy solution to hunger, however, is rapidly set aside, for Roland cuts off Mapyne’s head and throws the body from the casement, unaware that he is wearing the girdle. The girdle, like so many magical objects, works tangentially: its loss, greatly lamented by Floripas and proof of pagan evil, goads Roland and his companions to attack the Saracens, taking them by surprise while sleeping. The girdle symbolises the treasures and exotic power of the East, worthy to be won by Christians, and it is also mentioned in the related Charlemagne romances of Firumbras and Sir Ferumbras. While on the one hand the girdle adds drama, it must eventually be dismissed to maintain suspense. The relative rarity of such items in romance, however, may signal the unease evident associated with weaving marvellous qualities into material, and binding on protective objects. Although the Chetham Library version (M) of Beves (by contrast to the Auchinleck version) retains from the Anglo-Norman the magical girdle that protects Josian’s chastity, the episode is not elaborated. Josian states only: I wold thorough a chauntment, A litull girdull to make me, That shall aboute my medull be.33 Although the Anglo-Norman Bœuve and M heighten the fantastic, and ignore any problematic aspect of representing Josian as an enchantress, strikingly little detail of the enchanted girdle is offered. It functions as a version of the chastity belt, although such items are post-medieval, possibly Renaissance, inventions, given a fictitious medieval history. While this form of the enchanted girdle is unique in romance, it is evidently suggested by the physical quality of the girdle 32 The

Sowdone of Babylon in Three Middle English Charlemagne Romances: ‘The Sultan of Babylon’ , ‘The Siege of Milan’ , and ‘The Tale of Ralph Collier’ , ed. Alan Lupack, TEAMS Middle English Texts Series (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Insititute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1990), pp. 1–103, ll. 2299–306. Subsequent references to The Sowdone of Babylon are to this edition, cited by line number. This romance forms part of the Firumbras group, which find their origins in a chanson de geste, now lost, on the subject of the heroic part played by the French in the liberation of Rome from the Saracens in 846. The English romance, which is similar to an abbreviated AngloNorman version, dates to c. 1400–1450, and exists in a single manuscript. 33 See MS Chetham Library, Manchester, 8009 (m), ll. 1394–6, edited below the Auchinleck version, p. 77.


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology as intimately encircling the female body, a ready emblem of chastity. The closest analogue is found in Marie de France’s Guigemar, where on separation from her lover, the lady knots a belt tightly round her loins in such as way (‘aukes estreint’ , 572) that only the beloved can undo it: its knot is a marker of her chastity, echoed in the knot she ties in the young man’s shirt that only she can undo (556–76).34 The knots knowable only to the beloved make strange the familiar, taking on an aspect of enchantment, although, as is typical of Marie’s style, this is never made explicit. The association of the girdle with the preservation of chastity, however, is clearly signalled when Meriaduc and all the lords of Brittany fail to win the lady’s love because they cannot open the belt. In Beves, the girdle works more simply, its magic preserving Josian through illusion. Her escape from ravishment by means of the girdle contrasts sharply with the later episode in which she escapes another unwanted marriage to Miles, Earl of Cologne, by murdering him. Here, the motif of the ­girdle reappears in a darkly comic manner, for in the Anglo-Norman and M, Josian strangles Miles by means of a slip-ring in her girdle (2865–70), rather than with a towel as in the Auchinleck version (3219–24).35 In the earliest printed version of Beves (O), the protective object is changed once again, this time to a writ: ‘I shal go make me a wrytte Thoroughe a clerke wyse of wyt, That there shal no man haue grace, Whyle that letter is in place, Agaynst my wyl to lye me by Nor do me shame no velany!’ (O, 1385–90, p. 77) The enchantress is replaced by a clerk, his ‘wit’ including knowledge of magic as well as theology and law. The change signals the learned quality of magic. The writ seems to function as a talisman when fastened around the neck: as in numerous charms, power is inherent in words themselves. This notion of the power of words underpins the concept of legal trouthe, and is evident in the status afforded the misguided promise made by Dorigen in the Franklin’s Tale. The problematic association of the girdle with illicit, weaving magic is replaced by an authorised, clerical form of magic, which uses the words of the law to create a charm or protective ligature. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight brings together the motifs of the ring and the girdle, and the motifs of preservation of chastity and life. The narrative plays on the conventional notion of the protective gift in the third bedroom scene at Hautdesert. Having refused the seductive advances of his host’s wife, Gawain rejects the Lady’s offer of a ‘riche rynk of red golde werkez, / Wyth a starande [glittering] ston stondande aloft’ , which shines as brightly as the sun and is of

34 See Nicole D. Smith, ‘Estreitement Bendé: The Erotics of Tight Dress in Marie de France’s Guigemar’ ,

Medium Ævum 77 (2008), pp. 96–117. the Miles episode, see my discussion in Rape and Ravishment, pp. 138–9 and 206.

35 On


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance great worth.36 The audience might well have expected magical protection to be a quality of such a stone. Gawain interprets the ring as an inappropriate gift, perhaps because of his contract with the host, perhaps also because, as he suggests, he has nothing to offer in return for such a precious treasure. The ring may also be seen as unsuitable in that it implies troth-plighting and commitment. The proposed substitute, however, though less costly and less obviously symbolic of love than the ring, is a much more intimate and troubling gift. The green and gold girdle with its ‘costes [qualities] þat knit are þerinne’ (1849) is, like the enchanted girdle in earlier versions of Beves, magic of a potentially illicit kind. Gawain argues to himself that ‘Myȝt he haf slypped to be vnslayn, þe sleȝt were noble’ (1858), but in the suggestion of magical properties woven into the girdle, and its characterisation as a ‘sleȝt’ (a stratagem or device, perhaps a trick), it appears to function as a ligature of the sort that both secular and spiritual authorities so firmly condemn. Suggestively, it is manufactured, not a marvellous stone or plant belonging to the natural world. Gawain’s realisation that he has sinned both in concealing the girdle and in failing to trust in God’s protective power implies that he has placed magic above the precepts of Christianity. Virtue in both its senses must be within the knight himself rather than in the girdle: ‘In yow is vylany and vyse, þat vertue disstryez’ (2375). That the girdle cannot be identified as offering the kind of natural, protective magic that functions positively in romance might hint to the audience – and to Gawain – that this is a dangerous object, a forbidden ligature rather than an object invested with beneficent virtue. Such a distinction requires subtle discernment and vigilance of the kind so frequently urged by patristic thinkers. As often in this poem, however, the ending offers another twist: the girdle, it is implied, is not magic at all, for Gawain is wounded by the Green Knight, and though his life is preserved this is presented as the reward for his chastity rather than the result of magic. Ironically, it is Gawain’s belief in the girdle’s protective magic that proves treacherous, and though the promised effect of saving his life is achieved, this occurs despite rather than because of the girdle. That Gawain wears an intimately feminine object now seems to symbolise his feminisation: his fear for his life and weakness in accepting the girdle. Its magic functions in a tricky, back-handed manner typical of this misleading narrative, and suggests the dangers of belief in charms and amulets, of placing binding magic above trust in divine providence. The marvellous robe central to the romance of Emaré maintains something of 36 Sir

Gawain and the Green Knight, in The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript: ‘Pearl’ , ‘Cleanness’ , ‘Patience’ , ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ , ed. Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron, 5th edn, Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 2007), pp. 207–300, ll. 1817–18. Subsequent references to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are to this edition, cited by line number. The poem dates to the second half of the fourteenth century and exists in only one manuscript; it has no direct source but draws on both French and English Arthurian romances, particularly those focused on Gawain. See Elisabeth Brewer, ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Sources and Analogues, 2nd edn (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1992); Ad Putter, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ and French Arthurian Romance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995); and Ad Putter, An Introduction to the ‘Gawain’-Poet, Longman Medieval and Renaissance Library (London: Longman, 1996). For a variety of perspectives, see Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson, ed., A Companion to the GawainPoet, Arthurian Studies 38 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1997).


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology the balance between unease and beauty that characterises the girdle motif. The romance interweaves magic and miracle in its folkloric narrative of exile and return. It opens with the gift of a wondrous cloth, sent by the King of Sicily as a gift to Emaré’s father, an emperor, and made into a robe for his daughter. The extraordinary ‘glysteryng of the ryche ston’ is such that the emperor classifies the cloth as magical: ‘Sertes thys ys a fayry, / Or ellys a vanyté!’37 The material is the richest jewel in Christendom, but it is also an explicitly Eastern wonder, made over seven years by ‘the amerayle dowghter of hethennes’ (109). The poet revels in description of the many gems that adorn it, the gold and azure, and the images of lovers, knights and ladies, unicorn and birds. The sense of richness accrues over eight stanzas, as each corner is described with yet more abundant detail of gems and decoration. When Emaré puts on the robe fashioned from this wondrous cloth of gold and gems, the virtues of its materials both reflect and heighten her beauty: ‘She semed non erthely wommon, / That marked was of molde’ (245–6); she too is a marvellous object of wonder and desire, ‘the fayrest wommon on lyfe’ (222).38 The robe acts as catalyst, leading Emaré’s father to voice his secret intention of marrying his daughter. On Emaré’s rejection of his incestuous desire, the robe is placed in the boat with her, her only possession. Carried in the rudderless boat to the shores of Wales, this ‘glysteryng thyng’ catches the attention of Sir Kador and his squires, occasioning their wonder: ‘Therof they hadde ferly’ (351). Like Emaré herself, the robe is fascinating and enigmatic, its magic never elaborated, yet ­creating a profound aura of the supernatural. The romance repeats the sequence when Emaré, renamed Egaré in her exile, appears before the King of Wales in the robe: ‘The cloth upon her shone so bryghth / When she was theryn y-dyghth, / She semed non erdly thyng’ (394–6). The robe sets the heroine apart physically, echoing her inner and outer beauty, but also seems to render her supernatural. Sometimes Emaré’s body seems to reflect the robe: she is ‘whyte as flour’ , ‘bryght of skynne’ (946, 954), but in general, the description of the cloth replaces that of the lady. Emaré’s unearthly quality causes this king too to fall in love with her, but leads his mother to identify her as ‘a fende’ (446). Again the effect of the robe is ambiguous: it occasions both love and hate, pure and perverse desire, and causes separation. Through the machinations 37 Emaré,

in Maldwyn Mills, ed., Six Middle English Romances, Everyman’s Library (London: Dent; Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1973; 1992), pp. 46–74: ll. 100, 104–5. Subsequent references to Emaré are to this edition, cited by line number. The work dates to c. 1400 and exists in a single manuscript. The story originates in folktale and is closely related to Philippe de Rémi’s Roman de la Manekine (thirteenthcentury, French, but partly set in Britain); to the Constance story (told by Nicholas Trevet in his Anglo-Norman Chronicles, Gower in the Confessio Amantis, Book II, ll. 597ff, and Chaucer in the Man of Law’s Tale); and to Apollonius of Tyre, which probably originates in a Greek romance and exists in Latin and Old English; Gower’s Apollonius narrative in the Confessio Amantis is based on a lost Middle English version, and was used by Shakespeare in Pericles. See further Elizabeth Archibald, Apollonius of Tyre: Medieval and Renaissance Themes and Variations (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991) and Elizabeth Archibald, Incest and the Medieval Imagination (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001). 38 See Amanda Hopkins, ‘Veiling the Text: The True Role of the Cloth in Emaré’ , in Weiss, Fellows and Dickson, Medieval Insular Romance, pp. 71–82.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance of her mother-in-law, Emaré is once again put to sea ‘in that robe of ryche ble’ (590, 644), along with her child, and once again, ‘the glysteryng of that wede’ (699) inspires awe, in the rich merchant who discovers her, who thinks, ‘she was non erdyly wyght’ (701). It is fitting that when Emaré is reunited with her husband through his encounter with her son Segramour, she greets him ‘in the robe bryght and shene’ (933). Only now does the locus of supernatural power shift from the robe to divine providence: ‘They sayled over the salt fome, / Thorow the grace of God in trone’ (835–6). The fascinating but dangerous magic of the robe is replaced by the marvel of reconciliation, the fruits of penance and virtue. The emphasis on marvellous technology characteristic of romance is developed in exotic magical sequences of adventure that revel in the strange and wonderful. As with individual magical objects, the ideas underpinning such sequences are compatible with notions of natural magic and occult learning. Romance writers are not experimental scientists, with actual knowledge of complex machinery or arts of illusion, but are familiar with such possibilities, and the marvellous adventures of romance are frequently presented not as magical and inexplicable, but rather as effected or explained by some kind of subtle technology, the practice of occult arts of a proto-scientific kind. Some of the peculiar effects experienced in chivalric adventure seem to reflect genuine interest in the period in sophisticated machines – mechanical ‘magic’ (clocks, fountains, distorting mirrors) and complex devices using pulleys and wheels to create castles or forests or fields of flowers.39 The East and the otherworld provide fitting provenances for such marvellous technology, which combines natural magic and machinery. In Florys and Blauncheflour, the bizarre and exotic magic associated with the Emir’s court where Blancheflour is kept among his maidens adds another layer to the emphasis on marvel. Although Blauncheflour’s Christianity is not elaborated in any detail, we are perhaps meant to see this as an obstacle to her marriage to Florys, and as triumphing in the end. The natural magic of the protective objects, as we have seen, functions as a sign of God’s presence in the universe, also evident in the destiny that brings Florys to Blauncheflour, and the transformative power of love that occasions pity, generosity and forgiveness in the Emir and his knights. The magic of the Emir’s court, as is typical of magic of the East, functions, by contrast, as marvellous machinery, its mysterious symbolism of virginity and queenship replacing, as it were, the hand of destiny. Rather than Christian being placed above Saracen, the Emir’s material paradise is set against the bliss of love, which transcends and surpasses the exoticism of Babylon. The Emir’s riches are complemented by the extraordinary defences of his realm – the walled city with its gates and towers and fearsome ‘yateward’ (597), at the centre of which is the marvellous tower in which the maidens are kept, served by eunuchs. The tower is not only a hundred fathoms high, but also made of impenetrable material, ‘without pere, / Of lyme and of marbulston’; its mortar cannot be broken by iron or steel; and its decorative ‘pomel’ shines as brilliantly as the sun (574–84). 39 See

Mary Flowers Braswell, ‘The Magic of Machinery: A Context for Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale’ , Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 18: 2 (1985), pp. 101–10.


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology The tower’s defences depend on the marvellous qualities of minerals and stones. More exotic still is the Emir’s magical orchard, ‘the feirest of al mydlerd’ (608), with its suggestions of immortality (‘Men myght leve theryn ful long’ , 610) and its crystal rocks, paradisal streams, and precious stones: it is an earthly paradise reminiscent of the celestial landscape depicted in Pearl. The water and the tree appear to be wonders worthy of travellers’ tales of the East: the water cries out ‘as it were wood, / And bycom reed as blood’ (623–4) if touched by an unchaste maiden, and the flower of the Tree of Love will fall on the lady who is to be queen. Just as the tower is made through human ingenuity, however, so the well is ‘made with muche gynne’ (614), and the Emir himself will orchestrate the choice of his wife ‘through art of enchauntement’ (642), manipulating according to desire what have seemed natural, independent marvels. ‘The term ‘gynne’ is repeated across the romance: Florys’ disguise as ‘gynoure’ (‘engineer’, 656) and his ‘gynne’ (1052) to win back Blauncheflour rival the Emir’s own craft in technology. Blauncheflour’s virtue and excellence are affirmed by the magic of the garden. Its associations with Eden are evident, and Florys’ arrival concealed in a basket of flowers sustains this motif; Florys and Blauncheflour are repeatedly portrayed as innocent children. The features of the garden – the Tree of Love whose flower falls on the chosen bride and the water that reveals chastity – are never applied directly to Blauncheflour to reveal her illicit love for Florys, a love consistently portrayed as pure. Instead they function symbolically and tangentially to illuminate her virtue. The potential test of chastity resonates with hagiographic or miracle stories, and perhaps this resonance draws attention to Blauncheflour as the only Christian among heathens, beloved by ‘lytel and muche’ (275). Her especial beauty, which has distinguished her from the start, becomes a mark of her interior virtue and the wonders of the garden seem to adorn her natural excellence. Paradoxically, the Eastern magic of the heathen Emir, and his unreciprocated desire to possess Blauncheflour as his queen for a year, function on a structural level to affirm her favour in the eyes of God. The impression that Blauncheflour will be chosen as queen (as she herself predicts, 788) through the magical test establishes a nebulous subtext of supernatural approval that aligns with the fact that by the end of the romance, Florys’ conversion seems to have occurred: he gives thanks to Christ and the pair have a Christian wedding. But all is left strangely allusive in this tale of exotic magic and idealised love. That sense of enigma is typical of chivalric and Arthurian romance, where marvellous adventure is an essential part of the fabric of quest, a pattern that reaches back to the romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Marvellous objects such as the magic ring in Le Chevalier au Lion or the enigmatic grail and lance in Le Conte du Graal play a formative role in the creation of a sense of eerie wonder and invisible destiny. Explicit magic is less prominent in Chrétien’s narratives than the sophisticated creation of a world of marvellous adventure might suggest, however. Quests repeatedly lead to castles the status of which is uncertain, where strange, possibly magical things occur, but one of the defining qualities of Chrétien’s narratives is the sense of enigma: we are never quite sure whether we are in an otherworld of enchantment, or a human world of machinery and marvel, or somewhere in 141

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance between. Most haunting is Perceval’s adventure at the Grail Castle, with its elusive, allusive quality of deep spiritual meaning; Lancelot’s release of the prisoners from the land of Gorre, with its resonances of a Celtic otherworld or land of the dead, offers a similar example. The castle of emaciated, starving maidens weaving silk liberated by Yvain seems to combine a monstrous, demonic world with the reality of women employed at weaving in places such as Flanders. Two episodes treat the marvellous technology of magic in extended and detailed sequences: the opening adventure at the magical spring in Le Chevalier au Lion, and the adventure of the Perilous Bed undertaken by Gawain in Le Conte du Graal. Yvain seems to shape his own destiny by slipping away from the court to seize for himself the quest he has heard described by the knight Calogrenant, before the king and his courtiers can pursue the adventure. Yet the events that lead Yvain to Laudine’s world prove archetypal of the process of adventure: the tone shifts to give the impression of the knight as elect, travelling as one fated through a landscape where after seven years the markers are exactly the same, and where exactly the same sequence of strange adventures occurs as it did for Calogrenant. Yvain, however, progresses further, destined to defeat the knight summoned by a storm created by pouring water from a basin at the magical spring, and hence win the hand and lands of Laudine.40 As is characteristic of Chrétien’s narratives, the tone is ambiguous. The sinister yet comic churl who knows nothing of marvels is set against the eeriness of Yvain’s journey in Calogrenant’s footsteps. The magical effect is created by the unnatural repetition, association and heightening of events that in themselves are natural. This is especially true of the central image of adventure, ‘la fontainne … qui bout, / s’est ele plus froide que marbres’ (380–1) (‘the spring that boils and yet is colder than marble’ , 299). This is a natural marvel of the kind Augustine recounts, consistent with the beautiful, evergreen tree above, and the violent storm with its rain, snow and hail. The objects found there are of marvellous workmanship, complementing the natural wonder of the spring in their precious metals and gems, yet also suggesting a consciously wrought process of challenge and adventure rather than a spontaneous natural event. The workmanship of basin and stone may be attributed to Laudine’s world with its vaguely otherworldly resonances, but the audience is left uncertain. The basin is of fine gold; the slab onto which the water is poured is made of emerald, sitting on four rubies that rival the light of the morning sun, and are probably imagined as coming from the East (426–9). The Middle English Ywain and Gawain follows the French closely in its description: ‘An amerawd was the stane / (Richer saw I never nane) / On fowre rubyes on heght standand: / Thaire light lasted over al the land’ (361–4). When the water is poured onto the stone, the paradox of its cold boiling seems to be reflected in the violent storm with its beautiful aftermath. The natural powers of the gems may readily be interpreted as contributing to events. The emerald, supposed to augment a man’s riches and sharpen his wits, and to bestow 40 See

Erich Auerbach, ‘The Knight Sets Forth’ , in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953, originally pub. in German, 1946), pp. 123–42.


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology the gift of prophecy, seems peculiarly appropriate in initiating the adventure that will make the name of the elect knight, and gain him rich rewards of love and lands. The ruby too, supposed to be the most brilliant and greatest of stones, gestures towards the experience to follow. Chrétien and his adaptor do not depict spells and enchantments, but beautiful, jewelled treasures, adorned with stones of power, which may shape, enhance, or simply reflect the magical effect of pouring water from the basin onto the stone. The sequence parallels but makes strange the repeated pattern of summoning a challenger, and recalls an earlier scene in which, to summon his fair company, the host smites a shield of mysterious making, ‘a burde … / Was nowther of yren ne of tre, / Ne I ne wist whareof it might be’ (186–8). The combination of natural and technological wonder creates out of familiar elements a scene of marvellous adventure, to which and through which the knight is mysteriously guided. Chrétien’s related interest in the detail of sophisticated machinery is suggested by his vivid depiction of a mechanised gate and portcullis that drop down on Yvain as he pursues the challenging knight: Ensi desoz la porte estoient dui trabuchet qui sostenoient a mont une porte colant de fer esmolue et tranchant; se riens sor ces engins montoit, la porte d’a mont descendoit, s’estoit pris et dehachiez toz cui la porte ateignoit desoz. (921–8)  … beneath the gate were two fulcrums connected to a portcullis above of sharp, cutting iron; if anything stepped on these devices, the portcullis overhead dropped and whoever was struck by the gate would be slashed entirely to pieces. (306) The term ‘engins’ emphasises the technological marvel of the portcullis, which cuts Yvain’s ill-fated horse in half. The Middle English version greatly simplifies the mechanical detail, describing ‘a portculis / Shod wele with yren and stele, / and also grunden wonder wele’ . Whereas Chrétien is concerned with the sophisticated technology of machinery, the English writer privileges the danger of the adventure, and later the divine grace that protects Ywain. Gawain’s adventure of the Perilous Bed or Bed of Marvels in Le Conte du Graal (not included in the Middle English Sir Percyvell of Gales) develops the motif of marvellous technology, taking it into the realms of the magical. That the aim of Gawain’s quest is ‘the Sword with the Strange Straps’ seems to presage an emphasis on marvellous technology, and while he does not gain the sword, he is the only knight who may achieve the adventure of the Perilous Bed.41 The setting again 41 This

Sword with the Strange Straps remains unexplained in the incomplete Le Conte du Graal. In the Fourth Continuation the sword is won by Perceval at Montesclere, while in the Vulgate its place is shifted to the Grail Ship, and it is given a history as the sword of King David, for which a new belt is woven with the hair of Perceval’s sister; only Galahad, the new Grail hero, may grip it. See


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance interweaves realistic and otherworldly aspects: Gawain crosses a river to a castle where he encounters his mother and aunt (Arthur’s mother), still strangely youthful although they are supposed to have died long since. Yet this seeming world of the dead is realised in highly material terms, as a grand marble fortress built on a cliff, and guarded by five hundred longbows and crossbows: ‘Se nus i voloit rien forfaire, / ja ne fineroient de traire / ne ja ne seroient lassees, / par tel engin sont conpassees’ (‘They are so ingeniously set up that if anyone were to attack they would shoot indefinitely and never be exhausted’ , 7273–6; 473). The term ‘engin’ recalls the emphasis on ‘gin’ in Florys, and again, sophisticated fortification is enhanced by marvellous technology: the hall is magically protected by the design of a clerk skilled in natural magic ‘Uns sages clers d’astrenomie, / que la reïne i amena’ (‘a learned astronomer, whom the queen has brought with her’ , 7298–9; 473). Those within are waiting to be liberated by a knight who will undo ‘les anchantemenz del palais’ (‘the magic spells of the hall’ , 7352; 474) and return them to the temporal world of their inheritances, or to marriage and knighthood. The spells echo in their material quality the marvellous technology that guards the castle, and this emphasis occurs too in the description of the bizarre precious artificial leg, decorated with gold and gems, of the man seated in front of the hall. Like the basin and stone at the magical spring of Broceliande, the chamber containing the bed is highly ornate, adorned with precious stones, metals and materials, its doors ‘anluminee / d’or et de pierres de vertu’ (‘highlighted by gold leaf and magical gems’ , 7434–5; 475), and the posts of the marvellously decorated gold bed are set with four carbuncle stones, ‘qui gitoient mout grant clarté, / mout plus que .IIII. cierge espris’ (‘which cast as much light as four brightly burning candles’ , 7452–3; 475). This is a Hall of Marvels, but they are marvels of workmanship, price and natural magic, treasures with special virtues rather than demonic enchantments. Although the test is characterised as effected by enchantments, these too seem to use marvellous technology, when a plethora of bolts and arrows shoots in through the windows. Suddenness and violence render startling and strange the familiar – the sound of bells, the opening of windows, the shooting of weapons. Most eerie is their independent mechanism: An l’aseoir que il a fet, et les cordes gietent un bret et totes les quanpanes sonent si que tout le palés estonent, et totes les fenestres oevrent et les mervoilles se descoevrent et li anchantement aperent, que par les fenestres volerent Chrétien de Troyes, Le Conte du Graal (Perceval), ed. Félix Lecoy, 2 vols, Les Romans de Chrétien de Troyes 5 and 6, Les Classiques français du Moyen Age (Paris: Librairie Honoré Champion, 1975, 1984), l. 4688; The Story of the Grail (Perceval), in Arthurian Romances, trans. Kibler, pp. 381–494: p. 439. Subsequent references to Le Conte du Graal are to this edition and translation, cited by line and page number.


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology quarriax et saietes leanz, si an ferirent ne sai quanz mon seignor Gauvain an l’escu, mes il ne sot que l’ot feru. Li anchantemenz tex estoit que nus hom veoir nel pooit de quel part li quarrel venoient, ne li archier que les treoient, et ce poez vos bien antandre que grant escrois ot au destandre des arbalestes et des ars.  … mes les fenestres an po d’ore reclostrent, que nus nes bota … (7567–88) As he sat down the cords screeched and all the bells rang, filling the whole hall with noise. All the windows flew open, and the wonders were revealed and the enchantments appeared, for bolts and arrows flew in through the windows and more than five hundred struck my lord Gawain’s shield yet he did not know who had attacked him! The enchantment was such that no one could see from which direction the bolts came, nor the archers who shot them. And you can well imagine the great racket made by the stretching of so many crossbows and longbows … in an instant the windows closed again without anyone touching them. (476–7) By contrast, Gawain’s subsequent battle with a savage lion scarcely seems marvellous at all. As in Le Chevalier au Lion, it is the configuration of individual elements, and the combination of natural magic and technology inherent in their strange, exotic extravagance, that creates the effect of the uncanny.

Chaucer and ‘Magik Naturel’ Chaucer’s Franklin’s and Squire’s tales address just this kind of marvellous technology, characterised by richness and exoticism, and linked as well to the arts of illusion and astral magic.42 It has become something of a critical commonplace to argue that Chaucer is on the whole uninterested in, or distrustful of, magic. Among all the genres employed with such sophistication in the Canterbury Tales, that of popular metrical romance with its frequent use of marvel is missing apart from the parodic tale of Sir Thopas. The magic of both the Squire’s and Franklin’s tales has been read in technological terms as theatrical illusion, based on complex 42 For a general discussion of Chaucer’s use of the supernatural, see my ‘Magic, Science and Romance:

Chaucer and the Supernatural’ , in Medieval English Literary and Cultural Studies. SELIM XV, ed. Juan Camilo Conde Silvestre and Ma Nila Vásquez González (SELIM, 2004), pp. 121–43. The Squire’s Tale has no direct source but draws on elements from both French and Oriental romance. The Franklin’s Tale, though described as a Breton lai, does not have Celtic or Breton origins: its closest analogues are found in Boccaccio’s Filocolo and Decameron (10.5), both of which Chaucer may have known; he also uses material from the Roman de la Rose and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance machinery. Thus it has been argued that the magician-clerk’s pageant is just that, an illusion created through clever automata or pageant wagons, while the tide is simply a winter high tide calculated by a cleric knowledgeable in astrology, ‘instances not of supernatural magic but of stage magic’ .43 But in fact Chaucer’s works engage in a conspicuously learned, realist manner with the concept of natural magic, and they make clear distinctions between this and less acceptable practices. As we have seen, Book III of The House of Fame, dedicated to Apollo, ‘God of science’ (1091), depicts in detail the practitioners of magic, immediately following the description of the house itself – magicians, ‘tregetours’ (‘illusionists’), old witches and sorceresses, and ‘clerkes eke, which konne wel / Al this magik naturel’ (1265–6). The figures include famous magicians and enchantresses from different traditions – from classical legend, Medea, Calypso and Circe; from natural philosophy, Hermes Ballenus, disciple of the founder of magic, Hermes Trismegistus; from biblical tradition, Simon Magus; and finally, most strikingly perhaps, what seems to be a reference to an English magician, ‘Colle tregetour’ (1277). The phrase appears to refer to a certain ‘Colin T. ’ , mentioned in a French conversation manual (c. 1396) and said to have practised in Orléans, ‘an Englishman who was a powerful necromancer … who knew how to create many marvels by means of necromancy’ .44 It is difficult, however, not to see Chaucer’s description as slightly tongue-in-cheek: Ther saugh I Colle tregetour Upon a table of sycamour Pleye an uncouth thyng to telle Y saugh him carien a wynd-melle Under a walsh-note shale. (1277–81) The revelation of the windmill under a walnut shell seems more a dinner-party illusion than a powerful effect of necromancy, and it is not coincidental that magicians accompany musicians in the House of Fame, for their arts share the power to entertain. Yet these arts also go beyond the mechanical and theatrical. Witches, sorceresses and Phitonesses practise magic quite different from Colle’s sleight of hand: they explicitly employ enchantments, spells and the summoning of spirits, dubious rituals of the kind described in the Parson’s Tale (see chapter 4). But the ‘magik naturel’ of the clerks also has genuine physical power and is very clearly depicted as image magic employing sidereal powers: they ‘craftely doon her ententes / To make, in certeyn ascendentes, / Ymages, lo, thrugh which magik / To make a man ben hool or syk’ (1267–70). Even the ‘tregetour’ or illusionist may have access these powers. In the Franklin’s Tale, Aurelius’ brother suggests employing a magician in order to win Dorigen by fulfilling the seemingly impossible condition of her promise – that she will 43 Anthony

E. Luengo, ‘Magic and Illusion in The Franklin’s Tale’ , Journal of English and Germanic Philology 77 (1978), pp. 1–16: p. 1. 44 For these details, see the annotation to line 1277 in the Riverside Chaucer, p. 987.


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology never love Aurelius until the black rocks she sees below on the coast disappear. The terms used by Aurelius’ brother suggest illusions effected by learned, natural magic: ‘ther be sciences / By whiche men make diverse apparences, / Swiche as thises subtile tregetoures pleye’ (1139–41). The effects described may have been possible to conjure mechanically – the water and barge in the hall, the grim lion, the appearance of flowers and castle (if we imagine the hall as a bizarre kind of fun house with hidden jets of water and pageant wagons), but Aurelius’ brother envisages a different kind of marvellous technology. He recalls the book he saw on his fellow’s desk, which speaks much of ‘the operaciouns / Touchynge the eighte and twenty mansiouns / That longen to the moone’ (1129–31), and envisages a magician who employs ‘thise moones mansions … or oother magyk natureel above’ (1154– 5), who can harness astrological or natural powers to create the effect of a high tide. While such ideas are characterised as ‘folye’ (1131) by the Franklin, astrology, at least, was not considered in such terms by Chaucer, the author of a treatise on the astrolabe. J. D. North argues that books containing specific details of the lunar mansions were not common, and, tantalisingly, suggests that Chaucer knew of works relating the practice of magic to astrology, such as the treatise probably held in St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, and attributed to ‘Girgith’ (perhaps the eleventh-century Georgius Antiochus or Jirjis ibn al-Amīd).45 It is easy to imagine the clerk as reading a translation of an occult work from the Arabic tradition such as this, or one attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. Such magicians undoubtedly enjoy a theatrical function, as is evident when the clerk entertains Aurelius and his brother to dinner, but their illusions are shaped by natural magic that is dependent on profound astrological learning, rather than on machinery. Natural, learned magic explains and grounds the marvellous in the tale. The complex detail that fills out the visit to Orléans makes real the magician’s feats: the learned books of natural magic, the descriptive detail of other ‘tregetoures’ (1141), the association of clerks with the occult sciences, exemplified in the disturbing foreknowledge of the young clerk who meets the brothers (1176).46 We are shown the spectacles that demonstrate the magic art of the clerk, and finally told of his complex astrological computations that make the rocks ‘seem’ away. North suggests that details such as the use of Toledan tables may render the clerk old-fashioned, but stresses the realism with which astrological calculations of the ‘operacion’ (1290; a specifically astrological term) are described, in particular, the emphasis on the moon’s mansions, which affected the tides. Chaucer is careful, however, to distinguish the clerk from more dubious practitioners of magic. That such illusions were a prominent form of necromantic magical experiment is suggested by their recurrence in the Munich handbook discussed in Chapter 2: there conjurations of demons shape a banquet and castle as well as magical means of transportation.47 It is crucial that Orléans is not a place of demonic practices but 45 North,

Chaucer’s Universe, pp. 252–4, 437–9. Chaucer’s Universe, p. 423; for a full analysis of the astrological aspects of the tale, see pp. 422–42. 47 See Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites, pp. 42–68. 46 North,


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance of ‘magyk natureel’ , although even this arouses the Franklin’s suspicions: ‘For hooly chirches feith in oure bileve / Ne suffreth noon illusioun us to greve’ (1133– 4). Chaucer, by contrast, seems less conservative. Like alchemy, natural, astral magic may be misused, as the tale shows, but abuse does not necessitate general condemnation of the occult arts, and the Clerk of Orléans is ultimately redeemed. The limited quality of his powers is crucial: they do not involve ‘nigromancie’ of the kind that is forbidden in the Parson’s Tale (604), but rather the clever harnessing of natural forces to create the illusion that the rocks have disappeared, perhaps through the sort of image magic described in The House of Fame. This manifestation of astrological magic may only be ‘an apparence or jogelrye’ (1265), as the Franklin puts it, but it certainly goes beyond simple calculation of high tides, for the rocks ‘for a wyke or tweye, /… semed … aweye’ (1295–6). Yet in a characteristic shift of tone, no one ever goes to see whether the rocks really are ‘aweye’ , and the whole focus of the story moves to the complex emotional predicaments of Dorigen and Arveragus, from appearances to reality, from the rocks outside to troubled questions of the ‘trouthe’ within. Magic provides the means of testing the limits of human will and shaping experience in transformative ways. The Squire’s Tale is less specific in its depiction of natural magic. In this tale of magical gifts and talking birds, which emphasises the materiality of adventure, Chaucer plays on the range of possible explanations for the marvellous. The setting of the court of ‘Cambyuskan’ , Ghengis Khan, in ‘Tartarye’ , the Mongol Empire (12, 9), immediately places this as a romance of the East, in which we can expect to hear of exotic marvels and strange adventures, and appropriately, the first part of the story tells of a strange knight’s arrival on a great brass horse to present Cambyuskan with three magical gifts at his birthday feast.48 The tale selfconsciously weaves together traditional romance motifs of the marvellous: the great feast, complete with ‘strange’ foods – ‘swannes’ and ‘heronsewes’ (67–8); the sudden appearance of the knight who rides into the hall, silencing the court in a manner reminiscent of ‘Gawayn, with his olde curteisye, / Though he were comen ayeyn out of Fairye’ (95–6); the magical gifts themselves. The Squire’s excessively self-conscious rhetoric and repeated use of incongruous or uncourtly asides, however, undercut the ethos of ‘merveille’ (87): the court is full of ‘janglyng’ of ‘lewed peple’ (257, 221); only Launcelot would be able to describe the festive dances ‘and he is deed’ (287); these are ‘unkouthe’ dances marked by jealousy and deception (284); the revellers have ‘Ful … heddes of fumositee’ (358), rising late the next day after excessive drinking; and the Squire suddenly announces that the horse, the subject of so much speculation, has vanished: ‘I noot in what manere, / Out of hir sighte: ye gete namoore of me’ (342–3). Chaucer cleverly evokes and satirises contemporary debates surrounding magic and the supernatural. Some imagine that the gifts are subtle technological inventions: just as it is possible ‘to maken of fern-asshen glas’ (254), the mirror may use ‘composiciouns / Of anglis and of slye reflexiouns’ (229–30), the sword some specially tempered metal. They may 48 See

Carol Falvo Heffernan, The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance, Studies in Medieval Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003).


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology be shaped by natural marvel, just as storms, tides, and mist are caused by inexplicable forces of nature. The brass horse may be a ‘fairye’ (201) but may also contain Greeks. The gifts may be illusions, ‘an apparence ymaad by som magyk, / As jogelours pleyen at thise feestes grete’ (218–19), or they may be rooted in the hazy ‘magyk natureel’ of the occult sciences. The magic horse of brass is made by one who knows ‘ful many a gyn’ (128), but the ‘gyn’ is explicitly related to astrology: the maker, like the Clerk of Orléans, is said to have ‘wayted many a constellacion / Er he had doon this operacion’ (129–30).49 Magical flying horses, illusory or carried by spirits, are a recurrent motif in writings on magic, including, for example, the De nigromancia said to have been written by Roger Bacon.50 The Squire evokes diverse aspects of marvellous technology by referring to writers such as Aristotle and Vitello on mirrors and perspective, as well as to the learning in natural magic of Moses and Solomon, both credited with being great magoi. Chaucer complicates the unquestioning acceptance of the marvellous so typical of romance by depicting the debate marvel might stimulate, and offering a sliding scale of explanations for it: illusion of different kinds, practical technology, natural magic achieved through the practice of occult sciences, the faery. The tale seems in part to offer an ironic comment on the naïveté of romance treatments of the marvellous, though the emphasis is very different from that of the parodic Sir Thopas. Yet, startlingly, the second part of the Squire’s Tale moves away from the questioning world of the court to a narrative space more like that of Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, when Canacee puts on the magical ring, to discover that it enables her to understand the speech of the birds. The unexpected pathos of the lament that Canace subsequently hears, of a female falcon abandoned in love, is dramatically rendered: ‘Ybeten hadde she hirself so pitously / With bothe hir wynges til the rede blood / Ran endelong the tree ther-as she stood. / And evere in oon she cryde alwey and shrighte, / And with hir beek hirselven so she prighte’ (414–18). This second part of the tale proves the magical nature of the gifts. Whatever they are, however constructed, they are neither illusions nor explicable technological devices: the ring really does allow Canacee to hear the speech of the birds, rendering the impossible possible. Its magic is contrasted and complemented by Canacee’s natural knowledge of healing, evident in her application of salves, herbs and plasters to the falcon. These arts, though they seem so different in kind, may be seen as different aspects of natural magic. The magical effect of the ring makes it seem more likely that the horse will fly through a process of natural magic. The gifts, the second part of the narrative suggests, do not employ simple technology or trickery, but are magical in a more profound way. Yet it is important that the idea of flight is elaborated by the mechanical details of trilling 49 North suggests interesting analogies between the horse and astronomical clocks, Chaucer’s Universe,

pp. 266–7, 270; for a full analysis of the astrological aspects of the tale, see pp. 263–88. Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites, pp. 42–3. Kieckhefer includes a passage conjuring a horse from Rawlinson MS d 252, fols 75v–76v: p. 64, n. 1; the Munich handbook contains four experiments for illusory transportation by horse, and two more for transportation by magical ship and throne: see Kieckhefer, pp. 54–9.

50 See


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance a pin in the horse’s ear, a process rather like turning an ignition key, which is not just fantastical but may draw upon marvellous properties not yet fully understood. The narrative of the gifts is theorised and filled out in technical ways to create the texture of reality, in something of the way that Chaucer’s dream visions are. The audience is allowed both to believe in the magic of the gifts and to hear the debate surrounding it. Both the Franklin’s Tale and Squire’s Tale treat, though in very different ways, the possibility of false perception, a motif signalled by the magical mirror in the Squire’s Tale. In the Franklin’s Tale, what has seemed eternal, a symbol of the possibility of death and destruction in the temporal world, becomes transient when the rocks disappear through the Clerk of Orléans’ magic. Whereas the Squire’s Tale suggests but never confirms the possibility that the magical gifts are created through the practice of occult sciences, in the Franklin’s Tale we are aware from the start that the marvel is an ‘illusioun’ , a piece of ‘magyk natureel’ performed by a clerk studied in magical arts (1264, 1155). Illusion and deception, false perspectives, call into question the solid foundation of the ‘trouthe’ Dorigen has sworn: suddenly she appears to belong to another man. The disappearance of the rocks authorises what will effectively be her rape.51 North argues persuasively that this is ‘a tale of calculation’ , ‘an object lesson in the dangers of underestimating the convoluted and interlaced character of systems of laws, human and divine’ .52 In the Franklin’s Tale, the rocks, which seem to represent the power and destructive potential of the natural world, in fact prove to be no more than a shadow by contrast to God or the gods by which Dorigen perhaps should have sworn, and magic, the art of illusion, becomes the means of revealing this. As the falcon in the Squire’s Tale also discovers, it is dangerous to ignore the flux of the temporal world and to trust in appearances. The magical ring opens onto a narrative of lament, loss and transience that takes and reshapes into something rich and strange the promise and doubt surrounding the gifts in the first part of the tale. The natural magic of plants and stones of virtue functions in medicinal, healing and protective ways. These qualities are part of the accepted view of the cosmos, in which the forces of stars and planets may be contained within elements of the natural world. It is a small step from these to the possibility of transformation: inducing love or desire, or conferring the power of invisibility. Those with learning may play with these forces, constructing objects of power, or, through knowledge of the stars, shaping events. A world that contains marvels also contains marvellous objects, perhaps made in the East or with otherworldly provenances, which afford power and transformation to those who employ them. Their physical effects are often achieved through use that equates with the magic of the ligature: they are worn on the body in the form of weapons or rings or items of clothing. They may also shape and define bizarre and exotic sequences of adventure. All these powers may be misused and abused, but they belong to the world of white magic, benign 51 See

my discussion in Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2001), pp. 292–5. 52 North, Chaucer’s Universe, p. 422.


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White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology insofar as they are natural, part ultimately of the created world, to be treated with respect. Their marvellous technology is fascinating and entertaining, but also full of promise for the protection it offers against the difficulties of the temporal world. More troublingly, the powers of transformation afforded by the forces of nature may lead to deception and illusion. As laws and theological writings recognise, malevolence and beneficence depend ultimately on the intentions of those using the powers of natural magic.


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4 Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’


he clerk of Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale stands 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 and payment, are finally replaced by grace, dependent on an ethic of generosity and gift. The setting aside of their demands cannot but place the use of natural magic in the tale as misguided. Chaucer need not be aligned with the Franklin, who expresses a conservative theological perspective in his severe condemnation of magic; indeed, Chaucer’s interest in the occult sciences and the care with which he evokes the magician’s practices, as well as the redemption of both the clerk and Aurelius, suggest a far more liberal and sympathetic perspective. But at the same time, magic is represented as dangerous, threatening precisely for the reality of its power and the possibility that individual destiny may be altered through manipulation of cosmic forces. In this respect, the Franklin’s Tale is very different from the Squire’s Tale, in which the magical gifts with their provenance from the East, or the world of faery, stimulate debate, marvel and adventure. The Franklin offers us an explicitly human practitioner, a clerk surrounded by his books, of a very different kind from the Clerk of Oxenford and closer to Shakespeare’s Prospero. The foreknowledge of the clerk who greets Aurelius and his brother implies the existence of a circle of influential and learned practitioners, whose powers far exceed those implied in the description of Colle Tregetour’s dinner-party trick, and who recall the cleric-magicians described so negatively by chroniclers. The emphasis on natural magic is crucial to preserve such figures from the charge of the demonic. Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale demonstrates the familiarity of the connection between magic and demons. The prose treatise on the seven deadly sins and their remedies translates parts of three of the most widely circulated summae, Raymond of Peñafort’s Summa de poenitentia, William Peraldus’ Summa virtutum ac vitiorum, and its sequel, the Summa virtutum de remediis anime (known from its opening words as Postquam). The tale also rehearses prohibitions of magic found in handbooks of penance. The Parson explicitly forbids magic as an aspect of swearing and hence of Anger: But let us go now to thilke horrible sweryng of adjuracioun and conjuracioun, as doon thise false enchantours or nigromanciens in baciens ful of water, or in a bright swerd, in a cercle, or in a fir, or in a shulderboon of a sheep. / I kan 152

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Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’ nat seye but that they doon cursedly and dampnably agayns Crist and all the feith of hooly chirche. (603–4) The details tantalisingly suggest rituals familiar from much earlier laws and theo­logical writings, but that may still be practised, such as conjuring images or demons by looking in a basin of water or sword, or in a mirror or crystal – perhaps to reveal the whereabouts of a thief. The terms ‘adjuracioun and conjuracioun’ imply the summoning of spirits or demons, and such false swearing is associated with heresy, as is typical of theological discourse. The Parson also follows the traditional emphasis of discussions from that of Isidore onwards in his treatment of divination: What seye we of hem that bileeven on divynailes, as by flight or by noyse of briddes, or of beestes, or by sort, by nigromancie, by dremes, by chirkynge of dores or crakkynge of houses, by gnawynge of rattes, and swich manere wrecchednesse?/ Certes al this thyng is deffended by God and by hooly chirche. For which they been acursed, til they come to amendement, that on swich filthe setten hire bileeve. (605–6) Popular use of ligatures and amulets, and remedies or charms is implied by the Parson’s inclusion of Augustine’s explanation that medical magic is effective only through divine intervention: ‘Charmes for woundes or maladie of men or of beestes, if they taken any effect, it may be peraventure that God suffreth it, for folk sholden yeve the moore feith and reverence to his name’ (607). Chaucer’s careful, detailed adaptation of treatises on the deadly sins in the Parson’s Tale is revealing for its demonstration of the availability and familiarity of theological perspectives on magic, and their currency in fourteenth-century England. The tale conveys a vivid sense that these are the superstitions and practices of the here and now, as familiar as the sins of lying and lechery – and like these, widely practised despite the strictures of the Church, as other tellers and tales demonstrate. The Friar offers at the start of his tale a brief but apparently realistic image of an archdeacon, the representative of the bishop, who fiercely pursues offenders within his jurisdiction, including practitioners of magic: Whilom ther was dwellynge in my contree An erchedeken, a man of heigh degree, That boldely dide execucioun In punysshynge of fornicacioun, Of wicchecraft, and eek of bawderye, Of diffamacioun, and avowtrye, Of chirche reves, and of testamentz, Of contractes, and of lakke of sacramentz, Of usure, and of symonye also. (1301–9) The description suggests the anxiety of ecclesiastical courts concerning ‘wicchecraft’ – a term employed to denote prohibited magical practices, by contrast to ‘magik naturel’ . Chaucer makes a clear distinction between these two sides of magic. 153

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance

The Arts of ‘Nigromancy’ Chaucer in the Franklin’s Tale specifically avoids the terms ‘nigromancy’ or ‘wicche­craft’ , or even ‘enchauntment’ , all of which suggest the more dubious aspects of magic.1 Other secular writers are not so clear. The term most often employed in romance to suggest illicit magical arts is ‘nigromancy’ . Yet because the word is understood to find its origins in Latin niger, black (rather than Greek, nekros, corpse), and is invariably spelled to indicate this, its meaning is not so precise nor so extreme as the modern ‘necromancy’ . Romance writers employ ‘nigromancy’ not to depict rituals wholly different in kind from natural magic, summoning demons, but rather to suggest more dangerous rituals that enter further into the conscious practice of magic. Helen Cooper writes, ‘Middle English ‘nigromancy’ is … magic on the edge of acceptability, not magic conducted through the agency of the dead. ’2 ‘Nigromancy’ and ‘sorcery’ are treated in romance as near-similes, along with, less often, ‘witchcraft’ , and the connotation of black or dark arts is most pervasive. ‘Nigromancy’ can imply the use of illusions, and may signal human practitioners whose arts are extreme, dubious and sometimes villainous. It may include the power of invisibility, metamorphosis or shape-shifting, manipulation of mind or body for the purpose of love or power. Not all such arts are obviously ‘black magic’ , but they are potentially dangerous, and many do prove destructive. We are left to draw our own conclusions about just how the magic is achieved, but it is often represented in material terms closely linked to those of natural magic, sometimes supplemented by books that may or may not afford the means to summon demons. Romance also, however, voices the attraction of such magic. Schooling in the occult sciences may include study of ‘nigromancy’ , apparently the arts of illusion and natural magic, that may be used to both positive as well as negative ends. Alexander’s arts, taught him by Nectanabus, include ‘art-magik and nycromancie’ .3 The black arts of ‘nigromancy’ may potentially be demonic, but it is very rare for romances to describe explicitly demonic magic practised by humans; this tends to be the preserve of demons themselves. Otherwise, we must look to the fringes of romance, in particular to retellings of the Medea story. Even here, the dark arts of ‘nigromancy’ are interwoven with striking sympathy for the victim of abandonment in love. It is in moral tales, as in theological discourse, that occult arts are most explicitly equated with the demonic: Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale provides a striking example, but also conveys the attraction of the occult learning of alchemy. 1 See

further Heidi Breuer, Crafting the Witch: Gendering Magic in Medieval and Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 2009). 2 Cooper, The English Romance in Time, p. 161. 3 Sir Gilbert Hay, The Buik of King Alexander the Conquerour, ed. John Cartwright, 2 vols, Scottish Text Society 4th Series 16 and 18 (Edinburgh: Scottish Text Society, 1986–90), l. 282. Only fragments of the Middle English romance of Alexander survive. Hay’s translation of material from the French and Latin Alexander romances was made c. 1490; unfortunately the first part, which treated the conception of Alexander and Nectanabus’ arts, does not survive.


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Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’ Romance terminology can be revealing, for although the practice of ‘nigromancy’ is not necessarily demonic, the term certainly suggests arts that are at the very least ambiguous. Beves clearly demonstrates both the differentiation and the similarity between the arts of natural magic and ‘nigromancy’: the difference is not in kind of magic so much as in extent and use, and the motivation of the practitioner. ‘Nigromancy’ is conspicuously absent from Josian’s training, although her skills allow her to protect her virginity through the use of the magic ring or girdle. Later in the same episode, Beves lures away Josian’s abductor, King Yvor, by claiming that his brother’s kingdom is under attack, and Josian is left in the charge of one old king, Garcy, who ‘muche can of Nygremancy’ (2298): he possesses a gold ring that allows him to see ‘What any man dooth in alle þing’ (2300). Garcy’s ‘nigromancy’ is defeated by the natural magic of the herb placed in his ‘reynessh wyne’ by Beves’ companion, Bonefas: ‘What he be, þat þer of doþ drynke, He shal lerne for to wynke And slepe anon after ryȝt Al a day and al a nyȝt. ’ (2305–8) Garcy wakes to see in his ring that the queen has fled with the palmer, who is Beves in disguise. Whereas Josian’s wearing of a protective ring is never characterised as ‘nigromancy’ , Garcy’s looking in a magic ring is a form of divination, and hence a prohibited magical practice allowing for intervention in destiny. As we have seen, various authorities instance divination practised by means of looking for images in water, mirrors or stones. Beves presents certain kinds of intervention as acceptable: the use of plants or stones to protect or heal, but also, more dramatically, to change appearance, or, as in this case, to invoke sleep. Intention is crucial: these uses of magic ultimately protect by preserving Josian’s chastity, just as Yvain’s use of the ring of invisibility preserves his life; in the same way, Beves’ disguises and deceptions are acceptable. Garcy’s magical ring is a feature of the exotic but imprisoning Eastern world from which Beves must rescue Josian. The power of divination renders this world menacing, and the art of ‘nigromancy’ is set against the skill in natural magic that Josian has also gained from the East, but employs in ways that fulfil the beneficent plan of providence. The context of the Saracen world, pagan and deterministic, often depicted in demonic terms, lends a further quality of darkness to the practice of ‘nigromancy’ to which Christian, healing, transformative virtue is opposed. Partonope of Blois offers a more complicated and ambiguous treatment of the practice of ‘nigromancy’ . The lady Melior exemplifies Cooper’s argument that ‘nigromancy’ is not necessarily condemned, yet at the same time doubt is maintained concerning Melior’s arts. She first appears to be an otherworldly figure, but proves to have learned her considerable magical powers. The romance employs the familiar motif of the otherworldly hunt, used by Marie de France in the lai of Guigemar, with which Partonope also shares the narrative of an otherworldly journey to an exotic location where the hero encounters the 155

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance beloved.4 Lost in the forest in pursuit of a great boar, Partonope enters a mysterious ship, which he identifies as ‘a Shyppe of ffayre / Or thynge made be Enchauntemente’ (744–5) and which carries him to what seems an enchanted country constructed through ‘nygromansy’ (876), where he finds an opulent castle, feast and bedchamber.5 When the ‘yonge mayde’ (1193) Melior joins Partonope in the bed, the narrator reveals that despite her shame and silence, she has brought him there, ‘for alle here delyte / And all here plesaunce was hym to haue / To here husbande’ (1221–3). The love of the pair unfolds in a comic but troubling play of unwillingness, as Melior’s fear of being judged harshly is set against Partonope’s anxiety that the experience is a demonic illusion – an interpretation that indicates the ready association of magic with demons. Crucially, Partonope cannot see his companion: So softe, so clene she was to fele Þat where he was he wyste not welle. Plesaunce had hym ouer-come Þat all hys wyttes were fro hym nome. (1537–40). The scene surely plays on the possibility of the succubus, while, at the same time, Melior’s virtue is arguably enhanced by the fact that the consummation seems disturbingly close to a rape:6 He wolde not lefe ne be þer-by; For of her wordes toke he no hede; But þys a-way her maydenhede Haþe he þen rafte, and geffe her hys. (1568–71) The perspective on Melior’s dismay, suffering and tears, however, is startlingly shifted when she is revealed to be the Queen of Byzantium, an appropriately Eastern provenance for a human enchantress. She has sent her envoys in search of the best man in the world, and discovering Partonope, has through her magical skill effected the flight of the boar, Partonope’s separation from the king on the hunt, and the magical ship. Her powers of enchantment are emphatically stated: ‘Alle þys was made by crafte of me. / Thys crafte I dyd, yette more I can’ (1672–3). Yet it seems that even the lady who has mastered the arts of magic to bring her 4 For

a study of the motif of the hunt, see Marcelle Thiébaux, The Stag of Love: The Chase in Medieval Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974). 5 For a discussion of the emphasis of the English version, see Sandra Ihle, ‘The English Partonope of Blois as Exemplum’ , in Keith Busby and Erik Kooper, ed., Courtly Literature: Culture and Context: Selected Papers from the 5th Triennial Congress of the International Courtly Literature Society, Dalfsen, The Netherlands, 9–16 August, 1986, Utrecht Publications in General and Comparative Literature (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1990), pp. 301–11. 6 The scene finds a parallel in Chrétien’s Le Chevalier de la Charrete, in which the lady whom Lancelot preserves from rape proves to have been a counterfeit victim, mimicking unwillingness and pain, and representing her desire as force. Here the sight of the near-naked lady about to be raped is apparently intended to incite desire as well as to test military prowess. See Le Chevalier de la Charrete, ed. Mario Roques, Les Romans de Chrétien de Troyes III, Les Classiques français du Moyen Age (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1972), ll. 1062–95.


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Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’ beloved to her must not pursue her desire so far as actively to yield her virginity, and Melior’s resistance creates a very different image, defining her as the reluctant, because chaste, maiden. Melior actively tests Partonope’s devotion by decreeing that she may only visit Partonope unseen, by night, in a narrative sequence that closely resembles the tale of Cupid and Psyche (first told by Apuleius in The Golden Ass).7 In classic folktale mode, the inexplicable taboo is a crucial part of the magical test, and Melior’s mysterious powers depend upon Partonope’s ignorance of her appearance. The romance plays on positive and negative perceptions of magic, and the possibility of interpreting ‘nigromancy’ as demonic. Partonope’s mother fears the potentially monstrous nature of her son’s beloved, placing her as ‘a þynge of ffeyre’ (5072) who has taken him through ‘þe deuyllys Enchauntemente’ (5056). Melior, by contrast, warns Partonope not to attempt to see her ‘Be crafte of Nygramansy’ , and her own magic is placed as beneficent and loving. Partonope’s mother does indeed practise ‘fals en-chawntement’ (5518), first giving her son an enchanted potion that causes him to become a ‘fole naturelle’ (5448) and plight his troth to the King of France’s niece, and later providing him with an inextinguishable lantern that shows him Melior’s countenance. It is intention and effect that distinguishes the arts of the two women: neither actually employs demonic magic. Only at this point in the narrative is the source of Melior’s magic revealed: her father, the Emperor of Constantinople, has had her schooled in the seven arts, medicine, divinity, and finally magic: ‘Then to Nygromancy sette I was, / Then I lerned Enchawntements / To knowe þe crafte of experimentes’ (5933–5). Her arts of illusion have all been effected ‘By þe wytte þat Gode haþe sente’ (5966). The apparent force of the consummation scene is now symbolically enacted: Partonope’s breaking of the taboo deprives Melior of ‘all þys connynge and all þys crafte’ (5976). Although her arts are so clearly defended, this central crisis of the romance is brought about by Melior’s ‘nygromancy’ , which occasions the suspicion of Partonope’s mother that her son’s beloved is a devil. The message of Partonope is complex and ambiguous. Melior’s active pursuit of the knight through enchantment places her as powerful agent of her own destiny. Yet the consummation with its accompanying test of secrecy leads to her loss of power: it is as if once she has succumbed to desire, she succumbs too to a more traditional gender balance, becoming the victim she has pretended to be. When, after a long series of testing adventures, Partonope is brought before Melior, the narrator emphasises her supernatural beauty: ‘Men seide she was an hevenly þing. / It were Impossible, thei seide, þrugh nature / Might be brought forþe suche a creature’ (11461–3). The convention, used, for instance, by Chaucer in his depiction of Emilye in the Knight’s Tale (1101), takes on new force in the context of Melior’s magical powers: she seems analogous to a creature of Faery. Yet we hear no more of her skill in ‘nigromancy’ . The ‘crafte’ of enchantment has brought about love, and allowed for the elaborated expression of the erotic in the first encounter of the lovers. By contrast, the narrator is silent concerning the pair’s wedding night: ‘in 7 See

Carver, The Protean Ass.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance what Ioy then they be. / But þis may not be declared for me, / Ne what her Ioy was, ne her delite’ (12186–8). The world of married love is one in which the enchantress’s arts are stripped away, and erotic embellishment is set aside. The status of ‘nigromancy’ is left uncertain: it is glamorous, but not sustainable within the final vision of social order.

Shape-Shifting and Enchantment Melior’s ‘nigromancy’ is problematised, but remains remarkable for its positive qualities. Her Christian virtue, on the other hand, is carefully defended. As the suspicion of Partonope’s mother suggests, the use of ‘nigromancy’ may be considerably more threatening. The motif of the treacherous mother-in-law or stepmother is repeatedly elaborated by the association of such figures with destructive magical arts. William of Palerne evokes in striking detail the rituals of ‘nigromancy’ in its depiction of Braunde, the wicked stepmother of prince Alphonse of Spain: her destructive art of shape-shifting, which has transformed her stepson into a wolf, is specifically set against the limited love-magic practised by Alisaundrine, and the material disguises of the lovers as a series of animals. The narrative cleverly ­creates suspense by describing without explanation the large wolf that seizes and runs off with William in the royal park; the missing opening section apparently related the intention of William’s evil uncle to poison his brother and infant nephew. The wolf ’s identity is only revealed once his kindly intentions are apparent in his care for the child, and his human anguish at William’s disappearance: ‘For reuliche gan he rore and rente al his hide, / and fret oft of þe erþe and fel doun on swowe, / and made þe most dool þat man miȝt divise’ (85–7). Now the narrator begins the tale of ‘how þat best þerwe bale was brouȝt out of kinde’: Werwolf was he non wox of kinde, ac komen was he of kun þat kud was ful nobul; for þe kud king of Spayne was kindely his fader. (107, 109–11) This is not a creature of the kind depicted in Marie de France’s Bisclavret, literally half-wolf, half-man, but a werewolf by enchantment. In Marie’s narrative, the werewolf is a natural and tragic figure, whose passage back to human form is barred by his fearful wife’s theft of his clothing, symbolic of civilised, human existence. In William of Palerne, by contrast, the werewolf is the victim of shape-­ shifting through learned magic, of the kind that Apuleius’ witch, Pamphile, practises. The family narrative of the werewolf parallels that of William: his plotting uncle is balanced by Braunde, who employs magic rather than poison. This romance too is concerned with the theme of grace, for the werewolf retains his noble nature and civilised qualities, rescuing and caring for William; ‘a werewolf ’ leads the emperor of Rome to discover the child; and ‘þat witty werwolf ’ (2204, 2212) later cares for the lovers, his exile thus contributing to the providential pattern, and the restoration of order and right rule. As in the Franklin’s Tale, generosity is transformative, for Alphonse’s love of William and his consistently ‘human’ behaviour brings about his own return to human form. 158

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Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’ Set against the notion of divine grace is forbidden intervention in the pattern of destiny, made possible by the practice of ‘nigromancy’ . While magic ultimately fails, and is absorbed into the beneficent providential plan, its effect is extreme and menacing. Braunde possesses forbidden learning: But lelliche þat ladi in ȝouþe hadde lerned miche schame, for al þe werk of wicchecraft wel ynouȝ che couȝþe, nede nadde ȝhe namore of nigramauncy to lere. Of coninge of wicchecraft wel ynouȝ ȝhe couȝde … (117–20) The terms used, ‘wicchecraft’ and ‘nigromauncy’ , directly contrast with the ‘charmes’ and ‘chantemens’ employed later by Alisaundrine (654), and indicate a clear differentiation between white and black, protective and destructive magic. The English redactor points up this distinction with his repeated emphasis on witchcraft and ‘nigromancy’ , by contrast to the briefer French reference to ‘sorceries et ingremance’ , although the French is clear about the evil nature of Braunde’s knowledge: ‘engien et mal’ (287–8). Braunde’s identity as princess of Portugal, and her husband’s as king of Spain, both countries with access to Arabic learning, make realistic the possibility of her necromantic studies. While Braunde’s learning and ‘craft’ (146) are emphasised, however, there is no reference to the summoning of demons. She might, indeed, be seen as misusing natural magic by transforming the child into a wolf through the concoction of a magical ointment: A noynement anon sche made of so gret strengþe bi enchaunmens of charmes – þat euel chaunche hire tide! þat whan þat womman þerwiþ hadde þat worli child ones wel anointed, þe child wel al abowte, he wex to a werwolf wiȝtly þerafter, al þe making of man so mysse hadde ȝhe schaped. (136–41) Again the detail of magic is pointed up in the English: the French describes the ointment and its strength (301–3) but does not include the reference to ‘enchaunmens of charmes’ . This is vividly realised magic that depends not simply on illwishing but on learned use of a magical recipe, concocted in the manner suggested by classical handbooks, manuals of natural magic such as Picatrix, or more dubious books of necromancy that combine physical and astrological rituals with the conjuring of demons. The phrase ‘bi enchaunmens of charmes’ indicates special­ ised rituals of the kind described in collections of spells, but whether or not these conjure demons is not specified. Ointments, as we have seen in Beves and Yvain, are repeatedly associated with transformation, but in these works, such recipes are employed beneficially as remedies, as they are in the leechbooks. Braunde, by contrast, abuses her skill. Her cursed nature is emphasised. The romance may reflect a fear of feminine learning, but its focus is on the destructive, extreme use of the ingredients of natural magic rather than on the summoning of demons. It is malicious intention and misdirection of learning that characterise ‘nigromancy’ . The practical, learned quality of Braunde’s abilities is still clearer in the account of her restoration of Alphonse to his true form. On seeing the werewolf, the King 159

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance of Spain recalls tales that his second wife, ‘a ful loveli lady … / corteys and covenabul and lettered at þe best’ (4088–9), transformed his son into a wolf through ‘charmes and enchantmens’ (4104). If she is indeed so ‘witti’ in ‘wicchecraft’ , argues William, ‘sche can with hire connyng and hire queynt charmes / make him to man aȝen’ (4136–7). The penalty of burning with which Braunde is threatened is typical of romance punishments but also coincides with Continental and early English laws against witchcraft, and with the classification of magic practised against a member of the royal family as treason, punishable by death. Under such duress, Braunde agrees to come to ‘hele’ the werewolf with her ‘queynt werkes’ (4254). The account of Alphonse’s healing follows the French closely (see Guillaume de Palerne, 7728–51), the emphasis practical rather than on witchcraft. She makes material preparations, bringing ‘al þat bihoved’ (4282), and in a chamber alone with the werewolf, employs both a ring and a book, the accoutrements that nonfictional writings on magic tend to emphasise. Her procedure follows the kind of ritual magic depicted in handbooks of magical recipes: þan rauȝt sche forþ a ring, a riche and a nobul; þe ston þat þeron was stiȝt was of so stif vertu, þat never man upon mold miȝt it him on have, ne schuld he with wicchecraft be wicched nevermore, ne persche with no poysoun, ne purliche envenomed, ne wrongli schuld he wive þat it in wold hadde. þat riche ring ful redily with a red silk þrede þe quen bond als blive aboute þe wolwes neck. Seþe feiþli of a forcer a fair bok sche rauȝt, and radde þeron redli riȝt a long while, so þat sche made him to man in þat mene while … (4424–34) The ring with its gem of power to ward off a range of dangers – enchantment, poison and, ironically in this romance, ill-fated marriage – belongs within the tradition of protective natural magic. The stone is bound about the wolf ’s neck, a carefully constructed ligature, while the spell is read from a precious book kept safely in a casket. The book is tantalising: is it a volume of natural magic, or a more sinister collection of recipes that conjure demons? Again we are left uncertain, and the emphasis is placed elsewhere. The practice of magic here becomes part of a wonderfully prosaic set of rituals: it is a matter of ointments, rings and books, not the summoning of demons, although the spells may be assumed to work through such powers. Yet the effects of this practical ‘nigromancy’ are extreme, transforming man to beast and back again. The werewolf now appears second to none but William in fairness, his nobility affirmed by his sense of shame at his nakedness. The queen’s redemption is marked both by her regard for this and her preparation of a warm bath, a healing, natural remedy. Braunde’s plea for forgiveness and mercy following her confrontation with Alphonse recognises the failure of magic in the face of divine providence: ‘ich forschop þe þanne / in þise wise to a werwolf and wend þe to spille; / but god wold nouȝt þat þou were lorne’ (4394–6). Her intervention is powerful and transformative in extremely negative ways, but is, 160

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Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’ finally, limited, and she herself is redeemed. The final message is repentance and forgiveness. William of Palerne is unusual in its combination of the motif of the werewolf with that of ‘nigromancy’ used to effect a shape-shifting enchantment. This latter motif most often figures in relation to women, usually princesses, who have been the victim of ill will, particularly of their jealous stepmothers. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale might but does not employ this motif, as Gower’s version of the same story, the Tale of Florent, demonstrates. The tale is told in Book I of the Confessio Amantis as an example of obedience in love. Here, the protagonist, Florent, sets out on a quest designed as revenge by the grandmother of a knight whom he has killed: he must find the answer to the question of ‘What alle wommen most desire’ (I, 1481). As in Chaucer’s narrative, the answer that all women wish to be ‘soverein of mannes love’ (I, 1609) is provided by a hideous old hag. Gower ­revels in the comic horror of her appearance: she is ‘The lothlieste what / That evere man caste on his yhe’ (I, 1676–7), with squat nose, small eyes, wet hanging cheeks, shrunken lips, short neck and thick body. Florent is marvellously absolved from his ‘penance’ of marrying her, however, when he turns to see that ‘a lady lay him by / Of eyhtetiene wynter age, / Which was the faireste of visage / That evere in al this world he syh’ (1802–5). Unlike Chaucer, Gower is not content to portray the transformation as a mysterious aspect of the hag’s magic. Rather, he reveals that by relinquishing sovereignty to the lady, Florent has liberated her from enchantment: For of this word that ye now sein, That ye have mad me soverein, Mi destine is overpassed, That nevere hierafter schal be lassed Mi beaute, which that I now have … The kinges dowhter of Cizile I am, and fell bot siththe awhile, As I was with my fader late, That my Stepmoder for an hate, Which toward me sche hath begonne, Forschop me, til I hadde wonne The love and sovereinete Of what knyht that in his degre Alle othre passeth of good name. (I, 1833–7, 1841–9) The transformation is crucial to the story, but we hear no detail of how the original shape-shifting is effected: the emphasis is on the encounter with the knight and the fulfilling of the supposedly impossible condition. For Genius, the story proves that obedient service in love will be rewarded. The plot recurs in the late The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, a version of which occurs in the Percy manuscript as The Marriage of Sir Gawain. Here the loathly lady turns out to be the sister of Sir Gromer Somer Jour, who has challenged Arthur at the start. She is enchanted until she gains sovereignty over Gawain, ‘the best of Englond’ , in marriage: 161

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance For I was shapen by nigramancy, With my stepdame, God have on her mercy, And by enchauntement … Thus was I disformid …8 The collocation of ‘nigramancy’ , ‘enchantement’ and ‘disformid’ (like Gower’s ‘­forschop’) is revealing: ‘nigromancy’ affords the power to misshape both body and destiny. The later Marriage of Sir Gawain employs the term ‘witched’ .9 A related tale, The Carl of Carlisle, also found in the Percy folio, interweaves this motif with the beheading motif of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: on having his head struck off by Gawain, the Carl is delivered from ‘false witchcraft’: ‘By nigromancé thus was I shapen. ’10 No reasons, however, are given for his transformation into a monstrous giant figure (who keeps a savage bull, boar, lion and bear as pets) or for the condition of his release. The linking of a condition or taboo to some sort of restoration is an archetypal romance theme: in Chrétien’s Le Conte du Graal, were Perceval to have asked the appropriate question at the Grail Castle, the Fisher King’s wounds would have been healed and his waste lands restored. In the Conte du Graal and its analogues, however, the wound and the condition for healing are part of the enigmatic but beneficent pattern of providence, whereas in stories of the enchanted lady or knight, as the words of Gower’s lady make clear, the shapeshifting of a malevolent individual effects an unwelcome, physical intervention in destiny.

The Witch: Medea Repeatedly, ‘nigromancy’ involves power over the body, just as natural magic does, but the power is extreme and almost always harmful. Repeatedly too, practitioners of black magic are female, and their shape-shifting powers recall the archetypal figure of the strix and the classical enchantresses. Medea is a paradigm for the human sorceress or witch, whereas Circe is evoked most by the otherworldly enchantresses of medieval romance, who also combine beauty and sorcery. While the classical Medea, like Circe, has divine origins as granddaughter of the sun, she is less conspicuously otherworldly, for as a Colchian and eventually an exile, she does not inhabit her own separate land. She is usually treated as a human witch in 8 The

Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell, in Middle English Verse Romances, ed. Sands, pp. 323–47: ll. 691–9. The work has no extant source but treats the same folktale material as that used by Chaucer and Gower. It dates to the mid-fifteenth century and exists in a single manuscript. 9 The Marriage of Sir Gawain, in Sir Gawain: Eleven Romances and Tales, ed. Thomas Hahn, TEAMS (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1995), pp. 359–71: l. 179. This adaptation of The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell in ballad form dates to the sixteenth century and is found solely in the Percy Folio. For detailed discussion of this group of romances, see Hahn’s edtion. 10 The Carl of Carlisle, in Sir Gawain, ed. Hahn, pp. 373–91: l. 405. The work dates to the midseventeenth century and is based on an earlier tail-rhyme romance, Sir Gawain and the Carl of Carlisle (c. 1400); it is found solely in the Percy Folio.


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Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’ medieval writing, which is influenced most by Ovid’s dual perspective on Medea as lamenting, betrayed woman and nefarious sorceress.11 The interweaving of Medea’s guilt and victimisation accompanies the motif of fragmentation of different kinds. All medieval portrayals of Medea depict her as a powerful sorceress. Her powers are in part natural: she employs herbs and plants to concoct her magical drugs. She is associated with the sun, a figure of special strength, intelligence and cunning, who has power over dragons and the gift of flight: medieval illustrators repeatedly give Medea wings, to depict her journey in search of magical herbs.12 Yet she is also the exiled princess of Colchis, and an abandoned lover. Her story is told by Benoît de Sainte-Maure in his Roman de Troie in order to complement the story of Helen and Paris, along with the tragic tales of Achilles and Polyxena, and Troilus and Briseida. In the Alliterative Troy Book and in Lydgate’s Troy Book, although Medea’s end is portrayed as deserved, she is innocent, betrayed by the lover whom she trusts. Lydgate’s Fall of Princes, indeed, presents her as the model of womanhood, and Medea’s learning in magic may figure as a positive, courtly attribute that contributes to this paradigm. The arts of Benoît’s Medea are not presented as intrinsically evil, as they are by Seneca: rather, this Medea is both learned enchantress and beautiful romance lady. Her gifts to Jason, of an ointment that protects against fire and a magic ring, are entirely consistent with positive, protective magic. Guido da Colonne, by contrast, takes a more critical perspective in arguing that Medea cannot have had the power over sun and stars with which she is credited, for this belongs only to God. Guido’s conservative and sceptical stance on magic is compatible with his deeply suspicious and critical attitude towards women: his Medea is an emblem of ‘female voluptuousness and immorality’ .13 Boccaccio in his Genealogia deorum gentilium is more measured: he accepts Medea’s protective magic but condemns the rejuvenation of Aeson, a dramatic intervention in destiny of a prohibited kind.14 In the fifteenth-century prose romance The Sege of Troy, as Cooper notes, Medea’s arts include ‘knowing of al the sciences, nigromancy, magyk, sorcery, and other enchauntementes, that nowe be forbode’ .15 The description nicely blends the attractive and the forbidden in its equation of the now-prohibited magical arts with ‘beute of persone’ . Christine de Pisan’s historical poem, the Mutacion de Fortune, similarly depicts Medea as wise and learned in the seven arts, and especially in magic: ‘Estudioit plus en magique / Qu’en la science de logique. / Si en avoit l’experience / Et en sot toute 11 Ruth

Morse in Medieval Medea offers a full and wide-ranging discussion of medieval writings about Medea, to which the following is indebted. 12 See, for instance, Morse, Medieval Medea, plate 2, BNf. MS 331, fol. 132. 13 Morse, Medieval Medea, p. 190. 14 Giovanni Boccaccio, Genealogia Deorum Gentilium (Venice, 1547), discussed in Morse, Medieval Medea, pp. 199–208. 15 Cooper, The English Romance in Time, p. 161; see The Siege of Troy, ed. Friedrich Brie, in ‘Zwei mittelenglische Prosaromane: The Sege of Thebes and The Sege of Troy’ , Anglia 130 (1913), pp. 40–52, 269–85: p. 274.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance la science. ’ Despite her knowledge (‘science’), however, she falls victim to lovemadness.16 It is striking that, despite the lively dialogue surrounding magic more generally in his œuvre, Chaucer does not elaborate Medea’s sorcery in the Legend of Good Women. This Medea is certainly learned: she is ‘so wis and fayr / That fayrer say there nevere man with ye’ , and the argument she sets forth to Jason is declared ‘from poynt to poynt’ , its conclusion clear, that ‘no creature / Save only she myghte his lyf assure’ (1599–1600, 1630, 1632–3). Of her magic, however, we hear nothing but its effect: For she hath taught him how he shal nat fayle The fles to wynne and stynten his batayle; And saved hym hys lyf and his honour; And gat hym a name ryght as a conquerour, Ryght thourgh the sleyghte of hire enchauntement. (1646–50) Chaucer relates Medea’s flight, betrayal by Jason, abandonment and lament, but for all else the reader is directed to Ovid. The power of magic, like revenge, renders Medea an awkward victim, and in this pageant of love’s victims, it is reduced to ‘sleyghte’ , while her violence is written out altogether. The Book of the Duchess identifies Medea negatively, as ‘dampned … that slough hir children for Jasoun’ , a victim of the tragic folly of love (725–7). In The House of Fame she figures both as a victim of love (401) and among Chaucer’s recital of magicians, along with Circe and Calypso.17 That her arts go so far beyond the ‘magik naturel’ of clerks, reaching into the sphere of ‘nigromancy’ , may explain Chaucer’s reticence concerning Medea. Most extended among English versions of the Medea story, including in its detailed treatment of magic, is that of Gower in Book V of the Confessio Amantis. The tale is used to exemplify perjury, which is treated as a branch of covetousness, the servant of Avarice. In the same book are recounted other stories of classical women: Ariadne, Philomela and Procne, Ino and Helen, and betrayal in love is repeatedly linked to political betrayal. Gower demonstrates considerable interest in Medea’s practice of magic, elaborating Ovid’s and Benoît’s narratives, while employing the structures of romance to portray her as victim of love. Jason is the medieval knight urged on to adventure and glory, who longs ‘To se the strange regiouns / And knowe the condiciouns / Of othre Marches’ (V, 3283–5). The vocabulary is that of chivalry, courtesy, and love, and Medea is the swooning, courtly lady.

16 Christine

de Pisan, Le Livre de la Mutacion de Fortune, ed. Suzanne Solente, 4 vols, Société des anciens textes français (Paris: Picard, 1959–66), vol. 3, ll. 14305–8, and see Morse’s discussion of Christine, Medieval Medea, pp. 94–102. 17 Morse suggests that she figures as a practitioner of natural magic, but it is ‘clerkes’ who know ‘magik naturel’ in this passage, while Medea seems to belong to the ‘charmeresses’ and ‘sorceresses’ described earlier: Medieval Medea, p. 225.


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Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’ Morse argues that ‘consistent with Gower’s playing down of Medea’s own decisiveness, her magic is merely marvellous, described “for the novellerie” (V, 3955)’ .18 Yet this ‘novellerie’ is magic of a complex, elaborated kind, and it places Medea as a powerful practitioner of ‘nigromancy’ . The ring she gives to Jason contains a ‘Ston … worth al other thing’ (3562) with several protective qualities: no peril or villain can harm the wearer; the ring cannot be drowned, quenches fire, and daunts wild beasts. Most strikingly, ‘if a man wol ben unsein, / Withinne his hond hold clos the Ston, / And he mai invisible gon’ (3572–4). The gift of the ring, so like that offered Yvain by Laudine, marks Medea as a romance lady with her own agency, empowered by a knowledge of natural magic. While Laudine does not otherwise practise magic, however, Medea is swiftly characterised by Gower as a ‘nigromancer’ of the most threatening kind. Use of the ring is to be combined with sacrifice to the gods, and with a ‘hevenely figure’ , perhaps an image, which in Gower’s narrative merges with the magical writings described by Benoît: it ‘al be charme and be conjure / Was wroght, and ek it was thurgh write / With names’ (3580–2). The term ‘conjure’ suggests the summoning of demons, and the writing is to be read at the sacrifice made by Medea to the gods, a detail that emphasises the pagan context: the accomplishment of magic depends upon appeasing the spirit world. Gower’s later use of the term ‘enchantement’ (3614) also gestures at the use of words. Jason is subsequently given an ointment, which like the ring has conventional medicomagical, protective properties, ‘ther was fyr ne venym non / That scholde fastnen him upon, / Whan that he were enoynt withal’ (3597–9), and a marvellous ‘glu’ to stop the mouths of the fire-blowing oxen (3612). Thus Medea’s arts combine elements typical of natural magic (ring, ointment and glue) and demonic magic (the image with its names and reference to conjuring demons, and the sacrifice to pagan gods). All happens as Medea decrees, and Gower is emphatic that only the ‘vertu’ (3717) of the magic has preserved Jason. Yet this Medea also fulfils the role of spectator typical of the romance lady: without the witch’s power of flight that some manuscripts depict her as possessing, she can only wait and watch Jason’s return by boat with the golden fleece: ‘If that sche hadde winges tuo, / Sche wolde have flowe unto him tho’ (3749–50). Medea’s rejuvenation of Eson through ‘art magique’ (3947) lies at the heart of Gower’s narrative, and again reflects her great love for Jason. But it is at this point that Medea shifts wholly from vulnerable lady to sinister sorceress, endowed with clearly supernatural powers and associated with the pagan gods, particularly Hecate. Gower follows Ovid’s narrative in the Metamorphoses closely, to recount Medea’s excursion at midnight, but adds a simile indicative of his own moral judgement, ‘Sche glod forth as an Addre doth’ (3967). Medea’s actions echo the ­rituals of magical recipes, as barefoot she turns and bows three times, wets her hair and three times calls to the elements and to Hecate, ‘goddesse of Sorcerie’ (3982), a detail that again places her magic as conjuring demons. Medea now seems very far from the lady of romance, as she drives a chariot drawn by dragons through the air to gather the herbs of Olympus, and all she needs ‘in Crete and in Thessaile’ (4018), 18 Morse,

Medieval Medea, p. 223.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance land of witches. In concocting the elixir of youth, she exhibits another characteristic aspect of magical practice: she ‘made hirselven invisible, / As sche that was with Air enclosed’ (4028–9). This magic is explicitly a pagan ‘sacrifice’ (4050), and Gower uses Ovid’s details of Medea’s extensive rituals: building altars to Juvente and to Hecate, ‘the goddesse / Of art magique and the maistresse’ (4035–6), adorning them with herbs, sacrificing a black ram, mixing its blood with warm milk and honey, and calling upon the gods of the underworld, Pluto and Proserpina. Gower also adds to the narrative of the Metamorphoses an extensive passage (4064–4114) emphasising the transformation of Medea: Sche semeth faie and no womman; For with the craftes that sche can Sche was, as who seith, a goddesse, And what hir liste, more or lesse, Sche dede, in bokes as we finde … (4105–10) For Ovid, Medea is of the gods; for Gower, it is the practice of magic that renders her supernatural. The power of words is again emphasised when she puts Eson to sleep ‘with spellinge of hir charmes’ (4067). Gower exploits the conventions of magical practice to describe a series of rituals that draw on both natural and demonic powers. As well as speaking and making signs, Medea casts herbs on Eson, sacrifices a ram and cock (often used in magical recipes), rushes three times around Eson with a blazing brand, thrice drawing a circle of water, and twice one of sulphuric fire, as well as ‘many an other thing … noght writen in this stede’ (4095–6). The vivid detail renders the magical rituals frighteningly real, while the reference to other aspects not included means that the description cannot be read as presenting an actual recipe. Medea’s savage power is further proven by the fire that descends from the skies. Through its flames, she seems transformed: ‘Ther was no beste which goth oute / More wylde than sche semeth ther: / Aboute hir schuldres hyng hir her, / As thogh sche were oute of hir mynde / And torned in an other kynde’ (4080–4). The scene plays on a recurrent motif of the Confessio: the transformation of man into beast through the unleashing of savage desires. This is reflected in Medea’s strange bestial language: ‘Sche made many a wonder soun, / Somtime lich unto the cock, / Somtime unto the Laverock, / Somtime kacleth as a Hen, / Somtime spekth as don the men’ (4098–102). It is as ‘hir jargoun strangeth’ that she comes to seem shifted in shape herself, ‘faie and no womman’ , ‘a goddesse’ (4103–7). Her powers are written on her own body. Yet her learning remains crucial, and Gower plays on the notion of natural healing magic, following Ovid to recount the detail of the ‘medicine … of jus, of water and of blod’ (4119–20) that Medea prepares in her cauldron under a new moon. The scene seems to look forward to the horrid brew concocted by the witches in Macbeth, who have the powers to cause illness and to divine the future, but the ingredients described by Gower suggest a more positive kind of sympathetic magic associated with growth, transformation and age. The cauldron boils to show ‘spume whyt’; Medea adds ‘rynde and rote, / And sed and flour that was for bote, / With many an herbe and many a ston’ (4122–5); 166

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Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’ finally serpent’s scales and adder’s skin (both associated with renewal), parts of horned owl and raven (birds linked to wisdom and age), the bowel of a sea wolf and the traditional branch of olive. This begins to flourish in the ‘vertu’ of the potion, as does the ground when the ‘medicine’ drops on it (4146, 4154). Medea wounds Eson so that the old blood may flow out, to be replaced in his veins by this ‘beste jus’ of herbs, with the result that he seems merely twenty years old, ‘lich unto the freisshe Maii’ (4162, 4172). The power of the scene lies in its realistic, material detail and in the wondrous miracle of the elixir of immortality (also evoked in the treatment of alchemy in Book IV) – and Gower revels in it. To turn age into youth is a ‘thing non other womman couthe’ (4184), proving Medea’s great love as well as her great power. The revenge of the end, a crucial element in the pattern of betrayal explored in Book V, comes as a shock: it is quickly told, with none of the earlier relish in the practice of magic. Little detail is offered concerning the mantle of cloth of gold that ‘Medea with hire art hath wroght’ (4200) for Jason’s new wife Creusa, whose death is swift: ‘whan that yonge freisshe queene / That mantel lappeth hire aboute, / Anon therof the fyr sprong oute / And brente hir bothe fleissh and bon’ (4206–9). We hear still less of Medea’s murder of the children: ‘With that sche bothe his Sones slouh / Before his yhe’ (4215–6). Her escape from Jason’s sword is sudden: ‘Bot farewel, sche was ago / Unto Pallas the Court above’ , and by linking Medea to Pallas Athene (rather than Hecate), Gower returns to the earlier emphasis on Medea’s wisdom. The narrative returns too to the tragedy of Jason’s betrayal of Medea: ‘Wher as sche pleigneth upon love, / As sche that was with that goddesse, / And he was left in gret destresse’ (4218–22). The final lesson concerns the dangers of betrayal in love. In Medea the roles of vulnerable feminine spectator, wise and learned practitioner of natural magic and powerful ‘nigromancer’ merge, and the combination of human, bestial and supernatural render her a terrifying example of the wronged woman. The emphasis and extent of detail in the earlier parts of the narrative suggest that the practices of protective, medicinal and demonic magic are of special interest to Gower, as do his discussions of magic elsewhere in the Confessio. Magic is transformative: it allows for the physical possibility of metamorphosis, the leitmotif of the Confessio. While the natural magic of alchemy and astrology is treated positively, as a civilising force and an appropriate element of the education of a prince, however, the learned art of ‘nigromancy’ is dangerous and may affect the practitioner and those practised upon in savage and violent ways. Such magic can seem to transform those who use it into supernatural beings, but it can also render them inhuman and bestial, removing them from the ordering, ethical structures of the courtly world. The intersection of types – the courtly lady versed in white magic and the sinister practitioner of black magic – that characterises medieval portrayals of Medea is full of potential for romance writers. Chrétien plays with this paradigm in his romance Cligés, an anti-Tristan narrative that counters the adultery of Tristan and Yseut with the tale of the pure love of Cligés, grandson of Alexander, and Fenice, the wife of his uncle Alis, who has gained the throne of Constantinople. Chrétien explicitly evokes Medea in his depiction of Fenice’s nursemaid and witch Thessala 167

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance (who also finds a parallel in Yseut’s maid Brangien): she ‘savoit molt de nigromance’ (‘was skilled in necromancy’) and ‘Danchantemanz et de charaies / Bien esprovees et veraies / Plus c’onques Medea n’an sot’ (‘more familiar with true and proven spells and enchantments than Medea’).19 Her name is indicative: ‘ele fu de Tessalle nee, / Ou sont feites les deablies, / Anseigniees et establies. / Les fames qui el païs sont / Et charmes et charaies font’ (‘she had been born in Thessaly, where diabolical enchantments flourish and are taught. The women of this land practise magic spells and bewitchments’ , 2965–8; 159). Despite these references to demonic magic, however, Thessala’s arts are left ambiguous, and are most of all medical, involving transformative power over the body: in offering to cure her lady Fenice of love-sickness she boasts of her ability to remedy dropsy, gout, quinsy and asthma, read urine and take the pulse. The narrative functions in comic counterpoint to the Tristan story: the potion prepared by Thessala does not inspire love but effects a different kind of binding magic, which acts to preserve Fenice from the emperor by creating the illusion that he has made love to her: ‘ja tant n’iert ansamble o lui / Qu’ausi ne puisse estre a seür / Con s’antre aus deus avoit un mur’ (‘no matter how often she is with him she will be as safe as if there were a wall between them’ , 3162–4; 161). The potion, presented by Cligés and drunk from a crystal cup that echoes its marvellous quality, takes powerful, binding effect on the emperor’s entire body on the wedding night: ‘Molt fu la poisons bien confite / Qui si le travaille et demainne’ (‘What a well-mixed potion to overwhelm and dominate him so fully!’ , 3322–3; 163). The second potion concocted by Thessala is more disturbing. Like that prepared by Friar Laurence in Romeo and Juliet, it gives Fenice the appearance of death so that she will be able to escape with Cligés. Thessala’s medico-magical powers combine with the marvellous technology of the artisan John, who constructs Fenice’s tomb and the tower with its cunningly hidden apartments and decorated underground room complete with baths and pipes of hot water. The scene of Fenice’s supposed death is grotesquely anti-romantic, combining horror and black comedy. Chrétien describes with much physical detail Fenice’s refusal to eat or drink, so that she becomes ‘pale et perse’ (‘pale and livid’ , 5651; 193), and Thessala’s use of the urine of a dying woman to deceive the physicians, her mixing of the potion, and its effects on Fenice: ‘Et lors des qu’ele l’ot beüe, / Li est troblee la veüe, / Et a le vis si pale et blanc / Con s’ele eüst perdu le sanc, / Ne pié ne main ne remeüst, / Que vive escorchier la deüst’ (‘As soon as she had swallowed it, her vision blurred, her face became pale and white as if she had lost her blood. She could not have moved foot or hand if they had flayed her alive’ , 5707–12; 193). The scene unfolds through an extraordinary contrast of Thessala’s transformative, binding, feminine medical magic with violent, invasive, male medical practice. The most learned of the three doctors summoned from (appropriately) Salerno is able to detect life in Fenice, and attempts of the three to resuscitate her are luridly depicted: threats 19 Chrétien

de Troyes, Cligés, ed. Mario Roques, Les Romans de Chrétien de Troyes II, Les Classiques français du Moyen Age (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1957), ll. 2964, 2989–91; Cligés, in Arthurian Romances, trans. Kibler, pp. 123–205: p. 159. Subsequent references to Cligés are to this edition and translation, cited by line and page number respectively. The romance was written c. 1176.


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Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’ and cajolement are replaced by beating and lacerating her, and finally by pouring boiling lead on her hands (196). As Fenice is about to be grilled over the fire, the ladies burst in, throwing the doctors from the windows, and Thessala’s skills heal Fenice’s wounded body through the application of a ‘molt precïeus oignemant’ (‘most precious ointment’ , 5981; 197). The body threatened with ravishment and broken by men is kept inviolate and made whole by women. Thessala’s arts are Medea-like but limited: this ‘nigromancy’ involves illusion, physical binding and healing, but does not employ demons, and the stakes are not actual life and death. Her deceptive abilities to preserve chastity, protect through death-like sleep, and restore health seem sinister but are ultimately positive, life- and love-enhancing, and are starkly contrasted with the violent, invasive medicine of the doctors. The detailed medical narrative complicates and renders ambiguous what first seems a grotesque parody of love martyrdom. Magic that hovers between medicine and ‘nigromancy’ plays a prominent role in the celebration of the passion and beauty of the young lovers, preserved by magical means, who finish by ruling the country after the emperor’s death. The story ends with a description of how all future emperors keep their wives prisoner, fearful of their betrayal. Through the strix figure of Thessala, youth, desire, deception and women triumph in this often edgily comic romance. The most powerful sorceresses of romance tend to be given otherworldly associations. Human practitioners are treated with suspicion, for their transformative arts are dangerous. Enchantment, sorcery, witchcraft, ‘nigromancy’: all these terms seem to be employed interchangeably, and their connotations are largely negative, although the demonic is not specified. ‘Nigromancy’ is most frequently practised by women in romance, and its arts can offer a powerful means of agency, although this association also indicates unease over feminine learning. The few romances in which black magic is treated as beneficent remain ambiguous: Melior’s ‘nigromancy’ in Partonope of Blois, uniquely positive, is still the catalyst for loss and conflict; Chrétien’s Thessala is connected to the classical strix and to Medea, though her arts are medicinal, and the parodic quality of this work creates unease. At the other end of the spectrum, Medea herself, with her Titan ancestry, hovers on the edge of the otherworld and takes ‘nigromancy’ to its dangerous limits and beyond. Yet there is ambiguity here too. In reworking classical legend but employing the structures of romance, Gower allows the demonic and pagan associations of magic to become explicit, but still combines violence and horror with a sense of Medea’s learning and vulnerability.

Clerical Arts: Magicians and Alchemists The figure of the male sorcerer is, by contrast, rare in romance, although the clerical ‘nigromancien’ , from whom the clerk in the Franklin’s Tale is so carefully distanced, is a familiar figure in other discourses. The story of the Fair Unknown, retold in many forms in a number of languages, offers the most prominent example of the male practice of ‘nigromancy’ . Chrétien’s Erec et Enide, which uses elements of this story type, plays with but subverts the idea of the powerful enchanter 169

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance of mysterious provenance in the figure of Maboagrain, who inhabits an otherworld characterised by marvellous technology.20 Erec is framed by strange, potentially otherworldly adventure: it begins with the hunt of the white stag, which leads into Erec’s winning of Enide, and concludes with enigmatic Joie de la Court episode, after which Erec is restored to his lands and chivalric identity. In this final sequence, Erec arrives at King Evrain’s castle, which is suggestively set apart by the deep stream and new wall surrounding it, and which he learns is the site of ‘molt mal trespas’ (‘very evil ritual’).21 Undeterred, Erec is led by Evrain to a paradisal garden: El vergier n’avoit an viron mur ne paliz, se de l’air non; mes de l’air est de totes parz par nigromance clos li jarz, si que riens antrer n’i pooit, se par un seul leu n’i antroit, ne que s’il fust toz clos de fer. (5689–95) Around the garden the only wall or palisade was one of air; yet by black magic the garden was enclosed on all sides with air as though it were ringed with iron, so that nothing could enter except at one single place. (107) The enclosed garden is more directly placed as magical than the spring in Broceliande. Yet the wall made of air seems present mainly as a feature of marvellous technology: it creates a sense of strangeness and wonder, but is ultimately less disturbing than the sight within of many heads of knights who have failed to sound the horn. We assume that Maboagrain, whom Erec defeats, has shaped this enchantment, but as so often in Chrétien, the sens turns out to be quite other than the matière, when Maboagrain is revealed to be the victim of enchantment, bound to his lady until defeated in single combat, ‘par ce me cuida a delivre, / toz les jorz que j’eüsse a vivre, / avoec li tenir an prison’ (‘Thus she thought to keep me all the days of my life with her: completely in her power, in prison’ , 6046–7; 112). The sound of the horn liberates Maboagrain, creating literal ‘joie’ , even for the lady, who is discovered to be Enide’s cousin – and we hear no more of the wall shaped by magical arts. The adventure is compelling for its strange, apparently otherworldly aspects – the setting of the walled, paradisal garden and the mysterious custom of the horn; and although we are offered a resolution, this ‘nigromance’ remains hauntingly unexplained. A very differently elaborated narrative of this adventure occurs in the fourteenth-century redaction of the Fair Unknown story attributed to Thomas Chestre, 20 On

the relation between Erec et Enide and the Fair Unknown story type, see Claude Luttrell, The Creation of the First Arthurian Romance: A Quest (London: Edward Arnold, 1974). Chrétien’s romance dates to c. 1170. 21 Chrétien de Troyes, Erec et Enide, ed. Mario Roques, Les Romans de Chrétien de Troyes I, Les Classiques français du Moyen Age (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1981), l. 5374; Erec and Enide, in Arthurian Romances, trans. Carroll, pp. 37–122: p. 103. Subsequent references to Erec et Enide are to this edition and translation, cited by line and page numbers respectively.


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Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’ Lybeaus Desconus.22 The hero, Guinglain, an illegitimate son of Sir Gawain who knows only his mother’s nickname for him, ‘Bewfys’ (‘Fair Son’), arrives at Arthur’s court to be knighted and takes up the quest to rescue the imprisoned Lady of Synadoun; the story ends with their wedding. The romance is structured around the motif of otherworldly or monstrous challenge: the eponymous hero must defeat two giants, one red, one black, in order to rescue a maiden; then fight his way into the mysterious Île de Ore, inhabited by the Dame d’Amour, a powerful enchantress whose explicitly faery magic contrasts with the ‘nigromancy’ of the two clerks who have enchanted the Lady of Synadoun. The episode interweaves the folk motifs of the magical condition and transformation into bestial form, but these enchantments are shaped by clerical magicians rather than by otherworldly figures, as the steward of the castle, Sir Lambard, makes clear in response to Lybeaus’ question of who has imprisoned the Lady of Synadoun:23 ‘Nay syr, knyȝt ys he non, Be God and be Seynt Jon! Þat dorst away her lede: Two clerkes beþ her fon, Well fals of flessch and bon, Þat haueþ y-do þys dede. Hyt beþ men of maystrye, Clerkes of nygremansye, Hare artes for-to rede. ’ (1687–95) The brothers Yrayn and Maboun (whose names echo those of Chrétien’s Evrain and Maboagrain) are emphatically not chivalric, nor are they otherworldly beings. Rather they have gained the knowledge of ‘fayerye’ through learning in magic. They create what seems an otherworld complete with the sort of marvellous technology described by Chrétien: ‘A paleys queynte of gynne: / Þer nys knȝt ne baroun / Wyth herte harde as lyoun, / Þat þorste come þer-inne. / Hyt ys be nygremauncye / Y-makeþ of fayrye’ (1701–6). Only the Lady’s cries from their ‘turmentrye’ and ‘vylanye’ may be heard (1714–5). The effects of ‘nigromancy’ are indeed striking: a bright fire burns in the hall, where Lybeaus sees ‘trompes, schalmuses’ and ‘menstrales y-clodeþ yn palle’ , lit by torches. Music complements the precious appearance of the hall, with its rich painting, pillars of jasper and fine crystal, brass doors, and glass windows that ‘Florysseþ wyth jmagerye’ (1797), 22 Lybeaus

dates to the late fourteenth century and exists in five manuscripts, a reflection of the popularity of the story. Thomas perhaps adapted the late twelfth-century version of Renaud de Beaujeu’s romance Li Biaus Descouneüs (Le Bel Inconnu), the first half of which is closely related to Lybeaus, but follows an alternative sequence of adventures and treats the hero’s love affairs very differently: see Renaud de Beaujeu, Le Bel Inconnu, ed. Michèle Perret, trans. Michèle Perret and Isabelle Weil, Champion Classiques, Série ‘Moyen Age’ (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2003). He may also have drawn on Chrétien’s Erec et Enide. It is also possible that Thomas knew a cognate AngloNorman version of the story, now lost, that differently combined motifs and episodes. 23 Lybeaus Desconus, ed. M. Mills, Early English Text Society 261 (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), Cotton MS, ll. 1424–5, 1431–3. Subsequent references to Lybeaus Desconus are to this edition, cited by line number..


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance but as well as the sounds of ‘harpe, fydele and rote, / Orgenes and mery note … sytole and sawtrye’ (1777–80), doors and windows are beaten thunderously, stones fall from the walls, and the hall seems ready to split asunder. The combination of magic and minstrels recalls the House of Fame, while the thunder and earthquake echo the adventure of the Perilous Bed, which originates in Le Conte du Graal and is found in various Arthurian romances.24 Yet the enchantments are also limited: the clerks do not obviously use supernatural means in fighting, and as Maboun falls, wounded, the narrator comments, ‘Þo halp hym naȝt hys armys, / Hys chauntement ne hys charmys’ (1900–1). Lybeaus kills Maboun and runs Yrayn through, although the latter disappears ‘Whyder-ward he nyste’ (1971). Up to this point, the magical effects seem more those of natural magic than ‘nigromancy’ , but as Lybeaus searches, he sees a ‘greet wonder’ . From a stone window in the wall appears a serpent: A warm come out apace Wyth a womannes face, Was ȝong and noþyng eld; Hyr body and hyr wyngys Schynede yn all þynges, As gold gaylyche y-gyld were. Her tayle was myche vn-mete, Hyr pawes grymly grete … (1990–7) She kisses and embraces Lybeaus, and immediately ‘Þe warmys tayle and wynge / Anon hyt fell from hyre’ (2009–10), to reveal, naked, the fairest woman he has ever seen. The Lady of Synadoun’s explanation, that she has been shaped into a serpent until she has kissed Gawain or one of his kin, tallies with the pyrotechnics of the hall: she is not actually a serpent; but takes the form ‘Þoruȝ kraft of chaunterye’ (2058). Like the shape-shifting practised by Alphonse’s stepmother in William of Palerne, this magic is ‘nigromancy’ in the extent and intent of its transformation. No summoning of demons is described, but rather the clerks themselves seem demonic in their use of ‘sorcery’ to achieve ‘tormentrye’ , as the Lambeth MS puts it (2055–6), and hence, power. The Lady is rescued ‘Out of þe deueles nette’ (2094), her fifteen castles restored and given, along with her person, to Lybeaus, and Yrayn is never seen again.25 ‘Nigromancy’ is indeed the art of demons, but it does not conjure them. The sixteenth-century prose romance Valentine and Orson, which translates the French Valentin et Orson (c. 1475–89, based on a lost fourteenth-century romance), 24 Mills

notes particularly the description in the Prose Vulgate of Bohort’s adventure at the Grail Castle, which also includes a Perilous Bed (v. 298f.), as well as other versions of the Fair Unknown story, pp. 55–6, while Malory’s adventure of the Chapel Perilous employs some of these elements: see Chapter 7. 25 Mills notes that while the Lady of Synadoun affirms that both enchanters are dead (2020–2; 2064– 7), Lybeaus’ continuing fear of Yrayn reflects versions of the story that contain a second combat, in which the enchanter is killed, such as the Italian Carduino, which depicts only one enchanter but two attacks: see Lybeaus Desconus, Introduction, pp. 46, 56–7.


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Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’ goes a step further in its portrayal of the figure of Pacolet, who is set against the evil enchanter Adramayne.26 Magic is treated much more extensively and boldly in this late work; this may be connected to the marginal status of Pacolet, but also reflects heightened engagement in the Renaissance with magic as a learned art available through study. Valentine and Orson plays on the special association of magical objects with antiquity and the otherworld in its description of the brass head with prophetic powers owned by the lady Clerimond, which ‘shall lese his strengthe 7 vertue’ when the one who is ‘moost worthy of the world’ enters (xxii, 116). The head is multivalent in the best tradition of magic objects: it adds strange, otherworldly exoticism, proves the worth of Orson and provides the key to his speech, but loses its powers early on in the narrative, thus allowing for the continuation of dramatic suspense once Valentine and Orson have encountered Clerimond. The otherworldly provenance of the head is clearly articulated: ‘[it] of olde antiquite had bene composed muche subtylle by Nygromauncy of a Faee’ . At the same time, the brass sculpture appears mechanical, manipulated by marvellous technology. It may also recall the pagan idols of the Old Testament, which, according to patristic writers, were afforded power by the demons who inhabited them. More safely in the realms of marvellous technology are the arts of Pacolet, who becomes a force for good in the work: as a dwarf, he is already marked as other, and perhaps linked to the world of the supernatural. His knowledge, however, is not presented as innate but as learned within the realistic context of the school of ‘tollette’ , Toledo. Pacolet knows ‘more of the arte of Nygromancye than all the liuynge creatures’ (xlvi, 183). A magical horse carries him swiftly through the air: [B]y enchauntemente he had made and composed a lytell hors of wodde, and in the heed there was artyfycyelly a pynne that was in suche wyse set, that euery tyme that he mounted vpon the horse for to goo somewhere, he torned the pynne towarde the place that he wolde go to, and anone he founde him in the place without harme or daunger, for the hors was of suche facyon that he wente thorughe the ayre more faster than ony byrde coude flee. (xxxi, 142) The detail of turning the pin provides a striking correspondence with Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale. Pacolet is unusual in that while marvellous, often entertaining, technology is the primary aspect of his ‘nigromancy’ , his magical arts also go beyond this into more threatening manipulations of destiny. The romance boldly mentions details of rituals and accoutrements, characterising Pacolet’s practices as something much closer to the necromantic arts of, for instance, the Munich handbook with its magical experiments conjuring of demons (see above, p. 110), than to the natural magic of the Clerk of Orléans. Pacolet’s magic is presented positively, generally in connection with battle and rescue of prisoners within the romance’s complex narrative of wars between the Saracen kings of the East and the Emperor of 26 See

Arthur Dickson, ‘Valentine and Orson’: A Study in Late Medieval Romance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1929), and Helen Cooper, ‘The Strange History of Valentine and Orson’ , in Field, Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Romance, pp. 153–68.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Greece, the father of Valentine and Orson, with his ally King Pepin of France. That Pacolet’s arts include learned divination, however, is repeatedly emphasised: ‘also soone as he had casten his sorte’ , for example, the gates and doors of the prison in which Valentine and Orson are held by Clerimond’s brother, the giant Ferragus (who opposes her marriage to a Christian), are caused to break open. Pacolet is consistently diligent ‘about his gere’ , his magical apparatus (xxxv, 151). Soporific charms figure repeatedly in his magic: he ‘coude play so well wyth hys arte whan he wolde, that where someuer hee passed he made his folkes to slepe’ (xxxvi, 155). Similarly, in rescuing the King of India from his captors later, Pacolet ‘caste a charme in suche maner by the arte of Nygromancye that he made them to fall to the earth and slepe as dead men’ (lxxviii, 263). The arts of shapeshifting, ­inducing sleep and speaking all languages (lxxiv, 254) allow Pacolet to appear to the sultan who besieges Constantinople as the messenger of his brother: he requests Christian prisoners and puts the Saracen watch to sleep in order to rescue Valentine. If magic in this work is explicitly learned, it is also learnable. The narrative plays on the opposition between Pacolet and the wicked enchanter Adramayne, who serves Ferragus’ ally, the Saracen king Trompart. Adramayne persuades Pacolet that he is a friendly fellow practitioner, and the narrative offers an elaborate description of the performance of the ‘craft, and scyence’ of the two magicians, complete with illusions of a fierce river full of fish, and a great hart, hunters and hounds. Pacolet is subsequently put to sleep with all the court, while Adramayne takes Clerimond and the horse to his master (xlvi–vii, 184–5). King Trompart, however, is less dextrous with the pin (‘he faylled of his waye more than two hondred myle’ , xlvii, 187), and the pair end up in India, where the king is beheaded. Learning must accompany the use of the magical device, but some sense of moral justice also seems to inhere in the horse, which continues to serve Clerimond despite its appropriation by Adramayne. Moral right is sustained in a new, transformative demonstration of Pacolet’s magical skills: he disguises himself as ‘the moost fayrest woman that euer god created’ , enchanting Adramayne, putting him to sleep, and beheading him. Most striking of all is Pacolet’s act of divination on arriving at the castle where the father of Valentine and Orson, the Emperor of Greece, is being kept prisoner by the invading pagan king Brandyffer. Here Pacolet enacts the traditional role of the necromancer by summoning a demon to probe the future: Than he wente a syde and began a charme of Nygromancye, and incontynent there came a deuyl vnto hym that sayd. Leue this enterpryse for thou lesest thy payne this castell can neuer be taken wyth enchauntement nor assaute, for it is made of suche mater that it can neuer be taken but by treason. At these wordes the deuyl vanysshed awaye. And there rose vp soo great a smoke aboute the castell that Valentyne sawe not Pacolet. (lxxxvii, 272) This scene is a clear indication of the late date of Valentine and Orson: in medieval writing the summoning of demons is condemned absolutely, whereas Pacolet’s act of divination is portrayed as acceptable if bizarre (as Prospero’s divination and summoning of spirits will be in The Tempest). This dubious conjuration, however, 174

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Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’ also suggests the limits of Pacolet’s powers: he can divine the future but cannot overcome the magical protection of the castle; he is neither omniscient nor invulnerable. His final trick, which allows for the defeat of Lucar (the son of the enemy king Trompart), also causes his own death: claiming that Valentine is dead, Pacolet offers his service to the king, ‘but he serued euyll, and euyll was he rewarded’ . This time, Pacolet’s soporific charm backfires, allowing him to seize Lucar, but revealing the treachery too soon: Now he [Lucar] was brought in to the palays before a fayre fyre, and at that houre the charme fayled. So Lucar dyd awaken all afrayed for to finde him there, and Pacolet that was euyll auysed put him before hym and sayd. Fayre mayster I am your seruaunt pleaseth it you to commaunde me any thynge. Than he knewe that he was betrayed and tooke a poynted knyfe and smote Pacolet in suche wyse that he fell downe dead. (xciii, 282) Valentine’s lament is not for his magician-counsellor but his beloved companion: ‘I may well say that I shal neuer haue suche a frende’ , and he provides him with an honourable burial (xciii, 282). Even before imprisoning Lucar, however, Valentine follows Pacolet’s earlier instructions: ‘[he] tooke hys tables that were in his bosome, in whych was wryten all the secretes of hys arte’ (xciii, 282). The term ‘tables’ seems to indicate astrological computations, which may be combined with conjurations of demons, as manuals of necromancy demonstrate. Despite Pacolet’s death, magic is not abandoned, for Valentine uses the tables to ascertain the truth that Clerimond is imprisoned by the King of India. The narrative promises but never provides more details of the tables (xcix, 291), which Valentine copies and sews into his doublet; the subject is perhaps too risky. In the late chapters of the romance, Valentine seems to take on Pacolet’s power. Associated with truth and the power to heal, he is reunited not only with Clerimond, but also with the magical horse, by the means of which the lovers escape: ‘[he] tourned the pynne and the horse went ouer the sea roches, townes and castelles’ (cii, 296). It is implied that the magical knowledge, perhaps in the form of the tables, instructs Valentine in the disguises of merchants and Saracens that he and his men adopt to rescue his father and Orson from King Brandyffer’s castle, the deed that, as the demon has foretold, Pacolet has not been destined to achieve through his arts. Yet although Valentine’s knowledge seems a force for good, the emphasis of the romance shifts radically: the lovers are married and the prisoners rescued, but ill fortune or divine retribution intervenes as it has against Pacolet. Valentine, unrecognised because he bears a Saracen shield, is attacked by and kills his own father.27 His interpretation of the event is that it is punishment for his use of magic, ‘neuer please it God that I plaie more with suche arte, for it is dampnable. And he that tought it me dyed vnhappely at the laste, and I beleue that for this sinne I haue slain my father’ (cx, 310–11). The work draws to an 27 On

the father-killing motif, see Helen Cooper, ‘Counter-Romance: Civil Strife and Father-Killing in the Prose Romances’ , in Cooper and Sally Mapstone, ed., The Long Fifteenth Century: Essays for Douglas Gray (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance end with an elaboration of a quite different, Christian supernatural, as Valentine undertakes the penance issued by the pope, of living secretly under the stairs of his palace and surviving only on scraps thrown to the dogs. Miracle and vision mark his redemption, and the reader is left to set their enduring wonder against the temporal marvels of learned magic, which may betray as well as empower its users, and, finally, be forbidden by divine law. Even in this sympathetic and vividly detailed work, the use of magic is finally called into question. The elaborate magic of Valentine and Orson is unusual, most of all in Pacolet’s explicit conjuring of a demon for the purposes of divination. In Middle English romance, demonic magic may be suggested through the use of handbooks or spells, and practitioners may be aligned with demons, but the conjuring of spirits is not described. Rather, the focus is the assertion of power through ‘nigromancy’ , sometimes divination, most often shape-shifting, and the consequent, often malevolent, intervention in the workings of destiny. Repeatedly, this is written on the body. The dominant movement of romance through disorder to order tends to render magical transformations temporary, but none the less physical, violent and extreme. ‘Nigromancy’ is more explicitly placed as demonic by theologians than by romance writers. The magic arts are at their darkest at the historically furthest remove, in depictions of the classical witch, Medea, rather than in romances that treat more contemporary magical practices. Medea’s arts, which may be placed on the hinterland of romance, compare with the demonic arts explored by Chaucer in his satirical tales. Here the temptation to succumb to demonic magic or illusion may be one aspect of the more general allure of sin, its apparent glamour and power.28 Thus in Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale, the Summoner makes an active, proto-Faustian pact with the devil: he is promised ‘gold and silver’ and that ‘Al shal be thyn, right as thou wolt desire’ (1400, 1402). The connection between clerical magic and the demonic is most strikingly manifest in Chaucer’s portrayal of alchemy, the occult science most obviously concerned with physical transformation in order to gain that power of ‘gold and silver’ . The clerical alchemist of Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale balances the magician-cleric of the Franklin’s Tale, and in this non-romance work, the emphasis on the demonic is heightened, rendered safe by the critical moral tone of the treatise. Yet lurking beneath this cautionary narrative is a sense of the transformative possibility of alchemy that, like Gower’s partially sympathetic treatment of the Medea material, complicates judgement. The tale becomes an imaginative fiction of the attractions, powers and dangers of alchemy as much as a moral treatise. Chaucer’s Canon appears ‘in clothes blake’ , sweating profusely, just as his horse and that of the Yeoman do: ‘his forheed dropped as a stillatorie / Were ful of plantayne and of paritorie’ (557, 580–1): it seems that he has just materialised from hell, and his dwelling is revealed to be among robbers and thieves. His supposed ability to turn the pavements of Canterbury to silver and gold is exposed as false, for the 28 David

Rollo treats these issues, and the relation of magic to court politics, in Glamorous Sorcery: Magic and Literacy in the High Middle Ages, Medieval Cultures 25 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).


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Black Magic: The Practice of ‘Nigromancy’ efforts of Canon and Yeoman have proved vain. The guilty Canon flees, leaving his Yeoman to tell the tale of their alchemical failures and debts, and then to relate the example of the corrupt ‘chanoun of religioun’ . The ‘elvysshe craft’ of alchemy is depicted as ‘madnesse and folye’ , the ‘slidynge science’ (751, 742, 732) that has impoverished the Yeoman, transforming his once ‘fressh and gay’ apparel to threadbare clothing, and his colour to ‘wan and of a leden hewe’ (724, 728), reflecting the metal that they fail to transform to gold. Worse than the loss of the Canon’s goods is the fraudulent effect of alchemy on others whom the Canon ‘exciteth … / To lesen hir good’ (744–5). This occult science may not be intrinsically demonic, but those who fall into its temptations may become so, and, it seems, they may even call up the devil himself. By the end of the first part of the narrative, demonic imagery is prominent: alchemists are known ‘by smel of brymstoon’ , and by their goat-like, infectious stench, ‘so rammyssh and so hoot’ , also a feature of the devil (885, 887). As the experiments fail, the pot breaks and metals fly out so violently that they pierce the very walls, and scatter on the floor and roof. It seems that the Canon and his Yeoman have summoned the devil himself: ‘Though that the feend noght in oure sighte hym shewe, / I trowe he with us be, that ilke shrewe!’ (916–17). The ‘sleightes and … infinite falsnesse’ (976) of the Canon instanced in the second part of the tale are beyond description, rivalling only those of the fiend himself. Even so, the tale does not condemn the science of alchemy, but only its false practitioners. Particularly in the first part of the narrative, Chaucer offers immense detail in his description of alchemical names, properties, practices, processes and ‘the foure spirites and the bodies sevene’ (820). He revels in the proto-mystical language of alchemy, the ‘termes … so clergial and so queynte’ that they seem ‘wonder wise’ (752, 751). The narrative merges the two central tenets of alchemy in its reference to ‘the philosophres stoon, / Elixer clept’ (862–3). Although Chaucer may have relied mainly on Vincent of Beauvais’ Speculum naturale in writing the tale, he is likely to have read more widely than this in alchemical treatises, which apparently formed one strand of his interest in natural magic and the occult sciences. By the fifteenth century, Chaucer was himself believed to have been an alchemist, and credited with a number of alchemical works. The controversial alchemist Thomas Norton cites Chaucer as an authority in his verse alchemical manual, the Ordinall of Alchemy (1477), and Elias Ashmole, the seventeenth-century astrologer and antiquarian, printed the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale in his Theatrum chemicum (1602) ‘to shew that Chaucer himself was a Master therein’ .29 Although the second section of the tale verges on fabliau in its deception of the gullible priest, the conclusion also contains the passage that led to the identification of Chaucer himself as alchemist, apparently revealing the true secret of transformation. He promises to relate, ‘What philosophres seyn in this mateere’ , according to the ‘Rosarie’ of ‘Arnold of the Newe Toun’ (1426–7), the Rosarium philosophorum of the thirteenth-century scholar, Arnoldus de Villanova, although Chaucer in fact draws here on Arnoldus’ De lapide philosophorum or De secreta naturum. In highly 29 Riverside

Chaucer, explanatory notes to Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, p. 948.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance mystical language, the lines refer to Hermes’ instruction that the dragon Mercury must be slain (‘mortified’ or hardened) by his brother (sulphur) (1434–40). Only he who understands the intention and speech of philosophers should try ‘this art for to seche’ , ‘For this science and this konnyng … is of the secree of the secretes’ (1442–7). Chaucer draws subsequently on the Latin version of an Arabic commentary on the allegorical alchemical poem, the ‘Epistle of the Sun to the Crescent Moon’ , partly contained in a fourteenth-century translation of the ‘book Senior’ (1450), The Chemical Table of Senior Zadith, Son of Hamuel (Muhammad ibn Umail, tenth century). Chaucer constructs an opaque dialogue concerning Plato and a follower regarding the nature of the philosopher’s stone, which is ‘unto Crist … so lief and deere / That he wol nat that it discovered bee, / But where it liketh to his deitee / Men for t’enspire, and eek for to deffende / Whom that hym liketh’ (1467–71); the philosophers are not to reveal its name. The Yeoman-narrator has adopted an entirely different, much more transparent and philosophical tone that it is tempting to equate with Chaucer’s own view of alchemy at its highest level. For great philosophers instructed through divine revelation, alchemy may be a true occult science, but for the ‘lewed man’ who attempts to probe what is hidden by God, it is doomed only to fail. The description of failure, the arcane, specialised terms and the extensive catalogues of names, mixtures and processes are all typical of alchemical treatises, but we are left with the tantalising notion of a true ‘secret of secrets’ . Alchemy at its most elevated, then, is the inverse of ‘nigromancy’ . It parallels theurgy, as a mystical science that allows for the harnessing and transformation of the forces of the universe in the service of God and mankind. The wicked, however, use alchemy to baser ends parallel to those of ‘nigromancy’: to gain material prosperity, but also to deceive through the illusion of riches. Chaucer’s treatment of alchemy provides a reminder of the edginess of the occult sciences, among which ‘nigromancy’ also belongs and which can span the divine and the demonic. This version of natural magic, like others, may be pursued for both sublime and corrupt purposes. If alchemy is misused, it may blur into ‘nigromancy’ , becoming demonic magic, and making demons of men. Whereas the Franklin’s cleric-­magician is redeemed, his arts of illusion limited, the corrupt Canons of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale are Faustian, summoning the devil and selling their own souls for the wealth and the power that deception of others affords. The transformations of the cleric-alchemists present the next stage on from the dubious, shape-shifting practices of ‘nigromancy’ . Both occult arts, however, remain ambiguous, their transformative powers dangerous but potentially natural, and with the possibility of beneficent rather than malicious use. Romance affords the space for exploring such powerful transformations.


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5 Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms


agic 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 the faery, neither demonic nor divine. The faery rewrites classical notions of gods and daimons in the idea of beings with supernatural powers, and draws too on legends of the Germanic and Celtic gods, as well as on folk beliefs in a range of supernatural creatures, often associated with the natural world – in particular spirits of the air or elves. Such figures are often larger-thanlife, though folk tales included encounters with the ‘little folk’ who would come to define popular perceptions of the faery. Residues of past belief, literary echoes, folk and learned ideas of gods, demons and spirits with special powers, and cultural perceptions of the possibilities of magic shape images of enchanters and enchantresses that go far beyond the reality of human practices of magic evoked in legal or theological discourse. The world of faery is a conventional feature of romance: it presents a parallel sphere of marvellous adventure and is often the provenance of enchanters and enchantresses, and of magical objects.1 It is literally the otherworld, tangential, a place into which anyone may step by chance, the inhabitants of which may stray into the human world. It is shifting and vaguely defined, not always explicitly as faery, not always given boundaries. Rather romances tend to create a nebulous ethos of the supernatural associated with a particular figure, place or landscape. Though the otherworld is typically associated with the wilderness beyond the court, and with the violent and unpredictable, it is often a place of learning. Figures associated with the faery tend to be distinguished by knowledge and skill in sophisticated arts. They perfect the practice of magic, and their powers of divination and transformation are taken for granted. The otherworld both resembles 1 See

Jeff Rider, ‘The Other Worlds of Romance’ , in Krueger, Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance, pp. 115–31. Some of the ideas discussed in this chapter are also explored in my essays, ‘Violent Magic in Middle English Romance’ , in Albrecht Classen, ed., Violence in Medieval Courtly Literature: A Casebook, Routledge Medieval Casebooks (New York: Routledge, 2004), pp. 225–40; and ‘Erotic Magic: The Enchantress in Middle English Romance’ , in Amanda Hopkins and Cory James Rushton, ed., The Erotic in the Literature of Medieval Britain (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2007), pp. 38–52.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance and surpasses the human world: in it natural magic and ‘nigromancy’ can reach their height. Its inhabitants bring supernatural powers into the human world, and their abilities encompass magical knowledge of all kinds, without requiring complex and illicit rituals. The otherworld is associated with magical medicine and healing, marvellous gifts, immortality, and wish-fulfilment, including hidden or forbidden desires. It is also, however, characterised by ambiguity, force, treachery and transgression: it is a world where all may not be what it seems, the truth of which may be unknowable. Its inhabitants are often shape-shifters, their status unexplained, their magic transformative and treacherous: they move incalculably between the registers of human, divine and demonic, beautiful and horrific, beneficent and maleficent, and are most frequently presented as amoral, evoking fascination and horror. Frequently the otherworld is associated with sexuality and desire, and the figure of the enchantress plays an especially prominent role in romance. Romances repeatedly raise questions of intention and morality in relation to otherworldly encounters, and draw attention to the difficulties of distinguishing different aspects of the supernatural – divine, demonic and faery.

Other Worlds Romance treatments of the otherworld draw on folk material but also recall the classical underworld and the world associated with it, the forest, repeatedly linked to the supernatural: especially resonant is the dark forest of Avernus in the Aeneid, where at the entrance to the underworld the golden bough gleams. This compelling image of the beautiful within the noxious seems peculiarly apposite to later depictions of the otherworld, which repeatedly combine positive and negative aspects. The forest, especially in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is a landscape of exile, hunt, prophecy and transformation, in which one natural form readily slips into another. It is inhabited by wild beasts but also other non-human creatures such as nymphs and dryads, who blur with daimons, the spirits who inhabit the space between earth and moon. Although they are not restricted to it, the outside world is their special territory. Classical literature also offers the mixed topos of the pastoral setting, which can figure both as idyllic and as sharply reflective of human society. Romance treatments of the otherworld are similarly dualistic: it may figure both as a menacing world beyond the court, and as an idealised, golden world; frequently, the two emphases are interwoven. This is a landscape that can shift from threatening to delightful and back again, and its inhabitants are often distinguished by similarly shifting qualities: the recurrent romance motif of shapeshifting rewrites classical metamorphosis. Although the oral material in which romance is partly rooted does not survive, Celtic tales of the supernatural seem to have been particularly formative. Such influence is notoriously difficult to trace: early Welsh poetry is fragmentary and highly enigmatic, often comprising lists of events, people and attributes in unexplained triads, and later, written material may be influenced by classical and Continental works. The characteristic style of Celtic poetry, however, does seem to have coloured the mode of romance: narratives tend to unfold in dream-like and 180

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Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms irrational ways, and are full of bizarre, unexpected supernatural events. The poems found in the thirteenth-century manuscripts, the Black Book of Carmarthen and the Book of Taliesin, and in the Mabinogion (contained in the White Book of Rhydderch, compiled c. 1325, but thought in part to be considerably earlier) employ the concept of an otherworld, Annwvn (Annwn, Annwfn, perhaps reflected in Avalon), the inhabitants of which seem related to early Celtic deities.2 This world is often depicted as an island, separate from but existing alongside the human world. In Preiddeu Annwn (‘The Spoils of Annwvn’ , found in the Book of Taliesin and perhaps dating to the tenth century) Arthur and his men journey to a mysterious land across the water, to win the magical cauldron of regeneration, perhaps a precursor of the Grail.3 The tale of Culhwch and Olwen (found in the Mabinogion), perhaps composed in the eleventh century and dating in its current form to the turn of the twelfth century, combines epic and myth, witches and giants, supernatural and human in its narrative of love-magic.4 Culhwch’s wicked step-mother places a geis or lovecurse on him so that he must pursue Olwen, daughter of a giant, whom he eventually wins by performing a series of supernatural feats with the help of Arthur and his followers; Culhwch’s adventures include encounters with several otherworldly figures – Mabon, Modron and Gwyn. The Mabinogion also includes two tales of visits to the otherworld: Pwyll, Lord of Dyfed, in which the protagonist follows his hounds through the forest, encounters the hunt of Arawn, ruler of Annwvn, and dwells for a year in his land; and similarly The Dream of Maxen, in which the otherworld is a marvellous fortress. These works present the otherworld as a kind of alternative reality – neither above nor below but parallel to the human world, and often only separated from this by a physical barrier such as a river or cave. Faery time follows different rules: stories telling of a human’s return from the otherworld to find that years have passed without his knowledge occur across a variety of cultures, including in Germanic folk tales collected by the brothers Grimm as well as in the Mabinogion. Romance, and Arthurian romance in particular, repeatedly explores and transforms the motif of otherworldly encounter. Magic plays a significant part in Arthur’s conception; magic both human and otherworldly is the frequent catalyst for adventure. Early on in the history of Arthurian chronicle and legend, Laȝamon in his Brut presents the child Arthur as blessed with elvish magic: 2 The

Mabinogion also contains versions of the romances told by Chrétien (Owein [Yvain], Peredur [Perceval] and Gereint [Erec]), which are probably contemporary with or later than Chrétien’s romances. For the texts discussed here, see The Black Book of Carmarthen, ed. Brynley F. Roberts, Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd: Studies in Early Welsh Poetry (Cardiff: University of Wales, 1978); The Mabinogion: Llyfr Gwyn Rhydderch, ed. R. M. Jones (Cardiff: University of Wales, 1973); and The Mabinogion, trans. Jeffrey Gantz, Penguin Classics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976). 3 Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, ‘The Celtic Tradition’ , in W. R. J. Barron, ed., The Arthur of the English: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval English Life and Literature, Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages II (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999), p. 3. 4 On Welsh tales, see Brynley F. Roberts, ‘Tales and Romances’ , in A. O. H. Jarman and Gwilym Rees Hughes, ed., A Guide to Welsh Literature, 2 vols (Swansea: Christopher Davies, 1976), vol. 1, ch. 9 pp. 203–43.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Sone swa he com an eorðe,   aluen hine iuengen; heo bigolen þat child   mid galdere swiðe stronge. As soon as he came upon earth, fairies took charge of him; they enchanted the child with magic most potent.5 They give to the infant the gifts of strength to surpass all other knights, mighty kingship, long life, and liberality, and the child flourishes. At the end of Arthur’s reign, Laȝamon develops Geoffrey of Monmouth’s s statement that the king is ­carried to the Isle of Avalon for his mortal wounds to be tended And ich wulle uaren to Aualun,   to uairest alre maidene, to Argante þere quene,   aluen swiðe sceone; and heo scal mine wunden   makien alle isunde, al hal me makien   mid halweiȝe drenchen. And seoðe ich cumen wulle   to mine kineriche and wunien mid Brutten   mid muchelere wunne. And I will go to Avalon, to the loveliest of all women, to the queen Argante, fairest of fairy women; and she shall make well all my wounds, make me all whole with healing draughts. And afterwards I will return to my kingdom and dwell with the Britons in great contentment. (14277–82) Arthur is borne away in a boat with two women ‘wunderliche idihte’ (‘wond­ rously arrayed’ , 14285), and this section of the Brut concludes optimistically, with Laȝamon’s reference to the popular belief that Arthur still dwells in Avalon, and to Merlin’s promise that ‘an Arþur sculde ȝete cum Anglen to fulste’ (‘an Arthur should come again to aid the people of England’ , 14297). The reference creates a sense of a network of folk material treating the fantastic and faery, as do the many instances recounted by Laȝamon’s near-contemporaries, the twelfth-century chroniclers. Arthurian legends and tales of the supernatural from oral Celtic tradition intersect with inherited literary traditions in the lais of Marie de France. Marie draws explicitly on the material of Brittany: ‘Les contes ke jo sai verrais, / Dunt li Bretun unt fais les lais’ (‘stories which I know to be true and from which the Bretons have composed their lays’ , Guigemar, 43). It is she who provides the romance concept of ‘aventure’ , ‘Vos mosterai un’ aventure / Ki en Bretaigne la menur / Avint al tens 5 Laȝamon,

Brut or Hystoria Brutonum, ed. and trans. W. R. J. Barron and S. C. Weinberg (Harlow: Longman, 1995), ll. 9608–9. Subsequent references to Laȝamon’s Brut are to this edition, cited by line number. See also Layamon’s ‘Arthur’: The Arthurian Section of Layamon’s ‘Brut’ (lines 9229– 14297), ed. and trans. W. R. J. Barron and S. C. Weinberg, Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies (1989; Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2001). The work was written in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, and exists in two manuscripts, Cotton Caligula a.ix (from which quotations are taken) and Cotton Otho c.xiii; the latter is altered and abbreviated. It adapts and extends Wace’s Roman de Brut (c. 1150), which in turn adapts and expands Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (1138). See further Robert Huntington Fletcher, The Arthurian Material in the Chronicles, 2nd edn, rev. Roger Sherman Loomis (New York: Burt Franklin, 1966); and Cyril Edwards, ‘Layamon’s Elves’ , in Rosamund Allen, Lucy Perry and Jane Roberts, ed., Layamon: Contexts, Language, and Interpretation, King’s College London Medieval Studies 19 (London: King’s College London Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, 2002), pp. 79–96.


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Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms ancïenur’ (‘I shall recount to you … an adventure which happened in Brittany long ago’ , Guigemar, 43). Marie’s lais tend to address intense moments of feeling, small narrative scenes; their brief, almost cryptic quality allows her to treat human nature in microcosm, focusing on the individual and on the theme of love. A crucial part is played in the lais by the otherworld, its deep strangeness conveyed in straightforward terms of the kind typical of modern magic realism. Marvellous natural powers (the restorative flower used by the weasel that brings the hero’s beloved back to life in the final lai of Eliduc) and marvellous creatures (the werewolf of Bisclavret) are balanced by or merge into otherworldly aventure. Encounter with the supernatural or faery lover is a recurrent subject, full of potential for the enactment of both desire and tragedy. Guigemar, like the anonymous lais Guingamor, Graelent, Desiré and Melion, employs the trope of the magical hunt so clearly evoked in Partonope. In Guigemar, however, the quarry proves to be a supernatural messenger, who guides the hero to adventure. A white stag that Guigemar has fatally wounded speaks to place a geis on him: only love, not natural, medicinal magic, will cure his wound: ‘Ne par erbe ne par racine / Ne par mire ne par pociun’ (‘nor may any herb, root, doctor or potion’ , 110–11; 44). Entering a marvellous, richly appointed ship, Guigemar is mysteriously carried to the tower of his beloved. Marie exploits enigma and ambiguity: the lady’s marvellous palace is not otherworldly, though the means by which Guigemar reaches it is deeply magical and is left unexplained; rather than being an enchantress drawing him there, the lady is the malmariée in need of rescue from her jealous old husband. The supernatural is focused in the passage from one world to another effected by the stag and the ship, which later carries the lady to her lover. These otherworldly elements seem to render visible the enigmatic hand of destiny that magically brings the lovers together, and the lack of explanation, typical of Marie’s style, contributes to the strange, suspenseful intensity of the narrative. Yonec and Lanval, by contrast, narrate encounters with explicitly otherworldly lovers, though here too apparently human desires and behaviours combine with supernatural qualities. Thus Yonec tells of another malmariée, whose wish for a handsome, valiant lover brings her a knight in the form of a great bird who flies in at her window. His reassurances concerning this ‘merveille’ (116) rest on the nobility of the hawk, not on any explanation. The knight seems positively to fulfil the lady’s desire, but at the same time, Marie gestures towards uncertainty concerning the supernatural, and fears of demonic magic, especially in the form of the incubus. In a bizarre shape-shifting episode that merges religious ritual with shape-shifting magic, the knight, in order to prove that he is Christian, takes on the appearance of the lady, receives communion and recites his creed. He also seems Christ-like in his prophetic knowledge of his death from the trap of razorsharp spikes set by the jealous husband. The lady follows the dying knight into his mysterious kingdom, marked as an otherworld by its entrance through a hill, and then by its beauty, light, and buildings made of solid silver, conventions similar to those used in Partonope and Sir Orfeo. All in the palace is characteristically rich and strange. Yet the city also follows courtly customs and is readily reached later by Yonec and his mother and stepfather, simply by following ‘le dreit chemin, / 183

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Tant qu’il viendrent a un chastel; / En tut le siecle n’ot plus bel’ (‘the straight road until they came to a castle, fairer than any other in the whole world’ , 478–80; 92); Yonec avenges the death of his father and becomes king of this land, which seems now to be near Caerleon. This other, parallel world is richer, stranger, more exotic than the human; its inhabitants seem courtly and familiar, but at the same time its ruler possesses the power of shape-shifting, wish-fulfilment and foreknowledge, though not immortality. The lines placed as prologue to the Middle English lais of both Le Fresne and Sir Orfeo emphasise the marvellous, ‘ferli’ , quality of such tales of ‘old aventours’ , and their connection with the otherworld, ‘mani ther beth of fairy’ . But characteristic too is the intersection of magic with realism.6 Marie’s lais find a contrast in Chrétien’s romances, which combine the notion of ‘aventure’ with the idea of the chivalric quest. While, as we have seen, magic, strange adventure and particularly marvellous technology are crucial aspects of the dramatic appeal of the romances, Chrétien almost never speaks explicitly of the faery. The ending of Erec et Enide is unusual in specifying a faery provenance for the marvellous robe in which Erec is dressed for his wedding. The robe makes visible the connection between the otherworld and the occult arts: ‘Quatre fees l’avoient fet / par grant san et par grant mestrie’ (‘Four fairies had created it with great skill and great mastery’ , 6682–3; 120). On it they depict Geometry, Arithmetic, Music and ‘la meillor des arz … / Astronomie … / cele qui fet tante mervoille, / et as estoiles s’an consoille / et a la lune et au soleil’ (‘the best of the arts … Astronomy, who makes so many wonders and seeks counsel from the stars, moon, and sun’ (6718–21; 120). The description heightens the magical aspects of astronomy. The art of the robe, with its golden stitching, fur lining and fastenings set with precious stones, a precursor of Emaré’s marvellous robe, gestures at the opulence of the world of faery. The magic of the robe contrasts with the ‘nigromancie’ of the garden of the Joie de la Cort episode. Although Maboagrain’s name evokes a Celtic deity, and the marvellous technology of the garden seems to place it as faery, its inhabitants prove to belong to the courtly world and are absorbed back into it. Similarly, in Le Chevalier au Lion, the eerie repetitions and bizarre combination of natural and supernatural events in Yvain’s first quest seem to imply that Laudine inhabits another world, only gained through the achievement of magical adventure, but this is in fact a world that Arthur may visit and a highly civilised city-castle, realised in practical detail and engaged with contemporary mores. The land of Gorre in Le Chevalier de la Charrete and the Grail Castle in Le Conte du Graal are also ambiguous, marked by mysterious boundaries (the Sword Bridge that Lancelot must cross; the river where Perceval encounters the Fisher King), as well as by marvellous events (the magical slab lifted by Lancelot, who is destined to free the captives seemingly held in the land of Gorre by enchantment; the procession of the Grail and its wondrous properties). Again this is realised in the practical, material detail of contemporary courtly society. In Le Conte du Graal, the Castle of the Perilous Bed, where Gawain meets his mother and aunt, thought to be dead but retaining their youth, is equally mysterious. The sense of 6 Lai

Le Fresne, in Middle English Verse Romances, ed. Sands, pp. 233–45, ll. 4, 8, 10.


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Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms heightened reality, extraordinary occurrence, and the combination of the magical or supernatural with the familiar structures and conventions of courtly behaviour is typical of romance treatments of otherworldly events. Chrétien, however, still less than Marie, never allows his audience to be sure of that otherness beyond a haunting but vague impression of strangeness. Later romances develop more fully the motifs of the otherworld and of human encounters with its faery inhabitants, but they too tend to interweave strange and familiar, to represent the other in ­vividly material terms, and to convey a deep sense of ambiguity and enigma that signals the difficulty of classifying or explaining the supernatural.

Faery Mistresses and Enchantresses Women enjoy a special relation with the supernatural in romance. Apart from Merlin, who is given a unique, demonic genealogy in thirteenth-century romance as a figure begotten by an incubus as the Antichrist and reclaimed for the forces of good, there are comparatively few male counterparts for romance’s many enchantresses, named and unnamed. The faery lady provides a powerful romance type, her magic usually concerned with the feminine domain of love and desire, both fearful and fascinating, and often presented in ambiguous terms.7 The enchantress may be the faery mistress, but she may also be the witch, wielding the powers of ‘nigromancy’ . Marie’s Lanval offers a paradigm for the faery mistress motif in its narrative of Lanval’s encounter with an unnamed otherworldly lady who has sought him from afar. Marie briefly but carefully establishes the sense of the supernatural by describing the mysterious trembling of Lanval’s horse, when having ridden away from the town he dismounts in a meadow. The two surpassingly beautiful damsels who appear are only rivalled by their lady. The understated, elegant verse skilfully presents her beautiful body and countenance as the exquisite gems at the heart of the extravagant tent, with its costly bed and covers. While the faery quality of the lady is suggested by her quest for her beloved (110–11), her identity and country are never made explicit. For the lady, Lanval is the desired object, and her love is expressed both in the wealth she showers upon him and in the open gift of her body; on return to the court she will appear whenever he wishes for her. As is typical of this narrative pattern, however, wish-fulfilment is also dependent on a magical condition. The lady sets Lanval a test of secrecy, disappearing when he reveals her existence to the queen, but finally reappearing at his trial to prove the beauty of which Lanval has rashly boasted. Her dominance is strikingly apparent when she actively carries him away on her palfrey ‘en Avalun’ (641). Otherworldly magic takes the form of material and emotional wish-fulfilment, and fulfils the chivalric ideal of largesse, but it is also forceful, ravishing literally as well as emotionally. Lanval’s honour is rewarded with the love of the idealised, beautiful lady 7 See

Kathryn S. Westoby, ‘A New Look at the Role of the Fée in Medieval French Arthurian Romance’ , in Glyn S. Burgess and Robert A. Taylor, ed., The Spirit of the Court: Selected Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the International Courtly Literature Society (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1985), pp. 375–85.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance and a place within her world, but the tale of his disappearance remains eerie and disturbing, marked by the quality of dream that can stray into nightmare. The late fourteenth-century version by Thomas Chestre, probably mediated through the earlier Sir Laundevale, and also drawing on the lai of Graelent, fills out Marie’s version with considerable realistic detail.8 In the transformative space of the forest, Launfal is summoned by the faery Tryamour’s maidens to her pavilion, where he is welcomed by name with open arms. Tryamour’s beauty, the luxury of her pavilion, and the extravagance of the feast respond to Launfal’s privation, and the exotic otherworld reverses the harshness of Arthur’s court and Kaerleon. The English version gives the faery mistress a specific identity: The kinges doughter of Olyroun,    Dame Triamoure than highte. Here fadir was King of Fairie Of Occient, fere and nyie,    A man of mochel mighte.9 Thomas seems to blur the ideas of the otherworldly island of Avilon, the Île d’Oléron off the coast of Brittany, and the legendary association of the faery with the west. This specific identification is combined with striking detail in the depiction of Tryamour’s appearance: her skin ‘whit as lilie in May / Or snow that sneweth in winteris day’ (292–3), hair shining ‘as gold wire’ (298), priceless attire, and the rich pavilion with its carbuncles that shine as brightly as the moon, surpassing those of Arthur and Alexander. Again, the otherworld is imagined as a place of material wish-fulfilment, and Thomas revels in the wonderful feast complete with three kinds of wine, and in the detail of the magical gifts presented to Launfal, a purse ever-full of gold and protection from all harm in battle. The delight of the lovers is set against the queen’s unnatural lechery and her implication later that Launfal is unnatural in his dislike of women. The experience of open, natural love illuminates the contrast between the failed ideals of the court and the ideal otherworld. Tryamour’s desire and its physical manifestation in magical largesse allows Launfal to fulfil his destiny and to shape his identity as a great knight. Her gifts closely reflect the typical aims of human magic – love and prosperity. The shift in his circumstances is written materially in his new-found wealth, which is not elaborated in Marie’s narrative. This emphasis, sometimes viewed as suggesting a bourgeois context, is fundamental to the narrative, which centres on material transformation.10 Just as the rich feast reverses Launfal’s exclusion from the 8 For

further discussion of Sir Launfal, see my The Forest of Medieval Romance: Avernus, Broceliande, Arden (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993), pp. 142–8. On English lais, see Elizabeth Archibald, ‘The Breton lai in Middle English’ , in Weiss, Medieval Insular Romance, pp. 55–70. 9 Sir Launfal, in Middle English Verse Romances, ed. Sands, pp. 203–32: ll. 277–82. Subsequent references to Sir Launfal are to this edition, cited by line number. The poem dates to the end of the fourteenth century, and exists in a single manuscript. 10 See A. J. Bliss’s discussion in his edition of Sir Launfal (London: Thomas Nelson, 1960). For an opposed view, see A. C. Spearing’s argument that the poem is satirical, The Medieval Poet as Voyeur:


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Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms Mayor’s feast, so the ten men who appear on packhorses laden ‘Some with silver, some with golde’ , and present Launfal with ‘riche clothes and armure bright’ (379, 382), reverse his poverty and status. Now Launfal clothes the mayor in rich robes, and becomes the embodiment of the Christian chivalric ideal as he gives feasts, gifts and alms, frees prisoners, and clothes minstrels. Yet Thomas also emphasises Launfal’s dependence on the otherworld, most strikingly in the near-burlesque scene of Launfal’s battle against the gigantic Sir Valentine of Lombardy (‘Fiftene feet he was longe’ , 512). Launfal, in ‘never so moche shame’ when his helmet slips off, is saved only through the magical assistance of Tryamour’s invisible servant Gyfre, who ‘lept upon his maistris stede’ to return the helmet and later Launfal’s shield (578, 581). Gyfre’s role parallels that of the magical ring or protective gift, but his intervention is remarkably, comically direct and physical. The effect of Launfal’s betrayal of his secret love is also conveyed in dramatically physical terms that emphasise the absolute power of the faery. Not only does Tryamour disappear, but also the purse is empty, Gyfre rides away with the horse Blaunchard, and even the colour of Launfal’s armour is transformed: All that he hadde before y-wonne, Hit malt as snow agens the sunne,    In romance as we rede; His armur, that was whit as floure, Hit becom of blak coloure. (739–43) In passing, the lines gesture to the literary quality of romance, and to its engagement with stories rooted in the past that are told and retold. The symbolism is overt – black and white, snow and sun – creating a strong sense of the folk tale. The denouement returns to the positive, transformative power of the faery, as we hear of the marvellous appearance of ‘ten maidenes bright of ble’ (849), then ten still ‘fairire’ , and finally of Tryamour herself, against whose beauty, elaborated in detail along with her ornate and rich costume and jewels, Guinevere fades ‘As is the mone agen the sonne, / Aday whan hit is light’ (989–90). It is the marvellous physical effect of Tryamour’s beauty that proves the truth of Launfal’s statement and reclaims the beloved. Yet the power and physical violence of the world of faery, suggested by Launfal’s sudden, absolute loss of love and riches, is also reiterated in Tryamour’s final act (not in the French text) of blinding Guinevere, an echo, perhaps, of the idea of elf-shot: ‘[she] blew on here swich a breth / That never eft might she se’ (1007–8). The finality of the action is shocking: the transformations of this romance are not exclusively redemptive. The otherworldly lady condemns and finds wanting the Arthurian court. Though Launfal is finally ‘take in to fairie’ (1035), this is a place nearby, for his horse may be heard and he may be seen on a certain day of each year, ready to keep his armour from rusting by accepting the challenge to joust. The world of faery, presented as an alternative, courtly world, provides a sharp critique of the Arthurian court, but in the English, Looking and Listening in Medieval Love-Narratives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 97–119.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance unlike the French, the human world is not wholly left behind. The possibility that Launfal may return not only allows him to prove his continued superiority, but also retains the ideal of refining the chivalry of other knights. In Sir Launfal, faery magic ­fulfils desire, rewards virtue, offers escape, and tests and hones human ­ideals and ­chivalric practice. The otherworld can harm and heal, bestow or withdraw wealth, and shape love or revenge in extreme ways. Its transformations may be imprisoning, violent and destructive. Thus Lybeaus Desconus offers a more menacing version of the enchantress in its depiction of the lady of the Île de Ore, the ‘Dame D’Amour’ who ‘Kowþe moch of sorcery, / More þen oþer wycches fyfe’ (1424–5), and keeps Lybeaus from his lady, persuading him through her arts that he is ‘In paradys alyue’: ‘Wyth fantasme and fayrye / Þus sche blerede hys yȝe’ (1431–3). Renaud de Beaujeu’s Le Bel Inconnu explores the hero’s conflicting loves for the enchantress of the Île d’Or, the Pucele as Blances Mains, and for Blonde Esmerée, the Queen of Wales, who has been transformed into a serpent in her castle of Sinaudon. Although Guinglain prepares to marry Blonde Esmerée, he returns to the enchantress, who takes her revenge through a series of magical illusions, but eventually succumbs to his love. Returning to the court to take part in a tournament, Guinglain marries Blonde Esmerée, but the romance ends with the possibility that he will return once more to the Pucele as Blances Mains. In the English work, by contrast, Lybeaus encounters the Dame d’Amour only once, and the episode is much abbreviated. The emphatic vocabulary of sorcery and witchcraft characterises the love of this lady as dangerous: rather than fulfilling desire, she literally corrupts vision to keep Lybeaus in her seeming paradise, a Circe figure in whom the power of Tryamour is negatively written. The mere mention of the Lady of Synadoun triggers Lybeaus’ memory of his quest. Although conspicuous witches such as this are rare in romance, there is always the possibility that the beautiful enchantress will reveal her other, monstrous face. The motif of physical binding and destructive power over the body recurs in depictions of such figures, particularly in the enchantresses of Arthurian romance, and recalls notions of love-magic discussed in theological discourse. This duality is nowhere more apparent than in the fourteenth-century romance of Melusine, which explores the ancient folk motif of the lamia, the serpent-lady. Whereas Partonope of Blois plays with and finally rejects the idea of the otherworld, in Melusine the motifs of the love-hunt and the magical condition occur in the context of genuine otherworldliness.11 The first chapter emphasises the folly 11 The

story of Melusine is told in the fourteenth century by Jean d’Arras in prose (c. 1382–94) and by La Coudrette in verse. La Coudrette’s metrical poem was translated into verse as The Romauns of Partenay, and Jean d’Arras’ romance was translated into prose as Melusine, both c. 1500. The former exists in a single sixteenth-century manuscript; the latter in a single manuscript of c. 1500; it was printed c. 1510. I use the English translation of Jean d’Arras’ version, ed. A. K. Donald, Melusine, Early English Text Society ES 68 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1895). Subsequent references to Melusine are to this edition, cited by chapter and page number. For the French, see Jean d’Arras, Mélusine ou la Noble Histoire de Lusignan: Roman de XIVe siècle, ed. Jean-Jacques Vincensini, Lettres Gothiques (Paris: Le Livre du Poche, 2003). For a recent study of Jean d’Arras’ Melusine see Stacey L. Hahn, ‘Constructive and Destructive Violence in Jean d’Arras’ Roman de Melusine’ , in Classen, Violence in Medieval Courtly Literature, pp. 187–206; see also Harf-Lancner,


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Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms of not believing in the truth of marvels and ‘the thinges that men calle ffayrees’ (i, 2), for the wondrous ways of God are incomprehensible, and thus the ‘grette meruaylles’ of this narrative are to be believed (i, 3). The passage recalls the theories of Gerald of Wales and Gervase of Tilbury concerning marvels, which are as yet not understood, but are natural and subject to reason.12 The tale is set in the context of the supernatural beings who in ancient times inhabited Poitou. Melusine is half-human: her mother is the faery Pressyne, her father the King of Albany, who is ravished by Pressyne’s marvellous beauty and song when he encounters her by a spring in the forest. Pressyne, like Melusine later, binds her husband to a condition, that she must not be seen in childbed, and flees with her daughters when he forgets his promise; Melusine conspires to punish her father by imprisoning him in a mountain – but is condemned by Pressyne to be transformed each Saturday into a serpent. Melusine’s divided being, human and faery, which her part-serpent body emblematises, may only be overcome through the loving trust of a husband who obeys the condition not to see her on Saturdays: this will allow her to live her ‘cours naturell’ and ‘dey as a naturel & humayn woman’ , begetting a fair line; otherwise, she will revert to her part-serpent form until Judgement Day, appearing to the inhabitants of Lusignan to signify either a new lord or the death of a descendant (i, 15). As in Partonope, marriage is the condition that limits the supernatural, here with the possibility of redeeming Melusine. The first part of the work narrates Melusine’s careful orchestration of her love and marriage through her magical powers, again through the device of the otherworldly hunt. The mysterious forces of destiny are emphasised, when the protagonist Raimondin’s uncle reads in the stars his accidental death at the hands of his nephew. At midnight, Raimondin’s horse leads him while he sleeps to a ‘fontayne of fayerye’ (v, 27): he wakes to see the marvellous beauty of Melusine and hear of her omniscience. The suspicion that such powers of divination may be demonic is carefully allayed by Melusine, who (like Marie’s bird-knight) defends her knowledge as not ‘be fauntesye or dyuels werk’ but ‘of god’ , ‘as a Catholique byleue oughte for to be’ (vi, 31). Whereas in Sir Launfal Tryamour’s gifts are immediately bestowed on her beloved, and the morality of her magic is unquestioned, in Melusine magical arts must be placed as licit and Melusine’s Christianity proven. Her love-gifts are authorised by marriage. Melusine’s gifts to Raimondin are protective and material: they include two rings containing gems ‘of grette vertue’ (vi, 33: one to guard against any blow of arms, the other to bring victory in any battle), and a magical thong that encompasses for Raimondin a large area of land. Her arts provide an opulent wedding feast. Melusine’s skills are practical as well as supernatural: she also oversees the construction of the castle of Lusignan. Only the mysterious taboo and the strange birth defects of the couple’s children hint at the unease of this marriage. As Launfal is goaded by Guinevere, and Partonope by his mother, however, Raimondin is goaded by his brother’s suggestion that Les Fées au Moyen Age; and Pierre Gallais, La Fée à la fontaine et à l’arbre: une archetype du conte merveilleux et du récit courtois, CERMEIL 1 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992). 12 Watkins, History and the Supernatural in Medieval England, pp. 27–33.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Melusine is an adulteress or ‘a spyryte of the fayry, that on euery satirday maketh hir penaunce’ . Piercing the door, he sees her within a great marble bath, ‘wel xv foot of length’ (xxxvi, 296): … vnto her nauell, in fourme of a woman kymbyng her heere, and from the nauel dounward in lyknes of a grete serpent, the tayll as grete & thykk as a barell, and so long it was that she made it to touch oftymes … the rouf of the chambre that was ryght hye. (xxxvii, 297) The taboo is broken, the monstrous revealed. Rather than exploiting horror, however, the narrative shifts immediately to Raimondin’s grief. He explicitly recognises his betrayal of Melusine: ‘My swete loue, now haue I betrayed you, & haue falsed my couenaunt. ’ His lengthy lament, ‘Farwel beaute, bounte, swetenes, amyablete’ mourns his active part in depriving her of human form, presents himself as accursed by Fortune in his loss of what he most loves, and reiterates reproaches against himself (xxxvii, 297–8). Although harmony seems to be restored and Melusine reassures Raimondin, he turns against her when their son Geffray of the great tooth burns his brother Froimond’s abbey, a monstrous act that seems to prove his mother’s evil nature. As is characteristic of her, Melusine’s response combines virtue and pragmatism: she argues that the monks were sinful, and Geffray’s courage marvellous; they must trust in providence, and rebuild and endow the monastery. She swoons at Raimondin’s condemnation of her as ‘fals serpente’ , served by those who ‘obeye the comandements of the prynces of helle’ (xlii, 314–15). The narrative is complex: Melusine is placed as Christian, and achieves much for the house of Lusignan through her magic, yet her children have monstrous features and Geffray figures as demonic; and she cannot ultimately escape her serpent form. Whereas she has seemed the powerful faery mistress, transforming Raimondin’s life and fulfilling his desires, she is now the victim, caught within her own transformed body to suffer her ‘greuouse and obscure penytence’ until Doomsday. The reader is caused to question ‘the veray jugge & almighty god’ on whom Melusine calls to forgive Raimondin but who will not change Melusine’s punishment (xliii, 316–17). The condition is absolute, although Melusine is publicly identified as ‘þe best lady that euer gouerned ony lond’ , the embodiment of wisdom, humility, charity and courtesy (xliv, 317). She retains her prophetic powers, foretelling social unrest and the loss of Lusignan by Raimondin’s heirs. Even now, she exercises her magical arts, presenting Raimondin with two gold rings, ‘bothe of one vertue’ , that of protection in battle (xlvi, 319). The narrative makes clear Melusine’s divided self, as she both asserts her power and laments the loss of her identity: ‘I was wonnt to be called lady & men were redy to fulfylle my commandements’; now, condemned to ‘horryble peynes & tourments’ , her ‘abhomynable figure’ will inspire fear and disdain (xlvi, 319). The description of her departure combines pity and horror, as Melusine, ‘transfigured lyke a serpent grete & long in xv foote of length’ , flies off to Lusignan, where she circles the tower, ‘cryeng so pyteously & lamentably, lyke the voyce of a Mermayde’ (xlvi, 320–1). Like Launfal, she returns occasionally to the human world, ‘dyuers haue sith sen her in femenyn figure’ (xlviii, 322), and most strikingly, continues 190

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Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms to nurse her two infant sons daily; the children grow more in a week than is usual in a month, an indication, like the deformities of the other children, of their faery nature.13 Like the sirens, Melusine is both beautiful, seductive lady and monster. The Christian quality of Melusine’s life is sustained in the final section of the narrative, and the otherworldly is proven to have a redemptive force. Melusine’s departure is marked by general lament and obsequies, and Geffray avenges his mother by killing Raimondin’s treacherous brother. Raimondin makes a pilgrimage to Rome, and becomes a hermit, eventually dying a holy death; Geffray follows him, confessing his sins and rebuilding the abbey. The conclusion of the romance, like its opening, signals repetition of patterns of destiny, and hence the relevance of the work for its audience. In a mysterious castle, the young king of Armenia sees depicted the story of Elynas and Pressyne; the faery lady of the castle, another Melior, proves to be his aunt, who foretells the destruction of his own line. The reader is told that Melusine has appeared at Lusignan to prophesy its loss to the English, and Jean d’Arras narrates the story for the present possessor, the Duke de Berry. The realism of this otherworldly narrative is enhanced by the context of the actual dynasty of Lusignan, and by the historical and geographical detail of the narrative, as well as by the human, Christian virtue of this part-faery, part-serpent lady. The narrator concludes that while none may understand the secrets of God, yet ‘he that is replet of scyence naturel, the rather shall haue affection to byleue it’ (lxii, 371): the lines make a strikingly explicit connection between natural magic and belief in the faery, and again draw attention to theories of marvels as aspects of nature. The romance also, however, explores the dangers of pursuing forbidden knowledge: it is a Pandora’s box story, in which opening the box – gazing at Melusine – destroys the generosity of love. Instead, the monster is loosed that faith has contained, and Melusine becomes the victim of an otherworldly nature that, paradoxically, has allowed her to fulfil Raimondin’s deepest desires. Marvels are to be accepted rather than probed too far. Melusine sustains the emphasis of Partonope, with which it shares the motif of looking as taboo: both rework the Cupid and Psyche myth. The male gaze brings about loss of female power, although Melusine combines this theme with the motif of shape-shifting, and the lamia is analogous with the werewolf. The magical arts of both Melusine and Melior are treated positively, and allow them to pursue and fulfil desire in material and virtuous ways, yet desire also proves dangerous. Both become victims of male betrayal, their identities shaped by the intersection of magic and vulnerability. The otherworldly Melusine, however, cannot escape her serpent self, whereas Melior, wholly human from the start, regains her knight and her status once she has suffered the loss of her magical powers. In Sir Launfal the related taboo, of never revealing the lady’s existence, is treated differently: breaking the taboo separates the lovers, but it remains within the faery mistress’s power to return, saving Launfal from death. The departure of Launfal to the otherworld, like the actions of the Dame d’Amour, suggests the extreme nature of faery 13 See Catherine Leglu, ‘Nourishing Lineage in the Earliest French Versions of the Roman de Melusine’ ,

Medium Ævum 74 (2005), pp. 83–97.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance interventions in the human world: otherworldly ladies may bind men’s bodies to them. Their exercise of feminine and sexual power brings with it unease, and the practice of faery magic is shifting and ambiguous. It requires much from those it rewards, and has the potential to destroy, blind, make monstrous and vanish once again, as well as positively to transform human experience. If the otherworldly lady is to be portrayed neither as the evil ‘nigromancer’ nor as demonic, she is likely to combine power and potential vulnerability. The experience of enchantment brings with it the desire to undo, possess and demystify the female body. Chaucer plays both seriously and comically on the motif of the otherworldly lady. In the Knight’s Tale, Arcite’s perception of Emilye as a goddess, ‘Venus is it soothly, as I gesse’ , points to the transformative power of love (1102). The beloved seems other, beautiful beyond the ordinary; Troilus similarly asks the God of Love whether his love is ‘goddesse or womman’ (I, 425); his sublimation of Criseyde heightens the anguish of betrayal. In these works, the tension lies in the difference between perception and actuality: Emilye and Criseyde are precisely not supernatural, and love is both sublime and treacherous in making them appear so. By contrast, Chaucer’s parody of a popular romance, the Tale of Sir Thopas, employs the motif as one of a string of well-worn conventions narrated in doggerel form: Thopas’s quest inspired by a vision of an elf-queen is as ridiculous as his battle with a giant, aborted because he has left his armour at home. The Wife of Bath’s Tale blends game with earnest in its shape-shifting, otherworldly lady, whose power is again transformative.14 In this version of the story told by Gower as the Tale of Florent, the otherworldly functions to correct the violence of rape, committed by an Arthurian knight. The threat of punishment by beheading is replaced by the pattern of the quest as the knight is sent out by the ladies of the court to find the answer to the riddle ‘What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren?’ , if he wishes to preserve his life (905). Like so many romances, the movement away from the court presages adventure and a shift from realism to romance, as the knight sees ‘under a forest syde’ a dance of ‘ladyes foure and twenty, and yet mo’ (990, 992). Their sudden disappearance, ‘he nyste where’ (996), confirms their otherworldly quality, yet the marvellous is undercut when the ladies’ place is taken by an old hag, ‘a fouler wight ther may no man devyse’ (999). As so often in Chaucer’s writing, convention is rewritten as he plays on the meeting of magical and monstrous: rather than the potentially serpentine enchantress or faery mistress, we find a ‘loathly old hag’ . Her highly philosophical, didactic moral teaching on gentillesse might seem more appropriate to a wholly different kind of otherworldly figure, such as Boethius’ Lady Philosophy.15 Yet the hag’s powers do prove transformative and conspicuously supernatural. Her role aligns with the pattern of faery pursuit of bodies, and the sense of amoral game-playing 14 See

further my discussion in Rape and Ravishment, pp. 301–9, and in ‘Woman Displaced: Rape and Ravishment in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Tale’ , in Arthurian Literature XIII, ed. James P. Carley and Felicity Riddy (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1995), pp. 115–31. On related stories, see Sigmund Eisner, A Tale of Wonder: A Source Study of the Wife of Bath’s Tale (Wexford: John English, 1957). 15 See J. K. Ballard, ‘Sovereignty and the Loathly Lady in English, Welsh and Irish’ , Leeds Studies in English 17 (1986), pp. 41–59.


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Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms that distinguishes other works. Like the enchantresses of Sir Launfal, Melusine and Partonope, the hag does gain the knight’s body for herself. Chaucer plays comically on the faery mistress motif in his description of the wedding night: Greet was the wo the knyght hadde in his thoght, Whan he was with his wyf abedde ybroght; He walweth and he turneth to and fro. His olde wyf lay smylynge everemo. (1083–6) Her old hag’s force, effected through supernatural means, reverses the knight’s rape of the lady at the start of the tale. The narrative becomes a complex exploration of desire, maistrye and mutuality, as the knight finally yields sovereignty to his wife when offered the choice between beauty and loyalty. His reward is that the hag becomes something approaching the conventional faery mistress figure. Whereas Gower’s version of the story presents the lady as the victim of enchantment, Chaucer rejects explanation: his lady remains the enigmatic enchantress. The tale, like Melusine, plays with the motif of the forbidden gaze that discovers the monstrous, reworking this so that the licit, invited male gaze transforms monstrosity to beauty. The conventional association of female desire with sexual pleasure, ‘lust abedde’ (927), is replaced with a much more serious notion of desire for ‘sovereigntee’ . Yet Chaucer does not completely abandon the figure of the desiring enchantress, for once the knight has yielded his lady ‘maistrye’ , she becomes the beautiful, desirable young lady, her body his to love, and their delight mutual. Her transformation is conjured by ‘gentillesse’ . Chaucer’s playful treatment of the otherworldly lady and her pursuit of love affirms the familiarity and potential of this motif for romance writers. Like the enchantress herself, the themes associated with her – gender, love and desire – shift and change their shape within individual works as well as across romance writing. The enchantress may be a fantasy creature, her appearance and pursuit responding to desires and dreams of ideal love, but she may also be, or become, a monstrous witch-figure, wish-fulfilment quickly changing to nightmare. The fear remains that the otherworldly figure may turn out to be a demon. Her arts may be violent and assertive, fulfilling and denying desire, but they may also be tamed, and indeed may prove to be the human arts of ‘nigromancy’ . Around the enchantress weave fears as well as fantasies of sexuality, transformation, death and desire. She instils the wish to know, to possess, to contain, as well as the fascination of the other, the exotic, the unknown.

Shape-Shifters and Faery Knights Sir Gawain and the Green Knight places the enchantress alongside the figure of the male shape-shifter, and in doing so brings together many perceptions of the otherworld.16 Like Chaucer, the Gawain-poet combines realism and romance: 16 On

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, see especially Derek Brewer, ‘The Colour Green’ , and Helen Cooper, ‘The Supernatural’ , in Brewer and Gibson, A Companion to the Gawain-Poet, pp. 181–9, 277–91.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance the opening of the poem places the story within historical time, looking back to the siege of Troy, but also emphasises marvel: ‘Mo ferlyes [wonders] on þis folde [earth] han fallen here oft / Þen in any oþer þat I wot’: this ‘aunter’ , ‘selly’ [marvel], ‘outtrage awenture of Arthurez wonderes’ is set both in the mythical kingdom of Logres and in a vividly realised Britain (1–29). The intersection of mimetic and non-mimetic elements is employed to striking effect in the depiction of the Green Knight, and the response of the court to him. He seems in part a force of nature, a monstrous figure who inhabits the borders of reality, like the legendary wild man of the woods or the ‘etaynez’ (‘giants’ , 723) who challenge Gawain from the high fells. His size, his luxuriant hair and beard, his violation of courtly behaviour by riding into the court, armed with an axe not a sword, and his rude challenge to Arthur’s court, ‘What, is þis Arþures hous?’ (309), all place him as an outsider, while he is dramatically connected with the supernatural in his colour, ‘oueral enker [intense] grene’ (150). The court is awestruck and silenced as they look at this man and horse of ‘such a hwe lach / As growe grene as þe gras and grener hit semed, / Þen grene aumayl [enamel] on golde glowande bryȝter’ (234–6). Yet the Green Knight is also courtly and sophisticated, with his small waist and elegant limbs, his highly fashionable costume and decoration, and his ornamented horse. The poet offers a range of different explanations, emphasising the ambiguity but also the diversity of the supernatural, which can encompass such a range of beings from popular and learned cultural traditions. He seems an ‘aghlich [awesome] mayster’ , ‘half-etayn in erde’ , ‘he ferde as freke [man] were fade [elvish]’ (136, 140, 149), and the court is astonished at this ‘meruayle’ (233), thinking it ‘fantoum and fayryȝe’ (240). The difficulty of gauging the nature of the marvellous is acutely captured. The extraordinary scene that follows his request for a ‘Crystemas gomen’ (283) – the challenge that a knight strike a blow at him, to be repaid a year later – affirms his supernatural quality and disturbingly suggests the potential violence of the otherworld. The Green Knight’s powers extend far beyond the natural, including the ability to overcome death itself: the graphic beheading, the grotesquely surreal scene of the court kicking around his head, and then the horrific image of the torso holding up the still-speaking, severed head render the scene profoundly uncanny. The poet emphasises the unknown provenance of the Green Knight: ‘To quat kyth [country] he becom knwe non þere, / Neuer more þen þay wyste from queþen he watz wonnen [come]’ (460–1), lines suggesting perhaps the possibility of an otherworld whose faery inhabitants might stray into the human world. The court’s response is psychologically realistic: they laugh, while Arthur conceals his wonder, courteously placing the marvel as a more comprehensible, manufactured kind of magic, a theatrical illusion, ‘laykyng [playing] of enterludez’ (472), fitting for Christmas. Unease, however, remains, crystallised in Gawain’s anxiety as the time of his journey approaches, and in the court’s expectation that he will never return. The ambiguity of the supernatural is reiterated in the appearance of the castle of Hautdesert on Christmas Eve, apparently in answer to Gawain’s prayer: ‘Nade he sayned [crossed] hymself, segge, bot þrye [thrice] / Er he watz war in þe wod 194

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Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms of a won [dwelling] in a mote’ (763–4). The scene recalls the sudden appearance of the Grail Castle in Le Conte du Graal, and the name Hautdesert may be intended to suggest the waste lands of the Fisher King. The castle’s status is uncertain: it shimmers and shines marvellously, seeming ‘pared out of papure’ (802), but is also a highly fashionable medieval barbican, complete with towers and turrets, ornamented and painted pinnacles, and chalk-white chimneys. In light of what the poet reveals much later, that here Gawain’s honour is tested with potentially fatal consequences, the presentation of the castle as god-sent seems intended to mislead. The narrative leaves the audience unsure whether the castle, which seems to appear miraculously but is realised in such extravagantly material terms, is otherworldly, or a demonic manifestation, or perhaps linked to the divine providence that seems to have Gawain in view. The poem memorably presents both the erotic and menacing sides of the enchantress in its portrayal of Bertilak’s lady, who takes on the role of Gawain’s seductress, and her companion, the loathly old woman, mysteriously swathed and veiled, whose presence is never explained but who proves to be Morgan le Fay.17 The world of Hautdesert appears to be a refuge for Gawain, setting against the hostile outside world rich feasting, sumptuous clothing and an opulent bedchamber. This is a world of material delight like that depicted in Partonope and Sir Launfal, and appropriately Bertilak’s lady is characterised by surpassing beauty: ‘Ho watz þe fayrest in felle [many], of flesche and of lyre [face] / And of compas and colour and costes [manners], of alle oþer, / And wener [fairer] þen Wenore, as the wyȝe [man] þoȝt’ (943–5). Gawain is cocooned in a feminised world, sleeping on in his luxurious bed, to pursue conversation and ‘dere dalyaunce’ (1012) with the lady, while Bertilak rises early to hunt. The lady’s offer of sexual delight is explicit and almost immediate: ‘Ȝe ar welcum to my cors, / Yowre awen won [pleasure] to wale [take]’ (1237–8); and she seems to suggest the kind of force that Melior leads Partonope to enact, ‘Me behoues of fyne force / Your seruaunt be, and schale’ (1239–40); ‘Ȝe ar stif innoghe to constrayne wyth strenkþe, ȝif yow lykez’ (1496). Gawain is tested without knowing that to comply would break the taboo – a dangerous condition indeed. He must rely only on his knowledge of the Christian 17 See

Denver E. Baughan, ‘The Role of Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ , English Literary History 17 (1950), pp. 241–51; Albert B. Friedman, ‘Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ , Speculum 35 (1960), pp. 260–74; Angela Carson, ‘Morgan la Fée as the Principle of Unity in Gawain and the Green Knight’ , Modern Languages Quarterly 23 (1962), pp. 3–16; John Eadie, ‘Morgain la Fée and the Conclusion of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ , Neophilologus 52 (1968), pp. 299–304; Douglas Moon, ‘The Role of Morgan la Fée in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ , Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 67 (1966), pp. 31–57; Dennis Moore, ‘Making Sense of an Ending: Morgan le Fay in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ , Medievalia 19 (1984), pp. 213–33; Edith Williams Whitehurst, ‘Morgan la Fée as Trickster in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ , Folklore 96 (1985), pp. 38–56; Michael W. Twomey, ‘Morgan la Fée in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ , in Norris J. Lacy, ed., Text and Intertext in Medieval Arthurian Literature (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 91–115; Twomey, ‘Is Morgne La Faye in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – Or Anywhere in Middle English?’ , Anglia 117 (1999), pp. 103–19; and Carolyne Larrington, King Arthur’s Enchantresses: Morgan and her Sisters in Arthurian Tradition (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006).


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance ideal of chastity and the principles of the chivalric code, of which the Pentangle he wears is the emblem. It is crucial for the ‘earnest’ of Gawain’s testing that the temptation should be real, characterised by genuine delight and desire, for his strength in resisting too must be real. The peculiar menace of this otherworldly test is suggested by the interwoven narrative of Bertilak’s hunt, which echoes the violence of the beheading scene, most memorably in the graphic description of the dismemberment of the deer, but also in the detailed images of chase, capture and death of the prey in the successive hunts of deer, boar and fox. Within the rarefied, sensual courtly world of Hautdesert, the repeated images of imprisonment, capture and binding used by the Lady parallel the vocabulary of the hunt, so that the bedchamber scenes seem, as in Partonope and Melusine, to depict an otherworldly chase of the enchantress for her prey – but one the hero must resist. Gawain is ultimately revealed to have been playing a potentially fatal game, the stakes of which are death. The sense of menace and suspense is sharpened in the fourth fitt, which moves outside Hautdesert into the hostile, natural landscape, to focus once again on the Green Knight. Danger is emphasised as the porter who leads Gawain on his way to the Green Chapel fulfils the role of demonic tempter in his suggestion that Gawain turn back. That the place proves not to be a chapel at all, however, challenges interpretation once again. The poet plays with different possible perceptions of the setting. To Gawain, it suggests that he is the victim of demonic deception: ‘Here myȝt aboute mydnyȝt Þe Dele his matynnes telle!’ ‘Now iwysse’ , quoþ Wowayn, ‘wysty* is here; *desolate Þis oritore is vgly, with erbez ouergrowen. Wel bisemez þe wyȝe wruxled* in grene *arrayed Dele here his deuocioun on þe Develez wyse; Now I fele hit is þe Fende, in my fyue wyttez, Þat hatz stoken* me þis steuen* to strye* me here. *thrust on; meeting; destroy Þis is a chapel of meschaunce – that chekke* hit bytyde! *bad luck Hit is þe corsedest kyrk that euer I com inne!’ (2187–96) Gawain can be seen as projecting his fears onto a hostile natural landscape – but the description also invites interpretation of the Green Chapel as a pagan place of demonic magic, by mentioning the presence of a ‘balȝ berȝ’ (‘smooth mound’ , 2172), a barrow or pagan burial mound, next to the boiling stream and waterfall. The place seems to be of precisely the kind repeatedly warned against in theological writings, as the site of dangerous, demonic powers. On the other hand, the ­barrow is hollow inside, ‘nobot an olde cave’ (2182). The uncanny quality of the Green Chapel is effected by its multiple meanings, and the uncertainty of where danger may be situated. The sound of the axe being sharpened heightens fear still further, and the sight of the Green Knight whirling in is almost a relief. The nick made by Bertilak in Gawain’s neck, and the images of severed flesh and gushing 196

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Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms blood, demonstrate the genuine nature of the threat to Gawain’s life, but seem further to relieve suspense. Startlingly, however, the poem takes a quite different turn. The Green Knight is revealed to be Sir Bertilak, his shape shifted by Morgan le Fay, the aged, hideous duenna of Hautdesert, to terrify the court, cause Guinevere’s death and test the renown of the Round Table. The magic is not the work of demons, but constructed through the arts of Arthur’s own half sister and Gawain’s aunt. The Green Knight is not a spirit but ‘gostlych’ (2461); he appears supernatural. Morgan has been taught her arts by Merlin, ‘that conable [excellent] klerk’ (2450), whose mistress the poet claims she is. Her magic involves human arts, ‘koyntyse of clergye’ , skill in (clerical) learning; it employs ‘craftes wel lerned’ (2447). Yet the poet also immediately reminds his audience that Morgan le Fay, as her name implies, spans human and other worlds: she is ‘Morgne the goddes’ (2452).18 Merlin, her teacher, is similarly ambiguous: born of an incubus, his powers stem from his demonic origin, though they are put to the service of divine providence. Morgan’s arts, though learned, may be firmly placed as ‘nigromancy’ , associated with the demonic through the link to Merlin, a recurrent motif in the poem, and certainly with dark, malevolent purposes. Morgan herself is typically depicted as beautiful and seductive, but here Bertilak’s wife functions as the youthful, desirable counterpart of the loathly old hag: the poem separates out the two faces of the enchantress, beautiful and monstrous. The duality captures the two sides of the otherworld, fascinating and fearful, generous and threatening – and the double-edged nature of otherworldly gifts. The gift that might have been appropriate to receive, the girdle with its protective virtue, proves, like the Green Knight, the Green Chapel, and the two ladies, not to have been what it seemed. Rather than offering magical protection, it is a mark of sin, the ‘falssyng’ that has taught Gawain cowardice. Like forbidden ligatures, it has bound Gawain negatively, causing him to betray ‘larges and lewté, þat longez to knyȝtes’ (2378, 2381). Its magical, pagan knot has replaced the marvellous, Christian interweaving of the Pentangle. Intention and meaning remain difficult to gauge, however. Though Gawain sees himself as ‘fawty and false’ , Bertilak commends his virtue, expresses admiration for Gawain and invites him to return to Hautdesert, where he is well loved for his ‘grete trauþe’ (2470). The court, too, wears the girdle as a badge of honour. In a peculiarly back-handed manner, the girdle does become a marvellous gift of another, positive kind. The pragmatic explanations of the end do not wholly match or contain the eerie, otherworldly quality of the poem, nor explain the testing of Gawain and the revelations he gains, for which Morgan is never identified as responsible. The resonances of the demonic remain in the reminder that the Green Knight has orchestrated his wife’s attempts to seduce Gawain: ‘I sende hir to asay þe’ (2362). At the same time, the Green Knight’s praise of Gawain’s virtue and moral teaching on loyalty and love of life use the language of penance and confession to create the impression of a divine arbiter. The associations with wild nature, seasonal renewal 18 See

Laurence Harf-Lancner, Les Fées au Moyen Age: Morgan et Melusine (Pars: Champion, 1984), and my discussion in Chapter 7.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance and faery or pagan magic persist too, as the ‘knyȝt in þe enker grene’ rides off ‘Whiderwarde-soeuer he wolde’ (2477–8), his magic part of the mysterious world beyond the court. The poet’s interweaving of positive and negative, demonic and divine, pagan and Christian, faery and human resonances suggests that this magic means in some powerful symbolic sense that goes beyond the explanations offered: the poem is more than its conclusion, its attractions rooted in its enigma and polyvalence. The unsatisfying explanation emphasises too the difficulty of perception that has been a theme all along. The narrative has repeatedly raised questions concerning its events: are they to be placed as magic, marvel or miracle; is Hautdesert a human or faery world? Or is the whole adventure to be seen as a Christmas game – not so far after all from the ‘laykyng of enterludez’ (472) suggested by Arthur? Even when answers are offered, other possibilities linger on, tantalising and colourful, signalling the powerful literary potential of the supernatural. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight plays on the semi-realism of the kingdom of Logres, which both is and is not Britain, and is marked by mysterious ways into and meeting-points with the otherworld. Other romances move further into the realms of fantasy. The connection with the world of faery is prominent in the Breton lai of Sir Degarré, in which the lady’s violent encounter with a supernatural knight rewrites the meeting with the faery mistress. Separated from their company as they travel through the deep forest, the lady and her handmaidens become lost. As in Sir Launfal, conventional romance markers are used to signal the otherworld: the westward direction, the heat of the sun, the unnatural sleepiness of the company, and the presence of a single ‘chastein tre’ in the glade.19 The princess is interrupted as she gathers flowers by ‘a kniȝt, / Gentil, ȝong and jolif man’ , who appears ‘riȝt curteis’ (90–1, 94). Described as more beautiful than all in the land, he seems to be the male equivalent of the otherworldly lady, and explicitly identifies himself as ‘a fairi knyȝte’ (100). Although he instructs the princess not to fear, however, his words move from the notion of wish-fulfilment, as he explains that he has sought her from afar to be his beloved, to a more sinister threat of force: ‘Iich haue i-loved þe mani a ȝer, And now we beþ us selve her; Þou best mi lemman ar þou go Weþer þe likeþ wel or wo. ’ (105–8) The courtly language of the knight heightens the violence of the scene: Þo no þing ne coude do ȝhe But wep and criede and wolde fle; And he anon gan hire atholde 19 Sir

Degarré, in Medieval English Romances, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt and Nicolas Jacobs, London Medieval and Renaissance Series, 2 vols (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1980), vol. 2, pp. 57–88, l. 72. Subsequent references to Sir Degarré are to this edition, cited by line number. The work employs familiar romance motifs, but has no known source; it dates to the early fourteenth century, and exists in four manuscripts, including the Auchinleck MS. See also Jacobs, The Later Versions of ‘Sir Degarré: A Study in Textual Degeneration, Medium Ævum Monographs 18 (Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 1995).


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Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms And dide his wille, what he wolde. He binam hire here maidenhod. (109–13) The distress and rape of the damsel are disturbingly at odds with the courtly expression of love, and the faery lover who fulfils desire is rewritten as the rapist; dream becomes nightmare. Like the Green Knight, the faery knight violates the customs and morals of the human world, and his otherworldly nature is affirmed in his prophecy that he will beget a child on the woman, recalling the idea of the demon-incubus. Again, magic is especially menacing in its incomprehensibility and its power, and intention seems peculiarly mixed. Yet the rest of the romance is oddly prosaic in its treatment of the supernatural: the child, Degarré, becomes the hero of the tale in a reworking of the Fair Unknown story. In a startling shift, the faery knight is portrayed as the lady’s ­‘lemman’ , sending her ‘of fairi londe’ a pair of gloves that will fit only her (195). Placed with the child, they eventually prove his identity when, after killing a dragon, he wins the king’s tournament and is to be rewarded with the hand of the princess – his own mother.20 Although early texts of the poem are incomplete, the work apparently ended with the reunion of Degarré with both his parents, as later versions of the story do. The faery knight has become an agent of destiny or even providence, orchestrating the birth of a hero whose half-faery nature marks him as extraordinary (as do the supernatural origins of other great men – Alexander, Arthur, Richard Cœur de Lion).21 Although the violence of the start is set aside, however, the prosaic account of the rape offered by Degarré’s mother when they are reunited leads him to begin his quest for his father. The narrative places special emphasis on the question of the faery knight’s provenance: ‘Leve moder … / Telle me þe sothe … / In to what londe I mai terne / To seke mi fader’ (701–4); on her response, ‘I can þe of him telle no þing’ , Degarré concludes, ‘Who-so hit auȝt, he was a man’ (706, 716). The phrase contradicts the possibility that the faery knight was a demon-incubus. While Degarré’s mother possesses no further knowledge, the gloves sent from ‘fairi londe’ , and the suggestion that Degarré may discover this land, create a link between faery and human worlds. Degarré’s quest takes him back through the space in which human and supernatural most often intersect, the forest. Its age and westward direction (often associated with the faery) hint at otherworldly adventure, and this idea is sustained in the strange, magical sequence of Degarré’s rescue of a beautiful maiden from a ‘ravisser’ . In a scene reminiscent of Partonope, her castle appears prepared for a guest, its drawbridge down and fires lit, but seems deserted; the beautiful damsels ‘i-tukked to þe kne’ (774) who enter the hall carrying venison are silent, as is the dwarf who sets the tables, and the beautiful lady who presides over the feast. The aura of the supernatural is heightened when the melody of the harp, suggestive 20 See

Donald R. Redford, ‘The Literary Motif of the Exposed Child’ , Numen 14 (1967), pp. 209–28.

21 For the romance of Richard Coer de Lion, see Henry Weber, ed., Metrical Romances of the Thirteenth,

Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Centuries, 2 vols (Edinburgh: George Ramsay, 1810), vol. 2, pp. 1–278, and John Finlayson, ‘Richard, Coer de Lyon: Romance, History, or Something in Between?’ , Studies in Philology 87 (1990), pp. 156–80.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance of enchantment, sends Degarré to sleep in the lady’s chamber. Yet as is typical of this often naturalistic narrative, it is never clear whether Degarré’s sleep is induced by magic or by the spiced wine that he is served. No amorous interlude ensues, but rather he is chastised by the lady for sleeping ‘as a best’ (863), and taking no account of her maidens. As in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the scene, though comic, proves the hero’s chastity, and hence the suitability of his role as the lady’s protector from ravishment. The defeat of her attacker also rewrites the rape of the start, replacing it with the concept of mutual love. This otherworldly adventure is never elucidated, however, and Degarré rides on to the west ‘þurh mani a divers cuntré’ (1000) in search of his father, whom he eventually encounters in battle, and who identifies Degarré through his sword, providing the missing piece. Again, the faery knight’s wealth and chivalric trappings are emphasised. There is no explanation of his otherworldly provenance: we learn only that this is his forest, and that his castle is nearby. The drift of this romance is to rationalise and mask its magic, and ultimately to reunite human and faery within the civilised world. Yet supernatural intervention is startlingly violent, and it plays a primary role in the shaping of destiny. In something of the manner of the Green Knight, the faery knight evokes both the divine and the demonic, and it is the strange, otherworldly elements that structure this narrative. The faery rape, the magical gloves, the Oedipal episode, the enchanted castle, the sword with its missing section, and the son’s quest for his father, all combine to shape a ­cryptic, psychologically suggestive tale of forbidden and licit desires, loss and recovery, and the powerful bonds between parents and child. The appeal of Sir Degarré, like that of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is situated in its nuances of otherworldly magic, which are never fully teased out, but create a memorable sense of eeriness and the uncanny.

The World of Faery Another Breton lai, Sir Orfeo, offers the most elaborated and most troubling vision of the world of faery in Middle English romance. Classical, Celtic and English materials are interwoven, and the romance draws too on penitential and hagiographical motifs. It is likely that a ‘Celtic’ or Breton telling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice already existed, and may underlie Sir Orfeo: the Old French Floire et Blancheflor, Le Lai de l’Espine and the prose Lancelot all refer to a lai d’Orphey. Sir Orfeo also shares the features of other Breton lais in its reworking of the Orpheus story. Fundamental to the poem is the replacement of the classical underworld with an otherworld of faery. At the same time, Sir Orfeo retains aspects of the classical myth, in particular an emphasis on the powers of music and love, and may use Virgil’s narrative of Aeneas’ voyage to the underworld in its account of Orfeo’s passage to the kingdom of Faery. The poet may also be familiar with a unique English vernacular tradition of Orpheus as seeking exile in the wilderness before his voyage to hell.22 22 This

occurs first in the translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy attributed to King Alfred: ‘Ða sceolde se hearpere weorðan swa sarig þæt he ne meahte ongemong oðrum monnum bion,


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Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms In the Maytime excursion of Orfeo’s queen, Heurodis, and her ladies to the orchard, the poem plays on a conventional festive trope, but moves swiftly into the more sinister world of faery. ‘Ympe’ trees or grafted trees like that under which Heurodis sleeps are repeatedly loci of enchantment, perhaps because of their hybrid character, which reflects the combination of artifice and nature typical of the faery world.23 Orchards and apple trees are associated with the Celtic otherworld in Welsh poetry, and Avalon itself is the Isle of Apples; in Irish literature, the encounter of Deirdre of the Sorrows and her lover takes place in the Vale of Apples, and the single fruit tree is a common trysting place for lovers. The apple also recalls Eden, and evokes idyllic classical landscapes, in particular, the Hesperides, where the golden apple is found. As in Sir Launfal and Sir Degarré, special, otherworldly danger is signalled in Sir Orfeo by the use of details conventionally with the faery: the tree, the heat of the day, and the ‘undrentide’ (41), the noon hour, when the powers of the supernatural, faery or devil, are supposed to be strongest. Thus the orchard becomes a limen or passage to the world of the supernatural, and Heurodis wakes to reveal that the King of Faery has commanded her presence. The faery summons seems to interweave the classical tradition of Pluto or Dis, king of the underworld, hunting human souls, the Christian notion of the devil as huntsman, and the idea of demonic possession. Unlike Eurydice, yielded to Pluto in death through the bite of a serpent, Heurodis is to be ‘taken’ alive at the express wish of the King of Faery: ‘… And than thou shalt with us go And live with us ever-mo. And yif thou makest us y-let, Whar thou be, thou worst y-fet, And to-tore thine limes all That nothing help thee no shall; And they thou best so to-torn, Yete thou worst with us y-born. ’ (143–50) This intrusion of the faery into Heurodis’ sleeping mind is deeply sinister, and presages the ravishment of her body by the King of Faery; it also plays with the ac teah to wuda, ond sæt on ðæm muntum ægðer ge dæges ge nihtes; weop ond hearpode ðæt ða wudas bifeodon’ (‘then the harpman became so sad that he could not live in the midst of other men, but was off to the forest, and sate upon the hills both day and night, weeping, and playing on his harp so that the woods trembled’), King Alfred’s Old English Version of Boethius’ ‘De Consolatione Philosophiae’, ed. Walter John Sedgefield (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899), xxxv, vii, p. 102; King Alfred’s Version of the Consolations of Boethius, trans. Walter John Sedgefield (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1900), XXXV, 116. 23 Sir Orfeo, in Middle English Verse Romances, ed. Sands, pp. 185–200: l. 45. Subsequent references to Sir Orfeo are to this edition, cited by line number. The work dates to the early fourteenth century, and exists in three manuscripts, including the Auchinleck MS. For a discussion of the otherworld in the poem, see Seth Lerer, ‘Artifice and Artistry in Sir Orfeo’ , Speculum 60 (1985), pp. 92–109, and, for an alternative perspective, Neil Cartlidge, ‘Sir Orfeo in the Otherworld: Courting Chaos’ , Studies in the Age of Chaucer 26 (2004), pp. 195–226.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance fearful possibility that the devil may enter the imagination. As in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and in other Breton lais, the faery assertion of power over the human world seems instinctive and arbitrary, amoral and enacted for sport. The work plays on the notion of a ruler with innate magical powers, who can challenge and readily overcome individuals through enchantment, as he pleases and without explanation. The King of Faery appears to be motivated by the desire to possess not souls but bodies, although this desire is not, as in Sir Degarré, constructed as sexual. Heurodis disturbingly writes the violence of her taking on her own body: Ac as sone as she gan awake, She crid and lothly bere gan make; She froted hir honden and hir feet, And crached hir visage – it bled wete. Hir riche robe hie al to-rett And was reveysed out of hir wit. (53–8) The effect of living death is heightened by Heurodis’ deathly appearance. Despite the guard of Orfeo and a thousand armed knights, the King of Faery’s words are fulfilled as she disappears, ‘With fairy forth y-nome’ (169). The scene may, as Constance Davies has suggested, look back to a Celtic archetype, a tale of ritual sacrifice or a seasonal myth, but it is easier to relate it to folk stories of otherworldly encounters, of the kind recounted by the twelfth-century chroniclers or in the Mabinogion.24 The rupture created by the intrusion of the faery into the human world is resolved by Orfeo’s own departure into the wilderness, a landscape associated with madness, grief and withdrawal, but also with grace and discovery. The forest, the site of Orfeo’s exile, functions, like the orchard, as a transitional landscape, a world where faery and human can meet. While Orfeo leads his eremitic life, he frequently chances to see the Faery Hunt: He might see him bisides Oft in hot undertides The King o fairy with his rout Com to hunt him all about With dim cry and bloweing, And houndes also with him berking. Ac no best they no nome, No never he nist wheder they bicome. (257–64) Walter Map tells of the faery hunt of King Herla, lured with his company through a cave into the otherworld by a pygmy, to return two hundred years later. They are fated to ride on perpetually, for those who dismount crumble into dust.25 The Wild 24 Constance

Davies argues, for instance, that the tree has been reduced from sacred grove or ‘Elm of Dreams’ to ‘an ordinary garden “ympe tre” ’ , ‘Classical Threads in “Orfeo” ’ , Modern Language Review 56 (1961), pp. 161–6: p. 161. See also James F. Knapp, ‘The Meaning of Sir Orfeo’ , Modern Language Quarterly 29 (1968), pp. 263–73. 25 Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, Dist. i, c. 11, p. 27. Map remarks that the coronation of King Henry II marks the end of sightings of the Fairy Hunt (p. 31). Anne Rooney, in Hunting in Middle English


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Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms Hunt also figures in European folktales, especially those of Germany.26 The chief huntsman might be a legendary figure or the Devil himself, and the purpose of the Wild Hunt was to capture souls. In Sir Orfeo, by contrast, the faery company seems to hunt for sport, leading a kind of half-life in the pursuit that catches ‘no best’ (263). When the falcons do catch their prey and Orfeo, recalling his past life and civilisation, laughs, the sudden action is accompanied by Orfeo’s pursuit of his queen, whom he sees among the company. In a passage that perhaps draws on Aeneas’ descent through a deep cavern to the underworld in the Aeneid, Orfeo follows the faery hunt into a cave. He finds himself in a world quite unlike gloomy Avernus: In at a roche the levedis rideth, And he after and nought abideth. When he was in the roche y-go, Wele three mile other mo, He com into a fair cuntray, As bright so sonne on somers day, Smothe and plain and all grene, Hille no dale was ther non y-sene. Amidde the lond a castel he sighe, Riche and real and wonder heighe. All the utmast wall Was clere and shine as cristal. (323–34) Like the seeming otherworld of Partonope of Blois or the celestial dream landscape of Pearl, this seems an earthly paradise, with its walls of gold and precious stones; it is also a highly civilised world, its buildings beautiful artefacts of the kind fitting to the exoticism of faery. Yet resonances of the infernal remain. The violence of Heurodis’ abduction is reiterated in the sinister population of the world of faery: ‘folk that were thider y-brought / And thought dede and nare nought’ (365–6) – headless, armless, wounded, mad, bound, choked, drowned, burnt, ‘and wonder fele ther lay bisides’ (377) – all ‘in this warld y-nome’ (379), taken in different forms of apparent violent death, madness or sleep. The violence of enchantment is rendered literal in the mutilated bodies, and its horrific transformations suggest the bodily sufferings of hell. The vivid evocation of this world of the un-dead seems to engage with deep human fears of death, which may be so sudden, unpredictable, inexplicable, and violent that it seems a ‘taking’ from the world. The romance engages too with the wish that sudden death might indeed be a faery ‘taking’ , from which the longedfor beloved, like Heurodis, might return.27 In the rewriting of the underworld as Literature (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993), lists a number of different hunting motifs in romance literature, and relates the Faery Hunt, which has no exact parallel, to the legend of the Wild Hunt, which also appears in the Peterborough Chronicle (1127), pp. 106, 94. 26 See, for example, Beryl Rowland’s discussion, Animals With Human Faces: A Guide to Animal Symbolism (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1974), p. 106. 27 See also Dorena Allen, ‘Orpheus and Orfeo: The Dead and the Taken’ , Medium Ævum 33 (1964), pp. 102–11, and Bruce Mitchell, ‘The Faery World of Sir Orfeo’ , Neophilologus 48 (1964), pp. 155–9.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance the otherworld, the paradisal and infernal intersect, and death becomes an absence that can be reversed. Orfeo’s encounter with the King of Faery signals the otherness of this world, its distance from both heaven and hell. As in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the denouement is characterised by game-playing and amorality. Walter Map offers an analogue in his tale of a Breton knight who finds his dead wife with a large company of faery women, from whom he must snatch her away, reversing the otherworldly abduction.28 Similarly, Orfeo must trick and defeat the King of Faery at his own game. Like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Orfeo employs the notion of the binding contract that must be upheld. Thus while the King of Faery objects to giving a woman ‘lovesum withouten lack’ (436) to a man who is ‘lene, rowe, and black’ (435), he is forced to approve the ‘sorry couple’ (434) when Orfeo holds him to his promise: ‘Yete were it a wele fouler thing / To here a lesyng of thy mouthe!’ (440–1). This is the final proof of Orfeo’s ‘trouthe’, and the last part of the poem reflects this ‘trouthe’ in the restoration of national order: ‘Now King Orfeo newe coround is / And his queen, Dame Herodis, / And lived long afterward, / And sethen was king the steward’ (569–72).29 Orfeo’s renunciation of kingship has also tested his successor, ensuring the continuation of right rule. The world of faery figures in Sir Orfeo both as infernal, connected with violence, suffering and death, and as a brighter, more powerful reflection of the human world, a rival kingdom that threatens the human world: it is part of the outside landscape but it is also glittering, sophisticated, full of artifice. By entering the kingdom of Faery itself, and encountering the king in his own territory and on his own terms of game-playing, Orfeo is able to win back his wife. By defeating the forces of magic, enchantment, and death, Orfeo asserts the power of his own kingdom and its Christian, chivalric order. The otherworld, as in Sir Degarré, is not so much transformative as formative of the protagonist’s identity. Classical legend is shaped into a Breton lai of faery, but also into a Christian romance of chivalry and ‘trouthe’ and an example of English kingship. This structural role of otherworldly encounter is fundamental to romance. The magic of the otherworld never needs to be explained, excused or enacted through studied practices. Rather, faery enchantment shapes, mis-shapes and transforms human lives, sometimes promoting but most often challenging the social order that romance tends to uphold. There is, however, real variation between treatments of these mysterious forces. The sequel to Guy of Warwick, telling of the adventures of Guy’s son Reinbrun, plays with a sequence of otherworldly motifs: Reinbrun sets out to rescue his father’s friend, Amis of the Mountain, from imprisonment by a fairy knight, ‘so hard to hewe vpon / Ase marbel’ (st. 74). The narrative employs all the conventions of otherworldly adventure: Reinbroun crosses a forest, enters a hill, traverses water, and discovers a beautiful palace adorned with 28 Walter Map, De Nugis Curialium, Dist. iv, c. 8, p. 345. 29 This

interpretation is developed by Andrea G. Pisani Babich, ‘The Power of the Kingdom and the Ties that Bind in Sir Orfeo’ , Neophilologus 82 (1988), pp. 477–86. See also E. C. Ronquist, ‘The Powers of Poetry in Sir Orfeo’ , Philological Quarterly 64 (1985), pp. 99–117.


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Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms precious gems and lit by a great ‘charbokel ston’ shining out ‘Ouer al þe contre’ (st. 80). This world is timeless, ‘Her schel no man elde’ (st. 86), exotic and brilliant, and inhabited by a larger-than-life enemy, who, like Grendel’s mother, is subject only to his own weapon. Yet the programmatic and paradigmatic quality of this otherworldly adventure, the lack of development, suspense and enigma, renders the narrative ultimately unadventurous. Whereas Sir Orfeo is memorable for its evocation of a sinister otherworld of the undead, and for the eeriness of Heurodis’ taking and of the faery hunt, the tale of Reinbrun seems pedestrian in its failure to invest detail with meaning. Its conventions are exotic, escapist, and readily escaped by the hero, rather than sinister, life-threatening and transformative in their effect. The eeriness of the supernatural that renders Sir Orfeo so effective is also present in the late romance Eger and Grime, which survives only in the Percy Folio manuscript and later printed versions, but was popular in the fifteenth century.30 The work employs the narrative structures of doubling (also found in Amis and Amiloun) and repetition (reminiscent of Chrétien’s Le Chevalier au Lion). Grime goes in search of the enigmatic Sir Graysteel, ‘a venterous knight / That kept a fforbidden countrye bath day and night’ (101–2), who has defeated Grime’s sworn brother Eger. The romance is infused with a strong sense of the uncanny, its otherworldly allusions never quite made explicit. The ‘fforbidden countrye’ is separate, ‘a fresh iland by the sea, / Where castles were with towers hye’ (103–4), and reached by following a river for two days and crossing a forest for a third. Most notably, it is made strange through the detail that, however fast a knight may ride, the journey will take the same amount of time, a variation on the exact repetition of Calogrenant’s quest, and a unique use of the convention that faery and human worlds follow different time scales. The ferocious Graysteel is not conspicuously otherworldly, but rather is made strange by his sinister custom in battle. Eger revives from his swoon to find on looking at his right hand that ‘My litle fingar was lackand’ (192); a slain knight lying nearby similarly has his little finger missing. The practice recalls but surpasses in strangeness the giant of Mont St Michel’s habit of collecting the beards of those he has conquered, or Maboagrain’s display of the heads of defeated knights inside the magical garden of the Joie de la Court. The bizarre trophy of the little finger is enigmatically resonant: as Cooper remarks, ‘the missing finger (in Freudian terms, a symbolic castration) catches the imagination far more than if an adversary is cut to pieces’ .31 Grime will mark his revenge by cutting off Graysteel’s entire, gloved hand. The strangeness of Graysteel’s country is sustained in Eger’s arrival at a castle where he meets the beautiful, aptly named, lady Loosepayn: ‘A fairer creature was neuer seene’ (218), who promises easement and ‘leeches of great sleight, / Cuning 30 Eger and Grime, in Middle English Metrical Romances, ed. Walter Hoyt French and Charles Brockway

Hale, 2 vols (New York: Russell, 1930), pp. 669–717. References to Eger and Grime are to this edition, cited by line number. For an investigation of the relation of Eger and Grime to Continental, Welsh and English romances, see Mabel Van Duzee, A Medieval Romance of Friendship: Eger and Grime (New York: Burt Frankin, 1963). 31 Cooper, The English Romance in Time, p. 82.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance men with for to deale’ (224–5). Her leechcraft moves from realistic to magical in the most extreme way, as she first searches and dresses Eger’s wounds in rich silk, salves and spices, then makes sweet music, and finally employs a restorative potion, ‘grasse green’ , that seems to replace the blood in his wounds, ‘And all was soft that erst was sore’ (294). Eger soon departs for his own country in the belief that he is whole, despite Loosepayn’s warnings that his lady’s love is crucial to sustain his healing: ‘But I know well for a day or 2 Froe that loue make you once agast, Your oyntments may noe longer last. Sith you will not abyde with mee, Lett your ladye in your countrye Doe to your wounds as I wold haue done; Then they will soft and heale full soone. ’ (321–8) Though Eger is dressed in fine silk and provided with wine for his journey by Loosepayn, the otherworldly nature of her marvellous medicine is shockingly affirmed when, on his return home, Eger’s wounds once again burst open. His doubting lady, Winglayn, is far from being a magical healer. The forbidden country resembles the world of faery in that its processes do not endure in the real world. The romance ends with more questions than answers: who are Graysteel and Loosepayn, with her medical magic; where and what is the forbidden country; and how far do the vanquished Eger and his untrusting lady fit the chivalric ideal? The lateness of this work, like Valentine and Orson, may explain its sometimes anti-chivalric quality, but its author knows too just how to exploit and merge the traditions of white and black magic, and the otherworld, to create the persistent effect of the uncanny. The magic of the world of faery is appealing and troubling. It offers the possibility of fulfilment of desire in love, and promises the ideal, beautiful lover, healing or perfection of the body, and escape from the ravages of time. These are the aims too of human magical practices, but faery magic requires no complex and suspicious rituals. Yet the wish-fulfilment of faery remains uncertain, for the otherworld is also associated with violence, shape-shifting and unease, with danger as well as delight. Those who inhabit the otherworld possess supernatural powers that draw on, rival and surpass the forces of natural magic or ‘nigromancy’ . They may both challenge and shape human destiny, in ways that can seem more like the inter­ vention of the demonic than of the divine. The faery is a world to be feared as well as longed-for, and is characterised by the fundamental ambiguity of the supernatural that is so apparent in attitudes to magic.


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6 Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention


s the ambiguity of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight demonstrates 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 created world. Romances repeatedly play on the wonder of God’s marvellous power, thus conveying a didactic message but also heightening fantasy and exoticism. Situations of extreme suffering and miraculous reprieve, in particular, allow for dramatic explorations of the strength of Christian virtue against the power of the devil. Angels and demons, miracle and marvel play crucial roles in endorsing or challenging the protagonists of romance, but also provide a kind of authorised supernatural that is exotic, wondrous, fantastic and fearful by turns, and that fulfils many of the same functions as magic and the faery.1 Romance probes too the complicated, often ambiguous quality of the marvellous, the difficulty of reconciling its sometimes destructive manifestations with the beneficent movement of providence, and of distinguishing between it and the fearful possibility of demonic intervention in the world. The special powers of magic, divination and shape-shifting, characteristic of the world of faery, also belong both to God and devil, who in their various manifestations shape and intervene in human destiny, again in profoundly physical ways, through the motifs of loss and return of the body, and through bodily transformation. The transformative power of the supernatural, fundamental to narratives of penitence and testing, is intimately associated with notions of monstrosity and beauty, and the alignment of interior and exterior qualities. Miracle and retribution may be written on the body, and the illness and healing of both body and soul are prominent motifs. Miracle finds a dark counterpart in the sinister wiles and temptations of the devil, and the struggle between angels, demons and men can become a subject in its own right. Of particular resonance is the monstrous possibility that the devil may take human form in order to beget a changeling child. While romance and hagiography can overlap, to the extent that in one manuscript of Sir Gowther the scribe concludes ‘Explicit vita sancti’ ,2 the treatment of the Christian supernatural in romance can also lead to existential and potentially uneasy questions regarding the presence and disposition of God, and the possibility of grace and redemption. 1 For a postcolonial analysis of a number of the romances considered here, see Heng, Empire of Magic. 2 British

Library, MS Royal 17.b.43, discussed in the Introduction to Mills, Six Middle English Romances, p. xxxi.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance It is in the figure of Merlin, the demonic child redeemed for good, that ideas of the Christian supernatural, demonic powers, and human magic merge most strikingly.

Miracle and Providence Just as there is always the chance that the romance protagonist may stray into or encounter some manifestation of the world of faery, so the veil between the temporal and celestial or demonic worlds may readily thin and disappear, proving Augustine’s argument that God continues to intervene in the human world within this later age of faith. Miracle can function as God’s voice in the Bible does, to authorise those who enact his will on earth. In the romance of Havelok, miracle intervenes when the fisherman Grim is commanded by the usurping earl Godard to drown the child heir of Denmark: Grim’s wife sees ‘a light full shir, / Also bright so it were day … / Of hise mouth it stood a stem / Als it were a sunnebem; / Also light was it ther-inne / So ther brenden cerges inne’ (588–94). The descriptive detail is considerably extended from the French source, as it is throughout. Later, the ‘blase of fir’ stemming from Havelok’s mouth, and the ‘swithe noble croiz’ on his shoulder in red gold, mark Havelok as divinely chosen (1262–3), and the sign is affirmed by the voice of an angel, who identifies Havelok to his unwilling bride Goldboru as ‘kinges sone and kinges eir’ (1267) and predicts his rule of England and Denmark. By no coincidence, Havelok simultaneously experiences a dream vision in which he possesses all Denmark and England. The colourful events and battles of this romance follow the divinely orchestrated movement of Havelok from exile to king who unifies two nations.3 In chivalric romances, the knight, mysteriously elect, is led through the process of adventure to achieve his destiny – often the attainment of lady and lands, and the making of a chivalric identity. In the folkloric, explicitly Christian structure of Havelok, protective or identifying magic is replaced by miracle, while the suspense and wonder of the supernatural is retained in the startling king-light. In the Anglo-Norman Romance of Horn, divine intervention is also repeatedly emphasised, and whereas King Horn focuses on the inspiring power of Rymenhild’s ring, the Anglo-Norman offers a detailed description of the wondrous sword used by Horn (disguised as Gudmod; Cutberd in the English version), which is inscribed with and empowered by the name of God (st. 152). Throughout, the Anglo-Norman romance highlights the role of God in preserving Horn, and hence emphasises the power of miraculous intervention. The fragmentary Charlemagne romance, The Sege of Melayne, which, like the Sowdone of Babylon, treats the adventures of Roland and his companions in their resistance to Muslim invaders, relies on miraculous intervention to prove the just cause of the Christian faith. Its robustly material treatment of the battle between Saracen and Christian sets empty pagan belief against the power of God, who repeatedly manifests himself in miracle in response to heathen destruction. Milan 3 On

this motif, see Rosalind Field, ‘The King Over the Water: Exile and Return Revisited’ , in Saunders, Cultural Encounters in the Literature of Medieval England, pp. 41–54.


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Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention has been conquered by an Arabian sultan, who has established his ‘idols’ there; Sir Alantyne, Lord of Milan, and his family are threatened with torture and death if they do not adopt the Muslim faith. In response to Alantyne’s anguished prayers, an angel appears to him in a dream, urging him to summon Charlemagne, while Charlemagne simultaneously dreams that an angel presents him with the sword of Christ, inciting him to vengeance; on waking, he discovers the sword ‘Appon his bedde syde’ .4 This work plays on the Old Testament opposition between the power of Yahweh and the heathen gods, when, having been betrayed by Ganelon, Roland and his three companions are captured by the Saracens. The sultan boasts that he has burnt a hundred Christian images, but seen no more power ‘Than att another rotyn tree’ (420); he requests ‘one of theire goddis’ (422) be brought to prove the meaninglessness of the Christian faith. As Roland prays for a miracle, a crucifix is thrown into the fire, but will not burn. The sultan’s curse envisages only demonic power, ‘yif the devell … be hym within, / He sall be brynt’ (452–3), and, like his pragmatic explanation that the Christians have made the cross wet, reflects his spiritual blindness, made literal when fire from the cross strikes the Saracens’ eyes. The blinding recalls St Paul’s punishment of the sorcerer, Bar-Jesus, as ‘child of the devil’ (Acts 13:10–11), but is reminiscent too of Tryamour’s punishment of Guinevere’s sinfulness. The difference between miracle and otherworldly magic is not of kind so much as context. In each case, punishment is absolute. No conversion such as that of St Paul occurs here: the physical proof of Christian power is affirmed when the companions, ‘clenly thorow Goddis grace’ (495), kill all the Saracens, and seen in further miracles: at the abbey of Saint Denis, the bells ‘Range allone thorowe Goddis grace’ (516), and when Archbishop Turpin sets up an altar to say Mass for the dead, bread and wine appear, a physical manifestation of the divine that gestures to the miracle of transubstantiation. The narrative retells the ancient battle of pagan and Christian, good and evil, within the context of Continental history, and the strength of God’s hand is literally shown to create victory out of defeat. Christian faith both brings supernatural power and miraculous preservation, and opens the eyes to these transformative forces. In The King of Tars, pagan evil and the miracle of faith are written on the body through still more extreme transformation. The romance plays on the notions of demonic ‘taking’ and possession of the body, when the king’s daughter consents to marry the Sultan of Damascus in order to end his war with her father. Reassured by a dream vision in which Jesus saves her from a demonic hunt (the motif used in Sir Orfeo), she acquiesces in Muslim rites. Within three months, she is pregnant, but the monstrous marriage results in a monstrous child: ‘For lim no hadde it non. / Bot as a rond of flesche yschore / In chaumber it lay hem bifore /

4 The

Sege of Melayne, in Mills, Six Middle English Romances, pp. 1–45: l. 138. Subsequent references to The Sege of Melayne are to this edition, cited by line number. The romance dates to c. 1400 and is found in a single manuscript. It narrates a popular legend of Charlemagne and appears to be based on a lost French source; for an analogous romance, see Capystranus, in Shepherd, Middle English Romances, pp. 391–408.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Wiþouten blod & bon’ (579–82).5 The implication is clear: without a Christian soul, man is a horrific, amorphous lump of flesh; the demonic is made manifest. When the sultan’s prayers to his gods have no effect, his wife persuades him to permit Christian rituals, and a priest is found in the Saracen prison: Þe prest toke þe flesche anon, & cleped it þe name of Ion In worþschip of þe day & when þat it cristned was It hadde liif & lim & fas, & crid wiþ gret deray. & hadde hide & flesche & fel, & alle þat euer þerto bifel, In gest as y ȝou say. Feirer child miȝt non be bore; It no hadde neuer a lime forlore; Wele schapen it was wiþalle. (772–83) The miracle persuades the sultan to be christened, and his spiritual transformation too is written on the body, ‘His hide, þat blac & loþely was, / Al white bicom, þurth Godes gras, / & clere wiþouten blame’ (928–300)! The direction of violence is also shifted: now all in the land are threatened with death if they are not christened, and the sultan joins the King of Tars in fierce battle against the Saracens. The romance plays on both the popular belief that a child took its shape from the father, whose seed was formative, and the powerful biblical notion that a father’s sin might literally be visited upon his child. Interior and exterior being align. The transformative power of faith and conversion is set against the reductive power of disbelief – as is typical in saints’ lives, including Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale with its play on the blindness of the pagan judge Almachius by contrast to St Cecilia’s spiritual sight with its power to convert. The King of Tars may also play on fears of deformity, signalling the gap between reality and romance: the natural magic of medicine cannot offer the possibility of miraculous transformation. Divine power takes shape-shifting to its limits and beyond. Miracle authorises dynastic and national history, empowers the righteous, occasions conversion, and perfects the monstrous through faith. Its transformations and shape-shifting can be radical but are licit, fulfilling divine vision, and enabling Christian rule and empire. Miracle also functions to defend the individual protagonist, sometimes blurring into other kinds of marvel and magic: divine intervention offers supernatural protection or orchestrates destiny in more or less strange 5 Judith Perryman, ed., The King of Tars: ed. from the Auchinleck MS, Advocates 19.2.1, Middle English

Texts 12 (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1980), ll. 579–82. Subsequent references to The King of Tars are to this edition, cited by line number. The romance dates to the early fourteenth century, and exists in three manuscripts, including the Auchinleck MS. It has no known source but draws on chronicle material and pious exempla, and finds some parallels in Le Bone Florence de Rome. See further Heng, Empire of Magic, pp. 226–37.


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Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention and exotic ways. This pattern is especially marked in works that treat the subject of the calumniated queen. The romance of Athelston makes clear use of hagiography to present miraculous survival of a trial by ordeal, but complicates this by deploying the motif of the monstrous child in startlingly naturalistic terms.6 When one of King Athelston’s three sworn brothers and advisors is falsely accused of treachery by another, the queen intercedes on his behalf, and her child is stillborn as a result of the kick delivered by the furious king, a deeply disturbing manifestation of the deformity and destructiveness of injustice. The process of accusation and innocence is rendered in this text through the making and unmaking of bodies. As in The King of Tars and the Sege of Melayne, emphasis is placed on the power of religious ritual: the Archbishop prepares a great fire, consecrating nine times the path that those accused of treachery must take for their trial by ordeal. By contrast to the king’s unjust, arbitrary kick, the fire becomes the instrument of divine justice, preserving rather than destroying bodies: Sir Egelond emerges ‘unblemishid, foot and hand’; his children find the fire ‘cold y-nough’; and finally his wife, who is great with child stands still ‘amidde / And callid it merye and bryiht’ .7 In this work, the monstrous child is not remade, but the loss of the king’s son is answered in the birth of Egelond’s son, who is Saint Edmund. The suffering and preservation of the heroine through the invisible hand of providence is the structuring motif of the Constance story, told by Chaucer as the Man of Law’s Tale.8 This hagiographic romance combines explicit miracle with the general theme of providential preservation, again taking as its focus bodies made and unmade, lost and found. At the feast celebrating Custance’s arrival in Syria, where she is to be married to the sultan, who has promised to convert to Christianity with all his nobles and family, the Muslims, led by the sultan’s mother, rise up, kill the sultan and all the Christians, and send Custance out to sea in a boat ‘al steerelees’ (439). Abandoned to the workings of destiny, her body becomes a vehicle for the proof of divine providence. Chaucer draws attention to the biblical parallels of Daniel, Jonah, and the Israelites in the desert, and the hope for comparable preservation: ‘God liste to shewe his wonderful myracle / In hire, for we sholde seen his myghty werkis’ (477–8). When Hermengyld, the wife of the Constable of Northumberland, who has taken in Custance, is killed by a knight whose advances Custance rejects, and Custance is falsely accused by him of the crime, Christ more actively becomes her champion. Her innocence is 6 See Nancy Mason Bradbury, ‘Beyond the Kick: Women’s Agency in Athelston’ , in Saunders, Cultural

Encounters in the Literature of Medieval England, pp. 149–58. in Middle English Verse Romances, ed. Sands, pp. 130–53: ll. 588, 610, 634–5. The romance has no known source, although it draws on English chronicle and folk material; it dates to c. 1355– 80 and exists in a single manuscript. 8 As discussed in Chapter 3, the Constance story is also told by Nicholas Trivet and by Gower, and bears a close resemblance to Emaré: see pp. 139–40. For a discussion of the story pattern, see Margaret Schlauch, Chaucer’s Constance and Accused Queens (New York: New York University Press, 1927); J. R. Reinhard, ‘Setting Adrift in Medieval Law and Literature’ , PMLA 56 (1941), pp. 33–68; and Carolyn Hares-Stryker, ‘Adrift on the Seven Seas: The Mediæval Topos of Exile at Sea’ , Florilegium 12 (1993), pp. 79–98.

7 Athelston,


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance proven through ‘open myracle’ , when her accuser falls dead while swearing on the Gospels, and a divine voice speaks, ‘Thou hast desclaundered, giltelees, / The doghter of hooly chirche in heigh presence’ (674–5). King Alla and many others are converted, but the pattern of Custance’s sufferings is repeated when, married to the king, she is accused by his jealous mother, Donegild, of bearing a monstrous child, and of being a faery witch, ‘an elf, by aventure / Ycomen, by charmes or by sorcerie’ (754–5), and sent out to sea once again with her infant son. The false accusation of magic, and its supposedly monstrous manifestation, is set against the ‘mervaille’ (677) that preserves mother and child. The theme of miraculous preservation is again reiterated when Custance escapes a would-be-rapist, and finally, in the providential reunion of wife, husband and child. Here, the fiction of the monstrous child reflects the evil mind of Donegild, whereas Custance’s actual, beautiful child replicates her virtue and that of her husband. God’s presence in the world is physically proven through the manifestation of his supernatural power: the death of the sinful, the marvellous restoration of the exiled body, and the perfection of the child. The motif of divine providence resonates with other exile and return stories, such as those narrated in Horn and Havelok: all these works employ folk material to move from disorder to order, and to affirm God’s presence in the world. Emaré employs the same pattern of the calumniated heroine exiled on the sea while moving further into the romance mode through the use of the marvellous robe, which comes to stand as a symbol of her virtue and divine protection. It is not Emaré’s faith but her sexual purity that leads to her exile, when she refuses the incestuous advances of her father, and her mother-in-law’s treachery later (also employing the fiction of the monstrous birth) is not related to religious opposition; indeed, Emaré’s husband is away fighting the Saracens when their child is born.9 Despite the focus on the supernatural quality of the robe, which might be seen as affording magical protection, the narrative emphasises that, like Custance, Emaré is saved by divine providence: ‘To God of heven she made her mone / And to hys modyr also’; ‘She was dryven ynto a lond, / Thorow the grace of Goddes sond, / That all thyng may fulfylle’ (314–15, 331–3). Emaré’s second exile is treated in similar terms: she is driven over the sea to Rome itself, eventually the site of her reunion with the king, who has set out on a pilgrimage upon discovering the loss of his wife and son. Pericles will employ the same patterns, following Apollonius of Tyre in combining them with the hagiographic motif of testing the virtuous woman in the brothel. In the Constance story and its analogues, the testing of the heroine allows for the proof of Christian providence. The miracles of preservation of the body and reunion of husbands and wives, parents and children counter the sufferings of the temporal world in powerfully affective ways, employing pathos and drama to gesture to the promise of divine grace and ultimately recall the miracle of the Resurrection. They call attention too to the gap between romance and reality, and the need for faith in a world where miracle is less evident. 9 On

mothers, with a particular focus on Emaré and Octavian, see Jennifer Fellows, ‘Mothers in Middle English Romance’ , in Meale, Women and Literature in Britain, pp. 41–60.


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Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention

Marvellous Agents The supernatural of the Charlemagne romances, The King of Tars, Athelston and the Constance stories is firmly that of miracle, which asserts the beneficent role of divine providence against malice, frequently rooted in pagan belief, or against ignorance of Christianity, and demonstrates the power of conversion. The opposition between good and evil can also be resolved in more exotic ways that employ marvel rather than miracle. The marvellous objects and technology that can be employed by humans are complemented by marvellous creatures, and their inverse, monsters, who participate in the unfolding of divine providence in positive and negative ways.10 Their function is not always moral: they complement marvels of the inanimate natural world, and represent a powerful strand of the exotic in romance. Marvellous and monstrous creatures inhabited the boundaries of the civilised world in medieval thought, their qualities narrated in travellers’ tales and bestiaries, their presence always possible within unknown, hostile landscapes. The marvellous animals of romance find analogues in the speaking birds of dream visions and poems of St Valentine, and in the anthropomorphised animals of beast fable: the lamenting falcon of Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale, for instance, seems to have strayed out of these genres into romance; the speaking bird and magical gifts fill out the Eastern context of the story. The wonders and marvels of the East, plant, mineral and animal, similarly colour the Alexander romances and complement Alexander’s adventures in probing the natural world – through his journeys by sea, land and air.11 The Charlemagne romances too emphasise the exotic wonders and treasures of the East. Repeatedly, however, animals play defined moral roles that suggest supernatural interventions more or less explicitly. They may take on human qualities or possess marvellous powers, as does the remarkable horse Arundel in Guy of Warwick. The legendary loyalty and courage of certain animals – lions, dogs, horses – allows romance writers to present them as recognising virtue and by defending their masters, fighting for chivalric and Christian ideals. In Chrétien’s Le Chevalier au Lion and in Ywain and Gawain the lion preserved from a dragon by Yvain comes to his rescue and repeatedly fights alongside him. In Sir Tryamour, a loyal greyhound plays an especially prominent role: the dog fights for his master, the faithful old knight Sir Roger, when he is ambushed and killed while accompanying the calumniated queen.12 The dog echoes his master’s enduring faithfulness, guarding the body, trying to heal his master, eventually burying him, and after seven 10 On

monsters, see further David Williams, Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Medieval Thought and Literature (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996). 11 See further Gerritt H. V. Bunt, Alexander the Great in the Literature of Medieval Britain, Mediaevalia Groningana 14 (Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1994), and for many instances, Sir Gilbert Hay, The Buik of King Alexander the Conquerour; and the late fourteenth-century alliterative poem The Wars of Alexander, ed. Hoyt N. Duggan and Thorlac Turville-Petre, Early English Text, SS 10 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989). 12 For Sir Tryamour, see Fellows, Of Love and Chivalry, pp. 147–98. The work dates to the late fourteenth century and exists in two manuscripts. It has no known source, but draws on familiar folkloric and romance material.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance years avenges Sir Roger’s death and reveals the treachery to the king. Beves’ horse Arundel too shows proto-human understanding and affection, and his life mirrors his master’s. All these creatures exemplify love and loyalty that are set against human treachery. Marvellous creatures find their counterpart in the monstrous, often associated with the Saracens. Especially disturbing are the monstrous races spawned by Cain, in that they pervert humanity. The figure of the giant recurs in romance, recognisably human in form yet bestial in his size and ferocity, and his rampant sexual desire.13 The giant’s place is outside the civilised world, yet he is able to participate in that world, particularly in the East. In Beves the giant Ascopard is the ‘champioun’ (2521) of the aged pagan King Garcy and his overlord, King Yfor of Mombraunt. The limits to civilising giants are comically portrayed in Ascopard’s eventual refusal to be baptised along with Josian: ‘Icham to meche to be cristine’ (2596). He later betrays Beves by seizing Josian. The presence of giants in the world of the Saracen signals its uncivilised, potentially demonic qualities, but also suggests the exotic otherness of the East and its affinity with the marvellous. Monstrous creatures repeatedly serve as predators in romance, abductors especially of children, furthering tales of exile and return, separation and reunion; they balance the animals who serve and care for vulnerable humans, again often children. Monstrous, predatory ­creatures and loving and loyal animals represent the forces of order and disorder in the world, and are agents both of the tribulation and the grace that enact the divine will. Marvellous and monstrous creatures play a notable part in Octavian, set in the context of battle between the Saracens and the French.14 In this version of the calumniated queen story, the use of wondrous animals to preserve the abandoned children merges miracle and marvel. Like a number of these tales, the romance gestures at anxieties surrounding conception and childbirth: in a variant on the monstrous birth motif, the prayers of the barren wife of the Emperor of Rome are answered with twins, and this sudden doubling of children, often treated with unease (as in Marie de France’s Lai le Freine), prompts her wicked stepmother’s accusation of adultery. The empress’s dream of a dragon snatching her children away in a dark wood is enacted in her exile within ‘a wyldurnes / That full of wylde bestys was’ (289–90), when the children are taken by an ape and a lioness. Horror shifts to marvel when the lioness, herself snatched up by a griffin, slays the ­monster and saves the child, Octavian.15 God shows his presence through the marvellous qualities of the natural world, reflected here in the noble behaviour 13 See

further Jerome Jeffrey Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). 14 Octavian, in Mills, Six Middle English Romances, pp. 75–125: ll. 1480–1. Subsequent references to Octavian are to this edition, cited by line number. 15 Sir Eglamour of Artois uses a similar motif: a griffin seizes and flies away with Degrebell, the son of the exiled lady, Christabel. This evidently popular romance has no known source but employs familiar material. The work dates to c. 1350, and exists in five manuscripts as well as in the Percy Folio. See Four Middle English Romances: Sir Isumbras, Octavian, Sir Eglamour of Artois, Sir Tryamour, ed. Harriet Hudson, 2nd edn, TEAMS, Middle English Texts Series (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 2006).


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Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention of the lioness. Repeated reference is made to providence: ‘Thorow Goddys grace’; ‘As hyt Goddys wylle was’; ‘As hyt was Goddys owne wylle’ (364, 368, 379). God’s protective hand is manifest when the lioness stands ‘debonerly still’ , allowing the queen to take the child ‘Thorow the myght of Mary mylde’ (463), and dwelling with her in Jerusalem, eventually to enter the final battle against the Saracens as a champion of Christianity. The romance combines the story of the Empress and Octavian with that of the lost son Florent, who is bought by a Paris merchant, Clement; the clash of their values is the source of considerable comedy. When the Saracens attack, Florent defeats the sultan’s giant Aragonour, who functions as a dark counterpart of Florent; both are in love with the sultan’s daughter, Marsabell. Exoticism is further enhanced by the sultan’s marvellous horse, with its special abilities in battle and ‘Yn hys hedd … an horne, / Schapon as an unycorne’ (1480–1). The horse’s role is tangential: it serves as a glittering prize and proof of love when, gained by the merchant Clement through trickery and taken back to Paris, it is presented by Florent to the Emperor of Rome. Not its intrinsically marvellous qualities but attitudes to it are the focus: the creature marks the difference between bourgeois and aristocratic codes. Having been gained by wit, it is given as a gift by Florent, and thus functions to prove his nobility and worth to his father. The theme of marvellous animals is reiterated when Florent, the King of France and the emperor are imprisoned by the sultan, and rescued by Florent’s brother Octavian, their mother and the lioness. Although the lesson of the romance is spiritual, the emphasis falls on different aspects of the fantastic – the wonders of the East, the fearsomeness of wild animals, and the nobility of the heraldic beast, the lion, whose nurturing of the hero is the central miracle of the story. Wonder at the miraculous return of those who are lost is rivalled in this work by wonder at the means of that return: the most memorable bodies of the story are those of the marvellous animals who enact God’s will. The naturalistic tone in which the story is recounted points up the quality of marvel as, however fantastic, belonging within the created world. The treatment of the calumniated queen in Chevelere Assigne moves these motifs of miracle and marvel considerably further into the realms of fairy tale. The narrative of the swan knight, popular across Europe, was associated in particular with Godfrey of Bouillon, the subject of a cycle of French romances. The alliterative English romance Chevelere Assigne offers an abbreviated and detached version of the first episode of the cycle, the Naissance du Chevalier au Cygne, in its narrative of seven swan-children. Once again, the motif of monstrous birth plays a key role, here integrated with the theme of marvellous animals. It is suggested but never made explicit that the extraordinary birth of seven children, all born wearing silver chains, punishes the queen’s condemnation of a woman as adulterous because she has given birth to twins. The antagonist is again the mother-inlaw, who shapes a much more negative fiction of monstrous birth by exchanging puppies for the children: when her servant goes to take the chains and kill the children now abandoned in the forest, the six he finds are transformed, ‘whenne 215

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance þe cheynes fell hem fro, þey flowenn up swannes’ .16 The story plays on the motif of the shape-shifting stepmother, but here the children are innately supernatural, and their otherworldliness is conveyed in positive terms through their beauty and through the legendary nobility of swans. The magical quality of the chains is indicated when a goldsmith makes an entire cup out of only one chain. Magic blurs with miracle, however, when an angel appears to the hermit who cares for the remaining child, to reveal that he must fight for his calumniated mother. He is borne to court on the right shoulder of the angel, to become Chevalere Assigne. In the ensuing battle, an adder springs from the child’s shield and fire shoots from the cross he bears, killing his enemy and proving the innocence of the queen. The goldsmith’s return of the remaining chains allows five of the siblings to regain their human shape. Yet how strange this half-magic, half-miracle story is, for one swan, his chain lost, is never transformed and the poet offers only the haunting image of his grief: ‘He bote hymself with his byll, þat all his breste bledde, / And all his feyre federes fomede upon blode, / And all formerknes [darkens] þe watur þer þe swanne swymmeth’ (360–2). Although the romance concludes with a reference to the ‘botenynge’ (‘remedy’) of God, no further explanation is given, either for the swan children or for the sad ending of the story. Incomprehensible magic has merged with miracle to create an enigmatic narrative in which God is both present and aloof, his intervention finally limited and the resolution of the plot partial.

Penance, Illness and Healing The group of stories of calumniated queens and suffering women, with their miracles, marvellous creatures and monsters, is balanced by romances centring on male suffering, often of a penitential kind rather than the result of false accusation, and often linked to bodily suffering and preservation.17 At the realist end of the spectrum is Guy of Warwick, included, like Beves and The King of Tars, among the Auchinleck manuscript’s collection of romances and saints’ lives, and employing many of the same motifs.18 The first part of this romance is secular, its focus Guy’s pursuit of the lady Felice, who repeatedly refuses him her hand in marriage until he proves himself worthy through a sequence of battles against Christians 16 Chevalere

Assigne, in Medieval English Romances, ed. Diane Speed, 2 vols, 3rd edn, Durham Medieval Texts 8 (Durham: Durham Medieval Texts, 1993), pp. 149–70: l. 148. Subsequent references to Chevalere Assigne are to this edition, cited by line number. The work dates to the late fourteenth century and exists in a single manuscript; it is based on a version of the Old French Naissance du Chevalier au Cygne: Beatrix. See further Tony Davenport, ‘Abbreviation and the Education of the Hero in Chevalere Assigne’ , in Hardman, The Matter of Identity in Medieval Romance, pp. 9–20. 17 Some of the ideas treated here are also discussed in my essays, ‘Bodily Narratives: Illness, Medicine and Healing in Middle English Romance’ , in Cartlidge, Boundaries in Medieval Romance, pp. 175– 90; and ‘The Affective Body: Love, Virtue and Vision in Medieval English Literature’ , in Corinne Saunders, Jane Macnaughton and Ulrika Maude, ed., The Body and the Arts (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 87–102. 18 See further Velma Bourgeois Richmond, The Legend of Guy of Warwick (New York: Garland, 1996), and Alison Wiggins and Rosalind Field, ed., Guy of Warwick: Icon and Ancestor, Studies in Medieval Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2007).


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Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention and pagans, a savage boar and the dragon of Northumberland. The second, briefer section treats Guy’s wedding and swiftly following conversion to a more spiritual life, again enacted in battles on the side of Christian justice, and culminating in his encounter with the giant Colbrond.19 The spiritual emphasis might create the expectation of a romance shot through with supernatural intervention, but miracle plays a limited role in Guy of Warwick. Most strikingly naturalistic is Guy’s conversion: after living in joy for only fifteen days with Felice, Guy returns home from hunting and ascends a tower to see ‘þat firmament, / Þat thicke wiþ steres stode’ and think ‘On Iesu omnipotent, / Þat alle his honour hadde him lent’ , whereas he has never served Jesus in return (st. 21). Lamenting, he believes himself damned for his following of ‘wer & wo’ and killing of many men, and resolves to undertake penance. The narrative echoes the life of St Alexis, who leaves his wife on their wedding night to undertake a holy life, only returning from the East to live as a beggar in his father’s house. The events are, as W. J. Barron argues, ‘improbable’ in their suddenness and the lack of hagiographic preparation, yet there is also realism in the portrayal of Guy’s interior shift of perspective as he looks at God’s wonders in the heavens, as well as in Felice’s grief and the pain of Guy’s departing.20 Guy’s battles against Saracens and monsters re-enact the ancient battle of good and evil: in the black giant Amoraunt, it seems ‘a deuel fram helle is come’ (st. 95), while Colbrand’s armour is ‘blac as piche’ (‘the devyllys’ , Caius, 10611) and he is ‘a grisely gom to fede’ (257). Guy’s need for divine protection is emphasised: ‘Now helpe him Iesu heuen king’ (Auch., 5752); ‘Guy defended him well and strongly / With the helpe of god to him redy’ (Caius, 5751–2), and, as we have seen, he is protected by the marvellous armour of great heroes and of the holy King Clarel of Jerusalem. Guy aligns himself with those who are miraculously preserved – Lazarus, Susannah, Daniel – and with the Virgin Mary. Yet it remains most of all Guy’s physical strength that allows him to win his battles, which are consistently treated with epic realism. Although Guy calls upon Mary to help the English (st. 264), when his sword breaks he rushes to seize one of Colbrond’s battle axes, killing him with his own weapon. The Christian supernatural endorses Guy’s strength: thus, when he takes up battle for Sir Tirri, he is provided with a marvellous sword discovered through divine vision (st. 162–7), and in battle resembles an angel, ‘non erþely man’ (st. 188). Before Guy undertakes the battle against Colbrond, King Athelstan, his lords and clerics fast for three days, praying to find ‘A man þat were douhti of hond’ (st. 234), and Athelstan is instructed by an angel to await Guy at the gate of the city (st. 243; at a church, Caius, 10445). It is at Guy’s death that the hagiographic emphasis becomes explicit: now living in a hermitage, Guy learns of his imminent death from the archangel Michael, and prophesies that Felice will soon follow; his soul is carried by a thousand angels to heaven with ‘gret molodi’ (st. 293). From his corpse rises a sweet fragrance, and the body cannot be 19 The

second section of Guy of Warwick is written in rhymed stanzas instead of couplets in the Auchinleck manuscript, cited here; comparisons are drawn with Caius College Cambridge MS 107, also printed in Zupitza’s edition. See ch. 5, n. 3. 20 See Barron, English Medieval Romance, p. 78.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance moved by more than a hundred men. These miracles of holy death authorise Guy as a saintly figure, as well as an English epic hero. The pattern is closely echoed at the end of Valentine and Orson: after taking up Pacolet’s magical arts and accidentally killing his own father, Valentine adopts a life of penitential exile, shaving his hair and living on roots in the wilderness, and returning to his palace incognito to live as a beggar under the stairs with the dogs, only emerging when instructed by an angel to save Clerimond from enforced marriage. After seven years, Valentine is struck by a grievous malady and warned of his death by an angel; all the bells of the city ring out and he is canonised; many miracles, appropriately of healing, occur at his shrine (cxvii, 326). Clerimond becomes a nun, and Orson too experiences a marvellous vision of heaven and hell; he lives the rest of his life as a saintly hermit, and like his brother is associated with many miracles (cxviii, 326–7). In these works, the veil repeatedly lifts between earthly and celestial worlds. God and his angels are close, ready to listen, sometimes physically present in dream and miracle, but most of all endorsing the hero in the battle between good and evil. The scene of Guy’s conversion while looking at the firmament becomes a powerful image of God’s eternal presence in the temporal world and of the possibility of reading all men’s lives as participating in the process of establishing God’s kingdom on earth. Sir Isumbras, persuasively termed a penitential romance by Andrea Hopkins, also clearly merges hagiographic and romance structures; its piety and marvel may account for its evident popularity. It depends again upon the presence of the Christian supernatural, but here the pull of the narrative is much more conspicuously towards the marvellous.21 The work uses the familiar otherworldly pattern of the love-hunt, which also figures in certain hagiographical works. In the lives of Saints Eustace, Herbert and Julian, the otherworldly prey is Christ himself, and the pursuit leads to conversion. Thus in the Vie de Saint Eustache, the pagan Placidus is converted by a cross shining between the antlers of a beautiful white stag that he has chased into the forest, and is baptised as Eustache; the creature prophesies Eustache’s trials and martyrdom, which will be accompanied by miracle. The miraculous stag functions in opposition to the bronze bull in which the emperor Hadrian burns the bodies of Eustache and his family; they emerge to reflect in their intact flesh (a prominent hagiographical motif) the beautiful whiteness of the stag. The parallels with Sir Isumbras are evident – but also the differences.22 Isumbras is not pagan but rather, despite his chivalric excellence, 21 See

Andrea Hopkins, The Sinful Knights: A Study of Middle English Penitential Romance (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990). Hopkins uses this term to describe Sir Isumbras, Guy of Warwick, Sir Gowther and Roberd of Cisyle. See also Elizabeth Fowler, ‘The Romance Hypothetical: Lordship and the Saracens in Sir Isumbras’ , in Putter and Gilbert, ed., The Spirit of Medieval English Popular Romance, pp. 97–121. 22 Sir Isumbras, in Mills, Six Middle English Romances, pp. 125–47. References to Sir Isumbras are to this edition, cited by line number. The work dates to the early fourteenth century and exists in nine manuscripts – more than any other Middle English romance. It has no known source but is related to the legend of St Eustace. See Elizabeth Williams, ‘Hunting the Deer: Some Uses of a Motif-Complex in Middle English Romance and Saint’s Life’ , in Mills, Fellows and Meale, Romance in Medieval England, pp. 187–206.


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Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention has forgotten God, and in his epiphany and penitence miracle and marvel merge strangely from the start. Christ is identified as sending ‘a stevenne’(voice, 42) to Isumbras, but this takes the form of a singing bird, which offers the choice of suffering in youth or age. Animals continue to play prominent parts, marking the main events and, as in Octavian, rendering material the loss of identity. Isumbras’ punishment begins as his horse dies beneath him, and his hawks and hounds run wildly to the woods; in exile, with his dwellings burnt, cattle stolen and men killed, his two older sons are taken by a lion and a leopard, while heathens, themselves equated with savage beasts (‘hethen houndes’ , 483), seize his wife. Chance, instinct and actively malevolent destiny seem to conspire, when the gold paid by the heathen king for Isumbras’ wife is stolen by a griffin, attracted by the red mantle that covers it, and the youngest son is taken by a unicorn. After seven years’ penance as an ironsmith’s assistant, Isumbras rides into battle against the Saracens, killing the heathen king, and eventually goes as a palmer to Jerusalem, where he is befriended by his wife, now queen. Like his punishment, Isumbras’ redemption is marked in dramatically physical terms, first implicitly in the cure of his wounds by nuns, and then explicitly by an angel who brings bread, wine and the message of God’s forgiveness. Isumbras’ eventual reunion with the queen and his crowning are combined with his Christian mission, and in the ensuing battle with the Saracens they fight against thirty thousand men, assisted by their sons, who arrive riding on leopard, lion and unicorn. No explanation is given beyond their words, ‘The grace of God us hydur dede sende; / Thyne owen sones be we’ (767–78). This tale of providential intervention does not deal in realism – but it gains drama and suspense by going beyond straightforward miracle in its use of a sequence of exotic animals rather than angels. The savage griffin, acting through instinct, is contrasted with the noble legendary animals that nurture the children and the bird through which Christ speaks. Miracle merges with a broader sense of the fantastic and the supernatural in this romance of the making and unmaking of the self, vividly written in the dramatic loss and marvellous recovery of Isumbras’ wife and children. Miraculous intervention, like magic, is repeatedly physical, preserving, transforming, returning bodies, and thus gesturing towards the hope for redemption. Illness and healing therefore can play crucial roles in romance, and the possibility of healing, natural magic opens onto Christian miracle. In Beves, Josian’s practice of natural magic is complemented by Beves’ experience of miraculous healing. Beves’ greatest tests are those of illness and corruption of the flesh effected by monstrous opponents. Accused of seducing Josian, Beves is sent by her father to King Brademond of Damascus with a letter ordering his own death. Imprisoned by Brademond, he must defeat two dragons, but also many snakes ‘Þat prouede euer wiþ her venim / To sle [him]’ (1542–3); attacked finally by a black adder, he swoons and ‘almest is lif was in balaunse’ (1562); he lies seven years in his ‘peines grete’ (1569), and is only rescued through supernatural intervention in response to his prayers. Beves’ battle with the dragon besieging Cologne, an episode not present in the Anglo-Norman, is similarly constructed. The redactor carefully shapes the emphasis by describing how Beves hears the cries of a wounded knight 219

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance and learns that the dragon’s venom has the power to rot the flesh from the bone. When the dragon throws its poison on Beves, Al ferde Beues bodi þere, A foul mesel also ȝif a were; Þar þe venim on him felle, His flesch gan ranclen & tebelle, Þar þe venim was icast, His armes gan al to-brast; Al to-brosten is ventaile, And of his hauberk a þosend maile. (2829–36) Whereas the ‘foule mesel’ effected earlier by Josian (3688) protects by altering her physical appearance, the poison corrupts by penetrating armour and body: it requires not natural magic but divine intervention. Just as the virgin’s well has earlier cooled and fortified Beves, now it proves to have the power to heal him when fortuitously he falls into it. These tests of wounding and illness, and their miraculous healing, reflect the inner grace of the hero: he is divinely protected. God, finally, is the marvellous physician with redemptive powers of healing. The mysterious, providential quality of illness and healing is acutely conveyed later, in the detail that Beves’ uncle, Sir Saber, for ‘gret sikenesse’ (3900) is confined to bed for half a year, until ‘Swiche grace god him gan sende / And heled him of his maladie’ (3920–1). There is, by contrast, no marvellous treatment for the sickness of Josian’s father, King Ermin, which leads to his death (4007–9), nor for the ‘sekenesse’ that eventually takes Josian from the world. Yet hope for the physical enactment of healing grace is a powerful force in romance narrative, and transformation of the diseased body is a marvellous sign of divine intervention. Such intervention perfects the aim of natural, medicinal magic to achieve healing. The penitential narrative of Amys and Amylion is structured around the motifs of bodily corruption and miraculous healing. The work depends too upon physical doubling: the resemblance between Amys and Amylion, reflective of their ideal friendship, is so strong that even their wives cannot distinguish them. The action is triggered when, because of ‘o maladye that on him wes’ , Amys remains at home and encounters the love-sick Belesawnt, the duke’s daughter, who seeks to ‘slake here of here care’ in the garden: the duke’s actual hunt is replaced by the hunt of love.23 Later, when Amylion takes the place of Amys, who is guilty of the charge of illicit love, in a trial by single combat, and Amys takes Amylion’s place in his marital bed, Amys claims ‘suche maladye / That all chaunged ys my blode; / [And] all my bonys be so sare’ (st. 96) in order to avoid making love to Amylion’s wife. 23 Amys and Amylion, ed. Françoise le Saux, Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies (Exeter: Exeter

University Press, 1993), stanzas 41, 42, 45. Subsequent references to Amys are to this edition, cited by stanza number. The story exists in numerous versions across Europe, including an eleventh-century Latin verse epistle and a chanson de geste of c. 1200. The Middle English poem dates to the late thirteenth century, and exists in four manuscript versions, including one in the Auchinleck MS; it is based on a version of the Anglo-Norman Amys e Amillyoun (c. 1200), but expands many of the details.


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Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention The profound connection between the two friends seems to be affirmed when this mock illness is answered by Amylion’s actual leprosy. It is explicitly God-sent: an angel announces to Amylion that he will become ‘a ffouler man’ than any other if he fights in place of Amys (st. 103). The romance dramatically probes a conflict of moral responsibility, as, despite the fact that he likes the idea ‘ylle’ (st. 105), Amylion chooses to take on the battle, placing friendship above obedience to God. The physical, shape-shifting illness that begins as punishment becomes a test of moral virtue, both of Amylion and those around him. Leprosy held a special resonance in the medieval period, its physical symptoms of degeneration of flesh, limbs and bones making it seem a ‘living death’ , the ‘unclean’ disease.24 Thought to have a sexual cause, leprosy was associated with pride and lust, and viewed as a mark of sin, as Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid so dramatically suggests in Cresseid’s leprosy. Her physical transformation is the immediate result of blasphemy against the gods, but also symbolic of her betrayal of Troilus and her promiscuity. The Testament exploits the horror of sudden, supernatural transformation in something of the manner of Sir Orfeo when, waking from her vision of Saturn laying his ‘frostie wande’ on her head, Cresseid sees in the glass the ravages of leprosy, so terrible that ‘Sum knew hir weill, and sum had na knawledge / Of hir, becaus scho was sa deformait, / Wyth bylis blak ouirspred in hir visage, / And hir fair colour faidit and alterait. ’25 While Amys offers no such graphic realisation of leprosy, the supernatural cause of illness is fundamental to the narrative: ‘As the angell had him ytolde, / A fouler lazar was none yholde / In this world then he’ (st. 125). Although no physical detail is given, Amylion’s experience of leprosy functions as an extreme moral test. The romance complicates a simple understanding of disease as divine punishment for and reflection of sin. Both knights, as the emphasis on their fairness suggests, are fundamentally virtuous, embodying the chivalric ideal. Amylion is innocent except in his masquerade, and wins the battle because he is so, while Amys’ carnal sin of illicit love is treated sympathetically: the lady Belesawnt loves him for his chivalry, the pair plight ‘here trowthes both twoo’ (st. 54), and the affair ends in marriage; only Amys’ betrayer, the false steward (jealous because Amys will not take him as sworn friend), is condemned. The motif of corruption of the flesh here is more complex than in the Testament of Cresseid. It asserts the absolute justice and omniscient power of God, who is not deceived by the battle won on a technicality. But the moral impact is firmly rooted in Amylion’s virtue: he is willing to sacrifice his body to disease for his friend, his living death enacting the words of Christ recorded in the Gospel of St John, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15.13). Amylion’s leprosy renders him a living emblem of Christ, suffering for mankind on the Cross. The virtue of ­others is also tested in their responses to Amylion’s diseased body: the selflessness 24 It

is now known that the term was applied to many skin diseases where ulcers and sores were present: see Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present (London: Fontana, 1997), pp. 121–2. 25 Robert Henryson, The Testament of Cresseid, in The Poems, ed. Denton Fox (Oxford, 1987), pp. 111– 31: ll. 311, 393–6. The poem dates to the later fifteenth century.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance of Amys’ wife is shown in her greeting to him: ‘As foule a lasur as he was, / The lady kiste him in that plas’ (st. 175). This example of charity finds its opposite in the rejection of Amylion by his wife and gradually his entire household, who respond more conventionally. He is first chased from the high table, and then, ‘To eten at the monthes ende / Wolde no man sytte him be hende’ (st. 128); they thus disobey Jesus’ instruction to his disciples ‘to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers’ (Matt. 10:8). Much is made of the friendlessness (st. 126) of the man who has been the ideal, ‘beste’ friend of all. Amylion’s virtue is ultimately rivalled by the willingness of Amys to obey the divine command of curing Amylion’s leprosy by allowing him to bathe in the blood of Amys’ children. The story plays on the legendary power of blood, the central symbol of Christianity; its mysterious potency means that blood repeatedly figures as an element of magical recipes, as well as in medical cures (from blood-letting to prescribing blood as a cure for madness).26 Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is taken two steps further, for the throats of both children are cut and then miraculously restored, ‘Withoute wem, withoute wounde, / All hole’ (st. 194). Emphasis is placed on the anguish and prayers of Amys and his wife (told only after the event), but also on Amys’ sense that he, like his friend, must take a sinful act upon himself, surrendering the body to achieve good: ‘Ffor me he shed his own blode / To save my lyfe on day’ (st. 184). The physical sacrifice of the children even more completely echoes that of Christ, and their innocent blood, like Christ’s, restores the sufferer. Their passive innocence renders the scene profoundly disturbing, yet in their death and resurrection and in Amylion’s leprosy and healing, God’s absolute power over the body is manifest. Elaine Scarry argues that stories of child sacrifice work through bodily paradox: ‘the two extreme forms of physical alteration, self-replication and wounding, converge’ . The effect of the sacrifice is ‘to make an already existing God more immediately apprehensible, to remake of an unapprehensible God an apprehensible One’ .27 In the miracle of healing, God is once again made flesh, and appropriately, the occasion is Christmas Eve. It is the uneasy merging of the motifs of illness, healing and sacrifice, making and unmaking of the body, that renders the series of transformations in this romance so remarkable.

Revenants and Demons Not only God, his angels and marvellous creatures of the natural world, but also the spirits of the dead may function as divine messengers in romance. Their presence echoes the prominence of ghosts in saints’ lives and chronicles, and signals the richness of the Christian supernatural. Such messengers, however, are ambiguous: like the Green Knight and the King of Faery, they provoke questions 26 See

further Penelope B. R. Doob, Nebuchadnezzar’s Children: Conventions of Madness in Middle English Literature (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974), p. 38. 27 Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 204–5.


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Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention of interpretation, for there is always the possibility that they may be faeries or demons, sent to test or deceive. The Anturs of Arther, a bipartite alliterative romance, commences with the appearance of the ghost of Guinevere’s mother, to warn of the consequences of sin through the lesson of her punishment in purgatory for adultery.28 The Anturs subverts romance conventions of the marvellous, as Arthur’s vividly described hunt opens onto an otherworldly adventure very different from the faery encounter that the motif might suggest. When Guinevere and Gawain are separated from the rest of the courtiers, all grows ‘dirke / As the mydnyghte myrke’ at midday, indicative of a ‘mykyl mervel’ .29 Rain and snow fall, flame shoots from the lake, and a figure shrouded in clouds appears, ‘In lykenes of Lucifere’ (83). The narrative exploits horror as the ‘grymlokkest gost’ (98) glides shrieking towards Guinevere: ‘Hit yaulit, hit yamurt’ (86), bitten at by a toad and serpents, its face and body bare and black, but its form discernibly that of a woman. Conjured by Gawain to speak, the apparition narrates her passage from great beauty and wealth to death and torment in the fires of purgatory on account of her ‘luf paramourus’ (212); she prophesies the loss of renown of the Round Table, and the death of Arthur’s knights. Only prayers and masses can be ‘medesins’ (320). The ghost explains that she may be saved if thirty trentals (sequences of thirty requiem Masses) are said for her soul; the end of the romance reiterates Guinevere’s command that priests say ‘many a million masses’ for her mother’s soul (702–5). The familiar figures and drama of Arthurian romance thus open onto a grim moral tale, and the revenant is employed as a powerful, speaking memento mori, who manifests bodily the wages of sin and gestures to the jaws of hell. The work provides a chilling reminder that the transformative power of the Christian supernatural may be physically corrosive as well as healing. An uneasily optimistic intervention in human destiny is narrated in Sir Amadace, which also employs a spirit of the dead, neither God nor devil; as in Amys and Amylion, drama is situated in the unfair condition of sacrifice of the beloved, here Amadace’s wife and children. The protagonist of the romance, like Launfal, is marked by extreme generosity. Owing more money than his lands can raise, he departs to seek his fortune as a knight errant; as he rides through a forest, he discovers a stinking corpse in a chapel, lamented by a lady who explains that her lord was a rich merchant who gave all his goods to others. Amadace spends the last of his money redeeming the dead man’s debt to a merchant, and paying for a rich burial. Riding on alone, he prays to Jesus for succour, and a strange knight 28 A

version of this popular moral tale is found in the Trental of St Gregory, the probable source of the Anturs: here St Gregory is visited by the ghost of his mother, who confesses that she has died unshriven for her sin of bearing and killing an illegitimate child; two parallel stories also occur in the Gesta Romanorum. English versions of the Trental (in rhyming couplets, made c. 1350) and of two exempla from the Gesta Romanorum (made c. 1420) are edited in Stephen H. A. Shepherd, Middle English Romances, Norton Critical Editions Series (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), pp. 360–77. 29 The Anturs of Arther, in Ywain and Gawain, ed. Mills, pp. 161–82: ll. 74–5, 72. Subsequent references to The Anturs of Arther are to this edition, cited by line number. The Anturs dates to the early fifteenth century, and exists in four manuscripts.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance appears: ‘Milke quyte was his stede, / And so was all his othir wede. ’30 The White Knight offers to pay Amadace’s expenses so that he may fight in a tournament for a rich king’s daughter, and promises him both the lady and great lands – on condition that Amadace agrees to divide all his winnings evenly. Amadace immediately finds a treasure by the sea, ‘mervayl to say’ (507), ‘Kistes and cofurs … fulle of gold precius and gode’ (514–15), and gains a royal wife. The white armour of the mysterious knight, his foreknowledge and the wondrous riches imply but do not explain his supernatural origin. Although the knight emphasises his Christian faith and the line ‘thrughe Goddus grace’ (494, 500) is repeated, the enigmatic covenant also suggests the dangers of agreeing to inexplicable conditions, likely, as in Sir Gawain, to involve the threat of death. When the White Knight reappears, we may not be altogether surprised when he rejects Amadace’s warm welcome, and insists instead on fulfilment of the covenant, demanding not castles, lands or riches, but half of Amadace’s wife and son, ‘Gif me my parte and lette me goe’ (683).31 The narrative effectively creates pathos and suspense in its depiction of Amadace’s noble hospitality, the laments of husband and wife, and the depiction of Amadace waiting with sword lifted until the White Knight speaks, ‘Sese! … Now is tyme of pees!’ (777, 780). Now the White Knight’s appearance, ‘the fayrist ­knyghte / That evyr yette I see with syghte’ (652–3), places him as a saved soul, and he reveals his identity as the corpse in the chapel. His prayers have allowed for the mending of Amadace’s fortunes, and Amadace’s joy at the reprieve of his wife and child are reflected in the ‘largeness’ of the White Knight’s own joy. This narrative too resonates with the Abraham and Isaac story, but a crucial effect of the supernatural testing of Amadace’s ‘trouthe’ is to convey the apparent injustice that masks beneficent providence. The episode ends with prayers of thanksgiving as the spirit ‘glode away as dew in towne’ (800): the line suggests the mysterious, ethereal, shape-shifting quality of the White Knight, and the possibility of divine grace that, like Christ himself, may take physical form. The romance as a whole, however, evokes the mystery and difficulty of comprehending such manifestations. The supernatural moves into fantasy in order to affirm in profoundly affective ways the messages of Christian faith. Both Amys and Amadace experience the horror of extreme loss, the unfairness of divine testing, and the relief of rich reward and redemption – the truth of Job’s recognition that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away (Job 1:20). Such narratives allow for the depiction of tragedy but also provide the fairy-tale happy ending longed for but not so readily perceived in the actual dealings of divine providence. These works, like Sir Orfeo, are cathartic 30 Sir

Amadace, in Mills, Six Middle English Romances, pp. 168–92: ll. 427–8. Subsequent references to Sir Amadace are to this edition, cited by line number. The work dates to c. 1350–1400; it is found in two manuscripts, including the Auchinleck MS. The romance has no known source, but draws on the folk motif of the Grateful Dead, and on a variety of romance motifs: see Elizabeth Williams, ‘Sir Amadace and the Undisenchanted Bride: The Relation of the Middle English Romance to the Folktale Tradition of “The Grateful Dead” ’ , in Field, Tradition and Transformation in Medieval Romance, pp. 57–70. 31 See Ad Putter, ‘Gifts and Commodities in Sir Amadace’ , Review of English Studies 51 (2000), pp. 371–94.


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Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention in their marvellous preservation of the body, but they move much further into the Christian spirit world that glimmers beyond the earthly. The world of the white, beneficent supernatural is opposed by a darker spirit world of demons, employed by the devil to bring about the fall of mankind. The devil’s wiles may take the form of a direct invasion of the bodily passions, as in Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale, where the fiend runs into Appius’ heart. Demonic interventions can also be more complex: in the Friar’s Tale the ‘feend’ describes how devils may ‘swiche formes make / As moost able is our preyes for to take’ (1471–2). Chaucer, like patristic writers, is intrigued about the nature of demons, and the tale offers a detailed explanation of how demons may take on ‘dede bodyes’ (1508), just as Samuel did for Phitonissa, the Witch of Endor, but may also make ‘newe bodies … of elementz’ (1505–6). These ‘newe bodies’ find their most sinister form in the incubus, a manifestation of the devil treated in a variety of popular narratives and providing a fundamental building-block in Arthurian romance.32 Writers from Geoffrey of Monmouth onwards weave together the themes of the supernatural, prophecy and predestination in their depiction of Merlin, whose magic orchestrates Arthur’s birth and reign, and whose powers are explained by the fact that he has been fathered by an incubus. Arthurian chronicles and romances, like saints’ lives and exempla, shift from presenting the incubus as a morally ambiguous spirit of the air, who may be aligned with the classical daimon and the faery, to considerably more negative representations of the demonic. As the notion of demonic evil becomes more defined in romances treating Merlin, so its opposite, holy supernatural power, grows more explicit and is focused in the notion of the Grail, the history of which interweaves with that of Merlin. Early Welsh writing includes a number of prophetic poems attributed to Myrddin, a poet and seer who has fled to the forest in madness after killing his own nephew or son in battle. Geoffrey of Monmouth links this legendary Myrddin to Arthur by including in the Historia regum Britanniae a series of ‘Prophecies of Merlin’ (also circulated separately), which tell of the eventual defeat of the AngloSaxons by the British; Geoffrey’s later Vita Merlini draws on the Myrddin material and on Celtic stories of the wild man and prophet Lailoken, driven mad in battle, to recount Merlin’s madness and exile. In his Historia, Geoffrey merges legends of Myrddin (Merlinus Silvestris) with Nennius’ account in his Historia Brittonum of Ambrosius (whose prophetic powers assist Vortigern), in order to create a composite figure, ‘Merlinus Ambrosianus’ . Whereas Ambrosius is eventually revealed to be the son of a Roman consul, Geoffrey explains Merlin’s marvellous powers by recounting his supernatural origin as the child of an incubus. Geoffrey’s incubus, however, is closer to the faery lover of Marie’s Yonec than to the demonic figures of the saints’ lives. Merlin is begotten on a beautiful nun, princess of Demetia, by a handsome, sometimes invisible, young man, who is identified by Vortigern’s learned clerk as an ‘Incubus Daemone’ of the sort instanced by Apuleius in De Deo Socratis, one of the spirits ‘qui sumpta sepe uirili / Forma decipiunt fatuas 32 See

also Saunders, Rape and Ravishment, pp. 218–28, and the discussion of demonology in Hopkins, Sinful Knights, pp. 165–6.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance grauidantque puellas’ (‘who often assume the shape of men and so deceive and impregnate foolish girls’).33 Merlin’s supernatural powers combine both prophetic and practical abilities: he erects Stonehenge with stones brought from Ireland; and his powers of enchantment, ‘carmine dicto’ (‘by saying a spell’), transform Uther into the form of Ygrainne’s husband, Gorlois (viii.20, p. 206). As befits a figure conceived through the power of shape-shifting, Merlin is skilled in such arts. His magic and prophecies are placed in the context of unfolding Christian destiny, which is emphasised throughout Geoffrey’s Historia, and is evident in divine signs such as the appearance of the great star with its dragon-shaped ball of fire that marks Aurelius Ambrosius’ death. Wace in the Roman de Brut takes up Geoffrey’s narrative, but reduces the emphasis on the supernatural. He is evasive concerning the nature of Merlin’s magic: in the account of the moving of the Giants’ Dance to build Stonehenge, Merlin is depicted as walking round the stones, his lips moving, but Wace claims ignorance of whether this is pagan or licit ritual: ‘Ne sai s’il dist preiere u nun’ (‘I don’t know if he said a prayer or not’).34 The shape-shifting is achieved by ‘nuvels medecinemenz’ (‘new potions/drugs’ , 8702, pp. 218–19): ‘Figure d’ume sai muer E l’un en l’altre tresturner, L’un faz bien a l’altre sembler E l’un faiz bien a l’altre per. ’ ‘I know how to change a man’s face so that one turns into another, the first seeming to be the second and the second apparently identical with the first.’ (8703–6, pp. 218–19) Laȝamon’s Brut returns to Geoffrey’s emphasis on the ‘Incubi Daemones’ . Vortiger’s astrologer and scholar, Magan, emphasises the variety of spirits who inhabit the uncertain space between sun and moon: ‘ Þer wunieð in þan lufte   feole cunne wihte þa þer scullen bilæfuen   þat Domesdæi cume liðen; summe heo beoð aðele   and summe heo uuel wurcheð. ’ ‘There dwell in the skies beings of many kinds who shall remain there until Doomsday; some of them are noble creatures, and some of them do evil.’  (7872–4) 33 Geoffrey

of Monmouth, Gesta Regum Britannie, ed. and trans. Neil Wright, 5 vols, vol. 5: The Historia Regum Britannie of Geoffrey of Monmouth (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1985–91), Bk V, ll. 477–79, pp. 142–3. Subsequent references to Geoffrey are from this edition, cited by volume, line and page number. For Nennius’ account of the boy Ambrosius, see Nennius, British History and the Welsh Annals, ed. and trans. John Morris, History from the Sources: Arthurian Period Sources 8 (London and Chichester: Phillimore, 1980), pp. 41, ll. 29–31 and 70–2. 34 Wace’s Roman de Brut: A History of the British: Text and Translation, ed. and trans. Judith Weiss, Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies (University of Exeter Press, 1999), l. 8150, pp. 204–5. Subsequent references to Wace’s Roman de Brut are to this edition and translation, cited by line and page number.


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Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention Among these, the ‘Incubi Daemones’ are numerous, but their harm seems limited to the deception of sleeping women: ‘ monienne hende wimmon   þurh heore cræfte kenneð anan; and monies godes monnes child   heo bicharreð þurh wigeling. ’ ‘many an honest woman quickly becomes pregnant through their wiles; and through sorcery many a good man’s son is sired deceitfully.’ (7879–80). In the terms ‘cræfte’ and ‘wigeling’ the ideas of magical arts and deception blur. Laȝamon emphasises the chastity of Merlin’s mother, which is endorsed by her sleeping state, but also depicts the incubus as a courtly lover: ‘ þen com biuoren   þa fæireste þing þat wes iboren, swulc hit weore a muchel cniht   al of golde idiht. Þis ich isæh on sweuene   alche niht on slepe; þis þing glad me biuoren   and glitenede on golde; ofte hit me custe,   ofte hit me clupte, ofte hit me tobæh   and eode me swiðe neh. ’ ‘ … there appeared to me in my deep slumber the fairest creature ever born, in the guise of a tall warrior all arrayed in gold. Each night, as I slept, I saw this in a dream, this creature glittering in gold, gliding towards me; it kissed me repeatedly, it embraced me often, often bent down towards me and pressed very close upon me.’ (7838–44) The incubus seems the embodiment of a romantic dream rather than a demonic nightmare, and the episode is set within the pattern of Christian destiny. Merlin’s pious mother, distanced from corruption, eventually becomes a nun (7805–6), and Laȝamon sets up an opposition between Merlin’s Christian magic and the ineffectual pagan rituals of Vortiger’s magicians. Laȝamon is specific concerning the divination and ‘siȝe-craften’ (‘sorcery or magical arts’ , 7735) they perform: Þas weorlde-wise men   þer a twa wenden; summe heo wenden to þan wude,   summe to weien-læten; heo gunnen loten weorpen   mid heore leod-runen. Fulle þreo nihten   heore craftes heo dihten. These wise men went out in two groups; some went to the woods, others to the cross-roads; they began to cast lots accompanied by their magical incantations. Three whole nights they practised magic. (7738–41) The rituals are of precisely the kind that penitentials condemn: the men seek pagan sites, cast lots and practise ‘leod-runen’ , perhaps the speaking of spells using magical letters or runes – all to no avail. Merlin, by contrast, possesses true wisdom and knowledge, and Laȝamon presents his actions in terms that combine magic ritual with Christian practice: ‘þrie he eode abuten wiðinnen and wiðuten, / and sturede his tunge alse he bede sunge’ (‘three times he went around, inside and outside [the stone circle], his tongue moving as if he were chanting prayers’ , 8701–2). His magic is beneficially transformative: the shape-shifting of Uther is explained, 227

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance very briefly, as ‘lechecraft’ , natural, medical magic (9448), by contrast to the ‘siȝecraften’ of the magicians. Laȝamon, like Geoffrey, depicts Merlin’s arts positively, as occasioned by his otherworldly origins and employed in beneficial ways rather than as ‘nigromancy’ . The incubus is treated playfully, not as demonic but as a daimon, an amoral spirit of the air, whose deceptions ultimately serve providence. This history of Merlin intersected in the thirteenth century with the history of the Holy Grail, with the effect that the Arthurian legend was placed ever more firmly within the context of the Christian supernatural. In Chrétien’s Le Conte du Graal, the first extant version of the story, the religious significance of the Grail is nebulous. Celtic folk material may have provided the motif of the wounded Fisher King awaiting the Questioner who would heal him and restore his waste lands. The sudden appearance of the Grail Castle suggests the supernatural, as do the mysterious details of the procession watched by the naïf Perceval: the sword that can only be broken ‘par un tot seul peril’ (‘in one singularly perilous circumstance’ , 3129; 419), the white lance that drips blood, and ‘le graal’ (3220), adorned with many kinds of precious stones, and accompanied by candles that in its light ‘perdirent … lor clarté come les estoiles / qant li solauz lieve, et la lune’ (‘lost their brilliance like stars and the moon when the sun rises’ , 3215–17; 420). Perceval wakes to find the castle empty, and himself named ‘li cheitis’ (‘the wretched’ , 3568; 425), for he has failed to ask the meaning, and hence to heal the maimed king. A hermit later reveals that the procession serves the Fisher King’s father, who is sustained only by the host – but the meaning of the ‘graal’ remains unclear; it is apparently a dish or platter, made of fine gold decorated with precious stones. The narrative may also be rooted in Celtic tales of the otherworld and of a magical horn or cauldron of plenty. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal (c. 1200), which presents itself as being based on a lost Arabic work by a descendant of Solomon, treats the crucial opposition between spiritual vision and failure in much more explicitly Christian terms: the Grail Castle has become Munsalvæsche (the Mountain of Salvation), the home of a spiritual community of knights who fight for Christ (perhaps modelled on that of the Knights Templar who guarded the Holy Sepulchre), but whose leader, Anfortas, has succumbed to the wound of sexual sin. Wolfram takes up the idea of the magical object in rendering the Grail as a stone of power, but also connects it with the sacred power of the Eucharist, which is instilled in the wondrous gem each Good Friday by a dove bearing a wafer from heaven. The Grail brings together and surpasses all marvellous natural powers: healing, rejuvenation, immortality and heavenly food and drink. It is both the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life, said to have been brought to earth by the angels who remained neutral in the battle between Lucifer and God.35 The account echoes that found in the Book of Enoch. The Grail links both different magical traditions and different kinds of magic, natural and supernatural. The great prose romances of the thirteenth century wove the story of the Grail into a more coherent history of Arthur and his kingdom, and Christianised it 35 For these details, and the account of Kyot the Provençal’s discovery of the manuscript, see Chapter 9

of Parzifal, pp. 222–55; trans. A. T. Hatto (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980).


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Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention further. Continuations of Chrétien’s Perceval identified the Grail as the vessel used at the Last Supper, in which Joseph of Arimathea collected Christ’s blood after the Crucifixion; the lance was identified as that which had pierced Christ’s side at the Crucifixion, causing blood and water to flow out. Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie (c. 1200) told how the Grail was brought to Britain by Joseph, from whom a line of Grail-keepers known as the Fisher Kings had descended, and how the maimed king Pelles waited to be healed and his lands made fertile through the successful achievement of the Grail by the perfect knight. A subsequent romance (perhaps only begun by Robert, extant in fragmentary form in verse, but also, like Joseph and a third part, Perceval, in a prose redaction) wove together the stories of Merlin and the Grail. Merlin’s strange birth was now explained as a demonic plot to destroy mankind through the creation of the Antichrist. Merlin, however, was protected by God to take up the cause of good: thus his magic is both authorised and directed to the establishing of the Arthurian world. Different aspects of the supernatural interweave as Merlin becomes the prophet of the Grail. The LancelotGrail or Vulgate Cycle brings together prose versions of the Estoire del Saint Graal and the Estoire de Merlin with the romance of Lancelot. These works are adapted to correspond with the elaborate web of allegorical adventures narrated in the Queste del Saint Graal, probably written by a Cistercian monk. Spiritual chivalry casts into relief the tarnished nature of secular chivalry: the new emphasis is on the monastic values of abstinence, asceticism and penance. The earliest English adaptation, Of Arthour and of Merlin (c. 1250–1300), treats the section of the Merlin story found in the chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Laȝamon, but follows Robert de Boron and the Vulgate in its account of a demonic plot to beget the Antichrist and thus oppose the Incarnation.36 The concept of the incubus is treated more sensationally and negatively than in the chronicles, and reflects the emphasis found in hagiographic works on the incubus as a cunning manifestation of the devil. In the life of St Justine, told in the Legenda aurea, a pagan enchanter employs demonic magic in an attempt to corrupt the saint: the devil first inflames Justine with desire and then, thwarted by the sign of the cross, appears ‘in lykenes of a fayre yonge man’ (169v); as she lies sleeping, ‘without shame [he] sprange in to her bedde’ (169v).37 Devils, the narrator of Of Arthour and of Merlin explains, ‘Euer be luxsorius’ (652) and are able to ‘makeþ hem body / Of þe aire’ (653–4) in order to descend to earth and tempt mankind: the ancient notion of spirits of the air has combined with the active evil of the fallen angels. The plot gives Merlin, the boy born ‘Wiþouten mannes biȝeteing’ (595), a complex pre-history. His mother is orphaned as a result of the seduction of her own mother by an incubus. She hangs herself after the murder of her son 36 Of

Arthour and of Merlin, ed. O. D. Macrae-Gibson, vol. 1, Early English Text Society OS 268 (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), Auchinleck MS, l. 673. Subsequent references are to this edition, cited by line number, from the Auchinleck MS version unless otherwise stated; the story is further elaborated in the Lincoln’s Inn Library version, MS Hale 150 (c. 1450). A version is also found in the Percy Folio. The work adapts the Estoire de Merlin, the second section of the Prose Vulgate Cycle, which comprises the Merlin attributed to Robert de Boron, and dates to c. 1300. 37 Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. William Caxton (London, 1503), p. 169v.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance by the incubus, her husband dies in grief, and the hermit Blaise takes in the three daughters. Again the devil takes on the ‘lickenisse of man’ (721), bribing an old woman to ‘bichaunte’ (725) two of the three sisters into adultery, so that one is punished by being buried alive, and the other becomes a prostitute. Blaise teaches the third sister to defend doors and windows with the sign of the cross. Yet again, the ‘gile’ of the devil is emphasised (820), when, assaulted by her harlot sister, the woman forgets to bless the room where she hides, and the devil is able to enter. The narrative plays on the young woman’s isolation and fear, and the devil’s glee: ‘To þis maiden sikerliche / He com þo and lay flescheliche’ (847–8). The fifteenthcentury Lincoln’s Inn manuscript version develops the scene to convey in explicit detail the use of the woman’s body as vehicle of destruction: And to þe maiden anon he went And þouȝte al Cristendam to haue schent, A streone of a child he putte in hire þo And passed awey þer he com fro. (847–50) There is genuine horror in the woman’s realisation ‘þat sche was yleyen bi’ (852), although the door is still barred. The justice’s argument (in the Lincoln’s Inn version) that only Christ was born without woman knowing ‘mannes flesch’ (907–10) suggests debate about demonic conception, but the narrator presents the possibility as serious and fearful. The child, as in The King of Tars, is born monstrous, reflecting the demonic nature of his father: ‘It hadde fourm after a man / Bot it was blacker / Þan anoþer and wel rower’ (980–2); the later version compares the roughness to that of swine, another conventional feature in descriptions of the devil. Blaise’s christening of the child, however, grieves the devil (all the fiends in hell in later versions), and the child comes to be an instrument of good, reflecting and defending his mother’s innocence. Typical of stories of demonic conception is the remarkable development of the baby (a motif also used in Melusine to suggest the monstrous): the child Merlin terrifies the midwife by speaking in defence of his mother and reveals the truth to the justice, ‘A fende it was þat me biȝat’ (1053). His demonic origin explains his knowledge of present, past and future – including of the justice’s illegitimate birth. Merlin’s defence of his mother and his agency for good are affirmed when at the age of seven he causes her to become a nun. Although his conception was devised to serve the powers of darkness, he in fact serves ‘al Engelonde’ , as the later version puts it (1138), by placing Arthur on the throne.38 His demonic ancestry is absorbed into the larger pattern of destiny. The menace of the start is genuine, but also allows for the proof of God’s power over the devil. Like the inhabitants of the world of faery, Merlin is invested with magical powers intrinsic to his nature, for they originate in his supernatural ancestry: his magic contrasts with and may oppose the learned, dangerous arts of ‘nigromancy’ . The demonic is again threateningly manifest in the romance of Sir Gowther, which retells the popular story of Robert the Devil and draws on both patristic 38 Merlin’s

role in Arthurian history will be further considered in Chapter 7, in relation to Malory’s Morte Darthur and its sources and analogues.


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Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention notions of the incubus and the story of Merlin.39 The opening of Sir Gowther elaborates the possibility that the devil may take human form: Sumtyme the fende hadde postee Forto dele with ladies free    In liknesse of here fere; So that he begat Merlyng and mo And wrought ladies so mikil wo    That ferly it is to here.40 The reference to Merlin’s legendary history allows the poet to combine a warning against the powers of the devil with a sense of marvel. The notion of the incubus is situated within the romance tradition, but is also carefully contextualised as a serious subject of clerical discourse: Therof seyus clerkus, Y wotte how, That schall not be rehersyd now,    As Cryst fro schame me schyld. (19–21) The passage gestures towards theological discussions such as that of Aquinas, who argues that children fathered by incubi may be redeemed, because the demon has had to take human form in order that conception may occur ‘semene hominis’ .41 The notion is crucial to the stories both of Merlin and Gowther. This author states explicitly that the devil takes on the likeness of women’s husbands, not an element of the Merlin story, but perhaps suggested by Merlin’s shapeshifting of Uther into the form of Igrayne’s husband. That the demon appears in the guise of the husband preserves the woman from any charge of immodesty or lechery: In hur orchard, apon a day, Ho meyt a mon, tho sothe to say, That hur of luffe besoghth; 39 Sir

Gowther dates to the end of the fourteenth century, and exists in two manuscripts. In the closest analogue to Sir Gowther, the Old French poem Robert le Diable, the child is yielded to the devil’s power at birth and thus drawn towards evil. Sir Gowther adds the detail of Gowther’s demonic conception: ‘he is actually the son of the Devil rather than owed to him as a debt’ , Hopkins, Sinful Knights, p. 147. Hopkins discusses the differences between Sir Gowther and the story of Robert the Devil in detail, pp. 145–58. For comparisons with Robert le Diable and La Vie de Saint Alexis, see E. M. Bradstock, ‘Sir Gowther: Secular Hagiography or Hagiographical Romance or Neither?’ , AUMLA: Journal of the Australasian Universities Languages and Literature Association 59 (1983), pp. 26–47. For comparisons with Robert le Diable and the Old French lay of Tydorel, see Florence Leftwich Ravenel, ‘Tydorel and Sir Gowther’ , PMLA 20 (1905), pp. 152–78. On clerical contexts, see further my discussion in Rape and Ravishment, pp. 218–28, and Neil Cartlidge, ‘ “Therof seyus clerkus”: Slander, Rape and Sir Gowther’ , in Saunders, Cultural Encounters in the Literature of Medieval England, pp. 135–47. 40 Sir Gowther, in Mills, Six Middle English Romances, pp. 148–68: ll. 7–12. Subsequent references to Sir Gowther are to this edition, cited by line number. 41 Aquinas, ‘De potentia’ , q. 6, art. 8, arg. 6, in Quaestiones disputatae vol. 2, 51, p 180. Aquinas discusses the same question more briefly in his Summa Theologiae, 1a.51, 3, resp. ad obj. 6, vol. 9, pp. 42–3. Hopkins instances these passages, but does not refer to Aquinas’ specific mention of the incubus in his treatment of rape, p. 166.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance As lyke hur lorde as he myght be He leyd hur down undur a tre, With hur is wyll he wroghtth. (64–9) Like Sir Orfeo, Sir Gowther plays on the conventional association of the outside world with the supernatural: the orchard becomes a transitional, dangerous space that the devil, like the King of Faery, may enter. As in Sir Degarré, the scene overturns ideals of the courtly lover, for the seeming husband springs up to show himself a ‘felturd fende’ (71). This ‘taking’ is sexual, a demonic rape masked as a loving, licit encounter. The demon, like the faery knight, is possessed of foreknowledge: ‘Y have geyton a chylde on the / That in is yothe full wylde schall bee / And ­weppons wyghtly weld’ (73–5). The scene also plays on the dangerous powers of illicit words, for the lady’s misguided prayer in response to her barrenness, ‘to have a child, / On what maner scho ne roghth’ (62–3), works like a charm, bringing not healing but demonic intervention. The lady creates a narrative of wish-fulfilment, inventing ‘an angell com fro hevon bryght’ (82) who has prophesied the conception of a child, and the orchard scene is echoed in her husband’s lovemaking: ‘He pleyd hym with that ladé hende, / And ei yode scho bownden with tho fende’ (91–2). The poet emphasises the demonic origins of both Merlin and Gowther in wholly negative terms: This chyld within hur was non odur Bot eyvon Marlyon halfe brodur,    For won fynd gatte hom bothe. Thei servyd never of odyr thyng But forto temp[t]e wemen yong:    To deyle with hom was wothe. (94–9) The sinister reality is only fully manifest in the monstrous child who is born of this demonic encounter. Before Gowther is twelve months old, his extraordinary strength causes him to kill nine wet nurses through the fierceness of his sucking and to bite off his own mother’s nipple, and his sins multiply as he grows up. A similar motif is used in Melusine: Melusine’s son Horryble kills two nursemaids at the age of three by ‘byttyng of their pappes’ , and two squires at seven (xli, 311). Gowther’s sins multiply as he grows up: with his mother fled, and his supposed human father dead from sorrow, he decimates the land: ‘Erly and late, lowde and styll, / He wold wyrke is fadur wyll / Wher he stode or sete’ (172–4). The narrative borrows a familiar hagiographic motif in presenting Gowther as rapist of maidens, wives and nuns: the violation of chastity functions as a powerful manifestation of evil, and the act of rape echoes Gowther’s own demonic conception. Gowther’s conversion makes manifest God’s grace, but is evidence too of the theological argument that children begotten by incubi must be partly human and therefore may be redeemed from their monstrous natures. Thus once the thought of God enters Gowther’s mind, he repents: ‘ “Lorde, mercy,” con he cry / To God that Maré bare’ (236–7). The remainder of the narrative moves into the world of miracle, as Gowther journeys to Rome, and is prescribed the penance of accepting 232

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Christian Marvel and Demonic Intervention only scraps from the mouths of dogs until he receives a divine sign. Demonic intervention is replaced by divine when the mute princess whom Gowther saves from enforced marriage to a pagan sultan, falls from a tower in her anxiety for him, and revives from apparent death able to speak: ‘Syche grace God hur sentt / That scho raxeld hur and rase / And spake wordus that wyse was / To syr Gwother varement’ (651–4). The princess’s recovery and new-found voice recall the promise of resurrection. Through this second physical transformation, the demonic child is fully redeemed, the progression towards penitence and holiness complete. The pattern of the saint replaces that of the demon. Divine approval is reiterated as Gowther’s own burial place becomes a holy shrine, associated with many further miracles. Sir Gowther is partly memorable for its evocation of the sinister power of evil. The manifestation of the devil in the disguise of the husband is deeply uncanny, the mark of an enemy whose subtlety may well betray the souls of mankind. The romance focuses too on the transformative power of God: the devil may beget a fiend-like, monstrous child, but, like the black, misshapen infant of The King of Tars, and like the Antichrist, he may be reclaimed for the forces of good. Miraculous intervention counters powers of darkness. Romance provides a canvas for the battle between good and evil, which is enacted in the most dramatic and material ways, and often written on the body itself, in monstrosity, transformation, illness, healing and perfection. The Christian supernatural hovers beyond secular notions of magic, marvel and the otherworld in romance, sometimes rewriting these, sometimes blurring with them, and sometimes causing profound unease.


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7 Malory’s Morte Darthur


ir Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur offers 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 Stanzaic Morte Arthur poems, 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 the Morte as ‘ystorye’ rather than stories that are ‘fayned and fables’ (cxliv), and claims historical and physical evidence for Arthur, as well as placing 1 Sir

Thomas Malory, The Works of Sir Thomas Malory, ed. Eugène Vinaver, rev. P. J. C. Field, 3rd edn, 3 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), I.3–5, p. 12. Subsequent references to Malory’s Morte Darthur are to this edition, cited by book, section and page number. The riches of the Prose Vulgate cannot be comprehensively explored here, but this chapter will refer to Malory’s use of French and English sources where relevant, and will indicate important differences in the treatment of magic and the supernatural. I refer to the manuscript versions of the Prose Vulgate, the Suite du Merlin and the Prose Tristan cited by Vinaver. See further The Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances, ed. H. Oskar Sommer, 8 vols, Carnegie Institute of Washington Publications 74 (Washington: The Carnegie Institute of Washington, Riverside Press, 1908–16); Lancelot, ed. Alexandre Micha, TLF, 9 vols (Geneva: Droz, 1978–83); La Mort le Roi Artu, ed. Jean Frappier, TLF, 2nd edn (Geneva: Droz, 1954); La Queste del Saint Graal, ed. Albert Pauphilet, Les Classiques français du Moyen Age (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1987); La Suite du Roman de Merlin, ed. Gilles Roussineau (Geneva: Droz, 1996); and Le Roman de Tristan en Prose, ed. Renée L. Curtis, 3 vols, Arthurian Studies 12–14 (1963 [vol. 1]; 1976 [vol. 2]; Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1985). See also Norris J. Lacy, ed., LancelotGrail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, 5 vols, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities (New York: Garland, 1993–6); Lancelot of the Lake, trans. Corin Corley, World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989); The Quest of the Holy Grail, trans. Pauline Matarasso (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969); The Death of King Arthur, trans. James Cable (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971); and Carol Dover, ed., A Companion to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003). For the English Alliterative and Stanzaic Morte Arthur poems, see L. D. Benson, ed., King Arthur’s Death, Exeter Medieval English Texts and Studies (1974; Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1986). See also my The Forest of Medieval Romance, pp. 163–85; Rape and Ravishment, pp. 234–64; ‘Violent Magic in Middle English Romance’ , pp. 232–6; and ‘Magic and Religion in Arthurian Romance’ , in Elizabeth Archibald and Ad Putter, ed., A Companion to Arthurian Legend (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 201–17. General studies include R. M. Lumiansky, Malory’s Originality: A Critical Study of the ‘Morte Darthur’ (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964); Charles Moorman, The Book of Kyng Arthur: The Unity of Malory’s ‘Morte Darthur’ (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965); Larry D. Benson, Malory’s ‘Morte Darthur’ (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976); Elizabeth Pochoda, Arthurian Propaganda: ‘Le Morte Darthur’ as an Historical Ideal of Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1971); Mark Lambert, Malory: Style and Vision in the ‘Morte Darthur’ (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975); Terence McCarthy, An Introduction to Malory (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991); and Catherine Batt, Malory’s ‘Morte Darthur’: Remaking Arthurian Tradition, New Middle Ages Series (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002). See further Elizabeth Archibald and A. S. G. Edwards, ed., A Companion to Malory, Arthurian Studies 37 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1996).


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Malory’s Morte Darthur him as one of the Nine Worthies. Yet Caxton also promises ‘many wonderful hystoryes and adventures’ (cxlvi), and Malory’s matter-of-fact, pared-down use of sources and realist mode do not indicate the lack of interest in the supernatural that has sometimes been supposed: rather, different facets of the supernatural are interwoven to create a multi-layered fictional world.2 Across the book, the terms ‘marvel’ and ‘marvellous’ recur, and their repetition indicates the general ethos of the work. The narrative plays again and again on the wonder of Logres, which both is and is not Malory’s England. Marvel functions on a continuum from strength in arms, to profound emotion, to quest and adventure, and often shades into magic and the supernatural. Adventure too moves from colourful game to sinister threat to deeply mystical experience. The individual is situated within a world of conflicting and sometimes confusing forces, human, natural and supernatural. The presentation of the extraordinary in prosaic, matter-of-fact and unquestioning terms, and the emphasis on causality, dialogue and action both achieve the effect of realism and heighten the sense of strangeness. Malory creates a legendary, half-familiar landscape where the marvellous is possible, where magic arts may be inherited or learned, and where the supernatural may intervene. In the course of the rise and fall of Arthur and his court, the magic of human and otherworld, divine and demonic interweave, and natural magic, enchantment and ‘nigromancy’ are treated credibly, as playing important roles in the shaping of destiny. The Morte reflects ambivalent and enduring cultural attitudes to magic as well as romance conventions of the supernatural. Marvellous objects and creatures recur in the Morte as in its antecedents. The narrative relies on the assumption that the occult forces of the cosmos may be contained in natural objects, in particular stones and plants, which can achieve marvellous effects. The ‘vertu’ of the stone in Dame Lyonesse’s ring both changes the colours of Sir Gareth’s armour and prevents loss of blood (VII.28, 345), and it is easy to assume that similar magic of precious stones gives protective power to the scabbard of Excalibur. Such objects are treated with a kind of easy, practical acceptance, as within the realms of human possibility. Marvellous and magical abilities may be given or learned: that Gawain possesses three times his usual strength at noon is a gift from a holy man, its effect that Gawain seems ‘a fyende and none earthely man’ (XX.21, 1217). Marvellous creatures appear and disappear, most memorably the Questing Beast: an emblem of the endless, circular nature of the quest, it can never be caught. Such creatures are countered by monstrous enemies, especially giants: the giant of Mont St Michel’s savage practices of rape, murder and cannibalism threaten the civilised world.3 Divine messengers, demons, ­miracles, visions and prophecies too are a feature of this romance world, where the veil between earthly and celestial can suddenly lift. Magical arts draw 2 Vinaver’s

argument (Works, vol. 3, p. 1278), echoing J. A. W. Bennett, Essays on Malory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 11–13, 31–3, that Malory ‘deliberately avoided, as far as he could, any excess of the supernatural’ , is debatable, for while details relating to Morgan le Fay are reduced, including her gift of prophecy, many aspects are retained, heightened and added. 3 See R. Warm, ‘Arthur and the Giant of Mont St. Michel: The Politics of Empire Building in the Later Middle Ages’ , Nottingham Medieval Studies 41 (1997), pp. 59–71.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance on both natural magic and more ambiguous kinds of ‘enchantment’ , sometimes negatively characterised as ‘nigromancy’ , sometimes used for beneficent purposes, and sometimes akin to marvellous technology. Isode and Elaine of Astolat are possessed of healing arts; Merlin, the Lady of the Lake, Morgan le Fay and others have skills in both natural magic and enchantment or ‘nigromancy’ . Witchcraft is treated as a genuine possibility. While the possibility of magic remains a constant in the Morte, the treatment of the supernatural shifts. Particularly in the earlier and again in the later books, destiny is manifest in Arthur’s prophetic dreams, which mark the conception of Mordred (I.19), Arthur’s battle with the Giant of Mont St Michel (V.4); and his final battle against Mordred (XXI.3). The early books (for which Malory drew on the thirteenth-century Suite du Merlin) are dominated by the presence of Merlin, whose interventions enhance the sense of hovering, half-revealed destiny, which can become dark and menacing, as in the tale of Balin and Balan, but can also equate with divine providence. With Merlin’s disappearance, magic is associated with the various enchantresses of the Morte, and with the strange tests and adventures experienced by individual knights, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The emphasis shifts again with the Grail Quest, which opens onto an explicitly Christian supernatural where all plays a part in the battle between good and evil, God and devil. The last books return to some extent to the hovering sense of destiny of the start, weaving together different strands of magic and the supernatural in the narrative of the fall of Arthur and the Round Table.

Merlin and Arthurian Destiny Malory omits any account of the history of the Grail or of Merlin’s origins, perhaps suggesting unease about magic that goes beyond human arts. Malory does not probe the nature of Merlin’s arts, which include foreknowledge, shape-shifting and illusion, and he reduces them so that Merlin is distinguished from practitioners of ‘nigromancy’  . Merlin sometimes appears, like the Clerk of Orléans in the Franklin’s Tale, as a powerful practitioner of natural magic, sometimes as possessing more nebulous arts of enchantment and marvellous technology, and sometimes as possessing an innate knowledge of destiny. The work begins in medias res with King Uther’s love for Igrayne and his battle against her husband, Duke Gorlois of Cornwall: Merlin’s presence is assumed, and he is brought naturally into the narrative when Sir Ulfius suggests he may be able to provide a ‘remedy’ , a term suggesting natural, medical magic. Ulfius discovers Merlin ‘by adventure … in a beggars aray’ (I.1, 8). The first books of the Morte emphasise Merlin’s apparently chance appearances at convenient moments, but with understated realism rather than an emphasis on the exotic. Merlin is repeatedly disguised – as beggar, child, churl, hunter, old man – and his role as shape-shifter seems part of his identity. Disguise is often treated jokily, as a kind of game-playing, and Merlin himself laughs at the effect (II.19, 91). But shape-shifting also proves Merlin’s supernatural powers and contributes to the emphasis on destiny and prophecy that interweaves with Malory’s careful realism. The kings have both ‘grete disporte’ 236

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Malory’s Morte Darthur and ‘mervayle of Merlion’ (I.17, 38): this combination of game and wonder is characteristic. The begetting of Arthur is foretold through matter-of-fact dialogue: ‘This nyght ye shalle lye with Igrayne in the castel of Tyntigayll. And ye shalle be lyke the duke her husband’ (I.2, 9). Malory omits the detail in the French of rubbing Uther’s face with a herb: Merlin’s shape-shifting needs no ingredients. He makes explicit his purpose: ‘Syre,’ said Merlyn, ‘this is my desyre: the first nyght that ye shal lye by Igrayne ye shal gete a child on her; and whan that is borne, that it shall be delyverd to me for to nourisshe thereas I wille have it, for it shal be your worship and the childis availle as mykel as the child is worth. ’ (I.2, 9) Malory describes realistically Ulfius’ later objection that because Arthur has been concealed by Merlin, mortal warfare has occurred (I.21, 45). Merlin is enigmatic, his knowledge and actions only partially explained, and his interventions can seem to live out the vagaries of fortune. The idea that Merlin enacts divine providence in setting Arthur on the throne is underlined by an emphasis on the observation of Christian ritual, often added by Malory. Thus Uther swears on the four Gospels (I.2, 8), the child is christened by ‘an holy man’ (I.3–5, 11), and Uther’s death is placed as God’s will. In promising that Uther will authorise Arthur to take the throne, Merlin associates himself with God, ‘God and I shalle make hym to speke’ (I.3–5, 11), and later assures the Archbishop of Canterbury that Jesus will ‘shewe somme myracle’ at Christmas (I.3–5, 12). The episode of the sword in the stone thus seems divinely authorised, miracle rather than magic, and Arthur’s right is proven once again at the feast days of Candlemas and Pentecost. The light that shines like thirty torches from Excalibur (I.9, 19) functions as the king-light does in Havelok, and the later gift of the sword from the Lady of the Lake affirms the idea of Arthur as approved king. Again, the episode is carefully orchestrated by Merlin, who also advises of the protective virtue of the scabbard. Having orchestrated Arthur’s reign, Merlin figures as a practical counsellor, guiding the direction of Arthur’s army and ensuring sufficient provisions (I.11), but frequently his counsel is invested with strange prescience. ‘Thou art a merveylous man’ , says King Mark, ‘that spekist of such mervayles’ (II.8, 72). Merlin also plays a prominent moral role in regulating behaviour and shaping the chivalric ethic of Logres. Thus after Arthur has done great deeds of arms against the eleven kings, Merlin appears to bring an end to the battle by voicing divine command (I.17). He initiates the first quest, urging against ‘disworshyp’ when Arthur is inclined to ignore the abduction of a lady (III.5, 103), and later causes Gawain to recount his accidental killing of another lady, the result of his failure to show mercy. Merlin’s knowledge is frequently specific concerning time, and he also plays an important role in the creation of narrative unity, advising on success, warning of difficulties, and intervening in quests, often in dramatically physical ways: he gives Balin a horse (II.16); puts Pellinor to sleep and later stops him from seeing Arthur (I.25); vanishes and reappears elsewhere (e.g. II.8–9); and places Balin’s sword in a great ­marble stone to await Galahad (II.19). Merlin is repeatedly associated with the 237

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance rituals of death: he writes the names on the tombs of Balin, Launcelot and Tristram (II.19), and his ‘subtyle craufte’ shapes the figures that guard King Lot’s tomb (II.11, 78). Knowledge, conveyed through a series of prophecies and revelations, most distinguishes Merlin. When Merlin prophesies King Pellinor’s tragic fate, Pellinor responds, ‘God may well fordo desteny’ (III.15, 120), a statement directly opposed to his words in the French. But God and destiny are generally interwoven, and Merlin is repeatedly authorised by religious voices such as that of the Archbishop of Canterbury or by his own references to God’s will: Pellinor is told he must suffer ‘that penaunce God hath ordayned’ (III.15, 120). Merlin figures as shaper of destinies, orchestrator and authoriser of Arthur’s reign, as well as dramatic actor. As late as Book X, the knights follow Merlin’s rituals: Tristram and Palomides meet at the stone set by Merlin ‘in the medowe by the river of Camelot’ (X.2, 562). His role in fashioning history is emphasised through the detail that he instructs his master Bloyse (otherwise not mentioned by Malory) to ‘wryte all the batayles’ of Arthur’s reign (I.17, 38). Responses to Merlin’s knowledge and magical arts are ambivalent, and Malory creates a sense of conflicting attitudes: suspicion, mockery and fear, as well as respect and wonder. Some of the British kings laugh ‘and mo other called hym a wytche’ , a detail not in the French that gestures towards contemporary concern about witchcraft (I.8, 18). King Lot dismisses Merlin’s powers as those of a ­‘faytoure’: ‘Be we wel avysed to be aferd of a dreme-reder?’ (II.10, 76; I.9, 18), he asks, but the episode ends with Lot’s death. In the French, Merlin criticises Arthur’s ‘felonnie’ in attempting to drown all the children born on Mayday, and reveals that those set adrift will be miraculously preserved; in Malory’s pared-down version of the episode, it is Merlin whom many blame for the deaths of the children, but they hold their tongues ‘what for drede and for love’ (I.27, 56).4 Fear of Merlin’s supernatural power is articulated by a knight who warns a would-be poisoner of Arthur: ‘Beware … of Merlion, for he knowith all thynges by the devylles craffte’ (III.14, 118). Like the earlier reference to Merlin as witch, this is Malory’s invention, and again signals anxiety about witchcraft, especially in relation to politics. Merlin is characterised as in league with, even playing with, destiny: when Arthur appears to save him from death at the hands of three churls, he claims, ‘I cowde a saved myselffe and I had wolde’ (I.23, 49). Yet his control is not absolute. He knows that either Lot or Arthur will die, intervenes to save Arthur by delaying Lot, but ultimately cannot put a stop to the battle between them (II.10, 75–6). Similarly, he warns of but cannot prevent the theft of Excalibur and its scabbard by a woman. Most disturbing is his prophecy of Arthur’s destruction by the child he has begotten in incest, Mordred. The episode is part of an extended sequence of supernatural events. Malory recounts Arthur’s troubling dream of battles with griffins and serpents, then employs the conventional pattern of marvellous adventure: Arthur chases a hart deep into the forest, sees the Questing Beast, and encounters Merlin, disguised first as a child and then as an old man, shape-shifting 4 See

Vinaver, Works, vol. 3, pp. 1303–4, n. 55, and pp. 1310–11, n. 76, 5–7.


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Malory’s Morte Darthur that perhaps symbolises the time spanned by Merlin’s prophecy. The sinister ethos echoes the menacing prediction, ‘ye have gotyn a childe that shall destroy you and all the knyghtes of youre realme’ (I.20, 44). Although Merlin knows and reveals ‘many thyngis that scholde befalle’ (IV.1, 125), he is finally the instrument of higher forces. His arts facilitate destiny, but do not attempt to change it. Knowledge is in this sense Merlin’s tragedy, for he also prophesies but cannot avoid his own ‘shamefull’ death (I.20, 44), despite Arthur’s urging: So on a tyme he tolde to kynge Arthure that he scholde nat endure longe, but for all his craftes he scholde be putte into the erthe quyk. … Also he tolde kyng Arthure that he scholde mysse hym: ‘And yett had ye levir than all youre londis have me agayne. ’ ‘A,’ sayde the kyng, ‘syn ye knowe of youre evil adventure, purvey for hit, and putt hit away by youre crauftes, that mysseadventure. ’ ‘Nay,’ seyde Merlion, ‘hit woll not be. ’ (IV.1, 125) This dialogue, based on a long interchange between Merlin and the Lady of the Lake in the French, is a striking innovation: it sets pragmatic and moral understandings of magic against each other, placing Merlin as answerable to a higher destiny. Paradoxically, this destiny of which Merlin is prescient is ineluctably written within his own being: his game-playing, shape-shifting and magical arts ultimately work against him to shape his death. Subject to the unruly forces of sexual desire, which recall his own unruly begetting, he insists on his pursuit of Nenyve of the Lake.5 This is depicted in markedly negative terms: ‘But Merlion wolde nat lette her have no reste, but allwayes he wolde be wyth her. … he was assoted uppon hir, that he myght nat be from hir’ (IV.1, 125). In response, she encourages Merlin to teach her his magical arts, and Malory creates a keen sense of two opposed wills. Because ‘oftyntymes Merlion wolde have had hir prevayly away by his subtyle crauftes’ (IV.1, 125), Nenyve causes him to swear never to enchant her (the French simply states that Merlin did not use magic or coercion). In a highly original passage, Malory connects Merlin’s potentially demonic nature and his lustful pursuit of Nenyve. Afraid ‘for cause he was a devyls son’ and wearied by his repeated attempts to ‘have hir maydynhode’ , Nenyve turns Merlin’s own magic back on him: 5 The

Old French Viviane/Niv(i)ene/Nimiane, the Damsel, Lady or Chief Lady of the Lake who named Lancelot, is variously rendered by Malory as Nynyve/Nenyve/Nymue/Nyneue. While Nenvye (Niviene) is the Lady of the Lake in the French, Vinaver argues that Malory gives the detail ‘one of the damesels of the Lady of the Laake’ to distinguish Nenyve from the Lady of the Lake (Lady Lyle of Avilon) beheaded by Balin, who is never associated with the Lake in the French, Works, vol. 3, p. 1336, n. 125, 3–5. Nenyve will become Tennyson’s Vivien. See Christopher Dean, The Lady of the Lake in Arthurian Legend (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen, 1993); Anne Berthelot, ‘From Niniane to Nimuë: Demonizing the Lady of the Lake’ , in Bonnie Wheeler and Fiona Tolhurst, ed., On Arthurian Women: Essays in Memory of Maureen Fries (Dallas, TX: Scriptorium Press, 2001), pp. 89–101; and Thelma S. Fenster, ed., Arthurian Women: A Casebook, Arthurian Characters and Themes 3 (New York: Garland 1996).


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance And so one a tyme Merlyon ded shew hir in a roche whereas was a grete wondir and wrought by enchauntement that went undir a grete stone. So by hir subtyle worchyng she made Merlyon to go undir that stone to latte hir wete of the mervayles there, but she wrought so there for hym that he come never oute for all the craufte he coude do, and so she departed and leffte Merlyon. (IV.1, 126)6 Nenyve has become the powerful ‘nigromancer’ , who employs arts of enchantment harmfully to imprison the body – a variation on the imprisonment through shape-shifting that is so prominent in romance. Her magical arts cannot be seen as different in kind from Merlin’s, from whom she has learned them; it is Nenyve’s malevolent intention that effects the crucial difference. Though Merlin’s voice making ‘grete dole’ is later heard by Bagdemagus, the rock cannot be moved, even by a hundred men, and Merlin reasserts his destiny: ‘all was in vayne: for he myght never be holpyn but by her that put hym there’ (IV.5, 132). That Merlin is one of the undead lends continuing credibility to his role as political prophet, but the sound of Merlin’s voice ‘in the erthe quyk’ is also a haunting reminder of the inevitability of fate, which no learning and knowledge can reverse. Magical arts have the power to entertain, but are also dangerous: they can be learned and manipulated to destroy, and God does not necessarily reverse them. The dark forces of the supernatural manifest themselves with special force in tragic story of Balin and Balan. In the Prose Vulgate, this tale plays a key role in the larger Grail history; Malory, however, almost completely removes these associations, so that the emphasis falls on the unfair, incalculable quality of destiny and on human tragedy and misfortune. Perhaps ironically, the brothers appear in battle ‘as angels other devilles frome helle’ (II.10, 76), yet in fact they come to figure as victims of forces beyond their control. Balin’s insistence on the pursuit of chivalric action by taking up any quest and adventure offered leads him repeatedly to make choices that appear honourable but have disastrous consequences. He proves his excellence by drawing a mysterious sword from its sheath, but refuses to return it to the lady who wears it, although he is told that it will kill the man he most loves. Balin’s response is characteristic: ‘I shall take the adventure … that God woll ordayne for me’ (II.2, 64). That the court suspects him of ‘wycchecrauffte’ (II.2, 65) heightens the shadowing of Balin by misfortune. The conflicting forces that shape his tragic destiny are strikingly evident in his revenge on the Lady of the Lake (the Lady l’Isle of Avilion, a figure distinct from Nenyve). On the one hand, this is justified, for we hear that she has destroyed many knights ‘by inchauntement and by sorcery’ (II.3, 66), has betrayed Balin’s mother, who has been burnt, and demands 6 Malory’s

version is very much reduced from the French, which gives a long account of the wonders shown to ‘Niviene’ by Merlin: he relates to her the story of Diana’s murder of Faunus, who is placed in a tomb supposedly containing healing water, but into which she pours boiling lead. Merlin is persuaded to build a manor by the lake of Diana for Niviene; makes many prophecies; destroys two wizards and places them in tombs ringed with fire; and finally, showing her a skilfully built dwelling containing a tomb, is imprisoned by enchantment. Niviene’s hatred increases according to Merlin’s love; the details of weariness and fear are not given. See Vinaver, Works, vol. 3, pp. 1337–8, notes to 126.


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Malory’s Morte Darthur Balin’s head. Yet these details point to the double-edged quality of magic: the arts that have been so harmful to Balin have also assisted Arthur, to whom this Lady of the Lake has given the gift of Excalibur. In beheading her in the court, Balin enacts private revenge but also violates the chivalric ethic, killing a lady who has served the king and has a safe-conduct. The scene suggests the conflicting politics of the Arthurian world and the destructive nature of feud, a recurrent theme in the Morte (II.3). Merlin intervenes to reveal the treachery of the sword, but Balin’s exile is swiftly marked by further violence and tragedy, when he kills Sir Launceor, whose lady in turn kills herself in grief. Balan’s response to his brother’s grief, ‘ye must take the adventure that God woll ordayne you’ (II.6, 70), articulates the emphasis throughout this tale on Balin as victim of a tragic and inevitable destiny. The emphasis on enigmatic supernatural forces is reiterated when Merlin prophesies the adventures of the Sankgreall, and warns of the dolorous stroke. An apparently innocent act again triggers violent misfortune when a grieving knight whom Arthur requests Balin to summon is suddenly murdered with a spear by ‘one invisible’; the action is eerily repeated as Balin rides on with another knight (II.12–13, 80–1). No explanation is given for Garlon’s power, although he is well known as one who ‘rydith all invisibyle’; at Pellam’s court he is identified as ‘the knyght with the blacke face, for he ys the mervaylyste knyght that ys now lyvynge. And he destroyeth many good knyghtes, for he gooth invisible’ (II.14, 82–3). In killing him, Balin again seems to enact just revenge, but arouses the anger of Garlon’s brother, King Pellam, and in catching up the ‘mervaylous spere’ (III.15, 85) of Longinus in the Grail Castle, deals the Dolorous Stroke that causes the castle to fall, kills most of those in it, including Balin’s damsel, wounds King Pellam and lays waste to three countries. Merlin again foretells Balin’s doom, and as Balin rides on through the countries where many lie dead, he is cursed for having dealt the dolorous stroke. That combination of tragic misfortune, doom-ridden prophecy and the ominous concatenation of circumstances is sustained when Balin unwittingly causes the knight Garnish to murder his lady and her lover, and to commit suicide (II.16–17). At each turn, defensible, seemingly innocuous actions lead to disaster. Balin’s courteous acceptance of a shield will, by preventing Balan from recognising him, lead to the death of both brothers. Malory’s Balin is acutely conscious of the conflict between the ‘worshipful way’ of knighthood and the dark forces that compel events. As he journeys on through the forest, he is warned by an old man to ‘torne ageyne’ , and reads on a cross, ‘it is not for no knyght alone to ryde toward this castel’ (II.17, 88). Malory rewrites the French statement that there is no return to create a sense of choice: Balin elects to follow the chivalric path, despite the suggestion that it leads to a tragic destiny.7 On arriving at a castle, he hears the sound of a horn that he suspects is blown for his death, but asserts his readiness to meet this: ‘though my hors be wery my hert is not wery. I wold be fayne ther my deth shold be’ (II.17, 88). His response to a further warning articulates the potentially destructive demands of honour: ‘Me repenteth … that ever I cam 7 ‘il

n’i a mais riens del retorner’: see Vinaver, Works, vol. 3, p. 1319, n. 88.3.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance within this countrey; but I maye not torne now ageyne for shame, and what aventure shalle falle to me, be it lyf or dethe, I wille take the adventure that shalle come to me’ (II.17, 89). This tone of determined acceptance is not present in the French, where Balin expresses fear when told of his ‘mescheaunce’ and Pellam’s vengeance (1320–1, n. 89.1–4). Malory’s Balin has become the hunted quarry in a world where supernatural forces seem to direct him through the dark forests of Logres, forces that are not obviously aligned with beneficent providence.8

Marvel, Enchantment and Sorcery That the story of Balin and Balan is placed before the much more light-hearted quest of Torre and Pellinor creates a dramatic opposition between the two faces of destiny – an opposition that is fundamental to the entire work, for fortune both favours and curses Arthur. The emphasis on the inexorability of fate is set aside for much of the middle books of the Morte, which celebrate the quests and adventures of individual knights, Launcelot, Gareth and Tristram. The Tristram section, in particular, is dominated by physical battles, hunting, and the game and play of jousts and tournaments. The adventures of the four great knights, Launcelot, Lamorak, Palomides and Tristram, accompanied by the joker, Dinadan, are interwoven with the narrative of Tristram’s (and Palomides’) love for La Beale Isode, which is echoed in Lamorak’s love for Queen Morgause of the Orkneys and Launcelot’s for Guinevere. These are books of human and physical concerns, and their momentum is positive, despite the continued threat of treachery. Thus we hear of the deaths of Lamorak and Tristram only second-hand, the latter very much later. Yet while the sense of overarching destiny dissipates after the disappearance of Merlin, the practice of magic continues to be a recurrent motif, and in particular the arts of enchantment practised by women on the knights of the Round Table.9 Malory never explicitly associates these practitioners of magic with the otherworld, but rather, as with Merlin, leaves them and their origins shadowy. They are ambiguous, their magic positive or negative according to its motivation, sometimes menacing and shading into ‘nigromancy’ , but also potentially medicinal, healing or transformative in positive ways. At one end of the spectrum is the love-potion drunk by Tristram and Isode, the role of which is carefully limited by Malory. Though we are never told how the potion is made, the implication is that it is a form of natural magic. La Beale Isode and her mother are powerful practitioners of natural, healing magic: Isode, ‘a noble surgeon’ (VIII.9, 385), a phrase not connected with her in the French, heals 8 See

also Muriel Whitaker’s discussion of the ‘tragic and inexplicable setting’ of the tale in Arthur’s Kingdom of Adventure: The World of Malory’s ‘Morte Darthur’, Arthurian Studies 9 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1984), pp. 56–7. 9 See further Geraldine Heng, ‘Enchanted Ground: The Feminine Subtext in Malory’ , in Busby and Kooper, Courtly Literature, pp. 283–300; Catherine La Farge, ‘The Hand of the Huntress: Repetition and Malory’s Morte Darthur’ , in Isobel Armstrong, ed., New Feminist Discourses: Critical Essays on Theories and Texts (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 263–79; and Elizabeth Edwards, ‘The Place of Women in the Morte Darthur’ , in Archibald and Edwards, Companion to Malory, pp. 37–54.


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Malory’s Morte Darthur Tristram from his poisoned wound, and her mother’s medicinal skill provides the potion, the positive intention of which is made clear. The drink is treated with naturalism: ‘hit semed by the coloure and the taste that hit was noble wyne’ (VIII.24, 412), and the effect is physical and immediate. When Tristram and Isode taste it, ‘they thought never drynke that ever they dranke so swete nother so good to them. But by that drynke was in their bodyes they loved aythir other so well that never hir love departed, for well nother for woo’ (VIII.24, 412). Malory lessons the role of this binding love-magic, however, by portraying the love between Tristram and Isode as arising naturally (‘the joy that La Beale Isode made of sir Trystrames there myght no tunge telle, for of all men erthely she loved hym moste’ , VIII.24, 411, Malory’s addition). Magic is displaced by emotion, and the potion is reduced to an apparently natural magic that, although potentially harmful in its misuse, ultimately affirms what has already been decided by destiny. That Malory follows the emphasis of the Prose Tristan in blackening King Mark’s character as a false knight and enemy of chivalry enhances this positive portrayal of the love of Tristram and Isode as natural, authorised and in its own terms virtuous. The powers of those who are explicitly characterised as enchantresses in the Morte are treated with varying degrees of ambivalence. Malory carefully rationalises the arts of the Lady of the Lake: her palace is described by Merlin as set within a ‘grete roche’ , rather than being the magical, underwater palace of the Vulgate (I.25, 52). Her arts span natural magic and more ambiguous enchantments, sometimes employing wondrous technology: she shapes the marvel of the sword held by a mysterious ‘arme clothed in whyght samyte’ (I.25, 52), just as Merlin shapes the two swords set in stones by his subtle crafts. Her role too seems positive, affirmative of destiny, yet, as we have seen in relation to Balin, from another perspective her arts can appear deeply destructive. Nenyve, ‘one of the damesels of the Lady of the Laake’ (IV.1, 125), sometimes herself termed the Lady of the Lake, is also treated with ambiguity, for we are reminded at her first appearance that she is the same lady who ‘put Merlyon undir the stone’ (IV.9, 142, original to Malory). Nenyve and her damsels appear at crucial moments across the narrative, usually to endorse Arthur’s rule and defend right, and she is the most prominent practitioner of benign magic: ‘ever she ded grete goodnes unto kynge Arthure and to all his knyghtes thorow her sorsery and enchauntementes’ (XVIII.8, 1059, Malory’s addition). The terms ‘sorsery and enchauntementes’ do not suggest that this is exclusively natural magic: the term ‘sorsery’ tends to occur alongside ‘nigromancy’ and ‘witchcraft’ , and to have negative connotations. Nenyve’s ­powers of enchantment are proven in a dramatic narrative wholly of Malory’s invention, when she preserves Pelleas from his destructive love for Ettard, and punishes her by ‘threw[ing] an enchauntemente’ on each of them, so that Pelleas falls in love with Nenyve, while Ettard now loves Pelleas so madly that she eventually dies of grief (IV.23, 171–2). Nenyve’s enduring protection of Pelleas is reiterated at the end of the work. This love-magic is depicted in very different terms from that employed by Isode’s mother, and the episode provides a striking instance of a positive use of ‘enchantment’ that seems close to ‘nigromancy’ in kind, perhaps authorised because Nenyve herself, like Merlin, seems vaguely otherworldly. 243

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance In the episode of Arthur and Accolon, Nenyve’s foreknowledge works to preserve Arthur: she comes ‘into the felde … for the love of kynge Arthur, for she knew how Morgan le Fay had ordayned for Arthur shold have bene slayne that day, and therefore she com to save his lyff ’ (IV.9, 142). Malory’s inclusion of Nenvye’s presence as spectator at the battle (in the French she arrives only after Arthur’s sword has broken) allows him to characterise her as moved by ‘peté that so good a knyght and such a man of worship sholde so be destroyed’ , and thus, as in several later episodes, to set her magic against the ‘false treson’ of Morgan le Fay (IV.10, 144). Late on in the Morte, it is Nenyve who reveals the truth of the poisoned apple, affirming Guinevere’s innocence when she is accused of the death of Sir Patrise, a detail wholly original to Malory (XVIII.8). Nenyve’s magic is largely protective and healing, and is rooted in foreknowledge; it also hovers between natural magic and enchantment or sorcery, including the ability to cause love (and remove desire), and to disempower through enchantment. Though she shapes the marvel of Excalibur and is aligned with destiny, Nenyve’s magic, unlike that of the more menacing enchantresses of the Morte, is not generally depicted as involving the arts of illusion, shape-shifting or manipulation of adventure. Yet her betrayal of Merlin complicates her benign magic, and the forcefulness of her various interventions indicates the transformative extremes of her powers: intention is the decisive factor in their effect. For Malory, sorcery can be positive. That there is no simple equation to be made either between ‘nigromancy’ and the arts of illusion and shape-shifting, by contrast to natural, medicinal magic, is made clear in Malory’s tale of Sir Gareth of Orkney. The story, for which no direct source is known, is a version of the Fair Unknown story-pattern, and shares some material with Lybeaus Desconus. It depends on a magic that uses enchantment but is benign, taking love-magic into the realms of the theatrical, and employing marvellous technology of a kind that recalls the adventure of the Perilous Bed in Chrétien’s Le Conte du Graal. Magical practices that might seem deeply disturbing are authorised by beneficent motivation. The arrival of Gawain’s brother Gareth, identified only as ‘Beaumains’ , at the court at Pentecost is carefully placed in the context of Arthur’s hope to hear of some ‘grete mervayle’ or ‘strange adventures’ (VII.1, 293), and throughout the tale Malory weaves together familiar conventions and motifs.10 Gareth’s quest to rescue Dame Lyonesse, the besieged sister of the haughty ‘damesell Savyage’ , Lyonet (VII.34, 357), moves through a tapestry of adventure of a highly symbolic kind, which is structured around shifting colours and forms. Gareth defeats the Black Knight of the Black Lands and subsequently overcomes the Black Knight’s two brothers, green and red knights, and a fourth brother, Sir Persaunt of Inde, whose daughter tests Gareth’s chastity. When he encounters Lyonesse’s attacker, the Red Knight of the Red Lands, however, the emphasis shifts from the marvellous pageantry of adventure to the active practice of magic. Malory’s narrative of Gareth’s second encounter with Lyonesse in the castle of her brother Gryngamour plays on the motif of the faery mistress, when 10 See

further Vinaver’s discussion, Works, vol. 3, pp. 1427–34. See also Charles Ross, The Custom of the Castle from Malory to Macbeth (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).


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Malory’s Morte Darthur Lyonesse appears ‘arayde lyke a prynces’ to make Gareth ‘passyng good chere’; she is unrecognised by Gareth, who believes her to be even fairer than Lyonesse, and burns in love towards her (VII.21, 331). It seems fitting for this seeming encounter with an enchantress that Gryngamour’s castle should be situated on the Isle of Avilon (VII.27, 342). Yet this otherworldly sequence is differentiated from analogous romance instances by Lyonesse’s explicit manipulation of appearances to ‘assay him better’ (VII.21, 332): ‘I wolde nat that he wyste what I were but as I were anothir strange lady’ (VII.20, 330).11 While Lyonesse casts herself as shape-shifting faery mistress, Lyonet employs still more striking ‘subtyle craufftes’ of the body, intervening to delay the ‘overhasty’ (VII.22, 333) consummation of her sister’s love. Malory does not use the terms ‘nigromancy’ or ‘witchcraft’ , despite the extraordinary, potentially supernatural nature of Lyonet’s arts; they are presented instead in terms of strange and marvellous technology. Gareth, in bed with Lyonesse, is attacked by a knight who wounds him in the thigh; although he beheads his attacker, Lyonet appears with an ointment that she applies both to head and neck: ‘And than she sette hit togydirs, and hit stake as faste as ever hit ded’ (VII.22, 334). The event cannot easily be explained as an illusion, since the knight rises and is led to Lyonet’s chamber. Ten days later, the sequence is repeated: the light of twenty torches, the armed knight who strikes Gareth on his old wound, the beheading of the knight, but this time, Gareth hews the head into a hundred pieces, throwing them from the window. Yet in a bizarrely graphic scene, Lyonet reassembles the knight: ‘she had fette all the gobbettis of the hede that sir Gareth had throwe oute at the wyndow, and there she anoynted hit as she dud tofore, and put them to the body in the syght of hem all’ (VII.23, 335). This practical, transformative magic is disturbing in its prosaic violence: the episode recalls the beheading of the Green Knight, but the knight seems something closer to a mechanised figure who may be disassembled and reassembled at will.12 Lyonet offers the explanation only that all is to Gareth’s worship. She is in command of his physical wholeness as completely as she is of the mysterious knight’s: doctors tell Gareth that his wound may only be healed by the individual who has ‘caused the stroke by enchauntemente’ , and Lyonet intervenes just before the tournament in which Lyonesse’s hand is to be won to cure him, again with a very material remedy, ‘an oynemente and salve … that he was never so freyshe nother so lusty as he was tho’ (VII.23, 336; 27, 342). Women in this tale literally make and unmake bodies, shaping the identity of the hero in the most acutely physical but also inexplicable ways. The ‘subtyle craufftes’ of magic seem to extend beyond the natural, though this is never certain, for the effects are left within the region of the marvellous. They are powerful, transformative and mysterious, but Malory’s vocabulary does not place them as ‘nigromancy’ . Magic literally colours the tournament in which Gareth’s identity is revealed. 11 Vinaver

suggests that this apparent ‘enchantment’ uses the magic ring depicted later, Works, vol. 3, p. 1437, n. 331, 19–20. 12 Analogues in the adventures of Gauvain include an episode using the replaceable head motif in La Mule sans Frein, and episodes of the interrupted love affair in Le Conte du Graal and Le Chevalier à l’Espee: see further Vinaver, Works, vol. 3, p. 1438, nn. 333.24–335.34.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance He is made and remade through the assistance of Lyonesse’s magic ring, the ‘vertu’ of which combines natural, protective magic (‘who that beryth this ringe shall lose no bloode’ , VII.28, 345) with qualities that move again into marvellous technology of the kind explored earlier in the tale. The ring both enhances Lyonesse’s beauty and turns one colour into another, ‘that that is grene woll turne to rede … that that is blewe woll turne to whyghte … and so hit woll do of all maner of coloures’ (VII.28, 345). Gareth is hailed as the ‘knyght with the many coloures’  until, forgetting the ring, he finally appears in his own, yellow arms (VII.29, 348). In part, this is a playful, celebratory use of magic; in part, it allows Gareth again and again to prove his knightly identity, and eventually to disappear, ‘than they all wyste [not] where he was becom’ (VII.31, 351). This ring of power must also, however, be restored to its owner, and thus becomes an emblem of ‘trouthe’ and love. It is replaced with the victor’s crown containing ‘stonys of vertu to the valew of a thousand pounde’ (VII.27, 341). The sense of enigma is sustained when, after the tournament, Gareth rides through a storm in a forest, to defeat the Brown Knight and his lord. Uncoincidentally, when Gareth and Gawain joust, it is Lyonet who comes upon them, to reveal their identities, staunch their wounds and heal them. The recurrent motif of healing, and the use of natural magic – ointments, salves, and the ring with its stone of special virtue – again place the sisters in positive terms, although their subtle arts also include the prescience, illusion and bodily transformation characteristic of ‘nigromancy’ . What is crucial is motive rather than kind: the love-magic, magical healing, foreknowledge and marvellous, shapeshifting devices of Lyonesse and Lyonet test and prove both Gareth’s chivalry and his virtue, allowing him to take up his rightful place at the Round Table. The link between enchantment and destiny implied here is made more explicit, and more troubling, in Malory’s treatment of Dame Brusen. Malory alters his sources to place her as a practitioner of magic, ‘one of the grettyst enchaunters that was that tyme in the worlde’ (XI.2, 794), and several times specifies that her actions employ enchantment; like Nenyve’s, Brusen’s magic can seem natural but it also includes the use of spells. She figures late in the Tristram section, where the emphasis of the book is beginning to shift towards that of the Grail Quest, to orchestrate the conception of Galahad. The scene, however, is oddly mixed in tone, for while Pelleas knows that Launcelot will beget on Elaine the knight destined to achieve the Grail, his contrivance of their union (heightened by Malory) seems at once comic and deeply unfair. Dame Brusen’s unorthodox methods are left nebulous, but seem to rely on shape-shifting and illusion: she contrives ‘one to com to sir Launcelot that he knew well’ , bearing a ring apparently belonging to Guinevere (rather than a message said to be from her, as in the French); Launcelot is directed to a castle and received by people that ‘to his semynge, as were aboute quene Gwenyver secrete’ (XI.2, 794–5). Brusen’s arts, like Lyonet’s, may employ natural magic: the ‘kuppe of wyne’ she administers makes Launcelot ‘so asoted and madde’ that he goes straight to bed, believing he is with Guinevere. This magic may also be interpreted more negatively, however, as ‘nigromancy’: Launcelot reiterates the term ‘enchauntemente’ , and accuses Brusen of ‘wycchecrauftys’ (XI.2–3, 794–6). Yet Brusen’s dubious arts are specifically directed to good: she knows that Galahad 246

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Malory’s Morte Darthur will be begotten that night, and, like Elaine, has ‘obeyde … unto the prophesye’ of King Pellam (XI.3, 796). Launcelot’s second encounter with Elaine is also orchestrated by Brusen (XI.7, 803), but this time out of pity for Elaine’s love, and it is striking that without the higher purpose of the conception of Galahad, Brusen’s arts rely less upon complex magic than on a simple bed trick. This time the deception of Launcelot is dependent upon the mistaking of chambers and the concealing darkness, although it is Brusen’s ‘crauftes’ that afford her knowledge of the arrangement between Launcelot and Guinevere, and perhaps, in Launcelot’s belief that Brusen is Guinevere’s messenger, there is also a hint of shape-shifting. Magic is authorised in the first encounter, whereas this second meeting is destructive, resulting in Launcelot’s madness, the cure of which is beyond Brusen’s arts: his healing requires a ‘myracle’ (XI.9, 807), effected by the Grail. Brusen’s role here is that of furthering miraculous healing: she advises that Launcelot must not be awakened and ‘throw[s] an inchauntemente uppon hym, that he shall nat awake of an owre’ , while he is carried to the Grail chamber (XII.4, 824). This action, like the begetting of Galahad, connects Brusen firmly to the Grail, placing her ambiguous arts as a positive form of ‘enchantment’ . Her practices indicate the potentially dangerous powers of magic and the decisive role of intention in their effect upon the body. Malory seems to imagine crafts with potentially positive uses, rooted in natural magic but certainly involving spells, ‘enchantments’ , not just healing or love potions; magic of the kind termed ‘nigromancy’ in Partonope, and capable of being turned to destructive purposes. Such magic most resembles the powers enjoyed by figures associated with the otherworld. The negative aspect of magic is most fully developed in Morgan le Fay, who is explicitly identified as ‘the false sorseres and wycche moste that is now lyvyng’ (VIII.34, 430).13 Again the term ‘wycche’ carries deep suspicion, and Morgan’s magic repeatedly threatens the order of the Arthurian world. As Arthur’s halfsister, Morgan has her own rival court, and is established as his great opponent: he is ‘the man in the worlde that she hatyth moste, because he is moste of worship and of prouesse of ony of hir bloode’ (IV.11, 145). Malory does not probe Morgan’s identity as ‘le Fay’ , but rather notes that she ‘was put to scole in a nonnery, and ther she lerned so moche that she was a grete clerke of nygromancye’ (I.2, 10), a term that in the Morte signals harmful magic. In the Prose Vulgate, Morgan studies the seven arts and is termed ‘la fee’ because of her knowledge of ‘fisike’; she persuades Merlin to teach her ‘scienche d’ingromanchie et l’art’; later she builds a tomb in which she hides a book of Merlin’s prophecies, although she is not apprised of them.14 Malory leaves us with a considerably vaguer notion of Morgan’s arts as learned and human (by contrast to Merlin’s). The words of her son, Uwayne, who discovers her about to kill King Uriens, play on the irony that while Merlin was 13 See Henry G. Morgan, ‘The Role of Morgan le Fay in Malory’s Morte Darthur’ , Southern Quarterly 2

(1963–4), pp. 150–68; Myra Olstead, ‘Morgan le Fay in Malory’s “Morte Darthur” ’ , BBIAS 19 (1967), pp. 128–38; and Larrington, King Arthur’s Enchantresses. 14 See Vinaver’s discussion of the French, Works, vol. 3, p. 1285, n. 10.8–10; p. 1312, nn. 78.28–79.3; p. 1353, n. 152.29–31). See further Larrington, King Arthur’s Enchantresses.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance supposedly ‘begotyn of a fende’ , Morgan behaves like ‘an erthely fende’; her excuse, that she was ‘tempted with a fende’ , sustains the emphasis (IV.13, 149). Whereas Merlin is a force for good, Morgan, like Mordred, is the inverse, her arts of illusion and shape-shifting characterised by the deception, jealousy and betrayal that Malory seems to place as fundamental to ‘nigromancy’ . The familiar motif of the magical hunt orchestrated by the enchantress in order to gain the knight’s body recurs in the Morte, rendered in miniature at the start of the Tristram section in the account of the snaring of Tristram’s father, Meliodas, by an otherwise unidentified lady: Therefore she let ordayne uppon a day as kynge Melyodas rode an-huntynge, for he was a grete chacer of dere, and there be enchauntemente she made hym chace an harte by hymself alone tyll that he com to an olde castell, and there anone he was takyn presoner by the lady that loved hym. (VIII.1, 371) This pattern occurs in much more elaborated form when Morgan orchestrates a complex process of illusion and deception so that her lover Accolon may defeat Arthur in battle. The first part of the sequence recalls the openings of Guigemar and Partonope: Arthur, Uriens (Morgan’s husband) and Accolon hunt a great hart through the forest so long that their horses fall dead; continuing on foot, they see a small ship, hung with silk and lit with a hundred torches; suddenly twelve beautiful damsels appear to lead them to a marvellous feast. Falling asleep in rich chambers, Uriens awakes in his wife’s arms, and Arthur surrounded by lamenting knights in ‘a durke preson’ (IV.6, 138). Gradually a hidden purpose emerges when the maiden who promises to arm Arthur in a battle against the evil lord of the castle is identified as ‘one of the damesels of Morgan le Fay’ (IV.8, 139). The atmosphere of strangeness and marvel is reiterated when Accolon wakes by a fountain where water runs from a silver pipe onto a marble stone, elements evocative of the magical spring in Le Chevalier au Lion. Accolon voices the possibility that the supernatural is a manifestation of the demonic: ‘thes damysels in this shippe hath betrayed us. They were fendis and no women’; they are ‘false damysels that faryth thus with theire inchauntementes’ (I.8, 140); the French does not include these references to the demonic in its condemnation of the women. But although the eerie atmosphere is retained when ‘a dwarf with a grete mowthe and a flatte nose’ appears, malevolent human intention proves to underlie the adventure when Morgan le Fay is identified as the source of the marvels: ‘ “Now I suppose,” seyde Accolon, “she hath made all this crauftis and enchauntemente for this batayle” ’ (IV.8, 140–1). The adventure with its otherworldly and magical elements of the hunt, ship and feast is elaborately manufactured to order to advance the lady’s lover. Arthur’s sword and scabbard, like the damsel who brings them, prove ‘counterfete and brutyll and false’ (IV.8, 142), and it is only through the beneficent ‘inchauntemente’ of the Damsel of the Lake that he regains Excalibur to win the battle (IV.10, 144). The effect is not as simple as pitting ‘nigromancy’ against natural magic; rather, Malory imagines good and evil forms of enchantment. Arthur is subject in this episode not to the incalculability of fate but to the calculating, learned arts of his own half-sister, as he emphasises to the dying Accolon: ‘my 248

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Malory’s Morte Darthur sistir Morgan le Fay by hir false crauftis made the to agré to hir fals lustes’ (IV.11, 146); in colluding Accolon is proven a traitor. Falseness, deception and illusion recur when Morgan, not to be thwarted, enters the abbey where Arthur lies sleeping, attempts to steal Excalibur and departs with the scabbard. Although the theft is enacted through Morgan’s insistence on her status as Arthur’s sister rather than through magic, her flight dramatically employs the arts of illusion: ‘whan she sawe she muste be overtake, she shope hirself, horse and man, by enchauntemente unto grete marbyll stonys’ (IV.14, 151). The message she sends to Arthur explicitly declares her black arts: ‘tell hym I feare hym nat whyle I can make me and myne in lyknesse of stonys, and lette hym wete I can do much more whan I se my tyme’ (IV.15, 152). In throwing the scabbard into the lake, Morgan deprives Arthur of his supernatural protection, the importance of which has been so emphasised by Merlin. We hear not only of Morgan’s military defences (IV.15), but also of the precious mantle sent by her to the king, all set with ‘the rycheste stonys that ever the kynge saw’ . The power of these stones is that of destruction rather than healing or protection, for when Morgan’s damsel is caused to put on the robe she falls dead, ‘brente to colys’ , a detail added by Malory (IV.17, 157–8). Again, the intervention of the Lady of the Lake protects Arthur, so that practitioners of beneficent and maleficent magic seem pitted against one another. The use of ‘nigromancy’ is dominated by malevolent intentions that shape destructive magic, rather than any active conjuring of the devil. The practices themselves – natural magic of different kinds, shape-shifting, illusion, enchantment and foreknowledge – are shared by those who enact both healing and harmful magic. Morgan is also characterised as following the pattern of the otherworldly ruler who wishes both to destroy and to possess bodies. She shapes herself as the faery mistress and her magic is partly directed towards the destruction of female rivals, but more generally, she is ‘an enemy to all trew lovers’ , and especially Launcelot and Guinevere. Her power over bodies is manifest in her use of illusion, illness and cure, violence and imprisonment, as well as dangerous magical objects: thus she sends a magical drinking horn to the court, the ‘vertu’ of which is that adulterous women will ‘spylle all the drynke’ (VIII.34, 429–30). Launcelot later rescues ‘a dolerous lady … in paynes many wyntyrs and dayes, for ever she boyleth in scaldynge watir’ , ‘naked as a nedyll’: the ‘enchauntemente’ has been placed on her by Morgan and the queen of North Wales because she is ‘called the fayryst lady of that contrey’ , a detail added by Malory (XI.1, 791–2). The episode also places Lancelot as ‘beste knyght of the worlde’ (XI.1, 792). Apart from Arthur himself, Launcelot is the particular focus of Morgan’s magic, and the Morte emphasises both his attractiveness to women and his invulnerability except to treason and magic: ‘at no tyme was he ovircom but yf hit were by treson other inchauntement’ (VI.1, 253). He is later said to have been kept in prison for half a year by Morgan (XI.4). Such threats are a special focus of the ‘Book of Sir Launcelot’: riding out from the court in search of ‘straunge adventures’ , Launcelot and Lionel find themselves unnaturally sleepy in the hot noon, and rest in the shade of an apple tree. The reader is left unsure whether the setting, with its conventional markers of otherworldly adventure, summons Morgan le Fay, 249

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance or whether she plays some more manipulative part in shaping circumstances. The scene offers a sinister rewriting of Sir Launfal: Morgan seeks Launcelot’s body, but not for fulfilment of mutual desire. The ‘quenys sorseres foure’ (VI.18, 287) who discover Launcelot (in Malory’s narrative immediately recognising him) all compete for his love, and Morgan’s solution combines enchantment, imprisonment and force: ‘I shall put an inchauntement uppon hym that he shall not awake of all this seven owres, and than I woll lede hym away unto my castell. And whan he is surely within my holde, I shall take the inchauntement frome hym, and than lette hym chose whych of us he woll have unto paramour. ’ (VI.3, 256) That the four queens are identified as sorcerers may point again to the learned and potentially harmful nature of magical arts: they have access to elite occult knowledge. Whereas in the French the queens actively break the enchantment to awaken Launcelot, in Malory’s version he is given more autonomy (VI.3).15 He wakes in a ‘chambir colde’ , to condemn the four queens as ‘false enchaunters’ by contrast to his queen, Guinevere, whose loyalty is echoed by the sympathetic damsel (daughter of King Bagdemagus) who rescues him (VI.3, 257–8). The contrast between true and false queens recurs in a dialogue wholly original to the Morte, when Guinevere is suspected of precisely what the queens attempt, having ‘ordeyned by enchauntemente’ Launcelot’s love (VI.10, 270). Enchantment lends power over bodies; it is envisaged as a means of inflicting physical harm. Through magic, the actions of women parallel the unjust violence and merciless behaviour of men such as Sir Tarquin, who imprisons knights, and Sir Perys de Forest Sauvage, who rapes ladies. The books of Sir Tristram are partly shaped by Morgan’s repeated attempts to possess the bodies of the great knights, Launcelot, Tristram and Alexander, whose story is inset (as it probably was in Malory’s version of the Prose Tristan). Morgan’s treason does not always involve magic: she ‘ordayne[s]’ thirty knights to lie in wait for Launcelot and Tristram (IX.23, 505), and thirty ladies to ‘seke and aspye’ for them (IX.25, 511). Later, she holds Tristram prisoner without recognising him, and then requires him to take a shield depicting the love of Launcelot and Guinevere to the court in order to betray the lovers and shame the king. Her jealousy is made explicit: she ‘loved sir Launcelot beste, and ever she desired hym’ , attempting ‘to have takyn hym by strengthe’ (IX.41, 555). Morgan’s desire seems in part stimulated by Launcelot’s identity as greatest of Arthurian knights, the loss of whom would most damage the king, rather as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight she plots to destroy Gawain and Guinevere. Among Morgan’s other lovers both Accolon and Hemyson are drawn into treachery against the Round Table and subsequently killed by Arthur and Tristram. Her dangerous pursuits are treated most extensively when King Mark urges her, with the Queen of North Wales, to ‘sette all the contrey envyrone with ladyes that were enchauntours’ in order to imprison or kill 15 See

Vinaver’s comparison of this episode with its French sources, Works, vol. 3, p. 1415, n. 256.19, n. 257.6–7.


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Malory’s Morte Darthur Alexander the Orphan (X.35, 638). The passage creates an intriguing impression of a web of female practitioners of magic. The emphasis shifts from Mark’s contravention of chivalry to Morgan’s desire to possess bodies: hearing of Alexander’s feats in jousting, she wishes to see him and sets out, like Triamour, to await him in her pavilion. Morgan’s power, again like that of otherworldly enchantresses, is both prescient and disturbingly physical. She arrives as a spectator of Alexander’s battle with Sir Malegryne, and when he is gravely wounded, gives him ‘such a drynke that of three dayes and three nyghtes he waked never, but slepte’ , so that she may take him to her own castle of Beale Regard (X.37, 642). Morgan’s supposedly medicinal attentions place Alexander further in her power: Than quene Morgan le Fay serched his woundis and gaff hym suche an oynement that he sholde have dyed. And so on the morne whan she cam to hym agayne, he complayned hym sore. And than she put another oynemente uppon hym, and than he was oute of his payne. (X.37, 642) Their later dialogue articulates her control over the body: ‘Than Morgan le Fay com to sir Alysaundir and axed hym yf he wolde fayne be hole. ’ Alexander’s response, ‘Madame, who wolde be syke and he myght be hole?’ (X.37, 642), is Malory’s addition, and the realistic evocation of the pains of sickness and prison perhaps resonates with Malory’s own imprisonment. On promising not to depart for a year, Alexander is healed, to discover that he is kept by Morgan as prisoner ‘for none other entente but for to do hir plesure whan hit lykyth hir’ (X.38, 643). It is the ‘evyll customys’ of the castle that eventually summon the earl of Pase to destroy it and free Alexander (X.38, 643). This desire to possess the knight’s body is characteristic of enchantresses. Thus, also in the Tristram section, Arthur becomes the victim of the lady Aunowre, ‘a grete sorseres’ who has loved him ‘many dayes … [and] wolde have had hym to lye by her’: she persuades the king to ride into the Forest Perilous with her, but when he refuses to sleep with her ‘for no crauffte that she cowde do’ , she forces him to accompany her into the forest each day, ‘to the entente to have had hym slayne’ – a variation on the motif of the otherworldly hunt (IX.16, 490). The Lady of the Lake again intervenes, apprised of Arthur’s danger by her ‘suttyle craufftes’ , and Tristram beheads Aunowre just as she is about to strike off Arthur’s head with his own sword (IX.16, 490). Again the Lady of the Lake’s prescience plays a protective role, countering harmful love-magic. The most sinister threat to the body is presented by the enchantress Hellawes, a figure not found in the French prose Lancelot. Malory’s narrative seems to find its origins in the thirteenth-century French Perlesvaus, which includes an episode recounting the adventure of the haunted Chapelle Perilleuse, where the Orgueilleuse Pucele, who wishes to capture and kill Gawain, Launcelot and Perceval, has prepared coffins for them; Malory’s narrative echoes many of the details.16 As in the episodes of Balin and Balan and Arthur and Accolon, the 16 See

The High Book of the Grail: A Translation of the Thirteenth-Century Romance of ‘Perlesvaus’ , trans. Nigel Bryant (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1978), Branch X, pp. 220–5.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance atmosphere is redolent of the otherworld: Launcelot rides through a deep forest, following a black brachet that seems to urge Launcelot on as she searches for the wounded prey hinted at by a ‘large feaute of bloode’ (VI.14, 278); the brachet leads him to a castle where Sir Gilbert the Bastard lies dead, and where he hears of the wounds of Gilbert’s enemy. In the forest, a lady identifies the wounded knight as Sir Melyot de Logrys, a companion of the Round Table, and tells Launcelot of a sorceress’s enigmatic statement that the knight will never be healed unless his wounds are searched with the sword in the Chapel Perilous, and he is touched with a piece of the bloody cloth that shrouds the corpse there. The implication is of antipathetic magic: healing is effected by bringing together opposed fragments, uniting weapon and wound, blood and cloth. The adventure grows stranger still when Launcelot, after seeing many shields in the churchyard of the Chapel Perilous, is met by thirty ghostly knights who ‘grenned and gnasted’ at him, all in black armour. It seems that he has entered a world of the dead like that of Sir Orfeo, an impression that is heightened when the earth quakes as Launcelot takes the sword and cuts away a piece of the silk shroud, and the ghostly knights threaten him with death. That this is the corpse of Sir Gilbert, whose body Launcelot has already seen, adds to the shifting, eerie quality of the adventure. Yet the whole turns out to be a complicated snare for Lancelot, ‘ordeyned’ by a sorceress whom Malory explicitly links, like Morgan le Fay, to necromancy: she is ‘Hallewes the Sorseres, lady of the castell Nygurmous’ (VI.15, 281). Launcelot implies that her enchantments are demonic: ‘Jesu preserve me frome your subtyle crauftys!’ (VI.15, 281). We suspect, though we are never sure, that the first lady was also Hallewes, and that she orchestrated the pursuit of the brachet. If Launcelot had not refused her request for ‘one kiss’ , he would have lost his life, his corpse surrendered to the enchantress: ‘And, sir Launcelot, now I telle the: I have loved the this seven yere, [but] there may no woman have thy love but quene Gwenyver; and sytthen I myght nat rejoyse the nother thy body on lyve, I had kepte no more joy in this worlde but to have thy body dede. Than wolde I have bawmed hit and sered hit, and so to have kepte hit my lyve dayes; and dayly I sholde have clypped the and kyssed the, dispyte of quene Gwenyvere. ’ (VI.15, 281) In the Perlesvaus, the Pucele Orgueilleuse expresses her desire for Lancelot, but it is his refusal to give her the sword from the Chapelle Perilleuse that preserves him. In Malory’s narrative, sex and death are equated in a highly threatening way as Hallewes’ desire for revenge on the Round Table, stimulated by Gawain’s earlier wounding of Gilbert the Bastard, merges with the desire to possess Launcelot’s body. Enchantment replaces physical force, and traditional gender roles are reversed. Despite her magical powers, however, the woman becomes the victim: Launcelot ultimately saves himself, Sir Melyot is indeed healed with the sword and cloth, and it is Hallewes who dies of unrequited love within a fortnight. Although the adventure has been constructed by Hallewes, its supposed purpose proves strangely genuine. The narrative is complex in its interweaving of motifs: otherworldly adventure, the magical hunt for the body of the knight, and marvellous 252

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Malory’s Morte Darthur healing, and in the impression created of a hinterland of intrigue and enchantment beyond this eerie, allusive narrative. As in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the enigmatic quality of the test renders it both compelling and difficult. No clue is given that preservation of chastity equates with preservation of life; the structures of chivalry are silently tested. These supernatural adventures go far beyond the challenges of physical battle in constructing the chivalric identity.

Miracles and Demons: The Grail Quest The practitioners of magic in the Morte remain ambiguous, their practices shifting between natural magic, enchantment of more beneficent kinds, and ‘nigromancy’ , their origins largely unexplained and sometimes seeming otherworldly. Both enchantment and ‘nigromancy’ may employ healing and protective arts, love-magic, divination, shape-shifting and illusion. In the quest of the Sankgreall, by contrast, human and otherworldly magic are replaced by a supernatural that is explicitly divine or demonic. Here Malory remains closer to his source than elsewhere, but reduces allegorical explanation and increases realism.17 Within the actively Christian world of the Quest, knights become caught up in a constantly re-enacted struggle of good and evil. From the late books of the Tristram section onwards, the ethos is informed by prophecy and the promise of spiritual enlightenment, focused especially in Galahad. The Grail may be seen as perfecting natural magic and its powers are notably physical: its ‘vertu’ (a term that is repeatedly used) marvellously feeds, succours and heals. It appears to Perceval and Ector ‘wyth all maner of swetnesse and savoure’ and ‘furthwithall they were as hole of hyde and lymme as ever they were in their lyff ’ (XI.14, 816–17). Whereas in the French account of the feast at Corbenic, tables are set with rich food and drink, in Malory’s version the feast is shaped by the supernatural power of the Grail (XI.2, 793). The Grail is accompanied by thunder and lightning, and a brilliant light. The start of the Quest echoes the materiality of these episodes: letters of gold appear at Pentecost to mark the Siege Perilous, a marvellous stone and sword are found floating on the river, and the doors and windows of the hall suddenly shut. It is precisely the physical quality of the Grail that urges the knights on the Quest to see the Grail openly: each ‘had such metis and drynkes as he beste loved in thys worlde’ (XIII.7, 865). Paradoxically, this vessel with so physical a presence cannot be seen; only Percival’s spiritual perfection affords him ‘a glemerynge of the vessell and of the mayden that bare hit’ (XI.14, 816). In the Quest, the supernatural becomes a means of testing the human in ways that go far beyond the physical. Marvellous adventure is taken onto another level, transfigured as the Grail Knights themselves will be. This is a world of prophetic dreams, allegorical meanings, visionary experiences, and miracles: the term ­‘avision’ (XVI.1, 942) recurs, as in Gawain’s vision of three white among a hundred 17 See

Sandra Ness Ihle, Malory’s Grail Quest: Invention and Adaptation in Medieval Prose Romance (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983). On the French tradition, see Elspeth Kennedy, Lancelot and the Grail: A Study of the Prose Lancelot (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance and fifty black bulls, betokening the three Grail Knights. Prophetic voices and physical manifestations of the divine intervene in the processes of chivalry and adventure: thus in the battle between Bors and his brother Lionel (urged on by the fiend), a voice warns Bors to flee, and ‘Ryght so alyght a clowde betwyxte them in lykenes of a fayre and a mervaylous flame, that bothe hir two shyldis brente’ (XVI.17, 974). Characteristic of the ethos of these books is Bors’ vision of a pelican sitting in a tree ‘passyng drye, withoute leyffe’ (XVI.6, 956): while he watches the bird pierces itself with its beak in order to feed its starving young with its blood, and a hermit is scarcely needed to interpret the dying bird as a traditional emblem of Christ. The scene conveys vividly the symbolic quality of this landscape marked by wastelands, stunted trees, hermitages, rudderless boats and a strange sense of prescience and deep religious meaning. Demons, angels and the divine presence are visible as they are in the Bible: Galahad lifts the tombstone of a ‘false Crysten man’ to see ‘a fowle smoke, and aftir that … the fowlyst vygoure lepe thereoute that ever he saw in the lyknes of a man’; the fiend laments his inability to harm Galahad, ‘the servaunte of Jesu Crist’ , who is surrounded by many angels (XIII.12, 882). Similarly, ‘a fyende in an hydeous fygure’ is ‘conjoured on that booke’ by a priest with Launcelot, exorcised and forced to tell the story of a supposedly false monk whose body is miraculously preserved; the fiend departs ‘with a grete ­tempest’ (XV.1–2, 925–7). Later, the ‘secretis of the masse’ reveal Christ in the shape of a white hart, accompanied by the four creatures that represent the Evangelists (XVII.9, 999). Within the landscape of the Grail, heaven and hell are near and materially manifest. Spiritual quest is enacted in physical adventure that repeatedly rewrites the familiar motifs of romance: thus Launcelot should have fought not on the side of the weaker black knights but for the stronger white knights, symbolic of good, and Galahad’s liberation of the Castle of Maidens becomes a battle not just of the righteous against the wicked, but of good against evil. In the adventures of Perceval, the Grail landscape opens onto a violent, demonic world constructed around the motif of the enchantress. Perceval accepts what seems the courteous offer of an ominously black horse from a damsel who asks him to do her will, and eventually sees the horse disappear into a flaming river when he crosses himself. On a barren rocky mountain surrounded by sea, he saves a lion, emblem of the New Testament, from a serpent and hears from an old man on a white-draped ship that he must fight with ‘the stronge[st] champion of the worlde’ (XIV.6, 913). The familiar pattern of the faery mistress with marvellous powers of wish-fulfilment is evoked when a vessel with black sails arrives, carrying ‘a jantillwoman of grete beauté’ (XIV.8, 916): like Tryamour in Sir Launfal, she summons an opulent pavilion to protect Perceval from the heat, and rich food and strong wine appear. What seems the ‘mervayle’ of otherworldly romance, however, proves to be demonic illusion when Perceval, lying down naked beside the lady, catches sight of his sword hilt and makes the sign of the cross (XIV.9, 918). The pavilion turns upside down and is changed into black smoke, and the lady disappears into the winds and burning sea, a manifestation of the devil himself. The seduction of Bors too is attempted by a lady who disappears with ‘a grete noyse and a grete cry as all the fyndys of 254

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Malory’s Morte Darthur helle had bene aboute hym’ (XVI.12, 966). Literal and symbolic interweave as what appeared to be physical realities prove demonic illusions: Perceval is told ‘that jantillwoman was the mayster fyende of helle, which hath pousté over all other devyllis’ (XIV.10, 920). The enchantress is rewritten as the demonic temptress – and the devil as woman. The magic of illusion practised by this kind of otherworldly figure has the potential to send the knight to eternal damnation. The mysterious boats that glide in and out of the Quest, recalling the many rudder­less boats of romance, powerfully convey the presence of unseen supernatural forces, both divine and demonic, within this landscape. The Grail Ship, in particular, rewrites the familiar motif of otherworldly adventure; its contents perfect the notion of natural magic, merging this with the idea of relics possessing miraculous powers. The ship is divinely driven, its precious cargo not the lavish feast and couch of the enchantress, but the sword and bed destined for Galahad. The ship is deeply mysterious, appearing only in the middle of the sea between two rocks far from Logres, entered from another ship, and identified as Faith by ‘a dredefull worde and a mervaylous’ , a phrase that emphasises wonder more than the French ‘mout espouantable parole et douteuse’ , and captures the ethos of the Quest more generally (XVII.2, 984).18 With the sword that is carried on the ship, the dolorous stroke has been struck against the Christian king Labor, creating a Waste Land; the sword has been broken in battle with a giant, and has caused King Pelles’ wounding. The many coloured stones on its pommel contain ‘dyverse vertues’ , while the cross-piece is made of the ribs of legendary beasts – the Caledonian serpent, with the virtue that no hand holding it will ever be weary or hurt (more remarkable than the French ‘il n’a garde de sentir trop grande chaleur’), and the great fish of the Euphrates, Ertanax, with the virtue of giving ‘so much wyll’ (a phrase not in the French) that no weariness or thought of joy or sorrow will be experienced (XVII.3, 985–6).19 The sword is later complemented by the marvellous scabbard made from the hair of Perceval’s sister – whose pure blood is used to effect a miraculous cure. Also among the precious marvels of the ship are the three spindles made from the tree of knowledge, whose natural colours reflect those of gems: white in token of prelapsarian virginity, green ‘as ony emerawde’ to reflect the begetting of Abel, and finally red in response to Cain’s murder of Abel (XVII.5, 990). We learn that all, ship, pommel, hilt, sheath and spindles, have been made by Solomon, traditionally a great magician and here a practitioner of powerful natural magic: he ‘was wyse, and knew all the vertues of stonys and treys; also he knew the course of the stirres, and of many other dyvers thynges’ (XVII.5, 991). In a dream, Solomon sees an angel writing on the sword and ship, and wakes to find the letters there; as the ship disappears into the sea, he hears that ‘the laste knyght of [his] kynred’ will rest in the bed (XVII.7, 994). Thus Galahad is given a lineage that connects him with wisdom and natural magic, attributes that in him, the untainted, sinless virgin, are made perfect: his powers are divine and directly received from God. He is the embodiment of spiritual chivalry, the pattern of 18 See 19 See

Vinaver, Works, vol. 3, p. 1570, n. 984.30–1. Vinaver, Works, vol. 3, p. 1570, n. 985.30–1, n. 985.34–986.3.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Christ; armed with the sword, he performs ‘so mervaylously’ that he seems ‘none erthely man, but a monstre’ (XVII.10, 1001). Like the miraculous abilities of the Apostles, Galahad’s supernatural powers cure the blindness of King Mordrayns, and the touch of his hand later quells a spring ‘which boyled with grete wawis’ , an act signifying the banishment of lechery by virginity (XVII.18, 1025). More disturbing is the episode in which the virginal life-blood of Perceval’s sister heals a sick lady from a ‘malodye’ that has become a ‘mesell’ . The nature of this leprous illness is reminiscent of that suffered by Amylion: ‘no leche cowde remedye her’ , but she may be healed by ‘a dysshfulle of bloode of a maydyn’ (XVII.11, 1002); as in Amys pure blood holds marvellous, curative properties. Perceval’s sister loses so much blood in filling the dish that she dies, becoming a pattern of Christ. Yet the episode is troubling: Perceval’s sister, unlike Amys’ children, is not miraculously restored. The lady is healed, proving the power of the virgin’s blood, but she and her castle are destroyed in thunder and lightning, and a voice speaks ‘the vengeaunce of Oure Lorde’ , taken for the evil custom that has caused the death of so many royal ladies (XVII.12, 1005). The patterning is full of melancholy in its suggestion of Christ’s sacrifice for sinful, ungrateful, unloving man. At the same time, the part played by the seemingly pointless death of Perceval’s sister within the inscrutable design of providence is affirmed when, on the ship carrying her body, Launcelot is ‘susteyned with the grace of the Holy Goste’ , just as the Israelites are in the desert; eventually he is joined on the ship by Galahad, with whom he achieves ‘many straunge adventures and peryllous’ in the service of God (XVII.13, 1011, 1013). When the Grail Knights reach Corbenic, all but Launcelot see the Grail openly. Celestial vision is again conveyed in strikingly physical terms: four angels bear Joseph of Arimathea from heaven to celebrate Mass before the Grail; angels carry candles, a cloth and the bleeding spear; the knights see at the consecration of the bread ‘a vigoure in lyknesse of a chylde’ and the bread ‘fourmed of a fleyshely man’; Christ emanates from the vessel with his wounds bleeding; the Eucharist received from Him is ‘so sweete that hit was mervaylous to telle’; and the holy vessel is identified as the dish of the Last Supper (XVII.20, 1029–30). Miracles repeatedly make manifest the power of Christ in bodily terms: at Corbenic, the Maimed King is healed when Galahad anoints him with the blood of the spear (XVII.21); in Sarras, a crippled man is healed by Galahad; and the knights are sustained in prison by the heavenly food of the Grail. The boundary between earthly and celestial worlds disappears when, in response to Galahad’s prayers, the son of Joseph of Arimathea celebrates Mass, accompanied by many angels. Ultimately, however, ‘the dedly fleysh’ cannot easily be sustained when ‘the spirituall thynges’ are seen openly, and Galahad’s soul is taken into heaven (XVII.22, 1034); Perceval dies a saintly death in a hermitage. Only Launcelot, though instructed by a divine voice to enter the ­castle, is restrained at the door of the Grail Chamber, hearing angelic singing, seeing many angels above the covered Grail, and watching a priest bear up the figure of a young man. He falls into a swoon when he tries to enter. Yet although Launcelot’s worldly love for the queen prevents the full experience of the divine, in his swoon he sees ‘grete mervayles that no tunge may telle, and more 256

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Malory’s Morte Darthur than ony herte can thynke’ . Malory reduces the French rhetoric of blindness and sin substantially: his Launcelot is the visionary, experiencing the ineffable and seeing ‘opynly’ God’s ‘grete mervayles of secretnesse’ (XVII.16, 1017). For Launcelot and Bors, the Grail Knights who return to Arthur’s court, the challenge is to maintain the ideals of the Grail Quest within a very different, secular landscape. The barge that bears Elaine down the Thames recalls the ship that carries Perceval’s sister, but here the death of the beautiful, virtuous lady occurs through the tragedy of earthly love rather than Christian sacrifice: the episode marks the destructiveness as well as the tragedy of the love of Launcelot and Guinevere. In the last books of the Morte, adventure and quest, and hence magic in its various forms, are largely left behind; the French repeatedly emphasises that the age of marvels passed with the Grail. Wonders are replaced by slander and strife as the cracks in the fellowship of the Round Table deepen. Yet Malory does not wholly turn away from the supernatural, but rather precedes the tragic denouement of the book with another holy wonder, which echoes the presentation of Launcelot as visionary at the end of the Grail Quest. Miracle opposes black magic in the episode (without any known source) of the healing of the poisoned wounds of Sir Urry, which have been caused by the ‘suttyle craufftis’ wrought by a ‘grete sorceras’ , the mother of Urry’s enemy Sir Alpheus. The effect of the ‘enchauntemente’ is that ‘ever his woundis shulde one tyme fester and another tyme blede, so that he shulde never be hole untyll the beste knyght of the worlde had serched hys woundis’ (XIX.10, 1145–6). By contrast to the healing of Sir Melyot (in the adventure of the Chapel Perilous), with its magical logic of bringing together weapon and wound, this instance blurs with miracle, demonstrating both the spiritual power and deep humility of Launcelot. He prays as he searches the wounds, and when they ‘fayre heled and semed as they had bene hole a seven yere’ , ‘wepte, as he had bene a chylde that had bene beatyn!’ (XIX.12, 1152). Whereas any of the knights may experience magic in the process of adventure, Malory gives the sinner-knight his own personal miracle to perform. This crucial addition of Urry’s miraculous healing proves Launcelot’s surpassing virtue in one last, resounding triumph just before all spirals downwards.

The Hand of Destiny In ensuing events, human choice and error merge peculiarly with chance and with the shaping, supernatural forces of destiny. Malory turns to English sources, in particular the English Stanzaic Morte Arthur, to shape his distinctive narrative, which notably reduces the emphasis on sin and punishment of the French Mort Artu.20 In recounting Arthur’s two dream visions, Malory sets the idea of malevolent fortune against that of beneficent providence. The will of God seems clear in Arthur’s dream of Gawain and his company of ladies, who warn Arthur not 20 See

Vinaver, Works, vol. 3, pp. 1615–26. For a variety of perspectives, see Christopher Baswell and William Sharpe, ed., The Passing of Arthur: New Essays in Arthurian Tradition (New York: Garland, 1988).


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance to fight but to await Launcelot’s arrival (XXI.3). The dream is sent of God’s ‘speciall grace’ , and God indeed seems to attempt to ‘fordo desteny’ , as Pellinor has put it so much earlier. The vision suggests a future different from that implied in Arthur’s dream of the wheel of Fortune from which he falls suddenly into deep black water, to be seized by ‘serpentis and wormes and wylde bestis fowle and orryble’ (XXI.3, 1233–4). Yet, disturbingly, Gawain’s warning is thwarted: this ‘grete grace and goodnes that Allmyghty Jesu hath unto [Arthur]’ (XXI.3, 1234) is rendered null when the last battle (as in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur) begins through the ill chance of a knight drawing his sword to kill an adder. There is nothing of the sense of ominous destiny present in the tale of Balin and Balan or the Grail Quest in the pragmatic terms of the description, ‘Ryght so cam oute an addir of a lytyll hethe-buysshe, and hit stange a knyght in the foote. ’ Yet the arbitrary incident results in ‘this unhappy day’: ‘never syns was there seyne a more dolefuller batayle in no Crysten londe’ (XXI.4, 1235). Where is God in this last battle? Cold destiny rather than kind providence governs the battle-field, for all that the two forces have so often been interwoven. Malory might be seen as employing a Boethian model, in which God is omniscient, beyond time, watching events unfold and ultimately beneficent, though the pattern of grace is not always visible to man. Yet because, particularly in the Grail Quest, God does intervene through prophecy, vision and miracle, it is difficult to adopt this perspective. Rather, the last episodes of the Morte seem to occur in a world where all is seen ‘through a glass darkly’: there are glimpses of the divine but much is obscured. Although his work is so different from Malory’s, Tennyson finds in the Morte the inspiration for his depiction of the ‘last, dim weird battle of the west’ , fought on an eerie shore where friend and foe can no longer recognise each other in the ‘deathwhite mist’ .21 Malory too conveys something of this sense of figures moving, only half-seeing, in the events surrounding the last battle, and his focus is not on punishment of sin, as in the French Mort Artu, but on the misfortune or chance that opposes human will and overturns moral choices. His battle, however, is unromanticised: the narrative presents in realistic detail the drawing up of troops, the parley and truce, the sound of the trumpets and horns, and most of all the physicality of war: ‘there was but russhynge and rydynge, foynynge and strykynge, and many a grym worde was there spokyn of aythir to othir, and many a dedely stroke’ (XXI.4, 1235). Malory draws on contemporary descriptions of the battle of Towton, the bloodiest ever on British soil, for his depiction of the Arthurian knights lying dead upon the ‘colde erthe’ , their bodies preyed on by looters attracted by the rich jewels and trappings (XXI.4, 1236–8). The grim realism of the scene does not allow for the hope that benign magic will intervene to shape a different outcome. The narrative shifts back to the supernatural, however, to emphasise the hand of destiny that has long ago shaped Arthur’s end. When Arthur asks Bedivere to throw Excalibur into the water, he knows that Bedivere will see more than ­‘watirs wap and wawys wanne’ (XXI.5, 1239). As Excalibur is returned once more to ‘an arme and an honde above the watir’  and vanishes away, the book returns to the 21 Tennyson,

Idylls of the King, ‘The Passing of Arthur’ , ll. 95–6.


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Malory’s Morte Darthur possibility of protective, healing magic, with the appearance of ‘a lytyll barge wyth many fayre ladyes in hit’ , weeping and shrieking (XXI.5, 1240). Malory adds the detail of their black hoods and emphasises their care of Arthur, ‘in one of their lappis kyng Arthure layde hys hede’ . The scene draws on the Stanzaic Morte Arthur for Arthur’s farewell to Bedivere: ‘in me ys no truste for to truste in. For I wyll into the vale of Avylyon to hele me of my grevous wounde. And if thou here nevermore of me, pray for my soule!’ (XXI.5, 1240). This detail looks back too to Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace and Laȝamon, but the tone is much less certain. Whereas Laȝamon’s Arthur asserts that the beautiful elf-queen, Argante, will heal his wounds in Avalon, so that he may return to the Britons, Malory does not allow so confident a belief in the future or in faery, healing magic. The ladies who accompany Arthur have played prominent, but not always positive parts in shaping the adventures of his realm: Morgan le Fay, the Queen of the Waste Lands, the Queen of North Wales, and Nenyve of the Lake. Even at Arthur’s death, the contrasting safety of the Lady of the Lake’s beloved is remarked: ‘And thys dame Nynyve wolde never suffir sir Pelleas to be in no place where he shulde be in daungere of hys lyff, and so he lyved unto the uttermuste of hys dayes with her in grete reste’ (XXI.6, 1242). The women offer Arthur rest of a different kind. It is striking that the company includes both Morgan, Arthur’s great enemy, and her opponent, Nenyve, who despite her frequent beneficence has imprisoned Merlin, Arthur’s greatest protector. Morgan’s presence perhaps looks back to the ancient tradition of Morgan as goddess. As Arthur is borne away by the enchantresses in this last magical ship, white and black arts are brought together. Malory observes only that ‘som men say in many partys of Inglonde that kynge Arthure ys nat dede’ and that ‘he shall com agayne’; his own verdict is more ambiguous in its gesture towards another world: ‘rather I wolde sey: here in thys worlde he chaunged hys lyff ’ (XXI.7, 1242). Arthur’s grave is discovered, and when Launcelot buries Guinevere beside the king, he sees the two bodies together. In the final pages of the Morte, which contain some of Malory’s most striking additions to his sources, miracle manifests itself once again. The actual death of Guinevere is not recounted in the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, which mentions only her funeral, while the Mort Artu briefly remarks that Launcelot hears of Guinevere’s death on the day of the battle of Winchester. In Malory’s narrative, her death is rendered profoundly holy by the fact that she foresees it two days before, and knows that it will be conveyed in divine vision to Launcelot. Launcelot’s end too is that of a saint: his last hours are attended by prayer and prophecy, and his death is marked by the bishop’s vision of angels that bear Launcelot into heaven. Malory adds the detail of the physical experience of sanctity: ‘the swettest savour about hym that ever they felte’ (XXI.12, 1258). Individual, affective piety offers a counterpoint to the devastating sense of loss created by the passing of Arthur’s reign (XXI.4, 1236). The last miracles allow for a redemptive ending that works the numinous promise of the Grail into a contemporary, active, material spirituality. There is, after all, another battle: the book ends with the detail that Sir Bors, Sir Ector, Sir Blamour and Sir Bleoberis depart for the Holy Land where they establish their lands, fight many battles against the Turks, and eventually die ‘uppon a Good 259

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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance Fryday for Goddes sake’ (XXI.13, 1260). The conclusion of the Morte returns to the mode of the Grail Quest, which combines physical prowess and spiritual chivalry, and to the battle to establish the Church on earth. The powers of destiny, visible beneficently in Merlin’s role and maliciously in the tale of Balin and Balan, shape Malory’s canvas, bringing about the demise as well as the birth of Arthur, the institution and the passing of his world. The super­natural lightens and shifts within the narrative of that world, which is coloured and challenged by the powers of magic and enchantment, human and otherworldly. These can be deeply suspect and threatening, but they also provide protection, healing and adventure, balancing out other patterns of love and betrayal, and shaping and proving chivalric identities. Magic empowers women, in particular, whose pursuit of men’s bodies is motivated by both generous and jealous purposes, and who employ natural magic, enchantment and ‘nigromancy’ . With the coming of the Grail, the narrative turns to the possibility of celestial vision, and correspondingly, magic is rewritten, replaced by miracle and its inverse, demonic illusion. In this world, the rewards are greater, but failure is also more possible, and in the progress of the Grail Knights the Morte traces the great conflict between good and evil, the threats posed by the supernatural powers of darkness, and the need for divine intervention. Yet the promise of the Grail endures, and at the end of the work, when all else has passed and the marvellous landscapes of Logres are replaced by the ‘colde erthe’ , the hope is offered that transient human magic will be replaced by the eternal power of God. The challenge of active, spiritual chivalry remains, as does the promise of the celestial, even within a world bereft of enchantment.


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Epilogue: Towards the Renaissance


he 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 theory produced works such as Cornelius Agrippa’s popular treatise on occult philosophy (1533), and the treatises of, for instance, Giordano Bruno and John Dee.1 There was a wide range of attitudes and spectrum of beliefs, but at the heart of such occult philosophy, as John Mebane has argued, was ‘the ideal of self perfection’: that ‘through grace God created humanity in His own image, but it remains for individuals to realize, through free creative acts, the potential which God has given them’ .2 Renaissance philosophy, fuelled particularly by the newly discovered Enneads of Plotinus, returned to the neo-Platonic ideals of the late classical period. The idea of a supernatural that incorporated all manner of spirits of the air, good and evil, was reinforced by neo-Platonic philosophy, and developed by Renaissance writers. The ancient arguments of the theurgists and the idea of epiphanic encounter took on renewed force: through the study of magic, humanity could gain access to the divine mind, and man might be restored to his prelapsarian state. The neo-Platonic philosophy of the Renaissance emphasised the manifestation of the divine in the created world – in the forms of natural objects, but also in the self and in art. Magic, if it was pursued as an enactment of the divine will, could aid in regeneration. Thus notions of the cosmos as an organic unity, held together by natural correspondences that might be harnessed to beneficial purposes, were developed in the concept of active, highly intellectual, natural magic that might positively reshape identity and destiny. The limits placed by medieval thinkers on natural magic were extended: intervention in destiny

1 On

the development of intellectual ideas concerning the Hermetic tradition in the Renaissance, see the many books of Dame Frances Yates, most notably Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (London: Routledge, 1964). On magic in particular, see Paola Zambelli, White Magic, Black Magic in the European Renaissance: From Ficino, Pico, Della Porta to Trithemius, Agrippa, Bruno, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions (Leiden: Brill, 2007). 2 See John S. Mebane, Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: The Occult Tradition and Marlowe, Jonson, and Shakespeare (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), pp. 10–11; Mebane offers a lucid and scholarly overview of the complex field of Renaissance magic more generally.


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance might, after all, be to good purposes. The dubious magic of the Middle Ages to some degree becomes the white magic of the Renaissance. At the same time, the fears and doubts remained, exacerbated precisely by a renewed sense of the potential effects of magic arts; this ethos of heightened interest and anxiety fed directly into growing fascination with and fear of witchcraft. If high magic was philosophically compelling for its promise of freedom from human limitations, in the wrong hands magic might be highly destructive. Magic of high and low kinds remained threatening in their self-seeking aims and potential malevolence. Even natural magic might be dangerously misguided, and the idea that individuals and events might be manipulated through magic was a deeply menacing one. The fear of demonic magic was sustained, as enduring ideas of ‘nigromancy’ fed into religious fears of heresy and superstition, and into political intrigue, with potentially dangerous effects for those unfortunate enough to come under suspicion. Conflicted attitudes towards magic and the supernatural are reflected in Renaissance writing, which treats magic and the supernatural very variously. Spenser in the Faerie Queene uses much the same spectrum of the supernatural as do earlier romance writers, but fuses it with allegory to produce some distinctively different effects. The ideals of the faery otherworld are set against the black, necromantic arts of Archimago and Duessa, whose magic is an image of the threat of Roman Catholicism; but Spenser employs occult, Rosicrucian symbolism positively in the figure of the Redcrosse Knight. He also depicts benignly the magician Merlin, who, with ‘his deepe science, and hell-dreaded might’ (III.ii.18) creates the magic mirror by means of which the Faerie Queene’s central heroine, Britomart, falls in love with her divinely ordained husband, Sir Artegall. Merlin also prophesies the ‘heauenly destiny / Led with eternall prouidence’ of their glorious progeny, culminating in the Golden Age of Elizabeth I (III.iii.27–49). Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays with a broad span of the otherworldly, bringing together classical, medieval and folk ideas of the faery. In Doctor Faustus Marlowe explores the deceptive power of magic: the play is frightening precisely because of its power to convince, as pursuit of the glamorous arts leads to Faustus’ subjection to the Devil. The demons of romance also find a more fearful, because potentially human, counterpart in the witches of Macbeth, who seem very different creatures from the learned and beautiful enchantresses of romance, and who may reflect new fears of Satanic magic. Jonson’s The Alchemist, ostensibly a satire of pseudo-scientific exploitation of credulous greed, can be interpreted (as by Frances Yates) as a more general attack on occult learning. It is in Shakespeare’s The Tempest that we find the figure of the mage most ­vividly rewritten: Prospero represents the next stage on from Chaucer’s Clerk of Orléans. Prospero’s arts, like the Clerk’s, involve the complex powers of magico-theatrical illusion: instead of the seeming disappearance of rocks, Prospero effects the apparent wreck of a ship, while his various masques recall the clerk’s entertainment of his guests in the Franklin’s Tale.3 Shakespeare in part appears to place Prospero’s 3 John

Simons remarks the parallels between Chaucer’s Clerk of Orléans and Prospero, ‘Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale and The Tempest’ , Notes and Queries 230, NS 32 (1985), p. 56. A full discussion of


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Epilogue: Towards the Renaissance powers as those of white magic, the ‘magyk natureel’ described by occult philosophers, which looks back to the Middle Ages but is taken into new realms. Prospero articulates his use of astrological knowledge to intervene in his own destiny:  … by my prescience I find my zenith doth depend upon A most auspicious star, whose influence If now I court not, but omit, my fortunes Will ever after droop. (I, ii, 181–5) Although, like the Clerk of Orléans’ magic, this intervention largely takes the form of illusion, it is effected through the use of the spirit Ariel, a practice that would certainly be condemned as ‘nigromancy’ by medieval thinkers. Prospero’s magic, however, is defined in contradistinction to the dark arts of the witch Sycorax. Yet doubts linger. Mebane argues persuasively but debatably that Prospero, because he has learnt to master himself, has also learnt to control nature: he is the ideal Renaissance mage, the embodiment of the pursuit of perfection of the self, reflected in successful magic.4 Yet excessive pursuit of the magical arts, being ‘rapt in secret studies’ , has occasioned Prospero’s exile (I, ii, 77), and even his powerful magic is limited. He cannot wholly restore the Golden Age, and his masque of the harmony of heaven and earth ends in ‘a strange, hollow, and confused noise’ (IV, i) as he recalls the plot against his life. Humanity cannot be wholly redeemed: Antonio never repents. Questions remain too about Prospero’s uses of his occult powers – his manipulations of Ferdinand and Miranda; his control of Ariel, who has been freed from Sycorax’s binding spell, but in order to serve Prospero rather than to enjoy the liberty for which he longs; and above all, for modern readers, his subjection of Caliban in a bitterly resented usurpation that can be seen as mirroring Prospero’s own. Unease about Prospero’s art is crystallised in his final speech abjuring ‘this rough magic’ (V, i, 50). In drawing on Medea’s prayer to Hecate in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (VII, 192–219), Prospero’s words hint at powers much beyond those he employs within the play. The supernatural feats that he describes not only include control over nature and the power to summon spirits (‘elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves’ (V, i, 33)), but also the ability to wake the dead:  … I have bedimmed The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds, And ’twixt the green sea and the azured vault Set roaring war – to the dread rattling thunder Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up Prospero is offered by Mebane in Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age, pp. 174–99. Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age, pp. 181, 176. For an opposite view of Prospero’s magic, see D’Orsay Pearson, ‘ “Unless I be reliev’d by prayer”: The Tempest in Perspective’ , Shakespeare Studies 7 (1974), pp. 253–82.

4 Mebane,


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Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance The pine and cedar; graves at my command Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth By my so potent art. (V, i, 41–50) Even in the context of Renaissance occult philosophy this ‘so potent art’ would be problematic; in the Middle Ages it would certainly suggest necromancy and the black magic of demons. Prospero is left deeply ambiguous, his white magic perhaps closer to the black magic of Sycorax than it has seemed, and his arts must be relinquished with his return to civilisation. Yet his magic also goes far in its regenerative effects: he inspires penance in Alonso, restores social order, and orchestrates a dynastic marriage that confirms these personal and political reconciliations. The parallels between the powerful magician figure of The Tempest and the clerk in the Franklin’s Tale are striking, but there are also notable shifts. The Clerk of Orléans’ magic is explicitly ‘naturel’ , not demonic, and he is redeemed by his act of generosity at the end of the tale. Even so, his illusions challenge social order; his natural magic threatens to destroy a marriage. By contrast, although unease remains in the The Tempest, Prospero’s supernatural arts intervene in destiny to make rather than destroy harmony and order. Benign intention justifies much more radical arts than it might in the medieval period. For Chaucer, as for the many romance writers of the Middle Ages, magic is a more dangerous and potentially negative subject than for Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Medieval writers leave the terrifying art of raising the dead to demons, and the regenerative, benevolent aspect of magic to providence. Licit magic never includes the use of spirits. The clerk-magician looks towards but has not yet become the Renaissance mage, any more than the romance enchantress has become the witch. For medieval writers, as for Shakespeare after them, magic and the supernatural allow for much more than the fireworks of illusion. Natural magic and marvellous technology play on the possibilities of nature to effect the wondrous, often in relation to physical transformation, especially through illness, healing and the shifting of shape. Nevertheless, such magic may be abused, and employed to malevolent ends that threaten the destinies and bodies of those who inhabit the worlds of romance. Ultimately, in romance, by contrast to theological discourse, it is intention rather than absolute difference in kind that defines the difference between the arts of white and black magic. The distinction, however, is complicated by the fact that intention itself, as the legend of Tristan so memorably shows, may be misguided or go awry. It is precisely the transformative possibilities of magic that represent its danger as well as its promise. Again and again, romance engages with the dangerous power even of natural magic to manipulate others and to reshape reality, as well as to mould ideal worlds. Human magic in medieval romance is heightened and complemented by the wider context of the supernatural, most of all the otherworld of faery, but also the divine and the demonic. Through encounter with the supernatural in its various manifestations, individuals are placed within circumstances of extreme kinds, whether these are challenging or transformative. The supernatural opens the way for experiences that cross, in more or less believable ways, the boundaries of actuality, transgressing limits and creating 264

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Epilogue: Towards the Renaissance new realms of imaginative potential. The imaginings of romance are powerful precisely because of the ideas that underpin them, ideas that are deeply embedded in cultural, religious and intellectual attitudes, beliefs and anxieties of the present, and in the enduring inheritance of the past. The intersection of ideas and imaginings about magic and the supernatural is a potent mixture, shaping worlds that are profoundly creative, that capture the imagination and in turn inspire the fictions of the future.


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