Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance

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CORINNE SAUNDERS, Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010. Pp. 312. ISBN: 978-1-84384-221-7. $95.

Corinne Saunders' substantial new study of medieval English romances comprises two short books in one volume: an introduction to medieval magic and an analysis of the functions of magic and the supernatural across a wide range of English romances. The book's central premise is that however 'rich and strange' magic might be, 'it is always grounded in cultural reality' (2). The first half of the volume-the two chapters concluding on p. 116-offers a condensed but lucid history of magic in the West. The first chapter examines classical evidence for different kinds of beliefs and magicians, and the Old and New Testament treatments of magic and its practitioners. The second chapter covers medieval thinking about magic and the supernatural, from Augustine, via Isidore of Seville to evidence from Anglo-Saxon and post-Conquest England. The high medieval period essentially distinguishes between natural magic, a magic which harnesses the unseen powers of plants, stones and other God-created objects in a pseudo-scientific analysis of causes and effects, and 'nigromancy,' understood as derived from Latin niger (black) rather than the Greek necros (dead) and thus not, as in classical sources, the re-animation of the dead for divinatory purposes. Saunders includes the operations of the supernatural, both divine and diabolical, thus making analytical space for the activities of demons and for God's countervailing interventions in the form of angelic messages and of miracles.

After establishing the main outlines of the understanding of 'nigromancy' as contained in books and made operational in incantation and ritual, and of natural magic, inhering in stones and plants, the book examines magical technology. Building on Helen Cooper's crucial insight into the importance of 'magic that doesn't work'-supernatural assistance which the hero must discard or disregard if he is to achieve heroic status-the third chapter culminates in astute readings of Chaucer's Squire's Tale and Franklin's Tale, noting that the Franklin himself seems to take a more conservative view of magic than Chaucer, whose interest in astrology has strong affinities with natural magic. These tales, and the Canon's Yeoman's Tale, invite the audience of The Canterbury Tales to debate the morality and limitations of magic.

The next chapter investigates 'nigromancy,' the darker aspect of magic, used to effect the manipulator's will, to interfere with destiny. …


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