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Reviewed by:
  • Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance by Corinne Saunders
  • Samaya L. S. Chanthaphavong
Saunders, Corinne, Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance (Studies in Medieval Romance), Cambridge,D. S. Brewer, 2010; hardback; pp. 312; R.R.P. £50.00; ISBN 9781843842217.

Magic and the supernatural are two themes which intimately intertwine within romance writing of the medieval period, so much so that Corinne Saunders is able to take the reader on a learned journey from the Middle Ages and its folk beliefs and practices, to demonic intervention found in adaptations of Of Arthour and of Merlin (c. 1250–1300) with an eye to new imaginings found in the Renaissance period.

Saunders’s initial chapters offer a keen analysis of magic, supernatural, and ritual by introducing related classical and biblical notions and examining how these cultural constructs moved forward through time to become part of the popular vernacular, and in turn, part of romance writing. For example, Saunders describes how the evolution of the daimon found within the religions and cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia transforms into the demons found within Judeo-Christian beliefs, and then starts to transform the thematic context of writing about spirits. Saunders writes of St Augustine’s discussions with Apuleius on demons in De Deo Socatis, and the marked shift that occurs from paganism to a more Christian perspective.

A key highlight of the book is Saunders’s ability to illustrate the shift between long-held beliefs and new cultural practices – not just in terms of folk practices but also in legal thinking and laws – and show how these shifts affected romance writing. The prohibition against magic and the supernatural in the early Middle Ages goes some way towards explaining the deep public fascination with it, especially in terms of the legal engagement with it in the secular courts. Moving away from prohibition of ‘dark magic’ to quiet [End Page 315] imaginings of a gentler supernatural ideal, ‘white’ magic or ‘natural magic’ is explored as a theme that allowed for greater romantic creative development. Nature became a recurring theme and the humanist tendencies of healing, as espoused in Valentine and Orson for instance, allowed for greater interaction between magic and love. A particularly interesting chapter is ‘Black Magic: The Practice of “Nigromancy”’ which details the use of dark magic as an exotic escapism. Partonope of Blois is read closely and leads into a discussion of shape shifting and enchantment. Romance links both to the ability of the practitioner to create and shape his or her own destiny – a notion that has survived into contemporary romance literature.

Saunders successfully illustrates how magic and supernatural themes within the romance discourse allowed for an engagement with religious and popular notions of realism and fantasy – the genre allows for the interplay between what was accepted and what was not – and the seen and unseen aspects of medieval life.

Samaya L. S. Chanthaphavong
The University of Melbourne


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pp. 315-316
Launched on MUSE
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