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Love Cures: Healing and Love Magic in Old French Romance (review)
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The idea of love as a healing force permeates Old French literature. Laine Doggett's book examines several instances of the curative strength of love and the privileged role that medieval women play in a number of Old French romances. Doggett's thesis goes further, however, than simply giving examples of the healing arts. By contextualizing her readings in the history of medieval medicine, Doggett aims to show that Old French romance reflects a real social phenomenon—the woman without formal training who achieves social status through her extraordinary gift of healing.

Love Cures begins with an overview of medieval magic and medicine within the context of marriage and courtly love in twelfth- and thirteenth-century northern France and in particular regarding untrained (usually female) practitioners whom she calls 'empirics.' Along with other scholars, Doggett challenges the strict divide between magic and medicine for this time period, noting the difficulty in determining when a practitioner was practicing 'medicine' and when it crossed into 'magic.' In this excellent overview, she writes clearly and covers the territory with confidence. I am one of the readers to whom this overview seems tailored; I often encounter medieval magic in reading, but without this summary I would not know enough to follow Doggett's analyses of literary sources. I am not altogether sure that she needed to debunk the work of Duby, Frappier, Bloch, and others. Much scholarship has been done (as she notes) in past years to correct this older work, and I imagine those who read this book are aware that the field has continued to evolve. The chapter seems to just glance at the surface of several problems since she cannot devote much space to a thorough review of magic, the marvelous, marriage and courtly love in a single chapter. However, her dialectical method of contrasting past theories with more recent work situates her work and provides a quick review of the scholarship.

In contrast to the rapid overview of love and gender in the introduction, the chapters that follow treat love magic in specific works in great detail through close readings, referring back to the historical framework established in the opening chapter. Chapter two treats the figure of Thessala in Chrétien de Troyes' Cligés. Doggett interrogates the role that has been ascribed to Fenice's servant and confidante. Thessala is referred to by Chrétien as 'mire,' which was rendered by David Staines in his translation of Chrétien's works as 'physician.' Doggett goes on to show that 'mire' had not been equated with university-trained physicians by Chrétien's time, and the word could clearly encompass informally trained empirics like Thessala. Doggett shows how Chrétien's descriptions of Thessala's work offer a colorful and detailed look at the training and role of a twelfth-century female healer.

Chapters three and four treat the romance of Tristan and Iseut, making this story the lynchpin of Doggett's argument. Through close readings of the various versions of the story, Doggett aims to make two points:

1) Iseut and her mother are talented healers who alone know how to counteract certain poisons and save Tristan's life. While trained doctors attend to Tristan's wounds, they are repeatedly unable to save him as they lack the knowledge the women have of poisons and their herbal antidotes. The potions and poultices fabricated by these women succeed because of the particular and unique skill of these women who do not have formal training. Thus those reading the story of Tristan and Iseut cannot fully understand it without attributing this special talent to Iseut, a talent that gives her equal footing with Tristan, whose own special talent is his prowess as a knight.

2) The potion itself is not magic, but rather a concoction of herbs with properties that lower inhibition and foster the natural attraction between Tristan and Iseut. Because there are several versions of the Tristan story, comparing the versions allows Doggett to point to places where the potion is described as a 'natural' substance. Thus we must read the work of Iseut and her mother as a realistic depiction of what women without formal training actually did...


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