- Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance
In Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance, Corinne Saunders takes on the herculean task of sifting through the complex history of Western attitudes toward magic in order to establish their influence on one of the most significant literary genres of the Middle Ages, the romance. Saunders challenges scholars trained to treat the magical acts, objects, and creatures of romance in narratological or symbolic terms to recognize that this supernatural discourse emerges from an alterior cultural reality imbued with a "strong sense of the numinous" (2-3), in which magic was a material practice. "It is not surprising," Saunders points out, "that, in a world where faith in God and the devil, and in a spirit world between, was ready and natural, the possibility of magic should also have seemed ready and natural" (4). Thus, working within the critical tradition that acknowledges both romance's nostalgic functions and its mimetic aspects, Saunders convincingly argues for an understanding of the romance as a "mixed mode" in which magic functions not only as a feature of romance's wish-fulfilling idealism but also as a manifestation of culturally specific social concerns and practices. Dealing with the romance as a narrative space where intellectual history and folk culture intersect, Saunders highlights the genre's potential as a site for the investigation of both popular and learned attitudes toward magic and the supernatural in the Middle Ages.
The first half of Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance lays the ground for recognizing the culturally specific aspects of magic in romance by providing a detailed history of attitudes toward magic, beginning with classical and biblical precedents in the first chapter and then moving on to the medieval context in the second. While the reader interested in new research on Celtic or Germanic pagan folk traditions related to romance will be disappointed, Saunders presents quite a comprehensive discussion of the classical legacy inherited by the Middle Ages—such as the concept of daimones and a cosmology in which natural and astral correspondences could be harnessed—as well as clearly detailing how Judeo-Christian culture modified ancient tradition, especially in terms of a moral polarization of magic and its practitioners that produces the crucial distinction between miracle and magic for the early Church. Saunders's chapter on magic in the Middle Ages is equally thorough in its treatment of St. Augustine's influence, its detailing of secular and canon law, and its parsing of folk belief and learned tradition. Although she could do more to signpost significant historical shifts in theological attitudes toward magic in the Middle Ages that would alert readers to subtle distinctions between magical references in romances from different periods, Saunders very [End Page 233] capably separates the various strands of belief and practice—from traditional folk charms and remedies to the natural philosophy emerging from clerical engagements with Arabic learning in the twelfth century—even as she is careful to remind her audience how folk and learned traditions frequently become entangled. Saunders also effectively illustrates how often the line between licit magic using natural forces and illicit "necromantic" magic using demonic forces becomes blurred, since both practices share a cosmology that includes spiritual entities as part of a system of correspondences between the earthly, astral, and divine spheres. The medieval ambivalence about how these spiritual entities functioned, especially in terms of their tendency to deceive those who invoke them, is perhaps the one aspect of medieval theological views on magic that could receive more attention here—particularly as this is a preoccupation of penitential authors, like Robert Mannyng of Brunne, whom Saunders invokes. The concept of the deceptive demon is also a feature that complicates Saunders's positive, purely technological representation of marvelous Oriental machines in her next chapter.
Saunders follows her two chapters on the history of magic with four chapters addressing categories of magic in medieval romance: White Magic: Natural Arts and Marvellous Technology; Black Magic: The Practice of "Nigromancy"; Otherworld Enchantments and Faery Realms; Christian Marvel and...