Magic in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Folio 20v from Thomas Norton The Ordinall of A...
Folio 20v from Thomas Norton The Ordinall of Alchemy England: c.1550-1600 MS Ferguson 191 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am working on a project at the moment to improve my understanding of the beliefs towards magic in the Middle Ages – specifically fourteenth century England, where I set much of my historical fantasy. I would like to know more about what people of this time thought about magic.

One of my first stops is to look at some of the references to magic in the literature of the time – so where better to start than the best known writer of the time, Geoffrey Chaucer.

I am going to look in more depth in this series of blog posts at each

example, but I am starting here with a quick summary of the instances I have found so far in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

How am I defining references to magic? I am not including stories set in antiquity where pagan gods intervene on behalf of the characters, such as the Knight’s Tale where Saturn causes the death of Arcite. Neither am I including purely supernatural interventions of the devil – such as the Pardoner’s Tale. If someone summons a demon that’s fine, but I don’t think there’s actual magic in the Pardoner’s Tale.

Here are the tales that I have found so far with major examples of magic in their narratives:

Canon Yeoman’s Tale

The Canon Yeoman actually assists his own master in the practice of alchemy and the whole of his tale focuses on that magical art in quite a lot of detail. I’m looking forward to digging into this one in more depth as it should reveal quite a bit about the practice of alchemy in fourteenth century England.

 Wife of Bath’s Tale

A man is fooled into thinking he is about to meet 24 maidens, but they magically disappear to be replaced by an old hag – a witch effectively.

Friar’s Tale

On the way to extort money from a widow, the Summoner encounters a yeoman who is apparently down on his luck. The two men swear brotherhood to each other and exchange the secrets of their respective trades, the Summoner recounting his various sins in a boastful manner. The yeoman reveals that he is actually a demon, to which the Summoner expresses minimal surprise—he enquires as to various aspects of hell and the forms that demons take.

This could be a bit like the Pardoner’s Tale, but I’m including as the medieval practice of necromancy involved the summoning of demons.

Squire’s Tale

This tale includes a number of magical items such as a brass steed that can teleport, a mirror that can detect enemies and friends, a ring that allows the wearer to talk to birds and a sword that deals and heals deadly wounds. Also the tale includes a digression on astrology.

Franklin’s Tale

Aurelius needs to remove all the rocks on the coast of Brittany in order to win the hand of a lady. He does this by employing a magician.

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I am planning to do a blog post for each of the examples above to look into the portrayal of magic in more depth.

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