Category Archives: Magic, Marvels and Monsters

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.

***

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

The Decline of Magic

This research article looks interesting – it’s about how people in the enlightenment became more skeptical about magic, but they could only do so once it was more permissible to have irreligious ideas:

THE DECLINE OF MAGIC: CHALLENGE AND RESPONSE IN EARLY ENLIGHTENMENT ENGLAND

MICHAEL HUNTER (2012).

The Historical Journal, Volume 55,
Issue 02, June 2012 pp 399-425

http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?aid=8565563

The article is behind a pay wall though – so you’ll either have to be at a University or be able to pay for it to read the whole thing, but the abstract is free.

Medieval Magic and Marvels: Of a fantastic apparition in the Sky

This is from Matthew Paris’s Chronica Majora for 1254. This time a phenomenon seen by monks from his own abbey!

Fits quite well I think with the idea of Cloud Ships that I blogged about previously.

Of a fantastic apparition in the Sky

About midnight of the day of our Lord’s circumcision, the moon being eight days old, and the firmament studded with stars, and the air completely calm, there appeared in the sky, wonderful to relate, the form of a large ship, well-shaped, and of remarkable design and colour. This apparition was seen by some monks of St. Alban’s, staying at St. Amphibalus to celebrate the festival, who were looking out to see by the stars if it was the hour for chanting matins, and they at once called together all their friends and followers who were in the house to see the wonderful apparition. The vessel appeared for a long time, as if it were painted, and really built with planks ; but at length it began by degrees to dissolve and disappear, wherefore it was believed to have been a cloud, but a wonderful and extra-ordinary one.

Day of our Lord’s circumcision – actually New Year’s Day, January 1st – as this was eight days after Christ’s birth.

St. Amphibalus – a Christian pries sheltered by Alban, who was converted by Amphibalus. St. Alban was then martyred protecting Amphibalus. Matthew is indicated that the monks were at the Abbey’s satellite priory of St. Amphibalus at Redbourn, which is where the Saints remains were originally found before being moved to a shrine in the Abbey Church.

I wonder what this vessel could have been. It is interesting that Matthew does not try to explain it any spiritual one – in the end he puts it down to being just a very remarkable cloud.

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Matthew Paris: Of a Wonderful Sea Monster

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In Matthew Paris’s Chronica Majora for 1255 he tells how a wonderful sea monster was cast up by the sea on the coast of Norfolk. Intriguingly the monster was not a whale as one might think, but was larger than one! Unfortunately we don’t get any further description of what this beast might be!

During that same time the sea cast up in the districts belonging to the diocese of Norwich an immense sea monster, which was disturbed by the violent commotions of the waves and was killed, as was believed, by the blows and wounds it received. This monster was larger than a whale, but was not considered to be of the whale kind: its carcass enriched the whole adjacent country.

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Medieval Magic and Marvels: Matthew Paris and the Music of the Heavens

Robert Grosseteste
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When a bishop dies the bells ring in heaven according to Matthew Paris. Presumably this was only becayse Robert, Bishop Lincoln was a fairly holy rather than venal example. Indeed this was actually Robert Grosseteste the famous scholastic philosopher and theologian, who criticized the greed of the papacy.

I think it’s interesting that only the friars and priests hear the bells though – the bumpkin foresters don’t! Also it’s interesting that the melodious music is like bells – I guess the link with a place of worship is important here, but is really that the best that heaven could come up with to welcome the bishop?

These are extracts from the Chronica Majora written by Matthew Paris for the year 1253.

Of the music heard in the heavens

During the night in which the said bishop departed to the Lord, Faulkes, bishop of London, heard in the air above, a wonderful and most agreeable kind of sound, the melody of which refreshed his ears and his heart, and fixed his attention for a time. Whilst listening to it (he was at the time staying near Buckdon), he said to some persons standing near him, “Do you, too, hear what I do?” Whereupon they asked him, ” What hear you, my lord ?” The bishop replied : “I hear a supernatural sound, like that of a great convent-bell, ringing a delightful tune in the air above.” They, however, acknowledged, although they listened attentively, that they heard nothing of it, whereupon the bishop said to them: ” By the faith I owe to St. Paul, I believe that our beloved father, brother, and master, the venerable bishop of Lincoln, is passing from this world to take his place in the kingdom of heaven, and this noise I heard is intended as a manifest warning to me thereof, for there is no convent near here in which there is a bell of such a sort and so loud. Let us inquire into the matter immediately.” They therefore did so, and found, as was proved by the statement of his whole household, that at that very time the bishop had departed from this world. This wonderful circumstance, or rather primitive miracle, was told as a fact, and borne evidence to, to the writer of this book, by Master John Cratchale, a confidential clerk to the bishop, one held in great veneration, and of high authority amongst his attendants and friends.

Of the noises of trumpets and bells heard in the sky.

On the same night, too, some brethren of the order of Minorites were hurrying towards Buckdon, where Robert, bishop of Lincoln, was staying (for he was a comforter and a father to the Preachers and Minorites), and in passing through the royal forest of Vauberge, being ignorant of its windings, lost their road, and whilst wandering about they heard in the air sounds as of the ringing of bells, amongst which they clearly distinguished one bell of a most sweet tune, unlike anything they had ever heard before. This circumstance greatly excited their wonder, for they knew that there was no church of note near. When morning’s dawn appeared, after wandering about to no purpose, they met some foresters, of whom, after obtaining directions to regain their right road, they inquired what meant the grand and solemn ringing of bells which they had heard in the direction of Buckdon to which the foresters replied, that they had not heard and did not then hear anything, though the sound still gently filled the air. The brethren, therefore, in still greater wonder went on, and reached Buckdon betimes, where they were informed that at the very time of the night when they had heard the aforesaid melodious sounds, Robert, bishop of Lincoln, breathed forth his happy spirit.

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Medieval Magic and Marvels: Cloud Ships

A fisherman's anchor
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Of course there is another sea above the one we know of – didn’t you realise! One credulous medieval writer certainly seemed to think so.

I came across this extract from Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia in C. G. Coulton’s Social Life in Britain from the Conquest to the Reformation, which is a great repository of all things medieval – from the mundane to the most fantastical of medieval marvels.

Gervase of Tilbury was an Imperial official in the 12th and 13th centuries, and wrote a number of works including the Otia Imperialia, which is a miscellany of various wonders – many of them seemingly very fanciful. I love this one about villagers coming across an anchor in a churchyard one foggy day and then a sailor comes down from the misty heavens to free the anchor. As if this isn’t evidence enough of ships sailing above us in the clouds, Gervase then backs this up with another story of a man sailing far overseas losing a knife overboard, and it then landing on his wife’s kitchen table far below.

Coulton notes that “A heavy stone tomb of the kind here described, dating from the late 14th or early 15th century, may still be seen in front of the porch of St Nicholas at Lynn. Iron door- bands in the rough form of an anchor are very common on early church doors :e.g. Sempringham.”

Here’s the full extract from Gervase of Tilbury:

There are some who say that the earth, as a centre in the midst of a circumference, is equally distant from all these extremities, and is surrounded and shut in by sea, even as it is written of the third Day of Creation, “God gathered together the waters that were under the heaven into one place, and dry land appeared.” In our own times there befel a marvellous, but well-known event to prove how the upper sea lieth above us. On a certain holyday in Great Britain, after High Mass, the folk were thronging forth from the parish church, on a morning so misty that it made a sort of twilight amid the gross and watery vapours. Here, on a stone tomb within the precincts of the churchyard, they found an anchor fixed, with its cable stretched tight and hanging down from the air. The people stood in amazement; and, while they were disputing among themselves of this matter, at length, they saw the rope move as though men had been labouring to weigh the anchor. When therefore, for all this straining at the rope, the anchor yet clung to the tomb, they heard through the foggy air as though it had been the cries of sailors labouring with all their might to raise an anchor from the deep. Soon, when they found their labour to be in vain, they sent down one of their fellows, who, as skilfully as any shipman of our own, appeared hanging to the rope and descending with alternate interchange of hands. When, however, he had torn the anchor from the tomb, he was caught by those that stood around, in whose arms he gave up the ghost, stifled by the breath of our gross air as a shipwrecked mariner is stifled in the sea. Moreover his fellows above, judging him to be wrecked, after an hour’s delay, cut the cable, left their anchor, and sailed away. In memory of which event the iron bands of the doors of that church were forged, by a cunning counsel, from that anchor; which bands are still there for all men to see. Here again is a still more marvellous testimony. In the county of Gloucester is a town named Bristol, wealthy and full of prosperous citizens; from this port men sail for Ireland. It befel upon a time that a native of Bristol sailed to Ireland, leaving his wife and children at home. Then, after a long sea-voyage, as he sailed on a far-off ocean, he chanced to sit banqueting with the mariners about the hour of tierce; and, after eating, as he washed his knife over the ship’s side, it slipped suddenly from his hands. At that same hour, at Bristol, the knife fell in through the roof-window of that same citizen (which men in the English tongue call dormer) and stuck in the table that was set before his wife. The woman, marvelling at so strange a thing, was dumbfounded; and, laying aside this well-known knife, she learned long afterwards, on her husband’s return, that his misfortune had befallen on the very day whereon she had found it. Who, then, will now doubt, after the publication of this testimony, that a sea lieth over this earth of ours, whether in the air or above the air?

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Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, Thomas Aquinas and Robert Grossteste all loved their Brass Robots

Albertus Magnus Monument in front of the main ...
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As part of my research into magic in the Middle Ages I have been reading Lives of the Necromancers by William Godwin (published in 1834). It is not the most thoroughly researched of academic texts on the subjects, but it is fine for getting an overview of legends related about a number of medieval thinkers who were also thought of as being magicians. The most curious trend that I noticed was for thinkers of the Thirteenth century to be consistently linked with the creation of either brass heads, people or horses. It seems that there was a fascination with all things mechanical and that to give life to something mechanical was reckoned to be akin to magic. No doubt in some theoretical way these men were interested in mechanics, but I very much doubt they actually tried to get a machine to foretell the future. Here are some relevant excerpts from the book.

Albertus Magnus

It is related of Albertus, that he made an entire man of brass, putting together its limbs under various constellations, and occupying no less than thirty years in its formation. This man would answer all sorts of questions, and was even employed by its maker as a domestic. But what is more extraordinary, this machine is said to have become at length so garrulous, that Thomas Aquinas, being a pupil of Albertus. and finding himself perpetually disturbed in his abstrusest speculations by its uncontrollable loquacity, in a rage caught up a hammer, and beat it to pieces. According to other accounts the man of’ Albertus Magnus was composed, not of metal, but of flesh and bones like other men but this being afterwards judged to be impossible, and the virtue of images, rings, and planetary sigils being in great vogue, it was conceived that this figure was formed of brass, and indebted for its virtue to certain conjunctions and aspects of the planets.

Roger Bacon

He put statues in motion, and drew articulate sounds from a brazen head, not however by magic, but by an artificial application of the principles of natural philosophy.

Thomas Aquinas

It was to be expected that a man, who thus immersed himself in the depths of thought, should be an inexorable enemy to noise and interruption. We have seen that he dashed to pieces the artificial man of brass, that Albertus Magnus, who was his tutor, had spent thirty years in bringing to perfection, being impelled to this violence by its perpetual and unceasing garrulity. It is further said, that his study being placed in a great thoroughfare, where the grooms were all day long exercising their horses, he found it necessary to apply a remedy to this nuisance. He made by the laws of magic a small horse of brass, which he buried two or three feet under ground in the midst of this highway; and, having done so, no horse would any longer pass along the road. It was in vain that the grooms with whip and spur sought to conquer their repugnance. They were finally compelled to give up the attempt, and to choose another place for their daily exercise.

Robert Grossteste

Among the other accomplishments of bishop Grossetete he is said to have been profoundly skilled in the art of magic and the old poet Gower relates of him that he made a head of brass, expressly constructed in such a manner as to be able to answer such questions as were propounded to it, and to foretell future events.

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Magic and Witchcraft Research Boost

If you are interested in the research of magic and witchcraft in the middle ages you may have come across the following seminal works:

Henry Charles Lea‘s A History of the Inquisition (3 volumes): although this title covers all of the activities of the inquisition and therefore mainly the crime of heresy, there is also some useful content on how the inquisition tackled magic and witchcraft (see volume 3 for this).

Lynn Thorndike‘s A History of Magic and Experimental Science: this title contains 8 volumes, the first two of which cover the first thirteen centuries A.D. The book lists all the major developments in magic and experimental science and also provides details of known ‘magicians’ during that time period. Scientists such as Roger Bacon were often thought to be magicians because of the unusual claims that they made and the experiments they carried out.

In the past it has been quite difficult to get hold of these important reference books unless you have access to a well-stocked academic or public library. I briefly had access to A History of the Inquisition via a trial subscription to Questia, but that has since lapsed. But now the good news is that both titles are available via archive.org. You can find all three volumes of A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, as well as the same author’s A History of the Inquisition of Spain. For Thorndike you can find the first two volumes at present. Hopefully the other volumes will be added soon as well.

Simply visit archive.org and start your search. There are often multiple files available, so I won’t provide any links here. If you have never used archive.org before then please take a look, it’s a great resource.

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Tweet Tweet, Poop Poop: magical birds in my story Bird Talk

Common Hoopoe ((Upupa epops)) in Puri, Orissa,...

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My story Bird Talk is about a young priest, Roger, living in a small medieval English town, who is trying to uncover what he believes are foul magical deeds. But instead he manages to implicate the women he loves in accusations of witchcraft and, with the help of the town drunk, must work out a way of saving her.

In the story I incorporate a number of medieval beliefs about magic. The first magical occurrence that arouses Roger’s suspicions is the purchase of an exotic bird – the Hoopoe. In medieval times the Hoopoe, whose song is “poop, poop”, was sought after for its magical properties. The Hoopoe is a native of Europe, but not the UK, but could have been imported at the right price. How were Hoopoes used in magic?

  • Their blood could be used to make magic circles
  • Summoned demons quite liked Hoopoes, they made a nice gift
  • Their brains, tongues and hearts were valuable for enchanters – although not specified why in any sources I have seen

(For more on demonic magic and the sources for the above information see Magic in the Middle Ages by Richard Kieckhefer.)

After Roger hears about the sale  of a Hoopoe he suspects that there is magic going on. As he approaches the suspects home he and the local constable hear the distinctive sound of the Hoopoe, and they discover the identity of the  suspected necromancer. The them of bird song comes up again at the end of the story, but I won’t say any more than that – please read the story to find out more!

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction 33

If you’re interested in reading my story Bird Talk, then please visit Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction.

According to Mr Theaker, my story is:

‘By these standards, “Bird Talk” by Mark Lord is almost incongruously normal, despite its mix of witches, clerics and boozy tramps.’

UPDATE

“Bird Talk” is also now available to purchase as a separate story via Smashwordsand Amazon.

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