The History of Magic in the Middle Ages
Fairies and Elves, witches and alchemy, trolls and monsters lurking in every fairy tale. These things have been degraded to myth in the age of reason and knowledge, and it would seem preposterous that educated humans would ever believe in such things. But during the Middle Ages the belief of such things had been spread far and wide and not just to the uneducated peasant. This paper will argue that clerics and the learned also attested to the validity of these supernatural/paranormal entities, by examining historical sources in conjunction with passages from the following of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: The beginning of the Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Squire’s Tale, The Pardoner’s Prologue, and paying close attention to the Canon Yeoman’s Tale.
While the majority of the Wife of Bath’s Tale has nothing to do with these topics, how she sets the story is what is interesting, as she says “In th’olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour, Of which that Britons speken greet honour, Al was this land fulfild of fayerye,” and goes on to describe the Elf Queen/ Fairy Queen with her company and says that in her contemporary time the prayers of friars and parsons have scared most of them off (lines 857-859). For her fellow travelers, this would have been a reference of time and not a poke at people’s beliefs. In England under the Norman and Angevin Kings (1075-1225), Robert Bartlett attests to the beliefs of Englishmen during the time, both the educated and uneducated. He writes about “other beings to be met with in the wide world who did not fit into this triad of sentient beings—animal, human, or angelic/demonic,” and says that these non-human, non-animal creatures were also not demonic in the strictest definition used by theologians (689). He gives a myriad of examples that he quantifies with the Church’s attempt to categorize such sentient beings when “ecclesiastics who wrote down these stories was to interpret them in the light of Christian demonology” and allows that the minds of men and women of England could conceive of beings neither human nor animal nor angel or demon (691). C.S. Lewis, afraid of the connotations that the term fairy would bring with our modern definition of the term (Disney and playful and cartoonish), called them instead The Longaevi—“longlivers” and wrote he put them in their own chapter for his book on the Middle Ages entitled The Discarded Image because “their place of residence is ambiguous between air and Earth” and refers to them as marginal creatures not because of the gray shading of their validity but because they had been seen as marginalized creatures on the fringe of society (122). They exist in the minds of the people of the middle ages because “they intrude a welcome hint of wildness and uncertainty into the universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory, too luminous,” in other words, they exist because the Wife of Bath and her companions wanted them to exist.
The Squire’s Tale—a long rambling story with no discernible ending—includes gifts from these Longaevi, a horse, a mirror, a ring, and a sword. While it is never determined that the Knight giving these gifts is a Fairy, it is speculated that “he were comen ayeyn out of Fairye,” and many people thought the fairies imparted gifts to the humans, such as in Mallory with Arthur and the lady in the lake (line 96).
If the Pardoner in his prologue is to be believed, then he doesn’t believe in magical charms. He admits that his charms and even what he preaches are “for coveityse,” and greed for gold and silver are what drives him (line 424). It would be dangerous to assume that such learned men would feel the same. And while there are plenty that served as profiles to Chaucer’s stereotype, it would be rash to assume that the Pardoner is a widespread case of the educated duping the ignorant and superstitious. Bartlett writes that these weren’t “popular” tales but “widespread,” and that most of these tales included the upper gentry like knights encountering these things (692). A more direct caution against assuming these were folk tales for the uneducated populace comes a little later down the page, as Bartlett points out that clergy were as much involved in these stories as the knights upon whom these stories focused. He points out that these “tales were recorded by ecclesiastics trained in Latin literacy,” and were in fact recorded and spread by some of the most famous, learned men of the time (692). History books are filled with stories of the medieval scholars trying to harness the powers of magic, and as Bartlett so aptly writes, “Latin reading told them of fauns and nymphs, their religious education made clear to them God’s infinite power,” and it could be reasonably argued that the educated men of the time were closer to belief than the uneducated (692).
The Canon Yeoman’s Tale speaks to another Middle Ages belief in alchemy, and his is a duplicitous tale vilifying a Canon fooling a priest. Robert T. and Laura C. Lambdin, in the book Chaucer’s Pilgrims, discuss the probable occupation of the Canon Yeoman, who stayed with the pilgrims after his boss “this Chanon saugh it wolde nat bee, But his Yeman wolde telle his pryvetee, He fledde awey for verray sorwe and shame,” fled after Harry Bailey embarrassed him (lines 700-702). The Lambin’s argue that the “term yeoman suggests … at one point he must have owned a piece of land or property, or he must have had some kind of net worth” and it “insinuates that he was some sort of assistant or servant,” and reference laws and a history of laws to validate these claims (357). The Yeoman also admits to being duped by an alchemist and loving the thrill of gold as well. Sheila Delany in the first chapter of her book Medieval Literary Politics treats alchemy as some kind of new utopia (new for the middle ages) where “its aim to cure the disease of imperfection of metals by hastening the natural process,” or as “an obstetric based in the conviction that ‘man can take upon himself the work of time’ to actively assist nature in its slow ripening,” thereby gaining the riches and bringing him into that utopia (12). That kind of cynical attitude seems at first to be supported by the Yeoman’s words, and his subsequent tale that all alchemy is a trick meant to dupe people of their cash. This is the basis for his story, but it does not fully suggest that the Yeoman did not believe in such things. He warns that only the most learned philosophers should search for this secret power, that “if that he th’entencioun and speche Of philosophres understonde kan; And if he do, he is a lewed man. For this science and this konnyng,” quod he, “Is of the secree of the secretes,”” and he ends his tale with a quick fable of Plato (1443-1447). His opinion, it would seem, or his warning, would be that anyone proclaiming to practice alchemy who is not of this stature would more than likely be deceiving you.
The richness of these myths gave wonder to these people, and the inclusion of magic and magical creatures and the promise of riches with power harnessed or given to mere man fulfilled these people and did not interfere with their deeply religious beliefs. That educated clerics perpetuated the stories would have given the uneducated—who came to these same clerics for Godly instruction—permission to believe in the supernatural, the paranormal. What seems to be the common theme through all these stories, as represented by the Yeoman’s Tale, is that one cannot get something for nothing, and be careful who you trust.
So we can trace the belief of magic and the supernatural back to Geoffrey Chaucer’s time, some three-hundred or so years before Shakespeare. But is that the end? Verily, I say not. English myth has a long and storied history with the magic and the supernatural.
Chaucer, Geoffery. The Canterbury Tales Complete. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston. Wadsworth Cengage Learning. The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd Ed. 2000.
Ed. Lambdin, Laura C. and Robert T. Lambdin. Chaucer’s Pilgrims: An Historical Guide to the Pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. 1-13. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996.
Bartlett, Robert. England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings: 1075-1225. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2000.
Delany, Sheila. Medieval Literary Politics: shapes of ideology. New York, NY: Manchester UP, 1990.
Lewis, C. S. The Discarded Image. New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 1964.