Cover image for Middle English Marvels: Magic, Spectacle, and Morality in the Fourteenth Century By Tara Williams

Middle English Marvels

Magic, Spectacle, and Morality in the Fourteenth Century

Tara Williams


$89.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07963-9

184 pages
6" × 9"
4 b&w illustrations

Middle English Marvels

Magic, Spectacle, and Morality in the Fourteenth Century

Tara Williams

“A subtle, readable, and learned analysis of the ‘theory of the marvelous’ developed by writers of Middle English romances. This book makes a significant contribution not only to romance studies itself but also to the growing body of work on the flexible relationships between the different types of medieval wonder and on their aesthetic and ethical implications. Middle English Marvels will be of equal interest to scholars and their students.”


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This multidisciplinary volume illustrates how representations of magic in fourteenth-century romances link the supernatural, spectacle, and morality in distinctive ways.

Supernatural marvels represented in vivid visual detail are foundational to the characteristic Middle English genres of romance and hagiography. In Middle English Marvels, Tara Williams explores the didactic and affective potential of secular representations of magic and shows how fourteenth-century English writers tested the limits of that potential. Drawing on works by Augustine, Gervase of Tilbury, Chaucer, and the anonymous poets of Sir Orfeo and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, among others, Williams examines how such marvels might convey moral messages within and beyond the narrative. She analyzes examples from both highly canonical and more esoteric texts and examines marvels that involve magic and transformation, invoke visual spectacle, and invite moral reflection on how one should relate to others. Within this shared framework, Williams finds distinct concerns—chivalry, identity, agency, and language—that intersect with the marvelous in significant ways.

Integrating literary and historical approaches to the study of magic, this volume convincingly shows how certain fourteenth-century texts eschewed the predominant trends and developed a new theory of the marvelous. Williams’s engaging, erudite study will be of special interest to scholars of the occult, the medieval and early modern eras, and literature.

“A subtle, readable, and learned analysis of the ‘theory of the marvelous’ developed by writers of Middle English romances. This book makes a significant contribution not only to romance studies itself but also to the growing body of work on the flexible relationships between the different types of medieval wonder and on their aesthetic and ethical implications. Middle English Marvels will be of equal interest to scholars and their students.”
“Williams’s deft survey of fourteenth-century Middle English literary texts reveals a moral theory of the marvelous, which she traces from the actions it provokes in Orfeo and Lybeaus Desconus to the reflections it inspires in the Canterbury Tales. Through investigations of spectacle and the cognitive effects of wonder, situated in contexts ranging from genre to manuscripts to history and philosophy, Middle English Marvels offers a new understanding of how magic encourages moral contemplation in characters and readers, then and now.”
“An insightful study that examines literary magic in fourteenth-century England on its own terms. Through a series of subtle readings, Tara Williams identifies a previously unnoticed concatenation of magic, spectacle, and reflections on morality among a group of vernacular romances that construct their own view of the marvelous. This book makes a valuable contribution to magic studies and to affect studies through the ethical use of wonder.”

Tara Williams is Associate Dean of the Honors College and Associate Professor of English at Oregon State University and the author of Inventing Womanhood: Gender and Language in Later Middle English Writing.



Introduction: Why Marvels Matter

1. Mirroring Otherworlds: Fairy Magic, Wonder, and Morality

2. Revealing Spectacles: Virtue and Identity in Fair Unknowns

3. Moving Marvels: Action and Agency in Courtly Spectacles

4. Talking Magic: Chaucer’s Spectacles of Language

Conclusion: How Marvels Matter




From the Introduction

Why Marvels Matter

Richard II’s 1377 coronation procession included many possible sources of wonder. The chronicles record glorious decorations, enchanting music, overwhelming crowds, and wine rather than water flowing through the conduits of the city. But perhaps the most impressive spectacle was the automaton angel that anticipated the coronation itself by extending a golden crown to the king-to-be. This marvel, like many in the Middle Ages, is difficult to classify: It appears to be both spiritual and secular, both mechanical and magical. It also simultaneously entertains and encodes a larger significance, emphasizing Richard’s special status. Although the dual potential of marvels aroused anxiety, as we can see in writers like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Isidore of Seville, it also presented productive possibilities that literary texts could manipulate. Marvelous spectacles command attention and require responses that combine the immediate with the reflective, the affective with the cognitive.

Not all literary marvels take advantage of those possibilities, but a group from the fourteenth century does. I argue that these texts represent a coherent and previously unrecognized theory of the marvelous, one focused on the intersection of the magical, the spectacular, and the moral. This theory posits that magical spectacles can provoke forms of wonder that lead to moral actions by characters and open up moral reflection for the audience, particularly on the limits and limitations of ethical systems. The chapters that follow will explore a range of examples, each of which a narrator or character directly identifies as a magical marvel and each of which represents a key moment in this developing theory of the marvelous. Because the phrase “fourteenth-century magical, spectacular, and moral marvels” quickly becomes unwieldy, I will refer to this subset as “Middle English marvels.” As that phrase indicates, this configuration of features appears to be characteristically Middle English. The marvels appear in English texts that distinguish themselves from their sources and analogues in French, German, and Latin by adding magical and moral elements or enhancing those already present. Those texts belong to a Middle English tradition in which the two dominant genres—romance and hagiography—depend on marvelous objects and events.

Magic and marvel overlap significantly in the Middle Ages; I have chosen the latter as my central term because of its connotations and its more inclusive denotations. In his influential treatment, Jacques Le Goff defines the marvelous broadly in the Middle Ages, distinguishing it from the magical on one hand and from the miraculous on the other; a number of other writers restrict the definition to natural or mechanical wonders, especially in the form of objects. Middle English usage ranges more widely: in life and in texts, merveilles may be mechanical or natural, demonic or divine; they may be intended to inspire devotion, cure a medical condition, or amaze and amuse. Imagination often played a crucial role, as Michelle Karnes has demonstrated; it could “give invented images the status of perceptions and generate the same affective, intellectual, and physical effects as perceived objects,” and intervene “in the world by exercising influence, albeit mediated, over bodies.” The term marvel encompasses the technological, natural, and supernatural wonders that were important contexts for understanding the Middle English marvels at the center of this study, and suggests a relationship between secular marvels and their religious complements. That relationship is partly predicated on similar ties to the visual, which marvel also implies. Le Goff points out that the etymology highlights this connection: “marvel (from the Latin mirare, to look at) suggests a visual apparition.”

Magic has nonetheless been the more popular critical term, and magic studies has been a growing area of interest for scholars—and especially medievalists—across disciplines. Richard Kieckhefer and other historians have developed and adapted an influential model for classifying medieval magical practices as either natural—more closely related to medicine and science— or demonic—more closely related to religion and ceremony. Applying bat’s blood to one’s eyes to improve night vision falls under natural magic, while a ritual to obtain a cap of invisibility by drawing a circle, sprinkling it with holy water, reciting a psalm, and then conjuring and bargaining with spirits would be demonic magic. Careful examinations by Kieckhefer, Claire Fanger, Frank Klaassen, and Sophie Page of texts associated with learned magic have enriched our understanding of that complex category and shown how closely licit and illicit forms might coexist.

In literary texts, modes of magic are even more difficult to discern. Such typing depends on the identification of agency and intent, which literary depictions often obscure, and on some level of access to the practice involved, which literary depictions habitually omit. Readers are not privy to how Morgan le Fay transforms Bertilak into the Green Knight or which processes or figures forged the magical ring in the Squire’s Tale, for example. Nonetheless, because the magic is exercised in these texts, we learn more about it than in the many romances that, as Helen Cooper has pointed out, introduce magic that later fails to work or goes unused. Corinne Saunders’s Magic and the Supernatural in Medieval English Romance does the critical work of delineating and contextualizing the various and mysterious forms of literary magic while also demonstrating that it is, and should be, crucial to our interpretations. Saunders’s comprehensive treatment establishes the large-scale categories in English romance, such as the distinctions between white and black magic and between the secular and religious forms of the supernatural, and allows us to see where they do and do not overlap with the historical categories.

Saunders’s work makes it possible to uncover when texts both draw on and depart from precedent; with that foundation, the current study explores how the marvelous functions in the fourteenth century. This moment in late medieval culture comes at a conjunction of literary, social, scientific, and religious developments that endow marvels with new potential significance. Earlier romances reveal a strengthening correlation between courtly love and magic as a means of discovering or testing that love, as in Marie de France’s lays (in which magic brings together the lovers in Guigemar and Yonec) or Floris and Blancheflour (in which the couple proves their love by refusing to use a magic ring). The expanding connection between marvels and morality in romances from the 1300s builds on that correlation. A subgroup of fourteenth-century texts experiment in particular detail with how magic of any type might have moral implications, not only within the narrative but also for the audience, and with how visual description might intensify or attenuate those internal and external effects.

The marvels that test courtly love and chivalric virtues are often significantly visual, a feature that the Middle English marvels amplify—as when the hero of Lybeaus Desconus encounters a dragon with gleaming wings, a massive tail, and, in a twist on other extant versions, a woman’s face. Such marvels are spectacles in the sense that they include unusual or surprising aspects that contribute to their visual impact, and their representations correlate with a rising interest in spectacles of all types during the same period. Middle English usage reinforces that a spectacle could function as a medium for pointing to or revealing something else, a definition that the loathly lady employs in the Wife of Bath’s Tale when she explains poverty as a “spectacle” through which a man “may his verray freendes see.” Courtly displays were often designed to impress; when they generated wonder—as did the technological marvels that were becoming increasingly popular in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century European courts, like Richard’s coronation angel—it took the form of a curiosity about methodology. Within the framework of affective piety, intensely visual miracles and visions, such as those that Julian of Norwich describes, were also intensely moving; didactic potential and visual nature were intertwined in religious culture, as scholars have convincingly demonstrated.

Although secular manifestations of that connection have not yet received much attention, magical spectacles during this same period produced a type of wonder that might be harnessed for similarly moral or ethical purposes. When the Green Knight enters Arthur’s court, the courtiers’ first reaction is one of “wonder.” As the dragon with a woman’s face approaches Lybeaus Desconus, “grete wondyr with-all / Jn his herte ganne falle.” These spectacles test the moral character of Gawain and Lybeaus while also raising questions about the moral codes that the knights (and, to some extent, their audiences) espoused. How should one respond to figures outside one’s community or experience? What constitutes true virtue, and what prompts its failure? Transformations, which could be arresting spectacles while remaining anchored at some level in the human, were especially effective for raising such questions. In exploiting this potential, Middle English marvels eschew the type of detailed and stage-by-stage descriptions that characterize what is otherwise the most influential treatment of transformation in the Middle Ages, Ovid’s Metamorphoses; they focus less on the process than its effects.

An emphasis on the response elicited is characteristic of marvels, and another reason that I have chosen that term. It can describe a reaction as well as an object or occurrence, and the latter usages retain a focus on the impact: a marvel is something that inspires one to wonder. In the Middle Ages, wonder often has a moral valence. Caroline Walker Bynum’s excellent work on medieval wonder (admiratio) identifies it as “cognitive, perspectival, non-appropriative, and deeply respectful of the specificity of the world.” This wonder reaction avoids appropriating or generalizing; in other words, it takes a moral approach to the marvelous. Jane Bennett discusses the postmodern experience of wonder in similar terms, describing its ability to encourage an “ethical” engagement with the world. Marvels exercise what she calls an “affective force,” and an examination of that force reveals that they can influence as well as charm readers. In fact, their influence is greater precisely because they also entertain—an effect that will sound familiar to scholars of medieval literary theory, which understood entertaining texts as better able to inculcate a moral lesson. “One must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it,” Bennett contends, “in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others.”

These accounts of medieval and postmodern wonder do construct a slightly different relationship to morality: Bynum’s admiratio is already a moral approach to the world, whereas Bennett’s enchantment is an intermediate response that may lead to moral action. In other words, morality is a precondition for the medieval form of wonder and a potential outcome of the postmodern form. However, not all reactions to marvels in the Middle Ages took the form of admiratio. For the Middle English texts under consideration here, the interest lies in the gap between the spectacle and the reaction, in the uncertainty over whether, how, and to what degree that reaction will be moral. The reactions may involve emotions, actions, or both, and they may come from the readers as well as the characters. I suggest that Middle English marvels encourage a moral engagement that is in keeping with Bynum’s admiratio, and do so by leveraging “the ethical potential of the mood of enchantment” in a way that aligns with Bennett’s argument.

Prefiguring her later work on “vital materiality,” this argument by Bennett stresses the responsibility and responsiveness of the viewing subject more heavily. The subject must recognize something as marvelous, becoming open to its “affective force” and determining whether and how to respond. Implicitly, the possibility exists that a subject might be enchanted by something or react in some way that would not accord with the sense of ethics that Bennett establishes. Although the formulation of wonder in The Enchantment of Modern Life is largely atemporal, the ethics are postmodern; as a result, when we extend Bennett’s claims to the fourteenth century, we must follow Bynum’s model in querying the texts themselves to see which moral codes are operative. When we also consider the historical context in which these texts were being written, circulated, and interpreted, we can see that Bennett’s approach dovetails with the increasing emphasis during the Middle Ages on the responsibility and responsiveness of the viewing subject, a trend that I will locate in optical theory (chapter 3) as well as philosophical and religious discourse (chapter 4).

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