The marvellous power of nature is something that has always fascinated people. Even when explained by laws of physics, the power and energy residing in nature is still awe-inspiring. In the Middle Ages, nature was still full of unexplained mysteries and it provided peoples’ minds with foundations for many beliefs, superstitions and expectations. This is not to say that medieval people did not know how to exploit what was offered. The knowledge of certain natural laws allowed people to accommodate their lives to these. The tides were known to be affected by the Moon and astrology was a popular field of study, even though only rarely supported by the religious authorities for its implication in divination.
Because the medieval mind was affected by many centuries of previous development of various beliefs, the people were usually aware of the existence of multiple theories concerning magic; and with that also of the possibility of the multiplicity of its origin and its essence. The claim that some magic could be natural certainly did not spur a consensus among people. Some of them supported the idea as an alternative to the demonic, some “argued that all natural magic was merely demonic magic in disguise.”26 Medieval mind had to tackle with several forces functioning in the world of supernatural: the demonic, the occult powers within nature, and the divine. But as Kieckhefer points out, “there is nothing conceptually difficult in the basic distinction between appeal to God, invocation of demons, and exploitation of mysterious powers within nature”27 and therefore the intention of the person employing any kind of supernatural force is the distinctive feature of the act, since everyone is aware of the desired end of his/her endeavour. There was a recognized difference between the ‘natural’ and the ‘supernatural’ elements in the world. Saunders describes it as a division between “the supernatural (miracles, the demonic, the otherworldly, faery) and the natural (marvels, wonders) which may yet come to be understood.”28 Similarly, Kieckhefer, commenting on the traditional view of the occult natural powers, states that “such phenomena were often called marvels or wonders (mirabillia) rather than magic.”29 This suggest that natural magic enjoyed a different position in the minds of medieval people. It could be as complex as the demonic, but since “the powers it exploited were impersonal ones within the natural order,”30 it was likely to be less fraudulent and less effected by the particular personalities involved; and thus generally neutral in its essence.
The concept of natural magic is inextricably connected with the natural processes and natural resources, and as such it was connected with the everyday experience of the medieval people much more than for example divine miracles. Its most common exploitation was certainly for medicinal purposes. People in the Middle Ages were familiar with an array of rationally justified practices which were more or less proved to be working and could, to a certain degree, be explained. Of course it was not inherent in the notion of rationality to be able to fully articulate all the principles contained in the concept of magic, but the use, fear, promotion and condemnation of magic that were all present amongst people clearly suggest that people “not only assumed it worked but could give … reasonably specific explanations of how it worked.”31
In romances the power of natural magic belongs among the basic attributes of almost all magical practitioners. Their knowledge of remedies, potions and charms can be exploited in positive as well as negative way. Various natural objects such as stones, plants or ointments can be invested with both affirmative and dangerous qualities. This becomes most prominent “in the area of love-magic, which employs natural forces to bind the beloved but strays into the forbidden area of changing destiny.”32 One of the most famous love-potions is administered in the story of Tristram and Isoud. Malory’s account of the story is subject to simplification in many respects but the core of the story by all means remains intact. The role of the potion here represents the dangerous quality of natural magic (or magic in general) due to its misdirected use, but it is also benign because it was not intentionally misused. Moreover the potion is only administered after the reader is comfortably accustomed to affirmative character of the relationship between Tristram and Isoud. Its specified in the narrative that Tristram “cast great love to La Beale Isoud” on the occasion of their first meeting33, and that she also loved him “passing well.”34 Nevertheless until he drinks the potion Tristram is aware of his duties and abides by the chivalric code to such an extent that he is willing to fetch Isoud from her homeland and let her be wedded to his uncle, King Mark. When Isoud’s father suggests Tristram that he should be the one wedding his daughter, he replies with firm conviction: “‘Sir, and I did then I were shamed for ever in this world, and false to my promise.’”35 His only desire seems to be to bring his uncle a new bride. Right after that follows the scene where they drink the potion made by Isoud’s mother which causes them to fall madly in love. This close appearance of such conflicting positions of Tristram supports the benign character of the whole story and excuses the protagonists from the severe condemnation of their adulterous relationship which follows the administration of the potion, because it was never their intention to betray the king; and since humans are susceptible to magic and virtually defenceless against it, they had no power to resist the effect. In order to shift the consequences even more to the area of acceptance, king Mark is presented as a villain conspiring against Tristram rather than a victim of his nephew’s selfish conduct. Therefore their supernaturally instigated love is more or less justified and the involvement of magic is made of only peripheral significance.
The rest of the narrative of the Morte is scattered with the instances of utilization of natural magic, usually in the form of marvellous healing carried out by a female enchantress. When Sir Gareth lies wounded in the castle of Lady Lynet, she promises him to make him ready for a tournament: “And then she laid an ointment and a salve to him as it pleased to her, that he was never so fresh nor so lusty,”36 and on another occasion Lynet heals Gawain and Gareth after their fight.37 Though not always explicitly said to be magical, the act of healing from the hands of an enchantress always carries a notion of supernatural interference.
Even though the conceptual distinction between the natural, the demonic and the divine powers seems to be rationally justified, the practice often relied upon individual experience and perception. The line between these three concepts was very thin and despite their different causal principles, the form, the function and the effect of their exploitation might easily blur into each other. This ambiguity infiltrates every aspect of the supernatural, rendering the creation of rules without any exception an impossible effort. The religious authorities had much more specific idea about what was licit and what was not. They supported the prayers and faith in God’s mercy, and the attempts of the individuals to avert what was assumed to be God’s will were perceived with the utmost suspicion and condemnation. Because the boundaries of medieval medicine were quite clear and limited people invited the possibility of a alternative way of protection as well as of the general wish-fulfilment. “If the charms worked, that was more important than how they worked.”38