Magic in the Middle Ages

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Magic in the Middle Ages

1How would you value the magical thought today in comparison to magic in the Middle Ages? Do you think we have prejudices regarding this period? Are we still under the legacy of the Renaissance artists, who introduced themselves as the ‘light’ after some ‘Dark Ages’ for ‘marketing purposes’?

As for modern times, I would say that rather than magic, we are more likely to subscribe to superstitions than magic itself, at least for the large majority of the Western population (that is the only one I can speak for myself). Things like horoscopes, the reappearance of tarot readers (even on live television for paying viewers!), the persisting interest in the weather forecast or ghost healers … (we could go on forever, really) is a clear sign that superstition is alive and kicking. While ‘superstition’ is rooted in the hope that believing these things could make things better, I would describe ‘magic’ as “ritual that is different from the norm”, the norm being our main Christian belief system (again, speaking for the Western – mainly Judeo-Christian – world views).

Do we have prejudices? Of course we do: don’t we all believe that the Middle Ages have been a period of plague-ridden times, where everyone was pretty much stuck to their place (in society as well as geographically), with little chance of making changes, overrun by any Barbarian hordes that came this way? The questions I keep asking myself and other people when it comes to the ‘Middle Ages’ are the following ones:

“When do you think the Dark Ages end and the Middle Ages start?” Most people are hard put to even make a distinction between those two descriptions.

“Have people been happy in those periods?” Most of my friends believe it to have been a dreary and unhappy period, although there is a lot of evidence to the contrary: many people where a lot more mobile than expected, and many were living quite happy lives, by the standards of the time. Our perception of their lives is tainted by our own standards, of course, and I’m sure that many people in – let’s say: rural India, or a Favela in the outskirts of Sao Paulo – might actually say that the Middle Ages were not much different from what their own lives look like today. And those Indians and Brazilians can most definitely not be called “primitive”.

However, I don’t see this as a legacy of the Renaissance artist’s marketing ploy: rather more as a sign of ignorance about those times.

2Watch the movie The Name of the Rose, based on Umberto Eco’s book and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. How is the inquisitor Bernard Gui characterized? Does it match the image of the medieval inquisitors as we have studied them in this unit? Explain why.

The Hollywood understanding on what constitutes a proper “Inquisitor” is obviously different from what studies of that period bring to our attention. And while Hollywood has its own rules of how to tell a story and how drastic a character has to be pitted against the other side (be it ‘The Name of the Rose’, ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Cinderella’), our own perception of the Middle Ages might be just as far removed from the actual reality 700 years ago.

Our own vision of the inquisition is skewed because we base our judgement on a better understanding of natural laws and their implication on what constituted magic back then. It all comes back to Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” With our modern knowledge (much of which is – again – based on a belief in how natural laws function, think about that one!) we can recognise a lot of ‘magic’ as simple physics or chemistry.

At the time, the idea of ‘magic’ was still a vastly different one: magic played a role in daily life to a much larger degree than is the case today, especially the kind of ‘magic’ that is associated more with psychology than with science and technology.

3Watch this documentary: about the most famous witchcraft trials of the history of the USA, dated from 1692. Which relations can you establish between the facts of Salem and the persecution of witchcraft that we have studied in this module? Discuss this question in the forum.

I believe they were simply guilty of being different from the others. If something goes wrong, a scapegoat has to be found and that is usually part of the population that is different from the majority. Of course, in Salem other things played a role as well: the trials and giving of "evidence" were fired by bad will, and some people finally having found a way to "pay back" what they perceived as injustice by means of accusations of witchcraft. Mass hysteria helped to create an increasingly paranoid environment that only got worse with each accusation.

4In this link you will find a passage on magic from the Muqaddima (the Introduction) by the famous historian Ibn Khaldūn (732-784/1332-1382). Read the following passages: paragraphs 1-2; paragraph 5-13, from 'Let us present' to 'All this comes from (sorcerers and sorcery). What is the difference between prophets and sorcerers in this particular field? And what is the difference between their practices?

I guess I would see the difference between prophets and sorcerers related to white and black magic, good/evil magic. And this - to me - sits pretty much in parallel with the corresponding situation in the Christian Mediaeval world with its distinction between the natural magic and the black magic.

5Peer Assessment: Reflect about the following aspects of The Knight of the Cart by Chrétien de Troyes and write a short essay about it (950-1200 characters, about 200 words). This romance is about an adulterous relationship between Lancelot and the queen. As we have mentioned in this week’s videos, there are two knights who depart from Arthur’s court in order to rescue Guinevere. They represent different ways of undertaking the adventure. While Lancelot follows Love, Gauvain is associated with Reason. This is why they take different paths to save the queen, although just one of them will be successful. Write an essay about Lancelot’s conception of love in this book: a) Does Lancelot behave according to social conventions? b) Write at least one example justifying your answer. You might want to reflect about the implications of a love un/limited by social rules in your conclusion.

I believe that the whole story is about the opposition of emotion and reason. While Gavain follows reason alone, Lancelot is the more complex character of the story: although he feels deeply emotional about his lady, he still behaves according to the moral code imposed upon him and he does what is required of him as a knight: he proposes to go on a quest to save the queen, he guides the damsels wherever they want to go and even fights for a damsel he only just met, etc. Where there is a convention, he sticks to it, to the letter. The surrounding characters are much more transparent: all is ruled by convention, from the invitation to stay at one's house, to the need to make the guest feel as welcome as he possibly could, as far as convention demands and allows.

However … when conventions can be bent to Lancelot's advantage he does so. Climbing on the cart is hardly chivalric behaviour, and clearly was frowned upon by the others he met en route; NOT laying with the damsel who clearly has the hots for him is also against the grain of these stories. But it got the job done: his unconventional behaviour advances his quest, and that is probably why his fate was clear to everyone: he WAS the greatest knight because he operated creatively within the barriers of convention.

All seems very fate-bound, destinies written down and unchangeable, and that seems to be the reason why magic does not appear to be such a surprise to the characters in the story (e.g., the bed bursting into flame) and even the most outrageous things would appear very 'matter of fact'. Since everything is predetermined, magic is simply part of the scenery and does not warrant any special mention: it just 'is'. Our knight is different - maybe more 'modern' in his approach, though: he breaks the shackles of predetermination and makes room for the unexpected in his behaviour. The fact that he is in love with the queen is proof of this notion: a "proper" knight who follows conventions would never have allowed himself to fall in love, he would rather have left the court - in fact this is where Lancelot's only breach of convention lies: there is no harm in falling in love, but NOT doing the right thing (leaving) is where he went astray.

As for the subject of love limited by social rules: WE may live in a time where love and social rules have undergone a lot of changes in many parts of the world, but there still are rules, and when they are broken or questioned this often leads to situations that Lancelot would have no problem recognising. Today's rules may be more diverse, and not codified in a way that even comes near the level of rigidity faced by Lancelot, but they do exist. Breaking them would appear to be easier, but there still are consequences. Where the knights believed in a code of conduct and that it is their duty to follow it to the letter to deal with conflict, our times believe in the individuality of each and every one of us, leading to the idea of "I am allowed to do whatever I want". Of course, we have laws and rules and conventions, but they are dodged by moving away, ignoring the others, etc. No such thing for our knight Lancelot who is stuck in his story and can only keep on following the rules ... and his emotions, where possible.

6The description of “sumptuary arts” is quite contemporary. Throughout History of Art those artistic expressions have been considered of minor category that Architecture, Sculpture and Painting. They have even received a pejorative name: “Minor Arts”. Nowadays, to employ a more suitable word according to the value deserved for those pieces is more correct. For Swarzenski SWARZENSKI, Hanns, Monuments of Romanesque art. The Art of Church Treasures in North Western Europe, Londres, 1967, pp. 14 y ss. the better denomination for this kind of art would be the Art of Church Treasuries. Other researchers like Concepción Fernández Villamil, FERNÁNDEZ VILLAMIL Concepción, Las artes aplicadas, Madrid, 1975.for instance, consider that it would be better to use “applied arts” because this definition include the determinants of utility and beauty, two of the distinctive features of this kind of artistic expressions.
Which definition suits better with your opinion and why? Answer the question in around 100 words showing your understanding of the importance of those artistic manifestation.

This is the classic discussion about the definition of art itself and its use. Is it art if there is a practical aspect to it, or is it considered “decoration”. Is it art if it has a commercial aspect to it, think artists made famous by having their work sold by art galleries, and thereby multiplying in value. Is art only “art” if it is considered selfless and on its own, only creating emotional response, think of all the art pieces were you thought “well, that’s interesting, but my five-year-old at home could have done that”. To me, the main issue here is not the “type of art” we are looking at, but the question if this is “art” or rather a case of “artistic capabilities of an artist co-opted to create pieces of great economic value with religious impact on those easily impressed by shiny objects”.

This may sound cynical, but I’m sure many other participants would agree that one of the major reasons for religious objects to exist at all is: showing power and wealth, making money out of the multiplication of such relics and their reliquaries, and basically showing off to get the better of the competition (be it another church or monastery, religious group, or any practitioners of magic in the vicinity).

With this in mind, I would use the term “Objects in Church Treasuries” as the most fitting one for this particular purpose and leave the question of “art or no art” open for discussion.

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