Magical Ideas Throughout History
Werewolf, werewolf, black as any crow, you came here with your tail erect, keep it up and go; go into the garden, and look beneath the peach, and there you’ll find roast capons, and a score of eggs with each; raise the flask up to your lips, and take a swig of wine; then get you gone and hurt me not, nor even Gianni mine.
—Monna Tessa’s Werewolf spell, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Day 7, Story 1.
Medieval culture is replete with magical stories of enchantment, illusion and the supernatural. From the demonic sorcerers of Dante’s Inferno, to the animal incantations of the lais of Marie de France, or the alchemical performances of Marlowe’s Faustus, medieval European texts afford a fascinating insight into the complex, surprising and often entertaining ways people understood the universe, as well as their place in it. In their attempts to uncover the mysteries of their surroundings, medieval ‘magicians’ were precursors of the modern scientist. Practitioners of ‘magic’ might include healers with specialist knowledge of herbs and potions, or monks capable of communing with divine and demonic powers. They might also include astrologers whose celestial readings predicted future events, or even barber surgeons, who were able to effectively manipulate the bodies under their care. Magicians, in this broad sense, were those who were knowledgeable about the world and able to exercise power over it, much like the scientists and technological experts of today. By their special ability to comprehend and affect their environment, the activities of clerics, alchemists and sorcerers coincided. Such intersections problematise modern distinctions between religion, magic and science.
Exploring a range of fascinating literature, manuscripts and museum artefacts, the presentations below explore the history of magical thinking as it develops from the late Middle Ages into the present.
Compiled by undergraduate and postgraduate English students studying at Queen’s University Belfast, each project demonstrates how magical thinking has permeated past and present cultures.
Daniel Bresland 20-minute lecture: Arthur Machen and Object-Oriented Ontology
Ashleigh Robinson 20-minute lecture: Magical Stones
Lindsey Crissey 20-minute lecture: Magic and Deception in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus
Isabel Kirsten and Adam Martin: Magic in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron – an interactive MS Sway Project