Women and Magic in Medieval Literature

Jessica Leigh

The presence of a particular tradition of magic throughout medieval literature is one of its defining features. The fictional worlds encompassed by medieval literature contain legendary creatures, prophesied events, and magical items that give color and memorable character to these many tales. Merlin the wizard stands as a recognizable symbol of magic throughout the Arthurian tradition in particular; however, the female counterpart of the sorcerer has an even greater potential to act as a vital force in the narrative. Sorceresses and magic women in medieval literature form a surprisingly varied tradition that ranges from healer-helpers to antagonists while retaining their moral complexity. These female characters defy dichotomized groupings of good and evil, opening up an increasingly ambiguous space in which medieval authors could morally improve their own imperfect protagonists and pose critical questions on courtly society. Furthermore, these female characters offer an additional link to the real historical world of the Middle Ages and its sociopolitical developments. Close analysis of the shifting roles of sorceresses and the relationships between women and magic over the course of the Middle Ages reveals a striking connection with real-world issues of gender-based oppression centered around the practice of medicine. As ideas of magic women in literature developed, so also developed a real historical line of ideas regarding ethics in medicine and magic. The development of these ethical ideas would impact the word of the law as well as the vocabulary through which medieval authors worked. This essay analyzes works from Geoffrey of Monmouth, Layamon, Chrétien de Troyes, Marie de France, the Gawain Poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, and others in order to trace the development of magic women, their increasingly complex ethics, and their functions as voices of pointed social critique within narratives as they parallel a real-world historical timeline of women and medicine.

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Shawangunk Review Volume XXXI Copyright © 2020 by Jessica Leigh. All Rights Reserved.

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