There's a wonderful passage in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the poet leads us through the changing seasons. I've always been struck by the poet's evocation of the harshness of winter's chill -- no surprise at time when people still reckoned age by how many winters they'd survived.
After þe sesoun of somer wyth þe soft wyndez Quen Zeferus syflez hymself on sedez and erbez, Wela wynne is þe wort þat waxes þeroute, When þe donkande dewe dropez of þe leuez, To bide a blysful blusch of þe bryȝt sunne. Bot þen hyȝes heruest, and hardenes hym sone, Warnez hym for þe wynter to wax ful rype; He dryues wyth droȝt þe dust for to ryse, Fro þe face of þe folde to flyȝe ful hyȝe; Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne, Þe leuez lancen fro þe lynde and lyȝten on þe grounde, And al grayes þe gres þat grene watz ere; Þenne al rypez and rotez þat ros vpon fyrst, And þus ȝirnez þe ȝere in ȝisterdayez mony, And wynter wyndez aȝayn, as þe worlde askez, no fage, Til Meȝelmas mone Watz cumen wyth wynter wage.
I'm teaching a course this semester called 'Witches, Healers & Saints' mostly so I could teach a lot about witches. One of the themes developing in all my courses is how the few people with power often abuse it (honestly, it's always been there -- I'm just making it more overt now), but a major theme in this class is magic as technology.
My aim is to get away from the modern impulse to see magic only as 'superstition'; our belief in our superiority to the past causes us to dismiss too many things. If you think of magic as the best knowledge available at the time about some very mysterious things, it's easier to understand the role it played. I'm introducing the students to sympathetic magic and the power of charms (like the Anglo-Saxon Charm for Bees or the Charm against a Wen).
This week in my Women as Witches, Saints & Healers course, we read the Corrector of Buchard of Worms. This early 11th century handbook guided priests with questions they ought to ask their confessing parishioners in order to root out bad behaviour -- and a lot of the bad behaviour was pre-Christian practices that persisted. The insight these questions offer is rather magical, but the style of his rhetoric makes this much more fun to read than the usual sort of penitential.
To assuage the sadness of knowing there is no more Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to come (or perhaps there is a but a long way off), I have been thinking about how English magic did fall into disrepute so that a man of Norrell's character found it necessary to make it respectable once more. One of the first examples to occur to me is Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman's Tale (hereafter CYT because I will tire of spelling it out).
CYT features one of the belated arrivals to pilgrimage in TheCanterbury Tales. The canon and his yeoman catch up to the pilgrims and the yeoman launches into a recital of the canon's alchemical life that soon makes his boss leave in a huff. The yeoman takes this opportunity to show that the canon is a scoundrel in this 'elvysshe craft' known as alchemy.