History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Fake Magic

Posted by on in Studies Blogs

I've long had a fascinating with grifters and fakes. In the Middle Ages, as now, there were plenty of folk looking for a quick windfall by pretending to be something they were not. Sometimes they had good reasons: the young woman Silence who pretended to be a minstrel and then a knight and rose to the heights of both professions needed to hide the fact that -- well, she was female.

Most often of course the hoodwinking was to get money out of the unwary (like Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman's tale). Money wasn't the only motivator though: there are few guilty pleasures as delicious as revenge well-served. A fine example is the Scottish text, The Freiris of Berwick.

In many ways it's a typical fabliau, a French tale type much imitated across Europe. Fabliaux are short, comic, narratives, ribald if not downright bawdy in nature but without the expected moralising people generally (and mistakenly) associate with medieval stories. Most often there's a young wife having an affair and her old suspicious husband who ends up with the short end of the stick.

In The Freiris of Berwick the young wife Alesone is planning to have a romantic evening meal with her lover Johine (a friar) because her husband Symon is away. But two friars, Allane and Robert, arrive before she can get ready and ask for 'harberie' for the night as the gates of the city have been closed and they cannot return to their cells. Aleson isn't happy and tries to use the excuse of her husband being away to dissuade them, but they prevail and she sends them to the loft to sleep. Young Robert is suspicious about her lack of hospitality. He pokes a hole between the rafters to see her getting the fine feast together for her lover. 

Suddenly her husband turns up. She pretends to not hear him while she conceals the feast and Johine hides. She offers her husband poor fare and urges him to head to bed. The friars make themselves known and lament the poor feast before them. Robert offers to show them magic he's learned in Paris.

And 'throw his knawlege in filosophie' he's able to make food and Gascogne wine magically appear in the cupboard. Alesone pretends to be amazed as all the rest of them. But Symon wants to know more about this magic and begs to see the mysterious 'servant' who has carried out his demands. Robert relents, but only after telling Symon that he cannot see him in his true form for it would cause him to lose his senses.

Having glimpsed the lover Johine in his black cowl and habit, they decide to have him assume the appearance of a monk of 'the other' order (they're in white) but Robert warns them they'll need to keep the spirit in line, so they prepare to beat him as he runs out of the house. They get their cudgels ready, then Robert intones:

Ha, how, Hurlybass, now I conjure thee
That thow upryss and sone to me appeir,
In habeit blak, in liknis of a freir. 

Johine gets a few knocks, but the overenthusiastic Symon gets in the way of another blow and gets dashed to the floor. Alesoun loses her fun for the night, but her infidelity remains a secret -- and brother Robert gets a great story to tell about his use of 'magic' in the town.

[Image via British Library: Netherlands, S. (Liège) Stowe 17 f. 38]

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K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.


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