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.
I am looking forward to the final episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrellon Sunday (I think it's begun in the States more recently). It's been fun seeing an 'alternate' history of magic, though I will be sad to see it end. It got me thinking about a period in history that leads to a lot of confusion. When people say 'witch hunts' most people still seem to think of the Middle Ages, though the worst years were part of the Early Modern era, sometimes known as the Renaissance (a much disputed term for a variety of reasons). While many see the dividing line as the Reformation, the roots of that change can be see in Wycliffe and the Lollards in the 14th century. I tend to see Gutenberg's innovation as a technological change, though even there printing existed before his moveable type -- but the speed of the technology has all kinds of impacts as we know in the internet age.
Like breeds like we might say: just as the flame passes from torch to torch, so the light of learning passes from a wise one to a willing student. It burns brightly as long as there is fuel for it -- an eager mind. It's a constant refrain of the verses, but if you listen to fools you learn nothing but foolishness. Be mindful of where you sit. Better silence than foolishness.
Ár skal rísa,
sá er annars vill
fé eða fjör hafa;
sjaldan liggjandi ulfr
lær of getr
né sofandi maðr sigr.
He must rise [early]
who would gladly have
the wealth or life;
seldom will the lolling wolf
get the lamb's thigh
nor the sleeping man victory.
We know all about the early bird getting the worm; here the advice is the same but with the vivid example of the busy wolf grabbing the lamb's 'ham' or thigh. The sleeping warrior will not get victory any more than the sleeping wolf her dinner.
Ár skal rísa,
sá er á yrkjendr fáa,
ok ganga síns verka á vit;
margt of dvelr,
þann er um morgin sefr,
hálfr er auðr und hvötum.
He must rise early
who has few workers,
and get right to his work;
many things will delay,
he who in the morning slumbers,
yet half the wealth to he who's keen.
In typical Nordic litotes, to have 'few workers' is to have only yourself. Rise up early and don't procrastinate, because there is no one else you can count on. Half delayed is half unpaid! While this may seem more puritan than viking, they have in common a harsh life with a lot of tedious chores to maintain food and comfort.
ok þakinna næfra,
þess kann maðr mjöt,
er vinnask megi
mál ok misseri.
Of dry sticks
and bark roofing,
of this a man ought know the measure;
of this wood
which should last
a quarter or a sixmonths.
This stanza is a little more tricky. The basic sense is clear enough: practical knowledge will save you work. Knowing what kind of wood lasts longest before you use it as roofing is very wise. It plays with the concept of 'measure' both as a way to evaluate knowledge and as actually measuring wood for building. The lengths of time aren't terms we use as often now; some translators just use "short and long" for the seasons, but clearly the difference was more specific and meaningful in this agricultural community.
I use the Evans edition of the poem to begin and compare with translations here and here. The original text comes from the Heimskringla site in Norway. I also received a new translation of The Poetic Edda from Hackett Publishing; when I get a chance, I'll review it.
I thought I'd get the jump on Beltane and talk about everyone's favourite May Day song (even if you're not on Summer Isle) as it is a great piece of history. 'Sumer is icumen in' also known as the 'cuckoo song' embodies that glorious sense of happiness that the first real warm days offer us. Here in the north we still can't quite believe that summer is a-coming, which makes me want to sing it even more.
This is the earliest secular song recorded in English in the Middle Ages and appears in a 13th century manuscript along with a Latin version. Here's the original lyrics:
Here are a few further stanzas in the gnomic poem of Viking wisdom, translated from the medieval Norse with a commentary on significance and context. Read the other entries in this ongoing project here. Read the original Old Norse poem here.