Categotry Archives: middle ages

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The Book of Merlin: Insights from the Merlin Conference – Edited by R.J. Stewart

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Categories: faery, folk, middle ages

First published in 1987 and then reprinted each year from 1989 to 1991, this book primarily compiles papers from the First Merlin Conference, held in London in 1986. It’s not clear, given the use of the ‘primarily’ qualifier, whether everything included here was presented as a paper, but if it is, the rather slight line-up is quite a remarkable one, with Geoffrey Ashe, Gareth Knight, John Matthews and Bob Stewart himself providing something of a Who’s Who of mid to late 80s esoteric Arthuriana. This is part of the charm of reviewing a title like this, harking back to a simpler time where re-encountering these authors is like slipping on some old familiar shoes. This nostalgia is compounded by the delicious, oh so occult 80s/90s cover art from Miranda Gray, whose delicately-stippled and hand-coloured image of a hooded Merlin is still stunning and evocative today despite being so of its time.

Things begin with an uncredited introduction that provides a brief overview of Merlin where, perhaps betraying Stewart’s authorship, there’s some typically salty invective about misconceptions surrounding him. You better not entertain the idea that Merlin is a vapid New Age pseudo-master or some doddering wizard with a star-spangled hat, otherwise, golly gosh, Stewart will hunt you down and severely castigate you.

But never fear, any vapid and New Age illusions are quickly put to rest with Geoffrey Ashe’s contribution, one of the most exhaustive here, providing a survey of Merlin’s earliest appearances, beginning with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The Prophecies of Merlin and The History of the Kings of Britain and then working backwards to the primary sources he drew from. This is a strictly factual survey of the literature, expertly corralled by Ashe, but even he can’t help adding a little mystical resonance, almost attributing sentience to the coalescence of the various proto versions of Merlin into a singular figure, identifying an “indwelling godhead” re-emerging as a powerful tutelary entity that had been there all along. I can dig it.

The Book of Merlin page spread with artwork by Miranda Gray

The content within this book is divided into five parts and the second of these takes its name from its first contribution, Gareth Knight’s The Archetype of Merlin. After an introduction by Stewart, Knight takes a not entirely focussed journey, deriving greater meaning from some of the more admittedly superficial impressions of Merlin, before exploring Gandalf as an example of the continuation of the archetype. This is just as scattershot, with Knight careening all over the place in an unendearing manner, reaching its apex when a whole page is used to quote from an editorial in The Guardian about, would you believe, the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Knight concludes this section with two other contributions, one about the blue stones Merlin is said to have brought from afar when constructing Stonehenge, and the other about the mage’s relationship with Nimuë. These are both briefer and more focused than the piece that precedes them, ending almost too abruptly where the former lingers.

The book’s third section considers Merlin’s place in modern fiction, and other than an introduction from Stewart, this is entirely John Matthews’ time to shine, with two pieces: one that gives its name to this section, followed by a two-page poem called Merlin’s Song of the Stones. As someone who has read a fair bit of contemporary Arthurian fiction all her life, this is an interesting overview, touching on some familiar notable titles such as Marian Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone and Parke Godwin’s Firelord, as well as other less familiar ones. Matthews doesn’t spend too long on each, grouping them together into similar themes, such as Merlin being associated with Atlantis (a surprisingly popular motif), or his roles as variously prophet, trickster and teacher.

The Book of Merlin page spread

Stewart provides the final paper here, and the book’s longest, with a consideration of Merlin and the wheel of life, drawing primarily from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini in which he appears as a shamanic and prophetic wild man of the woods, passing through a seasonal round. As an adjunct to this discussion, and in an intersection with an abiding interest in the legends and mysticism surrounding Bath in south west England, Stewart also relates Merlin to a similar figure mentioned by Geoffrey in his The History of the Kings of Britain, King Bladud. Bladud is described as a worker of necromancy, a devotee of Minerva who built the therapeutic baths of Aquae Sulis, but other than appearing in Vita Merlini, there’s little connecting him with Merlin other than broad motifs, and Stewart’s attempt at a comparison seems strained if thorough.

The Book of Merlin concludes with an appendix of two primary sources, as well as a reprint of an essay from 1901 by Arthur Charles Lewis Brown concerning the figure of Barintus, the helmsman who steers Arthur to the Fortunate Isles. The first of the primary texts, introduced once again by Stewart, are extracts from Thomas Heywood’s, wait for it, The Life of Merlin, surnamed Ambrosius; his Prophecies and Predictions Interpreted, and their Truth Made Good by our English Annals: Being a Chronographical History of all the Kings and Memorable Passages of this Kingdom, from Brute to the reign of King Charles, phew. The excerpts show how Heywood can almost be described as a proto-novelist, taking the core provided by Geoffrey of Monmouth, and fleshing it out with his own take, with a particular emphasis on Merlin’s prophesies and their interpretation. The second text consists of extracts from The Birth of Merlin, a bawdy comedy probably written in whole or part by William Rowley but which in its first printing was attributed to Rowley and no less than William Shakespeare.

The Book of Merlin page spread with artwork by Miranda Gray

In all, The Book of Merlin makes an interesting if brief introduction to some ideas associated with Merlin. Given its status as documentation of a single conference, there are understandably not a lot of contributors here and the fruits that are range in appeal, with those by Ashe and Matthews being the highlights; and Stewart’s editorial voice permeating throughout. Formatting is understated but competent and in addition to her lovely cover image, Miranda Gray provides illustrations for many of the contributions, all in her trademark style of crisp, fine lines offset with a restrained use of stippled detail and shading. These are usually set against white space, with little background, all adding to their ephemeral and mystical quality.

Published by Blandford


Thank you to our supporters on Patreon especially Serifs tier patron Michael Craft.

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The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages – Robert Bartlett

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Categories: middle ages

The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages coverThis book compiles a series of Wiles Lectures presented in 2006 at Queen’s University of Belfast by historian and medievalist Robert Bartlett. The lecture series was founded in 1953 by Janet Boyd of Craigavad, County Down, in memory of her father, Thomas S. Wiles, and are sponsored by the university and published (often in extended and modified form) by Cambridge University Press. Despite running to 170 pages, The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages feels concise, which is perhaps to be expected given its lecture transcript format, and also because the last 22 pages consist of the bibliography and index. With just four chapters, Bartlett presents the information here as clearly defined considerations of medieval embodiments of the supernatural, each lecture building, for the most part, upon the last.

The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages is very much about definitions and Bartlett provides a thorough consideration of this in the first section, The Boundaries of the Supernatural. Here, he discusses how what could be defined as supernatural occupied a minute space in medieval thought, mediated, as it was, through the idea of nature and by extension, what was considered natural, being of god. If god made all things, the thinking went, then very few things, whether they be angels, demons, or showers of fish, could be considered supernatural, that is, beyond or outside his remit. Indeed, the distinction was not necessarily between the natural of god and the supernatural that was not of god, but, as defined by the 12th century theologian Peter Lombard, between those things that were comprehendible, in that they occurred naturally (naturaliter), following their seminal cause that had been established by god, and those things that were beyond nature (praeter naturam). Things defined as beyond nature were only so because their cause was unknown to humanity, though it was assumed that this still derived from god, who alone understood their cause and purpose. Bartlett tracks these lines of thought from Lombard to Thomas Aquinas and later into the writings of figures like William of Auvergne, where the discussion turns to the use of miracles and magic. Here, in a remarkably pragmatic interpretation, magic was not miraculous or supernatural, and instead, natural magic was simply a branch of natural science, in which natural processes, ordained by god, were just sped up.

The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle spread with triple-headed trinity

This focus on definitions can make The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages very methodical and clinical, and one could even say, given the subject matter, dull; though mileage may vary as to whether it’s so dull that you might wish, as one reader on goodbooks.com suggests, to have your eyes gouged out with a teaspoon rather than having to pick it up again. This does mean that the focus on specific supernatural, monstrous or aberrant elements from the Middle Ages is rather limited, but there are far better books from the hoard of medieval scholarship that provide exactly what this title lacks. With that said, for what it is, a non-specific overview of the miraculous in the Middle Ages, the book makes an interesting if detached read, well-written by Bartlett, who presents his information in a perfunctory manner, divorced from more obvious theoretical models.

The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle spread

The more specific examples of the supernatural are considered in the second and third chapters, taking the form of eclipses and the dog-headed cynocephali. The discussion of eclipses and their view in medieval superstition and science, though, comes as part of a broader consideration of the belief in a mechanical universe that predates Newton’s popularisation of the idea. In The Machine of this World, Bartlett isn’t seeking to prove that an idea of anything approaching Newtonian physics existed in the Middle Ages, but simply that there were some mechanistic principles that were seen as playing a role in the medieval world view. Overwhelming examples are pretty thin on the ground, other than the predictive nature of eclipses, and Bartlett spends more of this chapter enunciating various understandings of the world and their theological implications, such as the globe’s division into the northern hemisphere and its unreachable southern counterpart.

The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle spread with page from The Treatise of the Spheres by John of Sacrobosco

For fans of medieval monstrosity, Dogs and Dog-Heads turns to the cynocephali, one of several races that, based on the unblinking acceptance of the authority of classical figures such as Pliny and Herodotus, were believed to exist somewhere else in the world. The existence of these races and the lack thereof proved so fundamental to changing views of the world, with the 14th century explorer Giovanni de’ Marignolli enquiring fruitlessly after them in India, only to pithily remark that it was he who was in turn asked as to whether he knew of such creature. The Other always being where one is not.

Bartlett’s concluding chapter seems the furthest from expectations of supernatural medieval marvels with a lecture dedicated entirely to the work of the 13th century philosopher Roger Bacon. While there are supernatural elements within this discussion, most notably the incongruous but inevitable intersection visible in a man of empirical science who still believed in and speculated on the imminent arrival of the Antichrist, this chapter feels like a standalone biography of Bacon somewhat shoe-horned into the series.

The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle spread with page from Aberdeen University Library Ms. 24

The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages is illustrated throughout with various images drawn from medieval manuscripts. In all, it makes for a brief, sober and pragmatic read that works best when seen as a presentation of a broad picture, rather than a consideration of specifics.

Published by Cambridge University Press

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