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Blogging Kalamazoo 2021: Session 83 - Magical Matchmaking: Love Magic in the Middle Ages

Thursday, May 27, 2021 - 20:11

This will be the last session I blog for this year—and just in time because the recorded sessions will be going off the web in a day or two. In the past half dozen years I’ve been delighted at how many papers there are on the history of magic, across a wide variety of cultures and practices. One of the pitfalls in writing historical fantasy is being insufficiently imaginative regarding magical elements. We get so much of our exposure to historic magic filtered through popular culture, which has all the hazards of anything picked up from popular culture. One of the ways I combat that in my own work is to go back to original sources, in all their irrational detail. And the magic papers at Kalamazoo have given me a lot of leads, as well as a passing exposure to even more magical cultures that I don’t have time to explore on my own. For the immediate topic—love magic—I’m glad to see that one of the papers addresses the issue of consent, which is most often ignored within the historic context itself.

Carved in Apples, Addressing Stars, or Encrypted: Love Magic in the Medieval and Early Modern German Tradition - Chiara Benati, Univ. degli Studi di Genova

German love magic texts are attested relatively late (14th c and later) as compared to healing charms. It’s a heterogeneous group of texts with a variety of purposes, not only attracting love but also retaining the attention of a straying partner. The love-attraction charms are usually directed at women. The name of the target is a key element, incorporated into the charm. This is combined with other physical elements. There is usually a description of the negative effects the target should feel if they don’t succumb. A sample: write certain symbols on your hand, and at a specific time and place speak the formula demanding that the person (by name) love you. A similar one, but write the symbols on an apple (while it’s still on the tree) and see that the target eats it. (Often the charms are directed at someone who is unaware of the practitioner’s interest.) Another formula involving writing the target’s name on the tongue of a frog. The previous involved very short formulas, in some cases just symbols and the target’s name, but there are also longer texts with more details of what is desired and the consequences of not responding. The desired state is described in terms similar to obsession: compulsive thoughts, inability to sleep, etc.

Charms against infidelity are often focused on periods of temporary separation. They may invoke Christ as guarantor of the partner’s fidelity. They often have a threatening tone and may use Marian analogies to describe the pain the partner will suffer if they are unfaithful. The paper goes in detail into a specific 15th c charm that includes formulas found in another magical text as well, but in this case the charm is written in a mixture of Greek and Latin letters. The parallels between the two charms indicate a connected tradition despite other differences in the texts. Speculation that the use of Greek letters may have been to disguise the magical nature of the text, in a context where users of magic were beginning to be prosecuted.

Magical Matchmaking: Third-Party Love Potions in Medieval Romances - Dr. Dalicia Raymond, PhD English, Spartanburg Methodist College

Compares examples from Tristan & Isolde and Lancelot & Elaine. By “third party” love potions she means potions created and administered by someone other than the target couple. In T&I, Isolde’s mother provides a love potion to Isolde’s handmaiden to be used in the context of her upcoming wedding, but it is accidentally consumed by her and Tristan, resulting in their mutual love and driving the plot. Isolde’s mother intended only positive outcome (that the partners in the arranged marriage would love each other). The potion is intended to be kept secret from the recipients, denying consent to the lovers. The text does not condemn the lovers or the administrator of the potion, but only the potion itself and perhaps the practice of using love potions in general.

In the case of Lancelot & Elaine, Lancelot is framed as the primary victim of the potion while Elaine’s experience isn’t particularly explored. Elaine’s father, believing Lancelot to be the prophesied father of Galahad, arranges for Brisane to make a love potion to ensure that the two has sex (because it’s the will of God). The romance presents the result as a divine plan, despite its immorality. In this case, Lancelot’s coerced desire is explicitly against his stated desires. Elaine is depicted as desiring the outcome, but not as being affected by a potion. It’s unclear whether she is aware that Lancelot has been coerced.

Summary: in contrast to love potions administered by a member of the couple, which generally have personal motivation, these third person love potions are done for political and strategic reasons and are relatively free of consequences. But what consequences there are tend to fall on the victims of the potions, not the administrators.

Reclaiming Freedom with Magic Potions - Mathilde Pointiere Forrest, Louisiana State University

[Evidently the speaker was not able to join the panel.]

Teaching "Love Magic" in the Aftermath of #MeToo - Dr. Emilee J. Howland, PhD, State Technical College of Missouri

Discussion of issues of love magic and consent in Chaucer and Mallory, both of whom faced charges of rape. A general discussion of how to teach topics that parallel evolving social concerns in the classroom. Background discussion of the #MeToo movement, especially in academia. In love magic, a person is compelled by an outside force to participate in sex—negating the person’s right to consent or not. The speaker discusses how the rape charges against Mallory and Chaucer are often presented with justification or amelioration. “It wasn’t actually rape.” “The word didn’t mean what we understand by rape.” “The charges were made by a third party, not by the woman.” These justifications may then be turned around and applied to modern contexts. How can the historic motifs and actions be put in context in ways that are both true to the history and sensitive to student circumstances and reception? Handling direct examples of assault and rape in texts requires one set of approaches. But how does love magic fit into this? How do we navigate the dynamics of consent when trickery or magic remove a character’s ability to provide informed consent? And how do those dynamics change when the outcome (e.g., production of a prophesied child) is depicted as an ultimate good? Does the end justify the means? Dealing with this material is part of the current challenge of progressive academia.

And that's it for Kalamazoo until next year! All that's left now is the unboxening of the books, which all appear to have arrived at this point.

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