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Blogging Kalamazoo: Session 95 - Magic, Miracles, and Medicine: Borders of Healing in the Iberian Middle Ages

Tuesday, May 11, 2021 - 07:05

I really love the ongoing interest in magic-related topics in historic research. (The existence of the Societas Magica helps support that, although they aren’t the sponsor for this particular session.) Although I haven’t necessarily used any of the specifics of the magic papers I listen to in my fiction, they go into that “compost-heap memory” such that when I do want to include magical practices in my worldbuilding, I have a varied range of possibilities to be inspired by.

Death as an End to Suffering: Berceo and the Gift of the Virgin - Paul E. Larson, Baylor University

The stories of the cleric Berceo are primarily religious in nature, purporting to be mnemonics for various motifs and themes. In this particular story, the protagonist is suffering from illness and prays to be freed from “the prison of his illness”. The Virgin grants his wish, but by allowing his death rather than by miraculous healing. This subverts both reader expectations and the expectations of the protagonist himself. [Note: We’re going to get readings from the text in the original Spanish without translation, so I may miss nuances.] The usual course of Virgin stories involves earthly rewards, miraculous healing, symbols of correct judgment, etc. But from a theological point of view, being ushered into heaven by the Virgin herself is a positive outcome. The symbolic content thus becomes more memorable due to this “surprise” ending.

The symbolic content involves sets of five: five wounds of Christ, five joys of Mary, five human senses (that lead to sin), five fingers. Berceo uses the five fingers as a type of “memory palace” in his meditations. The paper now digresses into various modern pop culture sets of five, using this as an argument that “five” is a natural and easy-to-remember sample size, which larger sets (allegedly) are harder to remember (with examples).

Morisco Magic? Approaching an Ecology of Practices in Transconfessional Contexts - Donald W. Wood, Oklahoma State University

Morisco magic falls around the overlap/intersection of religious practice and science. It might be seen as a type of “folk magic” including herbal treatments as well as the use of prayers, “word magic”, and other practices. The paper takes a close reading of how these varied practices interact with each other in magical texts, rather than trying to classify them according to modern categories. The investigation focuses on one specific manuscript (in Arabic script but mixed? Spanish text) and its relationships to other texts. Contents include the preparation of amulets, a description of the characteristics of specific days on which actions may be performed and their properties. (I missed the content of the 2nd section.) Third section is recipes for a wide variety of remedies, charms, pharmaceuticals, etc. We get descriptions of the specific features of various formulas that illustrate connections between the sections of the book and between the formulas in this section. For example, several formulas are attributed to Galen. All the formulas follow a similar structural format: opening, instructions, and testament including an Arabic word meaning “finished, complete.” Many of the remedies include sections of Arabic or pseudo-Arabic text, sometimes with no context, presumably to be written out and used as a charm. Such texts were to be written out, sometimes by the patient, and might be written with an edible ink such as saffron and the result ingested. But these sorts of “word magic” are either accompanied by, or alternating with, pharmaceutical remedies based on flavored syrups, herbs, etc. (sometimes including magical stones) to be consumed. But plant-based remedies might also be placed on the body, rather than consumed. The organization of the book does not treat the different types of treatments as categorically distinct, although there is some organization around the condition being treated.

Following the Blood Lines in Zayas's "El traidor contra su sangre" - Elizabeth L. Spragins, College of the Holy Cross and Emily Colbert Cairns, Salve Regina University

The novella “El traidor contra su sangre” tells parallel tales of love and death in an extended patriarchal family where the children contradict the father’s expectations in their love lives. (The brief synopsis makes it clear this is definitely soap opera territory.) Two murdered women in the story both have miraculous corpses that bear witness to the crimes. There is a theme of breast feeding as transmitting bloodlines in a mystical sense, and the conflicts between masculine notions of “honor” and feminine bodily resistance. (I think.) The men in the story are obsessed with family “purity” and economic control, restricting the potential life paths of the women in the family. Women’s romantic/marital connections are a potential source of “contamination” of the family bloodlines. This can be prevented by physically enclosing them, either in houses or convents. An analogy is made with how male violence against women (in this case, stabbing) is a form of penetrating those enclosures, contrasted with sexual penetration. The first is a failed attempt to dishonor (or prove dishonor on) a woman, while the second (which would be dishonor) is proven to be false by the mystical behavior of the corpse. We get a review of the symbolic understanding of various types of female blood. The victim’s uncontrolled bleeding after her murder is considered to be proof of her virginity, as a substitute for bleeding on defloration. The second female victim has been married by a son of the family against his father’s wishes. She insists on nursing her own child rather than hiring a wetnurse, bringing in the second “female fluid” relevant to this story. There was a theory that women transmitted virtue through their breastmilk, thus the mother’s insistence on providing her own milk was a means of protecting the “purity” of her child’s bloodlines (from the potential contamination of a lower class wetnurse’s milk). Humoral theory held that breast milk was directly converted to blood in the child’s body. The husband succumbs to his father’s disapproval of his wife by murdering the wife, leaving his child to be nursed by an outsider—thus “contaminating” his family bloodline, the very thing his father was trying to control.

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