Monday, August 27, 2012

The Medieval Supernatural [Course Syllabus]

Figure 1. detail from Michaelangelo, The Torture of Saint Anthony (1487-88)


In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know . . . . there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world.  The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination -- and the laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality -- but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us.

~ from Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre

It's that time of year again: new course syllabi! I am teaching a Master's-level seminar this semester on the supernatural, primarily in the Middle Ages, but with forays into: contemporary film and fiction; some classic (older) psychoanalytic, structuralist, and anthropological approaches to the theory of the supernatural and fantastic; and the role of the supernatural/haunting in American history (vis-a-vis Scott Poole's new book, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting). As I began preparing this syllabus, I realized that the supernatural -- as a category related to material/immaterial experience, as literary genre, and as an operative figure/realm/atmosphere within literature [furthermore, as both noun and adjective] -- was an incredibly slippery thing to define and in some ways, I feel it is important to foreground that slipperiness [which is definitively categorical and taxonomic] as a primary area of exploration in the course. The question of monsters and monster literature was raised in my mind as I was trying to choose primary texts for the course, mainly because that is a course I've taught in the past and I didn't want to just repeat that content with different questions, nor did I want this course to slip into yet another course on the post-human, of which I've taught many -- and there's nothing wrong with that, as the supernatural does of course entail, often, the non- and post-human, but following on the heels of a course on mise-en-abyme and nested worlds in literature that I taught last semester, and also because of my interest in speculative realism, I'm becoming increasingly excited about returning to certain structural questions having to do with the "weird" realism and ontology of fictional-possibilistic worlds.

Within the realm of the supernatural there are monsters, of course, but not all monsters are necessarily supernatural and the supernatural is not always "monstrous," per se. Then again, that might depend on your point of view [but whose view, and when, historical context-wise?] -- a novel like Toni Morrison's Beloved seems an apt test case for thinking through such questions: is the supernatural a monstrous or an all-too-human genre, or something in between? You see, thinking about the supernatural is a tricky business. Is it ghost stories? Magic? Angels and demons? Fairy tales? Marvels and wonders? Tales of supra-psychic abilities? Any seemingly material phenomena that cannot be explained with recourse to what is "natural" or "scientific"? Is it a matter of belief, of superstition, of religion, of the paranormal, of dreams, Otherworlds [heaven, hell, faerylands, etc.], other space-time dimensions [wormholes], or something else? How is the supernatural to be distinguished from the fantastic [or, are they same?], and as a genre, from science fiction, from horror, from fantasy, and so on? Clearly, an interest in the supernatural is an enduring fascination over time, from Ovid's Metamorphoses to The Exorcist and television's Lost and Supernatural series and everything in between: we never seem to tire of the very types of stories that our scientific rationality [in the past and the present] tells us is either highly unlikely or could never possibly be true. In this sense, the supernatural turns out to be a felicitously fertile area for investigating questions of the ontological structures of realism and unrealism, in historical thinking as well as in literature.

Whereas in the past, I have thrown a hell of a lot of contemporary secondary scholarship at my M.A. students in addition to the core primary texts [a burden of reading that I think has practically killed them and has even led to a general NON-reading, even on my own part], this semester I am aiming for a slower and less hectic pace -- one in which, from the core readings on the syllabus, they can hopefully feel they have a somewhat firm grasp of how persons in the Middle Ages thought about the supernatural in literary, spiritual, historical, and scientific contexts [our primary guide, in addition to the literary texts, will be Robert Bartlett's beautiful small book of essays The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages] as well as some immersion in some older [but classic] theoretical texts by Freud, Bruno Bettelheim, and Tzvetan Todorov. This is how I describe the course's primary objectives on the syllabus:
In this course, we will explore the realm and representation of the supernatural and fantastic in: (1) the medieval world -- in its imaginative literature, but also in its philosophical, scientific, and religious contexts; (2) some classic theoretical texts (written by Bruno Bettelheim, Freud, Tzvetan Todorov, and Maria Warner); and (3) contemporary cinema. One aim will be to deepen our understanding of the various and complex ways in which medieval persons understood the terms "natural" and "supernatural," and following the lead of historian Robert Bartlett, we will start with the caveat that the belief systems of the Middle Ages were no more coherent than our own, but rather reflect overlapping zones of intellectual debate, difference, and even "discomfort." As this is primarily a literature course, another aim will be to investigate together the aesthetic-fictional structures and properties of supernatural figures, states, and worlds, and how the "natural" and "supernatural" inform each other in literary works. Related to this, the theoretical texts we read together will help us to reflect upon the psychological, philosophical, cultural, social, political and other uses of the supernatural and why and how they have endured over time, and this is why we will also delve into some contemporary works, such as the films The Exorcist, Le Pacte des Loups [Brotherhood of the Wolf], and Pan's Labyrinth, Neil Gaiman's novel Neverwhere (1996), and portions of historian Scott Poole's new book Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and Haunting (2011). This course will therefore hopefully serve as both an immersion in medieval literature and intellectual history on the supernatural, as well as a more broad cultural studies primer on the role of the supernatural in the imaginative arts over time that will ideally also help us to approach the question of realism and unrealism in literature from fresh perspectives.
You can see the full syllabus HERE. In addition to the core readings on the syllabus, I would also like to build for my students an online bibliography of secondary scholarship on the supernatural both in the Middle Ages and in contemporary cultural studies. So, if you have any suggestions for that bibliography [or even for primary readings for my syllabus: I still haven't decided which saints' lives to use!], please do post those suggestions here: that would really help me.


medievalkarl said...

Eileen, awesome. Fortuitously I just had a student pitch to me an independent study on medieval magic. I pulled up a bunch of sources for him, which I will share with you, since I imagine this might be a subject that at least one of your students might want to look into.

So -- here's the email, I sent after our meeting today, more or less unedited:

a variety of texts to have some fun with -- Lynn Thorndike is the first major English language scholar --
but there's also MR James (famous for ghost stories, but also as a medieval scholar of magic and such things)

Walter Map
Gervase of Tilbury
(classic texts for wonders)
[and to this I would add Caesarius of Heisterbach Dialogue of Miracles, which I think is available in English, in order to initiate a discussion of the fuzzy distinction between the supernatural and the miraculous)
Jean-Claude Schmitt Ghosts (possible source for theophilus legend)
werewolves -- Metamorphoses of the werewolf : a literary study from antiquity through the Renaissance
by Leslie A Sconduto

Women's secrets : a translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus's De secretis mulierum with commentaries
by Albertus Magnus, helgen; Helen Rodnite Lemay. Albany, N.Y. State University of New York Press ©1992
and have a look at

Magic in the Middle Ages
by Richard Kieckhefer
(look for other books)

Magic and superstition in Europe : a concise history from antiquity to the present
by Michael David Bailey

VMWR said...

Perhaps of interest to your kids:

[from feminae, medieval women and gender index]
9. Record Number: 13628
Author(s): Rider, Catherine.
Title : Between Theology and Popular Practice: Medieval Canonists on Magic and Impotence [The author argues that canon lawyers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries created a set of rules to deal with impotence. Their writings indicate that they knew about lay magical practices. Some canonists urged those who were bewitched to seek magical cures. Title note supplied by Feminae.].
Source: Boundaries of the Law: Geography, Gender, and Jurisdiction in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Edited by Anthony Musson . Ashgate, 2005. English Historical Review , 121., 491 (April 2006): Pages 53 - 66.
Year of Publication: 2005.

Possessed, mad, or crossdresser? Maybe Jeanne d'Arc fits.

Bernard Gui's Inquisitor's manual may have some fun nuggets.

The Malleus malefacorum seems it could work and be wackadoodle.

The Cantigas de Nuestra Senora by Alfonso X, Alfonso the Wise have weird tales: a nun gets pregnant but when the archbishop arrives she can lift her skirts and show her tight belly because the Virgin has taken the baby away.

I was just reading, or looking at the pics from, tacuinum sanitatis by ibn butlan. talking while you sleep, making herb broths, having sex well and healthily, cutting basil. etcc.

Jonathan Hsy said...

Very cool, Eileen.

I might add a few anthologies and secondary readings:

Andrew Joynes, ed. _Medieval Ghost Stories: An Anthology of Miracles, Marvels and Prodigies_ (Boydell, 2006).

Have you considered any of the Joan of Arc trial materials? See for instance _Karen Sullivan, The Interrogation of Joan of Arc_ (U Minnesota P, 1999).

This study of healing stories (surrounding the shrine of Thomas Beckett) is more of a historicist work rather than about fantasy/speculative fiction per se, but it might be worth a look: _Rachel Koopmans, Wonderful to Relate: Miracle Stories and Miracle Collecting in High Medieval England_ (U Pennsylania P, 2010).

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for all of these suggestions, guy! Keep 'em coming.

Anonymous said...

I would second many of the recommendations above (esp. Kieckhefer), and add Jane Bennett's The Enchantment of Modern Life and Park and Daston's Wonders and the Order of Nature as other possibilities. I am teaching a course this fall on medieval magic and would be happy to share the full syllabus if you're interested, Eileen.

Anonymous said...


siredbyspike said...

I would love to take this course, and all of the suggestions above. I love to learn about things like that, especially supernatural, medieval, and medical practices, and death rites from ages past. You all are amazing for offering these to students instead of just laughing and dismissing the subject as though it can't teach us anything about the future and is uninteresting. I am going to find as many of the books as I can listed here, thanks!

medievalkarl said...

anon, could you send me the syllabus? Would be useful to share with my independent study student.

Eileen Joy said...

DITTO what Karl said! []

ASM said...

Eileen, you know I love the look of this. For Mandeville, I'd suggest that you swap out the Penguin (cheep, I know, but the intro is massively problematic -- I have a new essay under review now that deals with why, if you are interested. Mostly to do with anti-Semitism, but also with notions of certitude, more generally). There are two much better versions available now, by Anthony Bale and by I.M. Higgins:


What about one of the texts on Wonder? I think that Bynum's, for ex., is interesting (though I don't agree with all of it).

I was rather underwhelmed by Neverwhere (great idea, halfhearted execution, I thought: What is your plan for it? Seems that there are much more rich novels about the interface of the natural and supernatural out there. I'm always touting Sinisalo's Troll, as you've probably heard me do at some point (

I'd enroll!

Jeb said...

I arrived at a not to dissimilar set of questions after reading James I.V's demonology (as Jamie also seemed to be wondering here as well). Was looking specifically about repetition theft and disguise relating to Brownies and wild man but a careful chew through demonology with Jamie the Saxth sitting on my shoulder widened the question.

Raised in particular questions relating to the fairy realm, supernatural, monsters etc.(pretty much what you covered).

Later reading of Robert Kirks Secret Commonwealth of Elves Fauns and Fairies confirmed my inclinations to ignore historical boundaries.

Micheal Hunters "The Occult laboratory: Magic Science and Second Sight in Late Seventeenth-Century Scotland

Lawrence Normand and Gareth Roberts, Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland: James V.I's Demonology and the North Berwick Witches

Both late but both are a seriously excellent collection of sources, were central to me in not abandoning my interest and undergrad background in medieval History and simply moving to look at a later period in isolation. Series of sources that stand at an interesting moment. Allow you to move back, forwards up to clear blue sky's or downwards.

E. R. Truitt said...

Great syllabus, Eileen. I second the recommendation of Daston & Park _Wonders and the Order of Nature_. And I'd add Bynum's article "Wonder" in the AHR, and Daston's article in Critical Inquiry, "Marvelous Facts and Miraculous Evidence in the Early Modern Period." I've also taught several versions of a course on medieval magic, and would be happy to send the syllabus to anyone who wants it. Respond off-list to

Mark Lord said...

The course sounds very cool - wish I had such things on offer when I did my Medieval Studies course (about 20 years ago now!) I agree with you about a definition of the supernatural. Coincidentally I have just finished the first draft of a short story about the problem of placing it within fantasy or horror genres - several of my books tend to cover supernatural/occult things such as werewolves, necromancy, ghosts etc, but I don't think of them as horror, but rather as fantasy. Hopefully I'll have time to read through some of your curriculum notes in more detail and also some of your suggested readings. I have found Robert Bartlett's books very useful in the past, but I want to check out some of the others on your bibliography too.

And if you don't mind I'm going to post a link to your post on my blog to remind me and others to visit it to get some good reading lists - in the comments as well as in your original post.

Kristin said...

Farah Mendelsohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy, mostly for her thoughtful discussion of how the reader, author, and characters work together to engage the fantastic in different modes. Also possibly the first couple chapters of her Short History of Fantasy, plus the final chapter, when she and Edward James discuss the medieval fantastic, and then speculate about where fantasy's going in the future.

Also perhaps M. Keith Booker's Red, White, and Spooked: The Supernatural in American Culture for reasons why America is so fascinated with the super-human, and the post-apocalyptic.

I just taught a fantasy fiction course over at UCR--not quite the same as the supernatural--but we ended with China Mieville's short story "Familiar", and the students had some really interesting things to say about the deconstruction of gender, posthuman/inhuman/nonhuman heroes, the New Weird, and the power of language.

Jim Strachan said...

This looks like a wonderful course and the reading list (at least secondary) could become huge. Especially if you go from the Medieval towards the Modern.
H.P. Lovecraft really "spooked" me out about 40 years ago (but he's a course in himself) as did the writings of Arthur Machen:
And no reading list on the supernatural would be complete without a mention of The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries
by W. Y. Evans-Wentz:
The mythographer Marina Warner ( whom you do have on your reading list) has another that should be mentioned:
No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock
"She explores the darker, wilder realm where ogres and giants devour children, where bogeymen haunt the night and each of us must face our bugaboos. No Go the Bogeyman considers the enduring presence and popularity of figures of male terror, establishing their origins in mythology and their current relation to ideas about sexuality and power, youth and age." (
Love the syllabus and this growing list in the comments...your grad students should love this course.