Nature versus Necromancy: A Look at “Magical” Plants in Medieval Literature

In much of Marie de France’s work, nature plays a central role to the story, whether it be in the fables with animals playing the primary roles, or whether it is her lais that often feature human-animal hybrids or magical plants, and often times, that nature is represented as mystical or somewhat supernatural. It is my intention to look at various scenes from her lais to understand the connection between her work and nature, and if that nature is ultimately supernatural or much more natural than we think. I argue that her lais can be read as a reflection of Medieval society’s usage of healing herbs, a product of a practical and rational society that is still deeply connected to nature, rather than a mystery work of the supernatural.
The two lais I will focus the majority of my time are “Eliduc” and “Chevrefoil.” For “Cheverfoil,” I will be analyzing the relationship of Tristan and Isolde as they are likened to the honeysuckle and hazel, usually seen as a symbol for their “unnatural” love for one another and the substitution of that comparison as a reason for their adultery, rather than a magical position as is normally in the story’s tradition. Ewa Slojka’s, “Nature and the Unnatural in Marie De France’s Chevrefoil,” provided the inspiration for investigating the possibilities of a natural, as opposed to supernatural, reading of the power of plant life in the lais. For Eliduc, I will be paying attention to the scene in which the weasels bring a red flower that is “magically” able to resurrect Guilliadon from her tragic death. I will be using Danielle Gurevitch’s chapter, “The Weasel, the Rose and Life after Death,” as the main springboard for this section of the essay, as this source discusses the possibility of Guilliadon’s “death” as being simply a psychological reaction to the loos of Eliduc and the rose as being simply an herbal remedy for this hysteria.
I will also put these two stories into the context of the day, using historical sources to translate an idea of how the Medieval Britain and France saw the art of healing and medicine men/women. For some, it was an act of science, for others of God, and still others and act of the supernatural. Even the different types of practitioners were thought of as more or less scientific. With the awareness that this was a scientific practice in a world pre-Scientific Revolution, we can then comprehend why the characters who either live in or were created from a Christian culture are able to coexist with these seemingly magical items, and that instead of actions based on superstition, we are seeing acts of a highly sophisticated and rational civilization.

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