Magic and Mystery
Even in 21st century society, magic remains a constant source of fascination in films, books and on TV, but a new exhibition at York’s Barley Hall separates fact from fiction in medieval England.
The exhibition explores many different aspects of medieval magic, and how our perception of what those living in medieval England – a period covering around 500 years from the 11th to the 16th century – would have understood as magic has changed and been influenced over time through the merging of myth and beliefs, understanding of science and even fundamental changes in religious doctrine.
“Medieval England was much less enlightened than our world today; without the scientific understanding of complex processes, much more activity was perceived as being magical – something that relied on powers beyond the scope of conventional religion or established science of the period,” explains director of attractions, Sarah Maltby. “This then impacts on perceptions of many different parts of life and society, from medicine and physics to superstition and ‘dark arts’ where unseen power exerted an influence over someone that they could not understand.”
Within the displays, visitors see many items with perceived magical abilities – from plants and herbs used to draught anything from a love potion to a truth serum, to wooden wands used for divination and protection. One perhaps surprising revelation is the idea that the many parts of the medieval Church did not believe all magic was incompatible with Christian doctrine.
“Witch trials, when the church condemned and punished those practicing magic, occurred at the very end and after the medieval period, peaking in the mid-17thcentury. Before this, many ‘spells’ included prayers and called upon God, making a distinction between natural magic – using ‘magical’ properties of items found in the world – with ritual magic,” explains Sarah. “We’ve focused particularly on this idea of natural magic, as we have more historical evidence, compared with ritualistic magic, which tended to be a hidden pursuit, for which the items used would often have been destroyed if discovered.”
The exhibition also explores the origins of two of the most famous mythical characters – Merlin and Morgan le Fay – and how their mythology changed: Merlin’s legend originates in Welsh stories of a mad man who live in a forest, but merged with Arthurian legend in the 12th century, retold in the 15th century and Victorian period to create the cloaked, bearded Dumbledore or Gandalf-esque’ character that we think of today.
Magic & Mystery opened at Barley Hall on 21 June 2018. Barley Hall is open daily from 10am to 5pm, with admission prices of £6.00 for adults, £4.50 for concessions and £3.00 for children. Family tickets and joint tickets to other JORVIK Group attractions are also available – please see the website for details.