Angelic Demons: Witchcraft and Sorcery in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
By Melanie Bulssiere
Master’s Thesis, Seton Hall University, 2009
Introduction: When Glinda the Witch of the North first encounters Dorothy Gale, she asks her, “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” While this question might seem trite and silly, the alignment of a character to good or evil could be determined by the type of sorcery or witchcraft they employed within the Middle Ages. As Christianity increased its foothold in the British Isles, the use of sorcery in order to find love, save crops, ensure stability or see the future was increasingly condemned as heresy and could be punished by harsher and harsher standards. A practicing witch or sorcerer who was caught could find him or herself burnt at the stake for heresy. Geofiey Chaucer uses this concept while writing his Canterbrny Tales. Characters qualified as “good magic users would more than likely be using different types of nature magic. Characters qualified as “evil” or dangerous would be using forms of magic requiring education or prior knowledge.
Chaucer’s England would see any acts of sorcery inherently linked to demonic allegiance. The necromancer, alchemist, witch or sorcerer would face dire consequences if convicted of heresy. As time progressed, all acts of magical influence were lumped under the definition of “witchcraft,” and all were seen as inherently evil, regardless of function or intention. In “From Sorcery to Witchcraft,” Michael D. Bailey says the “heightened clerical concern over harmful sorcery and changing understandings of how magic operated combined with other factors to push authorities slowly but inexorably into accepting, defining, and promulgating the full horrors of witchcraft”. The local witch, who would be the go-to for problems with love, fertility or crop issues, was now seen as a threat – a local demonic agent. Bailey further says, “Witches were certainly believed to perform magic with the aid of demons, indeed via the supplication and worship of demons”. The Church’s position on any use of magic made it heretical, as it was only through the supplication of the Devil that magic could be worked.