Wonders, Marvels, and Magic in a Divinely Ordered World: Gervase of Tilbury and Book III of the Otia Imperialia

Wonders, Marvels, and Magic in a Divinely Ordered World: Gervase of Tilbury and Book III of the Otia Imperialia

By Jennifer Westrick

Intersecting Disciplines: Approaching Medieval and Early Modern Cultures – Selected Proceedings of the Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies 2010 Multidisciplinary Graduate Student Conference, edited by Karen Christianson (Newberry Library, 2010)

Introduction: Early in the thirteenth century, in the Catalan village of La Junquera next to a steep mountain filled with silver and topped with an opaque black lake, a farmer named Peter de Cabinam grew frustrated with his crying daughter and told her to go to the devil. To the farmer’s surprise, “a whirlwind of demons laid invisible hands on the girl and carried her off.” For seven years there was no sign of Pere de Cabinam’s daughter, until another local man encountered a mysterious traveler at the foot of the mountain. Bewailing his heavy burden, the traveler explained that he served as an unwilling laborer for demons, forced to dwell in the mountain and carry crippling loads for the past seven years. The local man could only believe the peculiar tale when the stranger mentioned that the missing child likewise had been a demonic prisoner during that time. The demons, however, had tired of the girl—apparently as frustrating a captive as she had been a daughter—and “would gladly restore her to him who had sent her to them, if only her father would ask for her back on the mountain.” Upon hearing his neighbor’s news, Pere de Cabinam eagerly took the demons up on their offer. The girl returned to her father, but without power of speech and with a shockingly altered appearance: “elongated in stature, emaciated, hideous, with rolling eyes, her bones and sinews and skin hardly holding together, dreadful to behold.” Unsure what to do with his disturbing charge, her father consulted the bishop of Gerona. The bishop knew a good instructional tool when he saw one, and he “set the girl in the sight of all” while delivering a sermon on the terrifying proximity of the demonic world. “Our adversary the devil,” he proclaimed, “is going about as a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

Gervase of Tilbury, a twelfth- and thirteenth-century canon lawyer, courtier, imperial marshal, and historian, included this account in the third book of his Otia imperialia, along with over one hundred fifty other mysterious incidents, marvels, miracles, legends, and cautionary tales intended to amuse and edify Holy Roman Emperor Otto IV. The world in which Gervase lived and wrote encompassed a heaving jumble of political and religious conflicts, entwined loyalties, and intricate allegiances, all overlain with a chiliastic belief, expressed by Gervase as well as other writers, that the Christian world was under attack by heretical and demonic forces. In Book III of the Otia imperialia, Gervase recorded stories like Peter de Cabinam’s to entertain and instruct his audience, but also to illustrate the existence of a world so complex, ever-changing, and full of wonders, causes, and attendant effects that it could only be the work of an omnipotent deity. He used tales of devils, werewolves, wondrous creatures, and marvelous occurances—stories involving a permeable barrier between natural and supernatural, death and life—to argue against heresy and political chaos and in favor of a God who remained thoroughly involved in a created world.

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