Lives of the Necromancers, Part VII: Merlin, Dunstan, and Dark Age Britain
“Every valley had its fairies; and every hill its giants. No solitary dwelling…was without its ghosts; and no church-yard…could be crossed with impunity.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
Early medieval Europe was a world flush with supernatural entities and powerful individuals who could access this otherworldly power through highly specialized occultic learning. Angels flitted hither and thither through the skies to influence human affairs, demons haunted every crack and crevice in the earth while God’s saints endlessly battled them, witches and sorcerers spun their mysterious spells and practiced their magical crafts for both benevolent and malevolent purposes, and alchemists and necromancers desperately searched for an existence extending well beyond the tragically short confines of a natural lifespan. Fraudsters and fanatics of every sort crowded into European monasteries, feudal courts, and dupe‐able villages. They ruthlessly and skillfully exploited the mystical foolishness implanted in medieval minds and some of them became so famous that their legacies survived in popular culture for centuries–even to the present day. In his discussion of Europe’s Dark Age depths, Godwin pays particular attention to the stories of Merlin and St. Dunstan, both immensely important in folklore and popular culture.
Merlin lived in post‐Roman Britain during the long period of Saxon invasions, and his knowledge and talent for building secured him a position bolstering native fortifications. Merlin–if he was indeed real–seems to have propagated the story that he was begat of an angel. Coupled with a keen ability to contrive circumstances which baffled the Scots and Pictish kings, the myth of Merlin as part angel proved a powerful aid in securing him a permanent position of influence. The crowning achievement of his wizarding career, however, was building Stonehenge by levitating and transporting massive slabs of stone through the air from Ireland.
Though he lived several centuries later, St. Dunstan drew upon the same mystical cosmology to advance his personal position as did Merlin. Dunstan benefited from a cloistered life as a studious and self‐sacrificing abbot. Dunstan supposedly “mortified” his flesh through a variety of means which induced so much pain as to cause hallucinations. Whether real, imagined, or invented by Dunstan for legend‐making purposes, these visions were said to have empowered Dunstan to recognize Satan and purge his presence from Glastonbury. For his heroic efforts, he won great renown and power among the kingly courts.
In Godwin’s estimation, then, the stories of Merlin and Dunstan demonstrate that in a world bursting with angels and demons, even a small amount of empirical knowledge and technical skill could carry one a long way toward accumulating power and influence.
By William Godwin. London: Frederick J. Mason, 1834.
Lives of the Necromancers: Or an Account of the Most Eminent Persons in Successive Ages, Who Have Claimed for Themselves, or to Whom Has Been Imputed by Others, the Exercise of Magical Power (Excerpts)
Dark Ages of Europe.
…In these ages of ignorance, when but few, and those only the most obvious, laws of nature were acknowledged, every event that was not of almost daily occurrence, was contemplated with more or less of awe and alarm. These men “saw God in clouds, and heard him in the wind.” Instead of having regard only to that universal Providence, which acts not by partial impulses, but by general laws, they beheld, as they conceived, the immediate hand of the Creator, or rather, upon most occasions, of some invisible intelligence, sometimes beneficent, but perhaps oftener malignant and capricious, interfering, to baffle the foresight of the sage, to humble the pride of the intelligent, and to place the discernment of the most gifted upon a level with the drivellings of the idiot, and the ravings of the insane.
And, as in events men saw perpetually the supernatural and miraculous, so in their fellow‐creatures they continually sought, and therefore frequently imagined that they found, a gifted race, that had command over the elements, held commerce with the invisible world, and could produce the most stupendous and terrific effects. In man, as we now behold him, we can ascertain his nature, the strength and pliability of his limbs, the accuracy of his eye, the extent of his intellectual acquisitions, and the subtlety of his powers of thought, and can therefore in a great measure anticipate what we have to hope or to fear from him. Every thing is regulated by what we call natural means. But, in the times I speak of, all was mysterious: the powers of men were subject to no recognised laws: and therefore nothing that imagination could suggest, exceeded the bounds of credibility. Some men were supposed to be so rarely endowed that “a thousand liveried angels” waited on them invisibly, to execute their behests for the benefit of those they favoured; while, much oftener, the perverse and crookedly disposed, who delighted in mischief, would bring on those to whom, for whatever capricious reason, they were hostile, calamities, which no sagacity could predict, and no merely human power could baffle and resist.
After the tenth century enough of credulity remained, to display in glaring colours the aberrations of the human mind, and to furnish forth tales which will supply abundant matter for the remainder of this volume. But previously to this period, we may be morally sure, reigned most eminently the sabbath of magic and sorcery, when nothing was too wild, and remote from the reality of things, not to meet with an eager welcome, when terror and astonishment united themselves with a nameless delight, and the auditor was alarmed even to a sort of madness, at the same time that he greedily demanded an ever‐fresh supply of congenial aliment. The more the known laws of the universe and the natural possibility of things were violated, with the stronger marks of approbation was the tale received: while the dextrous impostor, aware of the temper of his age, and knowing how most completely to blindfold and lead astray his prepared dupes, made a rich harvest of the folly of his contemporaries. But I am wrong to call him an impostor. He imposed upon himself, no less than on the gaping crowd. His discourses, even in the act of being pronounced, won upon his own ear; and the dexterity with which he baffled the observation of others, bewildered his ready sense, and filled him with astonishment at the magnitude of his achievements. The accomplished adventurer was always ready to regard himself rather as a sublime being endowed with great and stupendous attributes, than as a pitiful trickster. He became the God of his own idolatry, and stood astonished, as the witch of Endor in the English Bible is represented to have done, at the success of his incantations.
But all these things are passed away, and are buried in the gulf of oblivion. A thousand tales, each more wonderful than the other, marked the year as it glided away. Every valley had its fairies; and every hill its giants. No solitary dwelling, unpeopled with human inhabitants, was without its ghosts; and no church‐yard in the absence of day‐light could be crossed with impunity…
It is but a small remnant of these marvellous adventures that has been preserved. The greater part of them are swallowed up in that gulf of oblivion, to which are successively consigned after a brief interval all events as they occur, except so far as their memory is preserved through the medium of writing and records. From the eleventh century commences a stream of historical relation, which since that time never entirely eludes the search of the diligent enquirer. Before this period there occasionally appears an historian or miscellaneous writer: but he seems to start up by chance; the eddy presently closes over him, and all is again impenetrable darkness.
When this succession of writers began, they were unavoidably induced to look back upon the ages that had preceded them, and to collect here and there from tradition any thing that appeared especially worthy of notice. Of course any information they could glean was wild and uncertain, deeply stamped with the credulity and wonder of an ignorant period, and still increasing in marvellousness and absurdity from every hand it passed through, and from every tongue which repeated it.
One of the most extraordinary personages whose story is thus delivered to us, is Merlin. He appears to have been contemporary with the period of the Saxon invasion of Britain in the latter part of the fifth century; but probably the earliest mention of his name by any writer that has come down to us is not previous to the eleventh. We may the less wonder therefore at the incredible things that are reported of him. He is first mentioned in connection with the fortune of Vortigern, who is represented by Geoffrey of Monmouth as at that time king of England. The Romans having withdrawn their legions from this island, the unwarlike Britons found themselves incompetent to repel the invasions of the uncivilised Scots and Picts, and Vortigern perceived no remedy but in inviting the Saxons from the northern continent to his aid. The Saxons successfully repelled the invader; but, having done this, they refused to return home. They determined to settle here, and, having taken various towns, are represented as at length inviting Vortigern and his principal nobility to a feast near Salisbury under pretence of a peace, where they treacherously slew three hundred of the chief men of the island, and threw Vortigern into chains. Here, by way of purchasing the restoration of his liberty, they induced him to order the surrender of London, York, Winchester, and other principal towns. Having lost all his strong holds, he consulted his magicians as to how he was to secure himself from this terrible foe. They advised him to build an impregnable tower, and pointed out the situation where it was to be erected. But so unfortunately did their advice succeed, that all the work that his engineers did in the building one day, the earth swallowed, so that no vestige was to be found on the next. The magicians were consulted again on this fresh calamity; and they told the king that that there was no remedying this disaster, other than by cementing the walls of his edifice with the blood of a human being, who was born of no human father.
Vortigern sent out his emissaries in every direction in search of this victim; and at length by strange good fortune they lighted on Merlin near the town of Caermarthen, who told them that his mother was the daughter of a king, but that she had been got with child of him by a being of an angelic nature, and not a man. No sooner had they received this information, than they seized him, and hurried him away to Vortigern as the victim required. But in presence of the king he baffled the magicians; he told the king that the ground they had chosen for his tower, had underneath it a lake, which being drained, they would find at the bottom two dragons of inextinguishable hostility, that under that form figured the Britons and Saxons, all of which upon the experiment proved to be true.
Vortigern died shortly after, and was succeeded first by Ambrosius, and then by Uther Pendragon. Merlin was the confident of all these kings. To Uther he exhibited a very criminal sort of compliance. Uther became desperately enamoured of Igerna, wife of the duke of Cornwal, and tried every means to seduce her in vain. Having consulted Merlin, the magician contrived by an extraordinary unguent to metamorphose Uther into the form of the duke. The duke had shut up his wife for safety in a very strong tower; but Uther in his new form gained unsuspected entrance; and the virtuous Igerna received him to her embraces, by means of which he begot Arthur, afterwards the most renowned sovereign of this island. Uther now contrived that the duke, her husband, should be slain in battle, and immediately married the fair Igerna, and made her his queen.
The next exploit of Merlin was with the intent to erect a monument that should last for ever, to the memory of the three hundred British nobles that were massacred by the Saxons. This design produced the extraordinary edifice called Stonehenge. These mighty stones, which by no human power could be placed in the position in which we behold them, had originally been set up in Africa, and afterwards by means unknown were transported to Ireland. Merlin commanded that they should be carried over the sea, and placed where they now are, on Salisbury Plain. The workmen, having received his directions, exerted all their power and skill, but could not move one of them. Merlin, having for some time watched their exertions, at length applied his magic; and to the amazement of every one, the stones spontaneously quitted the situation in which they had been placed, rose to a great height in the air, and then pursued the course which Merlin had prescribed, finally settling themselves in Wiltshire, precisely in the position in which we now find them, and which they will for ever retain…
As six hundred years elapsed between the time of Merlin and the earliest known records of his achievements, it is impossible to pronounce what he really pretended to perform, and how great were the additions which successive reporters have annexed to the wonders of his art, more than the prophet himself perhaps ever dreamed of. In later times, when the historians were the contemporaries of the persons by whom the supposed wonders were achieved, or the persons who have for these causes been celebrated have bequeathed certain literary productions to posterity, we may be able to form some conjecture as to the degree in which the heroes of the tale were deluding or deluded, and may exercise our sagacity in the question by what strange peculiarity of mind adventures which we now hold to be impossible obtained so general belief. But in a case like this of Merlin, who lived in a time so remote from that in which his history is first known to have been recorded, it is impracticable to determine at what time the fiction which was afterwards generally received began to be reported, or whether the person to whom the miracles were imputed ever heard or dreamed of the extraordinary things he is represented as having achieved.
An individual scarcely less famous in the dark ages, and who, like Merlin, lived in confidence with successive kings, was St. Dunstan. He was born and died in the tenth century. It is not a little instructive to employ our attention upon the recorded adventures, and incidents occurring in the lives, of such men, since, though plentifully interspersed with impossible tales, they serve to discover to us the tastes and prepossessions of the times in which these men lived, and the sort of accomplishments which were necessary to their success.
St. Dunstan is said to have been a man of distinguished birth, and to have spent the early years of his life in much licentiousness. He was however doubtless a person of the most extraordinary endowments of nature. Ambition early lighted its fire in his bosom; and he displayed the greatest facility in acquiring any talent or art on which he fixed his attention. His career of profligacy was speedily arrested by a dangerous illness, in which he was given over by his physicians. While he lay apparently at the point of death, an angel was suddenly seen, bringing a medicine to him which effected his instant cure. The saint immediately rose from his bed, and hastened to the nearest church to give God thanks for his recovery. As he passed along, the devil, surrounded with a pack of black dogs, interposed himself to obstruct his way. Dunstan however intrepidly brandished a rod that he held in his hand, and his opposers took to flight. When he came to the church, he found the doors closed. But the same angel, who effected his cure, was at hand, and, taking him up softly by the hair of his head, placed him before the high altar, where he performed his devotions with suitable fervour.
That he might expiate the irregularities of his past life, St. Dunstan now secluded himself entirely from the world, and constructed for his habitation a cell in the abbey of Glastonbury, so narrow that he could neither stand upright in it, nor stretch out his limbs in repose. He took scarcely so much sustenance as would support life, and mortified his flesh with frequent castigations.
He did not however pass his time during this seclusion in vacuity and indolence. He pursued his studies with the utmost ardour, and made a great proficiency in philosophy, divinity, painting, sculpture and music. Above all, he was an admirable chemist, excelled in manufactures of gold and other metals, and was distinguished by a wonderful skill in the art of magic.
During all these mortifications and the severeness of his industry, he appears to have become a prey to extraordinary visions and imaginations. Among the rest, the devil visited him in his cell, and, thrusting his head in at the window, disturbed the saint with obscene and blasphemous speeches, and the most frightful contortions of the features of his countenance. Dunstan at length, wearied out with his perseverance, seized the red‐hot tongs with which he was engaged in some chemical experiment, and, catching the devil by the nose, held him with the utmost firmness, while Satan filled the whole neighbourhood for many miles round with his bellowings. Extraordinary as this may appear, it constitutes one of the most prominent incidents in the life of the saint; and the representations of it were for ever repeated in ancient carvings, and in the illuminations of church‐windows…
Edred was an inactive prince, but greatly under the dominion of religious prejudices; and Dunstan, being introduced to him, found him an apt subject for his machinations. Edred first made him abbot of Glastonbury, one of the most powerful ecclesiastical dignities in England, and then treasurer of the kingdom. During the reign of this prince, Dunstan disposed of all ecclesiastical affairs, and even of the treasures of the kingdom, at his pleasure.
But Edred filled the throne only nine years, and was succeeded by Edwy at the early age of seventeen, who is said to have been endowed with every grace of form, and the utmost firmness and intrepidity of spirit. Dunstan immediately conceived a jealousy of these qualities, and took an early opportunity to endeavour to disarm them. Edwy entertained a passion for a princess of the royal house, and even proceeded to marry her, though within the degrees forbidden by the canon law. The rest of the story exhibits a lively picture of the manners of these barbarous times. Odo, archbishop of Canterbury, the obedient tool of Dunstan, on the day of the coronation obtruded himself with his abettor into the private apartment, to which the king had retired with his queen, only accompanied by her mother; and here the ambitious abbot, after loading Edwy with the bitterest reproaches for his shameless sensuality, thrust him back by main force into the hall, where the nobles of the kingdom were still engaged at their banquet.
The spirited young prince conceived a deep resentment of this unworthy treatment, and, seizing an opportunity, called Dunstan to account for malversation in the treasury during the late king’s life‐time. The priest refused to answer; and the issue was that he was banished the realm.
But he left behind him a faithful and implicit coadjutor in archbishop Odo. This prelate is said actually to have forced his way with a party of soldiers into the palace, and, having seized the queen, barbarously to have seared her cheeks with a red‐hot iron, and sent her off a prisoner to Ireland. He then proceeded to institute all the forms of a divorce, to which the unhappy king was obliged to submit. Meanwhile the queen, having recovered her beauty, found means to escape, and, crossing the Channel, hastened to join her husband. But here again the priests manifested the same activity as before. They intercepted the queen in her journey, and by the most cruel means undertook to make her a cripple for life. The princess however sunk under the experiment, and ended her existence and her woes together.
A rebellion was now excited against the sacrilegious Edwy; and the whole north of England, having rebelled, was placed under the dominion of his brother, a boy of thirteen years of age. In the midst of these adventures Dunstan returned from the continent, and fearlessly shewed himself in his native country. His party was every where triumphant; Odo being dead, he was installed archbishop of Canterbury, and Edwy, oppressed with calamity on every side, sunk to an untimely grave.
The rest of the life of Dunstan was passed in comparatively tranquillity. He made and unmade kings as he pleased. Edgar, the successor of Edwy, discovered the happy medium of energy and authority as a sovereign, combined with a disposition to indulge the ambitious policy of the priesthood. He was licentious in his amours, without losing a particle of his ascendancy as a sovereign. He however reigned only a few years; but Dunstan at his death found means to place his eldest son on the throne under his special protection, in defiance of the intrigues of the ambitious Elfrida, the king’s second wife, who moved heaven and earth to cause the crown to descend upon her own son, as yet comparatively an infant.
In this narrative we are presented with a lively picture of the means by which ambition climbed to its purposes in the darkness of the tenth century. Dunstan was enriched with all those endowments which might seem in any age to lead to the highest distinction. Yet it would appear to have been in vain that he was thus qualified, if he had not stooped to arts that fell in with the gross prejudices of his contemporaries. He had continual recourse to the aid of miracles. He gave into practices of the most rigorous mortification. He studied, and excelled in, all the learning and arts that were then known. But his main dependence was on the art of magic. The story of his taking the devil by the nose with a pair of red‐hot tongs, seems to have been of greater service to him than any other single adventure of his life. In other times he might have succeeded in the schemes of his political ambition by seemly and specious means. But it was necessary for him in the times in which he lived, to proceed with eclat, and in a way that should confound all opposers. The utmost resolution was required to overwhelm those who might otherwise have been prompted to contend against him. Hence it appears that he took a right measure of the understanding of his contemporaries, when he dragged the young king from the scene of his retirement, and brought him back by force into the assembly of the nobles. And the inconceivable barbarity practised to the queen, which would have rendered his name horrible in a more civilised age, was exactly calculated to overwhelm the feelings and subject the understandings of the men among whom he lived. The great quality by which he was distinguished was confidence, a frame of behaviour which shewed that he acted from the fullest conviction, and never doubted that his proceedings had the immediate approbation of heaven.