Saint Paul (2022 Congress)

Thérèse Saint Paul
(Murray State University)

“Magic, Death and the Feminine in
The Lay of the Mantle”

Abstract of Paper
57th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Online, 2022)

Session on
“The Iconography of Medieval Magic:
Texts and Images”

Co-sponsored by
the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
and the Societas Magica

Organized by Vajra Regan

2022 International Congress on Medieval Studies Program



The folk motif of magical garments is a trope which appears in a comical scenario found in the French Lai du Cort Mantel or Mantel Mautaillé, in which a slighted fay uses her cloth making skills to take vengeance on Arthur’s court. This story enjoyed wide popularity throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. Seen as a parody of courtly literature, the chastity testing mantle/cloak betrays all women of the court but one, and by consequent shames all men except one.  Seventy-five percent of the versions of the Mantle story mentions the fairy cloth. However, the 16th-century Gaelic Lay of the Mantle, and the 15th-century English ballad The Boy and the Mantle, in particular stress the element of the fairy spinner/weaver, who in many mythologies, rules human destinies.

This paper shows evidence in insular textual sources and iconography to suggest that the “fay who wrought the mantle” is an avatar of the Sovereignty Goddess who pervades Welsh and Irish mythological texts. As seer, she is a harbinger of death.  Wielding distaffs and loom rods, she spins and weaves magical cloaks as insignia of power only to be bestowed upon deserving kings/queens.