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Magic, Miracles, and Medicine in Medieval Spain

December 16, 2016

Who would have thought that a childhood love for Harry Potter could spark an entire doctoral dissertation? Veronica Menaldi brought her fondness for the magic and intrigue in Harry Potter to her passion for the Spanish language, inspiring her to study magic, miracles, and medicine in the context of medieval Spain.

Menaldi was drawn to the University of Minnesota for her doctoral studies primarily to work with one special professor: Michelle Hamilton. Professor Hamilton's research focuses on medieval Spain, and is specifically interested in its literatures and cultures (Arabic, Hebrew, and Romance or Islamic, Jewish, and Christian) and their interactions, subject matter that also fascinates Veronica. Their shared interest in medieval Spain has made Menaldi and Professor Hamilton quite the dynamic duo in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies. They have fostered a strong collaborative relationship over the last four-and-a-half years. Throughout her tenure, Menaldi has taken every course that Professor Hamilton has offered and continues to seek out her advice in her studies. Professor Hamilton has also invites Menaldi to guest lecture in her classes whenever the course texts relate to miracles or magic. Menaldi firmly believes that she would not be the researcher she is today without Professor Hamilton’s guidance.

Professor Hamilton's encouragement also inspired Menaldi to embark on an eight-week immersive Arabic study abroad experience in Morocco this past summer, which was fully funded by the Critical Language Scholarship she was awarded. Learning Arabic is vital to Menaldi’s study of medieval magic because Spain, then called al-Andalus, was occupied by Islamic rule for most of the Middle Ages as it slowly lost its territories to Christian rule. Once all of al-Andalus had fallen, many of the remaining Muslim descendants had a large corpus of literature from that time written in Spanish, but using the Arabic alphabet. Because so much of her source material, namely spell books from before the Christian reconquista, was written in Arabic with only some parts translated into Spanish, understanding the language is crucial to the success of her research. Many of the medieval texts she has examined either have not been translated from Arabic or have lost key meanings in the process, so it is imperative that she be able to read and understand these primary sources. Prof. Hamilton has also encouraged Veronica to learn medieval Hebrew in order to appreciate how both Arabic and Hebrew complement Spanish literature and history, a topic that Veronica has started to learn about and hopes to pursue further in the future.

People often ask Veronica how her studies of medieval Spanish magic might be relevant to modern times. She explains that she has found magic to be a lens through which to view the human condition. Many of the historical spells and incantations she is researching reveal concerns that are just as relevant to us today: spells for health, prosperity, love, and so on. She is intrigued by the notion that medieval people are not as far removed from us as we would like to think. "It seems like it is in the past and and it's not relevant to us in the 21st century," she reflects, "but these spells are asking questions that people today are still seeking the answers to."

When she puts it that way, it's easy to understand the growing interest in this topic, as evidenced by her four peer-reviewed journal articles coming out in the near future. She hopes to soon complete her dissertation entitled "Undenied Magic: The Function of Magical Practices and Their Practitioners in Medieval and Early Modern Iberian Literature" and to pursue a career as a professor, sharing her passion for these languages,cultures, and literatures with many generations of students. She is excited to help people discover magic in the everyday, just as she has found in all of her research.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.