Mimi Winick, “Scholarly Enchantment” (pp. 187–226)

This essay describes the “scholarly enchantment” of pioneering women writers who combined academic research and occultism in fin-de-siècle Britain. It focuses on Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance (1920), a study infamous for interpreting medieval romances as coded records of an ancient fertility cult. Through a reception history and formal analysis of Weston’s monograph, the essay identifies a set of shared characteristics that made both emerging humanities fields and occultism especially appealing to women, including a standard of coherence, a comparative methodology, and a tactic of conjecture. The same attributes constitute formal sources of enchantment in humanistic scholarship of the period that promised to reveal “real” spiritual meanings behind art and artifacts. In this sense, Weston does not analyze medieval romances as works of the human imagination, but claims to decode them to reveal spiritual facts. The essay goes on to show how the gendered appeal of these practices first fueled their popularity and then was eventually exploited to consolidate the masculine authority of professional, disenchanted literary scholarship. Ultimately, though a product of the early twentieth century, From Ritual to Romance helps us recognize not only unfamiliar disciplinary histories, but also Victorian-era narratives about religion other than secularization. In works such as Weston’s, modernization is not defined by a decline of religion in the world but by a process of spiritual intensification leading to a “New Age” of women’s prominence.

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