Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Magi and Angels: Charms in Plimpton Add. MS 02

Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Magi and Angels: Charms in Plimpton Add. MS 02

Article excerpt

One of the frequent victims in the study of medieval magic is the field of popular charms. Where textual evidence of them survives at all, it is almost never in the large, elaborately illuminated volumes where, for example, treatises on alchemy and divination are often found, but in small, well-worn codices or scraps of paper, or else noted in the margins and on the flyleaves of other texts. These are exactly the manuscripts that are usually overlooked by art historians or other scholars interested in codicological matters, and for this reason, many--especially those dating from the last centuries of the Middle Ages, lacking even antiquity's appeal--have been neglected. Among these, Plimpton Add. MS 02 (henceforth Plimpton) holds a remarkable, previously undiscovered series of charms.

Plimpton is a small, unprepossessing late-fifteenth-century miscellany in the Rare Books and Manuscript Library at Columbia University. (1) Physically, Plimpton is composed of six leaves of poor-quality parchment: two bifolia followed by two more leaves of uncertain construction. Some appear to have been scraped for reuse, and each is only about two and a half inches wide and six and a quarter inches tall. The upper edges of all leaves have been badly damaged, possibly by fire or smoke. At some later point, the manuscript was bound among twenty-five paper folia in a nineteenth-century English brown calf binding. The text is written in two roughly contemporary Gothic book hands dated by Malcolm Parkes to the final quarter of the fifteenth century. (2) The texts in the first scribe's hand, which this paper is most concerned with, are a collection of Latin writings in honor of the Three Magi, namely the vespers antiphon for the feast of Epiphany, an extract from Psalm 71, and a prayer for guidance for travelers, followed by a collection of eight brief charms addressed to various angels, with instructions for their performance, a concluding prayer, and a list of sacred names. Following these, the second scribe adds a collection of Middle English hunting terms and proverbial material.

Little scholarship has been done on Plimpton to date. After its description by C. U. Bond and W. H. Faye in the 1962 Supplement to the de Ricci Census, (3), in 1967 Rachel Hands established that the material contained in folios 3r-5v of Plimpton--lists of collective nouns, moral precepts, terms of resting and mating, carving terms, four items that a wise man ought to fear, and fifteen properties of a good horse--is an abridged copy of National Library of Wales Brogyntyn MS ii.1 (olim Porkington 10), folios 184r-192v, (4) a claim she repeats in her later facsimile of the Boke of St. Albans. (5), In 1999, Paul Acker noted that following the portion of Plimpton copied from the Brogyntyn MS are two Middle English devotional lyrics, "Lord that art of mi3tis moste" (6) and "Almytty God Ihesu Crist," (7) and published a transcription of the latter. (8) No other research has been published on Plimpton; most notably, the material on folios lv-2v (fol. 1r is blank) has been entirely ignored, with the sole exception of a footnote by Acker that labels it "Latin prayers (or charms) to the Three Magi and guardian angels" without further discussion. (9)

This paper attempts to address that gap in the scholarship, beginning by examining Plimpton's physical form and textual content, moving to an analysis of several of the texts included in Plimpton within the context of medieval folk magic, and concluding that these entries are examples of religious charms. Finally, I argue that Plimpton's unusual pattern of folding and wear suggests that it was used as a textual amulet.

Physical Features

The poor quality of the parchment in Plimpton, its small size, and its idiosyncratic contents suggest that it could have been originally intended as a gathering for a commonplace book. (10) As described by David Parker, the most distinctive feature of commonplace books, and a notable characteristic of Plimpton, is the personal selection and combination of texts, the arrangement of which allows compilers to become authors of a sort. …

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