Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages

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Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages. By Don C. Skemer. [Magic in History] (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press. 2006. Pp. viii, 327. $75.00 clothbound, $25.00 paperback.)

The topic of "magic" never fails to arouse interest, even in what Weber described as our "disenchanted" modern world. Yet I would contend that hardly any two of us can be found today to agree on exactly what the word "magic" means. Convinced that empirical historical research will do much to dispel the confusion, the Pennsylvania State University Press recently began its monograph series, "Magic in History." Don Skemer's study on medieval textual amulets represents the latest return on what is already proving to be a remarkably profitable investment of scholarly and publishing resources.

As Skemer makes clear at the start, the object of his investigation consists of "apotropaic texts, handwritten or mechanically printed on . . . writing supports of varying dimensions" and "worn around the neck or placed elsewhere on the body" for protection against harmful enemies and spirits or to bring health and good fortune (p. 1). He emphasizes that such "textual amulets" are to be distinguished from "talismans" - reserved for "astrological seals and figures" procured and worn for similar purposes - and "charms" - referring simply to "speech acts" though again performed with much the same ends in mind (pp. 8-9). The Latin terms signifying his intended objects were, among the church fathers, "ligatura" and "phylacterium," but for most of the Middle Ages "charta," "cédula," "scripttera," "scriptura," or "breve." Most common among Middle English equivalents were "brief" and "writ." Though the author announces his intention to focus on textual amulets and their use from the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, in fact his book covers the subject well for the whole of the European Middle Ages.

What stands out in Skemer's approach is the commendable determination not to fall prey to preconceptions about the dividing line between magic and religion, warning us that rationalism and Orientalism have encouraged most modern scholars to regard medieval textual amulets as residues of the "primitive" in ritual practices of the lower orders of society, he insists that an unbiased look reveals them instead as prevalent in the most orthodox Christian circles and just as - perhaps more - common among the elite as in the ranks of illiterate peasants. Late-antique intellectuals like Augustine might have fulminated against textual amulets as either fraudulent or dependent on demonic intervention, and Caesarius of Aries condemned their use as at best a sacrilege. But for most of the centuries between the sixth and the sixteenth, they were accepted by the majority of clergy and laity alike as - in Skemer's words - "a renewable source of Christian empowerment" (p. 1).

No doubt the primary use to which Skemer's volume wËl be put is as guidebook to actual amulets that have survived from the Middle Ages and index of amuletic practices witnessed in the extant sources. …


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