Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Sticks or Stones? the Story of Imma in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 41 of the Old English Bede, and Old English Tan (Twig')

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Sticks or Stones? the Story of Imma in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 41 of the Old English Bede, and Old English Tan (Twig')

Article excerpt

The story of Imma is preserved in book IV, chapter XX of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, a work completed in AD 731. There are also two other, later versions of the story in Old English, both largely dependent on Bede's Latin version, one in the Old English Bede, the other in a homily by AEfric. These Old English versions will be brought into the discussion later on. Meanwhile, the story may be summarized from Bede's primary text.1 Imma, a young Northumbrian aristocrat, is wounded in a battle against the Mercians and left for dead on the field; but he regains consciousness the following day, bandages his wounds, and goes in search of his friends. The Mercians take him prisoner and he is given into the charge of one of King AE[eth]elred's retainers; but once Imma has recovered from his injuries, it proves impossible to restrain him: any bonds placed upon him mysteriously fall away. His puzzled captor asks him whether he 'had about him any loosing spells such as are described in stories' ('litteras solutorias, de qualibus fabulae ferunt, apud se haberet').2 Imma denies any knowledge of 'such arts' ('talium artium'), connecting the effect instead with the activities of his brother Tunna, a priest, who believes he has been killed in the battle and says regular masses for his soul. If he were indeed dead, Imma comments, these rituals would have freed his soul from punishment ('anima mea per intercessiones eius solueretur a poenis'), a remark that reveals Imma's suspicion that it is Tunna's masses that are releasing his living body from its bonds. Bede, as narrator, makes the connection between cause and effect explicit for the benefit of the reader; and within the narrative, when Imma is eventually reunited with his brother, he too has his earlier surmise confirmed: Tunna's masses were said at just the time of day when his bonds had fallen away.

It is obvious that Bede valued this story as a demonstration of the power of Christ's sacrifice to achieve 'the everlasting redemption of both body and soul' ('redemptionem ... et animae et corporis sempiternam');3 but modern scholars have been more interested in the significance of the phrase 'litteras solutorias' in this context. It is clear enough that Imma's captor's question alludes to some magical procedure for dissolving bonds involving the use of the written word. What is uncertain is whether runic writing in particular is to be understood as an element in the process. Runes are an alphabetic script developed somewhere in the European Germanic language area, though we do not know where exactly they originated.4 They were originally used only for inscriptions on hard surfaces, and there are good reasons for thinking that they were specifically designed with wood in mind. The chief model for the runic letter-forms was clearly some Mediterranean version of the alphabet, though scholars disagree over which version exactly; the cases for Greek, Roman, and north Italic models have all been pressed recently. We also do not know how old runic script is, though the earliest continental inscriptions using it have been dated to the second century AD. The Anglo-Saxons seem to have known the runic alphabet (or futhorc, named after the first six letters of the standard runic series) when they first came to Britain in the fifth century, for runic inscriptions in Old English on various materials (initially clay, bone, or metal) survive from the settlement period onwards. In Scandinavia, which is particularly rich in runic inscriptions, evidence for a belief in the magical power of runes is relatively plentiful (though also relatively late), as R. I. Page has shown;5 but in England there is very little to indicate that runes were thought of in this way. Whether or not the Imma story testifies to the use of rune-magic in England is therefore a question of some importance. If it does, it supports the meagre English runological evidence considered by Page, increasing the likelihood that rune-magic was known in England as well as in Scandinavia, and thus suggesting that the connection between runes and magic was already well established among the Anglo-Saxon tribes at the beginning of the period. …

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