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  • Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages
  • Michael D. Bailey
Don C. Skemer. Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. Pp. viii + 327.

Textual amulets were among the most common magical devices employed in the medieval period. As Skemer defines them, they were "generally brief apotropaic texts, handwritten or mechanically printed on separate sheets, rolls, and scraps of parchment, paper, or other flexible writing supports of varying dimensions" (p. 1). Always short, they could range in length from just a few words (e.g., the very common amulet consisting of the names of the three kings of the gospel nativity story, thought to be effective against epilepsy) to a text that might fill most of a folio page (then folded repeatedly for portability). They were cheap and easy to produce. Skemer usefully distinguishes them from talismans, which he defines as being more expensive, elite items, typically engraved jewelry, gems, or metal disks that often bore decidedly learned astrological symbols and images, rather than holy names or snippets of sacred texts. The terminology Skemer employs is modern, but it seems clear that some distinction between these two levels of powerful, portable items, each bearing writing or signification of some kind, existed in the Middle Ages.

Since textual amulets were such a widespread form of magic in the medieval period, it is unsurprising that their development tends to mirror aspects of the history of medieval magic generally. Amulets were used throughout the Middle Ages, as they had been in antiquity. Protective inscriptions are [End Page 241] known to have existed in the earliest literate cultures, so clearly in the most basic sense amulets are a perennial element of magic. Typically employing holy names, sacred phrases, bits of Bible verse, or prayers, amulets thoroughly blur the distinction between magic and religion, and Skemer wisely avoids describing them as "magical" or labeling them "spells" or "charms" as much as possible. From the earliest days of Christianity, church officials had condemned amulets as pagan, superstitious, and demonic. Nevertheless, given the clerical near-monopoly on literacy during most of the medieval centuries, almost all the amulets that existed must have been produced by the clergy. Skemer thus helps to illuminate a tension seen also in other areas of medieval magic between sweeping official condemnations at the level of legal and theological abstraction, and much more nuanced approaches at the level of quotidian practice. Even saints such as Hildegard of Bingen or Francis of Assisi could fashion amulets, creating them as objects of devotion and foci of divine power. The fact that they were crafted by saints added to these items' power, and other saintly writings not initially intended to function as amulets could be appropriated and used as such later. Meanwhile, the lesser clergy created amulets for their parishioners with some regularity, and Skemer paints a convincing picture of a fairly vibrant low-level trade in these simple but supposedly powerful items.

Skemer notes two significant changes in the production of amulets over the course of the Middle Ages, one illustrative of the larger history of medieval magic, and one illustrative of the larger history of medieval literacy and writing. With the influx of ancient and Arab learning into medieval Europe after the twelfth century, some amulets began to become much more "learned," incorporating elements of "Solomonic" ritual magic drawn from grimoires like Picatrix or the Sworn Book of Honorius. Condemnations of amulets grew more detailed, reflecting the increasing sophistication of magic itself and of demonology in this period. At the same time, notions of natural magic grounded in these same learned sources contributed new arguments in favor of the legitimacy of potential amuletic power. Slightly later but mainly overlapping with this development, the growth of lay literacy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries led to an increase in production, as well as an increase in the audience for certain types of amulets. As Skemer points out, amulets were always utilized at all levels of medieval society. People did not need to read amuletic texts to make use of them, but people who could read sometimes wanted texts of a slightly different sort, that they...


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