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  • Inscribed Power: Amulets and Magic in Early Spanish Literature by Ryan D. Giles
  • Cristina Guardiola-Griffiths (bio)
Ryan D. Giles. Inscribed Power: Amulets and Magic in Early Spanish Literature. University of Toronto Press. xiii, 307. $54.00

Inscribed Power persuasively argues the "meaningful evocation of amulets in literature." The book's five chapters, introduction, and postscript neatly explore the ways in which Iberian cultures perceived an amulet's real, revered, or imagined effectiveness. Through this study, Ryan Giles contributes meaningfully to studies in literature and material culture.

The literary amulets looked at in this study are made up of prayers, divine names, and incantatory formulas written on parchment, paper, or other media and then inscribed within works of medieval and early modern Spanish fiction. Fundamental to this argument is the idea that "written amulets were imbedded into, intervened in, and came to shape the creation of fictional lives in medieval and early modern Iberian culture." The texts studied seem to suggest that belief in an amulet's power moved from sincerity to skepticism, even while the amulet's medium became more popular and widespread and even while the authors of these texts questioned the amulet's power. The purpose of the manuscript-cum-amulet found in chapter one points to a belief in its ability to ward against evil; the written word holds a pride of place in both chapter and manuscript, as it comes to represent not only the word of man but also the word of God. The second chapter, "Naming God," notes both the desire of, and doubt over, interpreting signs according to their sacred function. The failure to understand the sacred sign opens the amulet up for interpretation and exposes [End Page 193] it to parody. A centuries-old tile from Villamarín de Sotoscueva (Burgos) informs chapter three, "Amuletic Voices." Inscribed on the tile is a prayer that recalls the Ordo commendationis, a prayer for commending oneself to God, and recalls the prayers found in epics and romance. These prayers form a verbal amulet of sorts that informs a cultural context for the Christian pilgrim and departing traveller, among others. This type of prayer, however, is located in a temporal crossroads of sorts, and Giles turns to the Libro de buen amor to note the failure of Juan Ruiz's apotropaic text. Chapter four, "The Bawd's Amulet," explores amulets as protection against bodily harm. Giles here deals with a subversive quality in the literary representation of amulets, which he notes is first used when amulets invoking Christ's wounds are used to provide healing during childbirth. Later, the amulet's subversive use is exposed through a discussion of an association between Christ's wounds (vulnus) and the female reproductive organ (vulva). Chapter five, "Outlaw Prayers," opens with the discovery of a paper amulet and a dozen books found within the walls of a house in Bancarrota (Extremadura), which perhaps belonged to a bookseller wishing to hide questionable materials from inquisitorial censors. Immured with the amulet is an Oración de la emparedada, a heretical work detailing the legend of the "walled-in" woman. A reference to this legend and prayer is found within the 1554 Alcalá de Henares edition of the Lazarillo de Tormes, which thus confirms the cultural awareness of amuletic prayer. While the amulet and Oración serve to protect the hearth and home, these places are protected only ironically in the Lazarillo. In the picaresque novels studied, the aforementioned Lazarillo and Quevedo's Buscón, the use of forbidden prayer is used and abused by men of questionable standing. Through these narratives, both works show a relationship between amulets and illegal activity, as institutions of power (church, monarchy) were unable to wrest control of the proliferation of amulets from the "criminals" who sought to profit by them.

Giles's interdisciplinary work provides careful reading and analysis of medieval and early modern media. By studying the literary amulet alongside medieval and early modern texts, Inscribed Power situates both within a cultural and historical context that greatly furthers our understanding of attitudes towards magic in the Iberian peninsula.

Cristina Guardiola-Griffiths

Cristina Guardiola-Griffiths
Department of Languages, Literatures...


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pp. 193-194
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