Early Medieval English Charms: Paganism, Christianity, and Medical Science

In early medieval England, the line between paganism, Christianity, and magic was much blurrier than one might think. This is especially evident in Anglo-Saxon charms. This particular genre of Old English literature can be found in both prose and poetic forms. Depending on the text, the charm may be comprised of both. While there are a lot of charms from the early medieval period, when one scholar, Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie, selected twelve specific charms for his book The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, these ones became well known. As a result, they are commonly given as examples in academic writing. However, there are many more out there. Two good sources for Anglo-Saxon charms are Bald’s Leechbook and the Lacnunga. Both works are early medical texts. (I will note that I haven’t read through the entirety of these yet, so I’m not sure how many remedies are actual charms, compared to other herbal cures.)

In the big twelve, about half of them are medical charms. I say about half because it’s not exactly clear what “Against A Dwarf” is supposed to be for, though the guess is that it’s supposed to be a cure of some kind. Another medicinal charm is called “For The Water-Elf Disease.” This one is clearly a cure for an illness. The first paragraph lists some symptoms (fingernails turning black, eyes getting watery, and the patient looking down), then it lists herbs the healer should use, and finally, it has the spell the healer needs to say as they prepare the remedy. While the verbal component is obviously magical, it does have some science to it. There were no reliable clocks in early medieval England, so reciting a charm is a great way to make sure the herbs have enough time to brew. (Some charms opted to have a person recite a prayer instead of a spell. I will go more into Christian elements later on in this post.) Finally, some medical charms had no scientific elements at all. For example, the charm designed to help a woman have a healthy pregnancy relies on religious and magical beliefs.

The other half is designed to make rural living easier. For example, there is the charm called “For a Swarm of Bees.” Like the charm for water-elf disease, this one has magical and scientific elements. Apparently, if your bees start to swarm one way to fix that is to throw dirt or gravel at them. That is the scientific part of the charm. Then there are two magical parts. The first part is the extremely specific instruction to step on the dirt with your right foot. The second part is the two spells you need to recite. The other rural living charms are for fixing barren land and what to do if your cattle are lost or stolen.

Interestingly enough, the cattle theft charm and the barren land charm have both pagan and Christian references. (As well as the medicinal “Nine Herbs Charm!”) Here are some examples:

***

“For Unfruitful Land”

Sing the Benedicte, arms stretched out, and the Magnificat and the Pater Noster three times, and commend it to Christ and to holy Mary and to the Holy Rood in praise and worship and grace for them who own that land and to all those who are subject to them.

[…]

Yrce, Yrce, Yrce, mother of the earth,
grant us that the All-Wielder, the Eternal Lord,
of the growing and sprouting fields,
propagating and growing strong,
of lofty creation, shining blossoms,
and of the broad barley-crops,
and of the white wheaten-crops,
and of all the other fruits of the earth.

(Of course, it’s possible that The Eternal Lord could be the Christain God, but the surrounding context makes me think that is unlikely.)

***

“The Nine Herbs Charm”

These nine herbs can avail against nine poisons.
The worm comes creeping, tearing into the man—
then Woden took up nine glorious boughs,
striking then the serpent—it flew into nine pieces.
There the apple and the venom were destroyed,
so that it never wished to bring down your house.

Thyme and fennel, a mighty powerful pair,
the wise Lord shaped these herbs,
holy in heaven, those he hung up—
set up and sent down into the seven worlds
for the wretched and the blessed, as cure for all.

***

“For the Theft of Cattle”

Nothing was stolen or concealed, after I owned it, any more than Herod could do to Our Lord. I thought Saint Eadelena and I thought Christ was hung upon the Rood—so I intend to find these cattle—they were not taken away, to be known and not harmed, and to be loved and not led away.
Garmund, the thane of God,
find those cattle and bear those cattle
and keep those cattle and hold those cattle
and bear those cattle home.

(It’s not clear who exactly Garmund is, but he may be a mythological figure.)

***

Due to the lack of written records, we don’t know a lot, if anything, about early medieval English gods. That being said, it’s fascinating that people called upon both Christian and pagan gods for help when they desperately needed it. (I suppose it’s a “Well, I really need help so I don’t want to anger anyone by slighting them!” kind of thing.) This implies that in the early days of Christianity, people worshipped the old gods along with the new ones. Or if they didn’t outright worship them, they were still a part of their lives.

If you’re interested in learning more about later medieval charms, I wrote an academic paper touching upon it a few years ago. You can find it here.

Sources:

Foys, Martin, et al., eds. Old English Poetry in Facsimile (Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2019): https://uw.digitalmappa.org/58

Garner, Lori Ann. “Anglo-Saxon Charms in Performance.” Oral Tradition 19 (2004): 20 – 42. https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/64982/OralTradition19-1-Garner.pdf;jsessionid=165F067E65F7EF873466D5A678DB2802?sequence=1

Anglo-Saxon Paganism by Philipp J. Rackl https://www.academia.edu/10540548/Anglo_Saxon_Paganism

Tornaghi, Paola. “ANGLO-SAXON CHARMS AND THE LANGUAGE OF MAGIC.” Aevum, vol. 84, no. 2, 2010, pp. 439–464. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20862333. Accessed 28 Nov. 2020.

Anglo-Saxon Medicine https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/10/anglo-saxon-medicine.html

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