How to protect yourself from harm in Anglo-Saxon England

What was medieval Christianity anyway?  Sometimes, we know more about the views of people in positions of power, or of reformers who sought to tighten up religious practices, than about those of the average person.  But how to what extent do their works reflect what happened in reality?  In my research, I have come across some interesting examples of things which Anglo-Saxons could do for self-protection, in some cases things which did not receive universal approbation from every part of the church – even though some of the people involved were the professional religious themselves.

One way of finding out about this kind of practices is by looking at penitential texts.  The seventh-century Penitential of Theodore prescribes penances for women who attempted to cure their daughters of fevers by engaging in forbidden practices, apparently regarded as some kind of witchcraft or devil-worship: putting the child into an oven, or onto a rooftop (Gamer and McNeill, Medieval Handbooks of Penance, p. 198).

But it’s OK if it’s Jesus.  St Agatha’s Church, Easby, North Yorkshire, c. 1250

Somewhat later, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, abbot, homilist, self-appointed bastion of orthodoxy and all-round grump Ælfric of Eynsham was similarly cautioning his readers and audiences against what he described as demonic practices.  For example, in his homily De auguriis (‘On auguries’), he condemns women who travel to crossroads and pull their children through the earth, delivering them both to the devil (Lives of Saints, ed. Skeat, p. 374).

However, other practices which were condemned by people such as Ælfric seem to have been accepted in other quarters of the Anglo-Saxon church.  Another thing that exercised the abbot was the practice of tying plants onto the body in order to heal a wound.  I have discussed, in an earlier post, how Ælfric writes:

Se wisa agustinus cwæð  þæt unpleolic sy þeah hwa læcewyrte ðicge; ac þæt he tælð to unalyfedlicere wigelunge.  gif hwa þa wyrt on him becnytte buton he hi to þam dolge gelecge; ðeahhwæðere ne sceole we urne hiht on læcewyrtum besettan; ac on þam ælmihtigum scyppende þe ðam wyrtum þone cræft forgeaf.  Ne sceal nan man mid galdre wyrte besingan ac mid godes wordum hi gebletsian 7 swa þicgan.

(Passio Sancti Bartholomei, ed. Clemoes, p. 450.)

(The wise Augustine said that it is not dangerous if someone eats a medicinal herb, but he censures it as an unlawful sorcery if he binds the herb onto himself, unless he lays it on a wound; however, we ought not to place our hope in medicinal herbs, but in the Almighty Creator, who gave that power to the herbs.  One ought not to enchant herbs with a charm, but bless them with the words of God and eat them thus.)

However, as I mentioned in my earlier post, ligatures of this kind are not uncommon in Anglo-Saxon medical books: the Old English Herbarium, for example, advises binding a plant called hege clifa onto the neck when seeking to stop a nosebleed.  It wasn’t just plants which could be used in this manner, either: pieces of writing, or crosses and Greek letters, were also said to be valuable cures, either to be written on parchment and tied onto the body, or to be written directly onto a sick person.  They need not have been godes wordum in the sense of Biblical verses or prayers as we would understand them.  The eleventh-century Lacnunga collection, which I introduced here, includes a letter said to have been brought to Rome by an angel for use in curing diarrhoea, which is to be written onto a piece of parchment and then hung onto the patient’s neck until he was better.

Angelic letter Har585.184v.PNG
A letter from heaven.  London, British Library Harley 585, fol. 184v

While this includes some Latin words, the writing as a whole makes no sense, bar the ‘miserere mei Deus’ (‘have mercy on me, O God’) at the end.  Yet it was apparently still regarded as holy writing, and still had the stamp of divine authority, having been brought down from heaven by an angel.

The Passio Sancti Bartholomei also condemns the enchantment of herbs with galdru.  The exact definition of a galdor, or gealdor, is unclear, and the usage of the term is far more complex to explore in a short blogpost, but it seems to mean something like a charm or incantation.  Like this one:

Gemyne ðu, Mucgwyrt, hwæt þu ameldodest,

hwæt þu renadest æt Regenmelde …

Wyrm com snican,toslat he nan,

ða genam Woden VIIII wuldortanas,

sloh ða þa næddran þ(æt) heo on VIIII tofleah …

Crist stod ofer alde ængancundes …

sæs toslupan, eal sealt wæter,

ðon(ne) ic þis attor of ðe geblawe …

Sing þ(æt) galdor on ælcre þara wyrta, III ær he hy wyrce …


‘Remember, Mugwort, what you declared,

What you brought about at the Great [or Divine] Proclamation …

A snake came crawling it bit [or tore apart, killed] no-one,

Because Woden took nine glorious twigs,

(and) then struck the snake so that it flew apart into nine …

Christ, (?)being of a unique nature [(?)or in a way that was unique] stood upon (?)disease [(?)or the ancient ones] …

Seas must (?)disperse, all salt water,

When I blow this poison from you.’

Sing this incantation onto each of the plants, thrice before he uses them …

(Text and translation from Edward Pettit, Lacnunga, I:60-9)

This is from a long poem generally known as the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’, again found in Lacnunga, which was intended to be sung over a herbal remedy for some kind of poisoning.  I have quoted Pettit’s translation, and given his alternative interpretations of the text, because its meaning is difficult to decipher.  It refers to mysterious spiritual events of which we have little understanding; it apparently refers to the power of the god Woden over the venomous snake.  Yet it also asserts Christ’s uniqueness and power.  And it is definitely a galdor, in the compiler’s understanding of the word: the term is used to describe the poem in the accompanying remedy.  Meanwhile, in other manuscripts, such as London, British Library Cotton Titus D. xxvii, which I will discuss in a later post, we can see prognostics and fortune-telling texts in manuscripts unquestionably written and used by monks and senior clergy, who clearly had no qualms about seeking signs and predicting the future.

What on earth would Ælfric have made of all this?  Might he have assumed that such people were not really Christians at all?  And are we to follow his example and assume the same?  However much that might seem to be a rejection of heavy-handed ecclesiastical authoritarianism, I would be wary of endorsing their point of view and thereby allowing them to define for us what medieval Christianity was.  If we are unhappy with some of the harsher and more intolerant ideas of some medieval churchmen, then it might be worth considering whether other ways of living the Christian life were around at the time.  And, of course, it is important to note that Ælfric’s works survive in numbers far greater than those of any other Anglo-Saxon writer, and for that reason it is easy to fall into the habit of overstating his influence, or of assuming his views to be typical.

Of course, these phenomena were not exclusively Anglo-Saxon.  In 2010, I attended an excellent conference lecture by the historian Celia Chazelle on the subject of popular Christianity and the mass (see Chazelle, ‘The Eucharist in Early Medieval Europe’, 2011).  I summarised the lecture as follows:

After the establishment of Christianity across Europe, most ordinary people would have understood the basics of its theology, but the central part of religious life would have been the sacraments, tying ordinary time to sacred time.  But what are the sacraments?  Before the ninth-century drive to standardise religious practice across the Carolingian empire, all kinds of variants existed.  Not all parts of Europe had access to wine, so in some places bread alone was used, or sometimes watered-down wine, milk and honey, or beer.  After all, since everyone understood the Eucharistic elements to be the body and blood of Christ, regardless of what they were physically composed of, it was not a problem if something other than bread and wine was used.  We know from the condemnations of Walafrid Strabo that all kinds of gifts were blessed on the altar – vinegar, meat, birds etc. – at the same time, and with the same prayers, as the Eucharistic gifts.  People would bless lambs on the altar at Easter, and then eat them for the paschal feast; as priests would bless the food at communal meals, it was not always clear where the dividing line lay between the mass and other meals.  Furthermore, there appear to have been female ministers of some kind, perhaps due to the role traditionally played by the lord’s wife in passing round the horn at social feasts.

In another post, I will write about a little ritual for protecting oneself from one’s enemies.  Ælfric will be relieved to learn that these involve nothing more controversial than reciting the psalms and making the sign of the cross.

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