Charles Dorlans See Fortunes


CHARMS Anglo-Saxon charms were short texts containing recipes for curing or preventing a variety of maladies, both physical and mental. Among the hundreds of medicinal recipes in the old English extant today, dozens contain some form of incantation or other verbal element, often from the liturgy, such as reciting the Pater Noster (Our Father) three times, and of these, about 12 contain a poetic element. These verbal pieces are known as charms.

Critics tend to study the metrical charms in relation to culture and anthropology instead of poetry. Nevertheless, the metrical charms are the most studied of the charms, perhaps leaving the false impression that most charms contained metrical incantations.

The metrical charms appear in various manuscripts dating from as early as the 10th and 11th centuries, though they are probably older. Some have argued that non-Christian elements in the charms (such as a reference to the Earth Mother in the "For Unfruitful Land" charm and a reference to Woden in the "Nine Herbs Charm") indicate that some of the charms date from the pre-Christian era. After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the Anglo-Saxon charms fell into disuse.

The users of the charms would have been medical practitioners called leeches; thus, the texts containing the charms are sometimes called leechbooks. often leeches appear to have been connected with monasteries, and they may have been monks themselves; other leeches were probably private practitioners. Contrary to the popular image, leeches tended to rely on salves and poultices with certain herbal and animal ingredients to effect a cure rather than using parasitic leeches to suck out the blood.

Some of the charms show evidence of oral transmission. For example, two of the metrical charms for the loss of cattle appear to be different versions of the same charm, with a little three-line poem about Christ's birth in Bethlehem appearing in each with only slight differences in wording. The longer metrical charms seem to have garnered the most critical attention, especially "For Unfruitful Land" (also known as the "Acerbot charm"), the "Nine Herbs Charm," and "Against a Sudden Stitch."

The designation charms to mean medicinal remedies with an oral component is a completely modern dis tinction. The charms themselves appear in leechbooks filled with hundreds of remedies, or else in the flyleaves and margins of other manuscripts. For the most part, the modern separation of the Anglo-Saxon metrical charms is more the result of early scholarship equating the charms with magic and witchcraft rather than with early medicine. The most recent scholarship has therefore tended to move away from earlier depictions of the charms as magic and has instead focused on the efficacy of the charms themselves. Furthermore, recent editions of the charms have tended to focus on charms in their manuscript contexts, rather than by recategorizing them according to modern conceptions. See also Anglo-Saxon poetry.

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