By Lea Olsan
Oral Tradition, Vol7:1 (1992):
Introduction: This is an essay to open a discussion of medieval Latin charms as a genre rooted in oral tradition. It will concern itself solely with materials drawn from manuscripts made in England from about A.D. 1000 to near 1500. One reason for setting such limitations on the materials is that restricting the study chronologically and geographically will facilitate identification of features peculiar to the insular English tradition of Latin charms. For though Latin charms can be found throughout medieval Europe, to make cross-cultural comparisons prematurely might obscure distinctive regional features. To begin, it seems best to state what is meant by the word “charm” in this paper.
Carmen is the word that in classical Latin meant, among other things, “a solemn ritual utterance, usually sung or chanted in a metrical form” (OLD). The word denoted, on the one hand, a religious hymn, or on the other, a magical chant, spell, or incantation. Related words in late Latin are incantamentum and incantatio. These words carry associations with magic due to the implications of chanting or incanting in pagan contexts. In the medieval manuscripts under consideration here, carmen is the word repeatedly used as a tag, a heading, or a marginal gloss to call attention to some kind of verbal cure. Its meaning is not confined solely to spoken remedies, since the directions often indicate that the efficacious words are to be written, nor is the term attached especially to poetic texts. The word carmen, as well as Middle English “charme,” indicates that a remedy works by means of words, rather than, for example, the application of plants. In the early, Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, vernacular words also designate verbal cures: galdor and its verb ongalan come from the Indo-European root ghel–, which has two lines of semantic development, one of which gives rise to the English words yell and yelp, while the other is associated with enchanting and singing. The latter meaning survives in the word nightingale. Old English gebede, meaning “prayer,” also appears with reference to healing formulas. In Anglo-Saxon vernacular charms one finds the directions “sing this gealdor” and “sing this gebede” accompanying the same kinds of formulas. By and large, the most salient feature of the short Latin texts that are denominated charms in this paper is their Christian character.
In what follows I shall address four elementary questions: (1) What are the near-allied genres? In other words, in what contexts do charms appear in the manuscripts? (2) In what sense can the genre be described as oral traditional? (3) What are the forms of language in which the genre coheres? (4) How, on what occasion, by whom, and for whom are charms performed, and how do they function within these situations?