The Sacred and the Secular in Medieval Healing I: Images and Objects
Sponsor: AVISTA: The Association Villard de Honnecourt for the Interdisciplinary Study of Medieval Technology, Science, and Art and Medica: The Society for the Study of Healing in the Middle Ages
Organizer: Barbara S. Bowers (Ohio State University), and Linda Migl Keyser, (University of Maryland)
Presider: Carol Neuman de Vegvar, (Ohio Wesleyan University)
Early Medieval Crystal Amulets: Secular Instruments of Protection and Healing
Kornbluth, Genevra (Kornbluth Photography)
After the Roman period, during the rise of Christianity, it was hard to determine what was secular or sacred; these two notions were not always easily disentangled. It is better to term it as natural and supernatural, holy or demonic, rather than secular vs. sacred. In the middle of the 5th – the late 7th c. there was a distribution of bound pendants. They were referred to as “Frankish amulets”; that is purely a historiographic phenomenon, they were fairly wide spread. The amulets were bound in gold or silver, worn on the body, hanging off the belt.
Crystals – according to Pliny the Elder, they were an effective way of cauterizing, by placing a crystal ball so as to intercept the sun’s rays. Crystal use was found in his book, “Natural History” which was written in the 1st century, translated and widely circulated in the early Middle Ages. The Germanic languages sometimes developed their own words for these stones: “Genus saxi candidi”, Corpus Glossary, Latin: Cristallum, Old English: Lapidary (C10): hwit 7 cristallum gelic.“Se hwita stan” (The White Stone) was considered good for stitch, flying venom and strange mishaps. Pliny states that the Magi falsely claim that amethyst prevents drunkeness, and Malachite protects children and prevents danger.
Green Jasper – according to Galen (d. 200 CE), benefits the stomach and esophagus, and some were engraved with the image of the serpent. Galen was not quite as popular as Pliny, but used extensively during the Middle Ages. Galen tests and tries Jasper and it works, but he says you don’t really need the image of the serpent on it to make it work.
There was a distinction between magic and malevolent items, like a figure with pins stuck into it, vs. some natural stone like an amethyst that could be used unproblematically to heal, i.e., an amethyst engraved with the image of Christ. Such use combined the natural ability of the stone with the supernatural protection of these sacred images and inscriptions. Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, Origen, all extoll the virtues of the use of diamond; there was nothing magic in its use, it was just used to heal naturally. However, Aquinas warned to look out for incantations on amulets that were indiscernible. The concern was that by writing and saying these indiscipherable terms you may be invoking the name of a demon and you get issues leading to the demonic/magical. This made it problematic and led to the witch hunts and preaching against the use of such items.