Miracle or Magic? The Problematic Status of Christian Amulet
Crow, John L.
Discussion to Experience: Religious Studies at the University of Amsterdam. ed. Jacqueline Braak and Deirdre Malone (Amsterdam, 2009)
In 1171 C.E., Hugh de Puiset, bishop of Durham, hired an engineer named Richard to repair and enlarge Norham Castle in Northumberland. Richard, a respected local land owner, wore a silk sack from his neck that contained a number of small parchment amulets, or phylacteries, which contained the names of God, and also extracts from the Bible, including portions of the Gospels. He wore these amulets as a means to resist evil and win divine protection. A Benedictine monk from Durham learned of Richard’s sack and decided to offer him an amulet of superior power: a relic from St. Cuthbert. The monk gave Richard a piece of the burial shroud in which the saint was wrapped. The relic was believed to bring about miracles and resist fire. Richard, accordingly, thanked the monk and added the relic to his sack.
This brief story illustrates a common occurrence within the history of the Christian church: the use of amulets as a conduit of supernatural power. Yet these amulets were problematic. The use of amulets was condemned outright by not only Augustine but numerous ecumenical councils as well. They claimed that the use of amulets evoked the power of demons and created implicit or explicit pacts.