Mary Dockray-Miller

title.none: Jolly, Popular Religion (Dockray-Miller)

identifier.other: baj9928.9802.012 98.02.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Mary Dockray-Miller, Boston College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Jolly, Karen Louise. Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Pp. x, 251. $39.95 (hb); $16.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-807-82262-0 (hb); 0-807-84565-5 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.02.12

Jolly, Karen Louise. Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Pp. x, 251. $39.95 (hb); $16.95 (pb). ISBN: ISBN 0-807-82262-0 (hb); 0-807-84565-5 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Mary Dockray-Miller
Boston College

Karen Jolly's argument about the relationship between the elf charms found in late Anglo-Saxon medical texts and the Christian culture that produced those texts forces her readers to revise substantially their conceptions of the church in tenth- and eleventh-century England. Jolly's work is an immensely important rereading of some canonical and some lesser known sources that constructs a model of "popular religion" which synthesizes elements of Germanic folklore with formal Christianity. Jolly argues for acculturation or accomodation between constructs previously viewed as antithetical: Christian and pagan, Latin and Germanic, textual and verbal. As she states in her conclusion, "The construct [of] popular religion functions as a useful frame for redefining Christianity in terms of overlapping and interacting spheres rather than exclusive categories of elite and popular. It allows us to see a spectrum of middle practices stretching between magic and religion. Most of all, popular religion validates the importance of assimilation and acculturation as competing traditions interact" (173).

Jolly's project is to make clear the "mutual assimilation between Anglo-Saxon culture and the Christian religion" (2). She arrives at the texts specified in her subtitle, the "elf- charms," by way of a revisionist reading of the Germanic- Christian culture of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Discarding models that view seemingly disparate elements as combative, Jolly looks for the "middle practices" that show "a considerable amount of assimilation between these opposing categories" (2). As such, she rejects readings of the charms and medical texts that try to label those texts specifically Christian or pagan.

Chapter 1 defines her term "popular religion" through a reading of what she calls the "field remedy," although its more familiar editorial title from the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records is the "Charm for Unfruitful Land." Jolly reads the remedy's mix of Christian and folkloric elements -- blessing fields' sods in a church and then invoking mother earth when replacing them -- to show "the religion's success in conversion by accomodating Anglo-Saxon culture" rather than any failure in eradicating pagan practice (9). She sees popular religion to be the Christianity practiced by the majority of believers; texts like the field remedy reveal the mid-space between formal, textual practice sanctioned by the church fathers and practice of the more generalized, largely illiterate community.

Jolly's discussion of local churches in chapter 2 builds upon this model of popular religion with historical and archaeological evidence of local churches that were only loosely connected to large, centrally-controlled minsters. Local churches owned by a landed proprietor, staffed by a priest who was also a tenant with plow obligations, presented an opportunity for the practice of popular religion. She sees "tension between the old system of minsters centrally located and the newer, privately owned local churches" (58); her use of evidence entails some speculation as she acknowledges that she is "reading between the lines" of the canons and laws of Wulfstan and AElfric to present a picture of a rural priesthood ministering to an acculturated congregation of believers. Jolly's analysis of the archaeology of the rural church -- often a single cell with no architectural division between the nave and chancel -- shows the intimacy and proximity of these rural priests with their congregants.

Chapter 3's discussion of magic and miracle, and the terms we use to describe them, is vital to any student of this period. Jolly amply demonstrates how our own oppositions of science and magic or science and superstition are irrelevant in an Anglo- Saxon context. For AElfric and church thinkers before him, the operative opposition was between magic (the work of the devil) and miracle (the work of God). Jolly uses AElfric's homilies and Wulfstan's law codes and the sermo lupi to show that there was no clear distinction between spiritual and material ills; miracles could solve both, just as magic could taint both. "Christian magic," then, is an Anglo-Saxon oxymoron (94), and the charm texts are clarified as a form of "middle practice" that used the power of sanctioned religion to effect change in an acculturated world.

In chapter 4, Jolly refines the terminology she will use to discuss the elf charms. She prefers the terms "liturgy," "folklore," and "medicine" to the more connotatively problematic terms "science," "magic," or "paganism." The charms (she uses the charm "For a Delayed Birth" as an example) incorporate elements of folklore and liturgy to produce a synthesized approach to solving a problem perceived to be both spiritual and material in nature. The mix of liturgucal and folkloric elements does not indicate, for Jolly, "a hasty veneer by some pseudo-Christian compiler" but instead shows the successful acculturation of the two segments to one another. Jolly points out the murky distinction between food and medicine as she ably discusses her definition of the charm texts as evidence of middle practices of popular religion.

Chapter 4 also includes one of the most striking feautures of Jolly's work, the description of the tenth-century rural church as a depository for quotidian items that needed the priest's blessing. After providing an overview of Bald's Leechbook and the Lacnunga, Jolly argues that since the mass was an integral part of many of the medicinal remedies, "it would seem that priests or parishioners regularly placed herbs under the altar and then kept them for medical emergencies" (122). Jolly provides us with a vision of a working rural church, far removed from the theological grandeur of AElfric or Wulfstan, where a tenant-priest blessed herbs and household items to be used in the practice of popular religion that synthesized liturgical and folkloric ritual.

In chapter 5, Jolly finally turns to the elf charms to argue that the "elf prescriptions represent probably the best synthesis of Anglo-Saxon and Christian knowledge" (160) in that they clearly indicate Germanic elements (especially elves, the number nine, flying venom, and worms) at the same time that they use liturgical force. The use of Germanic ritual in a Christian context was "acceptable healing practice" for the monastic culture that reproduced the elf-texts in their scriptoria. While modern scholars have mined the elf charms for pagan or Christian origins, Jolly argues that we need to view them as "integrated wholes, without any self-consciousness of a conflict of traditions or beliefs" (170).

Jolly's book clearly seeks to be accessible to a more general audience. Old English texts are presented in translation (although important individual words are discussed and noted) and she provides concise and accessible overviews of such important concepts as Augustinian thought and the Benedictine reform. Her introductions to the texts, especially the Leechbook and the Lacnunga, will serve for students and scholars alike as necessary updates to the introductions provided in their editions. Her prose is clear and precise. Occasionally I found her repetitive, especially as each chapter has a conclusion and there is yet another conclusion for the entire book; this framework, however, may be advantageous for the ambitious undergraduate or more general reader.

Jolly's Hawaiian locale becomes evident in her completely gratuitous use of the Polynesian term "mana," or "power," in her discussion of the power of ritual (116). While she uses the term four more times in her text, she could easily have discarded it without any loss of argument. As it reads, the book's references to "mana" are merely distracting.

My other critcisim of this book is its lack of an acknowledgement of its radical indebtedness to feminist theory. While Jolly does want to make her work accessible beyond a small, specialized audience, her important contributions to models of thinking about religion in late Saxon England entail breaking down binary oppositions, accessing the middle ground, and looking for synthesis rather than conflict and hierachy. All of these methodologies are primary to rubrics of feminist criticism and thought in history and literature as well as other disciplines; why is it that Jolly shies away from the very theory that provides her the basis of her model? I would like to suggest here that Jolly, and perhaps her editors, made the unfortunate decision that feminism and accessibility is a binary opposition they were not interested in breaking down. So her book, which could be construed as an important feminist text -- especially in that it uses feminist methodologies even as it is not specifically about women or sexuality -- will be referenced primarily as an important historical analysis.

Perhaps the issues of the accessibility and acceptability of feminism can be debated at another time. Popular Religion in Late Saxon England synthesizes -- to use one of Jolly's favorite terms -- a variety of texts to produce a vibrant vision of a folkloric religious culture. Karen Jolly's excellent contribution to the field makes its readers think about popular religion, elf charms, and the religious culture of tenth- and eleventh-century England in new and exciting ways.