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19.09.26 Arthur, ‘Charms’, Liturgies, and Secret Rites in Early Medieval England

19.09.26 Arthur, ‘Charms’, Liturgies, and Secret Rites in Early Medieval England

In 'Charms', Liturgies, and Secret Rites, Ciaran Arthur deftly examines the corpus of Anglo-Saxon 'charms' from late Saxon England, which, he argues, other scholars have traditionally and erroneously viewed as "evidence of surviving pre-Christian magical practices" (2). Inviting readers to abandon altogether the classification of 'charms', Arthur "offers a re-evaluation of the concept of 'charms' in Anglo-Saxon culture and proposes an alternative reading of these rituals" (2). He concludes that 'charms' were not vestiges of Teutonic paganism or the result of clumsy scribal miscopying, but were learned, orthodox, liturgical Christian rituals.

The monograph is divided into three parts comprising a close examination of a) galdor (pl. galdru), b) 'charms' in context, c) and gibberish. The Anglo-Saxon term "galdor" is generally translated into English as a ritual charm, song, chant, or incantation, but Arthur argues that the standard methodology of separating 'charms' from their placement within given texts and source-types has clouded our understanding of the word. He characterizes galdor as an essentially neutral term which can take on polar opposite connotations depending on the context in which it was placed. On the one hand galdru were dangerous, magical, occult utterances; conversely, they were a reflection of theological developments that took place in Late Saxon monasteries and minsters. Arthur urges scholars to jettison the genre of 'charm' in order to more correctly identify galdru as ritualized "wisdom, spiritual discernment, and a medium through which divine secrets are revealed"(24). He states that enacting galdru was only threatening when carried out by anyone lacking sanctioned, liturgical authority.

The second unit turns to a careful analysis of twelve rituals from several texts, among them the Exeter Book, the Vercelli Psalter, Bald's Leechbook and Lacnunga. Arthur meticulously guides the reader through the sources in order to demonstrate that some Christian scribes in high-status, reform monasteries incorporated galdru as one element in a program of diverse and innovative ritual. The author challenges scholars who have treated galdru as superstitious, folkloric charms, and he demonstrates the ways in which they were interwoven with prayers and healing recipes to invoke the aid of spiritual power.

Part three examines "gibberish," which refers to combinations of undecipherable letters and random nonsense or foreign words, particularly in Irish, Latin, and Greek. Arthur accounts for the inclusion of gibberish in theological texts by aligning it with a particular philosophy of letters and language inspired by the objectives of the Benedictine Reform. He traces the long trajectory of Late Antique and patristic understanding of the intrinsic, esoteric power of words and asserts that manuscripts employing cryptography, acrostic poetry, and anagrammatic writings were available in ecclesiastical centers in England as models of gibberish. The importance of this discussion to the overall thesis of the book is to demonstrate that scholars have incorrectly identified gibberish as evidence of superstition or scribal ineptitude when, Arthur argues, it was in keeping with contemporary notions of encoded liturgical language.

Arthur's methodology is to redress the distortion scholars such as Thomas Oswald Cockaye, Felix Grendon, Charles Singer, and Godfrid Storms caused when they removed 'charms' from their placement in texts or treated them as a genre in their own right. "The rituals have therefore been isolated from their manuscript contexts, and their many connections with surrounding texts in the manuscripts have been overlooked"(134). His project is fundamentally historiographical, yet at times he paints the scholarship on 'charms' with too broad a brush. Critique of late nineteenth- to mid-twentieth-century charm literature has been consistent and on-going. The work of Leslie Arnovik, Karen Jolly, Roy Liuzza, Audrey Meaney, Lea Olsan, and Phillip Pulsiano are some examples. At various points in his book, Arthur acknowledges that his study is indebted to the contributions of such scholars, but his generalized historiographical statements at times minimalize these contributions.

'Charms', Liturgies, and Secret Rites has many virtues. The prose is compelling and the book a good read, which is especially commendable given the specialized nature of the information and analysis. Arthur lays out his central thesis and arguments clearly in the first chapter and remains focused on them throughout each unit. The relationship of the parts to the whole is always clear, and the material is logically organized in such a way that the reader is lead carefully through each point. The ease of following Arthur's argument is facilitated by his inclusion of translations in the body of the text.

Arthur is at his best when doing careful textual analysis. This is true throughout the book, but particularly in part two. His source criticism is remarkable. His description of texts and their provenance is impressive and readable. The scholarly apparatus is thorough and helpful in navigating the sources.

At times I felt myself so whisked along by Arthur's deft handling of the texts he examines that I nearly overlooked what, on second glance, are some lacunae in his analysis. First of all, I would have liked a definitive statement of how Arthur understands the words "Christian" and "charm" as his argument turns on these terms. Not far into the book it becomes apparent that Arthur means "Christian" to encompass orthodox positions found in written sources informed by patristic writings and reform ecclesiastics. This characterization is a bit wooden and the reasoning circular; it requires the conclusion that any text written by a reform cleric is by definition Christian. 'Charm' is more difficult. The author defines 'charm' only in the negative. He focuses on the erroneous use of the word by modern scholars, and in the end tell us only what 'charms' were not.

The third unit raises some questions. Arthur lucidly lays out the patristic and early medieval mystical, intellectual understanding of words and language and shows that patristic and continental writings were "probably" (213) available in Late Saxon monasteries and minsters, but he does not show that these historical works formed the seedbed of gibberish in Anglo-Saxon sources nor that secret word symbols were specifically Christian and liturgical. Arthur claims that gibberish was not a result of oral transmission, and he does not take into consideration the long tradition of encoded gibberish in numerous, explicitly pagan texts from Late Antiquity. I come away unconvinced that theological writings were the only influences on Christian clerics.

A few other contentions raise red flags. Arthur's designation of galdor as either superstitious incantation or Christian liturgy establishes a binary that flattens the complex process of cultural accommodation. Further, the "book challenges the idea that there was any such thing as a 'charm' in Anglo-Saxon England (217-18), and yet he demonstrates that galdor was condemned along with sorcery, soothsaying, necromancy, poison-working and so forth in several texts, those written by Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham and Archbishop Wulfstan of York among them. If galdru were not acting as a 'charms' in these contexts, what were they? Also, the suggestion that "many clergy considered galdru to be part of mainstream Christian observances if they were used in the right context by authorized ecclesiastics" (97) is tantalizing, but lacks precise evidence. Although Arthur's methodology is, on the whole sound, in some sections his conclusions are perhaps too speculative. For example, he labels as liturgical a galdor meant to cure "water-elf disease" from Leechbook III where "no explicitly Christian terminology is included" (77) simply because the aim was to restore physical and spiritual health. Also, Arthur argues by analogy that Mother Earth in the Æcerbot is a Marian figure because there are similar prayers to the Virgin in the Heliand.

My queries aside, 'Charms', Liturgies and Secret Rites is an important and highly-recommended contribution to Anglo-Saxon studies, the study of magic, and early medieval history in general. Arthur moves us closer to understanding the mystery of charm literature and helps make sense of the incorporation of seemingly unorthodox rituals and gibberish in mainstream, ecclesiastical writings.