Published on: 21-Jan-2019
Assistant Professor Katherine Hindley (English) has been published in a new book.
In many cultures, both ancient and modern, texts can be seen as carrying physical or spiritual power, power that is not necessarily destroyed when the text itself is damaged. Indeed, many charms gain some of their power precisely from the destruction of a text. Destruction can therefore be constructive: it releases the words of the charm and allows them to function as desired.
In this paper I examine the phenomenon of the destruction of texts as one step in the production of medical charms, focusing on those used in England during the medieval period. The surviving evidence falls into two broad categories of charm that imply different understandings of textual power. In one, the destruction of text serves to activate its power, as when words are dissolved in water and consumed by the patient. In the other, destruction is the only way to limit its effect on the body, as when inscribed leaves must be snatched away as soon as a mother has given birth, destroying the text prevents it from having any further effect.
The chapter explores the changing patterns of textual destruction over time, drawing on a database of almost four hundred charms, all requiring the use of text, that were copied or owned in England from the Anglo-Saxon period to the end of the fifteenth century.
"Eating Words and Burning Them: The Power of Destruction in Medieval English Charm Texts", in Carina Kühne-Wespi, Klaus Oschema, and Joachim Friedrich Quack, eds, Zerstörung von Geschriebenem. Historiche und transkulturelle Perspektiven / Destruction of Writing. Historical and Transcultural Perspectives, Material Text Cultures 22 (Berlin, Munich, and Boston: De Gruyter).
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