On the Shelf – Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages

So, when am I going to stop talking about Darrick? Right now, with a promised book review!

When The Pennsylvania State University Press isn’t crushing my dreams, it puts out an excellent Magic in History series. One of their latest offerings is Binding Words by Don Skemer, who works in Princeton University Library’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

Skemer’s work ostensibly deals with amulets from Christian lands, mostly between the years 1300-1500. He explicitly rules out items of direct Papers interest, like talismans including planetary and magical material, and the grimoire tradition. Nonetheless, these elements keep creeping back into the text, with pictures from grimoires and talismans showing up and even books being used as amulets. This isn’t a strike against Skemer, though – that’s the nature of magical studies, where the practice supersedes categorization time and time again.

Binding Words is a work of tremendous scope. We learn about the interaction of written prayers across the arbitrary lines drawn between religion and magic, the positioning of holy relics on that continuum, and the varied ways in which amulets were created, inscribed, carried, and utilized. Their heritage is not entirely unorthodox – both Hildegard of Bingen and St. Francis of Assisi created such objects. Skemer goes on to describe a number of specific and diverse amulets, including a number used to handle concerns specific to women. Those who like footnotes will find them in abundance, and three transcribed amulets round out the text.

Overall, the organization of the book is commendable. One notable exception is the treatment of amulets of different functions. Skemer does discuss the diversity, but a note on the prevailing uses even within our fragmentary corpus would have been welcome. Overall, this is a great book for anyone interested in the history of medieval magic.

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Published in: on March 2, 2008 at 12:18 am  Leave a Comment  

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