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The Inscription of Charms in Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts

Lea Olsan

Oral Tradition, Volume 14, Number 2 (1999)

Introduction: Anglo-Saxon charms constitute a definable oral genre that may be distinguished from other kinds of traditionally oral materials such as epic poetry because texts of charms include explicit directions for performance. Scribes often specify that a charm be spoken (cwean) or sung (singan). In some cases a charm is to be written on some object. But inscribing an incantation on an object does not necessarily diminish or contradict the orality of the genre. An incantation written on an amulet manifests the appropriation of the technology of writing for the purposes of a traditionally oral activity. Unlike epic poetry, riddles, or lyrics, charms are performed toward specific practical ends and their mode of operation is performative, so that uttering the incantation accomplishes a purpose. The stated purpose of an incantation also determines when and under what circumstances a charm will be performed. Charms inscribed in manuscripts are tagged according to the needs they answer-whether eye pain, insomnia, childbirth, theft of property, or whatever. Some charms ward off troubles (toothache, bees swarming); others, such as those for bleeding or swellings, relieve physical troubles.

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