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Anglo-Saxon Charms in Performance

Lori Ann Garner

Oral Tradition Volume 19, Number 1

Providing explicit ritual instructions alongside verbal incantations, the Old English healing charms offer us a relatively rare glimpse of poetry in performance in the Anglo-Saxon world. The well-studied verse incantations as well as the lesser known non-metrical remedies functioned as part of rituals performed to cure disease, improve crops, and even return lost or stolen property. Lea Olsan has noted that “unlike epic poetry, riddles, or lyrics, charms are performed toward specific practical ends” and “their mode of operation is performative” (1999:401). Scribes often underscored the importance of performance by stating explicitly that an incantation be spoken (cwe∂an) or sung (singan). As John Niles reminds us, the modern usage of the term “charm” is perhaps too limited for conveying the importance of performance in these solemn rites of healing. The native term gealdor (or galdor), with its broader semantic range, more explicitly denotes performance, deriving from the verb galan, which means “to sing,” “to enchant,” “to cry out aloud” (…).

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