Charms Conference #FolkloreThursday

Sneaking into the last few hours of #FolkloreThursday and finally sharing a bit about the Charms Conference I went to last month at Harvard. It was great: even better, there’s a proposed proceedings volume in the works so you may be able to share some of the exciting things I heard and saw that weekend. It doesn’t include a CD alas, so you won’t hear me singing a medieval charm* but I will write about the process involved. More pix going on the ‘book.

*Given the enthusiastic response, I am working on recording some medieval charms in a variety of ways. More to come —


From Leechdom, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, a compendium of wonderful folk knowledge of early Anglo-Saxon England, a charm using bread [hláf] hallowed on August 1st [hláfmæsse-dæg] the traditional grain harvest day:

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Summer’s last hurrah this month: in sunny Dundee the flowers still bloom:

But the rowan berries have come too, and they spell my doom:

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#WhanThatAprille16: Riddle 20

Jumping into spring: it’s the time when folk long to go on pilgrimages and in addition to seeking the blissful holy martyr, medievalists like to share their love of language with the world. Thanks to Chaucer Doth Tweet, the event this year is called #WhanThatAprille16 so check out the hashtag for more audio delights.

Here’s the original and then the modern translation of Riddle 20 from the Exeter Book (Krapp&Dobie 9): can you guess what it is?

Mec on þissum dagū     deadne ofgeafum
fæder modor     ne wæs me feorh þa gen
ealdor in innan     þa mec ongon
welhold me     gewedum weccan
heold freoþode     hleosceorpe wrah
snearlice     swa hire agen bearn
oþþæt ic under sceate ·     swa min gesceapu wæron
ungesibbum wearð     eacen gæste
mec seo friþemæg     fedde siþþan
oþþæt ic aweox     widdor meahte
siþas asettan     heo hæfde swæsra þy læs
suna dohtra     þy heo swa dyde
 In those first days     my father and mother

left me for dead:     there was no life yet,
no life within me.     Then a kindly kinswoman
faithfully covered me     with her own clothing,
held me and cherished,     kept me warmly,
even as gently     as her own children—
until beneath her,     as my destiny willed,
I waxed into life     with my alien fellows.
My friend and protector     nourished me then
till I grew and grew able     to go forth by myself.
Because of this now     her own dear children,
sons and daughters,     were fewer, alas.

Making Magic Respectable

Like many folks here, I am greatly enjoying Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. It’s a terrific fantasy series: I can’t tell you how well it adapts Susanna Clarke’s novel as I haven’t read it yet (so many books, so many of them to write!) but the author seems pleased. The next episode appears to focus on Arabella Strange (Charlotte Riley) so it ought to be very interesting indeed.

Norrell’s obsession, if you don’t know, is to bring back English magic and make it ‘respectable’ (the contrast to his aims has been embodied by the street magician Vinculus, played with great vigour by Paul Kaye). Of course a big part of my interest in the show has been to see how they portray magic, given my own interests in the history of magic.

Even among medievalists, magic has only slowly become a ‘respectable’ sort of topic. Tolkien was one of the first scholars to insist that the fantastic elements in Beowulf were as worthy of study as the linguistic, where dull people had insisted its only charms lay. Societas Magica has done much to bring respectability to the study, following the fascinating history from earliest antiquity up to the present and sharing syllabuses from many different courses. They haven’t quite got Picatrix on everyone’s lips, but they’re working on it.

I’ll be teaching a course on women and witchcraft this autumn. It will be interesting to see what expectations the students bring. One of the aspects of that history we’ll be looking at is how magic moved from being a humble practise to becoming a formal art. I suppose in some ways you could compare it to famous big name chefs taking over simple peasant dishes. Simple charms to protect travelers, reduce illness or restore a field (things I write about in Rook Chant) are very different from the elaborate rituals that learned clerics used to summon demons. But in the late Middle Ages, these two very different strands became intertwined — and by the early Modern era they exploded in the infamous witch hunts.

I write about some of this practical magic in my History Witch column; perhaps I should share some examples here. Just to be respectable.

Rook Chant at Amazon UK