'Charms', Liturgies, and Secret Rites in Early Modern England

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Ciaran Arthur
Anglo-Saxon Studies
  • Suffolk, England: 
    Boydell & Brewer Publishers
    , June
     262 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In an 11th century addition to a 10th century manuscript, now housed in the British Library, is the Æcerbot, the text of a ritual designed to restore fertility to a field. It instructs a priest to remove four sods of earth from the afflicted field and take them into the church, there saying four masses over them. The sods are then to be returned to the field and—with wooden crucifixes placed beneath them—inserted back into their original positions. At that point, a range of vocal performances are to be made, including recitations of the paternoster and invocations of God and the Virgin Mary. 

For over a hundred years, scholars have selected examples like these from our corpus of early medieval English manuscripts and labelled them “charms.” In addition, they have often claimed that these rituals reflect either the ongoing influence of paganism, or a form of folk Christianity at odds with the ideas of the established Church. Deriving from his recently completed doctoral project at the University of Kent, Ciaran Arthur’s ‘Charms’, Liturgies, and Secret Rites in Early Modern England takes a novel approach to the subject, challenging many of the longstanding ideas about this fascinating array of rituals. 

Highlighting the fact that most of these “charms” are found in manuscripts written by ecclesiastics, Arthur rejects earlier interpretations of them as evidence for either lingering paganism or “heterodox Christianity,” and instead “proposes an alternative reading of these rituals as mainstream Christian texts” (2). As part of this, he proposes that these “charms” provide “information about how the Church hierarchy understood and experimented with rituals for a wide range of different occasions” (16). 

Arthur argues that it is inappropriate to translate the Old English term galdor as “charm,” as has been common in earlier scholarship. Two chapters are devoted to listing and analyzing the appearances of this term in the surviving body of Old English literature, with Arthur arguing that “galdor seems to refer to a spiritual song or chant that requires special skill and authority for its performance” (62). He further argues that while some ecclesiasts used the term in a positive sense, it was more commonly employed pejoratively, to describe songs or chants that the ecclesiastical writers believed were being performed inappropriately. 

He then criticises the idea that these “charms” can be separated from liturgy, even going so far as to argue that the idea of “charms” should be jettisoned when looking at this material. To bolster this argument, Arthur turns to the Vitellius Psalter (written between 1060 and 1087 CE) as a case study. Here he highlights how the various components within it that have previously been labelled “charms” contain many liturgical elements, and cannot readily be divorced from the manuscript contexts in which they are found. In the next chapter, Arthur takes on what has previously been labelled “gibberish writing” in these texts, a range of letters with no clear meaning. Expressing disagreements with previous interpretations of this “gibberish,” Arthur argues that this “obscure writing in rituals reflects the censorship of these powerful texts that were performed only by those who knew how to read and decipher them” (176).

‘Charms’, Liturgies, and Secret Rites is an interesting book that presents a compelling and thought-provoking series of arguments. The text is well-written and accessible, something that is not easy to do when discussing topics like the complexities of Christian liturgy in medieval manuscripts. The highly specialist nature of the study will likely prevent it from reaching a broad readership among scholars of religion, but for researchers focusing on the belief systems of early medieval England, or of early medieval Europe more broadly, this must be very strongly recommended. Any university library with a collection on medieval religion needs to obtain a copy. Many of Arthur’s arguments—such as the inappropriateness of translating galdor as “charm” and the strongly liturgical nature of this material—are certainly convincing. However, whether other scholars will take on his broader point, that such material should not be labelled “charms,” remains to be seen. It is possible that they will continue to perceive this as a heuristically useful etic category through which to analyze many of these recorded ritual practices.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ethan Doyle White is a doctoral student in Early Medieval Religion at University College London.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ciaran Arthur is a Research Fellow at Queen's University Belfast.


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