Freitag, 12. Mai 2017

WANTED: Medieval textual amulets

by Konrad Knauber

In autumn of 2015 a new project at the CRC 933 ‘Material Text Cultures’ (Heidelberg University) was started, dealing with ‘magical inscriptions and their deposition in mediaeval graves’. It aims at collecting and contextualizing text-carrying artefacts from the archaeological record connected to the sphere of magic and folk religion of the Christian Middle Ages. Since the initial project phase the main focus turned to an as-yet under-researched group of objects that were nonetheless probably quite common in wide parts of Europe: textual amulets with Christian influence, containing quotes from the Bible, prayers, blessings and incantations, sometimes appearing in very personalized versions. Elements of these textual formulas can be found in a great number of mostly medicinal manuscripts, which circulated throughout the monastic scriptoria and served as blueprints for the fabrication of protective artefacts against diseases, demonic influence and various other calamities.

fig. 1
Folded amulet from Drevic hillfort (CZ) with missing uninscribed outer face (finding situation on the left). Recognizable passages are callidi diaboli (line 2: ‘…of the cunning devil…’), Adiuro albis (line 4: ‘I conjure you, “elf”…’) and et spiritum sanc[tum] (line 5: ‘and [through] the Holy Spirit…’). Romanic minuscule of the 11th/12th cent. AD; folded size approx. 3,5 x 4,2 cm.

(photos by Z. Šámal / D. Blažek)

Although there were other writing materials (mostly parchment, see figure 3) in use and possible more common in certain regions, inscribed sheets of lead seem to be the find group with the most promise for a rise in numbers, since they are durable and reactive to metal detecting. In 2013, Arnold Muhl and Mirko Gutjahr wrote a first monography on the subject focusing on eight lead amulets from the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt (Germany), enlisting also 80 more comparable objects from all across Europe, dating from Late Antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages. Among them are amulets worn on the body as well as other pieces which, guessing from form, size or textual content, were rather meant to be protecting houses, graves or other fixed locations. The overview does not only show some regional distinctions, but also massive gaps in the general distribution (mainly western Europe and the Alps, though there are corresponding manuscript sources from these areas). For the moment, those might be explained with the use of organic writing materials just as well as with the poor general state of research, as the subject is placed in between archaeology, epigraphy and codicology, and the objects are mostly folded down to a small size in their finding state and often appear inconspicuous or uninscribed. Specific investigation regularly brings up newly found or unrecognized/unedited amulets: a new find from Czechia (fig. 1) will be published in the next months and, within four years, the number of known amulets from Saxony-Anhalt has risen to about 20 examples (fig. 2).
fig. 2
Detail of an unfolded lead tablet from the abandoned settlement of Seelschen near Ummendorf (Börde district, Germany) under polarized light: Recognizable words are ar/chang(e)los (line 1), m(arty)res (line 2), fa/mule d(e)i hazzg[a] (line 3: ‘the servant of God Hazzga’). Letter size is approx.. 1,5 mm; at the end of the inscription the year ‘1070’ is given.
(photo by K. Knauber)

With my ongoing dissertation in mind, I would be happy to include as many new or lesser known amulets as possible. With the help of some interested colleagues, several institutions as well as honorary field workers have been sensibilized towards the subject, but the same cannot be achieved by myself in the wider field of Europe in the remaining time for the project. Therefore I would be very grateful if you share this ‘call for finds’ with anyone interested and would gladly receive your any ideas and questions via the following email address:
  • konrad.knauber [at]

You can find more information in my project description (English/German) and in an introductory article (German), which appeared last autumn in the German journal SPEKTRUM, special issue “Die Magie der Schrift”. If you don’t have access to, please contact me and I will send you a pdf.

fig. 3
Parchment amulet for ‘Dobrozlava’ (14. Jh.) against the four days fever (malaria?), found during renovation work at St. George’s basilica in Prague around 1900.
V. J. Nováček, Amulet ƶe XIV. století, naleƶený v chrámu sv. Jiří na Hradě Praƶ̌ském, Český lid 10,/5, 1901, 353-354)


German version of this post:

Further reading

  • Katerina Blažková / Zdenek Šámal / Daniela Urbanová / Konrad Knauber / Dalibor Havel, Stredoveký olovený amulet z hradište Drevíc (k. ú. Kozojedy, o. Rakovník) / A medieval lead amulet from the Drevíc hillfort in Central Bohemia. Archeologické rozhledy 69, 121-142 (in print).
  • Klaus Düwel, Mittelalterliche Amulette aus Holz und Blei mit lateinischen und runischen Inschriften, in: Volker Vogel (Hg.), Ausgrabungen in Schleswig 15, Neumünster 2001.
  • Arnold Muhl / Mirko Gutjahr, Magische Beschwörungen in Blei. Inschriftentäfelchen des Mittelalters aus Sachsen-Anhalt (Halle [Saale] 2013).
  • Monika Schulz, Beschwörungen im Mittelalter. Einführung und Überblick (Heidelberg 2003).
  • Don Skemer, Binding Words. Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages (University Park 2006).

Konrad Knauber is a PhD candidate at Heidelberg University. Within the SFB 933 "Materiale Textkulturen" his research deals with magic signs and text deposited in medieval burials.

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