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Harthill (2015 Congress)

Allison Harthill
(Cardiff University)

“Magic, Prayer, and the Power of Words”

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2015)

Session on Session on “Efficacious Words: Spoken and Inscribed”
Co-sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence and the Societas Magica
Organized by Jason E. Roberts (University of Texas – Austin)

2015 Congress Events Announced and 2015 Congress Events Accomplished

[Published on 31 March 2015]

The relationship between prayer and magic is alternatively obvious or tenuous, vexed or natural.  Are the boundaries between the two porous or impermeable?  At what point does the balance shift between using words rhetorically, in order to persuade a supernatural other to look with favour on a petition, to using words as orders, to cause change in the world by the power of language alone?  Despite the best efforts of medieval theologians such as Anselm and Hugh of St Victor to teach the proper use of prayer, ‘magical’ prayers continued to be composed, written,, and used by those in secular life during the late Middle Ages. These ‘magical’ prayers range from those written on scraps and worn about parts of the body; through prayers which could quell a storm if said over a cup of water before pouring it into the sea; to prayers promising protection from death by fire, water, battle, or poisoning, if said daily. Each of these examples represents a shift from the use of oratio, or ‘spoken reason’, to a form of magic.

Central to these questions concerning petition, supplication, and the desire to influence is the power of words itself.  Do the words themselves have an inherent power which can influence material reality? This theme was much debated in the medieval period:  influential scientific figures such as Roger Bacon and Al Kindi claimed that words had an inherent power to influence the physical world.  Al Kindi argued further that the effect of the words could be intensified by the degree of desire in the speaker.

What are the implications of this for both magic and non-magical prayer?  There are several further dimensions and strands which are of significance when focusing on words in this context. For those who disagreed with Bacon and Al Kindi the question of demonic activity was inevitable.  The question of translation may also be considered — the volume of seemingly nonsense, and loan words within usually Latin texts, and those which have accompanying instructions in the vernacular, suggest a belief in the power of words in those who employed such magical texts. The reluctance to translate the texts for practical usage suggests the assumption of dilution of efficacy, and further that power lies in the original structure of the word and not simply the meaning. Somewhat differently, manuscripts of ritual magic contain lengthy prayers as part of a very structured ritual.  This, along with the aforementioned more everyday ‘magical prayers’, indicates areas of potential investigation on several levels.  The aim of this discussion would be to bring together scholars working in the fields of both prayer and magic with the intention of considering theories about the power of words and their potential to influence physically and spiritually.