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Edsall (2013 Congress)

Mary Agnes Edsall
(Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin at Madison)
Arma Christi Roll or Textual Amulet?:  The Manuscript Evidence”

Abstract of Paper at the 48th International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2013)

Session on “The Material Culture of Magic”
Sponsors: Societas Magica and the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organizer: László Sándor Chardonnens
2013 Congress

[First published on our first website on 16 May 2013]

Most scholarship on the late medieval English Arma Christi rolls contains an almost obligatory paragraph on why Rossell Hope Robbins’ theory that the rolls were meant to be used as church display pieces for the edification of the “lewed” is wrong.  On this point, scholars are correct.  As many have pointed out, the narrow width and long length of these rolls indicates, rather, that they were more likely for individual devotional use.  This correction, however, has left open the question of why the roll format was used so often for the Arma Christi text-image “O Vernicle” that is the main content of all of these surviving rolls.   While some likely answers have been offered, in my opinion they founder on the shoals of the presuppositions of current thought on late medieval English religious culture.  We too easily assume that the prime use of the rolls was affective devotional practice despite the possibility that, while this might have been so at times, the rolls could have had other uses.  We have been, in short, distracted by the ways that “O Vernicle” appears to relate to Passion devotion and have neither paid enough attention to the texts and other image-texts that sometimes accompany it nor to what the choice of the roll format might mean.

Recently, however, scholars such as Don Skemer, Ann Nichols, and Mary Morse have noticed the overlap in contents between some Arma Christi Rolls and magical texts and textual amulets.  We know that at least one Arma Christi Roll was used as a birth girdle, for example, and my recent work on “O Vernicle” argues that in some versions the language of the poem is charm-like more than affective devotional.  In this presentation, however, rather than focusing on the texts, I want to take a cue from the work of Don Skemer and Anthony Bale and focus on the material support for the texts on the rolls.  In other words, why rolls?  More particularly, what did this form signify to users of the Arma Christi Rolls?  Rolls were used for, e.g., charters, court records, tax and other government records, genealogies, genealogical chronicles and diagrams, and for textual amulets such as birth girdles.  What is significant for thinking about the status of Arma Christi Rolls is the size of the rolls.  My ongoing survey of surviving manuscript rolls suggests that long narrow rolls (7″ or less) are generally amuletic in character, while “official” rolls tend to be 12″ or more.  My paper presents this evidence along with descriptions of some of the more interesting rolls – both amuletic and the few that are not.  My argument is that the narrow roll format is a vital part of the evidence that many (if not all) of these rolls were meant for crypto-magical use for warding off dangers, physical and spiritual, rather than being primarily devotional tools.

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