Olsan (2015 Congress)

Lea T. Olsan
(University of Louisiana at Monroe)

“Four Approaches to 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 30 March 2015]

The power of words is the driving force in incantations, spoken charms, apotropaic prayers, and written amulets during the medieval period.  How can the power of words be understood to work in these contexts?  This paper looks at four theoretical approaches to the problem:

(1) A linguistic-anthropological approach is based on J.L. Austin’s language theories and developed in the anthropological works of Stanley J. Tambiah and others.

(2) A rhetorical approach is founded in the work of Judith Butler, especially her essay, “Burning Acts-Injurious Speech” (1995), which, although it focuses on negative labelling and curses, can also sustain a positive form that fits traditional formulas for healing and protection.

(3) A historical-epistemological approach to the power of words, recently demonstrated by Matthew Milner in his essay, “The Physics of Holy Oats:  Vernacular Knowledge, Qualities and Remedy in Fifteenth-Century England” (2013) [with Abstract], grounds itself in the vernacular theology of the period itself.

(4) A natural-philosophical approach that foregrounds the innate virtue in words, comparable to the powers in stones and herbs, was a commonplace of medieval thinking, but questions about how and why words had power were debated by some of the best minds of the period, as shown by Claire Fanger (1999) and Béatrice Delaurenti (2007).  But there are also other medieval voices, like Qusta ibn Luqa (820-912 C.E.) and Urso (fl. 12th c.), who address the power of words for healing, the latter most recently interpreted by Maaike van der Lugt (2013) or (2013).

One question that hangs over those who study genres of magic that depend on the power of words is how best to approach, understand, and explain this key to so many magical operations:  specifically whether it is better to take a contemporary theoretical approach or an informed historical one.  This paper is intended a contribution toward an answer.


Website Editor’s Note:

Lea T. Olsan presented a paper for our co-sponsored Sessions on “Codicological Contexts for Works of Magic” at the 2006 International Congress on Medieval Studies, before our practice of publishing the Abstracts of Papers.

We thank her for her contributions.