Tuomi (2019 Congress)

Ilona Tuomi
(Department of Early and Medieval Irish, University College Cork)

“Rodents, Rhymes, and Rituals:
The Irish Tradition of Charming Rats (to Death)”

Abstract of Paper
To be presented at the 54th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2019)

Session on
“Animals in Celtic Magical Texts”

Co-sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
and the Societas Magica
Organized by Phillip A. Bernhardt–House
2019 Congress Program

[Published on 15 March 2019]



Declared as ‘unclean’ in Leviticus, put under a formal curse by the Bishop of Autun in the early fifteenth century, and described as ‘hateful and rapacious’ in a 19th-century textbook of zoology, rats have been generally known as opportunistic survivors found in nearly all places inhabited by human beings.  This cohabitation has led to some very destructive results, such as the Black Death in the 14th century which is thought to have killed a quarter of the population of Europe.  Researchers have listed more than fifty infectious diseases derived directly or indirectly from rodents.  It is thus no wonder that human communities have sought to rid their surroundings of this long-tailed squeaker — in any way possible.

Many are familiar with the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin who was hired to lure the rodents away with his supernatural pipe — and, true enough, the tale bears resemblance to the magical way in which rats were charmed in the Middle Ages.  With an interdisciplinary approach, and help from modern material, this paper investigates the tradition and history of conjuring rats in Europe and particularly the different media used in this process.  Special attention will be paid to the Irish charms and to the Irish hereditary bards who were said to possess the power of rhyming rats to death.