Monday, 24 June 2013

Digging Deeper: Magic for the Dead? The Archaeology of Magic in Later Medieval Burials

Female burial at St Helen's Fishergate, York
Every now and then 'Can you dig it?' digs deep into the Maney Publishing online archive to highlight articles from past issues that proved to be very popular with our subscribers. In light of next week's International Medieval Congress in Leeds, I chose 'Magic for the Dead? The Archaeology of Magic in Later Medieval Burials', published in Medieval Archaeology (Volume 52, 2008) it was the winner of the 2008 Martyn Jope Award. This paper examines patterns in the placement of apotropaic objects and materials in high- to late-medieval burials in Britain (11th to 15th centuries). It was written by Professor Roberta Gilchrist, Head of the School of Human and Environmental Sciences at the University of Reading.

It develops an interdisciplinary classification to identify: (1) healing charms and protective amulets; (2) objects perceived to have occult natural power; (3) 'antique' items that were treated as possessing occult power; and (4) rare practices that may have been associated with the demonic magic of divination or sorcery. Making comparisons with amulets deposited in conversion-period graves of the 7th to 9th centuries it is argued that the placement of amulets with the dead was strategic to Christian belief, intended to transform or protect the corpse. The conclusion is that material traces of magic in later medieval graves have a connection to folk magic, performed by women in the care of their families, and drawing on knowledge of earlier traditions. This popular magic was integrated with Christian concerns and tolerated by local clergy, and was perhaps meant to heal or reconstitute the corpse, to ensure its reanimation on judgement day, and to protect the vulnerable dead on their journey through purgatory.

The following is an excerpt from the article's introduction:
Silver half penny of Edward III
"Archaeologists have been reluctant to consider how medieval people expressed supernatural and spiritual beliefs through the material practices of life and death. A rare contribution on this theme was Ralph Merrifield’s The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic, in which he diagnosed a ‘ritual phobia’among historical archaeologists. With the advent of a more scientific, processual archaeology in the 1970s and 1980s, the study of magic — with its superstitious and folkloric connotations — was relegated to the archaeological fringe. The topic has retained some currency in the study of conversion-period burials of the 7th to 9th centuries, although even in this context magic has been dismissed as superstitious ritual, rather than examined in relation to sacred beliefs."

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