Medicine and Speech Acts, England and Africa

Two days ago the New York Times featured an Op-Ed arguing that the solution to African infant malnutrition and mortality is a greater emphasis on breast-feeding. The article’s questionable logic aside, it mentioned in passing that:

One mother near the town of Dosso, Fati Halidou, who has lost four of her seven children, told me that after childbirth, it is best to give a baby sugar water or Koranic water. This is water made by writing a verse of the Koran on a board and then washing it off; the inky water is thought to protect the child.

This caught my attention, since it is nearly identical to a medieval charm in the Old English Lacnunga, one of only two extant major collections of indigenously Anglo-Saxon medical remedies. Lacnunga remedy XXIX reads:

This is the holy drink against elf-influence [aelfsidene] and against all the fiend’s temptings. Write on a housel dish:

“In principio erat uerbum” usque “non comprehenderunt” et plura: “et circumibat Jesus totam Galileam docens” usque “et secuti sunt eum turbae multae.” “Deus in nomine tuo” usque in finem. “Deus misereatur nobis” usque in finem. “Domine deus in adiutorium” usque in finem.

[“In the beginning was the word” up to “they did not comprehend” and again: “Jesus went round all Galilee teaching” up to “and a great crowd followed after him.” “God in your name” up to the end. “God have mercy on us” up to the end. “Lord God to our aid” up to the end.]

Take cristalan and tansy and zedoary and hassock and fennel, and take a sester [pitcher?] full of sanctified wine.
And order an immaculate [unmaelne, “spotless”] person to fetch silently against the stream half a sester of running water.

Take then and lay all the herbs in the water, and therein wash the writing from the housel dish very cleanly. Pour then the hallowed wine over the other.

Bear it then to church; have Masses sung over [it], one Omnibus, another Contra tribulationem, a third Sanctam marian.

Sing these supplicatory psalms: Miserere mei Deus, Deus in nomine tuo, Deus misereatur nobis, Domine deus, Inclina domine. And the Creed, and Gloria in excelsis deo, and the litanies, Pater noster.

And bless earnestly in the Almighty Lord’s name, and say In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti sit benedictum. [In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be it blessed].

Use it then.

(Quoted from Karen Louise Jolly, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context*)

I’m not sure what to make of this, besides the fact that it’s interesting. It’s certainly rife with opportunities for cross-cultural comparison (which is by no means a new idea). It also says something, I think, about the way people generally, especially in under-literate societies, see the written word.

There’s a theory straddling linguistics and philosophy, called speech-act theory. It was proposed in the 50s, and states that language can be an act in itself; that is, saying or writing something can actually change something in the real world. The standard example is an officiant at a marriage ceremony, who brings a marriage (something concrete and real, if not physical) into being by saying the words “I thee wed”. (Thanks to Gabrielle Jackson for the explanation and example, both of which I have paraphrased here).

I don’t know much about the theory, but it seems to me that the two charms above are a kind of more literal interpretation of the idea of the speech act. This isn’t a new idea – I’ve seen these kinds of discussions of medieval medicine fairly often. What is more interesting is that it seems to be universal, rather than culture-specific. Medievalists tend to connect these kinds of ideas to the biblical trope of Christ as the Word made Flesh, which doesn’t seem to apply in the case of Koranic water. Or does it? Thoughts?

*This book has a brilliant explanation of the relationship between medicine, magic, and religion in Anglo-Saxon England. In case you were interested.

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