Session 30: Ystafell 6
The Power of Words 2: narrative, ritual, and verbal power

Chair: Jacqueline Borsje

This is the second session in a series of three organized by the international network The Power of Words in Traditional European Cultures.

Super Petram: the Irish fortunes of a European narrative charm

Barbara Hillers
Indiana University at Bloomington

The toothache charm known as Super Petram is one of the most common European healing charms. The earliest extant Latin versions of the charm in Europe date to the tenth and eleventh centuries, and it appears to have been rapidly vernacularised throughout Europe. In this encounter charm, Christ meets Peter, who is sitting on a stone (super petram) and suffering from the toothache. After asking Peter what ails him, Christ commands him to be well.

This paper examines the Irish evidence for Super Petram. No medieval Irish version of the charm appears to have come to light, but a number of versions are attested in C18 and C19 Irish manuscripts, and it is one of the three most common narrative charms in oral tradition; over one hundred versions of the charm have been collected from oral sources and are preserved in the archives of the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin.

The charm is found in both Irish- and English-language tradition. Based on the archival evidence I would like to argue that the charm became popular in Ireland at an early date. While the English-language versions show signs of direct influence from England, Irish-language versions show no trace of having been mediated through the English language and are likely to go back directly to Latin versions of the charm, which we may presume to have reached Ireland, as they did other parts of Europe, through ecclesiastical channels.

The power of pins

Willem de Blécourt

In 1660 in a small town in County Cork, the wife of a local baron was reported to have vomited pins, nails, wood and straw. Her affliction coincided with the acquittal of a 'witch'. The baron asked for the witch to be rearrested, and when she was gaoled once more, the wife's symptoms were alleviated. This rare example of spitting pins in Ireland needs to be understood in a wider cultural context.

There are two major opinions circulating about people vomiting pins and other household items. One: it is a feature of possession by the devil. Two: it is fake. I will argue that the first is careless and that presumed human agency, namely bewitchment, needs to be taken into consideration, too. The second opinion, albeit historically correct, is also misleading because by labelling it as fraud, it ignores the vomiting as an expression of those who acted it out. Vomiting pins was similar to emitting words; what was inside the body became known by what was exuded. The pins were also out of place. One of the ways they ended up in a body, it was thought, was through the nefarious actions of a witch. By comparing the Irish case with several early-modern English and Dutch cases, I will attempt to establish a culturally specific vocabulary of vomiting. It will show, for instance, that people seldom spat out wood under these circumstances. Did this have any special bearing on the Cork case or should we see this as purely coincidence?

‘Henw a gair hwy nog arian’: wordpower and performance in medieval Welsh request poetry

Morgan Elizabeth Moore
University of Toronto

Request poems, canu gofyn, compose a significant portion of surviving later medieval Welsh poetry; this widely practiced genre has been the subject of prior book-length study. Yet before the genre was widely adopted and its familiar structure established in the sixteenth century, Welsh court poetry was already making requests, both veiled and explicit. In this paper, I plan to discuss requests in a variety of poems from poets Dafydd ap Gwilym, Iolo Goch, and Guto’r Glyn, and to examine how the resulting impression of poetic power aligns with the notions of ‘wordpower’ developed by performance theorists John Miles Foley and John D. Niles. These fourteenth- and fifteenth-century poems reveal poets acutely aware of their poetry as a valuable, even tradable commodity, and harnessing it to request horses, armor, healing, and love. I argue that this power was the result of culturally-specific beliefs regarding the prophetic or incantatory powers of poetic utterances, in conjunction with certain qualities of performance itself. I will highlight how the structure and language of the poems as they have been preserved goes hand in hand with their public, performed context, and look at how contemporary cultural expectations surrounding performance are suggested by these works. There was an understanding in medieval Wales of poetry as containing real-world power—and this is intrinsically linked to its having been performed.