Wednesday 8 March 2017

"I Conjure the Blood" by Karen Maitland

Spider's web. Photographer: Per Palmkvist Knudsen
Our village has recently seen the installation of a defibrillator, thanks to the amazing fundraising efforts of one young schoolboy. Living out in the country has its delights, but one downside is the life-threatening length of time it takes to get professional help in a medical emergency. This has always been a problem for rural communities, and farms have always been dangerous places, with many lethal implements like scythes, pitchforks, axes and ploughshares just lying in wait to cut deep into legs and hands. When faced with a bleeding wound, our medieval ancestors used a number of traditional remedies to try to staunch bleeding including cobwebs, wood ash, puffball spores, comfrey roots or a translucent, glass-like stone known as a kitkat. And many people today still advocate putting a cold iron key down the back to stop a nose bleed.

But though substances like cobwebs worked by aiding the blood’s natural clotting mechanism, they weren’t effective for heavy bleeding or where a wound kept re-opening and bleeding. So, that is when our forbears might have turned to a local blood-charmer. These were men or women who had the power to stop humans and animals bleeding, even at a distance, simply by holding a blood-stained bandage and reciting a charm over it. Some blood charmers required the blood-stained cloth to be taken back to the victim and tied over the wound which would stop it. But others could seemingly stop the blood as soon as they blessed the cloth.
'The Healing of the Bleeding Woman'
Catacombs of Marcellinus & Peter,
Rome. 4th Century CE

Writing in 1899, Baring-Gould claims that one of his own tenants had just such gift and that on one occasion a young farmhand slashed his leg with a scythe. The farmer dipped a handkerchief in the lad’s blood and sent a man galloping off on horseback four miles to the blood charmer who blessed it. The farmhand immediately stopped bleeding. Since, this blood-charmer could also heal other ailments, the local postman earned a few extra pennies by carrying rags blessed by her to sufferers in other villages on his rounds, but he was always careful to hold the handkerchief at arm’s length between finger and thumb, because if it was folded or put in his pocket the power would be drawn from it.

The museum in the infamous Jamaica Inn on Bodmin Moor, has an account of Jack Henry Cooper, aged 3, who on 11th May 1914, fell asleep in a meadow and lost his leg to a grass cutter. The child was rushed first to the blood-charmer to stop the bleeding before being taken on the bumpy and lengthy journey to Liskeard Hospital to have the wound dressed.

Throughout the Saxon period and the Middle Ages, healers and physicians, including monks and nuns, would apply a remedy to a patient such as a poultice of herbs, but as they were doing so they would sing or recite a charm or prayer. Doing the two together was thought to be vital in effecting a cure. In some cases, the remedy would be the laying on of hands or holding a smooth black toadstone over the person in order to direct or concentrate the power of the spoken charm or prayer.

 But with the blood-charmers, it was the spoken charm itself that took on the greater significance.
Common puffball or Devil's Snuff-Box
Photographer:  H.Krisp

During the Anglo-Saxon period, charms initially referred to both the pagan gods such as Woden and to figures from the Christianity. The names of the old gods gradually faded from the charms as the Middle Ages progressed. But what they all had in common was a reference to some miraculous event which the healer and patient would know well and which mirrored the magical effect the charmer wanted to achieve. Saxon or Norse blood-staunching charms might refer to some event in their mythology when a mighty river dried up or froze, or there was great drought, or a hero's horse had been healed, and the charm often ended with the promise that ‘blood shall not flow again from the wound till milk flows from a stone’.

This medieval charm which was used by blood-charmers from at least the 13th century right up until the 1900’s, creates this same kind of parallel –
'Christ was born in Bethlehem
Baptised in the River Jordan
The River stood
So shall thy blood (inserting the name of the victim). In the name, of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.'
The Baptism of Jesus from Hortus deliciarum. 1167-1185
This charm is based on an early medieval legend that when Jesus was baptised, the River Jordon miraculous stopped flowing.

Another medieval blood-charm which continued to be used long after the Reformation refers to the Roman solider, who by the Middle Ages had been come to be called St Longinus.
'Our Lord hung on the cross. Longinus struck him with the lance. Blood and water issued forth. Longinus raised his eyes and saw clearly. By the power which God showed Longinus, I conjure the veins and the blood that they flow no more.'
The full charm tells the story in more detail, and it is the recounting of this miracle, together with the clearly spoken statement of intent of the blood-charmer, that produces the second miracle –the staunching of the blood in the patient. Words and stories have great power.

Susannah Avery, writing in 1688, suggested that bleeding could be stopped by writing the name Veronica on the ball of the left thumb. This was linked to a 14th century legend that St Veronica, who wiped Christ’s face with a cloth, is the same woman who Jesus had early cured of an ‘issue of blood’. If that failed, Susannah suggested another charm that could be sung over the wound. 
St Veronica

'When I was going to Jordan Wood
There was the blood and there it stood
So shall thy blood stay in thy body (here the patient was named)
I do bless thee in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.'
 One charm recorded in 1928 in the Scottish Highlands had to be said by a woman to a man, and then repeated by a man to a woman, alternating until the patient’s bleeding stopped. The person reciting the charm had to hold their arms out as they spoke it.

'The charm of God the Great.
The free gift of Mary.
The free gift of God.
The free gift of every priest and churchman
The free gift of Michael the strong
That would put strength in the sun.'

In this last line there is lovely echo of the old gods who might originally be invoked in the blood-charm. And given the current crisis in our health service, it looks as if we will have to hope that blood-charmers among us still retain their powers.

1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating - I'd never heard of blood-charmers before!