Study of Amulets

The Study of Amulets in Early Modern Europe

Daniel Stolzenberg

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A “Gnostic” amulet from the Magical Amulet Collection of the Taubman Medical Library.

The study of amulets (magical objects typically marked with characters or symbols and believed to attract favors or repel dangers) occupies a surprisingly important place in European intellectual history. As recent work by medieval historians has shown, the “science of talismans” was a notable part of the Arabic learning received in Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and captured the interest of major thinkers, including Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, and, later, Marsilio Ficino. From the High Middle Ages through the seventeenth century, there survives a body of literature on amulets, consisting of practical guides, philosophical treatises that sought to explain their effects, and theological works that discussed their legitimacy. Around the turn of the seventeenth century a new kind of amulet literature emerged that was not primarily interested in how to use them, or in their causal mechanisms or religious status, but instead treated them as evidence of ancient civilizations. Antiquarians like Lorenzo Pignoria, Jean-Jacques Chiflet, and Athanasius Kircher viewed amulets as material objects laden with meaning that must be decoded by placing them in their cultural-historical context, which could be reconstructed by a combination of textual and archeological evidence. The new type of amulet literature was almost always illustrated, but the images differed profoundly from those in medieval literature; while traditional treatises depicted generic images of the designs to be placed on amulets, antiquarian amulet literature presented representations of specific artifacts meant to serve as physical evidence.

This new way of looking at amulets reflects broader cultural changes, and in his project Daniel Stolzenberg used this literature as a way to understand important developments in learned European attitudes toward the past and toward magic. The antiquarian study of amulets in the seventeenth century represents a transitional moment, as the older approaches to their study continued to be practiced at the same time, sometimes by the same individuals. To treat these objects as evidence of the beliefs and practices of past civilizations did not require one to disbelieve in their magical efficacy or theological danger. However, Daniel Stolzenberg argued that, even when antiquaries who studied them continued to believe in such powers, the very act of reading an amulet as a record of the past, thereby pushing questions of its power and legitimacy to the side, tended powerfully to disenchant it. Thus this project shed light from a new angle on the decline of learned belief in magic in early modern Europe and added to our growing knowledge of early modern antiquarian research and its importance in the development of modern scholarly methods and conceptions of the past.