Ouch! Medieval preemptive measures against pain (or even sudden death!)

In an excellent (if slightly unsettling) post Helen Geake considered some of the objects recorded by the PAS that relate to medical care. Between the Roman scalpels and the late post-medieval dental plates discussed, there was a rather large gap of time (of course eminently forgivable in a short blog!).  Here, then, I consider the medieval period and show a few personal objects which aimed to guard preemptively against ill health, rather than deal with the pain once it had arrived.

Gold medieval Tebal finger-ring (ESS-53A9B2, above). Silver medieval Tebal finger-ring (SF-B2AA47, below).
Gold medieval Tebal finger-ring (ESS-53A9B2, above). Silver medieval Tebal finger-ring (SF-B2AA47, below). Copyright: Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service (above)/Suffolk County Council (below). License: CC-BY.

My curiousity was aroused by two objects on the PAS database which feature the ‘magical words’ ‘Tebal’ and ‘gut’.  Used in combination in the phrase ‘Tebal, gut, guttani’, this was a Hebraic charm thought to protect against ill-health, fever or toothache (Dalton 1912, 135).  Both of the objects bearing variant spellings of this charm were finger-rings dated to the medieval period, one in gold, the other in silver (shown above).

These two finger-rings prompt a brief excursion into object identification and dating.  Finger-rings of octagonal form, as noted by the recorder of one of these objects, are rare in the medieval period; polygonal hoops are more often documented from the Roman period where they are there classified as Guiraud Type 9.  It is both the nature of the inscription and the form of the lettering which dates these finger-rings firmly in the medieval period; the facets on these rings presumably made for easier engraving. Two examples in the collection of the British Museum are dated respectively to the 13th and 14th centuries (Dalton 1912, 37, 135; nos 218, 866), the dating attributed to the examples on this database.  However, as Tebal rings have been found in 12th-century graves on the Continent we should perhaps not rule out an earlier date for our examples.

Silver medieval cross pendant engraved 'AGLA' (YORYM-FF8193)
Silver medieval cross pendant engraved ‘AGLA’ (YORYM-FF8193). Copyright: York Museums Trust. License: CC-BY.

The presence of two of the continental Tebal rings in the graves of, respectively, a bishop and a king, taken together with their general fewness among examples reported through the PAS, suggests that this charm had restricted use among the highest echelons of society.  By contrast, other invocations seem to have had greater social penetration, although one cannot push the point too far: many of these were borne by objects made of precious metal (and therefore Treasure).  Far more common than ‘Tebal’ is ‘AGLA’, Latin-letter equivalents for the first four letters of the Hebrew ‘Thou art mighty for ever, O Lord’ (Hinton 2005, 191).  This was used as a protection against sickness or sudden death.  It is known on the PAS database on numerous cross pendants and brooches – objects worn at the neck – as well as finger-rings (which could also have been worn attached to ribbon around the neck (Standley 2013, 80, 89)).  Slightly less common, we have examples which quote the names of the Three Kings, thought to combat the ‘falling sickness’ (epilepsy), among other maladies (Hinton 2005, 191; Standley 2013, 80).

Silver medieval brooch bearing the names of the Three Kings (IOW-336352)
Silver medieval brooch bearing the names of the Three Kings (IOW-336352). Copyright: The Portable Antiquities Scheme. License: CC-BY.

Such Hebrew, or pseudo-Hebrew, charms sat within a far wider use of conventional religious invocations – to Jesus and the Virgin Mary – which could also serve a protective function; religion and healing were inseparable aspects of medieval life (Standley 2013, 79).  As tempting as the medieval preemptive approach may have been to health, though, I’d rather take my chances with today’s doctors and dentists!