Go back to article: A history of amulets in ten objects

A breverl

Our tenth object combines many of the efficacious features of amulets discussed in this article. This is an item thought to protect against the plague, made in Bavaria, Germany in the eighteenth century. Commonly known as ‘breverl’ (Austrian/Bavarian), ‘brevia’ (Latin), ‘briefs’ (English) or ‘brevi’ (Italian), and also by other vernacular expressions such as the Italian ‘lettera di pregheria’ (‘prayer letters’) or Latin ‘charta’ (paper), this group of objects was made formulaically and consisted of various religious or magical components, both manmade and natural (Tycz, 2018).[69] Breverl were composite amulets acting as prophylaxes for their users and owners, often promising defence from diseases such as plague, with most following a similar design: a religious statement of protection (a rubric) followed by short prayer formulas or holy names, a sheet showing images of several saints, and a central composite amulet consisting of a variety of small objects and materials.[70] Produced in many different countries, ‘breverl’ enjoyed widespread popularity among Catholics in eighteenth-century Bavaria and Austria, and were produced in convents for sale to visitors (Tycz, 2018).[71] These objects were intended to remain sealed – not read or looked at – for fear that opening them would render their preservative potency ineffectual (Ettlinger, 1965, p 111). Instead, the amulet was permanently folded (often into decorated paper cases) and worn on the person (Tycz, 2018; Ettlinger, 1965, p 111).[72]

The printed text on this particular example from the Science Museum begins: ‘Breve super se portandum ad gloriam dei, suorumque sanctorum contra daemones’, suggesting this amulet would provide the wearer with saintly protection from demons, demonic possession, and/or harm from those who were possessed.[73] However, it also contains list of formulae and names that were common to many different types of amuletic texts at this time, and suggests it was approved by Pope Urban VIII in 1635 (Tycz, 2018; Skemer, 2015, pp 127–50; Skemer, 2006, passim). The images on the underside sheet of paper include the Virgin Mary and saints including St Francis, St Ignatius, St Antony of Padua and St Francis of Solanus; the latter, canonised in 1726, situating this amulet chronologically.[74] The central composite is affixed with metal pendants, crosses, cloth, coral, seeds, wax, silk, and perhaps even hair and plant materials. The two Zacharias cross or ‘pestkreuz’ in the central portion were known, at this time, to be effective against the plague, confirming the amulet’s multi-functional nature (Skemer, 2016).

Other materials embedded in the paper demonstrate this further; coral, for example, was recognised for its magical, medical and protective effects in the early modern period, and often used to heal (Handley, 2006).[75] The reasons for the inclusion of other materials such as seeds and plant fibres, whilst unknown, perhaps suggest how the breverl drew upon several different types of healing power, combining religious potency with elements of magical power. Other objects in the central composite may have been related to a particular pilgrimage site; pieces of bone or hair may indicate personal relic collections, with names of saints in each corner perhaps indicating a connection with the named figures (Tycz, 2018).

Video 1

Still from a video showing how to open a breverl amulet

A breverl from the Bridwell Library being folded

This breverl, dated 1690–1710, brings together many of the important features of amulets that this article has explored. Its efficacy depended on several components. Like the gold angel, it was to be worn on and kept close to the body it was intended to heal or protect, manifest in its portability. The use of manmade, natural, animal, vegetable and mineral substances demonstrates the multiplicity of materials that amulets could consist of. Like the sigil, its words and images were invested with dynamic potency such that they even worked when never directly read or viewed. Like many amulets, different types of power were combined in the creation and function of the breverl, conflating religious potency with secular and magical forms of potency; demonstrated by the things affixed within the central composite. The variety of materials that make up this amulet and the several curative methods it draws upon render it multi-functional; reputedly protective against both demons and plague, and perhaps even more (Ettlinger, 1965, p 111).[76] Microcosmic of amulets in general, its complexity constitutes its power.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191103/007