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

Conclusion – amulets as a part of the history of healing

These ten objects have provided a glimpse of how amulets can tell stories about the history of healing. They have demonstrated their diversity in many ways. Their material composition ranged from natural to manmade, or human to animal; to metals, papers, woods and plastics. Some were inscribed and stamped, denoting symbols, images, numbers and words. Most were suspended from bodies; others from buildings. Some material properties were featured often, commonly available and sought after; whilst the value of others was determined by their status as rarities. The primary function of some amulets was to heal or protect a body, animal or home. In other cases, the curative or prophylactic role of an amulet was a secondary function, established and perpetuated by the owner, collector, possessor or wearer. Some aligned with religious and spiritual potency; others drew upon the faculties of astrology, magic, fate, fortune or luck. Yet despite this great variety, culturally and materially distinct elements work in symbiosis in the manufacture and use of an amulet. No single material, feature or source of power is incompatible with another. In many cases, these objects gained potency and value precisely by combining several elements together (we need only remember our last two amulets).

This is not to argue that we cannot identify cultural shifts and historical discontinuities with regard to these things. When viewed together, these ten amulets lived through a period of monumental change as well as continuity. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation brought religious turbulence and upheaval to Europe from the early sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century, as Protestant reformers attempted to reform the church and a schism was generated within Western Christianity. More recently, the increasing secularisation of society had effects that are reflected in material objects. Astrology receded from established employment, and luck became more prominent. New materials such as plastics appeared. Yet many elements remained constant – words and inscriptions have been used to render and represent curative and prophylactic power from the earliest amulets in our examination to the most recently manufactured. Rarities continued to be revered as potent items. Many still drew upon human materials; many used or were intended for animals. Most continued to be potent only when worn close to the body. All relied on faith in the power of material objects. And all formed a part of the history of healing.

These are by no means black and white statements. Just as these ten amulets present one history, other narratives could be found from the analysis of another ten. Yet this article has demonstrated the often-overlooked complexities of amulets, and their situation as a real, potent facet of healing and prophylaxis within their own contexts. The ten objects analysed in this paper evidence important features of illness, health, protection and life that would be lost if we sought answers from texts alone. They show us that from the early modern period to the modern day, healing and protection employed many different sources of power, and took various different material forms. Amulets do not have to be considered universally according to every institution or individual; part of the appeal of using objects in historical research is precisely that different contexts and narratives can be unfolded using the same thing. However, it is important to question these objects and explore their histories; to remember that the status, function, value and cultural meaning of amulets are not fixed but ever-changing; not to disregard or uncritically accept their complexities, but actively engage with them. This article has argued for the dismissal of anachronisms and of treating amulets as a monolithic group of bizarre, mysterious objects, belonging to an enigmatic, alien past. Instead, by exploring their differing powers and values, we can discover not only about the things themselves, but their various social and functional contexts, and their legitimate place in the history of early modern healing. If we give amulets a chance, like the sceptical Pepys did with his hare’s foot, we too might be pleasantly surprised.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/191103/008