In the strange annals of medieval manuscripts is one held by the British Library designated as Royal 2 A XX, which contains the Lord’s Prayer, sections from the Gospels, several hymns and litanies—and several “Blutsegens,” or “blood charms”: series of prayers and magical incantations to ward against excessive and painful menstruation. The manuscript, which dates to the ninth century, contains at least three different blood charms, though the second is what concerns us here. The passage begins by calling three times on Beronice, an apocryphal figure who was supposedly cured by excessive bleeding after she touched the hem of Jesus’s garment. There is a line from Psalm 51:14: “Deliver me from bloods, O God, thou God of my salvation,” and transcriptions of some older chants and spells, once passed down orally, resulting in an odd blend of early Christian belief and pagan magic.
After a few more incantations and prayers, the charm concludes with a string of Greek letters that appeared, for centuries, to be nothing but gibberish. That is, until classicist Lloyd W. Daly published a short article in 1982, in which he pointed out that the string of Greek letters could be translated as the phrase, “Having reaped I established a lofty-roofed monument.”
What does a nonsense phrase like this have to do with menstruation? Daly further notes that a colleague, Jeffrey Rusten, further noted that the phrase is a palindrome. And palindromes, we know, often have a magical power ascribed to them. The Latin palindrome, SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS, is perhaps a more well-known example of this—it’s literal meaning (often translated as “The plowman Arepo works his wheel with difficulty”) is subordinate to its status as a palindrome, which has guaranteed its appearance throughout the world, from graffiti to sacred art. The palindrome, as a phrase in which letters achieve a kind of mathematic symmetry while not losing sense entirely, has long been a favorite component of spells, amulets, and charms. This assumption that a palindrome in and of itself has a kind of power accounts for their transmission through the ages, even when its meanings may be unknown.
More fascinating, though, is the fact that the scribe who copied this phrase likely had no idea what it meant, nor even that it was a palindrome. Daly, discussing this passage, notes that Greek was unknown in England during the time—the scribe, then, dutifully copied a Latin text when he came across an unknown language, a series of meaningless symbols, a bit of gibberish. Nonetheless, he transcribed it, because even as a series of symbols, the nature of a palindrome is apparent, its symmetry evident even to a barbarian, and this symmetry confers a magical power that outweighs any need for sense. “When a scribe copies in Greek in an England that understands no Greek is there any comprehension? In the case I am thinking of….there would seem to be only the scribe’s comprehension that he is copying magic and spells.”
Sometimes what gets saved and preserved from destruction is not a matter of what’s important, or even what makes any sense, but what has power—and power, it turns out, is a fairly fungible concept. It’s difficult to say whether or not the phrase, “Having reaped, I established a loftily-roofed monument,” has any more meaning than a series of indecipherable symbols that are nonetheless symmetrical. But its power as an incantation gave it enough currency to ensure its survival through the years, copied by the hand of an unknowing scribe.
Who was this scribe? We’ll never know, of course, who he was, or much about him—only his handwriting is known to us. One of the most fascinating things about working with manuscripts that predate the printing press is this facet—the hand that copies the text, plainly visible and yet transparent.
Daly’s short article on the palindrome, meanwhile, ends with a curious, touching note: “I would like to record that my attention was drawn to this material by Allen Lampert, a graduate student in English, whose studies had brought him to the manuscript,” Daly writes. “I had not had time to share with him the above results when our very pleasant conferences were brought to an end by his sudden and lamentable death.”
Of Allen Lampert, I must confess, I have been able to learn very little. Daly himself died in 1989, and there is not much available online that could point to an English graduate student Allen Lampert or his work. Yet, like that earlier English scribe, he lingers over this story, a midwife and a ghost, who nonetheless helped transmit this material to a future audience. His name, appearing as it does in an almost throwaway reference in a short piece about a throwaway line of Greek, must serve as its own monument.
Haydn’s Palindrome: Symphony No. 47
Colin Dickey is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking), along with two other books of nonfiction. He is also the editor, with Joanna Ebenstein, of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology, and he teaches at National University.