21 Pages


The curse is usually defi ned as a formula by whose mere expression its speaker seeks to infl ict harm on others.1 This defi nition is at once too narrow and too broad: too narrow because the person who utters a curse often does not think of the execration as a harmful act at all, but sees it, for example, in its prophetic function as an objective statement about impending events. (The medieval literature on cursing concentrates on this theme in particular.) And the defi nition is too broad because various performative acts such as legal judgments may also infl ict harm on somebody by their mere pronouncement, but nonetheless would not normally be considered curses. The customary defi nition, then, is insuffi cient. At times, the defi nition is augmented by the assertion that curses are reactions to a transgression, thereby turning them into primordial acts of restituting rightful law and justice.2 That is itself a reactive conception, for it presumes that societal structures are always already given without considering how and to what extent speech acts like curses and oaths themselves contribute to the process of constituting laws and institutions.3 Admittedly, the heterogeneity of the phenomenon makes it diffi cult to fi nd a more useful defi nition. Even the word’s etymology is lost in obscurity: “Curse,” according to the fi rst edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, is “of unknown origin”; no similar word exists in the Germanic, Romance and Celtic languages.4 The German “Fluch” seems to be derived from the Germanic root “fl oka-,” denoting acts of striking, splitting and thrusting; but even this etymology is uncertain.5 The words “curse” and “Fluch” are not derivable and not strictly defi nable. They cover several semantic fi elds that are separated in other languages, for example in Hebrew. The Hebrew terms that in Bible translations are rendered as “curse” essentially designate either an act of punishment by God (arûr, ʸ˒ ʸ ˌ ), or an appeal to His avenging justice (alah, ʤʬʕ ˌ ).6 The concept of “curse” in this respect is overdetermined. It is exactly this semantic condensation that, since the early Middle Ages, is decisive for the prevalent Christian use of this term in Europe: malediction is at once an appeal to, and a condemnation through a punitive divine judgment, however the correlation and effi cacy of these two aspects may be construed. In the culture of the Middle Ages and of the early modern era, the curse can, at best, be defi ned through this ambiguity.