The Disappearance of Charms from a Fifteenth-Century Notebook

By Laura Mitchell

Snake amulet, N. London, c. 1870-1916. To treat back pain. Image Credit: Wellcome Collections, London.
Snake amulet, N. London, c. 1870-1916. To treat back pain. Image Credit: Wellcome Collections, London.

Studying medieval charms can bring to light a lot of intriguing social practices and help us to understand what sorts of everyday worries occupied the mind of a medieval person. It can also be an exercise in frustration at the limitations of our information. The Trinity College Library MS O.1.57 manuscript (Cambridge) offers just one such case. This household notebook was originally copied and owned by the Haldenby family and members of their household compiled in the first half of the fifteenth century.[1]

The manuscript contains texts that range from medical recipes to physiognomy to gunpowder recipes. The Haldenby family was part of the lower gentry of fifteenth-century Northamptonshire and the book reflects a significant sub-section of the gentry who, along with members of the secular clergy, were interested in medical and scientific texts.

The Haldenby family and its household also seems to have had an interest in magical or quasi-magical texts, including the Serpentium corius, a group of magical and non-magical experiments using snakeskin, texts on the virtues of plants and animals, which include a number of items of natural magic, and an ad hoc book of secrets containing charms and magic tricks in their notebook, as well as the charms. The charms themselves are nothing extraordinary as far as fifteenth sensibilities go: a charm against fire, three medical charms, a charm to catch a thief, and a love charm (discussed in a previous entry).

Of particular interest to me for this post are three of charms scattered throughout the manuscript: charms for a sore, for sleep, and to catch a thief. All three were originally labelled as charms, but at some point in their history these titles were partially or completely erased by carefully scraping them off.[2] Now these headings are only visible under UV light!

The charm for a sore began with the heading “<A charme> for þo felun” and the sleep charm ended with “Þis is <a charme> for a man þat may not slepe.” The charm to catch a thief originally had an elaborate heading below the charm that consisted of a face and scroll that read “Carmen pro fures” [Charm for thieves], although the heading, like those for the medical charms. In addition to being erased, the thief charm was also partially covered by a later pen drawing, making it especially difficult to see even under under UV light.

Complete erasures of objectionable texts often occurred, as in the Arundel MS 342 (British Library), in which instructions for conjuring spirits has been partly erased.[3] The Sloane MS 513 (British Library) also suffers from an admittedly shoddy attempt at censure of its copy of the Ars notaria. These cases, at least, were more problematic magic rituals.

Examples of two much later French charms (18th century) to hold or to stop snakes. Source: Wellcome MS 4171.  Photograph: Lisa Smith.
Examples of two much later French charms (18th century) to hold or to stop snakes. Source: Wellcome MS 4171. Photograph: Lisa Smith.

However, in TCC O.1.57 there was only a partial erasure. It is impossible to know when these erasures happened: was it in the generation immediately following the original owners? Was it the sixteenth-century owners? The latter seems unlikely given their inclusion of a love charm in the sixteenth century. Moreover, why remove only the title and not the content? This mysterious eraser may have wanted to take advantage of the contents of these charms while publicly denying their true nature.

It seems clear that whoever erased these titles was more concerned about the perceived nature of their book rather than the reality. Indeed, the charm to catch a thief could easily have been cut out entirely without affecting any other text in the book. Less clear is why there was such a concern, since such charms were used throughout the early modern period (as Lisa Smith recently discussed for an eighteenth-century manuscript). Perhaps the owners simply felt particular concern about the respectability of their book at one point in time… It is doubtful that we will ever know.


[1] Genealogical entries regarding the Haldenby and Mortemer families give the manuscript a terminus post quem of 1454.

[2] The other three charms do not have such obvious headings.

[3] Sophie Page includes an image from the Arundel manuscript in Magic in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 39.


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