The Medieval Invisible Man

By Laura Mitchell

As I promised in my last post, today I want to touch on a magical recipe with ties to some interesting sources. One of the manuscripts I focused on for my dissertation research is Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1435. This is an anonymous manuscript from the fifteenth century that contains mostly academic medical texts and is a large collection of over 180 magical and non-magical recipes in English and Latin in no discernible order. Understandably, in a collection that large the kinds of recipes vary considerably: there are recipes for cooking, metallurgy, divinatory experiments, texts of the virtues… and four experiments for invisibility (pages 7, 12, and 25).

The desire to become invisible seems to be a common theme for the pre-modern magician. Experiments promising this outcome survive in similar recipe collections in London, Wellcome Historical Medical Library MS 517 (a fifteenth-century Dutch collection); Kassel, Murhardsche und Landesbibliothek Codex Medicus 4˚10; the Greek Magical Papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt; Munich, Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek, Clm 849, the German necromantic handbook edited by Richard Kieckhefer in Forbidden Rites; and it is frequently seen in later medieval ritual magic.1 And of course this desire has extended to the modern day with Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility!

Of the four recipes for invisibility in Ashmole 1435 one in particular caught my eye. This is the third one in the manuscript and it is the most complex, bearing a strong resemblance to a necromantic operation for invisibility in Clm 849 and a spell from the Greek Magical Papyri. The Ashmole recipe runs as follows:

Si vis esse inuisibile: accipe vnum canem mortuum et sepilles eum et plantes super eum fabus et vnam in ore tuo et sine dubio eris inuisibile

(If you wish to be invisible: take a dead dog and bury it and plant a bean plant over it and place one in your mouth and without a doubt you will be invisible.)

V0043440 Bean plant (Phaseolus species): flowering and fruiting stem
Bean plant (Phaseolus species): flowering and fruiting stem with three beans. Coloured pen and ink drawing by F. V. Ghini, c.1700. [Credit: Wellcome Library, London]
The Clm 849 operation for invisibility instructs the operator kill a black cat that was born in March.  He cuts out the cat’s eyes and places heliotrope seeds in its eyes and mouth; then he buries the cat while reciting conjurations. Once the plant has sprouted, the practitioner takes each sprouted bean, putting them in his mouth one by one while gazing into a mirror until he turns invisible.2 The similarities are quite remarkable and I would argue that there has been some appropriation of the necromantic ritual here.

The biggest distinction between the two is the lack of conjurations in the Ashmole operation and the distinction between killing a cat and finding a conveniently dead dog. Both of these operations in turn share a resemblance to a short spell from the Greek Magical Papyri from the third or fourth century, in a book titled The Diadem of Moses. In this operation the magician places the dog’s head plant under the tongue while lying down and recites certain magical words.3

It’s hard to say what exactly is going on here. How related are these three rituals? It’s clear that there is some sort of connection between the rituals in Clm 849 and Ashmole 1435, albeit indirectly, but what of their relationship to the spell from The Diadem of Moses? Was there a corruption of the text from the dog’s head plant to the dog/cat of the later operations? Did the Diadem of Moses ritual find itself translated and transported over the centuries across Europe, ending up in one instance in the necromantic manual of an anonymous German scribe, and in another instance in the equally anonymous book of an English scribe? If so (and I don’t see why not), this is an example of a magical recipe surviving and being passed on for over 1200 years.

1. Richard Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).

2. Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites, 60-61; 240.

3. Richard L. Phillips, In Pursuit of Invisibility: Ritual Texts from Late Roman Egypt (Durham, North Carolina: American Society of Papyrologists, 2009), 110-111.

2 thoughts on “The Medieval Invisible Man”

  1. Illustrating a presumed 1200 year old recipe from a 15th Century manuscript with a plate for genus Phaseolus, plants not known in Europe until after 1492? The “bean plant” referenced in the recipe is more likely Vicia faba. Other than that small issue, a quite enjoyable read.

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