Paper as Commodity in Medieval Magical and Medical Practices

By Orietta Da Rold

‘He then looked and saw an amulet sewn into the tarboosh, which he took and opened’

(The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights)

The tale of Nur al-Din and his son Hasan is a well-known tale from the Arabian Nights. It tells the story of Nur al-Din’s self-imposed exile in Basra and of the return to Egypt of his son Hasan. The involvement of magic, the disguise and the subsequent recognition of Hasan as the son of Nur al-Din are all essential elements of the story. But the amulet represents the tangible proof of Hasan’s true identity. The talisman is made with a scroll of paper, folded and stitched in a fold of material then placed in Hasan’s turban. It was given to Hasan by his father just before he died. A token of recognition which unlocks a knotted mystery; a powerful meaningful object which represents the climax of the narrative, because it enables the identification of the male protagonist and the continuation of the story to a happy conclusion.[1] In the Arabian Nights, the writing of words on paper regularly carries symbolic, almost sacred connotations, announcing in a loud and clear voice that paper as a commodity is an integral part of understanding social and cultural custom in fiction and perhaps in real life too.

It is now accepted that Arabian Nights, first mentioned in a ninth-century manuscript fragment, is a compilation of stories which has evolved and extended over the centuries;[2] it is tantalising to suggest that this process of augmentation also absorbed local practices and technologies. Paper arrived in the Arab world well before its introduction to the West and started to be used as a commodity from the eighth century.[3] The amulet on paper is a witness to knowledge and healing in a society fully accustomed to paper. This use in popular lore is indicative of the adoption, acceptance and full participation of a new technology in society (see also the ‘One Million Pagoda’ in Japan). Similar evidence can be traced in the use of paper in charms, amulets, medical or culinary recipes in Western literature and culture from the late medieval period. This evidence, however, is seldom studied or indeed catalogued, although more work has been undertaken on post medieval medical practices.

One fascinating example is Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. MS 553. The volume is a fifteenth-century collection of medical recipes and texts including one charm which claimed to cure all manner of fevers. In this instance, the maker is instructed to write this phrase: ‘for to destruye alle maner of feueres wryt þes ix wordes in pauper’ on a piece of paper.[4] Here, the very act of inscribing these 9 words on paper activate their magical and healing power.

The practice of using paper in medical knowledge and treatments is also seen in another medical treatise translated into English in the fourteenth century. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 1396 and London, British Library, Additional MS 12056 contain a version  of Lanfrank’s Science of Cirurgie. Paper is here used in a number of different ways. In a recipe to whiten teeth, paper was folded and used as a plaster to apply a mixture of flour, sal ana and honey.[5] In another recipe, burnt paper ashes was used, alongside borax, to staunch blood after phlebotomy.[6]

Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O. 1.13, fol. 194v, to be published with the following credits: ‘By permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge’. Photo taken by author.
Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O. 1.13, fol. 194v. By permission of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge. Photo taken by author.

In a final example in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O. 1.13 (fol. 194v), a recipe dating to the late fifteenth-century uses brown paper as a kind of bandage to heal the wound of the head.[7] In all these examples the different proprieties of paper are put to use in different ways for esthetical and healing purposes.

In contrast to Mediterranean countries, England only experienced the importation of paper at the beginning of the fourteenth century. However, as soon as it became available it was adopted in diverse ways. As we recover the significance of the paper revolution in the West and in different geographical locales, in this case England, we often focus on the impact that it had on book production, record keeping and manuscript transmission. We frequently forget that the great success that paper enjoys as technology and craft is in direct proportion to its multiple uses to fulfill different needs and, as such, demands more attention.

The examples I have included above explain that paper started to be employed in traditional medical practices as an alternative to textiles to attend to injuries. This is what I call the ‘textile’ economy in medical customs, which largely employed linen cloth and wool to medicate and wrap wounds, but also to make potions.

Cambridge St John’s College, MS B. 15, fol. 11v. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.
Cambridge St John’s College, MS B. 15, fol. 11v. By permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.

Cambridge, St John’s College, MS B.15 is another collection of medical recipes, in which a recipe advises to cure pain and the inflation of nerves with black wool (fol. 11v). The recipes says ‘Tak blak wolle as it growth between þe schepe legges’ and carries on advising how to wash it in in warm water to make a concoction derived from the water to cure nerves.

This phenomenon should not be surprising because in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England, grocers, spice dealers and haberdashers sold paper to meet a wide range of practical needs outside the book trade. For example, in the 1360s the household of King John II of France purchased paper from a certain Berthëlemi Mine, a spice dealer in London to wrap up jam (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS FR 11205).

It should not, therefore, be surprising that paper as a technological innovation contributed to both literary as well as medical texts. Both served specific purposed in society and both contributed to popular lore with the determination of improving life; in the case of the Arabian Nights, actually prolonging life itself.


Orietta Da Rold is a University Lecture in The Faculty of English and a Fellow of St John’s College at the University of Cambridge. She has worked for many years on the impact of paper in late medieval England. Da Rold is the Director of the Mapping Paper project and is currently working on a monograph seeking to explore the impact that paper had in the pre-printing world by considering how paper enabled the mobility of knowledge and dissemination of learning by enriching literary, cultural and technological practices.

[1] On this practice, see Don C. Skemer, Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages, Magic in History (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006)

[2] R. Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion (London: Penguin, 1995)

[3] J. Bloom, Paper before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).

[4] S. J. Ogilvie-Thomson, Index of Middle English Prose, Handlist XVI, Manuscripts in the Laudian Collection Bodleian Library, Oxford (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000), p. 69, item 41. I should like to thank Lea T. Olsan for drawing my attention to this reference.

[5] ‘If a mannes teeþ ben blac, in þis maner þou schalt make hem whit / farinam ordei, sal ana, & leie hem in hony, & make þerof past & folde it in paper or in lynnen clooþ’; Robert von Fleischhacker, ed., Lanfrank’s “Science of Cirurgie“, E.E.T.S., O.S. (London, 1894), p. 265.

[6] ‘þan sette þervpon a ventuse for to drawe þerto blood. & þan anoynte þe same place wiþ blood, & þan sette þervpon þe watir leche. & whanne he is ful & þou wolt do him awei, blowe vpon þe place baurac, ouþer askis maad of paper’; Robert von Fleischhacker, ed., Lanfrank’s “Science of Cirurgie“, E.E.T.S., O.S. (London, 1894), p. 305.

[7] ‘ffor the sowndinge in the hedd: take ij sheetes of browne paper’. Cambridge, Trinity College, MS O. 1.13, fol. 194v.

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