Category Archives: Charms

Tales from the Archives — Recipes Against the Supernatural

In September 2017, The Recipes Project celebrated its fifth birthday. We now have over 600 posts in our archives and over 150 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

Today is Halloween. HALLOWEEN! Many of us recipe people who work on the premodern period have a fondness for Halloween, with its connections to charms, alchemy, cauldrons bubbling, and all. Yes, yes, I know… it’s really a love/hate relationship, as we often have to explain to people that supernatural beliefs were rationale and that most recipes weren’t about magic anyhow. But… HALLOWEEN!

To that end, I’ve pulled out only one of our many posts on the magical world. Catherine Rider offers here some thoughts on what charms might tell us about the connection between the supernatural and illness. There is even a protective charm for those ‘sleeping, waking, drinking, eating, and especially dreaming’…

You never know what might be useful on this day of lowered boundaries between natural and supernatural worlds!


By Catherine Rider

I’ve been thinking recently about a kind of recipe I’ve been collecting for some time, with an eye to using them in a future project: recipes that protect against evil spirits and other supernatural entities. These take the form of charms, made up of spoken and written words, rather than more conventional mixtures of plants or animal parts.  As Laura Mitchell has noted before on this blog, many medieval recipe collections (such as the one in the Wellcome Library pictured below) include charms alongside other remedies.

L0013901 Charm to staunch blood, 15-16th century
Charm to staunch blood, 15-16th century. Wellcome Library MS 406. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Research by Lea Olsan, Eamon Duffy and other scholars has shown that although some medieval physicians and churchmen were uncomfortable with charms, most writers accepted them as legitimate cures for certain kinds of illness, including bleeding, toothache and epilepsy. They were also often regarded as a mainstream part of religious devotion.[1] Charms to ward off demons are not very common – nowhere near as common as charms against toothache or bleeding – but I’ve found several examples in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century recipe manuscripts.

The version given, in Latin, in a fourteenth-century recipe manuscript published by Fritz Heinrich begins ‘In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen,’ and goes on to list a series of saints and other objects of devotion commonly appealed to in late medieval prayers: Virgin Mary, the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the Cross and the Passion, and the Five Wounds of Christ. This prayer is to be written down and God is implored to protect the person who wears these words when they are ‘sleeping, waking, drinking, eating, and especially dreaming’, ‘from every malign demon and every malign spirit and the instigations of the devil.’[2]

This charm, and others like it, are raising quite a few questions for me:

  • Bishop exorcising possessed men, 15th century. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.
    Bishop exorcising possessed men, 15th century. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

    They’re not that common.  Does that mean that demonic assault was not regarded as a common condition?  We do find accounts of ‘possessed’ people in the miracle collections kept by saints’ shrines, so clearly the idea of demonic attack was not unknown.  However, these cases may have been notable because they were unusual, not necessarily because they were common.

  • What symptoms or conditions were attached to this charm?  The reference to sleeping and ‘especially dreaming’ suggests bad or troubling dreams, rather than an illness. Another possibility is the medical condition which medieval physicians called ‘incubus’, in which a person feels a presence pushing down on them in their sleep.[3]  It is usually equated by historians with the condition now called sleep paralysis.  Educated medieval physicians generally argued that this condition had physical rather than supernatural causes, but they also noted that ‘some people’ believed demons were behind it.
  • There are also questions about continuity and change over the longer term.  Do we get more of these charms from the sixteenth century onwards, when we see rising concerns about witchcraft and more intellectuals taking an interest in demons and demonic illnesses? We know that magical illnesses continued to be a concern and Jennifer Evans discussed some early modern remedies for them in 2012 in a column for the Societas Magica newsletter.  Also, what happens to this kind of medieval charm after the Reformation?  Did it appear too Catholic with its saints and Latin?  Were there Protestant equivalents?  Or did it continue to be copied despite its old-fashioned elements?
  • Was this charm used? And, if so, how? It would need someone who could write it down, and ideally someone who was familiar with Latin. By the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, that could include some medical practitioners and educated laypeople, but clergy also owned manuscripts of medical recipes and might be best placed to use this kind of charm.

I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but in the long term I’d like to build the charms in to a larger project on supernatural illnesses in medieval medicine and I’m hoping that small pieces of evidence like these might eventually start to offer a bigger picture.


[1] See for example Lea Olsan, ‘Charms and Prayers in Medieval Medical Theory and Practice’, Social History of Medicine 16 (2003), pp. 343-66 (on medical writers); Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (New Haven, CT, 1992), ch. 8 (on charms and religion).

[2] Fritz Heinrich (ed.) Ein Mittelenglisches Medizinbuch (Halle, 1896), p. 166.

[3] Maaike van der Lugt, “The Incubus in Scholastic Debate: Medicine, Theology and Popular Belief,” in Religion and Medicine in the Middle Ages, ed. Peter Biller and Joseph Ziegler (Woodbridge, 2001), pp. 175-200.

Artifacts at an Exhibition: The Art and Science of Healing at the University of Michigan

By Pablo Alvarez

Last February we opened the exhibit, “The Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance,” at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the University of Michigan Library. The show explores the early history of Western medicine as illustrated by a selection of archaeological objects, papyri, medieval manuscripts, and early printed books. Among the earliest artifacts on display is a second century AD papyrus with a text from the Greek botanist Dioscorides’ On Materia Medica. Closing the exhibit is the first edition of William Harvey’s  Anatomical Treatise on the Movement of the Heart and Blood in Animals (1628).   In brief, the exhibit has been designed to inspire future conversations on some vital themes, including the role of religion and magic in healing the soul and body, the persistence of Graeco-Roman methods of diagnosis and treatment in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the multilingual transmission of medical knowledge in both manuscript and printed form.

After having curated several exhibits, I can say that my favorite artifacts tend to be those about which I initially knew less.  I did not know much about the medical material hidden in a fascinating book of mysterious origin, the Book of Secrets, erroneously attributed to Aristotle.  From Cornelius Celsus (fl. 25 AD) and Paul of Aegina (ca. 625-ca. 690) I learned much on the use of ancient medical implements, particularly about surgical instruments.

Medical Set with Forceps and Various Hooks; Rome; Roman period; Bronze; 130 x 32 mm (average) KM 1485; Walter Dennison, 1909.
Medical Set with Forceps and Various Hooks; Rome; Roman period; Bronze; 130 x 32 mm (average) KM 1485; Walter Dennison, 1909.

 

And I knew little about the fascinating world of medical amulets, extraordinary witnesses of every-day anxieties about illness and death in antiquity and beyond. Worn as necklaces or bracelets, fever amulets made of papyrus or lead seemed to be everywhere. But even more ubiquitous were medical amulets in the form of gemstones skillfully engraved with symbolic iconography and magical spells. Below is my favorite one: an example of a uterine amulet.

Uterine Amulet; Egypt; in Greek; 1st–5th century AD; Hematite, black; 18 x 15 x 4 mm; SCL–Bonner 21
Uterine Amulet; Egypt; in Greek; 1st–5th century AD; Hematite, black; 18 x 15 x 4 mm; SCL–Bonner 21
Uterine Amulet; Egypt; in Greek; 1st–5th century AD; Hematite, black; 18 x 15 x 4 mm; SCL–Bonner 21
Uterine Amulet; Egypt; in Greek; 1st–5th century AD; Hematite, black; 18 x 15 x 4 mm; SCL–Bonner 21

 

The engravings scattered on this small piece of hematite are fairly standard in this type of amulets. Ouroboros—a snake eating its tail, probably a metaphorical representation of the abyss—encloses a pot with the mouth downward which, resembling a medical cupping vessel for bloodletting, represents the womb. From the bottom of this cupping vessel two curved lines on each side depict the ligaments and uterine tubes discovered by Herophilos of Alexandria. Attached to the pot is a key with a knobbed handle, suggesting that control of the mechanism of opening and closing the womb would facilitate  fertility and childbirth. In the upper half of the stone, we see a series of protective deities. On the left, we see the mummy of Anubis, the Greek name for a jackal-headed god associated with the afterlife in Egyptian religion; in the center is Chnoubis, a coiled serpent with a lion head and six rays around it, believed to prevent abdominal pain and ensure an easy childbirth. On the right is Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility and motherhood. On the edges, we read a long magical formula in the form of a meaningless babbling repetition of syllables: σοροορμερφεργαρβαρμαφριου[ριγξ]. And on the reverse is a two-line magical inscription: ορωρ | ιουθ.[i]

Finally, since this blog is devoted to the history of recipes, it might be suitable to end this post with the following medical text preserved in a second-century AD papyrus.

Medical text; Egypt; in Greek; 2nd c. AD; Papyrus; 136 x 60 mm; P. Mich. inv. 1469
Medical text; Egypt; in Greek; 2nd c. AD; Papyrus; 136 x 60 mm; P. Mich. inv. 1469

 

This small fragment consists of a single column from a scroll containing a medical treatise in Greek. The subject of the text is dietary recommendations to patients afflicted with constipation. Below is the English translation:

To take the small portion of food, to drink all the previously mentioned liquids, and to drink in addition a little new wine, diluted until somewhat watery. To those who have a persistent constipation hard to clear up, much more than the quantities prescribed are given; but to those who suffer from weakness, less. And a moderate diet is prescribed when the bowels have become more relaxed. The risk of injury to the eyes has been previously mentioned…[ii]

To learn more about the rest of the exhibit, please visit the online version here, or visit us in person if you happen to be in the Ann Arbor area in the next few days. The last day of the exhibit is April 30th!

*****

Pablo Alvarez is Outreach Librarian and Curator at the Special Collections Library, University of Michigan. He is currently completing the edition and English translation of Alonso Victor de Paredes’ Institucion, y origen del arte de la imprenta, y reglas generales para los componedores, a Spanish printer’s manual produced in Madrid around 1680.

[i] Campbell Bonner, Studies in Magical Amulets, Chiefly Graeco-Egyptian, University of Michigan Studies, Humanistic Series 49 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950) 274.

[ii] Isabella Andorlini, “Istruzioni dietetiche e farmacologiche,” Papyrology, Naphtali Lewis ed., Yale Classical Studies 28 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 49–56.

Practical Magic in a Suffolk Village

By Edward Higgs

In 2000 I was foolish enough to buy a listed house in an old Suffolk weaving village in eastern England. The building had originally been built in about 1400, probably as a merchant’s house with a shop (the round arches) in one corner.

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

However, it had since had numerous makeovers: by the Elizabethans, when the main chimney was installed during the ‘Great Rebuilding’; by the Georgians who introduced glass windows; and in the 1950s, when new electrics were put in and first of a series of rather nasty extensions added. The Georgians (or at least someone using late 18th century bricks) also added a fireplace and chimney in the largest of the upstairs bedrooms.

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

The chimney was short-lived because late 19th century photographs show no sign of it. But the fireplace, a ton of bricks dumped unsupported in the corner of the bedroom on the medieval floor joists, survived. This had led to the splitting of some of the medieval timbers beneath, and threatened to tip one corner of the house into the street.

In the circumstances permission was easily obtained from the listing authorities to take the structure out, which I did myself. However, as I took down the bricks row by row various objects began to appear out of the dust and rubble that had accumulated in a cavity to the side of the chimney breast. First a candlestick, then shoes, the ribs of fans, strips of textiles, sharp objects (nails, bobbin pins, a razor, shards of glass), a comb, and eventually the remains of halved lemons. What exactly was going on here?

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

Some research revealed that this assemblage was probably a form of practical (or apotropaic) magic used to ward off evil.[1] In pre-modern Europe it was believed that witches, their familiars, or other evil forces could easily infiltrate the house from outside, gaining access through windows, and cracks in doorways and walls. As King James I of England wrote in his Daemonologie of 1597 regarding witches’ familiars:

Some of them sayeth, that being transformed in the likenesse of a little beast or foule, they will come and pearce through whatsoeuer house or Church, though all ordinarie passages be closed, by whatsoeuer open, the aire may enter in at.[2]

Reginald Scot, writing in his Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1583, listed the plethora of evil entities commonly feared as:

Spirits, witches, urchens, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, pans, faunes, sylens, kit with the cansticke, tritons, centaurs, dwarfes, giants, imps, calcars, conjurors, nymphes, changlings, Incubus, Robin good-fellowe, the spoorne, the mare, the man in the oke, the hell waine, the fierdrake, the puckle, Tom thombe, hob gobblin, Tom tumbler, boneles, and such other bugs ….[3]

With such a plethora of evil forces acting like Wi-Fi, how was one to protect the home, and especially the chimney and hearth, both the centre of the home and its weakest point? The answer was to place simulacra of the body in the chimney to act as decoys, and to draw the evil away, and the most frequent form of such distributed embodiment was the shoe. Shoes, which have been found up chimneys in houses all over Britain, Europe, North America and Australia down into the early 20th century, could act as decoys because they retained the shape of their wearer. This was especially the case since, prior to industrial mass production, the local cobbler would make shoes using a wooden lathe based on individuals’ own feet. As frequently happened in the pre-modern world, a sign-object standing in for its owner or user created a duplicate presence, a presence not actual but nonetheless real. Once ensnared the source of evil could be subjected to pain and discomfort from the fire of the candlestick, the sharp points of pins and knives, and the bitterness of the lemons, although all these had themselves magic properties.

Such counter-spells are just one of the forms of apotropaic magic in the house. You can find secret signs under windows:

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

‘W’ scratched on timbers, possibly indicating ‘Virgo Virginum’ – Virgin of Virgins, or Mary Mother of Christ:

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

And concentric circles on doorways, which acted to trap evil spirits in an endless maze:

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

The house itself has become a ritual object designed to repel harmful forces, although now, fortunately, with underfloor heating!

[1] For a general discussion of practical magic see: Ronald Hutton (ed.), Physical Evidence for Ritual Acts, Sorcery and Witchcraft in Christian Britain: a Feeling for Magic (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
[2] James I, Daemonology, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/25929, p. 32.
[3] Reginald Scot, Discoverie of Witchcraft https://ia800201.us.archive.org/32/items/discoverieofwitc00scot/discoverieofwitc00scot.pdf , p.122.

*****

Professor Higgs studied modern history at the University of Oxford, completing his doctoral research there in 1978 on the history of nineteenth-century domestic service. He was an archivist at the Public Record Office, the national archives in London, from 1978 to 1993, where he was responsible for policy relating to the archiving of electronic records. He was a senior research fellow at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine of the University of Oxford, 1993-1996, and a lecturer at the University of Exeter from 1996 to 2000. His early published work was on Victorian domestic service, although he has written widely on the history of censuses and surveys, civil registration, women’s work, the impact of the digital revolution on archives, the information state, and the history of identification.

Re-Centering Europe

By Clare Griffin

St Mary Basilica, Cracow From Wiki Commons
St Mary’s Basilica, Cracow
From Wiki Commons

Think about the histories of Europe, European medicine, European science or European magic and witchcraft you have on your desk. Think about the European cookbooks, or travel guides, or novels you have heard about. How many of them cover events, characters, places, cultures, or cuisines further east than Berlin? Of those that do, how many jump from Berlin to Moscow, bypassing the cities in between? Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe tend to be treated by English-speakers as a world apart.

In academia, expertise on those countries is corralled into regional studies departments, rather than dealt with as European history. In part, this is a relic of the twentieth century, reflecting and replicating Churchill’s idea of an Iron Curtain that cut Europe in two. As The Recipes Project often demonstrates, regions and recipes go hand in hand. There is our sister series on Russian recipes. Similar series deal with the early modern Netherlands, China, and Ancient Greece and Rome. After all, anyone reading the ‘country of origin’ labels in their local supermarket knows that recipes link together ingredients and places. This month, we will use recipes to tear down the academic Iron Curtain, reclaiming this region not only as Central Europe, but as a central part of Europe.

from Wiki Commons
Map of Modern Central and Eastern Europe            from Wiki Commons

Focusing on place and space is important – where is Central and Eastern Europe? What does it look like? What is its political geography? South-Eastern Europe is perhaps more familiar in its fictionalized guise on Game of Thrones. In that series, Croatia’s Dubrovnik stands in as both King’s Landing and Qarth. Similarly, Prague and other Czech towns have been the location for numerous fictional intrigues: Karlovy Vary stood in for Montenegro in Casino Royale

A view of the old city of Dubrovnik. from Wiki Commons
A view of the old city of Dubrovnik.
from Wiki Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In real life, medieval and early modern Central and Eastern Europe saw power struggles and battles no less dramatic than those of Tyrion Lannister and James Bond. At various periods, Dubrovnik was under the protection of the Byzantine Empire, the Venetian Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary, and the Habsburg Empire.  These waxing and waning dynastic and imperial powers commonly intersected with religious divisions. In the Byzantine-controlled and Russian-influenced lands, Eastern Orthodoxy was the majority religion.

The Ottoman Empire in 1683 From Wiki Commons
The Ottoman Empire in 1683
From Wiki Commons

The Ottomans were the major Muslim power of the region, building mosques across South Eastern Europe that stand today. The Habsburgs and the Jagellonians were both traditionally Catholic dynasties, tying themselves and their empires to Rome, despite the Reformation making converts among many of their subjects. There were also substantial Jewish populations in many cities throughout the region. Each of these religions made their mark upon the landscape, with mosques, synagogues and churches, graveyards, and crosses of various kinds crowding the skylines.

In the shadow of these landmarks, Europeans wrote and followed recipes.

Medieval Serbian Mosque From Wiki Commons
Medieval Serbian Mosque
From Wiki Commons

As Marija-Ana Dürrigl and Stella Fatović-Ferenčić’s post highlights, men of the cloth jotted down medical recipes in their liturgy books. This was a Europe-wide phenomenon: from Porto to Moscow, the clergy wrote recipes, preserving them in religious manuscripts. Lay Europeans were often concerned with their stomachs. The post by Christopher Nicholson deals with recipes to husband fish. Originating in Bohemia, the text was translated and read as far away as England. Bohemians were not alone in wanting a nice fish dinner. For unhappy European households, food could lead to poisoning or bewitchment. Magic, for good or for ill, was used across Europe. Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov and Margaret Dimitrova’s post presents us with some examples of Slavic magic. A more specialized pursuit of pre-modern Europeans was alchemy. Alchemists, like those in Agnieszka Rec’s post, created networks across Europe. They circulated books, and themselves travelled from place to place. To read European recipes is to see how Europe is connected.

The Holy Roman Empire in 1648 from Wiki Commons
The Holy Roman Empire in 1648
from Wiki Commons

In order to read recipes, you need to know the language, and the alphabet, in which they are written. This is where people often see Central and Eastern Europe as divided from Western Europe. Don’t people from those places use different languages? Not always. Agnieszka Rec’s alchemists found recipes in Poland-Lithuania, but wrote in German. Christopher Nicholson’s Bohemian fish were described in Latin and English. Sometimes, the recipes are in different languages, and in different alphabets.  For example, Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov and Margaret Dimitrova’s recipes are in the Church Slavonic language and the Cyrillic alphabet. Marija-Ana Dürrigl and Stella Fatović-Ferenčićs texts are also in Church Slavonic. But they would not be comprehensible everyone who reads Church Slavonic (including me). These texts use the Glagolitic alphabet. Recipes show us connections, but they also show us the uniqueness of their authors, dividing as well as uniting.

Codex Zographensis from Wiki Commons
Codex Zographensis in Glagolitic
from Wiki Commons

 

 For the next four Thursdays, The Recipes Project will be returning to this region. We hope you will join us as our contributors take us further into Central, Eastern and South Eastern European recipes, to see how those texts bring Europe together.