Magical Charms, Love Potions, and Surreal Tricks

A compact fifteenth-century paper book, MS Sloane 1315 (British Library, London), stands as a manuscript witness to many of the works of popular Middle English instruction.

The book might be said to be a miscellany or multi-text manuscript that is home to vernacular works of the kind that were widely-read and much copied in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Among its many texts is

  • a copy of the courtesy text The Boke of Nurture, purported to have been compiled by John Russell in the service of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester;
  • a treatise on lucky and unlucky days;
  • a leechbook;
  • a verse lunary called “The Thirty Days of the Moon” (extant in several manuscripts of this kind);
  • an abridged version of the widely-circulated Wise Book of Philosophy and Astronomy;
  • a copy of the popular herbal known as the Agnus Castus;
  • a medical regimen with the title “A Generall Rewle for to yeue Medycyns”.
‘The Zodiac Man’, or homo signorum, is a diagram of a human body and astrological symbols. This example is taken from a 15th-century Welsh manuscript. Credit: National Library of Wales.

But why stop there? Sloane 1315 also preserves a dietary, and is well-illustrated with useful diagrams, charts, and curative aids in the form of calendars and astrological tables. There is even a homo signorum at ff. 68–69.

The manuscript, originating in the south-east of England, is likely to have served a individual practising astrological and herbal medicine, collating a series of texts and tables that would have been useful to that individual.

The layout and page placements in the manuscript suggests regular consultation. For example, there are clear headings supplied throughout. Although the manuscript is in many ways unremarkable, it is clear and accessible, written in a legible cursive hand.

BL MS Sloane 1315, f 28r. Courtesy of the British Library Board.

The book is, however, remarkable in one aspect. In the midst of the many works is a curious collection of short medical recipes, interspersed with a series of short texts that might be described as recipes and charms. Some of these recipes are magical or fantastic, or contain properties associated with illusion or trickery. Laura Mitchell has previously written at The Recipes Project about ludic and lascivious medieval charms.

The ones in Sloane 1315 are strangely at odds with the rest of the texts, sitting rather uncomfortably with the diagnostic and curative theme of the volume as a whole. They are extremely varied, to the point of almost being random: some of the more extreme examples with spell-like qualities include charms to “make a flodde of water to com into a howse”, to “make a lofe of brede to dawnce in an oven or on a tabull” (which calls for the use of quicksilver), and “to make a howse seeme full of snakys.”[1]

There is a method as well to “make a lampe to bren wythowte fyre”, which seems to involve soaking a wick in oil, and one to “make a whyte spotte on a blacke horsse”, which involves anointing a horse with water which has been steeped in a special herb. One that caught my eye (and too late for Valentine’s Day 2019!) is a short instruction “How to Make a Woman to love the”, which I transcribe here (with light edits):

Take the harte of coluere and bren hit on a ty3le ine to powder, and yeve here thereof in mete or dryncke; and sche schall love the

The text calls for the “harte of a coluere” – the heart of a snake – to be burned and ground into powder, then sprinkled into the food or drink of a woman. It reads like something that students at Hogwarts might create using snake fangs or skins in their Potions lessons, and indeed this section of the book has a fictive quality to it: we cannot imagine that any of these instructions could possibly work by delivering what their titles promise.

However magical and impossible they might be, moreover, they are framed as recipes, manifesting many of the same features as the recipe text-type while also bearing some relation to charms. The “take and make” formula that is so familiar to us–and common to premodern recipes–is interrupted only slightly by the strangeness of the ingredients and the apparent simplicity in achieving what seems to be rather a difficult effect.

All things considered, these recipes do seem to fit their context. Sloane 1315 is clearly a manual for giving care, containing works that will be familiar to any student of medieval astrological and herbal medicine. The strange recipes are not textually distinguished from other works in the volume; rather, they are normalised, and look as if they are intended to fit in with the book’s other contents. Their regular appearance masks their unusual qualities, and though the love-recipe might seem at first fairly innocuous, the fact that it and its co-texts are disguised to dovetail with the other works in the book may give us pause. In short, the fantastic nature of these texts may not sit well with the pretty practical bent of the book as a whole.

They cause me to pause because they recast the way in which I think about the rest of the book. On the one hand, they may have been used in unscrupulous ways. If, as literary scholar Douglas Gray observes, this is the kind of manuscript that would have been used by “leeches, ‘wise women’, and ‘cunning men'”, then these people would have occupied positions of trust in a community (35). Can we countenance, then, the possibility that the individual who owned this book may have been involved in a lucrative side-line, peddling recipes that didn’t work and perhaps selling the ingredients as well: quicksilver, snake’s hearts and skins? The recipes seem ripe for facile dissemination, being short enough to have been memorised or quickly copied, and they may have been used to bolster the credibility of the owner of the manuscript, showcasing his knowledge of strange or exotic methods or ingredients.

Or perhaps their function is altogether different. Could they have been intended to introduce humour to the healing context? Perhaps they functioned like the modern-day prank box, a kind of textual cabinet of curiosities, intended to entertain clients who were not feeling well, or appealing to younger audiences? As Gray writes, one can “sympathize with the curious owner or reader eager to discover” the varied arts described therein, and the owner of the book may have just wanted to spread some joy and mischief (35). What we read here may be an entirely personal impulse to collect (or create) fun from a pretty standard, recognisable textual tradition and format. Or perhaps the book provides further evidence of the close relationship between medicine and magic in this period (that persisted in some contexts in later centuries; see Lisa Smith’s post on an eighteenth-century magical manuscript), giving expression to a particular understanding of popular medicine as, in some respects, fanciful? Whatever the scenario, Sloane 1315 is a fascinating volume, hiding amongst its popular medical works a collection of weird and wonderful textual gems and raising all sorts of questions about the varied role of the folk practitioner in this period.

With thanks to Mary Wellesley.

[1] See Douglas Gray, Simple Forms: Essays on Medieval English Popular Literature (Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 35.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.