By Laura Mitchell
I decided to do something a little different for this post. Rather than write about what I find interesting about charms, I asked Twitter what people wanted to know about medieval charms. I received some really interesting questions and I will do my best to answer them within the context of what I study–fifteenth-century English charms.
— Dainty Ballerina (@DaintyBallerina) February 25, 2014
I work on the fifteenth century and there wasn’t the abundance of advice books for housewives then that are found in the early modern period and later. However, we can assume that housewives, and women in general, did use some charms, particularly medical charms. The manuscript I discussed in my previous post on disappearing charms, for example, was a household notebook and it is likely that the women of the Haldenby family made just as much use of it as the men. Medical charms to stop bleeding or cure a toothache would have been useful to a medieval housewife and were probably passed along orally between women throughout the period.1 And of course charms for easing the pain of childbirth would have been used by midwives and other women present at a birth. While these types of charms weren’t specifically aimed at housewives, we can make some educated guesses based on their purpose and the context in which they are found.
— Caroline Wazer (@CarolineWazer) February 25, 2014
Charms tend to not have too many ingredients involved – in fact, most charms rely solely on words to succeed, like the Flum Jordan charm:2
Criste was borne in Bedlem, baptized in þo flem Jordan. Also þo flem astode, also astond þi blode .N. In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.
(Christ was born in Bethlehem, baptised in the river Jordan. As the river stood still, so your blood, N, also stand still. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.)
The ingredients that do show up are items that could be found around the house: virgin wax, an apple, strips of parchment, sage leaves, butter or cheese. Specific words would be written on these items as part of the charm then wrapped around the body (such as a sore knee or the stomach of pregnant woman), worn as an amulet, or eaten. While texts on the virtues of plants and animals or the more elaborate ritual magic brought in more obscure ingredients like the hoopoe (a bird native to Asia, Africa, and continental Europe, but not England). Presumably references to plants and animals like the hoopoe in these texts are due to a continental origin… whether or not hoopoes were imported by ambitious English readers remains to be seen. But the appeal of charms seems to rest in their relative ease of use. They were short and easy to remember, using ingredients that were on hand or at least easily obtained.
Last, @clamskcl asked:
— CLAMS @ King's (@clamskcl) February 26, 2014
Now, this is a tricky question to answer. The vast majority of the charms I look at from England are more or less the same as you would find in places like France or Germany, with some regional variations of course. It is also nearly impossible to guess at the origins of a charm given the vast oral tradition. Charms could pass back and forth between friends, neighbours, family, or travellers with ease. Where or when they began to be used is virtually impossible to tell.
If we look further afield to more complicated magical experiments then we can start to see some interesting sources, such as recipes for invisibility. Invisibility was a common desire for magicians, and instructions to become invisible are found in the Greek Magical Papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt, later medieval ritual magic, and in miscellaneous collections like London, Wellcome Historical Library, MS 517 and Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ashmole MS 1435. The instructions I found for invisibility in Ashmole 1435, an anonymous manuscript written in a very rough fifteenth-century hand that contains practical and academic medical texts and a recipe collection of over 180 items, are remarkably similar to one from the Greek magical papyri from the third or fourth century. (This, I will discuss in detail in my next post.) It would seem then that some magical recipes could travel very far and survive for a very long time indeed!
1. Lea Olsan has written several articles examining the evidence of oral transmission of charms in the medieval period. “Latin Charms of Medieval England: Verbal Healing in a Christian Oral Tradition,” Oral Tradition 7:1 (1992): 116-142; “Charms in Medieval Memory,” in Charms and Charming in Europe, ed. Jonathan Roper (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 11-31. There is also the possibility that the written copies of charms that survive could have been copied by women as well. There have also been some interesting discussions of medieval women’s literacy rates online: http://bavardess.blogspot.ca/2009/06/medieval-women-and-myth-of-illiteracy.html and http://readingmedievalbooks.wordpress.com/2013/10/27/480/, although it is probably more likely that more women could read the charms than could copy them themselves.↩