Recipes in the Inquisition Records

Recently I’ve been working on a kind of source which has proved to be a surprisingly revealing source for magical and healing recipes: inquisition records. I’ve been working on the records of the Roman Inquisition in Malta, which are preserved in the Cathedral Archives in Mdina, as part of a larger project on ‘Magic in Malta, 1605: the Moorish Slave Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur and the Roman Inquisition’ led by my colleague Professor Dionisius Agius (click here for further details). The project revolves around the trial of Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur, an Egyptian slave living in Malta who was accused of practising magic for Christian clients. In most cases it was these clients who reported him to the inquisitors, often after they had mentioned the matter in confession and had been referred to the Inquisition by their parish priest.

Valletta, near the site of the slaves' prison where Sellem lived (author's photo)
Valletta, near the site of the slaves’ prison where Sellem lived (author’s photo)

The record is very detailed and, among other things, it describes some of the magical recipes which Sellem’s clients claimed that he used. It should be noted that Sellem himself denied ever using them, although he did admit to knowing astrology. This means that it is difficult to know how far these recipes were actually used, by Sellem or by anyone else. Nevertheless, the records describe these alleged magical recipes in some detail. For example, Marco Mangion testified that he sought Sellem’s help after he became ill with an illness that he suspected was caused by witchcraft. Sellem seems to have asked Marco for his mother’s name and written this down (the trial record is damaged here) on a slip of paper which he burned in his room in the slaves’ prison. Then he gave Marco several more slips of paper [carte] written in ‘Moorish’ (Arabic) with the instruction to wash them in water and ‘with the water of this infusion wash my face and my whole body, and he instructed me to fumigate with a piece of mongione [I have not been able to translate this]… I used these remedies and it seemed to me that the said remedies benefitted me.’ Marco claimed that Sellem also gave him other remedies: a square piece of lead, and another piece of paper with Arabic.

Although it is impossible to know whether these remedies were really used, they would probably have seemed plausible to Marco and to the inquisitors because they resemble what we know about early modern magical practices from other sources, including inquisition records from elsewhere in Europe. The idea of writing significant words, washing them into water, and then drinking or washing oneself in the water can be found in earlier Latin medical texts. More generally charms which involve the writing of powerful words are mentioned very often in medieval and early modern Europe.  Sellem’s use of Arabic is less common, however, and reflects his own background, and this exotic element may have made the charm seem even more powerful to Maltese Christians. A few paper charms also survive, like this printed one from late seventeenth-century Germany, now in the Wellcome Library in London.

L0059000 Amulet and charm to protect against plague, printed Latin ch

Similar written charms were also used in seventeenth-century Malta: although Sellem’s Arabic carte do not survive, the archives do occasionally preserve examples which the inquisitors confiscated. Thus while researching other cases in the archives we found a few slips of paper covered with symbols and prayers, cloths, and even an unidentified lumpy yellow substance. It is rare, and it feels rather strange, to find such a tangible result of an early modern recipe surviving into the present day.

It has long been known that inquisition records are an important source for the history of early modern healing and magic and there have been studies of records from Italy, Mexico, and elsewhere. They are also an intriguing source for early modern recipes, which give details not only about what might have been done, but also for whom, and why. As the project continues we hope to uncover more details about the recipes used by Sellem and other early modern Maltese healers. We’d also be interested to hear from anyone else working on similar issues in other inquisition records. (With thanks to Alex Mallett for double checking my Italian translations).


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