All posts by Amanda Herbert

Tales from the Archives: Controlled Substances in Roman Law and Pharmacy

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 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.

This month I’d like to share a 2016 post by Molly Jones-Lewis, on the ways that Roman legislators tried to regulate the sale and use of certain drugs and pharmaceuticals.  These substances could be dangerous, but as Jones-Lewis argues, they could also be extremely useful.  I hope that you enjoy it! And if you have any favorites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations
AH (editor)

*****

By Molly Jones-Lewis

Let me begin with a passage from the Digest of Roman Law within the section on the Lex Cornelia on murderers and poisoners (D.48.8.3.3):

It is laid down by another decree of the senate that dealers in cosmetics[1] are liable to the penalty of this law (the Lex Cornelia on murderers and poisoners) if they recklessly hand over to anyone hemlock (cicuta), salamander, aconite, pine-worms (pituocampae), or buprestis,[2] mandragora, or, except for the purpose of purification, cantharis beetles.

This particular decree of the senate was preserved by the jurist Marcian (active c. 200 and 222 CE), but the actual decree could date from any time between 81BCE, when it was passed, and Marcian’s own day. The main test of the law was not whether or not a murder had been committed, as it is with most modern legal systems, but the intent to murder. Penalties ranged from relegation (temporary exile) to death by wild animals.

Negligence should not have exposed someone to its penalties, but there is evidence in both the legal and literary record of medical professionals who unwittingly aided in a murder being prosecuted under the Lex Cornelia. Galen, for instance, mentions one unfortunate doctor who was executed when a wicked stepmother (of course) claimed a drug was for her own use, only to have her slaves slip it into her stepson’s food.

Other examples preserved in the Digest involve gynecologists, aphrodisiacs, and abortifacients; gender bias very likely accounts for the departure from the intent-test. Add to that the demographics of medical professionals in the Roman Empire–many of them were slaves and freedmen–and the pattern becomes even more clear. Elite moral panic likely drove the legislative policy in this decree of the senate, with chilling effects. Under it, suppliers are held liable for selling commonly used pharmaceutical ingredients.

So would these highly toxic items that an ancient pharmacist would carry? Absolutely! Dioskourides, author of a first century CE pharmacy manual (and standard reference for Roman pharmacists), listed several uses for them.[3]

“Spanish Fly” continues to enjoy an unfortunate reputation as a “natural” aphrodisiac, even in this age of safer alternatives. Image credit: Nuvalife.

We begin at the end with Blister Beetles (Cantharis, buprestis, pituocampae): Here, I am grouping three similar insects, just as Dioskourides did (2.61). These insects are more popularly known as “Spanish Fly.” The oil produced by these beetles causes the skin to blister, and this made it a useful item for removing growths.

But Dioskourides does not mention its most famous application, and most dangerous–blister beetle poisoning irritates the urogenital tract, causing an erection. It was, in essence, ancient Viagra. It seems to have been responsible for quite a few accidental and embarrassing deaths, and likely accounts for the general anxiety surrounding the use of aphrodisiacs in Roman law and armchair scientists like Pliny the Elder.[4] It also shows up in some cringe-worthy gynecological recipes, and must have caused many a woman severe discomfort.

Cosmetics sellers would stock it for people with warts, women would keep it handy, and Roman legislators were concerned. It is hardly surprising that this class of insect dominates the senate’s decree.

The shape of the flower resembles the hood of a monk, hence the English common name. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Aconite, also known as monkshood, wolfsbane, and the “queen of poisons,” is best known today as Professor Snape’s go-to icebreaker question for Potions class. It is deadly–strong enough to cause numbness when it comes in contact with the skin–and that is precisely what put it on the senate’s list. Dioskourides 4.77 declares it useful for killing wolves, and nothing else, but urban sales were almost certainly aimed at eliminating human nuisances like abusive slaveowners and inconvenient husbands, at least in the minds of lawmakers.

The English name reflects the long history of identifying the somewhat anthropomorphic form of this root. Dioskourides differentiates between a “Male” and “Female” form – this one is the female variety. Image credit: http://fa13ethnobotany.providence.wikispaces.net/Mandrake.

Another alumna of Harry Potter, the mandrake is best known for its use in magic. However, it also has a strong effect as a sedative and anesthetic; it was used as such into the early 1900s. But too much could cause death, as Dioskourides warns in his lengthy list of applications (4.75). It’s hallucinogenic properties, too, combined with its sedative effects, would have made it a prime candidate for abuse and accidental death. No wonder it makes the senate’s list!

Even today, Hemlock remains infamous for its role in the death of Socrates. So why on earth would a pharmacy sell it? Dioscorides 4.78 recommends it for topical applications only, first as a cure for shingles and erysipelas, both common and painful skin conditions. He goes on to prescribe it to stop lactation, to keep youthful breasts small, and, alarmingly, to cause a boy’s testicles to shrivel. The most shocking suggestion, though, is that it be applied to the testicles to prevent nocturnal emissions – surely a recipe for disaster if the man in question failed to wash his hands carefully.

Small jars excavated in the prison in the Athenian Agora, possibly used for the executioner’s Hemlock. Author’s image, 2006.

So we have in this list a number of items common in recipes and associated with women and medical professionals, both of whom might respond to their systemic oppression with the covert violence of poisoning. If you were to open a pharmacy in the bustling streets of the Roman empire–especially if you were a woman, freedman, or both– it would be best to think twice about why your patient is so keen to buy his cantharis in bulk.

[1] The ingredients in cosmetics and pharmacy were often similar, and likewise cosmetics were made to also have medical benefits.

[2] J. B. Rives rightly suggests (n. 22) that the word “bubrostis” is a misspelling of “buprestis.”

[3] See Lily Beck’s excellent translation and commentary for the most likely identification of the species involved. Taxonomy and nomenclature in antiquity is imprecise by modern standards; it can be difficult to link ancient names to known species.

[4] For example, Natural History 25.25: “I do not include abortifacients in my account, and not even love potions, remembering that Lucullus the most famous general perished from such a potion.”

Cold Case I. Hidden Identities Between Printed and Manuscript Recipes

Sabrina Minuzzi

 The marginalia of printed books can sometimes reveal hidden worlds. Printed books themselves can be considered historical evidence, as I learned several years ago at university and as I have continued to discover in working more widely with these materials during the last two years. One of the salient features of my current research lies in looking for and interpreting the traces that readers have left on the books they used, and on 15th century books of medicine in particular.

Among the many incunabula kept in the Marciana Library in Venice (around 2,800 titles),  I once came across a mysterious weighty tome whose early-18th-century binding, in full shabby parchment, was not particularly attractive. But, even lying closed upon my reading table, its lack of beauty disclosed clues about its past. The limp binding suggested that it had been handled, comfortably, in frequent readings and the worn appearance of the cover made me think that the tome had been used as a reference book. Indeed the title-page confirmed this supposition.

Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
The Marciana incunabulum Inc. 333 is a copy of one of the seven 15th-century editions of the Hortus sanitatis contained within the ISTC census. This one was published in Strassbourg in 1497, and it survives in 90 copies all around the world.

The Hortus (or Ortus) sanitatis, that is, The Garden of Health, is a sort of encyclopedic book of nature which describes the characteristics and medicinal uses of plants and more briefly of animals and minerals. We might really consider it a bestseller among the medical genres, if we take into account the frequency of its Latin editions and translations in the vernacular languages of early modern Europe.

But let us go back to our copy.

Unlike most copies, which feature rich leather bindings with blind tooled decorations on their plates – see, for instance, the Wien National Library exemplar – which seem suggest that these books were precious objects kept on bookshelves and which bear little evidence of their use, the Marciana Library copy is heavily annotated, mostly by one hand.

Almost all of the manuscript notes are recipes written in clumsy Latin.

What a gold-mine of recipes! Unfortunately, no ownership inscription or purchase note peeps out from the initial or the final pages. No claim of possession occurs either in the myriad passages of the printed text, which are densely annotated, or in the eight final pages, which are crammed with further recipes.

So I had to detect the profile of the annotator with my own bare forces.

The handwriting module is very small and looks as if it was gradually shrinking as the blank space available to the writer was decreasing. The hand looks to be Italian, from around the second half of the 16th century. While browsing the pages, among the overflow of recipes in barely-decipherable handwriting, I finally came across a few key sentences which hinted at the geographical origins of the writer. Thanks to a common early modern habit, in which readers translated the names of herbs to those which were more familiar to them locally, the anonymous author writes next to the Atriplex Hortensis ‘Vilani paduani trebese’ and ‘Schiavo Loboda’, which means ‘Paduan paesants call it Trebese’ and ‘in Slavic language Loboda’ (fol. d1r). Many folios later, next to the dandelion, a plant frequently found in temperate climates, the author comments ‘Nos Veneti dicimus lactexuol’ (‘We Venetians call it lactexuol’, fol. h1r) and alongside the description of the Morsus gallinae or Anagallus the author writes ‘quem nos dicimus pavarina’ (‘which we call pavarina, fol. s5r): all undeniable references to the Venetian area, confirmed by Giuseppe Boerio’s Dizionario del dialetto veneziano (Venice, 1829).

Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Going through the many recipes I also detected, in the same hand, some rare Italian annotations, characterized by Venetian distortions and scriptio continua (writing with no space between words). Who was the annotator? What was his cultural horizon? He rarely uses symbols for quantities – which are always inscribed in the most common amounts (pounds, ounces etc.) – and almost never uses them for substances, except in the first few pages. For many entries on herbs the anonymous writer adds short notes about their properties, which he extracted from classical and Medieval authorities, such as Serapion of Alexandria, Plinius Secundus, Dioscorides, Mesue, Avicenna, and Magister Maurus Salernitanus (ca. 1160–1214). But sometimes he adds references to plants – drawings and explanations – that offer evidence that he read specific early modern books, such as those written by Jacobus Theodorus (1510-1590) and Castore Durante’s Herbal of 1585. This tells us much more about his background.

Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333.  Used with permission.
Hortus sanitatis, [Strassbourg, 1497], Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (BNM), Inc. 333. Used with permission.
Pausing here in my search for the identity of the first author of the marginalia, I’d like to speak briefly about the subsequent owners of this Herbal.

At the top spine of the early 18th century binding of the book, there is a clear shelfmark, ‘A | 16.3.3’ gilt-tooled on a green leather label.  There is also a lower (and more recent) shelfmark in brown ink: 17.6.19. These are undoubtedly the shelfmarks of a well-organized library, and probably not a private one.

By poring over the Marciana Archives – quite a time-consuming operation! – I discovered that the only Marciana copy of this Herbal came from the Clerics Regular of Somasca, of the Monastery of Santa Maria della Salute, founded in 1656 (BNM, ‘Corporazioni religiose soppresse, 1789-1812′, file 4): the title of the incunable appears in the 1811 list of books belonging to their library and transferred to the Marciana Library after the Napoleonic suppression of the monastery.  And there is more.  The second shelfmark appears in a 18th century manuscript catalogue of the same religious library, which luckily still survives among the Marciana collections (Ms It. XI, 294-310 (=7255-7271).

BNM, ‘Corporazioni religiose soppresse, 1789-1812', file 4.  Used with permission.
BNM, ‘Corporazioni religiose soppresse, 1789-1812′, file 4. Used with permission.
BNM, Ms It. XI, 294-310 (=7255-7271), entry ‘Hortus’.  Used with permission.
BNM, Ms It. XI, 294-310 (=7255-7271), entry ‘Hortus’. Used with permission.

In my next post I will thoroughly explore the (print) sources of the 16th century annotator side-by-side with the evidence of his own experience, the extent of his additions, his organizing structure, the materials to which he referred while explaining his recipes (bombaxina, black wool, etc.) and much more.  We will enter into the content of the recipes and there will be several surprises, which will enlighten us as to the anonymous identity of the author as well as the subsequent uses of this fascinating book.

 
Sabrina Minuzzi is a book historian with strong interests in the social history of medicine and household medicine in particular. Her Ph.D. in Early Modern History focused on the practice, by the Venetian Health authorities, of granting privileges for medicinal secrets devised by common people. She reconstructed the life and vicissitudes of some of them through archival documents and printed sources. Her research has become a book, Sul filo dei segreti. Farmacopea, libri e pratiche terapeutiche a Venezia in età moderna (Milan: Unicopli, 2016). A sample of her investigation will be shortly available in Social History of Medicine (‘Quick to say quack. Medicinal secrets from the household to the apothecary’s shop in early eighteenth-century Venice’). She is now part of the team of the 15cBOOKTRADE.

Treating the Stone in Sixteenth-Century Wales (According to the Vicar of Gwenddwr)

By Diana Luft

Image of the village of Gwenddwr. Permission granted by the owner of the website Radnorshire Images (John Crellin).
Image of the village of Gwenddwr. Permission granted by the owner of the website Radnorshire Images (John Crellin).

National Library of Wales MS. Peniarth 182 is a miscellany in the hand of Huw Pennant, a poet who lived and worked in Gwynedd and then Carmarthenshire at the turn of the sixteenth century.[1] The manuscript has the look of a personal collection, and it was written over a period of five years, from 1509 until the scribe’s death in 1514. It contains pedigrees, chronicles, religious texts, and texts of a medical nature, including a list of the dangerous days of the year, a short herbal based on Macer Floridus, and two collections of medical recipes. These collections are united by their subject: they all treat the condition tostedd or bladder stone. The first collection has been gleaned from a medieval source; its five recipes can be traced to the four earliest medical manuscripts in Welsh. The second is a mix of recipes that can be traced to fourteenth- and fifteenth-century sources, with the addition of a unique remedy ascribed to an unnamed Vicar of Gwenddwr in Breconshire.

Writing in 1801, Theophilus Jones described the village of Gwenddwr as ‘a vile assortment of huts’, adding that, ‘the best fabric in it is the alehouse’.[2] It may be that the village had fallen on hard times by the nineteenth century, as it seems that its sixteenth-century vicar was recommending a rather complicated, and expensive, course of treatment for bladder stones. Here is the recipe in full:

Rhag y tostedd, medd Bickar Gwenddwr

Kymer ddyrnaid o saets, a’r gymaint arall o’r persli gwraidd ag oll, a’r gymaint arall o’r alisander, a’r gymaint arall o’r ‘selver’ (yr hwn a elwir kynga’r koed), a’r gymaint arall o’r ‘mors off maed lik’ (hynny ydyw, barfav kennin o’r rai ni fflannwyd yn y blaen), a xxxiii o rawn yr eiddaw, a dyrnaid o’r ‘betoni’ (yr rain a elwir kribe sanffred). Golch yn lan hwynt a phwnia mewn mortar kyn vaned a’r grinsaws. Yn ol hyny, bwrw hwynt mewn llestyr glan olchiad, a bwrw arnvn yno dri chwart o hengwrw kadarn, a thri chwart eraill o Rwmnai da. Kymered wraig a dwylaw glan olchiad, a gwasged hwynt hyd pan el ffrwyth y llysiav yn y ddiod. Oddyno kymrud lliain glan a’i hidlo ef yn dda, oddyno bwrw ymaith y soeg, oddyno brew y ddiod hyd pan el chwart o’r chwech chwart dan y brew. Oddyno yskimma ef yn lan, ag oddyno tyn y ddiod oddiar y tan, a bwrw ar y ddiod geinhiagwerth o’r graynys, a dimewerth o’r coleandur,  keinhiagwerth o bowdwr syngir, dimewerth o bowdwr galingall, gwerth tair keinioc o saffrwm, dimewerth o bowdwr licorys. Dod y ddiod ar y tan a gad i verwi ias vechan i gymryd ffrwyth y llysiav. Oddyno tyn i’r llawr, a phan oero ef ddigon, dyro dy ddiod mewn llestyr pridd. Ystopia ef yn dda a lliain glan, a gad yno i sefyll dridiav a theirnos. Yn ol hynny, hidler y ddiod drwy liain glan a rodder i’r glaf y’w yfed yn oer y bore a’r nos, yngwres y gwaed. Arvered o hyn, a iach vydd drwy nerth Duw. Poed gwir Amen

For the stone, says the Vicar of Gwenddwr

Take a handful of sage and the same amount again of parsley, roots and all, and the same amount again of alexanders and the same amount again of ‘cleavers’ (which are called wood burdock), and the same amount again of ‘moss of leek cuttings’ (that is, the beards of leeks which have not been planted before),[1] and thirty-three ivy seeds, and a handful of ‘betony’ (which are called St. Brigid’s combs). Wash them clean and pound them in a mortar as fine as green sauce. After that, put them into a newly-washed vessel and add three quarts of strong old beer, and three more quarts of good Rumney wine. Let a woman with newly-washed hands be brought, and let her press them until the essence of the herbs goes into the liquid. Take a clean linen cloth and strain it well, and throw away the residue, then boil the liquid until one of the six quarts boils away. Skim it clean, remove the liquid from the heat, and add a penny’s-worth of grains of paradise, a halfpenny’s-worth of coriander, a penny’s-worth of ginger powder, a halfpenny’s-worth of galangal powder, three penny’s-worth of saffron, and a halfpenny’s-worth of liquorice powder. Put the liquid on the heat and let it boil for a little while to take the essence of the herbs. Then put it aside, and when it cools enough, put the liquid into an earthenware vessel. Stop it up well with a clean linen cloth and leave it to stand three days and three nights. After that, let the liquid be strained through a clean linen cloth and let it be given to the sick person to drink cold in the morning and at body temperature at night. Let him use this and he will be healed through the strength of God, Amen.

While Pennant’s text is in Welsh, the vicar’s original recipe was likely in English. Most of the ingredients are given in Welsh, but three are in English with Welsh explanations (cleavers, leek grass, and betony). It is not uncommon for Welsh recipes to use English borrowings, especially for foreign or exotic ingredients. The medieval recipe collections contain ingredients such as alym (alum), arment (arnament), atrwm (atrament), brwnston (sulphur), cod (cobbler’s wax), kopros (copperas), and opium. But the English words in this recipe do not refer to foreign or exotic ingredients, rather they indicate the common native herbs. The names of the imported ingredients are borrowings, but they are very old borrowings which have already been incorporated into Welsh. For example, the form coleandur (coriander) appears in Welsh in the earliest herbal glossary, while saffrwm (saffron), licorys (liquorice), and syngir (ginger) are found in the fourteenth-century recipe collections. Thus, while the imported ingredients in this recipe are borrowings, it is the explanations of the common herbs which indicate an English source.

Urine wheel from a fifteenth-century Welsh medical manuscript, NLW 3026 (Mostyn 88), a medical miscellany in the hand of the prolific scribe and poet Gutun Owain. Permission granted by National Library of Wales.
Urine wheel from a fifteenth-century Welsh medical manuscript, NLW 3026 (Mostyn 88), a medical miscellany in the hand of the prolific scribe and poet Gutun Owain. Permission granted by National Library of Wales.

Pennant does not say how he has come by this recipe, whether he has copied it from a book, received it from a friend or neighbour, or perhaps been in correspondence with the vicar himself.  This is the last remedy in this manuscript, all of which treat a common and very painful condition. The collections of remedies in this manuscript, written over a period of years, all treating the same condition, beginning with old remedies taken from manuscripts and ending with what may be the result of correspondence with a contemporary, seems to tell a tale of increasing desperation in the face of an intractable illness. It is impossible to say whether Huw Pennant suffered from bladder stones himself, but the medical texts he chose to include in his collection would seem to suggest that he did. They would also seem to suggest that his interest in these remedies was not academic, but rather practical, that is, that he intended to use them, and may have done so. The cause of Pennant’s death is not recorded. I can only hope that, whatever it was, he received some relief from the ailment that seems to have plagued him for so long.

[1]      This seems to be a reference to the propagation of leeks by removing the seed from the seed head and allowing the head to develop small clones of the parent plant upon it (leek grass), which can then be planted out. I have interpreted mors as representing English ‘moss’, in the sense of a plant resembling moss (OED ‘moss, n.1’ II.4) or perhaps ‘hairiness’ (MED ‘mos’ 1(a)), and maed as representing English ‘math’ that is, a cutting or a mowing, from Anglo-Saxon mæð (OED ‘math, n.1’) and thus mos off maed lik as a cutting of leek, which results in the production of leek grass which is hairy or moss-like in appearance.

[1]      On Huw Pennant see Cartwright, J. 2016. The Middle Welsh Life of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. In Cartwright, J. ed. The Cult of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. Cardiff: UWP, pp. 163–86.

[2]      Jones, T. 1809. The History of the County of Brecknock. Vol. 2 of 2. Brecknock: George North, p. 296. You can judge for yourself, from the photograph of the village taken by John Crellin in 2011 for his Radnor Images website (www.radnorimages.co.uk) and used with his kind permission here, whether Jones’s opinion holds true today!

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Diana Luft is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies. She is currently working on a project called ‘Medieval Welsh Medicine: A new Approach’. The aim of this project is to produce new editions and translations of the Welsh medical texts from the four fourteenth-century manuscripts which represent the first witnesses to such texts in Welsh.

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.