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.




Renewing Old Text: A Recipe in The Art of Limming (1573)

By Carrie Griffin

The anonymously-authored treatise entitled The Art of Limming (STC 24252), first printed in London in 1573 (‘In Flete strete … at the signe of the Hande & starre by Richard Tottill’)[1] is comprised of just twelve leaves. It purports to appeal specifically to the gentrified reader: the title-page advertises the book and its contents as ‘verye meete and necessary to be knowne to all such all gentlemen, and other persons as doe delight in limming, painting or in tricking of armes in their colours, and therefore a woorke very meete to be adioyning to the bookes of armes’. The Art of Limming, then, identifies its target audience as the gentleman reader, or all those who ‘delight’ in the arts of book-decoration or colouration, specifically mentioning those readers who wish to trick, or tint, their own heraldic devices; indeed the treatise self-advertises as a companion volume to book of arms. The preface also points to the creation of books (or, at least, retains that as a possibility) rather than the decoration of existing books that may or may not be printed, stating that the work to follow on the mixing of colours and metals ‘to write or to limme withall vppon velym, parchment or paper, and how to lay them vppon the worke which thou intendest to make’.

My interest in the treatise is connected to its retrospective quality: how it imagines the manuscript text or book, or features of the manuscript book or document. Books, and in particular well-thumbed household volumes, miscellanies and commonplace books, must have been particularly in need of restoration and care, or renewal. Several of the recipes in this treatise facilitate not just the creation of new books in the old style, but they acknowledge the practice of renewing and regeneration of older books and aspects of manuscript books and documents that may have been more susceptible to the ravages of time. One recipe promises ‘To renew olde and worne letters’:

Take of [th]e best galles[2] you can get & bruse them grosly then lay them to steepe one day in good whyte wine. This done distill them with the wyne, and with the distilled water that commeth of them, you shal wet handsomly the olde letters with a little cotton or a small pencel, & they will shewe freshe & newe again in suche wyse as you may easely reade them [Sig. C3].

some gall nuts ...
some gall nuts …

The rendering of this type of instruction in print and, more specifically, in blackletter, indicates a material interest in the preservation of the methods by which manuscript books are newly-created but also conserved and recovered. It also indicates the debt owed by the printed book to the text in manuscript: in the relatively early days of this new technology, the older material that circulated in manuscript was the bread and butter of the print trade. Printed texts depended on texts in manuscript, and this reality finds wonderful expression in tracts like The Art of Limming. The recipe quoted here is evocative not just of the stresses to which some material in manuscript was subject (we know that pages or text – especially in devotional MSS – were sometimes rubbed, stroked or kissed, but also that everyday use led to wear and fading) but concerns for the stability and integrity of the handwritten text.

Worn Text from London, BL Add. 39636, f. 1v ( Used under creative commons licence.
Worn Text from London, BL Add. 39636, f. 1v (

Manuscript conservation methods have undoubtedly moved on in leaps and bounds since the 1500s; I would be keen to hear from anyone who is brave enough to try this recipe on a manuscript … !

Carrie Griffin, Univeristy of Bristol. Carrie is currently collaborating with Dr Michael Johnston, Purdue University, on a project to catalogue codicological recipes in manuscript. See her last post for the Recipes Project, which was on ink, here


[1] The text went through at least five editions, being reprinted in 1581, 1583, 1588 and 1596.

[2] Probably gall-nuts, which were commonly used in the production of ink.

Dipping Into Ink

By Carrie Griffin

I’ve recently been doing some work on late-medieval recipes that are connected to the production of the material text. I became interested in these short but absorbing instructions while writing a book on practical and instructional writing, in which I have included a chapter on recipes and instructions for ink-making, parchment-making, colour mixing, glue making and so on.[1] I was initially drawn to them because I noticed that a very technical word that is associated with such matters – “glair” – occurs in the Middle English dream-vision poem Pearl (l. 1026). It refers to the white of an egg when it is used as a binding medium for colours in manuscript illumination and decoration.[2] I wondered whether even an educated audience would have appreciated the meaning of this technical word, a term relating to the world of material book-production.

These compelling shorter texts are fantastic gateways into thinking about how the different layers of the construction of a book or document were imagined, as well as how the operated practically. It is important to consider how frequently book and documentary production happened, in the period from c. 1400, outside of the professional contexts of the guildhall and copy-shops like the London establishment run by the scribe and publisher John Shirley. In other words, these recipes facilitate home book production; their proliferation in English (and in other European vernaculars) from the beginning of the fifteenth-century point to more widespread interest in, if not actual instances of, domestic book-making and to the domestic construction of the materials needed to make up a booklet or book.

These recipes circulate in collections that are concerned with more than one aspect of the materials that are used to write, decorate and illustrate, but they can also occur in isolation–copied into blank spaces or on flyleaves–or sometimes in groups of two or three. One collection that I have examined in Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Douce 54, ff. 21v–31v) preserves approximately forty recipes for dyeing leather, making coloured water, preparing parchment, limning and writing on metal. The collection is introduced with the rubric: “Dowtles here may ye se al the thynges that longyth to a wryter yn al degreys”. One of the instructions offers a method to make a reddish ink that can be used to rule parchment or paper in preparation to write (in part modernised by me):

To make a good colour to rule with: take brazil & shave it well & small into a shell, & put therto new-made glair, & temper it some, & let it stand half a day. & take a little alum, but beware that thou put not over much […]. & [thou] can write therwith & it shall be good.

The recipe calls for brazil, or the reddish dye obtained from brazilwood, to be shaved mixed in a shell with glair. After half a day or so alum is added. The result is probably a dull reddish-brown colour that will be familiar to us from the sometimes clumsily-ruled folios of manuscripts from the later periods.


The overwhelming sense that one gets from these recipes is that the substances used to make them were either made in household kitchens or could be obtained with relative ease.

Another fascinating instruction from the book of Robert Reynes of Acle (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 407) is one of perhaps ten recipes that tell the reader how to make red, blue, yellow, black and green inks, glue specifically “for bokys”, and other substances. It’s a good example of the extent to which time had to be measured in accurate ways in order for the substance to come together properly. Part of this instruction “For to make black ink” recommends the recitation of a psalm. It asks that the ingredients be gathered together and, once this is done, the ink-maker must “set them over the fire and let them stew the space of this psalm saying, miserere me Deus” (Psalm 51). The recitation of the psalm of course allows for the measurement time but it may also have had implications for the quality of the ink that was produced!

Other recipes of this nature that I have come across from this period confirm my sense that they are intended for interested and practiced readers, thus occupying an interesting space in documentary and bibliographical history. One instruction that I have examined for parchment-making asks that the reader deploy a “a fleshing knife, as these parchmenters use”, suggesting that there is distance between professionals and the readership of the recipe.[3]

The proliferation of these short texts in the commonplace books of the sixteenth century (Reynes, John Colyns, Humphrey Newton and others) suggests that they served a particular domestic function. More widely, as is the case with many recipes from the late-medieval and early modern periods, they are important gap-fillers, allowing us to illuminate aspects of quotidian attitudes and practices that are not always accessible or fully recoverable. And they widen our perspective about scribal culture in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, asking us to imagine a scribe engaged not just in copying but also in making his own materials.

I am happy to say that work on these fascinating texts is set to continue:  Michael Johnston of Purdue University and I plan to begin more sustained work on ink and related recipes – starting with the compilation of a handlist – in the near future.


[1] Instruction and Information from Manuscript to Print for Ashgate’s Material Reading in Early Modern Culture series (2014). See also Instruction and Information from Manuscript to Print: Some English Literature, 1400–1650, The Literature Compass 10.9 (2013): 667–66. URL:

[2] “The wal of jasper that glent as glayre”; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. A. C. Cawley (London: Dent, 1962), pp. 3–47.

[3] This instruction occurs in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.14.45, p. 101.