Powerful Bundles: The Materiality of Protection Amulets in Early Modern Switzerland

By Eveline Szarka

If you shop around for a protection amulet today, you will most likely stumble upon ornamental jewellery. More often than not these pieces are round in shape, and pieces featuring Kabbalistic or runic symbols are especially popular. The term ‘amulet’ is described as a “piece of jewellery some people wear because they think it protects them from bad luck, illness, etc” in the OED. However, when it comes to premodern protection practices, the efficacy of amulets depended on both the production process and the materials and ingredients used. There are two additional significant differences between contemporary and early modern understandings and applications of amulets: First, in early modern Europe, amulets were not only carried around as mobile objects but also attached to houses or buried into the thresholds. Second, amulets were often used to protect valuable livestock against diseases thought to be caused by supernatural agents.

In my research, I understand amulets as powerful bundles, often of diverse materials, which take effect through physical contact between the amulet and the object (person, animal, house) to be protected. As I discuss below, the materials commonly used include herbs, plants, food stuff, words (both spoken and written) and time. For example, it was believed that gathering plants at a certain time of the day or on a holiday enhanced the amulet’s power.

While many recipe books containing instructions on how to make amulets are now lost, it is a stroke of luck that some 17th and 18th-century handbooks are still preserved in the State Archive of the Canton of Berne, Switzerland thanks to early 20th century folklorists and collectors. Unfortunately, these books are difficult to date and connect with specific authors, owners and users. However, comparisons with court documents show that people commonly produced and applied amulets throughout the early modern period. For example, in a court case in Basel 1719, a folk healer called Friedrich Fritschi defended himself for putting hazel rods underneath a window as a way to protect the house owner from a spectre.[i] Although we do not know much about these books, the recipes and the arrangements of the instructions offer valuable insights into the contemporary relevance and ideas about the efficacy of such practices and artefacts. For instance, instructions about the production of amulets are written alongside suggestions on how to get rid of cheese-eating mice, indicating that the production of amulets against evil forces belonged to everyday house care (Hauspflege) .

Basic materials and ingredients of an amulet: linen, a cord, rods, plants, salt and bread. Source. E. Szarka

Let us now turn to an example that illustrates the concepts underpinning the efficacy of the protection amulet:

To insert into houses and barns in case of foul ghosts

Take some good vines, rods, melissa, brown periwinkles, communion bread and salt, [and bind] everything together in the three holy names with a string. Make as many as you need and drill [a hole] in both the barn and above the doors and thresholds. Put a small bundle in every hole and speak: “I put you in here in the name of God”.[ii]

This instruction exemplifies the three main production steps required to ensure the efficacy of the early modern amulet. First, people needed to gather the listed materials and ingredients. Some plants were commonly believed to be inherently powerful against evil forces, such as hazel rods. Salt and communion bread – liturgically and ritually blessed objects (so-called “sacramentals”) – were reoccurring ingredients in these kinds of recipes. Sometimes, makers also used or added slips of paper furnished with bible verses to the amulet to intensify its efficacy. Second, one had to mix the materials and ingredients, form a bundle and tie it with a string. Finally, the amulet had to be applied accordingly. It could be attached to an animal’s neck, to a door, buried into the thresholds or hidden in a drill hole above the house so that it kept malevolent entities from entering. People considered uttering sacred words both during the production and application process to be highly potent.

Drill hole in a wooden beam for a protection amulet found in an 18th century house in rural Basel, State Archive of the Canton of Basel-Land, SL 5250.5024. Source: E. Szarka

As we have seen, the gathering of materials and ingredients, the production as well as the application of the amulet were considered necessary consecutive steps to accumulate divine power. The ingredients were either inherently powerful or charged with sanctity in a liturgical context. Language, both uttered orally during these three steps or added in the form of paper slips, formed essential material ingredients that enhanced the amulet’s efficacy as it drew upon divine power. Similarly, the timing of the production could play a crucial role. For example, one had to collect the plants or apply the amulet at a particular holiday or a sacred time of the day. Time, just like language, acted as a “material” component charged with sacred power that could be transferred to the amulet through the specific production circumstances. Once applied to houses or animals, these effective little packages containing both visible and invisible materialities provided a metaphysical shield to unseen forces.

As I argue in my dissertation on ghosts and spirits in Post-Reformation Switzerland[iii], early modern people believed the world to be permeated by multiple invisible forces. Handling constant supernatural attacks from spirits and witches called for specific measures. Women and men tried to tackle and manipulate the supernatural sphere with elaborate rituals written down in recipe books. Practices concerned with amulet making disclose different concepts of causal relations in the physical and metaphysical world. Above all, they mirror a specific understanding of materiality, according to which certain plants and aliments, but also language and time, contain power that people can accumulate, enhance, and transfer to other materials, places and living beings to preserve their living environments.

[i] State Archive of the Canton of Basel, Criminalia 4, 22.

[ii] State Archive of the Canton of Berne, DQ 888, translated from the original German text by E. Szarka.

[iii] Eveline Szarka, Sinn für Gespenster. Spukphänomene in der reformierten Schweiz (1570-1730), doctoral thesis at the University of Zurich, 2020, upcoming Spring 2021.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Academic biography:

Eveline Szarka completed her PhD at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her dissertation focuses on the impact of the Protestant Reformation on the belief in ghosts and specters in Switzerland from 1570-1730. This year, she was granted a scholarship from the Swiss National Science Foundation to visit Harvard University and University College London from 2020-2022 as a postdoctoral fellow. However, due to the pandemic, she will likely postpone the start of the fellowship until 2021. Eveline’s  upcoming project focuses on handbooks about magic tricks and life hacks as related to the history of knowledge and science (1650-1850). Her research interests lie in early modern world views, historical conceptions of (im)materiality, causality, and magic as well as the potentials of human manipulation of the physical world.

 

Snails in medicine – past and present

By Claire Burridge 

A treatment for teary eyes (Ad lacrimas oculorum):

Grind together frankincense, mastic, and snails with their shells. Apply to the forehead in laurel leaves in two parts. It is tried and tested.

(Tus et mastice et cocleas cum testas sua simul teris et in folio lauri in duabus partibus fronte impone probatum est)

Figure 1: A group of recipes for teary eyes (Ad lacrimas oculorum) in St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 44 (p. 359), an early medieval composite manuscript (this section was written in northern Italy in the ninth century) – the snail recipe is the last entry of the group (found on the final two lines). The transcription and translation are my own. A digitised facsimile can be accessed here; full reference below.

Medieval medicine is often assumed to be full of ‘hocus pocus’: irrational magical and religious cures, bizarre potions and lotions. Although the work of many scholars has countered this common perception, the negative stereotypes surrounding medieval medicine remain firmly embedded in the popular imagination. And I must admit that, as a historian of medieval medicine, I can understand how such stereotypes have persisted – despite, of course, disagreeing! At first glance, the treatment for teary eyes listed above – which recommends making a poultice from snails, frankincense, and mastic and applying it to the forehead – may sound more like a potion brewed by the witches of Macbeth than a useful medical prescription. Surely snails are better suited to escargot than medicine, right?

Yet our slimy garden neighbours actually have long been included as ingredients in medical recipes, from classical antiquity to the present day. In fact, a number of other RP posts have already touched on pre-modern snail-based prescriptions, such as Laura Mitchell’s post on amusing charms, Lisa Smith’s post on Mary Napier’s ‘Snaile Milke’, and Jennifer Sherman Roberts’ post on snail waters. While several examples have highlighted the use of snails in cosmetic preparations, including Katherine Allen’s post on animal ingredients in the eighteenth century, in my research on early medieval recipes I have come across snails as ingredients in treatments for all sorts of ailments, from headaches and nosebleeds to diarrhoea, spleen pain, and incontinence. Who knew snails were seen to be such a wonderful panacea?!

I have been particularly struck by the use of snails in a number of different treatments for cuts and open wounds. A recipe in BAV pal. lat. 1088, a ninth-century manuscript written around Lyon, suggests the following to heal ‘cut tendons’ (Ad neruos incisos) on f. 45r:

Burn and pound together live snails with their shells, add an equal amount of frankincense, apply. It heals cut tendons.

(Cocleas uiuas cum testa sua combustas et tonsas adiecto libano paripondere inponis praecisos neruos sanat)

Two other ninth-century manuscripts in the Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen, Cod. Sang. 751 and Cod. Sang. 759, contain nearly identical prescriptions, though the former recommends either slugs (limacis) or snails and the latter specifies that the cut was caused by iron (Ad neruus ferro precisus). Similar recipes can also be found in earlier sources, such as Pliny’s Natural History and its late antique descendent, the Medicina Plinii, as well as Dioscorides’ De materia medica.

Why did this tradition of the wound-healing power of snails catch my eye?

Figure 2: Materia medica on the move (slowly) – photograph by author.

As keen RP readers will know, the use of snails in cosmetics was not limited to pre-modern medicine but is, in fact, growing in popularity today (and you can read more on this in another piece from Katherine Allen). Snail slime, the mucus secreted by snails, has been widely marketed as a great addition to skincare products. You can find it in anti-aging serums, moisturisers, and other restorative cosmeceuticals. Given these uses, could snail slime also have applications in medicine? Indeed, snail slime is a hot topic in modern medical research, with recent work highlighting its many benefits, from helping to treat burns to its antimicrobial properties. With respect to wound healing, there are several significant features to note: first, snail mucus is well known to have agglutinant, adhesive properties. More recently, however, research has shown that it also protects against apoptosis (programmed cell death) and promotes cell migration and proliferation – processes essential to wound repair at the cellular level. The combination of snail mucus’ adhesive qualities, promotion of healing processes, and antimicrobial properties is immensely exciting, especially in the fight against antibiotic resistance.

While premodern medical practitioners and authors would not have been thinking about snails and their slime on the cellular level or as antimicrobial agents, their repeated use of snails and slugs, especially with respect to skin-related conditions (wound healing, cosmetics, etc.) suggests that they may have recognised that snail mucus had some medical benefits. So, the next time you encounter someone ridiculing the unusual or unpleasant ingredients in a medieval recipe, you can share with them the long history of snails in medicine – from medieval recipes and their ancient antecedents to current, cutting-edge research.

Full reference for manuscript image

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 44: parchment, 368 pp., 30 x 21 cm; Part I: Bible, consisting of Ezekiel, minor prophets, Daniel, with Prologues and Capitula – given to St. Gall around 780; Part II: collection of medical texts – written in northern Italy in the ninth century.

Brief Academic Biography

Claire Burridge is currently a Residential Research Fellow at the British School at Rome. She completed her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2019 and will begin a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship at the University of Sheffield in May 2021. Broadly, Claire works on early medieval health and medicine and is particularly interested in exploring questions of medical practice and the transmission of medical knowledge during the Carolingian period. Her research draws on a range of disciplines, bringing together textual, archaeological, and biocodicological evidence.

Revisiting Jennifer Sherman Roberts’ Little Shop of Horrors, Early Modern Style

Today, I wanted to visit the work of a long-time contributor and dear friend of the Recipes Project – Jennifer Sherman Roberts. Jen has authored more than a dozen wonderful posts on the blog covering topics such as “The CIA’s Secret Weapon: Dorothy Pompeo’s Christmas Fudge Recipe“; “Mucus Cure Alls: Snail Waters and Spa Treatments“; “Of Hedgehogs, Whale Vomite and Fire-Breathing Peacocks” and A Stitch in Thyme?: Why Are There So Few Knitting Patterns in Recipe Books?. As you can see, I had a hard time picking just one post of Jen’s to republish. But, as so many of us are trying our hand at gardening right now, I thought that the post below about rosa solis might be make an appropriate read. Enjoy! Elaine Leong

Can’t get enough of Jen’s writing? Here is a handy list of all Jen’s posts on the RP.


By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

I like pretty words. Old, pretty words.

The problem with old, pretty words is that they can be awfully deceptive.

While (electronically) flipping through the recipe book of a Mrs. Corlyon from 1606 (Wellcome MS. 213), I came across sundry cures for dull-sounding medical issues:  coughs, agues, and pimples. I’m enough of a historian to know that just because something sounds dull doesn’t mean it is, but nevertheless I kept flipping, looking for a recipe to spark my imagination.

And then I saw it, the perfect attention-grabber: “The making of a Rosa Solis.”

Rosa solis: How lovely! Perhaps, given the possible Latin translation of “rose of the sun,” it could even be alchemical! My heart beat fast…

sundew
Drosera tokaiensis. Photo by Denis Barthel (Wikimedia Commons)

I did a little searching. One look at the picture, and I was struck by this plant’s luminous beauty.

Not only is the plant itself lovely, the recipe from Mrs. Corlyon’s book for rosa solis corial water sounds divine:

Take halfe a peck of the herbe called Rosa Solis beynge gathered before the Sonn do aryse in the latter end of June or the beginning of Julye. Pick them and lay them upon a Bord to drye all a day. Then take a quarter of a Pounde of Reisons of the Sonn the Stones beynge taken out: Six Date as 12 Figges. Shridd all these together somewhat smale, and putt them into a great mouthed Glasse. Then take of Lycoresse and Annisseedes of each an ownze of Cynamone half an ownze a spoonefull of Cloves three Nutmegges of Coryander seeds and of caraway seedes eche half an ownze. Bruise all these, and putt them into the glasse, add thereunto your Hearbes and two pounds of the best Sugar finely beaten and a pottell of good Aquavite. Then stir them well together, and when you have this doen, stoppe the glasse, very close, then sett it in the Sonn for the space of 7 or 8 weekes often turning the glasse about in the Sonn but Lett it stand where the raine may not come unto it and shake it oftentimes together and when it hath so long so stade, straine it and putt the water upp into a doble glasse and keep it for your use. And if you please when you have strained it you may put thereto a leafe of Golde, and a grain or two of Muske.

Raisins, dates, and figs. Licorice, anise, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, and caraway. Sugar and booze. What’s not to love?

Not only is the rosa solis plant beautiful and its cordial yummy, its effects are impressive. Recorded in the Sir Thomas Osborne recipe collection at the Wellcome Collection Library is the following recommendation:

For There is not the Weakest Man nor body in the world that wantest Nature or Strength or that is falne into a Consumption but it will Restore him againe & cause him to bee Stronge and lustie and to have a good Stomacke & Shortly, hee that useth this three time together shall find great remedie & Comforte.

Ahh, I thought, an intriguing and beautiful medicinal!

Here’s the thing, though: old, pretty words can cover deadly truths.

sundew2
The leaf of a Drosera capensis “bending” in response to the trapping of an insect.
Photo by: Noah Elhardt (Wikimedia Commons)

Rosa solis is also known as sundew, or drosera, and it is actually quite treacherous and deadly . . . especially if you’re a bug. The sundew plant is carnivorous. It grows in boggy, wet, marsh-like conditions—places in which soluble nitrogen is in short supply. To make up for the deficit, the sundew attracts insects with what looks like a fresh bounty of dewdrops, but is in reality a series of mucus glands that trap the insect on the leaf.

The insect dies either from exhaustion (from trying to escape) or from asphyxiation from the mucus. The sundew then excretes enzymes that dissolve the body of the insect.

Pretty much it happens like this:

Disturbing Video No. 1
Disturbing Video No. 2

(Yes, that’s tonight’s nightmare sorted for you.)

These videos are both time-lapse; it can take a sundew hours, even up to a day, to completely digest an insect.

This raises the question of whether early modern herbalists knew about the sundew’s carnivorous ways. Was the actual process too slow to notice with the naked eye?

Early modern recipes for rosa solis cordial make clear that the plant is to be harvested during June and early July. (Jennifer Munroe has discussed the fascinating implications of the detailed intructions for the harvesting of rosa solis.) But did the women and men harvesting the plant know of its unique pattern of feeding?

In the recipes I’ve encountered for rosa solis, I’ve seen no mention of insects or of how the plant feeds. I wonder, then: would the knowledge of rosa solis’s carnivorous ways have changed how herbalists, wise women, and amateur and professional physicians used it? Would the doctrine of signatures have changed pharmaceutical usage?

Knowing that fate of the hapless bug trapped by the mucus of the sundew, would the recipe writer in Sir Thomas Osborne’s collection still have recommended the cordial for aid in growing “Strong and lustie”?

*******

Postscript: Please understand that I could not write this blog without hearing the soundtrack to “Little Shop of Horrors” in my head. Then, for fun, I Googled “Renaissance Little Shop of Horrors.” This is what I found courtesy of Mental Floss:

littleshopofhorrors
Painted by Alison Sommers for Gallery 1988’s “Crazy 4 Cult 5.” Image used with permission of the artist.

Thereby proving that one can find ANYTHING on the internet.

Revisiting Marieke Hendriksen’s Indigo or no indigo?

Today we revisit a post written in pre-Covid-19 times, when borders were open, planes were flying and we used to travel the world. In this post from 2018, Marieke Hendriksen recounts how her holiday in Laos offered opportunities to learn more about indigo and the local dyeing processes. Elaine Leong


Marieke Hendriksen

Fermenting indigo at Ock Pop Tock, Laos. January 2018.

When you say indigo, the first thing many people will think of is blue – jeans blue. (Or if you’re me, you’ll think first of a seventeenth-century recipe to make decorative blue prunes from wax with indigo. Occupational deformation.) But historically, indigo has been used in many more ways, and to make more dye colours than just blue, as I recently discovered. Today, most jeans are died using a synthetic blue dye, but indigo dyes, made from some of the over 750 species of the genus Indigofera as well as from some other plants, have been used to dye textiles for at least 6,000 years, while other subspecies of Indigofera were traditionally used as analgesics with anti-inflammatory properties.

The term ‘indigo’ according to the OED started to occur from the sixteenth century onwards in various European languages to denote blue dyes from India (or east Asia more generally), but can now also refer more generally to dyes, violet-blue light, or blue hues. It might be argued that the term only really applies to dyes created from Indigofera subspecies, while it could also be said that indigo is any dye created from plants through the decomposition of the glucoside indican, which exists not merely in the indigo-plant, but in woad and various other plants too.

Wash the freshly picked leaves…

While on holiday in Luang Prabang, Laos, I took a weaving and dying workshop with Ock Pop Tock, an organization that was established to preserve the traditional Laotian craft of making hand-loomed textiles. There, I discovered that there is more indigo besides Indigofera, and that one indigo plant can give many more dyes than just blue. They also have a wonderful informative website on natural dyes. At Ock Pop Tock, the plant species used to create indigo dyes is Persicaria tinctoria, or long leaf Japanese indigo, a plant indigenous not to Japan but to China, Vietnam, and Laos. Depending on how the leaves are treated, it can be used to create blue, green, black, and mauve.

…give them a good pounding to create a dye.

Using the fresh leaves creates a green dye, fermenting them for at least five days and adding limestone as a mordant gives a blue dye. Traditionally, the Lao believed that the dye was female, and that it fermented because it attracted a male spirit. To coax the spirit, the pots containing the dye would be dressed in a skirt, and a knife placed on top of the lid to ward off evil spirits that could ruin the dye. The fermentation is actually a naturally occurring oxidation process, with atmospheric oxygen as the oxidant. Regular stirring ensures the process continues. The longer the indigo mixture is left to ferment, the darker it turns. If this mixture is boiled, it turns black. Alternatively, a rare indigenous plant, mak bow or bow vine, can be added to the blue dye to create mauve.

The end result: a beautiful scarf

As part of the half-day workshop, I got to dye a silk scarf with a dye of my choice. I love green hues and wanted to make a dye from start to finish, so I chose to dye my scarf ‘indigo’ green. This was, apart from some pretty intense pounding of leaves, surprisingly easy. I got to pick fresh Persicaria tinctoria leaves in the beautiful garden, washed them, and mashed them vigorously in a mortar for about five minutes. Then I transferred the mashed leaves into a tub, added some cold water and then the raw silk scarf. After kneading the dye into the fabric for a couple of minutes, I could rinse my scarf and hang it to dry. The end result is a beautiful soft green scarf, that is not just a souvenir, but a tangible reminder of the traditional Laotian knowledge about natural dyes preserved and shared at Ock Pop Tock.