Laura Mitchell is a medievalist whose main area of research focuses on charms and other forms of folk magic in later medieval England. Her research interests also include book history, manuscript culture, books of secrets and recipe collections, and their transmission.
Laura manages the Facebook page and Twitter for The Recipes Project. She sometimes tweets about medieval things @medieval_laura.
Late Medieval English Magic: English Manuscripts Containing 15th-century Magical Textsis a project born out of the dissertation research I conducted at the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto. I undertook a survey of English manuscripts containing magical texts from the fifteenth century, which became the basis of and wider context for my dissertation project. Rather than have this information languish in a static form in my dissertation, I decided to put it online in the form of a catalogue so that it could be more widely available and easily updated.
The information in this catalogue is based on and expands on this original research in various ways – because of the improvements over the past few years in digitization projects and better online manuscript catalogues I have been able to include several more manuscripts that were not included in my original survey, and I have been able to discover more detailed information about manuscript contexts and the exact kinds of magic texts that survive.
The Late Medieval English Magic catalogue contains a general search function and it is organized into categories by city, library, magic category (charm, ritual magic, etc.), and charm motifs. The charm motifs are fairly broad. They are based on the semantic motifs discussed by Lea Olsan and others, but I have also included descriptive terms such as whether it uses an object like a plate or ring, or food. There are also links to digitized copies of manuscripts where they are available, as well as to other major online manuscript projects such as the Digital Index of Middle English Verse and Manuscripts of the West Midlands projects.
This catalogue is very much still a work in progress. As of this writing I have only uploaded 43% of the total manuscripts in my survey and I haven’t even begun to include the manuscripts from the British Library and Bodleian collections! Suggestions and recommendations are always welcome. You can contact me through this contact form, in the comments to this post, or on Twitter. My hope is that this catalogue will serve as a resource for other scholars and anyone interested in the history of medieval magic.
As I promised in my last post, today I want to touch on a magical recipe with ties to some interesting sources. One of the manuscripts I focused on for my dissertation research is Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1435. This is an anonymous manuscript from the fifteenth century that contains mostly academic medical texts and is a large collection of over 180 magical and non-magical recipes in English and Latin in no discernible order. Understandably, in a collection that large the kinds of recipes vary considerably: there are recipes for cooking, metallurgy, divinatory experiments, texts of the virtues… and four experiments for invisibility (pages 7, 12, and 25).
The desire to become invisible seems to be a common theme for the pre-modern magician. Experiments promising this outcome survive in similar recipe collections in London, Wellcome Historical Medical Library MS 517 (a fifteenth-century Dutch collection); Kassel, Murhardsche und Landesbibliothek Codex Medicus 4˚10; the Greek Magical Papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt; Munich, Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek, Clm 849, the German necromantic handbook edited by Richard Kieckhefer in Forbidden Rites; and it is frequently seen in later medieval ritual magic.1 And of course this desire has extended to the modern day with Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility!
Of the four recipes for invisibility in Ashmole 1435 one in particular caught my eye. This is the third one in the manuscript and it is the most complex, bearing a strong resemblance to a necromantic operation for invisibility in Clm 849 and a spell from the Greek Magical Papyri. The Ashmole recipe runs as follows:
Si vis esse inuisibile: accipe vnum canem mortuum et sepilles eum et plantes super eum fabus et vnam in ore tuo et sine dubio eris inuisibile
(If you wish to be invisible: take a dead dog and bury it and plant a bean plant over it and place one in your mouth and without a doubt you will be invisible.)
The Clm 849 operation for invisibility instructs the operator kill a black cat that was born in March. He cuts out the cat’s eyes and places heliotrope seeds in its eyes and mouth; then he buries the cat while reciting conjurations. Once the plant has sprouted, the practitioner takes each sprouted bean, putting them in his mouth one by one while gazing into a mirror until he turns invisible.2 The similarities are quite remarkable and I would argue that there has been some appropriation of the necromantic ritual here.
The biggest distinction between the two is the lack of conjurations in the Ashmole operation and the distinction between killing a cat and finding a conveniently dead dog. Both of these operations in turn share a resemblance to a short spell from the Greek Magical Papyri from the third or fourth century, in a book titled The Diadem of Moses. In this operation the magician places the dog’s head plant under the tongue while lying down and recites certain magical words.3
It’s hard to say what exactly is going on here. How related are these three rituals? It’s clear that there is some sort of connection between the rituals in Clm 849 and Ashmole 1435, albeit indirectly, but what of their relationship to the spell from The Diadem of Moses? Was there a corruption of the text from the dog’s head plant to the dog/cat of the later operations? Did the Diadem of Moses ritual find itself translated and transported over the centuries across Europe, ending up in one instance in the necromantic manual of an anonymous German scribe, and in another instance in the equally anonymous book of an English scribe? If so (and I don’t see why not), this is an example of a magical recipe surviving and being passed on for over 1200 years.
1. Richard Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998). ↩
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.
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.
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.
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.↩
2. London, British Library, Sloane 962, folio 38v.↩
Studying medieval charms can bring to light a lot of intriguing social practices and help us to understand what sorts of everyday worries occupied the mind of a medieval person. It can also be an exercise in frustration at the limitations of our information. The Trinity College Library MS O.1.57 manuscript (Cambridge) offers just one such case. This household notebook was originally copied and owned by the Haldenby family and members of their household compiled in the first half of the fifteenth century.
The manuscript contains texts that range from medical recipes to physiognomy to gunpowder recipes. The Haldenby family was part of the lower gentry of fifteenth-century Northamptonshire and the book reflects a significant sub-section of the gentry who, along with members of the secular clergy, were interested in medical and scientific texts.
The Haldenby family and its household also seems to have had an interest in magical or quasi-magical texts, including the Serpentium corius, a group of magical and non-magical experiments using snakeskin, texts on the virtues of plants and animals, which include a number of items of natural magic, and an ad hoc book of secrets containing charms and magic tricks in their notebook, as well as the charms. The charms themselves are nothing extraordinary as far as fifteenth sensibilities go: a charm against fire, three medical charms, a charm to catch a thief, and a love charm (discussed in a previous entry).
Of particular interest to me for this post are three of charms scattered throughout the manuscript: charms for a sore, for sleep, and to catch a thief. All three were originally labelled as charms, but at some point in their history these titles were partially or completely erased by carefully scraping them off. Now these headings are only visible under UV light!
The charm for a sore began with the heading “<A charme> for þo felun” and the sleep charm ended with “Þis is <a charme> for a man þat may not slepe.” The charm to catch a thief originally had an elaborate heading below the charm that consisted of a face and scroll that read “Carmen pro fures” [Charm for thieves], although the heading, like those for the medical charms. In addition to being erased, the thief charm was also partially covered by a later pen drawing, making it especially difficult to see even under under UV light.
Complete erasures of objectionable texts often occurred, as in the Arundel MS 342 (British Library), in which instructions for conjuring spirits has been partly erased. The Sloane MS 513 (British Library) also suffers from an admittedly shoddy attempt at censure of its copy of the Ars notaria. These cases, at least, were more problematic magic rituals.
However, in TCC O.1.57 there was only a partial erasure. It is impossible to know when these erasures happened: was it in the generation immediately following the original owners? Was it the sixteenth-century owners? The latter seems unlikely given their inclusion of a love charm in the sixteenth century. Moreover, why remove only the title and not the content? This mysterious eraser may have wanted to take advantage of the contents of these charms while publicly denying their true nature.
It seems clear that whoever erased these titles was more concerned about the perceived nature of their book rather than the reality. Indeed, the charm to catch a thief could easily have been cut out entirely without affecting any other text in the book. Less clear is why there was such a concern, since such charms were used throughout the early modern period (as Lisa Smith recently discussed for an eighteenth-century manuscript). Perhaps the owners simply felt particular concern about the respectability of their book at one point in time… It is doubtful that we will ever know.
 Genealogical entries regarding the Haldenby and Mortemer families give the manuscript a terminus post quem of 1454.
 The other three charms do not have such obvious headings.
 Sophie Page includes an image from the Arundel manuscript in Magic in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 39.