All posts by Lisa Smith

A historian of gender and medicine in eighteenth-century France and England, Lisa Smith (Lecturer in Digital History, University of Essex) has published widely on leaky bodies, pain, fertility, and the household. She is finishing a book on “Domestic Medicine: Gender, Health and the Household in Eighteenth Century England and France”. In addition to developing an online database of the Sir Hans Sloane Correspondence, she is a co-investigator on a crowd-sourcing recipes transcription project. She blogs at The Sloane Letters Blog and Wonders & Marvels and tweets as @historybeagle.

Medieval charms: magical and religious remedies

By Véronique Soreau

Charms are incantations or magic spells, chanted, recited, or written. Used to cure diseases, they can also be a type of medical recipe.[1]  Such recipes were often described as charms in their title and linked to a ritualistic form of language intertwined with religion, medicine and magic.

The charms of a Middle English manuscript at Trinity College Library, Cambridge (MS O.1.13) bear the hints of the conversion of a pagan ritual into a remedy approved by the Church. They include several Latin formulae uttered during Masses, mention Christ or Saints, and finish with signs of the cross. Effectively, God should remain the supreme doctor, in order to maintain the hegemony of the Church.

Numerous attempts of classification of the different kinds of charms have been elaborated by several researchers, notably J.F. Payne.[2] He established six different types of charms :

  1. invocations and prayers addressed to herbs;
  2. mystical words or prayers chanted or written on papers that the patient had to apply on his body;
  3. conjurations or exorcisms addressed to diseases,;
  4. narrative charms : episode of the life of sacred or legendary characters who suffered similar diseases with the patient;
  5. the attribution of magical powers to certain objects, plants, animals or stones;
  6. transference of a disease by a formula or a ceremony to animals or material objects.

Looking at manuscript O.1.13, I focus on two sorts of these charms: mystical words or prayers chanted or written, and narrative charms related to sacred or legendary characters who suffered.[3]  

Magical remedies

Payne’s second category of charms is characterized by associations of words or letters to which are attributed occult powers. They constitute magical formulae in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, or  Celtic. In MS O.1.13, numerous charms elided with more traditional medical recipes.

The mix of Latin and Middle English allows the identification of a charm. It is through a precise analysis of the medicinal  recipes contained in MS O.1.13 that we can identify them. Charms are not always defined as such in their titles. Here is an example of a charm hidden among medical recipes.

From MS O.1.13. Credit: The Master and Fellows of Trinity College Library, Cambridge.

Ffor þe feuers.

Take iij. oblyes and wryte: ‘Pater est Alpha’, and one vp to oon. And make a poynte and lat þe seeke ete þat þe fyrste day. Þe ij. day wryte on þat oþer obely : ‘Ffilius est vita’, and make ij. poyntes and gyfe þe seeke to ete. And on þe iij. day, wryte on þat oþer obly : ‘Spiritus Sanctus est remedium’, and make iij. poyntes and gyfe þe seke to ete. And þe fyrste day, lat þe seek saye a Pater Noster [as] he ete it. And þe ij .day: ij. Pater noster a[s] he ete it, and þe iij. day: iij. Pater Noster and a Credo. (MS O.1.13, f.47v.)

For the fevers.

Take three Hosts and write : ‘Pater est Alpha’ [Father is the first] and one up to one. And make a dot and let the sick man eat it the first day. The second day, write on that other Host : ‘Filius est vita’ [Son is life] and make two dots and give the sick man the Host to eat.  And on the third day, write on that other Host : ‘Spiritus Sanctus est remedium’ [the Holy Spirit is the remedy] and make three dots, and give the sick man the Host to eat. And the first day, let the sick man say a ‘Pater Noster’ [Lord’s Prayer] as he eats it. And the second day: two ‘Pater Noster’ as he eats it. And the third day, three ‘Pater Noster’ as he eats it. And the third day, three  ‘Pater Noster] and a Credo [Creed].

The religious character of the text is important, mixing Middle English and Latin words. Latin was used to gain the approval of Christian religion, as well as to increase the healing power of formulae borrowed from prayers.

Here is another example of the second category of charms, in which words and formulae were adressed to the patient or written or applied on his body, as a protective amulet.

From MS O.1.13. Credit: The Master and Fellows of Trinity College Library, Cambridge.

Ffor to charme thre obeles for the feveres

Take thre obelyes and wryte þes wordes : on þe fyrste : + l. +Helye + Sabaot  +. And in þe secounde : + Adonay + Alpha + and one + Messias.  In þe thryd : + pastor + agnus + fons +. And gyfe þe seke to ete ilke a day on, right as þai be wryten, the first day þe firste, þe secound day þe secounde, þe thryd day þe thryd, and at ilke an obelye þat he ete, late þe seke say iij. Pater Noster and iij. Ave Maria and Credo. (MS O.1.13, f.51 v)

To charme three Hosts for the fevers

Take three Hosts and write these words : on the first : l + Helye + Sabaot + (50 + Lord of the Universe +) And in the second : + Adonay + Alpha + and one + Messias. ( God + Alpha + and one + Messiah). In the third : + pastor + agnus+ fons + (shepherd+ lamb+ fountain+). And give the sick man one Host to eat each day, right as the words be written. The first day the firste, the seond day the second, the third day the third, and for each Host that he eats, let the sick man say three Pater Noster and three Ave Maria and Crede.

The particularity of these Christian formulae is the fact that they are composed of three parts. The number 3, symbolizing the Holy Trinity, is recurring in this passage. The protection of the patient is thus multiplied.

These two charms are also similar to the blessed sacrament, since the patient had to eat Hosts (‘obelyes’) on which were written the prayers or magical formulae, as part of the healing process.

Litanies with signs of the cross were not only written by the practitioner, but also probably recited or sung at the patient’s bedside. The patient became an actor in her own healing as she also had to declaim prayers.

Religious remedies

According to Payne, the fourth category of charms is characterised by the presence of a story extracted from the Bible about the pain or illness of the Christ or one of the Saints.

From MS O.1.13. Credit: The Master and Fellows of Trinity College Library, Cambridge.

In the next example, the story of Christ’s baptism is depicted in Latin and is a charm dedicated to the healing of bloodshed. It was probably pronounced by the practitioner who was acting on God’s behalf. These incantations were used as a further protection, for either the success of blood letting or other surgical operations, or after the administering of a remedy. Such prayers represented a means to accelerate the healing process, and for the poorest who couldn’t offer any medical assistance, the only way, or hope, to be cured.

Here is a charme for þe blody flux

In nomine + Patris + et Filii + et Spiritus Sancti +Amen. Stabat + Ihesus contra flummen Jordanis et posuit pedem suum et dixit : Sancta aqua per deum te coniuro. Longinus miles latus Domini nostri + Ihesus Christ lancea perforauit et continuo exiuit sanguis et aqua, sanguis redempcionis et aqua baptismatis. In nomine Patris + restet sanguis + In nomine Filii, cesset sanguis. In nomine Spiritus Sancti non exeat sanguinis gutta ab hoc famulo dei. N. Sicut credimus quod Sancta Maria vera mater est et verum infantem genuit Christum, sic retineant vene que plene sunt sanguine. Sic restet sanguis sicut restat Jordanis quando + quando Christ in ea baptiȝatus fuit. In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti. Amen. (MS O.1.13, f. 48v)

Here is a charm for the bloody flux

In the name of the Father + and the Son + and the Holy Spirit + Amen. + Jesus was standing near the River Jordan, he put in his foot and said : Holy Water, I conjure you by God. Longinus the soldier pierced the side of our Lord + Jesus Christ with his sword, and blood and water kept on flowing out,  and also the blood of redemption and the water of baptism. In the name of the Father +,  may the blood rest  + In the name of the Son, may the blood stop flowing out. In the name of the Holy Spirit, may no blood drop go out of this of God. (named here). Just as we believe that Holy Mary is the true Mother and the one who gave birth to the true infant Christ, then may the veins that are full of blood retain it. So may the blood stand still, like the Jordan stands still at the same time when Christ was baptised in it. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

The distinctive feature of this exampleis the omnipresence of Latin, whereas the title is in Middle English. It is likely that the book’s compiler did not translate the passage on Christ’s baptism. The story about Jesus coming to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist and having the Holy Spirit appear afterwards as a dove was a famous one.  What was most essential for the practitioner was an ability to recognize the illness that the formula could cure, as suggested by the use of Middle English in the title.[4]

Even though relying on the power of God or the Saints for healing may strike us as irrational today, medieval people firmly believed in God and occult powers. The profusion of copies of these charms point to the faith of many learned practitioners and patients in the efficiency of the formulae in invoking a higher assistance.




All translations from Middle English to Modern English are the author’s own.

[1] Definition based on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online. See also Laura Mitchell, ‘Magic or medicine ? Healing charms in fifteenth-century English recipe collections’ , The Recipes Project, 13/09/2012.  

[2] J.F. Payne, English Medicine in the Anglo-Saxon Times: The Fitz-Patrick lectures for 1903 (Oxford, 1904), pp. 114-5.

[3] Manuscript O.1.13 is classified by James under the entry Medica. It is a compilation of different books dealing with medical recipes, plants and their vertues, and the influence of planets on the practice of medicine.

[4] For more detailed explanations and other variants of this charm, see: Lea Olsan, ‘The Three Good Brothers Charm: Some Historical Points’, Incantatio, An International Journal on Charms, Charmers and Charming, 1 (2011), pp. 58-59.

Véronique SOREAU is currently completing her PhD in English and Anglo-Saxon Languages and Literature at the Université de Poitiers and Centre d’Etudes Supérieures de Civilisation Médiévale, entitled : ‘La médecine par les plantes et les étoiles entre le quinzième et le seizième siècle en Angleterre. Edition inédite d’une sélection de textes en moyen-anglais de quatre manuscrits situés à Trinity College Library, Cambridge : MSS O.1.13, O.5.26, R.14.32, R.14.51, et commentaires. Deux volumes.’  Her researches focus on the edition of Middle English texts from the fifteenth and sixteenth century dealing with medieval popular medicine, medical recipes, the use of plants in remedies, and astrological medicine. She has published articles, notably in the Bulletin des Anglicistes Médiévistes.

Strike Notice

Last week, many academics in the U.K. went on strike. I decided not to cross the picket line, even virtually, in support of the strike. As I explained on Twitter, many of our contributors and readers come from the U.K. — and two of our editors (Laurence Totelin and I) are members of the striking University and College Union.

The issue behind the UCU strike is pensions. University employers want to end guaranteed pensions and reduce retirement income for all. This is a substantial problem. For example, my own pension income will be reduced by about 50%. While Universities UK (representatives of the universities) would suggest that our Universities Superannuation Scheme is a benefit, and thus subject to cuts, the reality of paying into a pension is quite different: it is delayed payment.

Pensions, I know, can seem a bit of a niche dispute to those uninvolved.  In this case, however, they are the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Our pay, to be sure, isn’t great–and in real terms, has been declining.

Basically, universities run on goodwill. Although we are contracted to work roughly 35-38 hours per week (depending on university), nearly all of us work substantially more than that on a weekly basis. The metrics of REF (Research Excellence Framework) and TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) alone mean that we never have enough time to do our work in the time allotted.

This is not because of our inefficiency, but because the workload allocations in place do not allow for the real number of hours required for our regular activities like grading, lecture-writing, pastoral care of students, endless admin reports. Our research and writing is required for the REF and our promotion and permanency applications, but often occurs on our own time in weekends and evenings out of necessity.

Other activities like blogging also occur beyond our official workload. Here at The Recipes Project, the editors and contributors enjoy our research and conversations about recipes. But our work is unpaid and unrecognised by workplace metrics–like so much of our unseen academic labour.

This isn’t a complaint. You see, we love what we do: we really do. And the system depends on our love. But the pension cuts undermine our goodwill. And it is this that is integral to our willingness to work above and beyond for the sake of education.

But what is at stake here is so much better than pensions or pay. This is part of a wider conversation about the marketization of the university sector, with its use of precarious labour rather than permanent positions; its insistence that students are consumers; its willingness to invest in more buildings rather than its employees; its treatment of universities as businesses rather than a public good.

We believe that universities are a public good. And in solidarity with the strikers, our usual programming here at The Recipes Project will be disrupted throughout the strike. We will not be crossing the picket line, even virtually.

For more on the strike, see just a few examples below. I can’t keep up with all the links!

The art is long: strike diary 1


Tales from the Archives: Love Magic in Eighteenth-Century Russia

In 2017, The Recipes Project celebrated its fifth birthday. We now have nearly 650 posts in our archives and over 160 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.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, so it is an opportune time to reflect on the recipes of love in our archives. In her post on Russian love magic, Elena Smilianskaia reflects on the cultural meaning of love spells–specifically, anxieties surrounding feelings that were out of control. Romantic love, it seems, was thought to be a potentially dangerous emotion.

Be careful tomorrow!

By Elena Smilianskaia

'For a Love Potion' M. V. Nesterov (1888) (
‘For a Love Potion’
M. V. Nesterov (1888)

Love magic has existed in human history from the very start, and it continues to exist today – the Recipes Project has already featured some fifteenth-century English love spells. It is not very difficult to find a person who guarantees a client ‘true’ love potions and very effective love spells in any city of the world. The texts that ancient and contemporary magicians use in their ‘craft’ have a lot of commonalities, including:


  • A desire that a love object looks at you and will ‘never tire of looking’
  • A desire that a love object forgets all his/or her relatives, primarily a father and a mother, and thinks only about you
  • A desire that a love object can neither eat nor drink in his/her love fever
  • A love fever being compared with madness, or with fire.


So if we state that all of these concepts from love spells are the same for different cultures and historical periods, then we must conclude that human expressions of love passion do not dramatically change over time and it is hardly possible to find a specific transition in the sphere of love. Alternatively, we must try to compare cases of using magic in love and verbal descriptions of love feelings for each concrete period and specific culture to prove that we can talk about the transformation and the evolution of love spells (although very slowly and primarily in the external sphere, in ‘the clothes of love’). I prefer the second way.

In eighteenth-century Russian magic texts a person who has fallen in love can find not only a description of their extreme feelings but a hope that magic would either help to overcome this ‘sinful passion’ or to make the object of their passion share a love. It also helped to comprehend why one’s affection so influenced human life and behavior.

There are cases in which an individual was sure that love magic was definitely the origin of an otherwise inexplicable passion: one example that I like very much comes from 1740, when a peasant named Vasiliy Gerasimov at last understood why his daughter lived with a church sexton Maxim Dyakonov: he found Maxim’s love spells. By 1740, Vasiliy’s daughter had already had two babies with Maxim, but only a sheet of paper with the text of a love spell explained everything…

'The Sorcerer at the Wedding' V. M. Maksimov (1875) (WikiCommons)
‘The Sorcerer at the Wedding’
V. M. Maksimov (1875)

It is also notable that very often love itself was considered to be an illness and was cured the same way: not only by a witch or a sorcerer, but by an ordinary healer. It was also thought that love spells might cause diseases in a human body (there are some court cases mentioning that a woman under the effect of love magic ‘swelled up’ and suffered from physical pain and only counter-magic rituals could help her).  In a lot of situations when a woman became a klikusha (a kind of witch), the community was convinced that somebody (a man of course!) had wanted to bewitch the woman, making her unable to resist passion and evil intentions.

Magic was always suspected when feelings were out of control. For example, when in 1737 a servant-maid named Ustinya Grigorieva fell in love with a soldier, she considered her ‘great pangs’ of melancholy to be magical in origin. In her testimony during the trial she described her actions.  She reported that she had thought: ‘this soldier or somebody else has bewitched her?’  and so she went to the sorcerer Masey who read a spell over wine, put an unknown root into it and gave the wine to Ustinya to drink – and… she became free of her love pangs and the feeling of love itself.

Condemned by the Orthodox Church, passion and erotic love in traditional Russian culture were considered for a very long time to be sinful, demonic, and therefore connected with magic. But in eighteenth-century Russia, magic provided a way for people to comprehend the origins of passion, and its influence on human behavior, as well as the means to control that behaviour.

Nursing and Nutrition: Treating the Influenza in 1918-9

By Ida Milne

Monster representing the influenza virus. E. Noble, c. 1918. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This season’s higher than normal influenza cases has inevitably drawn comparisons with the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, the worst in modern history.  It killed more than 40 million people, according  to the World Health Organisation.  It punctured medical doctors’ newfound confidence in the power of bacteriology to fight infectious disease. In Ireland, it killed at least 23,000 people (the number of certified deaths from influenza and excess pneumonia) and infected about 800,000 people, one fifth of the population. Entire communities fell silent as it passed through.

Laboratories churned out vaccines, but the general consensus was these vaccines, made from bacteria suspected to cause influenza like illness such as Pfeiffer’s bacillus (haemophilus influenza), were ineffective.   Physicians threw everything in their medical bag at it, trying desperately, and in vain,  to find a cure for a disease they found baffling. Ultimately, doctors came to realise that the most effective treatment was good nursing – which included nutritious food – and strong liquor.

From a school journal The Clongownian, 1919. By kind permission of the editor, Declan O’Keeffe.

There was little consensus amongst the medical profession on what medicine worked best. Some suggested quinine and grains of aspirin to reduce fever and grains of opium for sleeplessness.  Calomel (mercurous chloride)  was liberally prescribed, as doctors then were very keen on keeping the bowels open.  Strychnine, which we tend to view now as the villain’s poison of choice in James Bond movies, was injected as a stimulant.

D.W. McNamara, a young house doctor in Dublin’s Mater Hospital during the crisis, later wrote that one of the popular treatments in the hospital was an injection of camphor in olive oil, which he described as ‘the very nadir of therapeutic bolony’. Instructed by his seniors to use it, he felt guilty that he had inflicted further pain and suffering on the very ill.  Some doctors, especially his older colleagues, favoured brandy or whiskey ‘in heroic doses’.  Alcohol had, he considered, a good deal to recommend it, as it was ‘probably no less worthless than any of the other nostrums, and at least its customers had a merry spin to Paradise’.

The demand for whiskey was so strong that some flu-stricken communities wrote to the Chief Secretary’s office to see what could be done to improve supplies. Non-prescription medicines were in high demand. As well as compounding regular medicines, pharmacists worked long hours to prepare huge quantities of tonics, cough medicines and poultices. The poultices were usually a mixture of boiling water and ground linseed, reputed to aid decongestion, enclosed in cloth and placed on the chest or throat.[1]

Journalists passed on tips on cures to their readership. The Irish Independent related that Major R. T. Herron, Medical Officer, Armagh Union infirmary, had suggested gargling with a solution of permanganate of potash as a useful preventive measure. Sir R. Winfrey, MP, a qualified chemist, recommended a prescription of thirty drops pure creosote, half-ounce rectified spirit, three-quarter ounce liquid extract of liquorice, two drachms salicylate of soda and twelve ounces of water, with the recommended adult dosage of two tablespoonfuls three times daily.[2]

While good nursing with bed rest, plenty of liquids and nourishing food offered a better chance of survival than medication, this was not always possible when every member of the family was sick. In some areas, the Women’s National Health Association, the St Vincent de Paul and neighbours set up community nursing schemes and community kitchens to cook and deliver nourishing soups and stews to those too weak to care for themselves. Local farmers often donated vegetables and meat.

Sinn Féin’s Dr Kathleen Lynn, who opened a hospital to treat influenza sufferers and vaccinate people, suggested that sufferers should be given milk, barley water and egg flip, while those in good health ought to fortify themselves with butter, eggs, fresh meat, vegetables and porridge.

Many newspapers reported that people were carrying handkerchiefs doused in eucalyptus oil in front of their mouths as a preventive measure.  Macnamara considered this practice about as effective against influenza as ‘a black beetle would be to halt a steamroller.’

Advertisement in Abel Heywood and Son’s Influenza: Its cause, cure and prevention, 1902. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Beef extracts Bovril and Oxo were in heavy demand, and production was sometimes halted when they ran out of bottles when sales went up. Beef extract or tea was understood to strengthen the body as a defence against infection. Goodbody’s Flour Mills in Clara, Co Offaly supplied Bovril to their 300-strong workforce  during the pandemic.

Manufacturers changed their regular advertising to offer their product as a useful treatment. Readers of the Enniscorthy Guardian were urged to ‘pour a little Cousin’s lemonade into a saucepan and warm it, to provide the perfect drink for influenza sufferers.’ A pharmacist in Gorey, Co Wexford, advertised his cod liver oil emulsion as offering  protection from influenza.  Purveyors of snake oils – the cure-all nostrums – swiftly added curing influenza to their list. Such claims preyed on the general fears created by an untreatable mass disease.

The use of whiskey as a treatment crops up frequently in written records and oral histories I captured from survivors or families of sufferers. Raphael Sieve, whose family lived in south Dublin at the time, told me that his father kept his teenage brother constantly mildly drunk with whiskey at the time, until he pulled through. When I presented this idea in a paper, a medical doctor suggested that there might be good science behind it.  He said that the reason that young healthy adults may have suffered more than normally in this flu was because of cytokine storms, where the immune system overreacts. He thought that small regular doses of whiskey might help prevent this.

One survivor I interviewed, Tommy Christian, from Boston, Co Kildare, was administered gruel, a type of watery porridge, which he said ‘had an awful lot of responsibilities’, a hint perhaps that it was intended to open his bowels. His family put a poultice made of linseeds and hot water wrapped in cotton on his chest, another common treatment. Tommy had his first taste of whiskey, in a hot toddy – made from sugar, whiskey and hot water – as that five-year old flu sufferer, a taste he said he continued to enjoy for the rest of his life.  Despite being extremely ill in 1919, he lived to his 99th year. Proof that the old remedies can sometimes be best?

Editor’s Note: Ida Milne’s book on the influenza epidemic in Ireland comes out in May 2018 and can be ordered through Manchester University Press.

[1] Telephone communication with a family member of Phillip Brady, who worked as a pharmacist at Kelly’s Corner, Dublin, during the epidemic; further details with author.

[2] Irish Independent, 4 March 1919.