the ‘Spellbound’ exhibition, you are confronted with a ladder leaning against a
wall like a menacing question mark. There is no avoiding this ladder. Do you
walk under it or do you go round? Even before you are inside the Ashmolean’s
exhibition space, ‘Spellbound’ asks big questions about magic, ritual, and
witchcraft. The ladder is a clever prelude: it shows how magical thinking is
not part of a past inhabited by our ‘superstitious’ predecessors, but smugly
points out that we live in a magical world today (and will still do so tomorrow).
The ladder sets the tone: visitors are encouraged to engage with their own
magical thinking. By the time you have made your decision, you know not to
approach the magical objects in the exhibition as unenlightened remnants of
delusions and misconceptions. They are, instead, intrinsic parts of people’s ‘inner
lives’—not incidentally, research from the Leverhulme Trust-funded project Inner Lives: Emotions, Identity and the
Supernatural, 1300-1900 lies at the foundation of the exhibition.
‘Spellbound’ stretches out across three thematic exhibition spaces divided between learned magic, witchcraft, and folk magic, though they are best experienced in dialogue with each other: retracing one’s steps between rooms can help make sense of some of the more enigmatic objects, and help one draw emotional or sensory connections of one’s own. Together, the spaces immerse the visitor in more than eight centuries of magical thinking and feeling, simultaneously encouraging us to reflect on our own thoughts and feelings. The thematic set up invites us to draw connections across ages and cultures without, importantly, trying to convince us of a ‘universalist’ interpretation of magic.
Its innovative approach—across themes and ages—raises questions of its own.
How do you create an exhibition that aims to capture interiority and emotions,
in particular when those emotions and their related practices are related to
subjects as wilfully elusive as the magical and supernatural? The invisible is
a tricky thing to display in a glass case of a museum. Thankfully for the
curators (and for us), magic has been captured in a wide variety of writings
and objects—sometimes literally—for example, the small flask which famously
contains a witch came with a warning from the woman who donated it to the Pitt
Rivers Museum in the early twentieth century: ‘…if you let him out there’ll be
a peck o’ trouble.’ In fact, several objects in ‘Spellbound’ hail from the
cabinets of Pitt Rivers and are re-imagined in what at first glance seems like
a more sterile and modern museum environment. The supernatural and the magical,
so this exhibition convincingly shows in the form of hundreds of things, were
profoundly material categories.
A second question that arises when looking at the many, very different
objects is: How do you recreate a museum context in which a worn shoe or a
feather can be ‘seen’ and ‘experienced’ by visitors as magical and emotional,
ideally without having to read essay-length labels that explain its
significance for the person who made it, kept it, or used it? Labels are used sparingly,
and to effect. The meaning and emotional significance attributed to everyday
objects instead becomes apparent when you take the time to look. Objects of
magic show signs of emotional practices throughout the ages: pages of grimoires
were read until they fell apart, things were carved, bound, charmed, pierced,
tied, burnt, scratched, bottled.
In other instances, the fact that they were kept is revealing in itself:
the worn leather of a shoe found concealed under floorboards by homeowners, for
example, attests to a patina of emotional and magical meaning that remains
vivid despite—or because—of its mystifying character. The accompanying
catalogue poignantly quotes Sara Ahmed’s The
cultural politics of emotions on how emotions ‘stick’ to objects, whether
we recognise them as magically material like the steel of a horse shoe and the
obsidian of John Dee’s black mirror—or not. It is to the curators’ credit that
visitors are compelled to figure out precisely how a shoe or corset were magical. That materiality becomes
particularly powerful when the exhibition lets different kinds of objects
communicate with one another, as in the case of the Boy with Coral painting and the piece of red coral depicting St
Michael defeating the devil. Several modern art installations beautifully
enrich the visitor’s sense of wonder as they wander between objects.
‘Spellbound’ makes clear how structures of magical thinking remain vibrant and flexible; they are not, nor were they ever paradigmatic, rigid belief systems. Rather, they constitute of pragmatic, idiosyncratic amalgams of beliefs, practices, and objects that made sense to individuals and shaped communities. They are profoundly human. This popular and charming exhibition will do much to rid us of the persistent dismissal of magical thinking as ‘superstition’ and to begin to take people’s experiences—past and present—seriously. Touch wood.
Kristof Smeyers (Twitter: @kristof_smeyers) works as a doctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp. His research attempts to untangle the grey areas between science and religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by focusing on supernatural religious phenomena in Britain and Ireland.
Summer this year in the UK has been particularly hot; we have experienced a heat wave for the first time in almost a decade. The hot days between roughly the tenth of July and the fifteenth of August are known as the Dog Days, so called because they are under the astronomical influence of the Dog Star (canicula in Latin, hence the French “canicule”, sometimes also used in English), also known as Sirius. Greek and Latin poets, starting with Homer and Hesiod, sang of the effects of the parching heat on the environment and people:
When the golden thistle blooms and the chirping cicada
Sits in a tree and pours down its shrill song
Continuously from under its wings, it is the season of exhausting heat,
Then goats are fattest, wine is at its best,
Women are most lustful, but men are weakest,
Because Sirius dries up the head and the knees,
And the skin is parched by the burning heat.
[Hesiod, Works and Days 582-588]
To the Greeks, women were wet and men dry. The heat of the Dog Days caused both men and women to become drier; this brought positive effects to women, who became more like the ideal male, but weakened men. That weakness, however, was not a morbid state; it was not an illness.
Medical texts composed in later antiquity described a disease called seiriasis, which was an inflammation of the meninges accompanied by a burning fever. Its name evoked the Dog Star Sirius, although the physician Soranus of Ephesus suggested that the origin of the word seiriasis might be slightly more complex:
Some people state that the disease is called ‘seiriasis’ after the star [Sirius], because of the fever; but others state that it is thus called after the sunken forehead, because among farmers ‘seiros’ is the name of a hollow object in which they put and keep seeds. [Soranus, Gynaecology 2.55]
Soranus, and other medical writers, recommended the application of various ingredients to the forehead as treatment for the illness: egg yolk mixed with rose oil, the leaf of the heliotrope, grated colocynth, the skin of melon, or the juice of nightshade with rose oil. Most of these products, available in mid-summer, were thought to be cooling, and therefore effective in the treatment of fevers: opposite is a cure for opposite. The heliotrope, however, was not known as a cooling drug. The therapeutic principle at play here seems to be that of homeopathy (similar is a cure for similar): the heliotrope, the plant that follows the heat of the sun, is a remedy for a burning fever.
An altogether more colourful remedy for seiriasis is recorded in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History:
The inflammation of infants which is called seirasis is improved by the bones that are found in dog excrement, worn as amulets. [Pliny the Elder, Natural History 30.135]
Bone shards are sometimes found in dog poop, and these might be what Pliny was referring to here. This ingredient was most certainly chosen because of the perceived link between seiriasis and the Dog Star Sirius. One can only imagine the despair that would lead the sleep deprived parents of a sick child to put their trust in such an amulet.
In September 2018, The Recipes Project will be six years old. There’s been a lot of blogging on this platform, and we are so grateful to all our wonderful contributors. 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 have chosen a piece written by our very own Laura Micthell, who is responsible for much of our social media presence. In this post, first published in March 2013, she presents us with a medieval love ritual and its Victorian equivalent, which has to be carried out on Midsummer’s eve. Enjoy!
By Laura Mitchell
For a long time I have been interested in the endurance/longevity of charms and recipes over extended periods of time, a topic which Alun Withey addressed in a recent post. The major tropes that make up medieval medical charms, for example, appear with relatively minor variations from the thirteenth through to the fifteenth centuries (at least in England, the area I focus on), and of course there’s those herbal remedies discussed by Dr. Withey. A few years ago I encountered a somewhat surprising form of this longevity with a sixteenth-century love charm from Trinity College Cambridge MS O.1.57 (1081).
This manuscript is a household notebook originally owned by the Haldenby family, members of the lower gentry in late medieval Isham, Northamptonshire. Largely written in the first half of the fifteenth century, it contains several later additions including a collection of (mostly) medical recipes written in the margins by a sixteenth-century hand. One of these later additions is a love charm on folio 20r:
To know who shalbe his wiffe or hir husband.
Say thus: “hempe seed, hempe I thee sow lede and vnlede. she that shalbe my worldes make come after one and rake sleepe sleepe and I her see, wake and her know.” this most be done on new yeares day at even taking alitle hempe seed in one hande and going thrise aboute the fire, sowing the hempe seede aboute the fier but not in the fyer. then go to bedde and lie downe vpon the right side speaking never a worde to no body but to say your pater noster and your Credo.
Imagine my surprise while watching an episode of the BBC show Victorian Farm where the presenter conducted a very similar Victorian ritual! The episode in question takes place at Midsummer’s Eve. The presenter, Ruth Goodman, and her daughter, Catherine, go out at midnight to the local churchyard. Catherine scatters hemp seed while saying:
Hemp seed I sow. Hemp seed should/will grow. He who will marry me, come after and mow.
According to Goodman, the future husband was supposed to appear in the churchyard, or possibly that night in a dream.
Obviously there are some differences between the sixteenth- and late nineteenth-century rituals. They take place on different dates: one on New Year’s Day; the other at Midsummer’s Eve. Only the first part of the ritual, spreading the hemp seed and reciting the special words, appears in the nineteenth-century version – there is no fire and no prayers. Naturally, we must also keep in mind that aspects of the charm and ritual might have been changed for television – doing magic is not necessarily entertaining to watch after all! As well, a popular history show is not the best source for scholarly work. Nevertheless, I find this example very interesting and a good starting point to think about the traditions of charms over long periods of time. How did a charm get from the sixteenth century to the Victorian era and finally to a television show in the twenty-first century?
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, medieval medical charms continued to be used throughout the period with little variation in the major tropes used. Owen Davies has also shown that medieval and early modern magical texts continued to be used by cunning-folk in England right into the modern period. The long-term use and survival of these kinds of charms speaks to the ingrained belief among people that magic worked. Much like the Welsh herbal remedies, magic charms and rituals continued to appeal to people for a very long time.
 See Lea Olsan’s article “The Corpus of Charms in the Middle English Leechcraft Remedy Books,” in Charms, Charmers and Charming: International Research on Verbal Magic, ed. Jonathan Roper (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 214-237; and Tony Hunt, Popular Medicine in Thirteenth-Century England: Introduction and Texts (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1990).
 Naturally, the charm may have earlier antecedents but I am not aware of any at the moment. As a medievalist and not an early modernist or Victorian historian, I do not know of later examples of this charm, but I would be very interested if any readers know of other examples of this charm.
 I am not aware of any special property of hemp seed that might explain its inclusion in those sort of charm, although it has been suggested to me that it might be drawn from the use of hemp to make rope and thus “tie” the two people together somehow. Presumably the growing of the seed is meant to parallel the growing of the love between the two people. I am, of course, open to other suggestions.
 See Davies’s book, Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (London: Hambledon and London, 2003).
Charms are incantations or magic spells, chanted, recited, or written. Used to cure diseases, they can also be a type of medical recipe. 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. He established six different types of charms :
invocations and prayers addressed to herbs;
mystical words or prayers chanted or written on papers that the patient had to apply on his body;
conjurations or exorcisms addressed to diseases,;
narrative charms : episode of the life of sacred or legendary characters who suffered similar diseases with the patient;
the attribution of magical powers to certain objects, plants, animals or stones;
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.
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.
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.
Ffor to charme thre obeles for the feveres
Take thre obelyes and wryte þes wordes : on þefyrste : + 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.
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.
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.
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.
 J.F. Payne, English Medicine in the Anglo-Saxon Times: The Fitz-Patrick lectures for 1903 (Oxford, 1904), pp. 114-5.
 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.
 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.