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.
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.
Last February we opened the exhibit, “The Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance,” at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the University of Michigan Library. The show explores the early history of Western medicine as illustrated by a selection of archaeological objects, papyri, medieval manuscripts, and early printed books. Among the earliest artifacts on display is a second century AD papyrus with a text from the Greek botanist Dioscorides’ On Materia Medica. Closing the exhibit is the first edition of William Harvey’s Anatomical Treatise on the Movement of the Heart and Blood in Animals (1628). In brief, the exhibit has been designed to inspire future conversations on some vital themes, including the role of religion and magic in healing the soul and body, the persistence of Graeco-Roman methods of diagnosis and treatment in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the multilingual transmission of medical knowledge in both manuscript and printed form.
After having curated several exhibits, I can say that my favorite artifacts tend to be those about which I initially knew less. I did not know much about the medical material hidden in a fascinating book of mysterious origin, the Book of Secrets, erroneously attributed to Aristotle. From Cornelius Celsus (fl. 25 AD) and Paul of Aegina (ca. 625-ca. 690) I learned much on the use of ancient medical implements, particularly about surgical instruments.
And I knew little about the fascinating world of medical amulets, extraordinary witnesses of every-day anxieties about illness and death in antiquity and beyond. Worn as necklaces or bracelets, fever amulets made of papyrus or lead seemed to be everywhere. But even more ubiquitous were medical amulets in the form of gemstones skillfully engraved with symbolic iconography and magical spells. Below is my favorite one: an example of a uterine amulet.
The engravings scattered on this small piece of hematite are fairly standard in this type of amulets. Ouroboros—a snake eating its tail, probably a metaphorical representation of the abyss—encloses a pot with the mouth downward which, resembling a medical cupping vessel for bloodletting, represents the womb. From the bottom of this cupping vessel two curved lines on each side depict the ligaments and uterine tubes discovered by Herophilos of Alexandria. Attached to the pot is a key with a knobbed handle, suggesting that control of the mechanism of opening and closing the womb would facilitate fertility and childbirth. In the upper half of the stone, we see a series of protective deities. On the left, we see the mummy of Anubis, the Greek name for a jackal-headed god associated with the afterlife in Egyptian religion; in the center is Chnoubis, a coiled serpent with a lion head and six rays around it, believed to prevent abdominal pain and ensure an easy childbirth. On the right is Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility and motherhood. On the edges, we read a long magical formula in the form of a meaningless babbling repetition of syllables: σοροορμερφεργαρβαρμαφριου[ριγξ]. And on the reverse is a two-line magical inscription: ορωρ | ιουθ.[i]
Finally, since this blog is devoted to the history of recipes, it might be suitable to end this post with the following medical text preserved in a second-century AD papyrus.
This small fragment consists of a single column from a scroll containing a medical treatise in Greek. The subject of the text is dietary recommendations to patients afflicted with constipation. Below is the English translation:
To take the small portion of food, to drink all the previously mentioned liquids, and to drink in addition a little new wine, diluted until somewhat watery. To those who have a persistent constipation hard to clear up, much more than the quantities prescribed are given; but to those who suffer from weakness, less. And a moderate diet is prescribed when the bowels have become more relaxed. The risk of injury to the eyes has been previously mentioned…[ii]
To learn more about the rest of the exhibit, please visit the online version here, or visit us in person if you happen to be in the Ann Arbor area in the next few days. The last day of the exhibit is April 30th!
Pablo Alvarez is Outreach Librarian and Curator at the Special Collections Library, University of Michigan. He is currently completing the edition and English translation of Alonso Victor de Paredes’ Institucion, y origen del arte de la imprenta, y reglas generales para los componedores, a Spanish printer’s manual produced in Madrid around 1680.
[i] Campbell Bonner, Studies in Magical Amulets, Chiefly Graeco-Egyptian, University of Michigan Studies, Humanistic Series 49 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950) 274.
[ii] Isabella Andorlini, “Istruzioni dietetiche e farmacologiche,” Papyrology, Naphtali Lewis ed., Yale Classical Studies 28 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 49–56.
In 2000 I was foolish enough to buy a listed house in an old Suffolk weaving village in eastern England. The building had originally been built in about 1400, probably as a merchant’s house with a shop (the round arches) in one corner.
However, it had since had numerous makeovers: by the Elizabethans, when the main chimney was installed during the ‘Great Rebuilding’; by the Georgians who introduced glass windows; and in the 1950s, when new electrics were put in and first of a series of rather nasty extensions added. The Georgians (or at least someone using late 18th century bricks) also added a fireplace and chimney in the largest of the upstairs bedrooms.
The chimney was short-lived because late 19th century photographs show no sign of it. But the fireplace, a ton of bricks dumped unsupported in the corner of the bedroom on the medieval floor joists, survived. This had led to the splitting of some of the medieval timbers beneath, and threatened to tip one corner of the house into the street.
In the circumstances permission was easily obtained from the listing authorities to take the structure out, which I did myself. However, as I took down the bricks row by row various objects began to appear out of the dust and rubble that had accumulated in a cavity to the side of the chimney breast. First a candlestick, then shoes, the ribs of fans, strips of textiles, sharp objects (nails, bobbin pins, a razor, shards of glass), a comb, and eventually the remains of halved lemons. What exactly was going on here?
Some research revealed that this assemblage was probably a form of practical (or apotropaic) magic used to ward off evil. In pre-modern Europe it was believed that witches, their familiars, or other evil forces could easily infiltrate the house from outside, gaining access through windows, and cracks in doorways and walls. As King James I of England wrote in his Daemonologie of 1597 regarding witches’ familiars:
Some of them sayeth, that being transformed in the likenesse of a little beast or foule, they will come and pearce through whatsoeuer house or Church, though all ordinarie passages be closed, by whatsoeuer open, the aire may enter in at.
Reginald Scot, writing in his Discoverie of Witchcraft of 1583, listed the plethora of evil entities commonly feared as:
Spirits, witches, urchens, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, pans, faunes, sylens, kit with the cansticke, tritons, centaurs, dwarfes, giants, imps, calcars, conjurors, nymphes, changlings, Incubus, Robin good-fellowe, the spoorne, the mare, the man in the oke, the hell waine, the fierdrake, the puckle, Tom thombe, hob gobblin, Tom tumbler, boneles, and such other bugs ….
With such a plethora of evil forces acting like Wi-Fi, how was one to protect the home, and especially the chimney and hearth, both the centre of the home and its weakest point? The answer was to place simulacra of the body in the chimney to act as decoys, and to draw the evil away, and the most frequent form of such distributed embodiment was the shoe. Shoes, which have been found up chimneys in houses all over Britain, Europe, North America and Australia down into the early 20th century, could act as decoys because they retained the shape of their wearer. This was especially the case since, prior to industrial mass production, the local cobbler would make shoes using a wooden lathe based on individuals’ own feet. As frequently happened in the pre-modern world, a sign-object standing in for its owner or user created a duplicate presence, a presence not actual but nonetheless real. Once ensnared the source of evil could be subjected to pain and discomfort from the fire of the candlestick, the sharp points of pins and knives, and the bitterness of the lemons, although all these had themselves magic properties.
Such counter-spells are just one of the forms of apotropaic magic in the house. You can find secret signs under windows:
‘W’ scratched on timbers, possibly indicating ‘Virgo Virginum’ – Virgin of Virgins, or Mary Mother of Christ:
And concentric circles on doorways, which acted to trap evil spirits in an endless maze:
The house itself has become a ritual object designed to repel harmful forces, although now, fortunately, with underfloor heating!
Professor Higgs studied modern history at the University of Oxford, completing his doctoral research there in 1978 on the history of nineteenth-century domestic service. He was an archivist at the Public Record Office, the national archives in London, from 1978 to 1993, where he was responsible for policy relating to the archiving of electronic records. He was a senior research fellow at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine of the University of Oxford, 1993-1996, and a lecturer at the University of Exeter from 1996 to 2000. His early published work was on Victorian domestic service, although he has written widely on the history of censuses and surveys, civil registration, women’s work, the impact of the digital revolution on archives, the information state, and the history of identification.