Category Archives: Charms

Re-Centering Europe

By Clare Griffin

St Mary Basilica, Cracow From Wiki Commons
St Mary’s Basilica, Cracow
From Wiki Commons

Think about the histories of Europe, European medicine, European science or European magic and witchcraft you have on your desk. Think about the European cookbooks, or travel guides, or novels you have heard about. How many of them cover events, characters, places, cultures, or cuisines further east than Berlin? Of those that do, how many jump from Berlin to Moscow, bypassing the cities in between? Central, Eastern, and South-Eastern Europe tend to be treated by English-speakers as a world apart.

In academia, expertise on those countries is corralled into regional studies departments, rather than dealt with as European history. In part, this is a relic of the twentieth century, reflecting and replicating Churchill’s idea of an Iron Curtain that cut Europe in two. As The Recipes Project often demonstrates, regions and recipes go hand in hand. There is our sister series on Russian recipes. Similar series deal with the early modern Netherlands, China, and Ancient Greece and Rome. After all, anyone reading the ‘country of origin’ labels in their local supermarket knows that recipes link together ingredients and places. This month, we will use recipes to tear down the academic Iron Curtain, reclaiming this region not only as Central Europe, but as a central part of Europe.

from Wiki Commons
Map of Modern Central and Eastern Europe            from Wiki Commons

Focusing on place and space is important – where is Central and Eastern Europe? What does it look like? What is its political geography? South-Eastern Europe is perhaps more familiar in its fictionalized guise on Game of Thrones. In that series, Croatia’s Dubrovnik stands in as both King’s Landing and Qarth. Similarly, Prague and other Czech towns have been the location for numerous fictional intrigues: Karlovy Vary stood in for Montenegro in Casino Royale

A view of the old city of Dubrovnik. from Wiki Commons
A view of the old city of Dubrovnik.
from Wiki Commons









In real life, medieval and early modern Central and Eastern Europe saw power struggles and battles no less dramatic than those of Tyrion Lannister and James Bond. At various periods, Dubrovnik was under the protection of the Byzantine Empire, the Venetian Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary, and the Habsburg Empire.  These waxing and waning dynastic and imperial powers commonly intersected with religious divisions. In the Byzantine-controlled and Russian-influenced lands, Eastern Orthodoxy was the majority religion.

The Ottoman Empire in 1683 From Wiki Commons
The Ottoman Empire in 1683
From Wiki Commons

The Ottomans were the major Muslim power of the region, building mosques across South Eastern Europe that stand today. The Habsburgs and the Jagellonians were both traditionally Catholic dynasties, tying themselves and their empires to Rome, despite the Reformation making converts among many of their subjects. There were also substantial Jewish populations in many cities throughout the region. Each of these religions made their mark upon the landscape, with mosques, synagogues and churches, graveyards, and crosses of various kinds crowding the skylines.

In the shadow of these landmarks, Europeans wrote and followed recipes.

Medieval Serbian Mosque From Wiki Commons
Medieval Serbian Mosque
From Wiki Commons

As Marija-Ana Dürrigl and Stella Fatović-Ferenčić’s post highlights, men of the cloth jotted down medical recipes in their liturgy books. This was a Europe-wide phenomenon: from Porto to Moscow, the clergy wrote recipes, preserving them in religious manuscripts. Lay Europeans were often concerned with their stomachs. The post by Christopher Nicholson deals with recipes to husband fish. Originating in Bohemia, the text was translated and read as far away as England. Bohemians were not alone in wanting a nice fish dinner. For unhappy European households, food could lead to poisoning or bewitchment. Magic, for good or for ill, was used across Europe. Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov and Margaret Dimitrova’s post presents us with some examples of Slavic magic. A more specialized pursuit of pre-modern Europeans was alchemy. Alchemists, like those in Agnieszka Rec’s post, created networks across Europe. They circulated books, and themselves travelled from place to place. To read European recipes is to see how Europe is connected.

The Holy Roman Empire in 1648 from Wiki Commons
The Holy Roman Empire in 1648
from Wiki Commons

In order to read recipes, you need to know the language, and the alphabet, in which they are written. This is where people often see Central and Eastern Europe as divided from Western Europe. Don’t people from those places use different languages? Not always. Agnieszka Rec’s alchemists found recipes in Poland-Lithuania, but wrote in German. Christopher Nicholson’s Bohemian fish were described in Latin and English. Sometimes, the recipes are in different languages, and in different alphabets.  For example, Adelina Angusheva-Tihanov and Margaret Dimitrova’s recipes are in the Church Slavonic language and the Cyrillic alphabet. Marija-Ana Dürrigl and Stella Fatović-Ferenčićs texts are also in Church Slavonic. But they would not be comprehensible everyone who reads Church Slavonic (including me). These texts use the Glagolitic alphabet. Recipes show us connections, but they also show us the uniqueness of their authors, dividing as well as uniting.

Codex Zographensis from Wiki Commons
Codex Zographensis in Glagolitic
from Wiki Commons


 For the next four Thursdays, The Recipes Project will be returning to this region. We hope you will join us as our contributors take us further into Central, Eastern and South Eastern European recipes, to see how those texts bring Europe together.

Recipes to Entertain in an Exeter Cathedral Library Manuscript

By Catherine Rider

Exeter Cathedral has several medieval medical manuscripts in its library, as well as a large collection of early modern printed medical books.[1] Recently I’ve been looking at the medieval manuscripts as part of a larger project on fertility and reproduction, but they contain material on numerous other topics, including many recipes. In this blog post I’ll be talking about one manuscript and highlighting the variety of recipes it contains and some of the questions it raises about recipes for tricks and illusions in particular.

MS 3521 is a miscellaneous manuscript, mainly dating from the fifteenth century, originally from the church of Ottery St Mary in Devon, UK.[2] It contains a few long works on logic and natural philosophy, but the bulk of the manuscript consists of recipes, in English and Latin. The size and format are fairly similar to this fifteenth-century recipe manuscript from the Wellcome Library in London:

L0049309 Medical Recipe Collection Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Collection of medical recipes [written in the area of Worcestershire, first quarter of the 15th century]. Coloured drawings serve as extravagant decoration for the catchwords. Medieval English oak board book binding. 15th century Medical Recipe Collection, England, 15th Century Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Medical Recipe Collection, Wellcome Library, London. Image courtesy of Wellcome Images.

One of the interesting aspects of the manuscript for me is the variety of the contents. Many of the recipes are medical: there are recipes and charms to treat a flow of blood; to treat pains and  toothache; a charm for childbirth; and a recipe for a male complaint, ‘balloks sore and swollen’. There are also recipes for waters and oils, such as rose oil, and cosmetic recipes, for example to make hair blond. None of these are unusual in recipe collections, and as in many other medieval recipe manuscripts they are interspersed with notes on other medical topics, such as blood-letting and the virtues of herbs. Also connected to health and medicine are several recipes to keep animals healthy.

More surprising, however, is a series of recipes fairly early in the manuscript which are designed to achieve marvellous effects. On pp. 97-8 we find a series of these, in Latin: ‘To make thunder and lightning [literally, ‘flying fire’]’, a recipe which involves saltpetre, sulphur and coal; ‘If you want a flame to spring from a fish’s eyes’, ‘If you want to be invisible’, or ‘To make a candle that no one can extinguish’. These examples look as if they are designed to entertain others with spectacular tricks, but some of the recipes seem more like practical jokes which may not have been enjoyed by the person on the receiving end: ‘If you want a woman to raise her clothes’, or ‘So that a man looks leprous.’ Some of the recipes are attributed to ‘Albertus’: I have not yet had a chance to track this down but would guess that they come from a work such as the Book of Secrets or Marvels of the World attributed to the thirteenth-century theologian Albertus Magnus.

These recipes are not unique and have a place in secrets literature. Other scholars such as Bruno Roy have also noted the ways in which magic tricks – in the modern sense of an illusion designed to entertain – appear in recipe collections.[3] More recently Laura Mitchell has posted on this blog about similar light-hearted recipes in other manuscripts, including another recipe to make a woman lift her skirts  and a recipe for invisibility:  Initiatives like Mitchell’s catalogue of English manuscripts containing magic (introduced on the Recipes blog last year) may also help to identify these recipes. However, my impression is that they remain under-studied compared with medical recipes. How commonly were recipes for entertainment copied? Do they appear in some contexts more than others? Are there any clues as to how they were regarded by copyists or readers? In the Exeter manuscript, for example, they are interspersed with medical recipes without much overt distinction being drawn between recipes for different purposes, but how usual was this? Did readers ever express doubts about some of the more dubious tricks? How do they relate, if at all, to evidence of medieval stage magic, such as descriptions of tricks with cups and balls?

I hope to look at these questions in more detail at some point, but for the moment am simply keeping an eye out for other examples.

[1] On these see Peter Thomas, Medicine and Science in Exeter Cathedral Library (Exeter: Exeter Cathedral, 2003).

[2] For a detailed description of this and the other Exeter MSS see Neil Ker, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969-2002).

[3] B. Roy, ‘The Household Encyclopaedia as Magic Kit: Medieval Popular Interest in Pranks and Illusions’, Journal of Popular Culture, 14 (1980): 60-69.

Animal Charms in the Later Middle Ages

By Laura Mitchell

For some reason animal charms in the medieval record are a rare breed. Secrets literature, magical experiments, and natural magic abound with animals as the subject (texts on virtues often focus on the special properties of animals like snakes or eagles) and sometimes as the ingredient (as in my previously discussed directions to become invisible). However, in my research on fifteenth-century English manuscripts I’ve only found fifteen manuscripts containing animal-centric charms so far (compared to over 100 manuscripts containing medical charms).

Detail of a marginal drawing of a horse. British Library, Harley 1585 f. 68v
Detail of a marginal drawing of a horse. British Library, Harley 1585 f. 68v

Most of the surviving charms for animals are veterinary charms for horses, usually to cure farcy, a form of glanders. Glanders is a debilitating disease that affects the lungs and respiratory tract of horses, mules, and donkeys. It usually results in death in weeks if not days and the bacteria responsible is also transmissible to humans. Given the double threat of loss of animal and human life, it’s no wonder that farcy dominates the animal charms.

For example, Cambridge, University Library MS Dd.iv.44 contains numerous recipes and charms for horses, including this one for farcy:

For þe farsine sey þis charme after þe sonne rest iij oures turne þe hors toward þe west he shal not be watered ne haue no provendre but hay and and seye iij pater notres with iij nomine patris + et filij + et spiritus sancti + amen + theos + agios + pater noster huinack + pater noster uieray + pater noster arunichemay + pater noster crux christi amen +

(For the farcy: Say this charm three hours after the sun sets. Turn the horse towards the west; he shall not be watered nor have any food but hay. And say three Our Fathers with three: “nomine patris + et filij + et spiritus sancti + amen + theos + agios + pater noster huinack + pater noster uieray + pater noster arunichemay + pater noster crux christi amen +”)

Other goals of animal charms include keeping rats and other pests away, catching rabbits, protecting livestock such as sheep and pigs, and curing or protecting against dog bite (sadly my favourite Old English charm for a swarm of bees does not seem to have a late medieval English counterpart as far as I know).

It seems clear to me that there was a division (unconscious? conscious?) in the roles that animals played in magic texts that is most easily shown in the following table:

Charms Natural magic/experiments
Healing (e.g., farcy, bleeding in horses, dog bite) Using animals for magical purposes (e.g., texts of virtues)
Protection: either protecting animals from harm, or protecting property from pests (rats, moles, etc.) Using magic to harm animals (e.g., to catch birds, fish, rabbits, etc.)

When animals appear in secrets literature or natural magic instructions they are more commonly being put to use in some way – either bits of them are being consumed or burned or spread somewhere for their inherent magical properties, or someone is trying to catch them (presumably to eat them). However, the animal charms, even with this small data-set, fall into the same general patterns that appear with charms for humans: curing or preventing diseases and protecting one’s property from outside forces.

Detail of a marginal image from the Gorleston Psalter of a fox seizing a duck. British Library, Add MS 49622, fol. 190v
Detail of a marginal image from the Gorleston Psalter of a fox seizing a duck. British Library, Add MS 49622, fol. 190v

Although only a small number of animal charms survive, they are important to note as examples of the diversity of charms that existed outside of the medical corpus and as a fascinating glimpse into the medieval mindset. At the end of the Middle Ages the farm was very much the backbone of the economy and it was vitally important to landowners to keep their properties in good condition. Horses in particular were expensive animals to buy and maintain so it makes sense that surviving charms would focus on their well-being. Hopefully as scholars study more manuscripts and discover more charms we will be able to increase this small but important corpus of charms.

The Acceptance of Charms in the Fifteenth Century

By Laura Mitchell

L0060591 Recipe for staunching blood with cockerel in MS 5262
Wellcome Library, London. Recipe for staunching blood with cockerel in MS 5262, early fifteenth century. Includes the Longinus miles charm.

For a while now I’ve been very interested in medieval people’s relationships with magic texts. What drew them to copy down their particular texts? Did they delight in the absurdities of directions to become invisible or to remove women’s clothing or did they truly believe it would work? Was it something ordinary or something to be ashamed of and obscured (as in the fifteenth-century book I discussed previously)? For this post I want to consider one point that I have often wondered about; namely, when were charms used? Were they the first line of defense or a last resort or somewhere in between? Naturally, for the majority of people and cases we will never know. However, I have come across an interesting pair of recipes that shed some light on the place of charms within medical practice.

The recipes in question are a charm to staunch blood and a non-magical recipe to do the same that is to be used only if the charm has failed.

I first ran across this pair of recipes in HM 1336 (folio 30r), a fifteenth-century medical book at the Huntington Library. In this copy the charm is missing and all that has been copied is the non-magical recipe with its injunction to be used only if a charm has failed. I don’t believe this omission is due to a reluctance to include charms since there are charms and natural magic texts elsewhere in the manuscript. More likely there was a corruption in the line of transmission somewhere.

I have since found this charm-recipe combination in two other Huntington manuscripts, also from the fifteenth century: HM 58 (folios 75v-67r) and HM 64 (folio 23r). In these cases the charm and recipe have survived together:

Here is for staunching blood

The soldier Longinus pierced the side of our + Lord Jesus Christ + with a lance and the blood poured out continuously and by means of the water of our redemption I adjure you, blood, through Christ + through his side + through his blood + stay + stay + Christ + and John went into the river Jordan and he struck the water and it stopped. Thus make the blood of this body in the name of Christ + and Saint John the Baptist Amen. Our Father Ave Maria.

To staunch blood when the vein is cut and will not be readily staunched with the aforesaid words.

Take a piece of salt beef, lean and none of the fat, as it may stop the wound and lay it into the embers in the fire and let it roast until it be thoroughly hot and all hot put it onto the wound and bind it fast and it will staunch at once and never stream on [I] guarantee.1

This pairing of a charm and non-magical recipe highlights just how casually the categories of magic and medicine could overlap. For some people, anyway, charms were not only just as valid as non-magical recipes, but they could also be more potentially more effective than non-magical medical recipes.

1.Here is for to staunch blode
Longinus miles latus + dominum nostrum Jhesu christi + lancea perforauit et continuo exiuit sanguis et aqua in redempcionem nostram + Adiuro te sanguis per ipsum + christum per latus eius + per sanguines eius + Sta + sta + christus et Johannes astenderunt in flumen Jordanis, aqua obstiuit et steta Sic faciat sanguis istius corporis .N. In christi nomine et + Sancti Johannis baptiste + Amen pater noster Aue maria.
For to staunch blode when the veyne is corven and wille nott gladli be staunched with the wordis afore rehersed
Take a peice of salt Beff lene and none of the fatt as itt maie stapp the wond and leie itt ynto the emeres in the fyre and lete itt rosti till it be throgh hote and all hote putt it to the wonde and bynd itt fast and itt staunche anon and neuer streme on wrantize
Text is taken from HM 58. Transcription and translation are my own. The differences between the various texts are quite minor.