Category Archives: Laura Mitchell

Editing the Recipes Project – 5 Years On

By Laura Mitchell

I was invited to join the Recipes Project by Lisa Smith in 2012 when I was a freshly minted medieval studies PhD working part-time at the University of Saskatchewan. I was lucky enough to be present at some of the earliest meetings about this idea Lisa and Elaine Leong had. My first post went online a few months later, in September of that year. Eventually I took over the social media duties from Lisa and I now control the Facebook and Twitter feeds (although Lisa sometimes still jumps in!).

Since 2012 I have moved provinces to Toronto, left academia, worked a year as a freelance researcher for a design company, and now work at the University of Toronto as a project manager for a grant-funded research project, Digital Tools for Manuscript Study. My time now is mostly taken up with budgets and coordinating people and schedules instead of teaching or research.

Censored charms in Trinity College Cambridge O.1.57, fols. 76v-77r. (CC BY-NC 4.0, the Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge)

The Recipes Project has been a terrific outlet for the research I did as a graduate student and a way to disseminate some of my favourite bits of my dissertation. Once I decided to leave academia I knew that the chances that I’d publish any of my former work was pretty low – blogging seemed like a natural solution. I could write about topics like farting,  love, and censorship in magical texts to my heart’s content. It was also exciting/scary to know that my writing was reaching an audience of several thousand, which is certainly more than a traditionally published article would reach!

I took over social media duties in 2014 and I have really enjoyed being able to take an active part in the project in this way. Through the Twitter feed I’ve encountered a huge range of people and projects outside my field of study; it’s been fascinating to see what researchers in other time periods and geographic areas are working on, and I enjoy sharing these finds with our Twitter and Facebook followers (fun fact: as I am writing this The Recipes Project has 933 likes on Facebook and 7,053 followers on Twitter!). The online community around the Recipes Project is very enthusiastic about what we write about and it’s always interesting to check our notifications to see how our followers respond to us. We have even recruited contributors through Facebook and Twitter! I feel very privileged to be a part of this project and see it grow from an idea into the thriving community it is now. The Recipes Project is really a testament to the good scholarly work that can be accomplished in online communities and through social media.

Tales from the Archives: The Lighter Side of Magic

In September, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 470 posts in our archives and over 117 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.

This month, I want to share a post by Laura Mitchell on ‘The Lighter Side of Magic’. In this post, Laura takes a look at the playful aspects of medieval charms, such as prodding random women with frog bones and making someone fart.  I’ve chosen this post not only because it’s funny, but it speaks to the imaginative elements of recipes and to the medieval sense of humour.

I hope you enjoy it! And if you have any favourites you want us to revisit, please send in your nominations

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“And it is a marvellous thing”: The Lighter Side of Magic

By Laura Mitchell

In my last post I discussed the line between healing charms and recipes in fifteenth-century recipe collections and how the line between charm and recipe could blur. Healing charms, however, are obviously not the only kind of charm that can be found in late medieval recipe collections. Some of the surviving charms and natural magic experiments reveal a different side to recipe users beyond the altruistic or the practical, and show a more light-hearted, sometimes even lascivious, approach to magic. Here I will discuss two examples that highlight these ludic aspects of magic very well.

My first example comes from Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1435, an anonymous collection of the fifteenth century. This particular recipe is from the manuscript’s very large recipe collection (over 190 items) and is found on pages 14 and 15:

If you want a woman to lift her skirts up to her belly button: take a green frog and cook it and afterward wash its bones in running water and you will find one bone which jumps against the water. Then take that one and touch her with it and it will seem to her that she is walking in a great river and lift [her skirts].[1]

What I find really interesting about this example is the implication that whoever was conducting this would have had to know this woman well enough to get close to her and touch her with a frog bone without raising a lot of suspicion. Presumably this would have been tried in private… although it is possible that some strange man ran around town prodding women with a frog bone and wondering why they weren’t lifting their skirts!

The internal logic of this recipe is fascinating as well. It’s designed to get a woman to raise just her skirts, rather than take off all her clothes (which is a goal of many charms). The fact that there’s a whole production about making the woman believe that she’s in a river and needs to lift her skirts to keep them dry–solely so that someone can sneak a peek–really speaks to the imaginative force that was an integral part of medieval magic.

Let’s turn now to another imaginative recipe and an example of the sillier side of magic. This example is from the De mirabilius mundi, a medieval book of secrets that was attributed to Albert the Great. My text is taken from the first English edition, printed in 1550 as The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones and Certain Beasts. Also a Book of the Marvels of the World.

A marvellous operation of a lamp, which if any man shall hold, he ceaseth not to fart until he shall leave it.

Take the blood of a Snail, dry it up in a linen cloth, and make of it a wick, and lighten it in a lamp, give it to any man thou wilt, and say lighten this, he shall not cease to fart, until he let it depart, and it is a marvellous thing.

Once again, this is a recipe or experiment that would presumably have been done among people who knew each other fairly well. It reads rather like a party trick. One can almost imagine the scene in someone’s home as the host passes around the hilarious farting lamp to unsuspecting guests.

The purpose of these two recipes is clearly for laughs, although perhaps they are a little cruel. They reveal much about the sorts of things that medieval people found funny (fart jokes) and what titillated them (bottoms), which is really no different what interests people today. There are many similar charms and recipes from the medieval period–they can make people dance; make it seem as though someone has three heads, or has a dog’s head; there are more charms to make people take their clothes off; there are recipes that make a loaf of bread jump around. The possibilities are nearly endless and they illustrate another side to medieval magic.


[1] Si vis ut mulier leuat pannos suos vsque ad vmbilicum: accipe viridem ranam et coque illam et postea leva (sic) ossa sua in aqua currente et inuenies vnum os quod saltabit contra aquam. Tunc accipe illud et tange illam illam (sic) cum eo et apparebit ei quod vadit in magno flumine et euellet.

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.

History Carnival #139

We are very pleased to be hosting History Carnival #139 at the Recipes Project this month! We have a wealth of interesting posts to show you this month.

Education and the teaching of history has been a hot topic recently. Sean Creighton at History Matters reflected on how Black History Month has evolved and what constitutes the study of British Black History today. Our own Recipes Project blog devoted the month of September to the teaching of recipes, which ranged from early modern to Canadian history. In a related vein, Richard Blakemore offers his thoughts and criticisms on The History Manifesto, Cambridge University Press’s first open access book.

West End London Air Raid Shelter. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library
WWII; England; “West End London Air Raid Shelter” in Aldwych tube station. Source: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library

Bridget Lockyer at the FWSA Blog presented the results of a workshop on teaching women’s history in the UK’s new curriculum that was run with students and teachers at three schools in York.

Women in history also featured in several fascinating posts this month. The writers at All Things Georgian brought to our attention the 1737 book, “The Whole Duty of a Woman”, and its recipes for just about every day of the year. Maritime historian Joan Druett has provided us with a glimpse at Mrs. Alexander’s maiden voyage on the James Craig in 1874, including giving birth!

Kathryn Robinson, also at History Matters, looks at the legacy of the London Tube during the Blitz in the Second World War.

Medical historians have been producing some excellent posts recently. At the Notches blog Katherine Harvey has been looking at medieval views on masturbation and the idea that prolonged celibacy could be a risk to a man’s health! Yikes. Lesley Hulonce has written a fascinating post on the earliest institutions for disabled children in Victorian and Edwardian Britain and the assumptions society placed on its inhabitants in terms of their education and livelihoods.

Leather doctor's bag with contents, English, 1890-1930. Wellcome Images.
Leather doctor’s bag with contents, English, 1890-1930. Wellcome Images.

Åsa Jansson tackled the thorny and ever popular topic of retrospective diagnosis with her reflections on the recent conference, Gloom Goes Global: Towards a Transcultural History of Melancholy since 1850” held at the Univeristät Heidelberg this past October. Ed Darrell has been looking at the use of DDT to fight malaria. Jacqueline Antonovich at Nursing Clio, wrote of her experience in the archives and surprising insights that can be gained from material culture. Suzie Grogan has written a really interesting guest post for The Quack Doctor on home remedies for shell-shock after the First World War.

Alun Withey put the beard and masculinity in its historical context as beards have becoming increasingly popular over the past few years.

Joanne Major at All Things Georgian tackled a grim mystery from the 18th century – that of Oliver Cromwell’s missing head.

October provided a number of posts on one of my favourite topics – historical food! The Sloane Letters blog returned after a brief hiatus with a post determining once and for all that Hans Sloane did not invent milk chocolate (alas).  Liz Adams at the Rubenstein Library tested an 1899 recipe for a dairy free ice-cream made from nut butter. While she concluded it may not be ice cream by modern standards, it was delicious! Over at Not Just Dormice, Lisa Lodwick explored the enduring use of coriander and its immense popularity in ancient Rome.

Rochester Bestiary (England, c. 1230): London, British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r. Source: British Library.
Rochester Bestiary (England, c. 1230): London, British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII, f. 45r. Source: British Library.

As a medievalist I would be remiss if I didn’t include some more posts from that quarter of the internet. Jonathan Jarrett tells us how to start a saint’s cult. Julian Harrison at the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog, meanwhile, tells us how to be a hedgehog. And Erik Kwakkel gives us the skinny on bad parchment in medieval books.

Finally, what better post to end October’s Carnival on than Donna Seger’s post on the image of the dancing witch!

We hope you have enjoyed the posts in this month’s History Carnival! The next History Carnival will be hosted at the Imperial and Global Forum on December 1st.