Category Archives: Laura Mitchell

Tales from the archives: Love and the Longevity of Charms

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),[1] 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).[2]

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[3] 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.[4] 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.


[1] 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).

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] See Davies’s book, Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History (London: Hambledon and London, 2003).

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.