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.

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.

New Resource for Late Medieval English Magic

By Laura Mitchell

Late Medieval English Magic: English Manuscripts Containing 15th-century Magical Texts is a project born out of the dissertation research I conducted at the Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto. I undertook a survey of English manuscripts containing magical texts from the fifteenth century, which became the basis of and wider context for my dissertation project. Rather than have this information languish in a static form in my dissertation, I decided to put it online in the form of a catalogue so that it could be more widely available and easily updated.

L0031855 Witchcraft and magic Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Witchcraft and magic: a man conducting magic rites, devils and a ghost appearing, and a hunter cowering in terror. Coloured engraving. Published: [18--] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
L0031855 Witchcraft and magic
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
http://wellcomeimages.org
Witchcraft and magic: a man conducting magic rites, devils and a ghost appearing, and a hunter cowering in terror.
The information in this catalogue is based on and expands on this original research in various ways – because of the improvements over the past few years in digitization projects and better online manuscript catalogues I have been able to include several more manuscripts that were not included in my original survey, and I have been able to discover more detailed information about manuscript contexts and the exact kinds of magic texts that survive.

The Late Medieval English Magic catalogue contains a general search function and it is organized into categories by city, library, magic category (charm, ritual magic, etc.), and charm motifs. The charm motifs are fairly broad. They are based on the semantic motifs discussed by Lea Olsan and others, but I have also included descriptive terms such as whether it uses an object like a plate or ring, or food. There are also links to digitized copies of manuscripts where they are available, as well as to other major online manuscript projects such as the Digital Index of Middle English Verse and Manuscripts of the West Midlands projects.

This catalogue is very much still a work in progress. As of this writing I have only uploaded 43% of the total manuscripts in my survey and I haven’t even begun to include the manuscripts from the British Library and Bodleian collections! Suggestions and recommendations are always welcome. You can contact me through this contact form, in the comments to this post, or on Twitter. My hope is that this catalogue will serve as a resource for other scholars and anyone interested in the history of medieval magic.