Category Archives: Magic and Alchemy

Selecting and Organizing Recipes in Late Antique and Early Byzantine Compendia of Medicine and Alchemy

This month, we’re excited to collaborate with History of Knowledge to celebrate the upcoming conference, Learning by the Book: Manuals and Handbooks in the History of Knowledge. The five-day event takes place at Princeton in June and features a “blogged conference” to complement traditional panel presentations. For the next few Thursdays, the Recipes Project will cross-post selections from the conference (with RP readers noting  the extended length, in keeping with HoK posts). These features are just a taste of more than thirty works produced for the conference, and readers are invited to read the full selection here. Enjoy!


Matteo Martelli

Ancient recipes are usually short texts; one can easily find more than one recipe written on a single papyrus sheet or on the page of a Byzantine manuscript. Despite their brevity, however, they open an invaluable window onto a wide array of techniques and practices used to manipulate the natural world. Ancient recipes could pertain to various fields of science and technology — from cosmetics to cookery, from agriculture to horse care. In this post, particular attention will be devoted to two contiguous and, to a certain extent, overlapping areas of expertise: medicine and alchemy. As we will see, the works of two important authors, Oribasius and Zosimus of Panopolis, reveal the ways that recipe collections forged new forms of knowledge transfer in the fourth century CE.

In antiquity, medical recipes were easily exchanged among experts. Physicians used to send letters containing recipes to each other, as evident in Graeco-Roman papyri. Moreover, recipes were sold to people interested in specific formulas. And they could be quite pricey! In the second century CE, for example, a friend of famous physician Galen of Pergamum (second-early third century CE) was ready to spend over a hundred gold pieces to purchase highly valued recipes, some of which were preserved in “two folded parchment volumes.”[i] About a century earlier, the Roman physician Scribonius Largus (mid-first century CE) referred to the price of valuable formulas he had included in his Compositiones for a powerful drug against abdominal pains or an antidote made of hyena skin.[ii]

We can safely infer that recipes were collected in Antiquity. They were shifting atoms of knowledge that could be disseminated in a variety of treatises of different genres or simply piled into collections of variable length. The accumulation of technical knowledge could produce recipe books, usually in the form of lists or compilations of (often anonymous) recipes. Papyri offer strong, albeit fragmentary evidence for this process. A telling example is a fourth-century medical book usually referred to as The Michigan Medical Codex, which consists of thirteen leaves containing formulas for different plasters and salves.[iii] In a codex format, the papyrus has been identified as a manual copied for a practicing physician, who in some cases corrected the text or even expanded it by adding personal notes and recipes in the margins. In the alchemical field, two well-known examples of recipe books written in codex form are the so-called Leiden and Stockholm papyri (third-fourth century CE), which have been variously linked to workshop practices (Figure 1). They were defined either as handbooks for ancient craftsmen (e.g. goldsmiths, dyers) or as copies of the workshop notes of an artisan.[iv] The two papyri include more than two hundred recipes on how to dye metals, stones, and textiles (wool in most cases).[v]

Figure 1. Leaf from the Stockholm papyrus, freely available at the Word Digital Library:
Figure 1. Leaf from the Stockholm papyrus, freely available at the Word Digital Library:

These kinds of recipe books could be quite difficult to navigate, due to their lack of structure and fluid arrangement of the collected material. Readers often find no guidelines to assist them in the difficult task of locating specific procedures and techniques in a given collection. Moreover, these compilations often provide no information about the criteria for selecting and accumulating recipes. Important questions remain difficult to answer: to what extent does collected information correspond with the state and characteristics of a given discipline? How exhaustive is the selected material? To what extent were these collections used as reference works? Or were they local, produced by a single workshop or a scholar in contact with a small circle of artisans? What kinds of authority did the authors or compilers of ancient recipe books rely upon in selecting instructions to be included in their collections?

The three “manuals” or “handbooks” mentioned so far (the Michigan Medical Codex and the Leiden and Stockholm papyri) date to between the third and the fourth century CE, a moment of transition when “traditional” bodies of knowledge were inherited, selected, and re-organized. This cultural transfer and rearrangement of texts and practices had a strong effect on the ways that recipes were transmitted and organized. This is especially evident in the works of two almost contemporary authors: the so-called medical encyclopedia by Oribasius (fourth century CE), physician of the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate, and the alchemical books by the Graeco-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (third-fourth century CE).

Figure 2. Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, MS 3632 (f. 97v), 14th-15th century CE The physicians Oribasius (left) and Philippos (right)
Figure 2. The physicians Oribasius (left) and Philippos (right). Bologna, Biblioteca Universitaria, MS 3632 (f. 97v), 14th-15th century CE.

On the one hand, these authors had to cope with an already rich and well-established tradition. Oribasius regularly exploited Galen’s huge medical corpus as well as the works of many other (less known) physicians. He extracted passages and quotations from earlier, authoritative writings and re-arranged them to build his own compendia. Even though less systematic, Zosimus’ approach to early authorities is equally dense. He constantly refers back to those figures of the first and second centuries CE who were identified as the founders of the alchemical art: Pseudo-Democritus, Maria the Jewess, and Pebichius, to name but a few.

On the other hand, Oribasius and Zosimus tried to provide as comprehensive a picture as possible of the disciplines they were committed to. In the introduction to his major compilation the Medical Collections, Oribasius spells out his aim “to seek through the most important writings of all the best authors and collect all that is of practical use to the very purpose of medicine.”[vi] Zosimus probably had a similar goal. According to the Byzantine lexicon Suda (Ζ 168 Adler; tenth century CE), he wrote an alchemical oeuvre in twenty-eight books. Regrettably, this work is no longer available in its original form, since only excerpts or kephalaia have been included in Byzantine manuscripts. However, one can get a glimpse of its structure by considering the twelve books preserved in Syriac translation, which I am currently editing and translating into English.[vii]

Both Oribasius and Zosimus shared a similar effort to systematize their fields. They were similarly committed to developing strategies in selecting and legitimizing the technical recipes they re-organized in their own works. A fresh comparison of their writings with the almost contemporary recipe books mentioned above can help to highlight these strategies. In fact, it is possible to track the movement of some recipes from the “manuals” on papyrus to the new, more exhaustive works of Oribasius and Zosimus.

Recipes were attributed to authoritative figures and organized in sections devoted to specific areas of expertise: the treatment of a single disease, for instance, or the description of a particular craft. Explanatory sections introduced the recipes, thus providing critical information for situating the copied procedures in a broader (either technical or theoretical) context. On the one hand, the combination of theoretical parts with bodies of recipes anticipates the structure of Latin alchemical handbooks in the Middle Ages.[viii] On the other hand, the tendency to be as exhaustive as possible could lead these authors to write vast treatises that were difficult to handle for a practicing physician or alchemist. Oribasius was certainly aware of this risk. He wrote a summary (Synopsis) of his Medical Collections for his son Eusthatius: “for when they (i.e. professional physicians) read what I have stated concisely and in outline, they will remember the whole of each field of knowledge, and without having to carry with them a heavy weight it will possible for them to be sufficiently equipped with what is needed in practice.”[ix] Meanwhile, Oribasius’ summary is presented as a kind of “portable” reference book. This perhaps suggests the meaning of modern terms “manual” or “handbook,” given that the Greek word encheiridion (usually translated as “manual, handbook”) never occurs in the texts considered here.

Exhaustiveness, acknowledgment of the authority of earlier authors, and clear organization of the material around key areas represented important goals in Oribasius and Zosimus’ works, which reorganized recipes that we find scattered in “manuals” on papyrus. They tried to secure medical and alchemical practices against the risk of being fragmented and dispersed in a variety of recipe books, thus producing crucial writings in the study and transmission of these disciplines.


[i] Galen, On Avoiding Distress (De indolentia), §§ 32-33, trans. Vivian Nutton in Peter N. Singer, Galen: Psychological Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 87.

[ii] Recipes 122 and 172 in Scribonius Largus, Compositiones, ed. Sergio Schonocchia (Leipzig: Teubner, 1983).

[iii] The extant fragments of this codex have been edited by the American papyrologist Louise C. Youtie in a series of articles for ZPE (Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik). Later on, these editions were republished in a single volume by Ann Hanson in Lousie C. Yountie, P. Michigan XVII, The Michigan Medical Codex (P. Mich. 758 = P. Mich. Inv. 21), ed. Ann Hanson (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1996).

[iv] See, for example, Mark Clarke, “The Earliest Technical Recipes. Assyrian Recipes, Greek Chemical Treatises and the Mappae Clavicula Text Family,” in Craft Treatises and Handbooks: The Dissemination of Technical Knowledge in the Middle Ages, ed. Ricardo Córdoba (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), 9-32.

[v] Greek text and French translation in Robert Halleux, Papyrus de Leyden, papyrus de Stockholm, fragments de recettes (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1981). Both papyri were translated into English by Earle Radcliffe Caley: “The Leyden Papyrus X: An English Translation with Brief Notes,” Journal of Chemical Education 3.10 (October 1926): 1149-1166 and “The Stockholm Papyrus: An English Translation with Brief Notes,” Journal of Chemical Education 4.8 (August 1927): 979-1002. A reprint of both translations (edited by William B. Jensen) is available here.

[vi] Oribasius, Medical Collections, introduction (CMG VI.1,1, p. 4 Raeder). English translation in Philip van der Eijk, “Principles and Practices of Compilation and Abbreviation in the Medical ‘Encyclopaedias’ of Late Antiquity,” in Condensing Texts – Condensed Texts, eds. Marietta Horster and Christiane Reitz (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010), 526.

[vii] For a French translation of extensive sections of these Syriac books, see Marcelin Berthelot, Rubens Duval, La chimie au Moyen-Âge, Vol. 2: L’alchimie syriaque (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1893), 210-266.

[viii] These are so-called medieval pratica, a well-organized description of series of procedures opened by a general introduction and often complemented by a theoretical part (theorica). See Robert Halleux, Les textes alchimiques (Turnhout: Brepols, 1979), 80-81.

[ix] Oribasius, Synopsis, introduction (CMG VI.3, p. 5 Raeder). Translation in Eijk, “Principles and Practices of Compilation,” 529.

[7] van Laer, Weg-wyzer, 134.


Blog Series: Learning by the Book

Join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #lbtb18. Tweet or email links to related discussions. Read more posts in this series, and check out the conference website.

Recipes and the Senses: An Introduction

By Hannah Newton

Lubin Baugin, Still-life with Chessboard (The Five Senses) (1630). Wikimedia.


Our enjoyment of food depends not just on how it tastes and smells, but also on what it looks, feels, and sounds like. Crispness, for instance, is perceived when we hear a ‘snap’ as the food breaks between our teeth. This relatively new understanding of gastronomic experience explains the recent explosion of recipe books designed to entice all five senses. In fact, a ‘sensorial revolution’ is taking place across most fields of history. This month’s thematic series, edited by Hannah Newton and Elaine Leong, gives a flavour of what might be gained by applying such an approach to the history of recipes; there are 7 contributions, spanning several disciplines, chronologies, and regions, from ancient Rome to eighteenth-century England. To put the posts in context, this introduction provides some background on sensory history.


There are many ways to do sensory history. Perhaps the most influential has been the ‘grand narrative’ approach: scholars such as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong claimed that a ‘major sensory transition’ took place between medieval and modern times in the way the senses were ranked. In medieval Europe, societies privileged the ‘lower senses’ of touch and taste, but with the march of modernity the ‘nobler’ senses of sight and hearing came to the fore. Although this scholarship has been heavily criticised – not least for its disparaging attitude towards medieval people – the question of change over time rightly remains fundamental to sensory history. Yan Liu’s post in this series is a good example: he shows how the use of the spice saffron in China has been transformed since medieval times, from an antidote against evil powers to a flavour enhancer in cooking.

Another approach to sensory history involves focusing on a particular sensory organ, or a context directly linked to that sense. Examples include Stuart Clark’s Vanities of the Eye (2007), which explores anatomical and philosophical understandings of vision, and Holly Duggan’s Ephemeral History of Perfume, which uses scent as a window into cultural attitudes to smell.  One downside to the single-sense approach is that in daily life we perceive the world through all our senses, not just one, and the senses themselves influence one another. Several of the contributions to this series demonstrate these interactions nicely: Barbara Di Gennaro Splendore  reveals that the 17th-century apothecary ‘knew substances through “his whole person”’, and William Tullett makes similar observations about 18th-century perfumers.

A third way to study the senses is the ‘sensescape’ approach. This is where scholars take a particular environment or activity, and analyse the multiple sensations that were perceived within it. Bloomsbury’s six-volume series, Cultural History of the Senses, showcases some of the most popular sensescapes, which include the marketplace, street, and church. Donna Bilak’s post is an example of this approach: she uncovers the intriguing sensations reported in the iatrochemical laboratory of the 17th century New England puritan Gershom Bulkeley, which included ‘urinous’ flavours. What Bilak, and many of our other contributors reveal, is that people from the past consciously mobilised their senses when going about their everyday work, whether as a medical practitioner, perfumer, or chef.


One of the biggest obstacles to doing sensory history relates to evidence: most sensory stimuli are ephemeral, leaving no direct historical trace, which means we have to rely on written descriptions or images to access past sensory experience. Unfortunately, this is far from straightforward, due to the difficulties people encountered when putting sensory experiences into words. Peter Charles Hoffer labels this the lemon problem: ‘I can taste a lemon and savour the immediate experience, but can I find words to convey to another person exactly what that sensation was?’

To meet these challenges, exciting new techniques have been devised by historians to recreate past sensations, which involve the use of ‘immersive technology’, such as artificial smells and tastes. By activating our own senses, the intention is to ‘replicate sensation in a world we have (almost) lost’. Historians of science and food deploy similar techniques, re-enacting past experiments (e.g. or making foodstuffs (e.g. here and here), to reach a closer understanding of contemporary worldviews. Tillmann Taape and Erica Rowan, two of our contributors, are both engaged in this sort of innovative work. Admittedly such approaches do attract sceptics. For instance, Mark Smith warns that while it is possible to reproduce a particular sensation from history, the way we ‘consume’ that sensation may be different from the way it was experienced at the time. Indeed, an experience of a sensation may even change over a person’s own lifetime, as Hannah Newton’s post reveals: for early modern patients, what they would normally perceive as pleasant tastes – such as sweet cordials – were found during illness to be disgusting, owing to the effects of noxious humours on the taste-buds.

Despite the challenges involved, our contributors are optimistic about applying a sensory approach to the study of recipes. So long as we accept that sensory perceptions are culturally contingent, there is no reason why it is not possible to glimpse how past societies understood and experienced sensations.


Medieval charms: magical and religious remedies

By Véronique Soreau

Charms are incantations or magic spells, chanted, recited, or written. Used to cure diseases, they can also be a type of medical recipe.[1]  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.[2] He established six different types of charms :

  1. invocations and prayers addressed to herbs;
  2. mystical words or prayers chanted or written on papers that the patient had to apply on his body;
  3. conjurations or exorcisms addressed to diseases,;
  4. narrative charms : episode of the life of sacred or legendary characters who suffered similar diseases with the patient;
  5. the attribution of magical powers to certain objects, plants, animals or stones;
  6. 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.[3]  

Magical remedies

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.

From MS O.1.13. Credit: The Master and Fellows of Trinity College Library, Cambridge.

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.

From MS O.1.13. Credit: The Master and Fellows of Trinity College Library, Cambridge.

Ffor to charme thre obeles for the feveres

Take thre obelyes and wryte þes wordes : on þe fyrste : + 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.

Religious remedies

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.

From MS O.1.13. Credit: The Master and Fellows of Trinity College Library, Cambridge.

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.[4]

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.

[1] Definition based on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online. See also Laura Mitchell, ‘Magic or medicine ? Healing charms in fifteenth-century English recipe collections’ , The Recipes Project, 13/09/2012.  

[2] J.F. Payne, English Medicine in the Anglo-Saxon Times: The Fitz-Patrick lectures for 1903 (Oxford, 1904), pp. 114-5.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

Tales from the Archives — Recipes Against the Supernatural

In September 2017, The Recipes Project celebrated its fifth birthday. We now have over 600 posts in our archives and over 150 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.

Today is Halloween. HALLOWEEN! Many of us recipe people who work on the premodern period have a fondness for Halloween, with its connections to charms, alchemy, cauldrons bubbling, and all. Yes, yes, I know… it’s really a love/hate relationship, as we often have to explain to people that supernatural beliefs were rationale and that most recipes weren’t about magic anyhow. But… HALLOWEEN!

To that end, I’ve pulled out only one of our many posts on the magical world. Catherine Rider offers here some thoughts on what charms might tell us about the connection between the supernatural and illness. There is even a protective charm for those ‘sleeping, waking, drinking, eating, and especially dreaming’…

You never know what might be useful on this day of lowered boundaries between natural and supernatural worlds!

By Catherine Rider

I’ve been thinking recently about a kind of recipe I’ve been collecting for some time, with an eye to using them in a future project: recipes that protect against evil spirits and other supernatural entities. These take the form of charms, made up of spoken and written words, rather than more conventional mixtures of plants or animal parts.  As Laura Mitchell has noted before on this blog, many medieval recipe collections (such as the one in the Wellcome Library pictured below) include charms alongside other remedies.

L0013901 Charm to staunch blood, 15-16th century
Charm to staunch blood, 15-16th century. Wellcome Library MS 406. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Research by Lea Olsan, Eamon Duffy and other scholars has shown that although some medieval physicians and churchmen were uncomfortable with charms, most writers accepted them as legitimate cures for certain kinds of illness, including bleeding, toothache and epilepsy. They were also often regarded as a mainstream part of religious devotion.[1] Charms to ward off demons are not very common – nowhere near as common as charms against toothache or bleeding – but I’ve found several examples in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century recipe manuscripts.

The version given, in Latin, in a fourteenth-century recipe manuscript published by Fritz Heinrich begins ‘In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen,’ and goes on to list a series of saints and other objects of devotion commonly appealed to in late medieval prayers: Virgin Mary, the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the Cross and the Passion, and the Five Wounds of Christ. This prayer is to be written down and God is implored to protect the person who wears these words when they are ‘sleeping, waking, drinking, eating, and especially dreaming’, ‘from every malign demon and every malign spirit and the instigations of the devil.’[2]

This charm, and others like it, are raising quite a few questions for me:

  • Bishop exorcising possessed men, 15th century. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.
    Bishop exorcising possessed men, 15th century. Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

    They’re not that common.  Does that mean that demonic assault was not regarded as a common condition?  We do find accounts of ‘possessed’ people in the miracle collections kept by saints’ shrines, so clearly the idea of demonic attack was not unknown.  However, these cases may have been notable because they were unusual, not necessarily because they were common.

  • What symptoms or conditions were attached to this charm?  The reference to sleeping and ‘especially dreaming’ suggests bad or troubling dreams, rather than an illness. Another possibility is the medical condition which medieval physicians called ‘incubus’, in which a person feels a presence pushing down on them in their sleep.[3]  It is usually equated by historians with the condition now called sleep paralysis.  Educated medieval physicians generally argued that this condition had physical rather than supernatural causes, but they also noted that ‘some people’ believed demons were behind it.
  • There are also questions about continuity and change over the longer term.  Do we get more of these charms from the sixteenth century onwards, when we see rising concerns about witchcraft and more intellectuals taking an interest in demons and demonic illnesses? We know that magical illnesses continued to be a concern and Jennifer Evans discussed some early modern remedies for them in 2012 in a column for the Societas Magica newsletter.  Also, what happens to this kind of medieval charm after the Reformation?  Did it appear too Catholic with its saints and Latin?  Were there Protestant equivalents?  Or did it continue to be copied despite its old-fashioned elements?
  • Was this charm used? And, if so, how? It would need someone who could write it down, and ideally someone who was familiar with Latin. By the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, that could include some medical practitioners and educated laypeople, but clergy also owned manuscripts of medical recipes and might be best placed to use this kind of charm.

I don’t have the answers to these questions yet, but in the long term I’d like to build the charms in to a larger project on supernatural illnesses in medieval medicine and I’m hoping that small pieces of evidence like these might eventually start to offer a bigger picture.

[1] See for example Lea Olsan, ‘Charms and Prayers in Medieval Medical Theory and Practice’, Social History of Medicine 16 (2003), pp. 343-66 (on medical writers); Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (New Haven, CT, 1992), ch. 8 (on charms and religion).

[2] Fritz Heinrich (ed.) Ein Mittelenglisches Medizinbuch (Halle, 1896), p. 166.

[3] Maaike van der Lugt, “The Incubus in Scholastic Debate: Medicine, Theology and Popular Belief,” in Religion and Medicine in the Middle Ages, ed. Peter Biller and Joseph Ziegler (Woodbridge, 2001), pp. 175-200.