Category Archives: Magic and Alchemy

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.

Day 3: What is a Recipe?

M. Darly, The Macrony Shoe Maker, 1775. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Come… make yourself comfy! Welcome to the third event day for our ‘What is a Recipe?’ Virtual Conversation. We’re looking forward to a a busy day ahead.

There are a few things to check out that happened yesterday. Emily Contois has a wonderful post on ‘Listening to the Voices in Historic Cookbooks‘, which discusses a recent weeklong recipes workshop she attended, but it also has a number of crossover themes with our ongoing conversation for ‘What is a Recipe?’. Hillary Nunn and Whitney Thompson had a Twitter bake-off of a seventeenth-century recipe; you can follow their experiment under #recipesconf. And Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives shared some recipe-related highlights from their collection (@CUSpecialColls).

Today, we’ll be hearing from…

If you want to pick up some themes from Day 2, check over here for Laurence Totelin’s helpful summary and Tallulah Maait Pepperell’s Storify.

UPDATE (June 19, 2017): A Storify of Day 3 by Tallulah is available over here.

Distilling and Deflowering

A friar in an apothecary
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

By Peter Murray Jones

Between 1416 and 1425, English friars put together a Latin medical handbook. This handbook, called the Tabula Medicine (‘Table of Medicine’), mostly consisted of remedies, arranged alphabetically by name of ailment, instead of the head to toe order of the standard medical Practica. The friars seem to have assembled the text by accumulating remedies in a sort of medieval Wikipedia. Some copies preserve the ‘open’ format by leaving room for additional remedies under each heading.[1]

Many remedies are medicinal recipes culled from books. Most often they cite the works of Avicenna, Galen and native authorities, Gilbertus Anglicus, Bernard de Gordon, John of Gaddesden, and John Arderne. But a lot of other remedies are attributed to English friars who flourished c.1370-1420.[2] The friars mentioned were identified as authorities (expressed as “per fratrem Peter Russell”, for example) for recipes of all kinds. But they had a particular fondness for distillations. Under the heading “Gutta arthetica” (Gout of the joints), we find:

King’s MS 16, fol.1. The opening of the Tabula medicine

“According to brother William Holme, for cold gout take the dregs of a pottle (two quarts) of beer; boil down a pennyweight of boar’s flesh for a day, stirring it with a ladle; and take a handful each of chamomile, pellitory, cowslip, lavender, honeysuckle, and marjoram. Cut up the cooked meat and the herbs into tiny pieces and distill together with the dregs in an alembic. The water collected in a glass can be kept and used as wanted.  Apply it warm, and it is called flesh-water.”

Holme, like Hieronymus Brunschwig, held that distillation ensured your remedy did not go off.

More ambitious distillations aimed at producing the heavenly quintessence, or at the very least aqua ardens (burning water). The friars must have had a copy of John of Rupescissa, Liber de consideratione quintae essentie to hand, for they quote from it accurately under headings for “Cor” (Heart), “Demon,” “Facies” (Face), “Frenesis” (Frenzy), “Melancholia,” “Spasmum” [Convulsion] and “Venenum” (Poison). They never identify him by name, although Rupescissa was a Franciscan friar, writing from prison in France c.1350. Under the heading “Facies”, they tell us that wild strawberries are a hundred times more powerful against outbreaks of pustules on the face if administered as a quintessence. Rupescissa uses exactly the same words at two points in his text. We are not told in the ‘Table of Medicine’ how to extract a water from wild strawberries and combine it with quintessence, although Rupescissa does give a recipe.

The only heading in the ‘Table of Medicine’ that names a remedy instead of an ailment is “Balsamum” (Balsam). Native balsam was extraordinarily rare and expensive in late medieval Europe, in all its three forms, and friar William Holme is credited with two different recipes for making an ‘Artificial Balsam.’ One simply requires powdered exotic spices to be put successively into hot but not boiling oil. The second requires small quantities of natural balsam, as well as twenty-five other ingredients. They are mixed and pulped in a mortar before distillation. This distillate comes in three degrees of strength, and is said to be just as effective as the native kinds in treating a long list of ailments. Holme is the only one of the friars mentioned in the ‘Table of Medicine’ who can now be identified as author of a surviving text, De simplicibus medicinis (‘On medicinal simples’) of 1415. This was “deflowered” as the bibliographer John Bale later put it, by Holme “from twelve doctors of medicine”. The ‘Table of Medicine’ itself went in for “deflowering”, though it also credited experienced friar practitioners.

King’s MS 16, fol. 144. Wistanton’s recipe for distilling blood and Forman’s hand in the margin.

Friar Robert Wistanton gives a recipe to make use of distilled human blood in surgery. The blood is kept for forty days in a glass vessel under dung, then cooked in a copper pot for a day, cooled, then skimmed. Afterwards it is distilled with a filter, mixed with aqua ardens, then distilled again with an alembic, and that distillate is the best of all waters. It will consolidate a wounded limb within three days and heal the sick. What remains in the bottom of the vessel should be kept, cooled and dried, and the resultant powder is best for fractured bones. Friars were not supposed to dabble in alchemy and surgery, but that does not seem to have stopped Wistanton and his brothers.

King’s MS 16, fol. 8b. Insert in Forman’s hand on Catalepsis.

In 1574 Simon Forman, astrologer and alchemist, purchased a manuscript of the ‘Table of Medicine’ in Oxford. He added recipes drawn from his own experience, or from Andrew Boorde’s Breviary of Healthe (1557), in the margin opposite the entries for particular illnesses. He also interleaved the manuscript to add remedies for illnesses not covered in the ‘Table of Medicine’. In this enhanced form the text continued in use into the seventeenth century.[3]

[1] Peter Murray Jones, “The ‘Tabula medicine’: an Evolving Encyclopedia,” English Manuscript Studies 1100–1700, vol. 14, Regional Manuscripts 1200-1700, ed. A. S. G. Edwards (2008), 60-85.

[2] Peter Murray Jones, “Mediating Collective Experience: the Tabula Medicine (1416–1425) as a Handbook for Medical Practice,” in Between Text and Patient: The Medical Enterprise in Medieval & Early Modern Europe, ed. Florence Eliza Glaze and Brian K. Nance (Florence: SISMEL-Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2011), 279-307.

[3] Cambridge, King’s College MS 16. See Lauren Kassell, Medicine and Magic in Elizabethan London. Simon Forman: Astrologer, Alchemist and Physician (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005).

Peter Murray Jones: I am Fellow Librarian of King’s College, Cambridge and a historian of medieval medicine. I have a particular interest in relations between knowledge and practice as expressed through recipes. My current project is on the contribution of friars to practical medicine and science in late medieval England.