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.

Recipes in the Inquisition Records

Recently I’ve been working on a kind of source which has proved to be a surprisingly revealing source for magical and healing recipes: inquisition records. I’ve been working on the records of the Roman Inquisition in Malta, which are preserved in the Cathedral Archives in Mdina, as part of a larger project on ‘Magic in Malta, 1605: the Moorish Slave Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur and the Roman Inquisition’ led by my colleague Professor Dionisius Agius (click here for further details). The project revolves around the trial of Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur, an Egyptian slave living in Malta who was accused of practising magic for Christian clients. In most cases it was these clients who reported him to the inquisitors, often after they had mentioned the matter in confession and had been referred to the Inquisition by their parish priest.

Valletta, near the site of the slaves' prison where Sellem lived (author's photo)
Valletta, near the site of the slaves’ prison where Sellem lived (author’s photo)

The record is very detailed and, among other things, it describes some of the magical recipes which Sellem’s clients claimed that he used. It should be noted that Sellem himself denied ever using them, although he did admit to knowing astrology. This means that it is difficult to know how far these recipes were actually used, by Sellem or by anyone else. Nevertheless, the records describe these alleged magical recipes in some detail. For example, Marco Mangion testified that he sought Sellem’s help after he became ill with an illness that he suspected was caused by witchcraft. Sellem seems to have asked Marco for his mother’s name and written this down (the trial record is damaged here) on a slip of paper which he burned in his room in the slaves’ prison. Then he gave Marco several more slips of paper [carte] written in ‘Moorish’ (Arabic) with the instruction to wash them in water and ‘with the water of this infusion wash my face and my whole body, and he instructed me to fumigate with a piece of mongione [I have not been able to translate this]… I used these remedies and it seemed to me that the said remedies benefitted me.’ Marco claimed that Sellem also gave him other remedies: a square piece of lead, and another piece of paper with Arabic.

Although it is impossible to know whether these remedies were really used, they would probably have seemed plausible to Marco and to the inquisitors because they resemble what we know about early modern magical practices from other sources, including inquisition records from elsewhere in Europe. The idea of writing significant words, washing them into water, and then drinking or washing oneself in the water can be found in earlier Latin medical texts. More generally charms which involve the writing of powerful words are mentioned very often in medieval and early modern Europe.  Sellem’s use of Arabic is less common, however, and reflects his own background, and this exotic element may have made the charm seem even more powerful to Maltese Christians. A few paper charms also survive, like this printed one from late seventeenth-century Germany, now in the Wellcome Library in London.

L0059000 Amulet and charm to protect against plague, printed Latin ch

Similar written charms were also used in seventeenth-century Malta: although Sellem’s Arabic carte do not survive, the archives do occasionally preserve examples which the inquisitors confiscated. Thus while researching other cases in the archives we found a few slips of paper covered with symbols and prayers, cloths, and even an unidentified lumpy yellow substance. It is rare, and it feels rather strange, to find such a tangible result of an early modern recipe surviving into the present day.

It has long been known that inquisition records are an important source for the history of early modern healing and magic and there have been studies of records from Italy, Mexico, and elsewhere. They are also an intriguing source for early modern recipes, which give details not only about what might have been done, but also for whom, and why. As the project continues we hope to uncover more details about the recipes used by Sellem and other early modern Maltese healers. We’d also be interested to hear from anyone else working on similar issues in other inquisition records. (With thanks to Alex Mallett for double checking my Italian translations).

First Monday Library Chat: Chemical Heritage Foundation

Welcome back to the First Monday Library Chat! In September, I moved across Philadelphia to join the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) as their first Curator of Digital Collections. CHF is a Library, Museum, and Center for Scholars that uses the history of science and technology to understand the present and inform the future. Today I’m chatting with CHF’s Curator of Rare Books, Dr. James R. Voelkel.

CHF has diverse collections: rare books, archives, oral histories, photographs, fine art, artifacts and instruments. Could you give us a general overview of CHF’s collections?

CHF is the home of the Othmer Library of Chemical History, which collects rare and non-rare books on subjects relevant to the history of chemistry, and chemical industries broadly. We like to say that if it has to do with “stuff” we’re likely to be interested in it. For the rare book collection, this means that we collect books on chemistry, mining and metallurgy, dyeing, distilling, saltpeter and explosives, poisons, toxicology, wine and beer making, balneology (mineral springs) and so on. Our collection goes back to the 15th century, when the term “chymistry” was used interchangeably for chemistry and alchemy, so our collection of alchemical books is particularly strong. Our collections are probably stronger in 16th- and 17th-century chemistry than in 18th- and 19th-century. The rest of the library collections hold primary sources after 1850, secondary sources for history of science, and an extensive journal collection, especially strong in obscure chemical and chemical industry publications.

Our archival collections hold important organizational papers (e.g. IUPAC—The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry), corporate papers (e.g. Rohm and Haas, and Dow), and papers of notable individual chemists, including several Nobel prize winners (e.g. Paul Flory). The image archive also has over 20,000 images of chemists and chemical sites.

The fine art collection has a very large collection of paintings of alchemical scenes, a large number of them 17th-century Dutch genre paintings. Altogether it has more than 90 paintings and 200 works on paper.

Finally, the artifacts and instrument collections are so large they can not all be stored in the building. We have chemical glassware, large analytical instruments like mass spectrometers and chromatographs, and a very large collection of chemistry sets. We also have objects illustrating chemistry in every day life, like Bakelite objects, synthetic dresses, and numerous ephemeral objects like advertisements.

Within the Rare Book Collection that you oversee, could you identify some items that might interest researchers working with historical recipes or books of secrets?

We have a number of books of secrets and a large collection of works by Kenelm Digby, including his Choice and experimented receipts in physick and chirurgery (London, 1668). We have numerous books in culinary history, from Denis Papin’s A New Digester or Engine for Softning Bones (London, 1681)—the first book on the pressure cooker—to Friedrich Accum’s Culinary chemistry (London, 1821). For the nefarious, we can also supply Accum’s A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons (London, 1820).

My favorite is Jacques-François Demachy, L’art du distillateur liquoriste, contenant le bruleur d’eaux-de-vie, le fabriquant de liqueurs, le débitant ou le cafetier-limonnadier (Paris, 1773). It embodies the ambitions of the French Enlightenment. This extra-large folio is one of the more than 100-volume Descriptions des arts et métiers on trades, occupations, and industry. Demachy’s contribution is on distillation of liqueurs but, being about the café owner occupation, it includes a section on making sorbet (with engraved plates!)

17th Century Recipe for Gunpowder
Recipe for gunpowder.  Vollenkommene Unterweisung/ (1660)

Fireworks books often have numerous recipes for explosives and different color flames. J. C. Stövesandt, Deutliche Anweisung zur Feuerwerkerey (Halle: J.J. Gebauern, 1748) has many pages of recipes in relatively modern-looking form. Going further back, the Vollenkommene Unterweisung/ wie Raketen/ Feuer- Wasser- Sturm-Kugeln/ Granaten/ Pech-Sturm-Kräntze/ und allerhand Lust nnd Ernsthaffte Feuer-wercke zubereiten (Osnabrück, 1660) has recipes and 50 instructive plates.

CHF recently purchased ten alchemical manuscripts, primarily dating from the fifteenth century. Do any of these manuscripts have recipes in them?

The oldest book of secrets we own is a manuscript from 1438 entitled “[Liber de] Secreti naturali”. It has more than 500 recipes ranging from metallurgy to cosmetics to veterinary cures, and a beautiful binding with 437 decorative nails forming a star with a circle. Many of the manuscripts are more theoretical in nature, like the three different Pseudo-Lullian works or Petrus Bonus’s Pretiosa margarita novella. But the youngest of the manuscripts, a French copy of Pseudo-Arnaldus of Villanova, Le petit rosaire has numerous descriptions with rather nice drawings of laboratory set-ups, which I believe must also include the ingredients.

Liber secreti naturali (Northwestern Italy, ca. 1438), Othmer MS 1.
Liber secreti naturali (Northwestern Italy, ca. 1438), Othmer MS 1.

I understand that these manuscripts will be included in CHF’s forthcoming exhibition “Books of Secrets: Writing and Reading Alchemy”, which runs from Dec. 5, 2014 till Sept. 4, 2015. Can you tell us more about the new exhibition? 

The exhibition, which I co-curated with CHF’s Curator of Fine Art, Amanda Shields, came about from the desire to showcase two of CHF’s holdings: the newly acquired alchemical manuscripts, and a number of paintings from our collection. The theme that links the manuscripts and the paintings is the centrality of the written word in alchemical practice. Though one might think that the activity of the alchemist was focused on the laboratory and the furnace, in fact, alchemists spent a large amount of time writing and reading. Alchemy was paradoxically both public and secret. Since it was nominally secret but alchemists still desired to communicate, they used code words and strange allegories to describe their processes.

When we started going through the collection, we discovered that almost all alchemical paintings have books or manuscripts somewhere in the frame. Very often the alchemist is deeply involved in pouring over manuscripts, and the furnace smokes remain neglected in the background. The books themselves also show evidence of hard-reading. They are dotted with reading notes and manicules (those little pointing hands readers have used for centuries to highlight text). One of them is even coated in soot, as though it had been held by the crucible-stirrer in the painting. It really is a wonderful synergy to exhibit the artifact alongside the depiction of that artifact in use. It really gets at the materiality of the practice of reading in a way that could not be accomplished with either the manuscripts or the paintings alone.

Manicule from Pseudo-Lull, Liber de secretis naturae seu de quinta essentia (Venice, 1498), Othmer Manuscript 4
Manicule from Pseudo-Lull, Liber de secretis naturae seu de quinta essentia (Venice, 1498), Othmer MS 4

To take the visitor through that arc, the exhibition is divided into three sections. First, there is a section on the writing of manuscripts, on the paper, ink, and techniques used to get the words on paper. Then there is a section on the use of manuscripts, on reading and note taking. Finally, there is a section on the continuity of manuscripts and print, noting the similarities between the manuscripts and some of CHF’s earliest printed books.

Is there a fellowship program that would allow researchers to visit CHF and use the collections?

CHF has a variety of programs to support the use of our collections. The Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry at CHF offers academic year (9 month) and short term (1-4 month) fellowships for researchers, post-docs and dissertation-writing Ph.D. students.

The Beckman Center also offers 1-2 week travel grants for researchers needing to see specific items in our collections.Though these are used primarily for library and archival collections, they can also be used for study of our art and artifacts collections. Sometimes, scholars who are thinking of applying for a longer term fellowship use a travel grant to scout our collections, which is certainly helpful.

Thanks, Jim, for chatting with me! The CHF Museum is free and open to the public Monday through Friday from 10am to 5pm. The Library’s Reading Room is open Monday through Friday from 10am to 4pm, but is accessible by appointment only

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.