Category Archives: Magic and Alchemy

Introduction: “Russian Recipes” at the July Recipes Project

By Clare Griffin

Dear Readers of the Recipes Project Blog,

Earlier this year I was asked to put together a series of posts on Russian Recipes. But how to introduce the posts to help non-Russianists grasp them? Through all the organising and writing of this ‘special edition’ of the Recipes Project, this has remained the hardest thing to pin down. What, fundamentally, were the central aspects of early modern Russia, and how to do them justice in one introduction?

My solution is the following brief travel guide for the curious visitor to Russia c. 1690. Hopefully this will provide a useful introduction as you peruse our featured posts on “Russian Recipes” this month.

L0004274 Map of Russia lent by Dr. Schuster.
Russia in the Early Modern Period
(Wellcome Images)

Location:                                         

Although having its roots in the early Medieval princedom of Kiev, by the early modern period Russia meant a tsardom centred on the more northerly Moscow, hence its other early modern name, Muscovy, although there was a large and growing empire far to the east of that city. Travellers arriving after 1703 would be more likely to head to the new capital of St Petersburg, modestly named after the reforming Tsar Peter the Great.

800px-Russian_Empire_1745_General_Map_(HQ)
The Russian Empire, 1745
(Wiki Images)

Laws:

Staying within the bounds of local law is key to any successful journey, and early modern visitors to Muscovy had to bear some important points in mind. Movement across the borders and within the country was strictly controlled, and documentation was necessary to avoid arrest. If you were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, you had to take care not to have roots or herbs on your person, as those could be cause for accusations of witchcraft.  Although there were many foreigners in Muscovy, interaction between them was not always encouraged; if you were a foreign visitor, Russian servants would not stay in your house overnight, as you were considered to be a heretic, and excessive contact with you was thought to be dangerous.

The Population:
The Russian population was distinguished in several ways. In terms of dress, Muscovites wore traditional clothes; as a visitor, you would have stood out!

Bojaren
Russian Noblemen
(Wiki Images)

Russians rarely knew foreign languages, although this was changing throughout the early modern period, as increasing numbers of “boyars” – as Russian nobles are called – kept collections of foreign books alongside other exotic foreign objects such as clocks.

Russia was not as culturally homogenous as you might think. Several courtly families came from outside the Moscow lands, including from Kazan’ and from the Georgian royal family. Outside of the court, the atmosphere was even more mixed, as the empire encompassed various races, nations, languages and religions, who were mostly left to their own devices, provided they paid their taxes on time.

There was also a thriving foreign community in Moscow, with merchant strongholds in Kholmogory and Archangel, the most important port. These communities dated back to the 1550s, when English merchants accidently found the northern coast of Russia while searching for China. Although the English were dominant for some decades, the Dutch and the Germans also had a significant presence in Moscow, where they had their own churches and community activities. Some people even put on amateur performances of Western European plays in their own homes.

Sight-seeing:
There were many wonderful sights in early modern Russia.

Ushakov's Archangel Michael and the Devil
Ushakov’s Archangel Michael and the Devil, 1676
(Wiki Images)

Early modern Russia was a very religious society, and churches played a large role in Russian life.  Services could go on for several hours. Churches and monasteries were also used in religio-political ceremonies, such as when the Tsar paraded through the streets of Moscow. Icons were similarly important. If you were an early modern visitor to Russia, you might be lucky enough to see the work of the great seventeenth-century Russian icon painter, Semyon Ushakov.

If you ventured outside of Moscow, you could have visited many wonderful sights in the early modern Russian Empire. To the East and South, you could have travelled to the towns of Kazan’ and Astrakhan, both former khanates but a part of the empire since the sixteenth century. You might even have gone on to distant Siberia!  Although partly used to exile prisoners, Siberia was also valued for its wildlife.  Siberian furs fetched high prices in Western Europe.

We hope you enjoy your visit to early modern Russia!

Posts in the series: 

What to Feed the Servants in Sixteenth-Century Russiaby Carolyn Pouncey

A Medieval Russian Hangover Cure, by Darra Goldstein

How to Heal a Foreigner in Early Modern Russia, by Clare Griffin

A Modern Culinary Manuscript from Russia’s Ural Mountains, by Aleksandra Ippolitova

Love Magic in 18th century Russia: a Search for Passion in Russian History, by Elena Smilianskaia

Recipes against the Supernatural

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.

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.

The Medieval Invisible Man

By Laura Mitchell

As I promised in my last post, today I want to touch on a magical recipe with ties to some interesting sources. One of the manuscripts I focused on for my dissertation research is Oxford, Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1435. This is an anonymous manuscript from the fifteenth century that contains mostly academic medical texts and is a large collection of over 180 magical and non-magical recipes in English and Latin in no discernible order. Understandably, in a collection that large the kinds of recipes vary considerably: there are recipes for cooking, metallurgy, divinatory experiments, texts of the virtues… and four experiments for invisibility (pages 7, 12, and 25).

The desire to become invisible seems to be a common theme for the pre-modern magician. Experiments promising this outcome survive in similar recipe collections in London, Wellcome Historical Medical Library MS 517 (a fifteenth-century Dutch collection); Kassel, Murhardsche und Landesbibliothek Codex Medicus 4˚10; the Greek Magical Papyri from Greco-Roman Egypt; Munich, Bayerischen Staatsbibliothek, Clm 849, the German necromantic handbook edited by Richard Kieckhefer in Forbidden Rites; and it is frequently seen in later medieval ritual magic.1 And of course this desire has extended to the modern day with Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility!

Of the four recipes for invisibility in Ashmole 1435 one in particular caught my eye. This is the third one in the manuscript and it is the most complex, bearing a strong resemblance to a necromantic operation for invisibility in Clm 849 and a spell from the Greek Magical Papyri. The Ashmole recipe runs as follows:

Si vis esse inuisibile: accipe vnum canem mortuum et sepilles eum et plantes super eum fabus et vnam in ore tuo et sine dubio eris inuisibile

(If you wish to be invisible: take a dead dog and bury it and plant a bean plant over it and place one in your mouth and without a doubt you will be invisible.)

V0043440 Bean plant (Phaseolus species): flowering and fruiting stem
Bean plant (Phaseolus species): flowering and fruiting stem with three beans. Coloured pen and ink drawing by F. V. Ghini, c.1700. [Credit: Wellcome Library, London]
The Clm 849 operation for invisibility instructs the operator kill a black cat that was born in March.  He cuts out the cat’s eyes and places heliotrope seeds in its eyes and mouth; then he buries the cat while reciting conjurations. Once the plant has sprouted, the practitioner takes each sprouted bean, putting them in his mouth one by one while gazing into a mirror until he turns invisible.2 The similarities are quite remarkable and I would argue that there has been some appropriation of the necromantic ritual here.

The biggest distinction between the two is the lack of conjurations in the Ashmole operation and the distinction between killing a cat and finding a conveniently dead dog. Both of these operations in turn share a resemblance to a short spell from the Greek Magical Papyri from the third or fourth century, in a book titled The Diadem of Moses. In this operation the magician places the dog’s head plant under the tongue while lying down and recites certain magical words.3

It’s hard to say what exactly is going on here. How related are these three rituals? It’s clear that there is some sort of connection between the rituals in Clm 849 and Ashmole 1435, albeit indirectly, but what of their relationship to the spell from The Diadem of Moses? Was there a corruption of the text from the dog’s head plant to the dog/cat of the later operations? Did the Diadem of Moses ritual find itself translated and transported over the centuries across Europe, ending up in one instance in the necromantic manual of an anonymous German scribe, and in another instance in the equally anonymous book of an English scribe? If so (and I don’t see why not), this is an example of a magical recipe surviving and being passed on for over 1200 years.


1. Richard Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998).

2. Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites, 60-61; 240.

3. Richard L. Phillips, In Pursuit of Invisibility: Ritual Texts from Late Roman Egypt (Durham, North Carolina: American Society of Papyrologists, 2009), 110-111.