Category Archives: Medieval

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.

Old Cookbooks, New Audiences

By Sarah Peters Kernan

In my last post I mentioned that relatively few medieval cookbooks included menus for actual events. The ones that did were typically included in cookeries originally composed for noble households; by the fifteenth century, these cookeries were being used by gentry and professional households as aspirational texts. That is, readers would use these cookbooks to learn about the foods served in the social class to which they aspired.[1] This continued into the early years of printing. In England, Richard Pynson printed the first vernacular cookery in 1500, based on recipes originally circulated in manuscript form.[2] Despite being a printed book, the Book of Cookery is very similar to typical medieval cookeries. The size of the book and appearance of the text mirrors many fifteenth-century manuscript cookeries. The black gothic typeface is unadorned, nary a decorated capital or border in sight. Clearly differentiating the printed text from a manuscript one is the lack of rubrication, which speckles so many handwritten recipes.

Printer's mark of Richard Pynson.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Printer’s mark of Richard Pynson. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Book of Cookery begins with the menus of several fourteenth and fifteenth-century noble feasts: one hosted by Henry IV at a Smithfield joust, the coronation feast of Henry V, a feast of the Earl of Huntingdon at Calais, a feast held for the king in London by the Earl of Warwick, the installation feast of Bishop Clifford in London, and an installation feast for the Archbishop of York in 1465.[3] The author describes several other untitled feasts before discussing dishes appropriate for various seasons. Following this calendar, which also serves as a recipe index, the author provides 275 recipes for dishes familiar to late medieval nobles. The text is filled with high status birds and fish fit for noble tables.

Longleat House. John Edward Jackson, The History of Longleat (Devizes, 1857), 10. Source: The British Library.

The Book of Cookery now exists as a unique copy in the library of the Marquess of Bath at Longleat House. It is bound with a fragment of a tract, also printed by Pynson in 1500.[4] This text, Remembraunce for the traduction of the Princesse Kateryne, lists noblemen and women assigned to escort Catherine of Aragon through England upon her arrival from Spain in 1501 for her marriage to Prince Arthur. Only two leaves of the tract are bound with the Book of Cookery. This tract presents an interesting counterpoint to the cookbook, as the list of nobles seems an appropriate way to conclude a book which begins with descriptions of feasts for or hosted by specific nobles in the preceding century.

I have located a reference to one other copy of the 1500 edition of the Book of Cookery in a list of books in the possession of James Morice, a gentleman in the service of Lady Margaret Beaufort.[5] Morice recorded a list of his twenty-three books in his copy of Cicero’s De senectute. His copy was bound with seven other texts, including books on courtesy, carving, and verse.[6] Morice’s books appealed to nobles and gentry refining their manners and intelligence.

Shortly after he printed the Book of Cookery, Pynson moved his printing shop inside the city of London and became the royal printer.[7] He printed a variety of texts and genres within the reading preferences of professionals, gentry, and nobles. His wholesale book prices reflected this range, priced between 20 d and 10 s, with most valued at 2 s.[8] The Book of Cookery was probably priced at 2 s. Given that 2 s was the equivalent of four days wages for a master craftsmen, the Book of Cookery was an expensive book, though still more affordable than manuscript cookeries.[9]

Once printed, the Book of Cookery made a noble manuscript cookery available to a larger number of people. Such a book would appeal to noble households as a tool for planning meals, as well as gentlemen aspiring to be more like their social superiors. The cookery’s incipit specifically targets these higher status readers rather than reaching out to a broad audience. Neither Pynson nor any other hand involved in the printing changed the incipit to reflect a desire to reach a new audience. Pynson’s output also targeted a higher status audience, one that encompassed professionals, gentry, and nobles. The tract fragment bound with the extant Book of Cookery also suggests a gentry or noble reader who wanted or needed information about Catherine of Aragon’s travels. Additionally, the two known copies of the book were housed in the private libraries of noble estates. It is notable that the extant copy of the book was consistently preserved in an estate library, passed down through several generations.

The Book of Cookery is an excellent example of the way readers used cookbooks at the turn of the sixteenth century, devouring menus and recipes to learn how to imitate higher social classes.



[1] Sarah Peters Kernan, “‘For al them that delight in Cookery’: The Production and Use of Cookery Books in England, 1300–1600” (PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2016).

[2] Here begynneth a noble boke of festes ryalle and Cokery (London: Richard Pynson, 1500). Henceforth I will refer to this book as the Book of Cookery. For the book’s manuscript sources, see Constance Hieatt, “Richard Pynson’s Noble Boke of Festes Ryalle and Cokery and its Relationship to Two Analogous Manuscripts,” Journal of the Early Book Society 1 (1997), 78–95; Robina Napier, ed., A Noble Boke off Cookry ffor a Prynce Houssolde or eny other Estately Houssolde; Reprinted Verbatim from a Rare MS. in the Holkham Collection (Elliot Stock, 1882).

[3] Book of Cookery, fols. aiir–avir.

[4] Kate Harris, “Richard Pynson’s Remembraunce for the Traduction of the Princesse Kateryne: the Printer’s Contribution to the Reception of Catharine of Aragon,” The Library XII, no. 2 (June 1990): 99.

[5] J. C. T. Oates, “English Bokes Concernyng to James Morice,” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 3, no. 2 (1960), 124–32.

[6] Oates, 130–31.

[7] Frank Burgoyne, “Printers of England, I.—Richard Pynson,” The Library Assistant: The Official Organ of the Library Assistants’ Association IV (1905): 148.

[8] Henry Plomer, “Two Lawsuits of Richard Pynson,” The Library X, no. 38 (April 1909): 126–27. The “d” is an abbreviation for pence. There were twelve pence in one shilling (s), and twenty shillings in one pound.

[9] “Prices & Wages (Munro),” MEMDB: Medieval and Early Modern Data Bank,

Records and Reminiscences: Some Interesting Aspects of Chiquart’s Du fait de cuisine (1420)

By Sarah Peters Kernan

Sion/Sitten, Médiathèque Valais, S 103: Maître Chiquart, Du fait de cuisine, 1420, fol. 113r (

With the holiday season behind me, I am already reminiscing about my family’s recent celebrations and thinking ahead to next year. I have gathered recipes I would like to try next year, made notes about recipes that worked (and those that didn’t), and listed the menus of the many meals my husband and I hosted for friends and family. When I starting thinking about appropriate topics for a Recipes Project post, I realized this was the perfect opportunity to consider the 1420 Savoyard cookbook, Du fait de cuisine. In it, Master Chiquart Amiczo, the chef of Amadeus VIII, Duke of Savoy, dictates seventy-eight recipes to a scribe, provides an extensive description of how to acquire food and provisions for days of feasting, and records a menu of one particular feast. In October 1403 Chiquart prepared two days of lavish feasts in honor of Mary of Burgundy. Although Amadeus VIII and Mary of Burgundy had been contracted in marriage since 1393, due to a number of political complications the bride had not left her Burgundian home. The feast celebrated her arrival at the Savoy court when she would join Amadeus VIII’s household as his wife.[1] Chiquart’s menu and notes on preparing for a feast describe a much grander event than any I might prepare during the holidays, but the intention is the same: describing a successful event so that one might remember it or even replicate it.

Despite being a very accessible medieval cookbook, Du fait de cuisine has had relatively little scholarly attention. This cookery exists in a single manuscript, held at the Médiathèque Valais in Sion, Switzerland (MS Supersaxo 103). While the manuscript has been digitized, Terence Scully has been the only scholar to devote significant attention to the book, producing a French edition and two English editions.[2] Du fait de cuisine is particularly interesting when considered among the larger corpus of contemporary cookbooks. While there are many similarities among the recipes, the surrounding text is remarkably different from most contemporary Continental and English cookbooks.

First among these differences is the amount of text and detail provided to the appointment of a kitchen for a feast. Folios 12r to 18v are devoted to this topic; Chiquart describes the necessary kitchen staff, how to order food from various purveyors, how much food to order, the vessels and equipment necessary for cooking, and the proper serving dishes. This section seems to be an attempt at describing the art of the kitchen, part of the aim of Du fait de cuisine.[3] The only other medieval cookery with such an extensive section on these aspects of the cooking process is Le Ménagier de Paris, produced in 1390s Paris for a wealthy administrative, but not noble, household. [For  more on the Ménagier de Paris, see my previous Recipes Project post on “A November Feast.”]

 Du fait de cuisine stands apart from contemporary texts in the level of detail included in the recipes. Many fit on a single folio, but others span up to eight folios. Other cookbooks describing lavish entremets, like the Viandier of Taillevent pale in comparison to the description of the final products. Chiquart’s creations of performative, edible art come alive on the page; even without illustrations, it is easy to imagine his castle with four lighted towers defended by various soldiers. Characters breathing fire are part of the creation, as well as a Fountain of Love spouting rosewater and mulled wine. Roasted and redressed peacocks and hedgehogs also make an appearance. As if this weren’t enough, Chiquart’s glorious entremets includes a faux sea filled with ships attacking the aforementioned castle. The entremet is naturally accompanied by a small group of musicians.[4] Each aspect is described in such a manner that it can be replicated, provided that the cook has some knowledge of creating pastry and sugar and meat pastes which constituted the basis of construction.

Another difference is a variety of brief texts that Chiquart includes after the culinary recipes. This includes a verse the Chiquart composed to honor Amadeus VIII and his family on fols. 107v to 109r and several other types of brief writings on the final nine folios. These are mainly non-culinary writings, including a verse against the plague, a note on Virgil’s Georgics, and several aphorisms. It is not unusual to find such an array of writings alongside cookery books in late medieval manuscripts, especially in English manuscripts. Du fait de cuisine is unique in its inclusion of these items within the cookbook itself, seemingly at the request of the author, self-described as lacking learning and wit (“n’ay grand science ne sens”).[5] I find these elements one of the most intriguing of the cookery and deserving of much more exploration.

The combined coat of arms of Amadeus VIII and Mary of Burgundy. Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 18982, fol. 9v. (

A final difference is the menu of the feast in honor of Mary of Burgundy.[6] Many medieval cookbooks provide generic menu suggestions or menus for unspecified events, and many non-culinary records provide menus for historically important feasts. However, relatively few cookbooks include menus for actual events.[7] Amadeus VIII and Mary of Burgundy’s wedding feast was certainly a magnificent affair and a significant event in the House of Savoy. Mary was the eighth child of Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and Margaret III. Philip the Bold had arranged Mary’s marriage to solidify a political alliance to Savoy in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War. The bride was only seven when her marriage was contracted; she would not arrive at the Savoy court for another ten years. While the alliance was only initially important to the House of Burgundy, the Savoy court benefitted greatly from this alliance. Amadeus VIII needed to welcome his bride to Savoy with all the opulence he could muster. His chef was tasked with preparing two days of lavish feasting to accomplish the goals of proving his wealth and status to his new bride and her family.

The fact that Chiquart recorded an account of the wedding feast seventeen years after the event is quite interesting; this is the only specific event the author describes. While Chiquart was evidently asked by Amadeus VIII to write the cookbook as a compendium of culinary knowledge, Chiquart does not provide any reason for recording the wedding events at the end of the cookbook.[8] The menu is also written after what seems to be the original ending, the poem glorifying and thanking Chiquart’s employing household. I wonder if it was associated with the birth of Amadeus and Mary’s ninth and final child in 1420; perhaps the pregnancy or birth was particularly difficult, and Chiquart attempted to garner favor with his lord by crafting a glorious recollection of Mary’s arrival in Savoy after his original culinary text was complete. However, my guess is merely that, as the text does not indicate a specific intent.

 Du fait de cuisine is an imaginative and detailed record of culinary information. There is much to explore in its similarities to and differences from other contemporary texts. For the moment, however, I take heart that some of my post-holiday recordkeeping habits are a bit like Master Chiquart’s.


[1] Richard Vaughan, Philip the Bold: The Formation of the Burgundian State (Reprint, Boydell Press, 2002), 89.

[2] Terence Scully, “Du fait de cuisine,” Vallesia 40 (1985): 103–231; Chiquart’s On Cookery: A Fifteenth-Century Savoyard Culinary Treatise (P. Lang, 1986); and Du fait de cuisine / On Cookery of Master Chiquart (1420): “Aucune science de l’art de cuysinerie et de cuisine” (ACMRS, 2010). Another French edition was also published: Florence Bouas and Frédéric Vivas, eds., Du fait de cuisine: Traité de gastronomie médiévale de Maître Chiquart (Actes Sud, 2008).

[3] Sion, Switzerland, Médiathèque Valais, MS Supersaxo 103, fol. 11r.

[4] S 103, fols. 30r–33r.

[5] S 103, fol. 108v.

[6] S 103, 111v–114v.

[7] A couple exceptions are the Ménagier de Paris (multiple manuscript copies) and London, British Library, MS Harley 279.

[8] S 103, fols. 11v–12r.

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.