Category Archives: Religion

History Carnival 117 — A Twelfth Night Edition

Twelfth Night, when the world turns topsy-turvy until midnight and the wassail is drunk to ensure a good apple harvest… A fitting day for the first History Carnival of 2013! This month, The Recipes Project has the privilege of rounding up the past month’s history blogging.

As you might expect in a Twelfth Night edition, there are several Christmas-themed posts to be found. In the winter, a blogger’s interests might turn to thoughts of dark poetry. Over at The View East, Kelly Hignett offers us “A Communist Christmas Carol”, in which Romanian children (c. 1980) request that Father Christmas bring some simple food items (and toilet paper). Lindsey Fitzharris (The Chirurugeon’s Apprentice) takes “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” as her inspiration for a reminder of our mortality, “The Dead Man’s Poem“, wishing us to “thank God you are safe and secure in your life”.

Other bloggers considered another potentially heavy side of Christmas: food! Many of you may have already been back to the gym and turned to salad-eating, but Twelfth Night is a time of cake and pie, so let us remember once more the feasts of yore. Tiffany Stoziciki gives us a taste of American Christmas dinners at the History Reporter (“Christmas Dinners, 1860-1960“), starting with the pared down offerings of the Civil War tables to the best meal of the year on Cold War tables (with some very American bubbly)…  At The Board of Longitude Project, Alexi Baker looks at what Board of Longitude members, whether on shore or at sea, got up to during the Christmas season in “Longitude and a Christmas lark“– and yes, this is a reference to roasted lark! For the lighter side of Christmas, see Caroline Rance’s hilarious “‘Set the Spirit Alight’: Victorian festive science” (The Quack Doctor): from fiery masks to breathing flames, it sounds like Victorian Christmases were rather fun–if dangerous.

In the spirit of Auld Lang Syne, you might check out the future of technology and entertainment at “Fun Places on the Internet (in 1995)” by Matt Novak (Paleofuture). The post is interesting in two ways: bringing back memories of one’s early online forays (ahhh–recalling the sound of a connecting modem still brings a thrill to my heart!) and considering the classification of “fun”…

What are the dark days of winter without a bit of inversion and oddity? Romeo Vitelli at Providentia examines the fascinating case of Mary Todd Lincoln’s mental breakdown in a four-part series, “Mary Todd Lincoln on Trial“. In a post on “Saintly Rivals – a brief comparison of the cults of Thomas Beckett and Edward the Confessor“, Steffan (My Albion) considers the seemingly contradictory ideas of what made a good medieval saint (peaceful virtue or violent martyrdom). Natalie Bennett at Philobiblon reviews Eleanor Hubbard’s City Women: Money, Sex and the Social Order in early Modern London, recounting several tantalizing stories of disorderly early modern women.

The ultimate inversion and oddity, perhaps, is that of tales of cannibalism. Ben Breen has written two intriguing (and beautifully illustrated) posts on medicinal cannibalism and other repulsive remedies in early modern Europe:  “Early Modern Drugs and Medicinal Cannibalism” at Res Obscura and “‘Ravens-scull & a Handfull of Fennel’: Early Modern Drugs” at The Appendix. (These last two posts, if read after Twelfth Night, may also aid in any weight-loss plans!)

December has also been a good month for pondering methodological questions. At The History Tavern and Prospero, the bloggers consider the usefulness concepts such as terrorism (“Boston Tea Party… Was It An Act of Terrorism?“) and genocide (“The Irish Famine: Opening Old Wounds“) in studying specific historical questions.

Trevor Owens and T. Mills Kelly, in turn, are concerned by the research and teaching challenges posed by rapid technological change. Owens–and the lively comments section–suggest ways that archivists might make their collections more searchable in a Google-dominated environment: “Implications for Digital Collections Given Historian’s Research Practices“. Kelly has a multi-part series in which he rethinks the entire history curriculum, specifically the imperative of integrating technology into teaching research skills: “The History Curriculum in 2023“.

The complicated relationships among history, narrative, author and audience were discused by Lucinda Matthew-Jones, Christopher Dummit and Christopher Jones. Matthew-Jones’ post “Doctor Who-ing the Victorians” (Journal of Victorian Culture Online) is a thoughtful response to a recent U.K. report on teaching history in British Schools. The use of history in Doctor Who, she argues, assumes a more sophisticated level of historical knowledge than the government report does! Dummit at Everyday History wonders if a historical novelist can be classed as a great historian  “Guy Gavriel Kay: Great Historian?” In “Narrative History and the Collapsing of Historical Distance“, Jones of The Junto discusses the problems and possibilities of blurring subject and author when writing narrative history. Rethinking our methodological practices and assumptions?  Contemplating non-linear Doctor Who history? Considering how best to tell stories? Fine questions to consider on Twelfth Night.

The world, obviously, didn’t end on December 21. For those who were disappointed, Sir Isaac Newton also had a few thoughts on the apocalypse, which he anticipated happening in 2034 or, perhaps, 2060: “Sir Isaac Newton’s Daniel and the Apocalypse (1733)” (The Public Domain Review).

In any case, it seems likely that we’ll all be here next month, so please come by next month’s History Carnival, which will be hosted by our own Sally Osborn at her blog Travels and travails in 18th-Century England. Happy Wassailing to you, tonight!

Magic or Medicine? Healing Charms in Fifteenth-Century English Recipe Collections

By Laura Mitchell

Charms can be found in all manner of medieval manuscripts, scrawled in the margins or added (seemingly at random) on blank pages and in the flyleaves. Usually they were simply stuck in some place convenient by someone who thought they would be useful or interesting to have on hand. However, charms also appear in medieval recipe collections, mixed in with recipes for nosebleeds or toothaches or different coloured inks. In these contexts, where does one separate the charm from the recipe?  Should they even be separated?

Let’s back up a minute and think about exactly what I mean by a charm in fifteenth-century England. In medieval Europe, the forms of charms and recipes are generally the same. Both are formulas, whether spoken, written, or chanted. Both have an oral and a written component. And both used words and phrases from the Bible, liturgy, and other religious texts familiar to the average medieval person.[1] For example, the Flum Jordan charm to staunch blood is based on the Biblical story of Jesus’s baptism in the river Jordan. Just as the river stopped flowing when Jesus entered the water, so the blood will stop flowing once the charm is recited. Additionally, prayers could take on apotropaic properties – the recitation of Paternosters and Ave Marias for protection or healing was encouraged in orthodox worship and these two prayers frequently appear in charm texts.

For the ordinary lay person there could be much confusion concerning what was a charm (and therefore bad) and what was a prayer (and therefore good). The cause of this confusion can be explained by looking at the proliferation of sacramentals, which were an important part of popular belief in late medieval Christianity. Sacramentals were objects: things like candles, salt, and water, that had been blessed by the parish priest and distributed to all the households. The candles were lit during thunderstorms to drive away the demons thought to be active during storms, while the water was sprinkled on the hearth to drive away evil or sprinkled in the fields to promote fertility. Water and salt could be given to sick animals.

It’s easy to see how this Church-sanctioned practice could lead to similar practices with objects that had not been blessed, but which were thought to have special God-given properties. It was difficult for the average person to distinguish between the two types of objects, since both could be used and manipulated. Users of charms and folk magic were not concerned with the finer points of theology but with the fact that both sacramental and charms had a power that presumably came from God. There was a very fine line indeed between magic and orthodox religion. Magic in the fifteenth century was firmly established within a Christian framework and fit into people’s belief systems in a natural, rational manner.[2]

Countries and regions might favour one type or one motif over another, though. Wind, for example, was more common in Russia, with charms of ill-purpose said to be “sent on the wind”.[3] Romanian charms, at least in modern times, involve the use of both gestures and formulas. The evil eye, while fairly common in countries like Hungary, is unknown in the medieval English corpus of surviving charms. The one commonality across medieval cultures and countries is the dominance of healing charms, which survive far more than any other charm type.

Unsurprisingly, medical charms are often found in collections of medical recipes. Health and wellbeing was a serious concern in the Middle Ages and, if a cure was questionably orthodox, well, that was alright as long as it worked. In these collections, we find charms for bleeding, toothaches, fevers, blurred vision, insomnia, wounds, childbirth, worms in the ear, and falling sickness (epilepsy)–but not for such things as back pain or swollen feet. Scholars don’t really know why medical charms are restricted to a small number of ailments, but some scholars like Lea Olsan believe it’s because there are no Biblical stories nor religious imagery that can be associated with other ailments.

Charms appear in all diverse medical recipe collections, from the household collection of the Haldenby family in Cambridge (Trinity College MS O.1.57) to the collection of the physician Thomas Fayreford (British Library, Harley MS 2558). This suggests that they were regarded with little or no distinction from the non-magical recipes with which they are grouped. Charms and recipes are presented as equally valid and proper texts to read and/or use, but what distinguished them was merely the source of their curative powers. Medical recipes broadly relied on natural means and associations, whereas charms derived their power from the divine, the supernatural. But even that distinction can be too simplistic! For now, I hope it is clear that the distinction between magic and medicine was more blurred than we often think. Most medieval people considered charms to be no more harmful or unorthodox than any other recipe they might encounter in their daily lives.

[1] Lea Olsan, “Charms in Medieval Memory,” in Charms and Charming in Europe, ed. Jonathan Roper (Great Britain: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 60.

[2] On the rationality of medieval magic see Richard Kieckhefer, “The Specific Rationality of Medieval Magic” American Historical Review 99:3 (1994): 813-836.

[3] W.F. Ryan, “Eclecticism in the Russian Charm Tradition,” in Charms and Charming in Europe, 117.