The Disappearance of Charms from a Fifteenth-Century Notebook

By Laura Mitchell

Snake amulet, N. London, c. 1870-1916. To treat back pain. Image Credit: Wellcome Collections, London.
Snake amulet, N. London, c. 1870-1916. To treat back pain. Image Credit: Wellcome Collections, London.

Studying medieval charms can bring to light a lot of intriguing social practices and help us to understand what sorts of everyday worries occupied the mind of a medieval person. It can also be an exercise in frustration at the limitations of our information. The Trinity College Library MS O.1.57 manuscript (Cambridge) offers just one such case. This household notebook was originally copied and owned by the Haldenby family and members of their household compiled in the first half of the fifteenth century.[1]

The manuscript contains texts that range from medical recipes to physiognomy to gunpowder recipes. The Haldenby family was part of the lower gentry of fifteenth-century Northamptonshire and the book reflects a significant sub-section of the gentry who, along with members of the secular clergy, were interested in medical and scientific texts.

The Haldenby family and its household also seems to have had an interest in magical or quasi-magical texts, including the Serpentium corius, a group of magical and non-magical experiments using snakeskin, texts on the virtues of plants and animals, which include a number of items of natural magic, and an ad hoc book of secrets containing charms and magic tricks in their notebook, as well as the charms. The charms themselves are nothing extraordinary as far as fifteenth sensibilities go: a charm against fire, three medical charms, a charm to catch a thief, and a love charm (discussed in a previous entry).

Of particular interest to me for this post are three of charms scattered throughout the manuscript: charms for a sore, for sleep, and to catch a thief. All three were originally labelled as charms, but at some point in their history these titles were partially or completely erased by carefully scraping them off.[2] Now these headings are only visible under UV light!

The charm for a sore began with the heading “<A charme> for þo felun” and the sleep charm ended with “Þis is <a charme> for a man þat may not slepe.” The charm to catch a thief originally had an elaborate heading below the charm that consisted of a face and scroll that read “Carmen pro fures” [Charm for thieves], although the heading, like those for the medical charms. In addition to being erased, the thief charm was also partially covered by a later pen drawing, making it especially difficult to see even under under UV light.

Complete erasures of objectionable texts often occurred, as in the Arundel MS 342 (British Library), in which instructions for conjuring spirits has been partly erased.[3] The Sloane MS 513 (British Library) also suffers from an admittedly shoddy attempt at censure of its copy of the Ars notaria. These cases, at least, were more problematic magic rituals.

Examples of two much later French charms (18th century) to hold or to stop snakes. Source: Wellcome MS 4171.  Photograph: Lisa Smith.
Examples of two much later French charms (18th century) to hold or to stop snakes. Source: Wellcome MS 4171. Photograph: Lisa Smith.

However, in TCC O.1.57 there was only a partial erasure. It is impossible to know when these erasures happened: was it in the generation immediately following the original owners? Was it the sixteenth-century owners? The latter seems unlikely given their inclusion of a love charm in the sixteenth century. Moreover, why remove only the title and not the content? This mysterious eraser may have wanted to take advantage of the contents of these charms while publicly denying their true nature.

It seems clear that whoever erased these titles was more concerned about the perceived nature of their book rather than the reality. Indeed, the charm to catch a thief could easily have been cut out entirely without affecting any other text in the book. Less clear is why there was such a concern, since such charms were used throughout the early modern period (as Lisa Smith recently discussed for an eighteenth-century manuscript). Perhaps the owners simply felt particular concern about the respectability of their book at one point in time… It is doubtful that we will ever know.

[1] Genealogical entries regarding the Haldenby and Mortemer families give the manuscript a terminus post quem of 1454.

[2] The other three charms do not have such obvious headings.

[3] Sophie Page includes an image from the Arundel manuscript in Magic in Medieval Manuscripts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004), 39.

Anthony Lewis and the Aphrodisiac Remedy

By Jennifer Evans

In early modern England, academic and popular medical writers expressed concern that there were many couples who struggled to conceive and so were childless. An English edition of François Mariceau’s midwifery manual remarked that that he ‘admire[d] the great passion which many have, who complain of nothing with greater regret than to [be] without Children, especially without Sons.’[1] Barrenness though was not only limited to those who were childless; those who had had children previously but now struggled to conceive again were also thought to be barren.

One strategy for remedying barrenness, particularly if it was caused by frigidity (a loss of libido and sexual pleasure caused by cold) recommended by early modern medical writers was to consume ‘provokers of venery’ what came to be called in the late seventeenth century aphrodisiacs. Numerous foods were thought to be aphrodisiacs including, nettles, artichokes, parsnips, mustard seeds and onions. As one published book of medical recipes, Dr. Trigg’s Secrets, Arcana’s & Panacea’s  (1655) declared ‘an excellent secret to help barrennesse’ was ‘The buds of the Sun-flower before it blossome, boiled and eaten with butter, vinegar and pepper, do mightily excite to venery, and provoke lust more than the Artichoke. Nettle seeds are good for the same purpose; so is garden cresses and rocket and purslaine’.[2]

Wikimediea Commons: H. Zell
Wikimediea Commons: H. Zell

Many aphrodisiacs were incorporated into fertility remedies recorded in domestic recipe books, although these texts were rarely as explicit as Dr. Trigg’s secrets in explaining that these remedies were useful because they encouraged couples to engage in sexual activity that would lead to conception. One plant regularly described by medical authors as an aphrodisiac was Eryngo also known as Sea Holly. The roots were often candied, and recipes for this were recorded in several domestic recipe books including an anonymous seventeenth and eighteenth century collection housed in the Wellcome library (MS 8097).[3] The author of this recipe gave detailed instructions for washing, boiling and candying the roots of this plant. The root was also included in several remedies designed to improve fertility. A collection attributed to Elizabeth Okeover included ‘An excellent helpe to conception’ – ‘Take the rotes of seaholly it growth by the sea side & is like to little trees of halfe a yeare height some call it Aringeime take the rootes of this & make it in sirrupe & eate it in the morne & at 4 a clocke take some gentle pills at the beginenge not before every recept’.[4] Similar remedies were also included in a recipe book attributed to Anne Glydd (1656) and one attributed to Bridget Hyde (1676-1690).

Credit: Rowan McOnegal. Wellcome Images
Credit: Rowan McOnegal. Wellcome Images

Despite the frequent appearance of such fertility remedies though, it was rare for manuscript collections to include direct or explicit references to sexual stimulants on their own. The only instance I have encountered so far was recorded in a collection described as ‘Medical Reciepts written by Anthony Lewis, from a book owned by Lady Marquee Dorset’. The recipe stated, ‘Sotherne wood being laid under ye beeds [sic] head, doth provoke venery.’[5] Nicholas Culpeper in his English translations of the Royal College of Physicians Pharmacopoeia Londinensis had also described southernwood as an aphrodisiac listing it as follows:

‘A Brotanum mas, foemina. Southernwood, male and foemale. Is hot and dry in the third degree, resists poyson, kils worms, provokes lust; outwardly in plaisters, it dissolves cold swellings, and helps the bitings of venemous beasts, makes hair grow: take not above half a drachm at a time in pouder’.[6]

Culpeper’s text suggested that southernwood provoked lust when taken as an internal medicine, like many aphrodisiacs. In Anthony Lewis’s recipe, though, the herb was supposed to stimulate sexual desire just through proximity to the body. This was not unprecedented Phillipa Pullar has suggested that the Greeks and Romans enjoyed satyrion root [a type of orchis] because its tuberous and erect fleshy stem was thought to have an effect even when held in the hand.[7]

However, the positioning of the herb within the bed, where it was perhaps expected that sex would take place, is reminiscent of infertility magic where enchantments were placed in the bed of the victim to prevent them from engaging in copulation. For example The Magick of King Karani, a medieval treatise republished in the early modern period, included a spell that appears very similar to the above,

‘hat a Man’s Member cannot be erect, till what is laid be removed. And if one lay the Herb [whores vervain] under the Pillow, he that lies upon it shall not erect, a[n]d if you give a little of the Herb powdered in drink to a Man, he will not erect to coition for seven dayes.

Interestingly, this remedy may have been influenced by ideas of magic, or perhaps counter-magic, against infertility enchantments. However, there is nothing surrounding the remedy to suggest that this was the case. The remedy was also not explicitly related to fertility–there was no suggestion that this was the reason that it had been recorded. It was recorded on the same page as a method for establishing whether a pregnant woman was carrying a male or female child, but was sandwiched between an oil to remove facial wrinkles and a medicine to make the hair grow. If anything this might suggest that this aphrodisiac was included as an anti-aging measure. It was a common humorous trope, and accepted medical reality, that many old men were impotent.

This lone recipe is something of an anomaly then. It is puzzling that this is the only remedy of this type that I have found so far. Recipe books include much material taken from medical texts and from physicians, and it was common for general medical texts, midwifery manuals and herbals to describe aphrodisiacs, so why was this information not more readily incorporated into manuscript texts?

One possible reason was that many aphrodisiacs were described as being effective on their own without much complex preparation–although there were some remedies that combined numerous ingredients. It was perhaps common knowledge that eating artichokes, sea holly, or satyrion would have these effects. Perhaps this remedy merited notation precisely because it was not to be consumed which made it unusual. I have yet to figure out why this lone note is the only explicit reference to aphrodisiacs in manuscript collections, but it does continue to intrigue me.

[1] Hugh Chamberlen, The diseases of women with child … written in French by Francis Mauriceau (London, 1672), 6.

[2] Anonymous, Dr. Trigg’s Secrets, Arcana’s & Panacea’s: Approved by his long admired Experience and Practice, whereby he wrought such wonderfull Cures (London, 1665), p. 141-2.

[3] Wellcome Library London, MS 8097; see also London British Library, M.S. Add. 45196, Brockman Papers: The Receipt Book of Anne Glydd, 1656,; London Wellcome Library, M.S. 2990/27, Bridget Hyde 1676-1690, fol. 27r; London Wellcome Library, M.S. 1511, Mrs Carr 1682, Fol. 18r; London Wellcome Library, M.S. 3082, Johnson Family 1694-1831, Fol. 203v.

[4] Wellcome Library London, MS 3712, Elizabeth Okeover (& others), 141.

[5] British Library Ms Sloane 556: Medical Receipts Written by Anthony Lewis; From a Book Owned by

Lady Marquee Dorset, 1606. fol. 31 r.

[6] Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis, or, The London dispensatory further adorned by the studies and collections of the Fellows, now living of the said colledg. (London, 1653), p. 13.

[7] Philippa Pullar, Consuming Passions: A History of English Food and Appetites (London, 1970), p.238.

Civet and Rose: (Early) Modern Perfume Ingredients Fit for a King

By Colleen Kennedy

Civet was one of the most exotic luxury ingredients in early modern perfumes. This odoriferous secretion comes from the perineal glands of the civet cat of Asia and Africa to mark its territory. What did civet smell like to the early modern nose? Associated with royalty in its earliest introduction to England; even now it retains an affect of and association with royalty.

Zibeth or Sivet-Cat. This woodcut is an illustration from the book "The history of four-footed beasts and serpents..." by Edward Topsell, printed by E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge, T. Williams and T. Johnson in London in 1658. courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries
Zibeth or Sivet-Cat. This woodcut is an illustration from the book “The history of four-footed beasts and serpents…” by Edward Topsell, printed by E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge, T. Williams and T. Johnson in London in 1658. courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries

Modern perfume blogs and reviews of contemporary civet-based perfumes, when read alongside early modern recipe books, allow us to sniff out the aroma of civet, which evoked the grandeur and luxury of royalty–then and now .

For a modern example, we can consider the perfume Rose Poivrée (2000), which has a compound similar to some of the most highly regarded Renaissance perfumes. Tove Salander suggests that it makes sense to consult perfume blogs while trying to understand the affective properties of perfumes: “The online perfume community provides one of the few arenas in which odor perception is trained and verbalized beyond simple statements of like or dislike. As such it may serve as a model for the academic analysis of smells” (305).

Rose Poivrée (The Different Company)

The ingredient list for Rose Poivrée is relatively simple: Damascus rose, rose bay, pepper, coriander, vetiver, and civet. The first ingredient, which is also the middle note (Damascus rose) and the final ingredient, the base note (civet) are two of the most common sixteenth-century perfume ingredients and are often blended together.

Chandler Burr, author of The Emperor of Scent and The Perfect Scent reviews several civet-based perfumes, including Rose Poivrée (2000):

One of the more astonishing civet scents on the market today is Rose Poivrée, from the French niche house the Different Company. This is a rose absolute — rose absolute, F.Y.I., doesn’t smell like “rose”; it’s dark and musty. Its perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, resisted prettifying the rose and instead doused it with an animalic breath. Pungent with decay, Rose Poivrée is unsettling and gorgeous, the perfume that Satan’s wife would wear to an opening at MoMA.

Even for modern professionals, the metaphors become mixed and confusing. The imagery is strong and evocative, but oscillates between the concrete and the abstract in perplexing ways. So, we can only imagine the difficulty of early modern writers to express how civet smelled or how they were affected by the smell of civet.

Kevin Curran and James Kearney, in their “Introduction” to the “Shakespeare and Phenomenology” issue of Criticism (Summer 2012)remind us that “feeling and senses have a history. The way we feel sad is different from the way Shakespeare felt sad; the way we smell perfume is different from the way Queen Elizabeth smelled perfume” (354). Yet, in Rose Poivrée, the two ingredients that resonate most strongly are civet and rose absolute, both essential scents in sixteenth century perfumery. But what if the way we smell rose and civet (linking it to royal excesses) is also the way Elizabeth I and her father, Henry VIII, also smelled civet?

According to the OED, “civet” entered the English language when the animal first entered Henry VIII’s royal court. Like the civet, damask roses were also introduced into England during Henry’s reign, gifted from the king’s royal physician Dr. Thomas Linacre (Dugan 58).

In a popular Renaissance perfume recipe from the oft reprinted A closet for ladies and gentlevvomen (1608) civet and rose are combined:

Take sixe spoonfulls of compound water, as much of rose water, a quarter of an ounce, of fine sugar, two graines of muske, two graines of amber-greece, two of  Ciuet, boyle it softly together, all the house will smell of Cloues.

This perfume is called “King Henry the eight his perfume” and we can find variations of the name (such as a “court perfume” or “royall perfume”) and ingredients throughout the Renaissance, but the combination of civet and rose remains consistent.

In these versions of a pre-modern celebrity fragrance, we find Henry’s name attached as the perfume preferred by the King. The very title of this perfume hints at a royal connection and, specifically relating to Henry VIII, a sense of virility. These are aspects that Chandler Burr and The Different Company both imply in their own descriptions of Rose Poivrée. The Different Company describes Rose Poivrée as “a royal scent from exotic lands, this decadent essence mixes pure rose with a devilish pepper and spice, a combination fit for kings [and] queens…” While wary of stating that these different perfumes—especially with differences in ingredients, proportion, and maybe most importantly, noses smelling these odorants—there is still a lingering affect that transcends time, space, and culture that makes the smeller link civet and rose (when combined) with royal potency.

Works Cited

Kevin Curran and James Kearney, “Introduction to Shakespeare and Phenomenology,” Criticism 54, 3 (2012): 353-364.

Tove Solander, “Signature Scents: Perfume and Characterization in the Contemporary Novel,” Senses and Society 5, 3 (2010): 301-321.

Never Too Many Cooks: Female Alliances in Early Modern Recipes

By Amanda E. Herbert

Too many cooks spoil the broth? Not in early modern England.

We know that early modern women were charged with the feeding and care of their family and friends and that lower-status women were often employed in the domestic labor of cooking, brewing, dairying, baking, and gardening. More surprising is that women were expected to collaborate in the kitchen, undertaking these traditional tasks in groups.  The expectation was that in any well-run household, domestic laborers (usually, but not always, women) would share their knowledge, time, labor, and kitchen-space – without grumbling, fighting, or competing!

Such guidelines for behaviour can be found alongside cooking in prescriptive recipe books. If you spend time with early modern prescriptive literature and printed recipe books, you quickly learn to flip to the front first: elaborate frontispieces often decorate the inside covers of these works. Although recipe books were supposedly intended for elite readers, authors and publishers marketed their products in sophisticated ways. Prescriptive literature conveyed information through images as well as writing. The mix of text and print was supposed to appeal to many different kinds of consumers. Literate people could read the text, while partially-literate people could “read” the images in order to learn about the mechanics of domestic labor in elite homes.

William Henderson, The Housekeeper’s Instructor; Or, The Universal Family Cook (c. 1790). Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.

One of my favorite frontispieces can be found in William Henderson’s Housekeeper’s Instructor; or, the Universal Family Cook (c. 1790). The image shows a busy kitchen, with many workers cooking, carving, stirring, and slicing in order to prepare a meal. Most fascinatingly, the frontispiece shows itself–several people in the image are using recipe books. In the middleground of the picture, an elite woman (marked by her powdered wig) offers a book to a female servant (marked by the knife held in her right hand). At the bottom of the frontispiece, an “Explanation” of the image confirms that the picture shows “a Lady presenting her Servant with The Universal Family Cook who diffident of her own knowledge has recourse to that Work for Information.”

Men are also shown using recipe books. In the foreground of the frontispiece, two male kitchen workers carve a roasted fowl. The figure on the left points with one hand to an illustrated diagram in a book, which indicates how the meat is supposed to be cut, and with the other hand gestures toward the roast. The male figure on the right, who wields the knife, looks toward both the book and his companion for guidance. These men are not reading the text of the guidebook, but are instead examining its pictures in order to learn how to carve correctly.

The kitchen in Universal Family Cook is an ideal cooking space, being calm, pleasant, and productive. It shows both high and low status people cooperating with one another in a friendly manner as they work towards a common goal. Friendliness, cheerfulness, and passivity were also qualities that were idealized in early modern women. A good woman, this image tells us, is like her kitchen: productive and cooperative, efficient and pleasant.

But did “actual” early modern women live up to these expectations?  Did they cooperate and collaborate in their kitchens?  Find out in my next post…

Editors’ note: This blog post is based on chapter 3 of Amanda’s forthcoming book: Female Alliances: Gender, Identity, and Friendship in Early Modern Britain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014). The chapter looks at “Cooperative Labor: Making Alliances through Women’s Recipes and Domestic Production.”