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.

‘Crost by mistake’: Scribbling in early modern recipe books

By Elaine Leong

As anyone familiar with early modern recipe collections well knows, recipe compilers liked to cross things out.  One compiler, Lady Anne Fanshawe, particularly springs to mind.  Her notebook is filled with pages of recipes which she has crossed out with a large ‘X’.  Take a look at the following page from her notebook.

Wellcome Library, Western Manuscript MS 71113, p. 10.

Here, it seems out of the four recipes laboriously copied by her scribe Joseph Avery, only one survived the attack of Anne’s pen. Anne Fanshawe was, of course, not the only recipe compiler who had this habit of <ahem> defacing recipe books.  Other contemporary recipe book owners also happily crossed away.  Elizabeth Okeover, for example, also indulged in the practice.  Take a look at this page from her book…

Wellcome Library, Western MS 3712, Recipe Book associated with Elizabeth Okeover, fol. 6v.

Interestingly, while Anne gives us few hints of why she so brutally crossed out all those recipes in her book, Elizabeth was kind enough to let us know why she crosses out recipes.  At the bottom of a crossed-out recipe on page 4, Elizabeth writes ‘Right ritt and an approved & good Salve but crost by mistake’.

So, for Elizabeth, the crossing-out of recipes was reserved for information, which was erroneously transcribed, and/or know-how which did not meet her approval.  These were not the only reasons that led Elizabeth to scribble out information, she also crossed out duplicate recipes as she explains in this little tidbit on a loose bit of paper: ‘Some Reseits in this Book by mistakes was writ twice over; So one of each is crost But this harder yellow Salve Should not have bine Crost’. With no rubber/erasers, Tipp-Ex/whiteout or delete buttons to hand, crossing-out, for early modern recipe users, was a way of information management.

For many of you, my mention of Tipp-Ex may bring back school-day memories and that other helpful tool the ink eradicator.  I, for one, have not used either deletion/correction tool for at least a decade which brings me to the point of how we as 21st century recipe collectors/users now manage our stores of household information.  My mother-in-law, an avid home-cook, manages her cookbooks with a system of external indices (lists of selected recipes awaiting trial), post-its and meticulous annotations.  Flipping through her archive of Gourmet or Bon Appetit, one finds little penciled notes in her neat cursive hand next to tried and tested recipes.  A diligent and conscientious note-taker, she records not only the date and occasion the dish was served but also whether it garnered the approval of her dinner guests.  Disappointing dishes are marked as such or with more descriptive criticisms such as ‘too bland’ or ‘too sweet’.  In none of her 30-year run of the main American cooking magazines or her shelves full of cookbooks can one find a completely crossed-out recipe.  As a modern reader, trained by public libraries on the evils of book defacement, she simply couldn’t bring herself to reject recipes with the same flourish as Anne Fanshawe and Elizabeth Okeover did hundreds of years ago. How we read and use recipe books is not only intrinsically tied to how we value books as material objects but also to how we were trained to read.

My mother-in-law, if she will forgive me for disclosing this, came of age in the 50s when printed cookbooks, magazines and newspapers served as the main way of circulating recipes publicly.  For our generation, dare I say it, paper is slowly giving way to digital media.  We now search for, learn about and discuss recipes on blogs, social networking sites and twitter.  There is no longer a need to cross-out unwanted information or to wait for the Tipp-Ex to dry, we merely have to press the delete button.  It is all so simple for us but if Anne Fanshawe and Elizabeth Okeover left historians a trail of crossings-out to reconstruct their narratives, what are we leaving future historians?

 

The Recipes Project

The blog will consider recipes through the ages, ranging from medieval alchemical recipes to twentieth-century jellied salads. The blog is connected to a larger crowd-sourcing project (hosted at the University of Saskatchewan, but with collaborators from Germany, the U.K., and the U.S.) to transcribe recipe books, beginning with some of the seventeenth-century ones that have been digitized at the Wellcome Library, London. The project’s crowd-sourcing website and software are still in development, but we hope to make them public in the autumn 2012. We plan for the website to be a portal to several recipe-related projects. We are working towards, ultimately, extracting data from the transcriptions to trace recipes and ingredients over time and place.

Food, Magic, Art, Science, and Medicine