Tag Archives: book history

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
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.

Renewing Old Text: A Recipe in The Art of Limming (1573)

By Carrie Griffin

The anonymously-authored treatise entitled The Art of Limming (STC 24252), first printed in London in 1573 (‘In Flete strete … at the signe of the Hande & starre by Richard Tottill’)[1] is comprised of just twelve leaves. It purports to appeal specifically to the gentrified reader: the title-page advertises the book and its contents as ‘verye meete and necessary to be knowne to all such all gentlemen, and other persons as doe delight in limming, painting or in tricking of armes in their colours, and therefore a woorke very meete to be adioyning to the bookes of armes’. The Art of Limming, then, identifies its target audience as the gentleman reader, or all those who ‘delight’ in the arts of book-decoration or colouration, specifically mentioning those readers who wish to trick, or tint, their own heraldic devices; indeed the treatise self-advertises as a companion volume to book of arms. The preface also points to the creation of books (or, at least, retains that as a possibility) rather than the decoration of existing books that may or may not be printed, stating that the work to follow on the mixing of colours and metals ‘to write or to limme withall vppon velym, parchment or paper, and how to lay them vppon the worke which thou intendest to make’.

My interest in the treatise is connected to its retrospective quality: how it imagines the manuscript text or book, or features of the manuscript book or document. Books, and in particular well-thumbed household volumes, miscellanies and commonplace books, must have been particularly in need of restoration and care, or renewal. Several of the recipes in this treatise facilitate not just the creation of new books in the old style, but they acknowledge the practice of renewing and regeneration of older books and aspects of manuscript books and documents that may have been more susceptible to the ravages of time. One recipe promises ‘To renew olde and worne letters’:

Take of [th]e best galles[2] you can get & bruse them grosly then lay them to steepe one day in good whyte wine. This done distill them with the wyne, and with the distilled water that commeth of them, you shal wet handsomly the olde letters with a little cotton or a small pencel, & they will shewe freshe & newe again in suche wyse as you may easely reade them [Sig. C3].

some gall nuts ...
some gall nuts …

The rendering of this type of instruction in print and, more specifically, in blackletter, indicates a material interest in the preservation of the methods by which manuscript books are newly-created but also conserved and recovered. It also indicates the debt owed by the printed book to the text in manuscript: in the relatively early days of this new technology, the older material that circulated in manuscript was the bread and butter of the print trade. Printed texts depended on texts in manuscript, and this reality finds wonderful expression in tracts like The Art of Limming. The recipe quoted here is evocative not just of the stresses to which some material in manuscript was subject (we know that pages or text – especially in devotional MSS – were sometimes rubbed, stroked or kissed, but also that everyday use led to wear and fading) but concerns for the stability and integrity of the handwritten text.

Worn Text from London, BL Add. 39636, f. 1v (www.bl.uk). Used under creative commons licence.
Worn Text from London, BL Add. 39636, f. 1v (www.bl.uk).

Manuscript conservation methods have undoubtedly moved on in leaps and bounds since the 1500s; I would be keen to hear from anyone who is brave enough to try this recipe on a manuscript … !

Carrie Griffin, Univeristy of Bristol. Carrie is currently collaborating with Dr Michael Johnston, Purdue University, on a project to catalogue codicological recipes in manuscript. See her last post for the Recipes Project, which was on ink, here


[1] The text went through at least five editions, being reprinted in 1581, 1583, 1588 and 1596.

[2] Probably gall-nuts, which were commonly used in the production of ink.

Dipping Into Ink

By Carrie Griffin

I’ve recently been doing some work on late-medieval recipes that are connected to the production of the material text. I became interested in these short but absorbing instructions while writing a book on practical and instructional writing, in which I have included a chapter on recipes and instructions for ink-making, parchment-making, colour mixing, glue making and so on.[1] I was initially drawn to them because I noticed that a very technical word that is associated with such matters – “glair” – occurs in the Middle English dream-vision poem Pearl (l. 1026). It refers to the white of an egg when it is used as a binding medium for colours in manuscript illumination and decoration.[2] I wondered whether even an educated audience would have appreciated the meaning of this technical word, a term relating to the world of material book-production.

These compelling shorter texts are fantastic gateways into thinking about how the different layers of the construction of a book or document were imagined, as well as how the operated practically. It is important to consider how frequently book and documentary production happened, in the period from c. 1400, outside of the professional contexts of the guildhall and copy-shops like the London establishment run by the scribe and publisher John Shirley. In other words, these recipes facilitate home book production; their proliferation in English (and in other European vernaculars) from the beginning of the fifteenth-century point to more widespread interest in, if not actual instances of, domestic book-making and to the domestic construction of the materials needed to make up a booklet or book.

These recipes circulate in collections that are concerned with more than one aspect of the materials that are used to write, decorate and illustrate, but they can also occur in isolation–copied into blank spaces or on flyleaves–or sometimes in groups of two or three. One collection that I have examined in Oxford, Bodleian Library (MS Douce 54, ff. 21v–31v) preserves approximately forty recipes for dyeing leather, making coloured water, preparing parchment, limning and writing on metal. The collection is introduced with the rubric: “Dowtles here may ye se al the thynges that longyth to a wryter yn al degreys”. One of the instructions offers a method to make a reddish ink that can be used to rule parchment or paper in preparation to write (in part modernised by me):

To make a good colour to rule with: take brazil & shave it well & small into a shell, & put therto new-made glair, & temper it some, & let it stand half a day. & take a little alum, but beware that thou put not over much […]. & [thou] can write therwith & it shall be good.

The recipe calls for brazil, or the reddish dye obtained from brazilwood, to be shaved mixed in a shell with glair. After half a day or so alum is added. The result is probably a dull reddish-brown colour that will be familiar to us from the sometimes clumsily-ruled folios of manuscripts from the later periods.


The overwhelming sense that one gets from these recipes is that the substances used to make them were either made in household kitchens or could be obtained with relative ease.

Another fascinating instruction from the book of Robert Reynes of Acle (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Tanner 407) is one of perhaps ten recipes that tell the reader how to make red, blue, yellow, black and green inks, glue specifically “for bokys”, and other substances. It’s a good example of the extent to which time had to be measured in accurate ways in order for the substance to come together properly. Part of this instruction “For to make black ink” recommends the recitation of a psalm. It asks that the ingredients be gathered together and, once this is done, the ink-maker must “set them over the fire and let them stew the space of this psalm saying, miserere me Deus” (Psalm 51). The recitation of the psalm of course allows for the measurement time but it may also have had implications for the quality of the ink that was produced!

Other recipes of this nature that I have come across from this period confirm my sense that they are intended for interested and practiced readers, thus occupying an interesting space in documentary and bibliographical history. One instruction that I have examined for parchment-making asks that the reader deploy a “a fleshing knife, as these parchmenters use”, suggesting that there is distance between professionals and the readership of the recipe.[3]

The proliferation of these short texts in the commonplace books of the sixteenth century (Reynes, John Colyns, Humphrey Newton and others) suggests that they served a particular domestic function. More widely, as is the case with many recipes from the late-medieval and early modern periods, they are important gap-fillers, allowing us to illuminate aspects of quotidian attitudes and practices that are not always accessible or fully recoverable. And they widen our perspective about scribal culture in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, asking us to imagine a scribe engaged not just in copying but also in making his own materials.

I am happy to say that work on these fascinating texts is set to continue:  Michael Johnston of Purdue University and I plan to begin more sustained work on ink and related recipes – starting with the compilation of a handlist – in the near future.


[1] Instruction and Information from Manuscript to Print for Ashgate’s Material Reading in Early Modern Culture series (2014). See also Instruction and Information from Manuscript to Print: Some English Literature, 1400–1650, The Literature Compass 10.9 (2013): 667–66. URL: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/lic3.12087/abstract

[2] “The wal of jasper that glent as glayre”; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. A. C. Cawley (London: Dent, 1962), pp. 3–47.

[3] This instruction occurs in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.14.45, p. 101.