Tag Archives: Catherine Rider

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.

Recipes in the Inquisition Records

Recently I’ve been working on a kind of source which has proved to be a surprisingly revealing source for magical and healing recipes: inquisition records. I’ve been working on the records of the Roman Inquisition in Malta, which are preserved in the Cathedral Archives in Mdina, as part of a larger project on ‘Magic in Malta, 1605: the Moorish Slave Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur and the Roman Inquisition’ led by my colleague Professor Dionisius Agius (click here for further details). The project revolves around the trial of Sellem Bin Al-Sheikh Mansur, an Egyptian slave living in Malta who was accused of practising magic for Christian clients. In most cases it was these clients who reported him to the inquisitors, often after they had mentioned the matter in confession and had been referred to the Inquisition by their parish priest.

Valletta, near the site of the slaves' prison where Sellem lived (author's photo)
Valletta, near the site of the slaves’ prison where Sellem lived (author’s photo)

The record is very detailed and, among other things, it describes some of the magical recipes which Sellem’s clients claimed that he used. It should be noted that Sellem himself denied ever using them, although he did admit to knowing astrology. This means that it is difficult to know how far these recipes were actually used, by Sellem or by anyone else. Nevertheless, the records describe these alleged magical recipes in some detail. For example, Marco Mangion testified that he sought Sellem’s help after he became ill with an illness that he suspected was caused by witchcraft. Sellem seems to have asked Marco for his mother’s name and written this down (the trial record is damaged here) on a slip of paper which he burned in his room in the slaves’ prison. Then he gave Marco several more slips of paper [carte] written in ‘Moorish’ (Arabic) with the instruction to wash them in water and ‘with the water of this infusion wash my face and my whole body, and he instructed me to fumigate with a piece of mongione [I have not been able to translate this]… I used these remedies and it seemed to me that the said remedies benefitted me.’ Marco claimed that Sellem also gave him other remedies: a square piece of lead, and another piece of paper with Arabic.

Although it is impossible to know whether these remedies were really used, they would probably have seemed plausible to Marco and to the inquisitors because they resemble what we know about early modern magical practices from other sources, including inquisition records from elsewhere in Europe. The idea of writing significant words, washing them into water, and then drinking or washing oneself in the water can be found in earlier Latin medical texts. More generally charms which involve the writing of powerful words are mentioned very often in medieval and early modern Europe.  Sellem’s use of Arabic is less common, however, and reflects his own background, and this exotic element may have made the charm seem even more powerful to Maltese Christians. A few paper charms also survive, like this printed one from late seventeenth-century Germany, now in the Wellcome Library in London.

L0059000 Amulet and charm to protect against plague, printed Latin ch

Similar written charms were also used in seventeenth-century Malta: although Sellem’s Arabic carte do not survive, the archives do occasionally preserve examples which the inquisitors confiscated. Thus while researching other cases in the archives we found a few slips of paper covered with symbols and prayers, cloths, and even an unidentified lumpy yellow substance. It is rare, and it feels rather strange, to find such a tangible result of an early modern recipe surviving into the present day.

It has long been known that inquisition records are an important source for the history of early modern healing and magic and there have been studies of records from Italy, Mexico, and elsewhere. They are also an intriguing source for early modern recipes, which give details not only about what might have been done, but also for whom, and why. As the project continues we hope to uncover more details about the recipes used by Sellem and other early modern Maltese healers. We’d also be interested to hear from anyone else working on similar issues in other inquisition records. (With thanks to Alex Mallett for double checking my Italian translations).

Recipes against the Supernatural

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.

Sixteenth-Century Remedies for the Common Cold

By Catherine Rider

It’s the time of year when everyone seems to go down with coughs and colds. Perhaps that’s why on a recent trip to Oxford to look at collections of medical recipes, my eye was caught by a series of cough remedies recorded in one sixteenth-century manuscript.  I’m not aware of much published scholarship on the history of the common cold (though I haven’t checked extensively so if you know differently I’d be interested to hear) but it’s an area which has been attracting attention recently in the Recipes blog and elsewhere online – see for example Katherine Allen’s post on eighteenth-century cold remedies last November and the links there, and Sally Osborn’s comments on asses’ milk as a remedy for colds and chicken soup, rather surprisingly, being recommended in eighteenth-century England not as a remedy for colds but for stomach problems.  This was not purely an eighteenth-century phenomenon.  As this manuscript makes clear, earlier recipe collectors were also interested in collecting remedies for this widespread condition.

The manuscript I was looking at was Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson A.393, a collection of remedies for all kinds of illnesses.  It was copied from an older recipe collection in 1529 by John Reed, who was the parson of Nether Broughton in Leicestershire and had previously been the vicar of Melbourne in Derbyshire.  Several of the recipes are accompanied by marginal notes which state that the remedy has been ‘proved’ by Reed himself or one of his acquaintances, which is unusual but not unique in this period.  An article published by George R. Keiser in 2005 gives more details on its context and contents. (“Robert Thornton’s ‘Liber de Diversis Medicinis:’ Text, Vocabulary, and Scribal Confusion.” in Rethinking Middle English: Linguistic and Literary Approaches, ed. Nikolaus Ritt and Herbert Schendl (Frankfurt am Main, 2005), 30-41.)

The section of cough remedies in the manuscript distinguishes carefully between different kinds of coughs: ‘the dry cough’, ‘the cough of the lungs’, and the ‘cough that has phlegm’.  These distinctions are similar to the ones still made by modern cough mixtures between dry and chesty coughs.  The remedies themselves tend to be fairly simple, relying on a small number of plant ingredients mixed with wine or honey.  For example for ‘cough of the lungs’, the reader is told to make an electuary (a paste mixed with honey or sugar) from the seeds of ‘ache’ (used to refer to celery or various kinds of parsley), anise and pepper, mixed with honey and a little wine, to be used every morning and evening ‘till thou be whole’.  For dry coughs, ‘ache’ and anise are again recommended, mixed with violet seeds and cooked with wine ‘to it wax thick’.  It also seems that Reed or his acquaintances had tried at least some of these remedies and sought out others.  Against one remedy a marginal note, in Latin, notes that this is a ‘Medicine which has very often been proved to be good, and which never fails.’  At the bottom of the page is some more advice, though not a recipe, emphasized with underlining: ‘Above all thing go not from a warm fire to a cold bed, ne from a warm bed to put on your clothes cold. Warm your clothes at both ye changes, etc.’

As the other posts show, these remedies are part of a much longer tradition and in later centuries they continued to be made at home and sold, as with this ‘lung tonic’ advertised around 1900.

Lung Tonic Advertisement, c. 1900, copyright Wellcome Images.
Lung Tonic Advertisement, c. 1900. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

We still use home remedies for coughs and colds today, alongside ones that can be bought from pharmacies: various relatives of mine recommend hot Ribena, or honey and lemon in water, and more exotically one friend recommends hot milk with garlic (I’ve never dared try that one).  Although they are starting to be noticed, these and similar remedies have not yet been clearly fitted into wider scholarly debates in the history of medicine and illness in the way that remedies connected with (for example) sex and fertility, or mental illness, or plague have been.  Nevertheless, they offer a window onto some of the less serious illnesses and everyday concerns of medieval and early modern recipe collectors.