Mistletoe: Not just for kissing?

By Jennifer Munroe

As the holiday season draws near, mistletoe might come to mind, since the tradition of kissing under this otherwise culturally-absent plant prevails today. Native to North America, mistletoe grows in the west as well as in areas of the east. The first time I saw mistletoe growing high in the tree canopy as I was driving down the highway here in North Carolina, it seemed somehow out of place, with its wispy tendrils, quite unlike the version I’d seen in stores over the years. In England, mistletoe, or viscum album, grows as a shrub, with its small, yellow flowers and white, sticky berries. It seems that today, the extracts of European mistletoe has been used for seizures, headaches, and even to treat cancer. And to think: I thought it was just for kissing.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across the following references to mistletoe from correspondence between Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh, and her brother, Robert Boyle. Both letters express Jones’s concern for her sister-in-law, Margaret Boyle, as she suffers from frequent bouts of “scurbitical humour,” or fits related to scurvy.

In the first letter, Jones refers to a quantity of mistletoe that she has found in the recently-deceased Lady Clarendon’s “case”:

“Nature being soe farr weakened as to be unable to worke together wth ye remedys ye Dr had upon consulte agreed to give her. None of all which had so visible an operation as to wakening and rousing her as a large bottle of very quick spirit of Hartshorne that I procured for he held under her nose which ye Dr confesed was as proper as any thing that could be use to her (& which I give you notice of to invite you to put yourselfe into a good stock of it for my Dearest Sisters use which how you may doe, one that I know having lately stilled it in good quantity & selling it for 5s an ounce. Halfe a pinte would be enough for you at once which was about what we now had for this poore Lady … I intend this night if I can get Dr Cox to discourse with him about her, & then send you wt he directs his power he thinks rather better than ye Misselto I found in my Lady Claringdons case that ye Dr [saw her] foaming & puking at ye mouth differing things in these fits he she did ye later at least…” (BL Add 75354, ff. 101-104: Letter from Katherine to Robert 10 Aug, 1667?).

In the second letter, dated a week later, mistletoe is prescribed as a possible remedy for Margaret Boyle’s fits, but an alternative remedy, a “hartshorn spirit” of Jones’s making, figures as again as an arguably superior treatment:

“The misselto may be given about ye changes of ye moone if it could be got in quantities enough to be so employed but because its so great a raretie its seldome given but in a fit or upon discovery of ye approach of one. My Lady Warwicke is not yet come home when she does I shall god wiling make her send you some but my Lord Dretzwel can furnish you for he has one growing. Ye Hartshorne spirit I have spoken for as you [requested] but know not how to send a halfe pint bottle by ye post & therefore shal desire Mr Graham to send it as fast as he can” (BL Add 75354, ff. 107r-110v, dated  17 Aug 1667?).

While there is much that could be said about these letters, what’s curious to me is the way that mistletoe and hartshorn spirits function as competing treatments for scorbitical fits [related to scurvy] (and earlier in the first letter, ironically, the doctor insisted that Margaret Boyle not eat raw fruit when she began to feel unwell). Jones seems not quite to want to contradict the doctor’s prescription of mistletoe, but she certainly suggests her hartshorn might be more effective. In the first letter, that is, she makes it clear that even the doctor “confesed” that her hartshorn spirits, waved under the nose (which she can sell to interested parties for 5s an ounce, by the way…) vivified the ailing Lady Clarendon more effectively than other applications; and it seems the “foaming & puking at ye mouth” that Lady Clarendon experienced may well have stemmed from her use of the mistletoe in her case, as mistletoe ingestion induces vomiting. In both recipes, the references to mistletoe as a treatment are followed almost immediately by those for Jones’s own (and obviously preferred) hartshorn spirits, made from the shavings from a hart’s antlers, which produces ammonium carbonate. And while it seems that such a remedy would likely be an irritant to its user, Jones swears by it. Or at least she swears by her spirit of hartshorn. Maybe it is better, though, to leave the hartshorn on the hart and the mistletoe for kissing and just eat some fruit—or some fruitcake.

“And it is a marvellous thing”: The Lighter Side of Magic

By Laura Mitchell

In my last post I discussed the line between healing charms and recipes in fifteenth-century recipe collections and how the line between charm and recipe could blur. Healing charms, however, are obviously not the only kind of charm that can be found in late medieval recipe collections. Some of the surviving charms and natural magic experiments reveal a different side to recipe users beyond the altruistic or the practical, and show a more light-hearted, sometimes even lascivious, approach to magic. Here I will discuss two examples that highlight these ludic aspects of magic very well.

My first example comes from Bodleian Library Ashmole MS 1435, an anonymous collection of the fifteenth century. This particular recipe is from the manuscript’s very large recipe collection (over 190 items) and is found on pages 14 and 15:

If you want a woman to lift her skirts up to her belly button: take a green frog and cook it and afterward wash its bones in running water and you will find one bone which jumps against the water. Then take that one and touch her with it and it will seem to her that she is walking in a great river and lift [her skirts].[1]

What I find really interesting about this example is the implication that whoever was conducting this would have had to know this woman well enough to get close to her and touch her with a frog bone without raising a lot of suspicion. Presumably this would have been tried in private… although it is possible that some strange man ran around town prodding women with a frog bone and wondering why they weren’t lifting their skirts!

The internal logic of this recipe is fascinating as well. It’s designed to get a woman to raise just her skirts, rather than take off all her clothes (which is a goal of many charms). The fact that there’s a whole production about making the woman believe that she’s in a river and needs to lift her skirts to keep them dry–solely so that someone can sneak a peek–really speaks to the imaginative force that was an integral part of medieval magic.

Let’s turn now to another imaginative recipe and an example of the sillier side of magic. This example is from the De mirabilius mundi, a medieval book of secrets that was attributed to Albert the Great. My text is taken from the first English edition, printed in 1550 as The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus of the Virtues of Herbs, Stones and Certain Beasts. Also a Book of the Marvels of the World.

A marvellous operation of a lamp, which if any man shall hold, he ceaseth not to fart until he shall leave it.

Take the blood of a Snail, dry it up in a linen cloth, and make of it a wick, and lighten it in a lamp, give it to any man thou wilt, and say lighten this, he shall not cease to fart, until he let it depart, and it is a marvellous thing.

Once again, this is a recipe or experiment that would presumably have been done among people who knew each other fairly well. It reads rather like a party trick. One can almost imagine the scene in someone’s home as the host passes around the hilarious farting lamp to unsuspecting guests.

The purpose of these two recipes is clearly for laughs, although perhaps they are a little cruel. They reveal much about the sorts of things that medieval people found funny (fart jokes) and what titillated them (bottoms), which is really no different what interests people today. There are many similar charms and recipes from the medieval period–they can make people dance; make it seem as though someone has three heads, or has a dog’s head; there are more charms to make people take their clothes off; there are recipes that make a loaf of bread jump around. The possibilities are nearly endless and they illustrate another side to medieval magic.


[1] Si vis ut mulier leuat pannos suos vsque ad vmbilicum: accipe viridem ranam et coque illam et postea leva (sic) ossa sua in aqua currente et inuenies vnum os quod saltabit contra aquam. Tunc accipe illud et tange illam illam (sic) cum eo et apparebit ei quod vadit in magno flumine et euellet.

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.