Animal Charms in the Later Middle Ages

By Laura Mitchell

For some reason animal charms in the medieval record are a rare breed. Secrets literature, magical experiments, and natural magic abound with animals as the subject (texts on virtues often focus on the special properties of animals like snakes or eagles) and sometimes as the ingredient (as in my previously discussed directions to become invisible). However, in my research on fifteenth-century English manuscripts I’ve only found fifteen manuscripts containing animal-centric charms so far (compared to over 100 manuscripts containing medical charms).

Detail of a marginal drawing of a horse. British Library, Harley 1585 f. 68v
Detail of a marginal drawing of a horse. British Library, Harley 1585 f. 68v

Most of the surviving charms for animals are veterinary charms for horses, usually to cure farcy, a form of glanders. Glanders is a debilitating disease that affects the lungs and respiratory tract of horses, mules, and donkeys. It usually results in death in weeks if not days and the bacteria responsible is also transmissible to humans. Given the double threat of loss of animal and human life, it’s no wonder that farcy dominates the animal charms.

For example, Cambridge, University Library MS Dd.iv.44 contains numerous recipes and charms for horses, including this one for farcy:

For þe farsine sey þis charme after þe sonne rest iij oures turne þe hors toward þe west he shal not be watered ne haue no provendre but hay and and seye iij pater notres with iij nomine patris + et filij + et spiritus sancti + amen + theos + agios + pater noster huinack + pater noster uieray + pater noster arunichemay + pater noster crux christi amen +

(For the farcy: Say this charm three hours after the sun sets. Turn the horse towards the west; he shall not be watered nor have any food but hay. And say three Our Fathers with three: “nomine patris + et filij + et spiritus sancti + amen + theos + agios + pater noster huinack + pater noster uieray + pater noster arunichemay + pater noster crux christi amen +”)

Other goals of animal charms include keeping rats and other pests away, catching rabbits, protecting livestock such as sheep and pigs, and curing or protecting against dog bite (sadly my favourite Old English charm for a swarm of bees does not seem to have a late medieval English counterpart as far as I know).

It seems clear to me that there was a division (unconscious? conscious?) in the roles that animals played in magic texts that is most easily shown in the following table:

Charms Natural magic/experiments
Healing (e.g., farcy, bleeding in horses, dog bite) Using animals for magical purposes (e.g., texts of virtues)
Protection: either protecting animals from harm, or protecting property from pests (rats, moles, etc.) Using magic to harm animals (e.g., to catch birds, fish, rabbits, etc.)

When animals appear in secrets literature or natural magic instructions they are more commonly being put to use in some way – either bits of them are being consumed or burned or spread somewhere for their inherent magical properties, or someone is trying to catch them (presumably to eat them). However, the animal charms, even with this small data-set, fall into the same general patterns that appear with charms for humans: curing or preventing diseases and protecting one’s property from outside forces.

Detail of a marginal image from the Gorleston Psalter of a fox seizing a duck. British Library, Add MS 49622, fol. 190v
Detail of a marginal image from the Gorleston Psalter of a fox seizing a duck. British Library, Add MS 49622, fol. 190v

Although only a small number of animal charms survive, they are important to note as examples of the diversity of charms that existed outside of the medical corpus and as a fascinating glimpse into the medieval mindset. At the end of the Middle Ages the farm was very much the backbone of the economy and it was vitally important to landowners to keep their properties in good condition. Horses in particular were expensive animals to buy and maintain so it makes sense that surviving charms would focus on their well-being. Hopefully as scholars study more manuscripts and discover more charms we will be able to increase this small but important corpus of charms.

Say – horse – cheese

By Laurence Totelin

Last time I blogged for the Recipes Project, I talked about mares. I’d like today to return to mares, their milk and the cheese made with it.

Gold Scythian belt buckle with horse. Seventh century BCE. Source: Wikipedia
Gold Scythian belt buckle. Seventh century BCE. Source: Wikipedia.

These were not delicacies that the Greeks and Romans themselves enjoyed. Instead, they had observed their consumption among the Scythians, a series of tribes, often nomadic, inhabiting large expanses of Eurasian steppes in antiquity. The Scythians, and their taste for mare’s milk and cheese, were a topic of fascination among the classical Greek authors. The historian Herodotus devotes a long passage to the way in which the Scythians milked their mares: they used slaves they had blinded for that purpose. One slave blew into the mare’s vulva with a bone tube, while another milked the mare (Histories 4.2). This is a well-known and much discussed passage among ancient historians. Enough to state here that much appears to have been lost in translation between the Scythians and Herodotus’ source! The Greeks did not drink milk themselves on a regular basis (although they used it in medical context), and established a linked between ‘otherness’ or ‘barbarism’ and milk drinking.

What will retain me today is the use of the mare’s cheese recipe in a physiological analogy. The author of the Hippocratic treatise On Generation, On the Nature of the Child and Diseases IV (which dates to the end of the fifth century BCE or the beginning of the fourth) was very fond of analogies, some of which are rather wacky. In the passage that concerns me, he compares the physiological process whereby a bad humour is heated and agitated in the human body to the making of mare’s cheese:

If the man is not purged, as the humour is stirred, there is produced an amount that is excessive. This is similar to what the Scythians make with mare’s milk. For they pour the milk into wooden bowls and shake it. As it is stirred, it foams up and separates. The fatty part, which they call butter, as it is light rises to the surface; the heavy and thick portion sinks to the bottom; they separate it and dry it. When it has become firm and dry, they call it ‘hippakē’. The whey of the milk is in the middle. Similarly in the case of man: when all the humour in his body is stirred, all the humours are separated by the principles I have mentioned: the bile rises to the top, as it is lightest; then comes the blood; third the phlegm; and the water, as it is the heaviest of the humours. (Diseases 4.51, 7.584 Littré)

Milk curdling: butter at the top, whey, solids at the bottom. Source: MARTYN F. CHILLMAID/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Milk curdling: butter at the top, whey, solids at the bottom. Image Credit: MARTYN F. CHILLMAID/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

This is a rich and surprising passage. It mentions four humours, but those are not the four humours we all know (bile, phlegm, blood and black bile). Instead, we find bile, blood, phlegm and water. It is relatively little known that there is only one text in the Hippocratic Corpus that mentions the four humours that would become, under the influence of Galen, canonical: Nature of Man. The number and name of humours varies from one Hippocratic treatise to the next. Our author has a predilection for his ‘water’, the heaviest of all his humours, which he compares to the heavy portion to the Scythian milk. One wonders why this Greek author has chosen a Scythian process as a comparing point. The Greeks did make cheese, but their cheese was of the soft type, kept in brine. They did not make butter and hard cheeses. They did not churn (shake) their milk. The recipe the author provide is reasonably clear, although I would personally find it difficult to make cheese by following it. Looking forward to my feta-based dinner now!

Horse love pills

By Laurence Totelin

In the seventh century BCE, Semonides of Amorgos wrote his now infamous poem on the races of women, each one worse than the next. The mare-woman is perhaps my favourite, the ultimate high-maintenance lady:

Another type a horse with a splendid mane begat.
She turns up her nose at all kinds of work and toil.
She would never touch a mill, nor a sieve
Would she ever lift, nor would she throw dung out of the house,
Nor, for fear of the soot, would she near the oven
Ever sit. Only out of necessity will she make love to her husband.
She washes off the dirt every day,
Twice, sometimes three times; then she anoints herself with perfumes
She always wears her mane combed loose,
Abundant as it is, and strewn with flowers.
What a beauty to look at, she is that woman
For others; for her owner she is a pain,
Unless he is a king or a sceptre bearer
Who can delight in such pleasures.
[Semonides fragment 7, 57-70]

Now Semonides was describing human women here, but he may as well have been berating an actual mare. For in antiquity horses in general, and mares in particular, were considered rather troublesome, especially in their sexual habits.

Centaur women flanking Aphrodite on a Roman mosaic, Tunisia. Photograph by Giorces available on Wikimedia Commons
Centaur women flanking Aphrodite on a Roman mosaic, Tunisia. Photograph by Giorces available on Wikimedia Commons

According to Aristotle, horses were the most salacious of animals after men, but unlike civilised Greeks, they had no revulsion for incest:

Horses will mounts their mothers and their daughters. In fact, a herd of horses is not considered perfect, unless horses copulate with their own offspring. [Aristotle, Enquiry into Animals 6.22, 576a18-20]:

In some regions, mares left without a stallion, were said to imagine the pleasures of love and conceive ‘wind-foals’, with the help of the west wind (this story is often repeated in ancient literature, see for instance Vergil, Georgics 3.269-275; Columella, On Agriculture 6.27.4-7). Other mares fell in love with themselves:

There is a rare, but remarkable, form of madness that overcomes mares. If they see their reflection in water, they are seized with a vain love, and as a result, they forget to forage and they become lost to this wasting love disease. [Columella, On Agriculture 6.35]

However, when breeding was required, mares turned cold. They often had to be tied to submit to the stallion (Varro, On Agriculture 2.7.8; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 10.179). And the only way to get a mare to submit to an ass in mule-breeding was to clip her mane, because a long mane made her ‘proud and high spirited’ (Pliny, Natural History 10.179). No wonder then, that the ancients developed love pills to regulate equine desire. The Roman agronomists recommended squill, crushed to the consistency of honey in water, to be smeared on the genitals of the mare; while the stud was made to smell her genital scent (Columella, On Agriculture 6.27; Varro, On Agriculture 2.7.8). The Greek Hippiatric treatises, beside similar herbal remedies, have slightly more complicated concoctions:

Horse carrying a nude woman. Detail from a mosaic at the Baths of Caracalla, Ostia. This photograph by Hubert Steiner is available on Wikimedia Commons.
Horse carrying a nude woman. Detail from a mosaic at the Baths of Caracalla, Ostia. This photograph by Hubert Steiner is available on Wikimedia Commons.

To incite horses to sexual intercourse… the right testicle of a cock; place it in the skin of a ram and hang to the neck of the horse; or the dried right testicle of a deer; reduce to powder and make it drink with milk-honey. For frequent and unpainful sexual intercourse… The flesh of a skink (lizard) in sweet-smelling mixed wine; inject into the animal…  [Hippiatric treatise of Cambridge 10.6 and 15, ninth century CE]

The animals whose testicles were sacrificed to the greater good of horse breeding were, of course, not chosen at random: both the cock and the deer were known for their sexual vigour. Nor was the right testicle an arbitrary choice: the right side was believed to be involved in the production of males.

Such fanciful and expensive aphrodisiacs may never been used on actual mares, but it is significant that they are recorded. Horses were time-consuming and costly animals to keep–animals whose possession was indicative of social standing, very much like Semonides’ beautiful horse-woman, kept entertained by luxurious flowers and perfumes.

Gender Testing in Antiquity

By Laurence Totelin

In my last post for this blog, I examined the role of rennet (in particular, seal’s rennet) in Greek and Roman medicine. As it often happens in research – or at least in mine – once I start looking into something, I can’t stop finding related texts. So over the last two months I have stumbled across quite a few recipes with rennet and/or with seal products. The following recipe caught my attention and gave me some ideas for today’s post. It comes from the Cesti, a collection of recipes and precepts, compiled by a certain Julius Africanus in the third century CE. This collection is not preserved in full, but fortunately there is an excellent recent edition with English translation of the extant fragments.[1] The fragment that interests us explains how to produce male and female horses:

A hare, from the 15th century Dialogus creaturarum, by Nicolaus, Pergamenus
A hare, from the 15th century Dialogus creaturarum, by Nicolaus, Pergamenus

But a male [horse] will be born according to technique if one smears the genitalia of the male horse with hare’s blood and rennet {which is curdled milk extracted from the stomach of a new-born hare}. But a female will be born if one smears the private parts of the female horse with goose fat together with terebinth resin for three days in succession, and positions it for impregnation by the male horse

(Cesti F28. Translation: William Adler).

In ancient theories of reproduction, male semen was thought to act as rennet in cheese making: it coagulated the blood in the female womb. It therefore made sense to choose that ingredient in order to produce a male horse. Using hare’s rennet added to the potency of the recipe, as hares are particularly fertile.

I don’t have such a good explanation for the use of oily and fatty ingredients to produce a female horse: maybe these were chosen because females were considered to be fatter, spongier than males. Gender selection was not, however, limited to horse breeding. In human reproduction too males were preferred. This is plainly clear from, among other things, gender determination tests preserved in one of the Hippocratic treatises, Barren Women (chapter 216):

Those pregnant women who have freckles on their face will give birth to a girl. Those who keep a beautiful complexion, more often than not, will give birth to a boy. If her nipples are turned upwards, she will give birth to a boy; if downwards, to a girl.

These tests simply reflect the stereotypes of the day, whereby a baby girl is less desirable, and will therefore make her pregnant mother look less desirable, with her freckles and drooping breasts. I had never paid much attention to the following tests, but they are probably even richer in meaning:

Take some of [the woman’s?] milk, knead it with flour and shape into a little loaf. Heat it up on a low heat. If it burns, she will give birth to a boy. If it opens up, she will give birth to a girl. Collect some of the same milk on leafs and expose it to the heat. If it coagulates, she will give birth to a boy; if it spreads, a girl.

These recipes draw upon the association between the womb and an oven – the ‘bun in the oven’ metaphor. When exposed to the oven/womb heat, everything that is male (and by nature hotter and more compact) will coagulate and heat up further; everything that is female (and by nature cooler and more liquid) will liquefy further. The ‘female loaf’ will also gape like a mouth (the literal translation of the verb ‘diachanēi), probably evoking the female sexual organs.

Would a family have taken action when such test indicated they were expecting a girl? It is impossible to tell. It is worth noting, however, that a pregnant woman usually only starts producing milk that can be expressed towards the end of her pregnancy, unless she is feeding an older child already. If it is indeed the milk of the pregnant woman that is needed in these recipes, the tests could only have been carried out late in the pregnancy. Any intervention at that stage would have been extremely risky.


[1] M. Wallraff, C. Scardino, L. Mecella, C. Gillar and W. Adler (2012), Iulius Africanus: Cesti. The Extant Fragments, Berlin: De Gruyter.