My Charming Ancestor: Lost Spells and Sick Cattle

By Catherine Flood

My 6x great grandfather, Timothy Butt, was a charmer. I discovered this recently when I came across a copy of a manuscript he wrote in a box of family papers.[i] Mostly a day book of accounts for his farm in Tillington, Sussex, it also contains a collection of thirty veterinary recipes, dated 1768.[ii] Amongst these, are two verbal charms, one for restoring a bullock that is ‘sprung’ (meaning poisoned in Sussex dialect) and the other for a bullock bitten by an adder.

Searching for some local context to this find brought me to an account of charmers and charming in the village of Fittleworth – just five miles from where Timothy Butt farmed – published by the folklorist Charlotte Latham in 1878. This includes a description of “an ancient dame” who had inherited a verbal charm for snakebite and another for curing giddiness in cattle from her mother, but had lost them both in later years when she moved houses (presumably they were written down). “Much did she grieve,” we are told, “over the loss of her viper charm; it had done such a power of good.”[iii]

Charm ‘For a Bullock that is Stung with an Adder’ in Timothy Butt’s book, 1768. Reproduced with permission of West Sussex Record Office.

It is not impossible that this lost charm was one and the same as my ancestor’s spell for snakebite, or a version of it. If this ancient dame was born around 1800, her mother could easily have known him.[iv] More pertinently, the old woman’s regret at losing it demonstrates that charms were important possessions. While they were commonly practiced for the benefit of the community as a whole, only a few knew and performed the words and restrictions applied to how they were transmitted.[v] It also demonstrates the ease with which such folk texts, carried in the memory or written on ephemeral materials, could disappear. According to Jonathan Roper, Timothy Butt’s book is one of only five known examples of a charmer’s book in English to survive, making it a significant document for the study of English verbal charms.[vi]

The snakebite charm itself appears to be a highly abbreviated, perhaps corrupted, example of a narrative charm that relates a micro-story (or ‘historiola’) in which a powerful protagonist confronts a snake that has bitten his servant and obtains a cure.[vii] The flesh and blood patient is healed by implication. While there is no space in this post to analyse the texts in detail, I reproduce them here in full since neither charm has been published in the last hundred years.[viii] I recommend muttering them aloud to appreciate their ‘incantatory force’ achieved through alliteration and repetition (especially the sibilant s’s used for addressing the snake).[ix]

For a Bulluck that is Sprung say these Words
Our Blesed Saviour for his Sons Sake Pray Down the Bladder
Blow that he may break In the name of the Father and of the
Son and of the Blessed Trinetey Saved may this Black
Bulluck be— or let the Coller be what it will, Name it
Then say the Lords Prayer and so Say it three times

For a Bullock that is Stung with an Adder
take Salt and fresh Grees & anoint the Beast from the heart
then say these Words — Simon Joan Hunt Why Wouldest
Thou thy Sarvant thou Stungest thou my man. I wish it
was thy man. Take Salt and Smare and lay to the Speer
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the
Holy Gost. Amen

As well as being a rare example of a charmer’s book, Timothy Butt’s manuscript is also notable for its veterinary focus.[x] Only one recipe for ‘eye water’ is noted as being adaptable for ‘a Christian.’ The charms are interspersed with the physical remedies and, on the basis of the collection as a whole, we should probably consider Timothy Butt as much a cow doctor as charmer; one whose medical arsenal evidently included powerful words together with kitchen physic, exotic spices, and strong chemicals.

The charm for a ‘sprung’ bullock is probably intended for curing ‘the blain,’ an often fatal cattle disease in which small black blisters or ‘bladders’ appeared at the root of the animal’s tongue. Early modern veterinary books are ambivalent about the cause of this disorder, but it was generally thought to be the result of ingesting ‘some poisonous thing.’[xi] The remedy they recommend is to ‘break’ the bladders between finger and thumb, or lance them with a sharp knife. This was a risky operation and the charm offered a less invasive method of ‘praying down’ the dangerous blisters.

Two of the recipes are attributed to neighbours, which suggests the others probably derived from family tradition. Timothy Butt hailed from a long line of yeoman farmers. Born in 1743, he was 25 years old and establishing a family of his own at the time he wrote down the recipes (he and his wife Jane went on to have at least 19 children). It seems likely that the creation of this collection represents a passing on of knowledge from one generation of animal caretakers to the next.

Inula Helenium, Elecampane, paper collage by Mary Delany, 1778. Elecampane, also known as horse-heal, was a herb widely grown in Sussex gardens for medicinal and veterinary purposes. Following the logic that like cures like, it appears in one of Timothy Butt’s recipes for the ‘yellows’ (jaundice) along with other yellow flowers and spices (celandine, turmeric, and saffron).
British Museum (https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1897-0505-466). Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum.

Furthermore, the recipes are concerned entirely with the larger and more valuable farm animals: oxen (or ‘bullocks’), horses and occasionally pigs. This probably reflects a gendered division of labour whereby the farmer’s wife would have been responsible for the medical care of the family, the dairy cows and the smaller animals around the farmyard, while the farmer tended to the animals who worked alongside him in the fields and forests in plough teams and timber tugs.[xii] Oxen remained the most important source of draught power in Sussex in the late 18th century and are named in over half of Timothy Butt’s recipes. The fact that one third of the recipes are also for strains and injuries is suggestive of the physical toll this labour could exact.

Sussex Oxen, hand coloured etching, 1808. Oxen often worked in the same pair for life. A team of six to eight pairs was used to pull a plough in Sussex. 
Wellcome Collection (https://wellcomecollection.org/works/uztak924)

The animals themselves remain mute in these recipes. Only in one instruction to apply a plaster of pitch, tar, and clay ‘hot as the bullock can abide,’ do we get a hint of the animal as a responsive agent in the healing process. When it comes to charming, it can be even trickier to account for the animal, since the verbal nature of the medium tends to focus attention on the thought-world of the human participants. And yet the performance of a charm could involve sounds, substances, and touch, becoming an embodied experience for both charmer and non-human charmee. The snakebite charm, for instance, calls for ritually anointing the beast ‘from the heart’ with salt and fat. It is not impossible to imagine that intentional touch and the whispering of words may have comforted both the charmer and his beast during a medical crisis. Charming, indeed, could provide rich ground for the study of human-animal relations in the early modern period.


Notes:

[i] The original is held in West Sussex Record Office, Add Mss 1593.

[ii] Timothy Butt was the tenant farmer at Grittenham Farm, just over a mile to the west of Tillington village.

[iii] Charlotte Latham, ‘Some West Sussex Superstitions Lingering in 1868,’ Folk-Lore Record,1 1878: pp. 36-37.

[iv] Jonathan Roper notes that charms in the English cultural tradition sometimes show a greater continuity over the years than from place to place in the same period of time; Jonathan Roper, ‘Towards a Poetics, Rhetorics and Proxemics of Verbal Charms,’ Folkore, 24, 2003: pp. 27.

[v] See for example Owen Davies, ‘Charmers and Charming in England and Wales from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century,’ Folklore, 109, 1998: pp. 42-43.

[vi] Jonathan Roper, English Verbal Charms, Helsinki, 2005: pp. 174.

[vii] I have found two other variations of this charm-type, both recorded in the nineteenth century, which shed more light on the narrative. See Henry George Nicholls, The Personalities of the Forest of Dean, 1863. The Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature, 17, 1885: pp. 121. The cryptic words ‘Simon Joan Hunt’ in Timothy Butt’s charm may represent an extreme abbreviation/corruption of the scenario of the historiola in which someone goes hunting/into the woods.

[viii] Timothy Butts charms were published in Sussex Archeological Collections, 52, 1908: pp. 187-9, and Notes and Queries, 1922 twelfth series, 11: pp. 147.

[ix] ‘Incantatory force’ is a phrase used by John Miles Foley in ‘Epic and Charm in Old English and Serbo-Croatian Oral Tradition,’ Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook 2. Cambridge: 1980: pp. 82.  

[x] In a study of seventy-five seventeenth and early eighteenth century recipe books in the Wellcome Collection, Louse Hill Curth found only 11 containing veterinary recipes. Louise Hill Curth A Plaine and Easie Waie to Remedie a Horse: Equine Medicine in Early Modern England, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013, pp. 191.

[xi] Michael Harward, The Herdsman’s Mate, Dublin, 1673: pp. 33-4.

[xii] See for example Louise Hill Curth, The Care of Brute Beasts: A Social and Cultural Study of Veterinary Medicine in Early Modern England, Leiden, 2009, pp. 69.

 

A Snake Oil from Tenth Century al-Andalus

Illustrations of snakes in an Arabic version of Dioscorides' Materia medica (Kitāb al-Ḥašāʾiš). Leiden University Ms. Or. 289, fol. 60b, http://hdl.handle.net/1887.1/item:1578609
Illustrations of snakes in an Arabic version of Dioscorides’ Materia medica (Kitāb al-Ḥašāʾiš). Leiden University Ms. Or. 289, fol. 60b, http://hdl.handle.net/1887.1/item:1578609

Leonie Rau

Historians of medicine might know him as Abulcasis, the ‘Father of Surgery,’ but Andalusian physician Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf Ibn al-‘Abbās al-Zahrāwī (936–1013) wrote about much more than the inner workings of the human body. As Katarzyna Gromek has explored in her post on “Treating winter ailments – recreating three recipes from al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula,” al-Zahrāwī devoted parts of his famed Kitab al-Taṣrīf li-man ‘aǧiza ‘an al-ta’līf  (“The Book of Management for Those who are Unable to Compose”) to topics such as perfumes. At the time these were understood not necessarily as sensorially pleasing fragrances, but as remedies used to treat illnesses.

The book furthermore contains pharmaceutical chapters dealing with compound drugs such as stomachics, laxatives, eye-salves, and various oils. While most of his recipes for distilling and infusing oils call for ingredients like rose petals, bitter almonds, or basil, two of his formulas read as fairly peculiar to the modern eye.

The first of these is a literal snake oil, and al-Zahrāwī offers not one but two methods for its extraction, translated from the Arabic below:

Take three parts sesame oil and pour into a ceramic pot. Throw in five to ten black vipers, depending on their size. Close the pot’s lid and cook on a small flame. Take off the fire and leave to cool a little. Then open the lid, careful of the steam, and leave until it has cooled completely and the vapour is gone. Strain into a bottle and use as we have described by brushing it [onto the skin] with a brush. If you see that it causes harm, stop using it, then take it up again until it cures you, God willing.

Another method of extracting snake oil is to “cast [the vipers] into boiling water and to cook them until they fall apart. Then gather the oil from the water’s surface and store it. When it is needed, mix the oil with a bit of sesame oil and use, for it is stronger, God willing.[i]”

According to al-Zahrāwī, this snake oil is “useful against anything similar to leprosy when applied to [the skin].”

Viper flesh has a long history of being included in so-called theriacs—cure-alls and antidotes supposedly effective against all sorts of poisons, in use from antiquity up until the 19th century—because it was thought that viper flesh contained a cure to the snakes’ own poison. While there is no modern scientific basis for any of these claims, medical practitioners like Galen believed that theriacs containing viper flesh were effective against leprosy.

As if snake oil wasn’t odd enough, al-Zahrāwī immediately follows this recipe with an oil made from flying ants:

Take a thousand flying ants and soak in one pound of white lily oil. Leave in the hot sun for two weeks and use as an oil rub.[ii]

Some ant species do have medicinal properties, with one even being used to suture wounds, but otherwise most effects found through the medicinal use of ants are related to the insects’ venom. Even if al-Zahrāwī does not specify where exactly on the body this oil is to be rubbed, his indication that it is “useful for arousal” might give us a rough idea.

We luckily find clarification in a similar recipe, listed by Persian philosopher and scholar Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (1201–1274) in his Kitāb Albāb al-bāhīya wa-l-tarkīb al-sulṭānīya (translated by Daniel L. Newman as The Sultan’s Sex Potions), which assembles a variety of aphrodisiacs and sexual stimulants apparently in use in the medieval Arabic-speaking world.

Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī  directed the reader to use just a hundred regular black ants instead of al-Zahrāwī’s thousand flying ants, and calls for “blue liquorice oil” instead of lily oil, but otherwise describes a similar preparation. He does, however, explain that it is to be used “on your fingers, teeth, armpits and elbows,” so that, “[e]ven if you were to engage in coitus with ten women during the night, you would not be incapacitated.”[iii]

It can only be hoped that al-Zahrāwī’s readers were somehow aware of these directions for the administration of this oil, since we can (hopefully!) only speculate what a flying ant oil might feel like when applied to one’s private parts.

*****

[i] I would like to thank Timo Blocksdorf for his help in deciphering the uses of viper flesh, and Nicolas Hintermann for his feedback on this text.
Hamarneh, Sami, and Glenn Sonnedecker, A Pharmaceutical View of Abulcasis Al-Zahrāwī in Moorish Spain. With Special Reference to the „Adhān“ (Leiden: Brill, 1963), p. 84, my translation.

[ii] Hamarneh, Sami, and Glenn Sonnedecker, A Pharmaceutical View of Abulcasis Al-Zahrāwī in Moorish Spain. With Special Reference to the „Adhān“ (Leiden: Brill, 1963), p. 84, my translation.

[iii] aṭ-Ṭūsī, Naṣīr al-Dīn, The Sultan’s Sex Potions. Arab Aphrodisiacs in the Middle Ages [Kitāb Albāb al-bāhīya wa-l-tarkīb al-sulṭānīya]. ed., tr., and introduced by Daniel L. Newman (London: Saqi Books, 2014), p. 118f.

*****

Leonie Rau is a master’s student in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany. She is currently writing her thesis on a medieval Arabic pharmacological manuscript and plans to pursue a PhD after her graduation.She also writes and edits for ArabLit and ArabLit Quarterly and can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.

Nicander’s snake repellant recipe. Part 1: practical myth and magic

By Molly Jones-Lewis

The passage for today’s post comes from the Theriaca, a poem by  Nicander of Colophon about poisonous animals and how to avoid them, all described in lovingly vivid detail – a juxtaposition of the disgusting and the sublime.

Nicander of Colophon depicted in a 10th century manuscript. Source: Wikipedia
Nicander of Colophon depicted in a 10th century manuscript. Source: Wikipedia

If you find two snakes mating at the crossing of three roads and,
When they have just started mating, toss them alive into a pot with certain ingredients,
You will have a defense against dire disasters.
Throw in thirty drachmas’ worth of a newly-slain deer’s marrow,
Also one-third portion of rose oil, the kind that professionals grade
“first” or “middle” or “fine ground.”
Then, pour in the same amount of shining oil,
And a quarter portion of wax: heat these things in a round-bellied pot,
Cooking until the flesh is softened around the spines and falls to pieces;
Then, take up a shaped, well-made pestle, and grind up all the many ingredients
Mixed up with the snakes; but throw the spines far away,
Because there is a poison capable of doing harm lurking in them.
Then, rub it all over your legs, you go on a journey, or are in your bed,
or whenever, after threshing in a dry summer, you belt your tunic up
to separate out the deep pile of grain with a pitchfork.
[Nicander, Theriaka 99-115]

One cannot help but think that they might not have needed all that snake repellant if they were not wandering the roadways harassing innocent reptiles. The deeply disturbing mental images Nicander gives us were, to his original audience, enhanced by cultural subtext.  Not only was the entertainment value greater for it, but also the recipe’s credibility; this is a recipe that, to an ancient audience, makes sense.

Tiresias, apparently not yet aware of having become a woman, beats up a pair of frisky snakes. Woodcut illustration, 1690 CE. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tiresias_striking_the_snakes.png
Tiresias, apparently not yet aware of having become a woman, beats up a pair of frisky snakes. Woodcut illustration, 1690 CE. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tiresias_striking_the_snakes.png

The image of mating snakes harkens to one of the most memorable incidents in Greek mythology: the Theban seer Tiresias and his temporary sex change. One day, the story goes, Tiresias was walking down the road and came upon a pair of snakes mating. He hit them with his stick, and was punished by Hera by being turned into a woman. After some years, Tiresias came again upon another pair of mating snakes, but left them alone. He was then returned to his male body. This experience ended up winning him the dubious honor of settling a dispute between Hera and Zeus over whether women or men enjoy sex more.  The verdict? Women do, ten times more than men.

Nicander’s audience would have known this story very well, as Tiresias’s sexual adventures were a favorite topic in the literature of the day. It also creates an in-joke within the recipe, because molesting a pair of mating snakes carried a very memorable mythological punishment. Is the poet setting up his audience for poor decision making and the sort of divine retribution that would make the average ancient Greek man cringe? Or are we to understand the recipe maker as a stand-in for Tiresias, a mythological figure with quasi-divine knowledge and wisdom? Or is the point simpler: this powerful deterrent comes at great risk and requires heroic efforts?

Hecate, AKA ‘Trivia,’ who was often worshipped at three-way crossroads
Hecate, AKA ‘Trivia,’ who was often worshipped at three-way crossroads

Let us turn now to the three-way crossroad (triodos) in which the mating snakes must be found. Such crossings were places of power in ancient magic lore, so much so that the Romans referred to the goddess Hecate as “Trivia” or “Three roads.”

The fact that a pair of snakes is snatched from a place rich in supernatural power to be killed in the act of making new life is deeply meaningful. Indeed, much of how this recipe ‘works’ stems from its symbolism.First, this pair of snakes represent all venomous snakes: the concept of ‘all the snakes’ is embodied in a breeding pair, by the same logic that had Noah leading animals two by two into the ark. Then, the human asserts the power to kill over the snakes while they are in the act of making new life. This is done in a place of symbolic metaphysical power created by humans for human travel, further emphasizing the actor’s assertion of power over a dangerous force of nature. As the recipe continues, the human imposes cooking technology on the snakes, then physically dismembers and crushes them into a wearable paste, minus those too-poisonous vertebrae.

The act of a recipe can be as, if not more, therapeutic than the end product. Making Nicander’s recipe allows the actor to soothe his fear of snakes with symbolic and literal violence, but it also treats the audience’s anxiety by convincing them that snakes are a preventable disaster. That said, one cannot help but notice that the poem gleefully creates the very ophidophobia this passage ‘treats.’

Look for part two, in which the recipe’s place in the genres of pastoral poetry, infotainment, and horror takes the stage.

Molly Ayn Jones-Lewis a Lecturer in the Department of Ancient Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her research is focused on the social history of medicine and medical lore in the ancient Mediterranean. Her most recent work has covered poison-lore, ethnicity, and eunuchs, and she is preparing a book on doctors in Roman law and society. When she is not living vicariously in the past, she can be found knitting on the couch under the supervision of her feline overlords.