Medieval magic at work: 7 spells and charms our ancestors used

From summoning demons to stemming menstrual bleeding – there was a spell for many complaints or whims in the Middle Ages. We rounded up seven of the most interesting spells and charms used by our medieval ancestors

Portrait of an unknown woman, c1490–95. She sports a necklace in a painting from c1485. Coral jewellery was widely believed to ward off evil spirits. (Photo by Getty Images)

Our ancestors used charms and spells to…

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1

Ward off evil spells

According to the 13th-century physician Peter of Spain: “If coral is kept in the house, it breaks all evil spells.” Many Renaissance paintings of aristocratic children show them wearing coral jewellery for the same reason. Other substances that warded off evil magic, according to Peter, included lodestones and the plant St John’s wort.

2

Heal the sick

The preacher John Bromyard tells us that this healing charm was recited over sick people: “St Mary enchanted her son [Jesus] against the bite of elves and the bite of men, and she joined bone to bone, and blood to blood, and joint to joint, and so the boy recovered.” Bromyard did not say what the charms was for, but later versions of it were said to heal sprains.

3

Earn good luck

In what was an uncertain world, people often looked to magic to bring them fortune. Robert Rypon, a monk active around 1400, complained that “if someone finds a horseshoe or iron key, he says (as the common people do): ‘I shall be well today’.”

4

Stem menstrual bleeding

A 15th-century book of medical recipes (now in Exeter Cathedral library) offered women advice on how to reduce the impact of periods with an (apparently meaningless) string of letters: “Write these characters and tie them round her neck: P. F. S. x. R. O. O. x. Q. O. I. S. W. y. y. G. S. G.”

5

Summon demons

A 15th-century German magic book advised readers to go outside town on a Thursday or Saturday, draw a circle with a sword, inscribe it with characters, and recite a series of names (possibly of demons) 12 times, beginning “Oymelor, Demefin, Lamair, Masair…” Finally, ask the demons to come to you.

6

Strike down an enemy

Joanna Bene was brought before the church courts in London in 1490 because “she wished to measure the height of a man and make a wax candle of that height, and offer it in front of an image (in church). And as the candle is consumed, so will the man be consumed.”

7

Predict the future

Many people believed that, if they looked into a sword, or another shiny surface (like a bowl of water or fingernail) rubbed with oil, they would see an image of the future. This was thought to be even more effective if a virgin child looked for the images.

This article was first published in the May 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine – now on sale