Textual Magic: Charms and Written Amulets in Medieval England 
by Katherine Storm Hindley.
Chicago, 299 pp., £36, August 2023, 978 0 226 82533 5
Show More
Show More

In​ the Wellcome Collection, there is a 15th-century parchment roll that works as a kind of holy tape measure. Unfurled to its fullest extent, the manuscript gauges the combined height of Jesus and the Virgin Mary: about three and a half metres if they were standing one on top of the other. On the dorse is a text promising that whoever carries ‘thys mesure’ around with them – rolled up it is quite small, fitting easily into a pouch or a pocket – will receive divine protection from pestilence, wrongful judgment, stormy weather, devils and fire, as well as protection during childbirth. Historians have long suspected that the roll was used as a birth girdle. At just ten centimetres wide, it resembles a very long belt, and would have been wrapped (a few times over) around a woman’s waist during delivery for ritual protection. Among the texts on the front of the roll are invocations of St Julitta, the patron saint of family happiness, and her infant son St Cyricus, patron of sickly children. Its images are heavily worn, a sign of frequent touching, and they are covered in blotchy russet stains. In 2021 a team of bioarchaeologists investigated the marks. They found residues of honey, broad beans and sheep or goat’s milk – all used in obstetric medicine – as well as proteins associated with human cervico-vaginal fluid. The roll promised that if a pregnant woman ‘gyrde thys mesure abowte hyr wombe’, the baby would live to his christening and the mother to her churching. That it was used and preserved suggests it was thought to work, at least some of the time.

Writing to protect against harm was common in medieval England. Written amulets like the girdle were a branch of charm magic, words and rituals that invoked supernatural power, whether divine or arcane, in order to gain protection, medicine and secret knowledge. Those seeking assistance wrote down holy verses, sacred names, symbols, runes and pure nonsense in the hope of harnessing the mysterious efficacy of the written word. Charms were used to confront every manner of problem, from life-threatening illness and terrible misfortune down to the very smallest inconvenience: to cure insomnia or soothe an abdominal stitch; to stop vermin from getting at grain; for the recovery of stolen goods or when someone accidently swallowed an insect. There were charms for problems that you never even knew needed solving. One promised to imbue children with the capacity to understand crows.

To make an amulet, it wasn’t enough to jot down a few prayers on a spare piece of parchment. For text to be efficacious, it had to be written in the right manner, on the right substance, and used in the right way. Some amulet charms were simple, with incantations or prayers to be uttered. Others recommended cryptic ceremonies: one charm for swellings instructed the healer to take a stick of hazel, cut the patient’s name into it and fill each of the incised letters with blood, throw it over their shoulder (or between their thighs) into running water, stand over the patient, and then strike through the inscription. ‘And do all that silently.’ Whether thrown into rivers or simply carried on one’s person, most written amulets have long since worn away. But there are many surviving manuscript books containing the recipes that told people how to make and use such texts. Katherine Storm Hindley’s Textual Magic rests on a catalogue of more than 1100 recipes (unfortunately the link to its accompanying online database is currently broken – send prayers to Isidore of Seville, patron saint of the internet). With this corpus of evidence, Hindley reveals the ways medieval people imagined the possibilities of writing, and the strange ways in which it might affect the world.

The mystical efficacy of text was essential to Christian cosmology. In the beginning, the word was with God; at the end, a passage in Revelation describes an angel appearing to St John holding an open book and instructing him to eat it: ‘it will make your stomach bitter, but it will be as sweet as honey in your mouth.’ In the 12th-century Glossa Ordinaria, the standard set of medieval biblical commentaries, some passages of the Bible were said to be like food, in need of chewing over, while others were like drink, easily swigged down. The writers of charm recipes took the metaphor literally. Holy texts for amulets could be written on bread or sage leaves, sketched in chalk or daubed out in the blood of the person seeking protection; they might be worn or wrapped about the body, but also eaten, mixed into a potion or ritually destroyed. A recipe to protect chickens instructed the user to write the Paternoster on a piece of parchment, wash the text with water, and have the fowl drink the inky fluid. A whole subgenre of charms for fevers involved writing magic words on communion wafers. Such prescriptions were part of a worldview that understood matter – including human bodies, nothing but ashes and clay – to be radically permeable. Pilgrims to Canterbury drank holy water from St Thomas Becket’s shrine because it was thought to be mixed with his blood; they chewed the melted wax or burnt wicks of the candles that lay before the altar. St Hugh, bishop of Lincoln, was so holy that he took a bite out of a relic: the arm bone of Mary Magdalene, kept at Fécamp Abbey in Normandy. As he pointed out to the horrified onlookers, he consumed Christ’s body every Sunday at Mass, so what was the problem?

Both spoken prayers and written charms drew on the same logic of divine efficacy, teasing at the correspondences between holy words and worldly ailments. The charm for a stitch instructed the sufferer to draw the sign of the cross and sing incantations about Longinus, the soldier said to have speared Christ in the Passion; the charm for insomnia drew on the religious legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, their names inscribed on leek leaves to furnish a sleeping pill. Such invocations can seem too literal-minded, even unimaginative. But this analogical reasoning revelled in the mystical possibilities of language, the way that words can alter things. To mark matter with meaning – a knife or a nib on a leek leaf, a piece of parchment – was to change the world, to play God; writing made a physical impression on the great waxen mass of Creation. To write a charm text was to sculpt a little bit of reality for yourself.

In a 14th-century manuscript held in the Bodleian, one recipe gives a charm to secure favours, promising that ‘you may have whatever you want.’ It consists of a short prayer and a sequence of letters with no recognisable meaning, separated by crosses. At some later date, a reader went through the text with a needle, pricking pinholes through the letter shapes of the magical phrase; they seem to have been employing the technique known as ‘pouncing’, in which chalk or charcoal was rubbed over the pricked surface to transfer the image onto a new sheet underneath. Magic leached through the forms of letters like water through limestone. As Hindley points out, amuletic texts became like relics, held close to provide succour. A 15th-century ‘charm for the toth ache’ told sufferers to write down the name of St Apollonia – the patron saint of dentists, known to medieval Christians for having had her teeth knocked out when she was martyred – and carry it around with them. To feed a woman in childbirth little pieces of butter inscribed with prayers was to alter her substance, to infuse her body with hopeful, holy presence.

But in the great wash of substances it was easy to confuse the world with the word, mistake effect for cause, and place one’s faith in idols. Theologians were often uneasy about amulets because they veered so close to breaking the first commandment. In the eighth century, Alcuin of York suggested it was ‘better to have gospel teachings written in the mind than to wear them around the neck scribbled on scraps of parchment’. Thomas Aquinas held that amulets were not inherently wrong, but no faith should be placed in ‘some irrelevance, for instance that the locket [containing the words] is triangular and the like, which has no bearing on the reverence due to God and the saints’. Though amulets were not prohibited in theory, in practice they were associated with forms of lay superstition that Church authorities sought to discourage. In 1448 John Dixson, a cook, was hauled before inquisitors of the bishop of Lincoln ‘for invocations of malign spirits, in order to find stolen goods’. He was said to have placed a key inside a psalter, along with ‘a bill containing the names of those who were suspected’; if the identification was correct, the book would tremble. This charm was at least more hygienic than his backup plan, which involved the hand of a corpse.

Hindley is a sure-footed guide to this strange terrain; she maintains scholarly solemnity while discussing elf hiccups and finds a way to translate the phrase ‘I adjure you, egg, by the living God’ from encrypted Latin. She traces the use of amulets across the whole span of the Middle Ages, and the ways it was affected by linguistic change and the spread of literacy. With charms, spoken and written language took different trajectories. Recipes generally gave oral incantations in vernacular: Old English, in the period before 1100; Anglo-Norman French in the 12th and 13th centuries; and Middle English in the 14th and 15th. By contrast, the texts inscribed on amulets were almost always written in Latin, the mysterious language of official religion. Before the Norman Conquest, some efficacious words were composed in Old English. But after 1100 only around 1 per cent of recipes specified any English for amulets – all of them variations on the same charm to prevent a haw in a horse’s eye. Even as vernacular writing in every genre (and even translations of the Bible) became common in the later Middle Ages, amuletic texts continued to reserve a special efficacy for Latin.

Yet these texts were far from conservative. The more obtuse the language, the more magical it might be. Amulets made free use of Greek letters, Hebrew, runes and all kinds of luxuriant gibberish: ‘Byrnice, byrnice, lurlure iehe aius, aius, aius’ (this is the charm for elf hiccups). It is pleasing to learn that even ‘abracadabra’ is a term of great antiquity. In the third-century writings of Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, circulated in the later Middle Ages, readers are told to write out the phrase like this:


This amuletic triangle was to be worn around the neck suspended from a linen thread, to protect against dangerous illness.

Amulets also drew on sham alphabets, pseudo-writing and non-signifying marks. In a manuscript of the physician John Bradmore, a charm for spasms instructed that the magical phrase ‘Thebal Guthe Guthanay’ should be ‘written in Greek letters lest they should be seen easily by anyone’. Although he made a stab at Hellenising a few of the symbols, most look like some kind of alien semaphore, an alphabet having a bad dream. Bradmore is better known for inventing a device that safely pulled an arrow from the face of the future Henry V, wounded in battle. I wonder what kinds of words issued from the royal tongue.

Hindley argues that the 14th and 15th centuries saw greater concern with the secrecy of amuletic texts, a surprising side effect of the spread of literacy: as more people came to be able to read, particularly in English, it became harder to maintain the idea that writing contained occult power. Without mystery, there could be no efficacy. Another copy of Bradmore’s spasm charm put it bluntly: the words must be ‘kept secretly to prevent everyone from learning the charm, in case by chance it should lose its God-given power’. Keeping medicinal knowledge mysterious was also a means of preventing folk healers from horning in on the work of physicians. In 1382, Roger Clerk was prosecuted in London for impersonating a physician, after prescribing ‘an old parchment … a leaf of some book’ for fevers. Asked what was written there, he recited some Latin. But when the aldermen came to read it, none of what he said was in fact on the sheet. He was sentenced to be ridden through the city carrying the illicit tools of his trade: urine flasks, a whetstone and the amulet itself.

Concern​ about fraudsters was married to a greater anxiety about the efficacy of charm magic. Even the recipes themselves begin to hint at the existence of doubt, including a note after a charm: ‘it is proven.’ Although there was no concept of scientific experimentation as we would recognise it, writers chose to anticipate readers’ scepticism with an appeal to experience. An elaborate 15th-century charm for festering wounds claimed to be ‘an experiment I proved, though [it] … seems more that it be witchcraft than wellness’. In some parts of Europe, there was a swell of fear in the later Middle Ages about occult magic, leading to a number of witch trials. But in England authorities were more worried about heresy: the Lollard movement, which spread from the writings of John Wycliffe, threatened the fundamental tenets of ecclesiastical authority by perceiving a great deal of ‘superstition’ in traditional religion itself. Lollards condemned the many holy relics, miraculous shrines and weeping images of late medieval Catholicism as false idols, and even challenged the transubstantiation of the Eucharist – not Christ’s body, but a metaphor. In this context, it became much harder for ecclesiastical authorities to sustain the long-standing accord between quasi-magical folk practices and official Church teaching; Lollards loved nothing more than to point out the similarities. Among the ‘Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards’, a list anonymously posted on the doors of Westminster Abbey in 1395, was a condemnation of the blessings of bread, wax, water, salt and oil in parish churches up and down the country – ‘the very practice of necromancy rather than of the holy theology’.

Lollards sought to purify religion of magic, to denude all supernatural power by pointing to the rotten earthiness of an unenchanted world. Margery Baxter, tried for heresy in Norwich in 1429, reasoned with her inquisitor that ‘a thousand priests and more every day make a thousand gods [in the form of the Eucharist] and they eat such gods … and emit them from the rear into foul stinking privies, where you can find as many gods as you want if you care to look.’ Elizabeth Sampson, hauled before the bishop of London, put it more succinctly: Our Lady of Willesden ‘was a brent ars Elfe’. But as bishops went hunting through parishes for heresy, they also found people who held the old ways disturbingly close, with a fervent belief in the power of ritual words. In 1520, Henry Lillyngstone was charged by a Church court for using magic to heal people. Asked how his cures worked, he replied that he had just one medicine, an English charm: ‘Jesus that savid bothe you and me from all maner deseasses I aske for seynt cherite our lord iff it be your wille.’ The judge asked him if he was literate; no, he said, ‘he had this knowledge from the grace of God.’ He was told to hold the Book of Gospels and swear an oath that he would stop.

As rates of literacy continued to rise, the use of charm magic came to mark out people who remained at the margins of lettered society. A manual for priests issued by Caxton in 1489 wearily addressed the continued use of ‘wrytynges and bryvettes [letters] full of crosses and other wrytynges’ for protection against drowning, fire, sickness and general peril. People who sold such amulets, or who refused to stop using them after being warned, should be excommunicated. ‘But yf they be symple people and so ignoraunt … they [may] be excused.’

Through the Middle Ages spoken words had been granted a special power in the fabric of social reality. They exercised a binding force on people: marriage contracts, commercial bargains, formal accusations, oaths of innocence. The social contract was not a metaphor – it consisted in the oral promises that underlay almost every kind of relationship. Written charms could stand enigmatically apart from this world, the magic of inscription efficacious because it was distinctive. But the proliferation of writing in medieval society unbalanced the ecology of the oral and the written. Increasingly, everyday life was transcribed, registered and archived. In chanceries and schoolrooms, in cabinets and deed chests, parchments and papers piled up like some terrible curse run out of control; parishioners needed a certificate to prove they had confessed before they took Easter communion, written testimonials to prove they hadn’t been married before they took their vows. The sorcery of writing had escaped the world of elves and begun to infuse the enchantments of education and bureaucracy.

In an earlier era, it had been easier to maintain the holy mysteries at the heart of inscription, to celebrate the strange relations of meaning and reality. Thomas of Chobham, writing at the turn of the 13th century, had it from the natural philosophers that ‘the force of nature is especially placed in three things: in words, and herbs, and in stones. Although we know something about the power of herbs and stones, about the power of words we have known little or nothing.’ It’s a mystery we’re still unravelling.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 46 No. 7 · 4 April 2024

Tom Johnson mentions John Dixson, arraigned in 1448 for using a psalter and key to identify thieves (LRB, 21 March). I recently came across an account of a court case in Shropshire in which a woman accused her neighbour of stealing a sheet. The woman had placed a key on the Bible and gone round the street until the key spontaneously rotated to point out the accused neighbour’s house. Speaking her name out loud caused the Bible and key to shake so violently they fell out of the accuser’s hands. The chief magistrate was astonished that such ignorance and superstition existed in the parish and dismissed the case. This was in 1879.

Joe Oldaker
Nuneaton, Warwickshire

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences