Tag Archives: Medieval


Nearly every year, someone from “outside” writes an opinion piece on the exploitative, hypocritical, and tacky nature of Salem’s month-long celebration of Halloween which is pretty much ignored here in the Witch City. Last year, there was a riveting piece by a Huffington Post columnist, and this year we have a column by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Stacy Schiff, who just happens to have a book coming out about the Trials entitled The Witches: Salem 1692. Schiff’s piece has a great title, “First Kill the Witches. Then Celebrate Them”, and asks the key question, “How did Salem, Mass. repackage a tragedy as a holiday, appointing itself Witch City in the process?” but offers few new insights in the way of an answer. It’s the same old inevitable story, told time and time again: economic decline, Arthur Miller, Bewitched, entrepreneurial “Museum” owners, shopkeepers, and Wiccans. She really dwells on the dreadful Samantha statue (which I don’t think Salemites take a seriously as we perhaps should) and concludes that “You can leave Salem today without a hint of what happened in 1692; in a sense we’ve moved from tragedy to farce without the pause for history in between”. At first reading, this seems like a great line, but I’m not sure about the use of the collective “we”, nor of the reference to history–as the Salem Witch Trials is one of the most intensely researched topics in American history. Every year we get a new Salem book or three or four, while notable trials in Europe during the same era have yet to receive even sufficient attention. Yet we seem to learn very little, or just want to read the same old (inevitable) story, over and over again. I haven’t read Schiff’s book yet–it comes out this week–but I did read her preview article in The New Yorker last month and found it to be rather….conventional, and quite dependent on the well-worn path of context and causality charted by historians like Richard Godbeer, Mary Beth Norton, and my colleague Emerson Baker (and generations before them). Nevertheless her publisher asserts that the book is “historically seminal” and I keep seeing the words “masterful” in initial reviews. The word “new” crops up a lot too but it seems like the same old story to me. In terms of novelty, I’m a bit more interested in the book that seems to be paired and compared with Schiff’s Witches in reviews due to their coincidental, opportunistic publication dates, Alex Mar’s study of contemporary Paganism, Witches in America. The most recent scholarly publication, Benjamin Ray’s Satan & Salem. The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692, seems to be getting squeezed out by these two blockbusters, although it was published earlier in the year.

Colburn Illustrations

Witches 2015

Martha Coburn’s illustrations for Stacy Schiff’s Oct. 25, 2015 column in the New York Times: “First Kill the Witches. Then, Celebrate Them”. Just three witchcraft titles published in 2015.

There is a great review of Schiff’s work by a historian who I really admire, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, in the Wall Street Journal which praises the author on her narrative abilities and contemporary allusions but faults her on her knowledge of the historical context: he observes that  “Her knowledge of the 17th century is less secure than her grip on journalistic topoi.” Indeed it is difficult to develop mastery of personages as diverse as Cleopatra, Véra Nabokov, and the victims of Salem. Despite the glut of Salem Witch Trials studies, Fernández-Armesto believes we have room for one more: “We still need someone to do for 17th-century Salem what Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie did for 14th-century Montaillou in his work on the Cathars”. That would be a dream as Montaillou: Promised Land of Error is indeed one of my favorite books, but I don’t think Salem–the city, the “problem”, the industry–is ready for that kind of definitive l’histoire totale: “we” need to continue our search for the “real” story and feeding the beast.

Montaillou Cover

What to do with my Woad?

I tended to my garden intensively for the first time this spring yesterday: late, I know, but the end of the academic year is just too busy for me to engage in anything beyond department business. I did a bit of raking and snipping earlier on, but yesterday was the very first day that I really got my hands dirty:  very satisfying. The weather has been absolutely beautiful here; if anything, it’s a bit dry, but I feel terrible complaining when other parts of the country are experiencing either drastic drought or flooding! There are definitely some losses out there: lots of veronica, bee balm, St. John’s Wort, avens. I have two less lady’s slippers than last year and only one jack-in-the-pulpit, but I’m happy that these extra-special plants appeared at all. The side border that runs along Hamilton Hall is absolute perfection if I do say so myself: I am totally in love with the front line of lady’s mantle and sweet cicely. Another plant that looks particularly good this year is epimedium or barrenwort–sometimes also called bishop’s hat. What a great plant: dry shade, little maintenance, neat and tidy! As you can tell from this rambling list of plants, I tend to go for old-fashioned plants and herbs in particular: my garden preferences, like so much of my life, are based on history and curiosity more than anything else. I like to mix old herbs and modern perennials together, and the contrasting combinations are often a bit…….odd. But such is the result when you choose a plant for its heritage rather than its appearance. I’ve got a conundrum now as I brought some woad back my favorite herb farm (The Herb Farmacy, Salisbury, Massachusetts). For the sake of heritage, I had to have this ancient dyeing plant, but does it really belong in my small urban garden? It’s not particularly attractive, a biennial to boot, and blue is my least favorite color.

Woad 004

Woad 019

Woad 011

Woad 007

Woad 013

The obligatory May lady’s slippers picture; epimedium, espaliered yew, sweet cicely, unplanted woad. Below, John White’s “ancient” woad-stained Pict warriors, from Thomas Harriot’s briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588) and the British Museum. Despite the claims of Julius Caesar and Pliny, there’s a lot of doubt among historians as to whether or not the ancient inhabitants of Britain really stained themselves blue with woad in preparation for battle: just ONE reason why every medievalist I know detests Braveheart!

Woad Stained Pict Warriors John White BM

Casting Dice

The sheer beauty of the Chestnut Street park this spring–just outside my bedroom window–combined with the solicitousness of my neighbors in picking up after their dogs (newly allowed this year) has got me thinking about lawn games, played, of course, on a perfect summer day (or early evening), g&t in hand. There is always croquet or bocce, but somehow three pictures of lawn dice popped up on my computer screen in the last few days, so right now that’s my focus: I’m not quite sure what you do with these jumbo dice, but I like the concept. When looking around for some game possibilities, I fell down the rabbit hole that is the history of dice–back to antiquity. What we think of as a simple game certainly had some weighty symbolism attached to it in the past: the die is cast for Julius Caesar, Roman soldiers casting dice to determine who would get the bloodstained garments of Jesus after the crucifixion, dice games played with Death Personified during the Middle Ages, vice, vice, and more vice. Think about the evolution of the verbs associated with dice: casting is somewhat suspicious, but once it evolves into a game of throwing, it becomes an increasingly harmless activity. And tumbling dice are clearly even more innocuous.

Park 002

Lawn Dice

Dice Smithfield Decretals BL

Dice Players Walters Art Gallery

DES94132 Fashion textile design depicting tumbling dice, French, c.1930s (gouache on paper) by French School, (20th century); © The Design Library, New York, USA; French,  it is possible that some works by this artist may be protected by third party rights in some territories

Jumbo Wooden Dice sets from Paper Source, Crate and Barrel, and The Grommet; lazy (half-naked!) dice players in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (The Smithfield Decretals, British Library MS Royal MS 10 E IV; Walters Art Gallery MS W4492V by Master Jean de Mauléon, c. 1542); the modern design motif: tumbling dice fabric from the 1930s, ©The Design Library, New York.

Fabled Friday the 13th

What’s wrong with Fridays that fall on the 13th day of the month? I thought I might try to uncover the foundations of this supposedly long-held western superstition but as is generally the case, all I found was a mishmash of “biblical”, “medieval”, and mostly-Victorian assertions. The biblical basis is the Last Supper, at which there were thirteen attendees including Jesus of Nazareth and his betrayer, Judas Iscariot, followed by the fateful/fatal Friday on which Jesus was crucified. Somehow, somewhere (the story goes) the gathering of 13 and the Friday execution are assimilated to create a dreadful day on which evil or (in Chaucer’s middle English verse) “mischance” can occur: And on a Friday fil al this mischaunce (The Nun’s Priest’ Tale).

Friday 13 Flinch Cards

There is an entire book about the number 13 and its associations are easily discerned, both negative (the antithesis of the perfect 12; 13 steps to the hangman’s noose; the 13th tarot card represents death; Apollo 13) and positive (a baker’s dozen; thirteen colonies, the thirteenth amendment), but the customary connection between the number and the day is a bit more elusive. One particular Friday the 13th that is often mentioned is Friday, October 13, 1307, the date on which the Order of the Knights Templar in France were formally indicted by King Philip IV “the Fair”, so that he might confiscate their vast wealth during the first years of the Avignon Papacy which rendered them defenseless. Certainly the Templars have resurfaced in the last decade or so with the publication of Dan Brown’s incredibly popular Da Vinci Code, but the Victorian era–a golden age of fraternalism–was also intensely interested in this suppressed and secretive order, and the fates of its members.

Royal 20 C.VII, f.44v

Tarot Cards XIII

British Library MS Royal 20 C VII, f. 4v: Templars being burnt at the stake; Tarot Cards no. XIII, representing Death, from the later 15th century (Victoria and Albert Museum Collection) and the later 19th century (see here for the full deck).

In the first decades of the twentieth century, this particular Black Friday (preceding our own commercial one) seems to have been become firmly established. There was the bestselling novel of Thomas William F. Lawson about a plot to bring down Wall Street on Friday the 13th (by sheer coincidence [?], the author’s namesake 7-masted schooner sunk on Friday the 13th) and then, in an obvious nod to the general acceptance of the day, Miss Rose Cade was crowned Queen of the Lemons on Friday, February 13, 1920.

Friday 13th.

Friday 13 Queen of the Lemons Rose Cade

Miss Rose Cade as Queen of the Lemons in California, February 13, 1920, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Apian Emperor

In honor of Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of the French (not Emperor of France, an important distinction and consequence of the French Revolution) on this day in 1804 I thought I would explore his adoption of bee symbolism in greater detail than my first attempt a few years ago. Napoleon had to pay tribute to tradition in order to legitimize what was essentially a military coup d’etat–and bees go way back, not as far back as the Roman laurels and eagles which he also adopted, but way back in French history. In my previous post, I identified Charlemagne as the source of Napoleon’s bees, but actually it was Childeric, a Frankish king who was the father of Clovis, who converted to Christianity and unified all the Frankish tribes under his sacred kingship after 496, the first of the Merovingian line. Childeric’s grave was accidentally discovered in Tournai in 1653, and inside his tomb was a treasure of coins, jewelry, iron, and 300 bees (sometimes referred to as “fleurons” or cicadas but they look like bees to me, and apparently also to Napoleon). The governor of the Spanish Netherlands commissioned his personal physician, Jean-Jacques Chifflet, to catalog and study the finds, which were published in one of the first archeological works in European history, Anastasis Childerici I Francorum regis, sive thesaurus sepulchralis Tornaci Neviorum effossus et commentario illustratus (1655). One hundred and fifty years later, when Napoleon was looking for a “French” symbol that was not a Bourbon Fleur-de-lis, the bee seemed to fit the bill, and it was lavishly utilized in his coronation–and after–essentially becoming the “Napoleonic bee”.

Napoleon and Childeric

Napoleon Bee Childerics Tomb

Napoleon Bee detail

Napoleon Tapestry Portrait

Napoleon Tapestry detail bees

Bonaparte Sisters

Napoleonic Plate Sevres

King Childeric in British Library MS. Royal 16 G VI f. 9; Childeric’s bees in Chifflet (1655); a Napoleonic bee from his 1804 coronation robe; tapestry portrait and detail of the coronation robe after a painting by Baron François Gérard, 1805, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Napoleon’s half-American nieces, “The Sisters Zénaïde and Charlotte Bonaparte”, sitting on a bee-upholstered couch, Jacques-Louis David, 1821, Getty Museum; the full Napoleonic regalia, bees and all, Sèvres plate, 19th century, Victoria & Albert Museum.


From Cure-all to Confection

The amalgamated Holidays officially kick in this week, so it’s time to think about festive things to eat and drink. Last year at this time, I seemed preoccupied with the latter, but now I’m thinking about food. I came across my grandmother’s recipe for molasses cookies–very thin, crispy and buttery, my absolute favorite, and started wondering about the principal ingredient. There must have been tons of it here in Salem in the nineteenth century, as it was the key ingredient in rum production and there were so many distilleries here. I know that molasses was imported into New England from the West Indies in the colonial era, but it think there were domestic refineries in the nineteenth century: was it produced in Salem? If so, where? Molasses-making is a messy business: was Salem ever in danger of experiencing its own version of the disastrous 1919 Great Molasses Flood in Boston? And what about consumption (besides rum): molasses does seem to have been much more in demand a century or so ago than now: why? There are so many recipes out there–for Black Jacks, still produced by America’s oldest candy shop, Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie right here in Salem, as well as for another local molasses creation, Anadama bread, not to mention Indian Pudding, Boston baked beans and Boston brown bread. Molasses seems to be as characteristically New England  or “Boston” as the Red Sox. Then the English historian in me kicked in and I confronted the age-old question:  what’s the difference between molasses and treacle? Then the sixteenth-century historian in me kicked in, and I wondered what was the connection between molasses and the root of that old English word treacle, theriac, which was sold as a powerful panacea across early modern Europe. And just like that, my mind had wandered/wondered from cookies and candy to plague cures.


Advertisement for the famous Mary Jane molasses and peanut butter candy, made first by the Charles N. Miller Company in Boston in 1914  and later by the New England Confectionery Company (Necco).

The migration of medieval medical recipes into the culinary sphere was not always a straightforward process, but it’s best to proceed from the past rather than the other way around. Theriac was an ancient electuary (medicinal paste) used first and foremost as an antidote to venomous snake bites. In the classic case of fighting fire with fire, The flesh of the snakes themselves was an essential ingredient, along with lots of others–64 in all in the classic Galenic recipe. In the course of the Renaissance, theriac was compounded to various formulas and came to be regarded as a universal antidote and panacea, with that produced in Venice generally regarded as the most effective, and the most expensive, naturally. As poison was associated with plague in the late medieval medical mentality, so theriac became the key plague antidote and consequently its preparation was serious business: under official supervision to ensure the proper process and correct composition.

Theriac Hortus Sanitatis 1491

V0010760 An apothecary publically preparing the drug theriac, under t

L0057175 Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641

Theriac preparation from snakes (the origins of snake oil???) from the Hortus Sanitatis of Jacob Meydenbach, Mainz, 1491; woodcut illustration by Hieronymus Brunschwig of a physician supervising the manufacture of theriac by an apothecary, Liber de Arte Distillandi de Compositis, 1512, and seventeenth-century Italian majolica theriac jar, Wellcome Library.

Despite its (undeserved) reputation for efficacy, Venetian theriac could not crowd out the market in plague cures and regional recipes began to develop. In England, there were several major developments in the use and perception of theriac over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: in typical English fashion, the foreign word had long been anglicized as “treacle”, and  “Venetian Treacle” became an ingredient in variant plague cures and preservatives, rather than the exclusive antidote at about the same time that the London College of Pharmacists ruled that treacle need not contain snakes, and treacle (sans Venetian) started appearing in both medicinal and culinary recipes. Everything really changed–or came together–in the course of the seventeenth century, an era that was characterized by many, many recipes for “treacle water” as well as increasing imports of refined sugar from the West Indies, along with its by-products. These sweeter syrups, collectively called treacle, began to replace honey in the medicinal “London Treacle”, at about the same time that they started to appear as key ingredients in recipes for gingerbread, tarts, and puddings. So treacle comes to mean any syrup made during the sugar-refining process: black treacle, golden syrup, blackstrap, and molasses–all of which were relatively cheap ways to sweeten your plague water or your pudding. There were also treacle “lozenges” that soothed the throat and provided a bit of “sweatmeat” at the same time, and a recipe for gingerbread cakes that closely resembles that for my grandmother’s molasses cookies.

Treacle Water 1660

PicMonkey Collage


A mid-17th century recipe for Treacle water containing Venice Treacle and less exotic ingredients, Wellcome Library Manuscripts; recipes from Mary Kettilby’s Collection of Above Three Hundred Receipts in cookery, physick, and surgery: for the use of all good wives, tender mothers, and careful nurses (1714–Thick Gingerbread) and Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (1747–Gingerbread Cakes); The two British treacles: plain treacle or “golden syrup” and “black treacle”, the closest approximation of American molasses.


Holy Horseshoes

The Anglo-Saxon Saint Dunstan (909-988) has been much on my mind lately, even though his Feast Day (May 19) is months away. He has popped up in both of my classes coincidentally and then I rediscovered the most charming little book that focuses on his most enduring claim to fame: the horseshoe as protective talisman. Dunstan was the most popular early medieval saint in England by far and many things contributed to his legend and popularity. In his time, Dunstan served in every high-ranking position within the English church: Bishop of London and Worcester, Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was a dedicated servant of the Church but also an adviser to Kings–this dual role was not quite perceived as a conflict of interest at this time, but it provoked envy on more than one occasion. Dunstan clearly had the political skills to mentor princes and effect an ambitious program of monastic reform, but he was also skilled in the arts and crafts: whenever he retreated from the world to Glastonbury (where he was brought up), he kept busy in humble solitude, as a scribe, a painter, an instrument-maker, a silversmith, and even a blacksmith. It was during these times that Dunstan’s legend was crafted through duels with the Devil–who tried to tempt him on more than one occasion. Dunstan defeated the Devil not with words but with tools: when the Devil (disguised as a beautiful woman) tried to lure him away from his forge while he was working (piously) one day, Dunstan waited until his tongs were red hot and then seized the Devil by the nose, and when the Devil appeared as a weary traveler in need of hospitality and a new shoe for his horse, Dunstan duly nailed the shoe to the hoof not of the horse but of Satan. Before he removed the nails, which were causing the Devil considerable pain, Dunstan made him promise that he would never enter a house where a horseshoe was displayed above the door, and with one stroke of the Devil’s pen a utilitarian object was transformed into a talisman. Talk about muscular Christianity!

Dunstan 1

Dunstan harp


Dunstan shoe

Dunstan 5

Dunstan last arms

HOrseshoe p 22

Centuries later, with more whimsy than reverence, Edward Flight and George Cruikshank presented the story of St. Dunstan, the Devil, and the lucky horse-shoe in The True Legend Of St Dunstan And The Devil; Showing How The Horse-Shoe Came to Be A Charm Against Witchcraft by Edward G. Flight with eight woodcut illustrations by George Cruikshank, engraved by J. Thompson, London, 1871. And here I see that my own horseshoe is pointed in the wrong direction!


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