Plague was one of the most feared and dreaded aspects of daily life in 15th century England. Although scholarly medicine attributed the plague to corrupt air, it was also explained in terms of divine punishment. Charms, healing remedies whose power was derived from words, were used to protect against pestilence, as well as other dangers to human health. By appealing to God and dispelling the devil, it was believed that charms could counter the heavenly influences that caused plague.
In medieval manuscripts charms usually appear as a string of words, but sometimes they are presented in conjunction with an image, usually a type of diagram. This striking image in a late 15th century English medical compendium, Wellcome MS. 404, is a charm against pestilence. At the centre is a large Maltese cross, immediately identifying this as a Christian image. Around the cross are two circles of Latin text. Within each of the four segments created by the arms of the cross is an abbreviated ‘Ihesus’ flanked by a small Maltese cross on either side. Above and below the diagram is text in Middle English relating to the humoral qualities of various plants.
The outer circle of text is evidently meant to be read first, meaning that the reader is drawn in gradually to the cross at the centre of the diagram. The outer circle translates as: ‘A certain angel appeared to the monk Albatus of Courby in the county of Lincoln, and imprinted this sign on his hand, on the instruction of Jesus Christ’. The text in the inner circle reads: ‘Life-giving cross of Christ, you who are our saviour, save me from the present danger of pestilence’.
The power of the charm is focused in the symbol of the cross, but that power is channelled through the agency of Christ by means of an angel. The charm has authority because it was communicated to a religious man, a monk of a monastic house in Lincolnshire. The appearance of the words on his hand is reminiscent of the manner in which some healing charms require words to be written on the body, often in blood.
The language used in the diagram, Latin, differs from the Middle English of the manuscript as a whole. Latin may have featured because it was one of the sacred languages of biblical texts, and was understood to increase the potency of the charm. In addition, Latin made the readership of the charm more exclusive, perhaps intentionally restricting access only to religious (monks, nuns and parish priests) and certain other readers who could be entrusted with its contents.
Although this charm testifies to beliefs about the role of magical and divine forces in protecting health, magic was, in theory at least, not a component of late medieval Christianity. Nonetheless, this image reflects the idea that words and symbols could be used to channel the powers of Christ and the angels, to provide vital support in an uncertain world.
Author: Dr Elma Brenner is Medieval and Early Modern Medicine specialist at the Wellcome Library.