Love and magic in the Middle Ages
edited: Monday, May 03, 2010
By Lindsay Townsend
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Monday, May 03, 2010
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Charms and spells for medieval lovers.
Imagine you're a young medieval lady and a young man creeps up, whacks you three times over the head with a hazel stick inscribed with the magical incantation pax+pix+abyra+syth+samasic and tries to kiss you. It sounds a touch desperate these days, but in the Middle Ages this was seriously suggested as a way for a man to get a woman to fall in love with him.
Medieval lovers tried subtler ways, too - spells, charms, amulets and potions - to win the affections of those they desired, all in defiance of the church, which objected to magical interference with a man's or woman's free will.
Love magic was practised and feared by all sections of medieval society, including royal courts. This is reflected in the stories of the time. In the romance of Tristram and Iseult, the couple fall in love because they accidentally drink a love potion intended for Iseult and her betrothed, King Mark. In the story The Two Lovers, composed in the late 12th century by Marie of France, a suitor must carry his beloved up a high mountain before he can marry her. Too proud to drink the magic potion that will give him strength, he completes his quest by the power of love - even though he dies of exhaustion afterwards!
A possibly Viking love spell that has passed into folklore in northern England is a custom where on certain nights unmarried girls chant: 'Hoping this night my true love to see,/I place my shoes in the form of a T'. T surely stands for Thor, the Norse god for storms and also for marriage, the idea being that the girl would then dream of her future husband.
Men and women in the Middle Ages also believed in a multitude of herbs and spices to bring them luck in love. Caraway was used in love potions, as were cloves, coriander and mallows. Garlic and ginger were believed to inspire lust and so good sex. Valerian mixed with wine was claimed to make even the most pure woman lustful. And in Italy, women would wash their eyes with the diluted juice of the deadly nightshade to increase the size of their eye pupils and appear more beautiful (which is why nightshade is known as belladonna.)
In medieval England guests to a wedding would bring small cakes and pile them into the middle of the table. The bride and groom would try to kiss over the cakes for good luck.
In northern Europe, it was the custom to supply a newly married couple with enough mead for a month, to ensure their happiness and fertility - hence our term 'honeymoon'. If a man had problems with virility in bed, it was often assumed he was bewitched and the couple was advised to remove any evil charms that might be placed under or near the bed, such as the testicles of a rooster. Once these were removed, the man should be free of the curse. To drive a woman wild with desire, it was believed that mixing ants' eggs into her bath would do the trick. Hmm.
[Lindsay's latest book, A Knight's Enchantment, is published by Kensington Zebra on June 1, 2010