In 1985, a metal-detectorist found the Middleham Jewel, a possibly 15th century magico-medical talisman found in the verges of a bridal path near Middleham castle itself.
The artefact is just 6.4cm high, with a beautiful sapphire stone. It has a loop at the top for use as as pendant, with a compartment, possibly designed to contain some sort of healing relic. The rest of the Jewel’s design is linked with its purpose: an extract from the Latin mass, a scene from the crucifixion, and the word ‘Ananizapta’, a charm against epilepsy.
The idea of magical talismans for medicine was a mainstay of medieval medical thought. After the Crusades, a wave of culture came from the Middle East: works of philosophy and science previously lost had been perfectly preserved and developed upon in the Muslim East. The City of Toledo became a cultural melting pot, translating works of Hermetic Philosophy and Arab medicine into Latin, Hebrew and Spanish.
So, why does this mean a medieval lady would be trying to cure her epilepsy with a magical amulet?
One of the most significant factors in the advancement of Arab medicine was that Arab culture had far better preserved versions of Classical-era texts, such as Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia.
This was Pliny’s masterwork of natural history: a huge variety of medical herbs, gemstones that fought various illnesses, and strange antagonisms between creatures that could be harnessed for medical effect.
Pliny tells us that because the stag has a talent for tracking and killing snakes, the horn of the stag can be burned to drive away serpents. A talisman made from a de-clawed frog wrapped in a piece of russet-coloured cloth would boost the body’s resistance to disease.
Most relevant ise his interest in the properties of gemstones, and his belief in the power of magico-medical chants. He attributed certain magical powers to sapphires, and also wrote that the stone Eumecas gave oracular visions. Some stones could protect children, cure insomnia, clear up stomach problems or even prevent blindness.
Many of Pliny’s influences seem to have come (somewhat ironically) from a philosopher and scientist who Pliny himself decried as a magician: Pythagoras.
Most of us know Pythagoras as the inventor mathematical problems. Yet, he was a gifted experimental scientist and thinker. One of Pythoagoras’ greatest achievements was his doctrine of the ‘Harmony of the Spheres’, which held that the motion of the planets was according to strict mathematical principals, which could be translated into sound via various equations.
This work influenced another thinker: Boethius, a Roman philosopher of the 6th century, who produced De Institutione Musica, where he preserved and developed on Pythogoras’ ideas by also listing the areas of the human body which could be affected by harmony.
All of this gestated in the finest minds of the Muslim world (and a few Western thinkers) to combine with works of Middle Eastern astrology like The Picatrix, which contained instructions for ritual magic, but also planetary ‘figures’ with medical properties.
If Pliny the Elder held that voice could have power over the world, and if Boethius’ work could link the astrological power of the planets with the human body, then a mixture of magical incantations, correctly chosen precious stones, and carefully drawn magical figures would be able to affect the physical health of a patient.
This idea was seized upon by medieval clerics and doctors, many of whom were already influenced by the works of Ancient Greece and Rome, which medieval thinkers idolised (the fact that Geoffrey of Monmouthshire felt the need to force a link between England and Ancient Troy shows the prestige of the ancient world).
It wasn’t all plain sailing: the use of magical herbs and astrological talismans was sanctioned by many church thinkers – including St. Augustine of Hippo – who felt that to invoke astrological influences forced the hand of God, which was sacrilegious at best and demonic at worst.
However, astrological talismans became ever more popular, with barber-surgeons in 1400s York having a carefully drawn diagram showing the human body broken down into it’s astrological regions.
The ultimate book of astrologically-influenced items, or ‘Natural Magic’ as it was known, came in the form of Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy. Agrippa was a mercenary turned sorcerer turned clergyman turned doctor turned lawyer turned feminist. In the year 1510 he’d written the Three Books to distill the Kabbalistic, Hermetic and Astrological knowledge he’d found while fighting as a mercenary in Italy many years before.
The Three Books were published much too late to have influenced the 15th century Middleham Jewel, but they collected earlier wisdom. The Italian Humanist Marsillio Ficino had collected magico-medical songs composed for his work as a doctor, and made extensive notes on the astrological permutations of everything from plants, colours, and hours, to days of the week. This is the sort of thinking that the goldsmith who made the Middleham Jewel could have been working from.
Archaeologists believe that the compartment in the Middleham Jewel could have held a relic. Healing relics were an incredibly important item in the medieval church: the German Monk Thiofrid wrote in 1103, “The divine power works through things that have been consecrated by use and contact with the hands [of the saints]”, referring to contact relics, like oil from lamps in the tomb of St. Peter, or squares cut from saints’ shrouds. Another example is the belt of St. Foillan, which was preserved as a relic at Fosses-la-Villa (now in Belgium) to “dissolve the womanly nature” of ladies giving birth and diminish the pain of their childbirth.
In terms of body parts, the Norman knight William Pantulf acquired two marble fragments from the tomb of St. Nicholas, and one of his teeth. These were taken to a church at south-west Bayeux where they were enshrined in a silver box, and said to have healing powers.
However, that isn’t the only Christian element of the Middleham Talisman: there’s also the Latin prayer. This is a form of textual amulet. These were the spiritual successors of the papyrus amulets favoured in Roman and Byzantine Egypt. They were often enclosed in suspension capsules, sacks or purses (in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the compartment in the Middleham Jewel was for a textual amulet) which made them more portable than relics or codices.
Textual amulets peaked in popularity around the time of the Black Death of 1347, where disease, social unrest, famine and war drove Europeans to seek easy, portable magical protection. They get their power from the medieval perception of writing as a form of voice recording, rather than literature in its own right. (We must remember that even in Shakespeare’s time he portrays Hamlet’s silent reading as strange, showing the perceived link between written word and speech).
If the written charm was merely a recording of the spoken word, then as Ficino, Boethius and Pliny have said, the written word has all the power of spoken prayer.
The contents of a textual charm varied: many were ‘heavenly letters’, documents said to have been written by Christ and given to various important Christian figures. Others invoked one specific figure, such as a saint or pope, and more still were like the Middleham Jewel in being extracts of the ordinary Latin Mass.
The power of these devices was critical. The medieval world was dangerous and precarious, and medicine was almost non-existent. In a world where the transmission of disease was poorly understood and experimental science was yet to reveal many of the advances that now give us reassuring facts, the hope of supernatural protection for an epileptic woman like the owner of the Jewel must have been critical.