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Magical Healing in Tudor and Stuart England

The magical touch of a king was a real and practiced belief in Tudor and Stuart England. Whether or not it was effective is a completely different issue, but, the belief in wizards, charmers, and wise men was very much a tangible, practiced, and unmocked acceptance in Early Modern English society. In 1552, Bishop Latimer proved the significance of magic to healing in English society when he said, “when we be in trouble, or sickness, or lose anything, we run hither and thither to witches, or sorcerers, whom we call wise men… seeking aid and comfort at their hands.”[1] The village wizard was used interchangeably with ‘wise men’ in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to identify “the traditional dispenser of magical remedies.”[2] Just like our modern society uses a variety of words to describe doctors and their specialities, early modern English healers had more than one nomenclature which included other identifying terms like: charmers, blessers, conjurers, sorcerers, witches, wise women, and cunning men.[3] These magic healers had different names because they offered a wide range of services.

Why was there a dependency on magical medical treatments in Tudor and Stuart England? According to historian Keith Thomas, “Much of this magical healing reflected the old belief in the curative power of the medieval Church...The pronunciation of Catholic prayers in Latin long remained a common ingredient in the magical treatment of illness.”[4] What even was magical medicine and healing? Magical healing was a mixture of sensible medical care, like midwifery and nursing, combined with folklore about the healing properties of plants and minerals, and of course magic: prayers, spells, and charms. In fact, there was a greater emphasis and significance on the magical aspects of healing than on the more logical and definitive characteristics. Yet, there was still a stigma around actual magic. Many people accused of charming, witchcraft, or sorcery, would testify that they had not used magic, but merely ameliorated people with prayer.[5]

Written prayer, in Elizabethan England, was just as powerful as spoken prayers. There were various levels of intricacy to each charm that was contingent on the healer performing the charm and the person receiving it. Some charms incorporated Hebrew words, most contained Christian locutions, and some had non-denominational text. An Elizabethan wizard had the following remedy for a toothache:

First he must know your name, then your age, which in a little paper he sets down. On the top are the words, In verbis et in herbis, et in lapidibus, sunt virtutes. Underneath he writes in capital letters, AAB ILLA, HYRS GIBELLA, which he swears is pure Chaldee, and the names of the three spirits that enter into the blood and cause rheums, and so consequently the toothache. This paper must be likewise burned, which being thrice used is of power to expel the spirits, purify the blood, and ease the pain.[6]

Another option to remedy a toothache was to follow the much simpler charm made by astrologer, William Lilly by writing the following verse on a piece of paper three times:

Jesus Christ for mercy sake

Takeaway this toothache.[7]

This short prayer was then said aloud before also being burned. The use of religious names is significant because it shows how disease was seen as a foreign presence that needed to be spiritually removed from the body, intertwining religion and wizardry.

So, what did Tudor and Stuart England use charms for? There were charms for every conceivable ach and pain: “women in labor, mad dogs, sick horses,...the stinging of serpents, bleeding at the nose, blastings, inflammations, burnings with fire, scalding with water, agues, toothache, cramps, stitches, prickings, ragings, achings, swellings, heart burnings, flowings of the head,” and everything else imaginable.[8] The significance of these charms and magical healing is its relation to religion. It was a commonly accepted belief that there was a connection between religious language and mystical power which “could be deployed for practical purposes.”[9]

[1 ]The history of the ritual treatment of the King’s evil outlined by T.J. Pettigrew, op. Cit., pp 117-54.

[2] Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, (Penguin University Books, 1973), 210.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 210-211.

[5] Ibid., 209-234.

[6] H. Chettle, Kind-Heart’s Dream, (1592), 29-30.

[7] Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 212.

[8] Ibid., 213.

[9] Ibid., 215.

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