Works like a charm

Enlightenment medical thinking reflected the belief that illness and death could be avoided through the development of knowledge and human ability, and a vast variety of remedies existed for ailments both large and small. Nevertheless, in diaries and other writings – as well as the occasional recipe, for instance a remedy ‘To heal an old cough’, which ‘will help you by Gods Grace’,[1] or one for gout ‘which I have taken and by Gods blessing found great good by it’[2] – a belief in divine assistance can still be ascertained. Folk practices did not entirely disappear either, with the use of charms as remedies persisting into the nineteenth century; Alun Withey notes that ‘healing charms… dovetailed easily with humoural notions of illness as a foreign matter which needed to be driven out’.[3]

The commonplace book of William Grasing, a yeoman from Minsterworth,[4] includes a theologically mixed charm ‘For the ague’:

Abracadabra

Abracadabr

Abracadab

Abracada

Abracad

Abraca

Abrac

Abra

Abr

Ab

A

Gloria Excelsis Deo

If you suffered a burn or scald, you could repeat this one (although I’m not quite sure where that episode is in the Bible):

Mary mild as burned her child and on a spark of fire out fier in frost in the name of the father son and holy gost, amen amen amen

To stop bleeding, repeat this charm five times:

I believe Jesus Christ to be the son of god, he was born of the virgin Mary and was baptised of John the Baptist in the River Jordon the water was wide and red he commanded and it stod so stand the blod in the name of the Father Son and Holy Gost three persons in Trinity & one God Good Lord do this in Charity for thy servant Amen.

For ‘the prick of a thorn’, he recommends this analogous entreaty:

In Bethlehem our Christ was born thay crowned his head with Nails and Thorns Let no flesh corropt in here I tuch and the Lord heal, pray God prosper my handy works Amen Amen Amen

And finally, a rather strange couplet, ‘a night spel to catch theeves’, which ‘will drive away aney eevil sperit that hants aney house or any other pleas to prevent aney garden or orcherd fram being robed or a house hee canot go[,] before sunrising having in every fower corners of the hous garden or orcherd this sentiments having of thee’:

All sperits prays God allso Moses Profets

Entertayn God and gosin the garden

Doesn’t quite have the ring of Expelliarmus, does it?

[1] D5336/2/26/9, Pares of Leicester and Hopwell Hall, c.1739, Derbyshire Record Office.

[2] D3155/WH 2702, Isaac Borrow, Derbyshire Record Office, letter from Mary Gregg dated 7 June 1743.

[3] Withey, Alun (2011) Physick and the Family: Health, Medicine and Care in Wales, 1600–1750, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[4] P218/MI/1, accounts of William Grasing of Minsterworth (d. 1798), yeoman, 1770–96, Gloucester Archives. This charm is claimed to be Hebrew in origin and, without the final line, is included in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) as one way ‘the deceived’ attempted to ward off plague.

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