If you were trying to uncover a thief in 15th-century Denmark, you could make the suspect undergo a ‘cheese ordeal’. This would involve writing on the cheese the words ‘Agula igula agulet’ and feeding it to the accused. Immediately it will give a verdict: the innocent will be able to eat it normally, but the guilty will have find it “full of bitterness”, suffer pain under their tongue, and thus be unable to swallow it.
Similar formulas involving cheese-as-justice can be found in other medieval texts. Like ourselves, people in the Middle Ages were concerned about protecting their goods from being stolen. If chests and locks were not enough security, they could also make use of magic.
A newly published article by Chiara Benati, “Painted Eyes, Magical Sieges and Carved Runes: Charms for Catching and Punishing Thieves in the Medieval and Early Modern Germanic Tradition” offers examples of dozens of medieval magical spells and charms that are scattered in manuscripts from northern Europe. Often unusual, they reflect how medieval people were worried about theft, and were looking for supernatural ways to help them, drawn from both Christian and pagan sources.
Benati notes that the rituals she came across fall into three categories: 1) preventing theft from taking place; 2) recovering the stolen property; and 3) catching the thieves. Some of these remedies were fairly simple – for example, you could set up an anti-theft system for your own home by drawing three crosses on the boards of an upper floor. The one complication to this method was that it had to be done on Christmas Eve.
Making inscriptions and writing phrases was often an important part of these magical spells. This charm, written in Old Danish and Latin in the fourteenth-century, involved making an inscription to protect one’s animals against both thieves and wolves:
If you do not want thieves or wolves to take your cattle, then write this formula onto the door post through which they go out: Lord, you have created horses, pigs, oxen, cows and sheep in order to help men, may your creatures grow. And defend your animals from the teeth of wolves and from the hands of enemies. May Christ drive + them and bring them + back and, for the intercession of St. Eustachius, protect them from wolves and thieves. Amen.
If these spells and charms failed to protect you from a crime, then you could turn to other rituals to help you find the stolen goods. This eleventh-century text from England gives instructions for drawing a diagram that will help locate the items:
When somebody steals anything from you, write this in silence and put it in your left shoe under your heel, then you will soon find out about it.
Benati also found a more “macabre ritual” from the fifteenth-century that involved using a dead person’s shinbone:
Take the tibia of a dead in the darkness of the night and consider the right time and the right place, from where something is missing, and place it on the threshold of the door and cut a candle of the same length of the tibia and say: ‘I have lost my goods, I will found them again. The holy five wounds of Christ will help me.’ Then recite five Pater noster and one Credo on your knees. And then say: ‘As the Jews wanted to hide you, Lord Jesus Christ and it could not happen, so my goods will not be hidden in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
There were also spells and charms aimed at identifying a thief. Benati found several accounts where the person was to follow specific instructions to allow them to see the criminal in their dreams. For example, one manuscript explains:
When you have been robbed, then write these characters on virgin parchment, put them under the head at night and you will see the thief while sleeping. A. m. k. m. y. e. v. S. l. ag. h. r. v. 11. a. a. bp.
If you had a number of potential suspects, a ritual involving pebbles could be used. One version of the spell, written in German from the year 1449, explains it this way:
Against theft. Write down the names of all those whom you suspect and go to a place where water flows and take as many pebbles as the names of the suspects. Put them onto the fire until they become red hot, then bury them beneath a threshold where people mostly pass at night, when the sun sets, and let them there for three days and three nights. Then take up again the pebbles from the earth ad take a bowl with fresh water from a clear source, lay the stones under the bowl and pronounce these words: ‘I enchant you by the martyrdom of Our Lord. I look for you by the death of Our Lord. I find you be the resurrection of Our Lord.’ Then call each stone by name and throw it into the water until you reach the guilty one, that is when the pebble seethes as a piece of red hot iron does, when it is thrown into cold water.
Benati notes dozens of other magical spells and charms that could be used to prevent theft or catch thieves. Some were relatively simple, but many were somewhat elaborate, requiring one to make use of special objects as part of the ritual. Since the article focuses on northern Europe, it is not surprising that some of this magic is intertwining Christian and pagan elements. While one can be dubious about the effectiveness of these methods, they do help to reveal the ways medieval people believed they could interact with the supernatural world to help them defend against one of the most common of crimes.
Benati’s article “Painted Eyes, Magical Sieges and Carved Runes: Charms for Catching and Punishing Thieves in the Medieval and Early Modern Germanic Tradition” can be found in Magic and Magicians in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Time: The Occult in Pre-Modern Sciences, Medicine, Literature, Religion, and Astrology. Edited by Albrecht Classen, it offers 25 essays that reveal insights about the use of magic in the medieval world, ranging from Merlin to blacksmiths. To learn more about the book please visit the publisher’s website or buy it on Amazon.com.
Chaira Benati is a Professor at the University of Genoa. Click here to read her article “A la guerre comme a la guerre but with caution: Protection charms and blessings in the Germanic tradition,” which was published in the Brathair Journal.
See also: Top 10 Medieval Book Curses