By Kathryn Walton
When medieval farmers were faced with a particularly difficult problem, they would turn to magic for a solution. Medieval farmers used charms that called on both pagan and Christian supernatural beings to aid them in their farming practices. Farming with charms gave medieval peasants a way to protect their crops against sorcery, find their lost or stolen cattle, and punished those who did them wrong.
Picture the scene: an orange sun rises over the fields of a small farm. Its rays touch the home, the growing crops, and the shelter for the cows. Dew glistens on the leaves of the ripening grains. You can practically hear birds singing a chorus over the idyllic image.
But something is wrong. Something is missing. The shelter is empty. The pasture is empty. Not a single cow grazes peacefully in the grass or stands lazily chewing its cud. The door to the home opens. The peasant appears, vessel in hand, ready for milking. His jaw drops. The vessel drops. Where are the cows? How will the peasant find them? And, more importantly, how will he get them back?
You might be thinking…go and look for them, obviously. And certainly, the peasant might try that first. But if that fails, then what should he do? There is not an extensive system of law enforcement to rely on if someone has stolen the cows, and if they have wandered far away, there is little technology that might aid the peasant in his search. His livelihood, life even, relies on finding those cows again. What is the peasant to do? To what might he turn?
Magic, of course.
Farming in the Middle Ages relied on more than hard work, knowledge, and favourable weather conditions. When faced with a difficult problem, medieval peasants would turn to magic for a solution.
The kind of magic they used is known as common magic, and it looked basically nothing like popular culture today imagines that it did. It did not rely on certain ingredients tossed into a cauldron boiling at dusk. It did not rely on nonsensical words spoken while waving an appropriately sized stick. It circulated in folk or peasant cultures and took many shapes and served many purposes. Some individuals might carry an amulet around with them to ward off dangers, for example. Others might draw lots to predict the future, Others might evoke supernatural aid in their healing practices. Medieval people would turn to magic for everything from curing boils, to aiding in childbirth, to predicting the weather, to curing skin disease, and yes, to finding lost cattle.
Charms were one of the most frequently used kinds of common magic, and they are nothing like the kinds of magical tricks that Harry Potter learns in his Charms classroom. Charms are simple magical rituals that combine words and actions. Basically, individuals would repeat a phrase while performing some action: like bowing or facing a specific direction.
Numerous charms survive, but twelve of the most famous are the Old English Metrical Charms. These twelve charms were written down sometime around the late 10th or early 11th century. But they are much older. They would have circulated orally in folk culture long before they were written down and probably have roots in the pagan religion that existed in England before the introduction of Christianity.
Four of these charms have to do with farming. The magical ritual laid out by the longest surviving charm gives you some idea of what they were and how they were used.
“A Charm for Unfruitful Land” is supposed to protect crops against negative influence from witchcraft or sorcery. So, if a farmer feared that some witch or sorcerer was trying to ruin his crops, he could complete the following ritual:
Before dawn, cut four pieces of turf from the four sides of the field. Note where you got them. Then, mix together oil, honey, yeast, milk from each and every one of his cattle, a piece of every tree on the property (except the hardwood trees), a piece of every kind of plant (except buck-bean), and holy water. Drip some of the mixture on each side of the turf while repeating a Latin blessing.
Next, head to church and get the priest to sing four masses over the turf. Be sure that the green side is pointed at the altar. Once the priest is done, head home and, before the sun sets, take the turf back to where you got it. Then carve sayings into four pieces of “Christ’s flour” made from four different quick-beam trees. Put those in the holes. Then, put the turf carefully back on top.
Think he’s done? He’s not; nowhere near it. After all that, the probably exhausted peasant is about a third of the way through the charm. He would then need to recite a series of ceremonial phrases to both Christ and Ycre (mother-of-the-earth), while doing things like bowing nine times, turning to the sun, laying down on the ground, finding a well-fed man to give some earth to and baking some bread with holy water. This text from the Metrical Charms is translated by Dr. Aaron K. Hostetter and I have used his translations throughout this column – you can read them here.
The ritual goes on for ages. But, once the farmer is done, he can rest assured that his crops have been protected from sorcery and witchcraft. Considering the importance of fertile fields, it was probably well worth the trouble.
The farmer who lost his cows can also turn to charms to find them again. This was of great concern to medieval peasants who, apparently, really frequently lost their cows. Three of the four farming charms are about getting back lost cattle.
There are two different approaches the medieval peasant might take to finding the cows. If the peasant thought the cows had just wandered off, he could proceed as follows:
Before anything else, call on Christ and Bethlehem. Then, look towards the east three times and say, “The Cross of Christ is led forth from the east!” Do the same with the west, the south, and the north. To finish exclaim that “So by this deed may nothing be hidden through the Holy Rood of Christ. Amen.”
After this your cows should wander back on their own. If the peasant suspected the cows had been stolen, however, he might take a harsher approach. This charm suggests the peasant proceed in the following way:
Begin by evoking Christ and saying how nothing can be concealed from him. Then call on “Garmund, the thane of God” to help find the cattle and bring them back. Then ask that the person who stole the cows lose their land and household. Then ask that the thief, in three nights, lose his power, his strength, and his skills until he is “as worthless as the thistle.”
You can get your cows back and punish the person who took them. It is a harsher charm that hints at a more negative use of magic.
But did it work? Did the peasant get his cows back? Did any charms work?
From a modern, empirical perspective, of course they didn’t work. But probably, every once in a while, a farmer’s cows did wander home after he spoke the charm. And probably, on occasion, crops did improve after a farmer protected his land from sorcery. The very fact that these things were transmitted and eventually written down suggests that some believed they worked.
These charms tell us a lot about folk or peasant culture in the Anglo-Saxon period. They show that the boundary between paganism and Christianity was more fluid than it is today. The charms blend Christian prayer and the Christian deity with pagan rituals and figures. Anglo-Saxon peasants had by this time been firmly converted to Christianity, but they still wanted to draw on the spirit of the land and on power from pagan traditions. The charms also show that the medieval peasantry believed in the power of magic. Peasants used charms to try to get supernatural entities (whether Christ or Ycre) to act on their behalf in their everyday lives.
Above all, these charms show a desire to control the uncontrollable. Medieval peasants were bound to the land, but they could not always make that land act in the way they wanted. This could have dire consequences. Losing livestock or a year’s worth of crops would have been devastating for a medieval peasant. The charms show that medieval peasants recognized that certain things were beyond their control but took steps to try to regain control.
Charms provided a sense of agency and a course of action when faced with overwhelming odds. Traces of these kinds of superstitious beliefs can still be found in the agricultural world today. My father grew up on a farm and still comes out with saying things like “make hay while the sun shines,” “plant after the first full moon in May,” and “don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” These sayings are grounded in the same appreciation for the overwhelming power of the natural world and in the same desire to find a bit of control.
Medieval peasants, like many today, looked for control in an uncontrollable world. Magic offered them a chance to find that. And so, when our peasant awoke one early summer morning to find his cows missing, he might decide not to wait “until the cows came home.” He might decide to try to bring them back with a bit of magic. Even if it didn’t work, at least he’d taken action. At least he’d draw on the most powerful forces that he could. And if Christ or Garmund couldn’t bring back those cows, who could?
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
Top Image: Milking a cow. British Library MS Harley 4751 fol. 23