Medieval Magic


The old name for a ‘familiar’, that is an animal or bird with magical powers kept to do the bidding of its owner. The owner was said to suckle the creature, not just with their nipples but also through warts or other growths or marks. Women who owned a cat or even a chicken were often accused of having a bid, a sign of witchcraft, an association which has given rise to the derogatory term for elderly women – biddie.


In 1583 in Wells-next-the-Sea, Mother Gabley from King’s Lynn was accused of drowning 14 seamen by ‘boiling certain eggs in cold water’ and mashing them. The poor old woman was probably only cooking her supper.


Mandragora, Devil’s apples. The root of this plant often resembles a wizened human. It was said to scream when wrenched from the earth, and the scream would kill any who heard it. It is a powerful narcotic and was used by Hippocrates in wine to relieve depression and anxiety, but in higher does could cause delirium, coma and death. It was the favourite poison of Lucrezia and Cesare Borgia. When Joan of Arc was tried as a witch, she was accused of being in possession of a mandrake.

But the mandrake was believed to be more than a plant, for many considered it semi-human, with the power to bring about dark and powerful magic. It was said that it never occurred naturally, but only grew at the foot of the gallows. There are two forms of mandrake – white is male and black is female, sometimes known as a womandrake.


An East Anglian term for a horse whisperer. A man could gain extraordinary powers over horses, pigs and people, by killing a Natterjack toad and carrying the corpse against his chest until it rotted to bones. The bones were floated in a river at midnight. The bone which floated up stream was magic and the person who took hold of it would be pulled across the river by it, after which they would possess the power.


People believed that warlocks and witches had the power to conjure a Sending, in the form of an animal or insect which could travel hundreds of miles to kill the victim. Often these were sent against wrong-doers who had fled, or those from the community who had broken a promise to return home. Victims would feel its approach for several hours or days before it reached them and begin to feel sleepy, ill and terrified.

Vanishing Penis

It was a widely held medieval belief that witches could steal a man’s penis and there are numerous accounts of terrified young men complaining to their priests or judges that a witch had spirited-away their genitals and they were entirely smooth between the legs. No amount of reassurance by others that their genitals were still plainly visible would convince the men they had not been robbed. Many civil and ecclesiastical authorities believed that women had indeed bewitched the unfortunate men into not being able to see or feel their own private parts. The remedy prescribed was to flog or torture the woman in the presence of the man, until she confessed her crime and agreed to restore his manhood. In all the recorded cases this seems to have been effective in convincing the men that their genitals had been returned to them.


To circle anticlockwise or against the sun, hence against nature, strengthening the forces of darkness. Going widdershins was often a feature of dark spells and conjuring the dead, therefore people were careful not to do it by accident for it would bring bad luck. But it could also be used to reverse the current state of affairs by turning a run of bad fortune into good.


These were glass or clay vessels containing thorns, pins, needles and other sharp objects, together with some item belonging to the intended victims, such hair combings or a rag cut from a garment they had worn. The jar containing these objects was filled with the urine of the person casting the spell and sealed. The vessel was then buried under the heath, near an oven or up a chimney.

According to superstition, every time was a fire was lit heating the jar, the victim would experience a burning agony in his entrails and stabbing pains in his limbs as if he was being repeatedly jabbed with red-hot needles. The victim would continue to suffer, until he discovered who had made the witch-jar and had persuaded them to destroy it.

People today renovating old houses or carrying out excavations sometimes unearth witch-jars which have been buried for centuries.


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