THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

20 December 2017

It must be witchcraft

The blockbuster exhibition at the British Library this winter is magical in more ways than one. Harry Potter: A History of Magic features not only original items from J.K. Rowling's own archive and some of the Library's precious manuscripts, but also a number of items borrowed from the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic at Boscastle. We are indebted to the Museum of Witchcraft for their generosity in lending us real witches' cauldrons, broomsticks and wands, alongside crystal balls and a scrying mirror. All of these magical objects help to contextualise the principal theme of this exhibition: that the Harry Potter novels are founded upon centuries of historical tradition, mythology and folklore.

This broomstick is one of our favourite exhibits. It belonged to Olga Hunt, of Manaton in Devon. So the story goes, Olga used to delight in riding her broomstick on Haytor Rocks on Dartmoor every Full Moon, jumping out on unsuspecting campers and courting couples.

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A broomstick belonging to the 20th-century witch, Olga Hunt (©The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle)

This serpentine wand is also in the exhibition, thanks to the kindness of the Museum of Witchcraft. In magical tradition, snakes represent the duality between good and evil (and if you were going to own a wand, what better than having a wand in the shape of a snake?). We have placed it next to one of the British Library's own medieval manuscripts, showing a 'wizard' charming a serpent.

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A serpentine wand (©The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle)

This medieval bestiary describes several mythological snakes, including the cerastes (a horned serpent) and the scitalis (with incredible markings on its back). It then focuses on the emorroris, a type of asp so-called because its bite causes haemorrhages; the victim sweat outs their own blood until they die. The manuscript goes on to explain that the asp can be caught if a conjurer sings to it in its cave, making it fall asleep. This allows the snake charmer (shown holding what seems to be a wand) to remove the precious stone that grows on the asp’s forehead.

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A snake charmer, in a bestiary (England, 13th century): British Library Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 67r

Another impressive object in Harry Potter: A History of Magic is this cauldron. According to the Museum of Witchcraft, it exploded when three witches were attempting to conjure up a spirit on the beach. They fled in terror, and the cauldron was only later retrieved from where it had landed on the rocks.

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An exploded cauldron (©The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle)

There are a number of Museum of Witchcraft items in the Divination section of the exhibition, including a scrying mirror, which once belonged to the witch, Cecil Williamson (d. 1999). He warned that, if you gaze into it, ‘and suddenly see someone standing behind you, whatever you do, do not turn around’. Also in the same room is this palmistry hand, which accompanies a 14th-century treatise on chiromancy. On the right hand of this medieval manuscript, a vertical line running across the palm reads, ‘this line represents love’. A vertical line running between the middle and index finger has a less fortunate meaning: ‘This line signifies a bloody death and if the line reaches unto the middle of the finger it signifies a sudden death.’ Other lines predict ailments and diseases, such as eye problems and the plague, and mental traits, such as courage, humility and infidelity.

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A palmistry hand (©The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle)

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A fortune-telling manuscript (England, 14th century): British Library Royal MS 12 C XII, f. 107r

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is on at the British Library until 28 February 2018. We are extremely grateful to our partners (The Blair Partnership, Pottermore, Bloomsbury Publishing, Google Arts and Culture) for their support, as well as to our many lenders for helping to make the exhibition so magical.

 

Julian Harrison

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