European studies blog

2 posts categorized "Harry Potter"

07 December 2017

Magic in the inventories

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The medieval archives of the Crown of Aragon are generally said to be richer than those of neighbouring Castile. They’re an invaluable source for scholars of all aspects of cultural history, including the history of the book.

And of weird stuff.

In the inventory of the goods of Martin I (1356-1410) we find the following treasures: the arm of St George (p. 461); ditto St Barbara (461); and he must have had over 100 pieces of church vestments.

He had the Cid’s sword:

item una spasa ab son pom de jaspi apellada ne tisona sens fouro bo (p. 524)
[Item a sword with a jasper pommel called The Tizona without a good scabbard]

He had a piece of cloth decorated with the magical sign or seal or knot of Solomon:

primo una tovallola de lens prim brodada de fil d aur e de sede de diverses colors ab .IIII. baboyns de fil d or e de sede en mig VII. senyals salamons squinsada (p. 507)
[first, a fine linen cloth embroidered with gold thread and silk in various colours with four baboons in gold thread in the middle of seven signs of Solomon, torn]

Seal of Solomon

A version of the seal of Solomon from Pertus de Abano, Claviculae Salomonis, seu Philosophia pneumatica … (Bifingen, 1974). X.529/17795

Even these apparently harmless references to items showing the Armed Man turn out, as explained by Joan Evans, in her study, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance particularly in England, to be amulets: “in many instances those [stones] that include figures of armed men confer courage and victory in battle” (p. 49), “for alectorias, for instance, the sigil of an armed knight and consecration by nine masses is prescribed” (p. 71):

item una bossa de vellut carmesi dins la qual ha Ia empremte o ymatge pocha de I. hom qui te una spasa en la ma e un cap tellat en l altre ab un cordo de seda vermeya (p. 491)
[item a bag of carmine velvet in which is a small impression or image of a man with a sword in one hand and a detached head in the other with a red cord]

Ebermayer Gems

 Carved gems for use as amulets, from, Johann Martin von Ebermayer, Capita Deorum et illustrium hominum ... nec non Hieroglyphica, Abraxea et Amuleta quædam, in gemmis antiqua partim, partim recenti manu, affabre incisa (Frankfurt, 1721). 139.g.11.

There are nine or so references to “serpents’ teeth”. These were actually prehistoric arrow heads or fossils, and were used to test food for poison. Martin had some mounted on a branching piece of coral, to form what in English we call by the French name of languier:

item diversos trosos de branchas d coral ab algunes lengues de serps encastades en argent (p. 528)
[item various pieces of coral branches with some serpent’s teeth set in silver]

Coral was used as a teething ring, because it too was thought to have protective powers:

item una brancha de coral ab una virolla d argent per a portar a infants (p. 490)
[item a coral branch with a golden ring for children to wear]

And how could he fail to have:

item .I. tros de unicorn encastat en .I.a virolla d aur ab son cordo vermey (p. 541)
[item a piece of unicorn set in a gold ring with its red cord]

As Roca tells us, citing a letter of 1379, unicorn horn too was proof against poison : “la qual val contra verí” (p. 54).

Unicorns Pomet

 Unicorns, from Pierre Pomet, Histoire générale des Drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux et des mineraux (Paris, 1694) 37.h.7.

Martin wasn’t some dark-age wizard who crammed his palace with superstitious rubbish, although he might have been unduly afraid of poisoning. He was also a patron of medical schools in the modern sense, and it’s likely many of these gewgaws were family heirlooms, as they also appear in the inventory of James II (1267-1327), his great grandfather. And these old beliefs died hard and in the 1720s the existence of the unicorn was still a matter of debate.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies


J. Massó Torrents, ‘Inventari del bens del rey Martí d’Aragó’, Revue Hispanique, 12 (1905), 413-590. PP.4331.aea

J. M. Roca, La medicina catalana en temps del Rey Martí (Barcelona, 1919) YA.1990.a 16394

Joan Evans, Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance particularly in England (Oxford, 1922) W2/7263

You can discover many more magical artefacts in our current exhibition Harry Potter: a History of Magicwhich runs until 28 February 2018

13 November 2017

Magic swords just aren’t cricket

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Did you have to hand in your wand when you came to the British Library to see Harry Potter: A History of Magic? There’s a reason for that.

When Arnau de Cabrera entered judicial combat with Bernat de Centelles in Barcelona in 1274, both parties had to declare before King Jaume I “I swear I am carrying no magical weapons” [quod non deferebant aliquid quod haberet virtutem].

Swords combat Harley 4418 f56

Mediaeval knights in combat from Jean d'Arras, Roman de Mélusine, c. 1450. MS Harley 4418, f. 56.

Arnau de Cabrera however denounced his opponent for bearing the sword of Vilardell: no-one who bore it could be defeated or killed [“portavit ensem de Villardello, qui quidem ensis habet virtutem ut nullus subcumbere vel superari possit qui illum in bello detulerit”]. It also had the quality that if it was put point down it righted itself.

Apparently, Bernat’s father, like any good parent, had bought the sword for him for 500 maravedis. He had also asked the Prior of St Paul’s in Barcelona for a shirt which again prevented its owner from being vanquished in battle.

And what’s more Bernat was wearing an iron cap which contained a precious stone called diamas, supplied by his brother Gilabert: the bearer’s bones could not be broken.

The king found for Arnau.

The Sword of Vilardell acquired its powers because it was forged at a particularly propitious astrological conjunction.

Swords Villardel and Griffin
Relief from Barcelona Cathedral showing Vilardell fighting a griffin with his magical sword. (Photograph by Pere López from Wikimedia Commons.

The sword’s original owner, Vilardell, went out one day with an ordinary sword to cut wood. He did a kind deed for a poor man who replaced his old sword with a new one and then disappeared. Vilardell tested the new sword by splitting a rock with it (still to be seen) and then slayed a dragon. So in the early accounts it was a holy weapon not a magic one.

The sword eventually found its way to the Musée de l’Armée  in Paris, where you can see it.

Virtually nobody in the Middle Ages doubted the existence of magic, or its efficacy. What the Church for instance objected to was the use of magic for evil ends.

Modern-day surveillance equipment will (hopefully) pick up any concealed weapons, but magic ones (and I don’t want to alarm you) might be beyond its reach.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies

References/Further reading

Martí de Riquer, Llegendes històriques catalanes (Barcelona, 2000) YA.2001.a.38498

Robert Bartlett, Trial by Fire and Water: The Medieval Judicial Ordeal (Oxford, 1988) YC.1988.a.7138