“Let us begin then with a positive view of of medieval people, imagining them not as trembling in the face of a universe filled with occult and dangerous forces, but rather as men and women of a lively and playful spirt, fascinated by the inexhaustible riches of nature, whether they be visible or invisible, favourable to mankind or the reverse, serious, or simply light and amusing.” ~ Bruno Roy, in his article ‘The Household Encyclopedia as Magic Kit: Medieval Popular Interest in Pranks and Illusions’
The Middle Ages are thought to be an age of wizards and magic. Medieval stories are filled with men like Merlin or saints who could perform incredible deeds. However, even medieval people liked the simpler magical tricks – how to make an apple roll around by itself; a dead fish to jump out of the frying pan; turn a white rose into a red one; or have a candle where the flame could not be blown out.
A few books from the Middle Ages can tell us more about these magic tricks, such as the Secretum philosophorum, which was written by anonymous author at the beginning of the fourteenth-century. At the beginning it explains “there are contained in it certain secrets which, by vulgar opinion, are impossible, but which philosophers consider to be necessary and secrets. Now, contained in this book are the secrets of all the arts.”
While the Secretum philosophorum might sound to be very mysterious, a modern reader might find it to be more a medieval version of The Dangerous Book for Boys – it contains all sorts of fun stuff, like how to make different colours of ink, riddles, and creating scientific experiments like how to make a soap bubble. The anonymous author even creates simple simple cyphers for to disguise a few words, so that his reader will have to figure it out.
The Secretum philosophorum even has a section where he talks about the senses can be deceived, and explains how to do a series of medieval magic tricks that the reader do for fun – a trick to show off for friends.
Here are a few of these medieval magic tricks:
To Give Water the Colour and Taste of Wine
The same cane be done in another way, so that the water appears to be turned into win, and this experiment is used by those conmen who wander about like pilgrims through the whole world; by this experiment many are convinced that God turns their water into wine. For, they take scraps of bread and put them in the wine which is called vin râpé, the wine which those sell wine use to colour the wines which have lost their colour. Now, when the scraps of bread have been well soaked in the said vin râpé, they dry them in the sun and carry them with them in their jewellery. And when they come to someone’s house, they say that they eat nothing but bread and water, and they ask for the bread and water, and they break the bread into pieces and put some of the said scraps into the water. And straight away the water takes on the colour and flavour of win, and so it is thought by many that this is a miracle.
To make a burning mirror
When you want to make a burning mirror, take an ordinary mirror and scrape off the lead from the concave side. Next, take some tin foil and fit it to the size of the mirror, and put it on the convex side of the mirror. But first rub the foil with quicksilver – very carefully, because if it is not carefully rubbed, when it is soaked with quicksilver it tends to tear easily. Having done this, fit it to the mirror. Then put this mirror into a box turning the concavity outwards. In it there will appear an image which is very ugly because of its very large size. Now, when you want to burn with it, hold the mirror against the rays of the sun and put something combustible between the mirror and the sun in the place where the first point appears from the reflection from the sun. And after a short time, you will see the combustible material catch on fire.
Deceptions of the sight
Now, the sight is often deceived because it cannot perceive something on account of its smallness, as is seen in the tricks of jugglers, for instance: Take a fine hair from a woman’s head. Next, take an egg and empty it through a small hole, and then join the hair to the hole in the egg. Then the egg can be moved around your head by holding the other end of the hair in your hand. And no one will see the hair because of its smallness. And by the said hair you can hang the egg in your house and it will be though by many to hang from nothing.
To free hands tied behind the back
And they do another trick, and they free their hands which are tied behind them, and this is how it is done. They take a little knife and they hide it in some corner of the house, under the straw. Next, when their hands have been tied behind them, they go to the place where the knife was hidden and they take it in one hand and cut the cord by which their hands were tied, and they stand close to the wall with their back turned to the wall, and they do this so that their trick cannot be discovered.
So that cooked meat may appear raw
Take the blood of some young animal and dry it in the sun, and make it into powder. Later, when the meat is cooked and hot, sprinkle onto it some of the said powder, and straight away that powder will liquefy into blood and the meat will appear raw.
So that cooked meat will appear to be full of worms
Take the string of a lyre and cut it into little pieces and keep them. Then, when you want to perform the deed, throw some of the said pieces onto the warm cooked meat, and they will move on the meat and they will look like wriggling worms. Wash the meat and it will not be spoiled at all, and do this with meat which has been made to appear raw.
So that towers may appear in a urinal flask
Take the whites of four or five eggs and mix them like glair but not thinly, but so that it is in the middle between egg-white and glair. Next, take a urinal flask and fill it with clear water. Next, pour in some of the aforementioned egg-whites, and towers and various pinnacles will appear in the flask.
On the appearance of a coin in a dish
Another experiment concerning sight. Take a dish and put a coin in it. Then move yourself away from the dish, so that you cannot see the coin in it. Next, let it be filled with clear water and at the distance where earlier you could not see the coin before the water was poured in, now, after the water is poured in you will see it very well, which seems very marvellous.
So that someone may appear to burn, but nothing is in fact generated except terror
When you want to frighten someone. Take some incense and crush it into a fine powder on a piece of marble. And take some of the said powder and hold it in the palm of your hand, and put a candle between your fingers, near the powder, and hurl your hand towards someone’s face as if throwing something so that powder penetrates the candle flame, and his whole face will catch on fire and he will be thought to be burning, although the fire will not hurt him at all.
So that a cross turns by itself
Take a small oatplant and take its stalk, and make a small cross out of wax, and put the said stalk of the oatplant in the foot of the cross, exceeding the foot of the cross by half a finger so that the thicker part of the stalk is outside. Next, take a ball of wax and make whole right through it with the point of your pen. Then, moistening the point with saliva so that all of the hole can be filled with saliva, put the stalk of the oatplant which exceeds the foot of the cross into the said hole. And it will be thought by many that this is done by the magical art. Pretend that you know, by means of this experiment, whether someone is a virgin or not, so something else of that type, so that the trick is not discovered.
To make invisible ink
There is another method of writing letters, that cannot be read without the use of fire, and this is how. Take sal ammoniac [ammonium chloride] and mix it with water and write what you want with it on paper. When it dries, nothing will appear to be there. Then make a dot with ink by the part where you have written that it may be a boundary to you [so you can see where the invisible writing is]. When you want to read it, then place the part of that is marked by the dot against the fire and when it is very well heated the letters will appear very well. And you may with this method very well send letters to someone secretly.
To make invisible ink
There is another method of writing letters that cannot be read without powder. And this is it. Take urine and write with it on your hand. and when it will be dry nothing will appear to be there. And when you wish to read it, sprinkle over the written place with ashes or with powder, and rub with a little bit of powder on the place, and then remove the excess powder and the letters will immediately appear.
Trick with Invisible Ink
Now, by this same method you can joke very well among your companions, and this is it. Write on your hand in various places: ‘NO’ and let it dry; and when you want to do the trick, say that you can know whether somebody is a virgin or not. Do this when you want to do the trick, that is: to know whether they are a virgin sprinkle powder on the place in which you wrote ‘NO’; and make the sign of the cross in powder, and the secret will not be detected. Then remove the excess powder, and there will be written ‘NO’. And this will seem to many to have been done through the magic arts, and because of the sign of the cross. With this, to the same purpose, you may joke among your companions, by writing with the preceding methods.
You can find more medieval magic tricks from the Secretum philosophorum in an English translation from these two articles:
Robert Goulding, ‘Deceiving the Senses in the Thirteenth Century: Trickery and Illusion in the Secretum philosophorum‘ Magic and the Classical Tradition, edited by Charles Burnett and W.F. Ryan (London: Warburg Institute, 2006)
Mark Clarke, ‘Writing recipes for non-specialists c.1300: the Anglo-Latin Secretum philosophorum, Glasgow MS Hunterian 110′, Sources and Serendipity: Testimonies of Artists’ Practice, edited by Erma Hermens and Joyce Townsend (London: Archetype Publications, 2009)
Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press, 1989)
Bruno Roy, ‘The Household Encyclopedia as Magic Kit: Medieval Popular Interest in Pranks and Illusions’, Popular Culture in the Middle Ages, edited by Josie Campbell (Bowling Green University Press, 1986)