Francis Young

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Magic in medieval Bury St Edmunds

Illustration from John Lydgate’s alchemical treatise ‘The Churl and the Bird’ (British Library MS Harley 2407)

Medieval monks are well-known for their penchant for dabbling in magic, whether that meant divination of the future by astrology, the alchemist’s search for the philosophers’ stone, studying the magical properties of natural things or even ritual summoning of demons to do the magician’s bidding. Magical learning arrived in England in the thirteenth century from the Islamic world and was spread through the copying of manuscripts, mainly by monks, so it is unsurprising that monastic libraries in medieval England bulged with occult texts. However, only certain forms of magic were definitively forbidden by the church (specifically the kind that involved summoning demons – necromancy), and other forms of magic were thoroughly integrated into medieval medicine and ‘natural philosophy’, the forerunner of what we know as science.

By the time of its dissolution in 1539 the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds had the second largest library in England, after Oxford University – the result of centuries of careful copying and collecting by the monks, who began creating manuscripts in earnest during the reign of Abbot Baldwin (1065-1097). Baldwin was a French-trained physician and brought Continental medical learning to England for the first time, founding a medical school at Bury that was the most advanced in England. Anglo-Saxon medicine was based primarily on knowledge of the properties of plants and herbs (herbalism), but Baldwin introduced the idea of using exotic ingredients from the Middle East as well as parts of animals. For example, Baldwin believed it was possible to cure blindness by making an eye salve from the bodies of swallow chicks blinded in their nest. The logic behind this rather cruel recipe was sympathetic magic – the belief that opposites have the power to cure; thus the power that blinded the chicks would be reversed by the application of the salve to human eyes, which would thereby be unblinded. Furthermore, Baldwin’s advocacy of Middle Eastern ingredients was based partly on the inherent holiness of things from the land of Jesus Christ, which were imbued with special power to heal.

In a sense, of course, the miracles advertised by the custodians of the shrine of St Edmund were magical. But most scholars agree that the difference between miracles and magic is that there was no specific and prescribed way to obtain a miracle, and no way to guarantee one, because miracles depended on the good will of a saint (in this case Edmund). However, when a ritual was introduced that tried to harness the supernatural power of the saint then something more magical was occurring. We know of a good example of this from Bury, the custom of the ‘Bury Bull’, which is first recorded in the seventeenth century but took place before the dissolution of the Abbey. A white bull from Haberden meadow (the site of the present-day Bury St Edmunds RUFC ground) was led to the Abbeygate; here infertile women wanting to conceive a child would stroke its flanks as the bull was led up Abbeygate Street, along Guildhall Street and down Churchgate Street to the west front of the Abbey. It is possible that in early times the bull was slaughtered at this point as a sacrifice to St Edmund, although we do not know this for certain and the practice had ceased by the time the ceremony was recorded. The women seeking to conceive would then enter the Abbey itself and leave offerings at the shrine of St Edmund. Because of the nature of the ritual involved (which has distinctly pagan overtones) the ‘Bury Bull’ ceremony was perhaps more magical than religious. In the same way, according to the commissioners who dissolved the Abbey, the monastery possessed relics which were claimed to have the power to make it rain or to make corn grow if they were carried around the fields.

Robert Grosseteste, bishop of Lincoln (c. 1175-1253) was born at ‘Stow’ in Suffolk, which may have been West Stow near Bury. Grosseteste certainly had a very close relationship with the Abbey and its abbot, Samson of Tottington, who ruled between 1182 and 1211. Grosseteste regularly swapped books with the monks of Bury. He was the foremost English scholar of the period, and deeply interested in learning from nature. He is sometimes described as a ‘scientist’, although in reality nothing remotely resembling science existed at this period. However, some scholars were more keen to add to the range of their knowledge beyond what could be learnt from books, and in this sense Grosseteste lay the foundations for modern science. He was a brilliant linguist, translating Greek books for the monks of Bury, but also a highly skilled mathematician and the first person in England to have a proper grasp of astrology. Astrology at this period included the serious study of the heavens (modern day astronomy) and the idea that the heavens could be used to foretell the future by drawing up horoscopes. Thanks to Grosseteste, a number of astrological works entered the Abbey’s library, and no doubt some of the monks became adept in this art.

Bury’s most famous monk, who joined the Abbey in 1382, was the poet John Lydgate. Less well known than Lydgate’s English poetry is the fact that he was also an alchemist. Lydgate made a crucial contribution to the history of alchemy in England, producing the earliest English translation of an alchemical text called the Secreta Secretorum (‘Secret of Secrets’), which purported to be a letter from Aristotle to his pupil Alexander the Great. In reality, the book was written originally in Syriac in the eighth century, and contained advice on how a king could make use of alchemy and astrology to govern. Lydgate also wrote his own alchemical treatise, ‘The Churl and the Bird’, which survives in manuscript in the British Library. The manuscript was acquired after the Reformation by the celebrated magical adviser to Queen Elizabeth, John Dee, before being acquired in the late seventeenth century by John Battely (1647-1708), the first historian of Bury St Edmunds (who presumably wanted the manuscript for its connection to Lydgate). The manuscript was finally acquired from Battely’s nephew Oliver by Edward Harley in 1723, and made its way to the British Library along with the rest of Harley’s manuscripts.

During Lydgate’s lifetime Abbot William Curteys, who was elected in 1429, presided over a revival of learning in the monastery, which may have included alchemy. Alchemists may not have had much hope of transmuting base metals into gold, but they made numerous genuine chemical discoveries along the way. Alchemy especially flourished in medieval hospitals, since one of the aims of alchemists was to create life-prolonging elixirs. Furthermore, alchemists also possessed stills which were used to distill alcohol for making medicines. Bury was richly endowed with several such hospitals, and the ruins of some of them can still be seen. In February 1447 King Henry VI held a Parliament in the Abbey’s chapter house. The king’s uncle Humphrey, duke of Gloucester arrived late, after the duke’s enemies had already persuaded Henry that his uncle was plotting against him, and Duke Humphrey was held under house arrest at St Saviour’s Hospital on Fornham Road (on the site of today’s Tesco supermarket), which was then outside the town’s North Gate. Humphrey died at the hospital shortly thereafter and rumours quickly spread that the duke had been poisoned. There is no proof that he was, but a medieval hospital was certainly the perfect place to poison someone, owing to the likely availability of medicinal herbs (often poisonous in large quantities) and the chemicals used by alchemists.

One consequence of the dissolution of the monasteries was that former monks were forced to seek alternative ways of making a living. Bury St Edmunds was no different; most of the monks received an annual pension of £6 13s 4d, which was hardly enough to live on. Some joined the secular clergy, becoming the parish priests of neighbouring villages, some became schoolmasters and some even resorted to crafts such as weaving cloth. But there was another option open to the less scrupulous. Monks were literate in both Latin and English, they were often ordained priests, and they were knowledgeable about the rituals of the church. Some were also learned in astrology and alchemy. This meant that they had the option, if they wanted, to make a living as consulting magicians. Such magical consultants, known as ‘cunning-folk’, were very popular until well into the twentieth century and assisted with finding lost goods, discovering the identity of thieves, helping people find buried treasure and other tasks. Evidence of popular belief in the monks’ magical skills is the fact that, after the dissolution, it was rumoured that prophecies made by monks were found concealed in the walls of ruined monasteries, and as late as 1667 a prophecy was reported to have been found on the bottom of a brass pot (presumably surviving from the Abbey) in Bury.

One monk of Bury, William Blomfild, is known to have chosen the path of the magical arts, although Blomfild had already left the monastery by the time of the dissolution in 1539. In 1529 Blomfild had been questioned about Protestant beliefs, suggesting that, like his contemporary Richard Bayfield, he left the monastery over a religious dispute with the Abbot, John Reeve. In 1546 Bayfield was arrested and tried in London on a charge of conjuring demons, but subsequently acquitted. This may have been a simple misunderstanding (individuals learned in alchemy and astrology were sometimes mistakenly accused of conjuring demons by people who were ignorant of the different branches of magical learning), or Blomfild may have been ‘moonlighting’ as a necromancer alongside his alchemical activities. We know about the latter from a number of treatises about alchemy that Blomfild composed in the reign of Elizabeth I. The convicted sorcerer and alchemical physician Myles Blomefylde (1525-1603) was born in Bury, and was probably the brother, nephew or cousin of William Blomfild, since he provided a biography of Blomfild in one manuscript.

In addition to Blomfild, there was at least one other monk of Bury famous for his skill in the magical arts whose identity is more elusive. In 1643, during the English Civil War, a pamphlet was published entitled A most certain, strange, and true discovery of a witch being taken by some of the Parliament forces as she was standing on a small planck board and sayling on it over the river of Newbury. The author began by listing some individuals who had become famous by their mastery of magic, including three characters from a well-known play, Robert Greene’s Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1589) and Dr Faustus. The other two famous magicians mentioned are less easily identifiable: ‘Franciscus the English Monke of Bury’ and ‘Doctor Slackleach’. I have not been able to identify ‘Franciscus the English Monke of Bury’, but the place to look would probably be in the popular pamphlets and drama of the first half of the seventeenth century. It is unlikely that such a person ever existed, but the fact that the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds was associated with magical learning in seventeenth-century popular culture is interesting in its own right.

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This entry was posted on December 3, 2017 by .
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