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Monday, January 25, 2021

Love & Magic in the Middle Ages

Love and magic in the Middle Ages

The Beguiling of Merlin (1874), by Edward Burne-Jones. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons.Imagine you're a young medieval lady and a young man creeps up, whacks you three times over the head with a hazel stick inscribed with the magical incantation pax+pix+abyra+syth+samasic and tries to kiss you. It sounds a touch desperate these days, but in the Middle Ages this was seriously suggested as a way for a man to get a woman to fall in love with him.

Medieval lovers tried subtler ways, too - spells, charms, amulets and potions - to win the affections of those they desired, all in defiance of the church, which objected to magical interference with a man's or woman's free will.

Love magic was practised and feared by all sections of medieval society, including royal courts. This is reflected in the stories of the time. In the romance of Tristram and Iseult, the couple fall in love because they accidentally drink a love potion intended for Iseult and her betrothed, King Mark. In the story The Two Lovers, composed in the late 12th century by Marie of France, a suitor must carry his beloved up a high mountain before he can marry her. Too proud to drink the magic potion that will give him strength, he completes his quest by the power of love - even though he dies of exhaustion afterwards!

A possibly Viking love spell that has passed into folklore in northern England is a custom where on certain nights unmarried girls chant: 'Hoping this night my true love to see,/I place my shoes in the form of a T'. T surely stands for Thor, the Norse god for storms and also for marriage, the idea being that the girl would then dream of her future husband.

Men and women in the Middle Ages also believed in a multitude of herbs and spices to bring them luck in love. Caraway was used in love potions, as were cloves, coriander and mallows. Garlic and ginger were believed to inspire lust and so good sex. Valerian mixed with wine was claimed to make even the most pure woman lustful. And in Italy, women would wash their eyes with the diluted juice of the deadly nightshade to increase the size of their eye pupils and appear more beautiful (which is why nightshade is known as belladonna.)

In medieval England guests to a wedding would bring small cakes and pile them into the middle of the table. The bride and groom would try to kiss over the cakes for good luck.

In northern Europe, it was the custom to supply a newly married couple with enough mead for a month, to ensure their happiness and fertility - hence our term 'honeymoon'. If a man had problems with virility in bed, it was often assumed he was bewitched and the couple was advised to remove any evil charms that might be placed under or near the bed, such as the testicles of a rooster. Once these were removed, the man should be free of the curse. To drive a woman wild with desire, it was believed that mixing ants' eggs into her bath would do the trick. Hmm.

You can see and read about more medieval magic and beliefs in my novels, TheSnow Bride and A Summer Bewitchment, where the heroine Elfrida is a witch and hero Magnus a warrior. You can see more Viking magic in my novel The Viking and the Pictish Princess and read romances inspired by medieval ideas of midsummer magic in the anthology One Midsummer's Knight.

The Snow Bride 
A Summer Bewitchment
The Viking and the Pictish Princess 
One Midsummer's Knight 

Lindsay Townsend


  1. I'm so glad I didn't live back then. I don;t fancy an ant-egg bath any more than I'd enjoy being whacked over the head. It's funny how beliefs which were once to pervasive look so strange to us now.

  2. Agreed, Christine! Not very romantic to modern eyes and ears at all...

  3. Your Medieval stories always have such detail in them, some extraordinary heroines, and heroes that are quite unusual.
    Honestly, some of their beliefs and activities then seem pretty dang barbaric. Imagine a man whacking a woman over the head for any reason these days. Yikes!
    Herbal cures are still a part of our culture, and many of them actually glove used to make digitalis used even today for certain types of heart disease is the first one to pop into my mind. I hope we never lose the magic in our lives.
    Wonderful blog, Lindsay.

  4. Beliefs are such a fascinating subject. Thank you for finding and sharing these gems. I love it. Doris

  5. Thanks so much, Sarah and Doris!
    Agree about herbal cures, very important.

  6. So interesting! Hard to imagine being hit with a stick would inspire love, but who knows. The origins of magical beliefs such as these have always fascinated me. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Lindsay, I always enjoy your stories. They literally take me back to a time long-gone by. I fall in love with your heroes, and so enjoy your heroines. And what an education you give us readers from, love potions to foods, herbs, crazy and sometimes laughable beliefs. So very interesting that I usually am glued to the book and even my dog has a hard time dragging me away from my intense reading. Thanks for always giving us delightful, and interesting reads. Stay safe, healthy and happy.

  8. Many thanks, Ann, Beverly and Deborah! I love the sweeping range and wide interests in the Prairie Rose Publications blog!