by Vanessa Baptista, PhD Candidate: ‘A Cultural History of Magic Tricks in the Late Middle Ages’ University College London
Figure 1- A recipe: ‘Ut anulus saltet per domum ad modum locuste’ – ‘So that a ring jump through the house like a locust’ © Oxford, Bodleian Library, Digby MS 86, fol, 47r. Creative Commons License: CC-BY-NC 4.0
Medieval Magic Tricks: Jumping Rings, Running Eggs, and Twisting Chickens
In the late thirteenth century, Richard de Grimhill, a low-ranking Worchester noble, collected several texts of various genres, from romances to devotional tracts, into a common-place book for his own use and pleasure. Within this miscellany he compiled a collection of amusing recipes – what I call magic tricks – for invisible ink, soap bubbles, inextinguishable candles, and unbreakable eggs. This text, with its eclectic mix of chemical experiments, is a precursor to the magic trick boxes and books popular in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Among recipes that can still be found in modern magic kits, Richard included three peculiar instructions that promised to make a ring jump around the house like a locust, to make a chicken sing and twist around, and to make an empty bladder or egg run through the house – all achieved by filling these objects with mercury and leaving them in a warm place.
More surprising than their inclusion, perhaps, is the fact that these recipes would have likely worked if carried out correctly. Mercury is a peculiar substance: at room temperature it has the properties of a liquid (it adapts to fit its container) and the properties of a metal (it expands when heated). Indeed, until relatively recently, these properties were exploited in domestic thermometers. It is possible that as it was heated the mercury would expand to fill its container and then be driven out of the hole from which it was inserted- potentially generating sufficient force to move the object.
Richard’s animation tricks using mercury strikingly illustrate the blurred boundaries between chemical knowledge, popular science, and domestic entertainment in late medieval Europe. The animation of small household items was a common objective in medieval recipe collections that contain magic tricks. There are clearly easier ways to achieve this effect. The Secretum philosophorum, another thirteenth century English text composed in Latin, advised the reader to attach a fine hair to an egg or coin with wax. When the hair was pulled the object would have appeared to move independently. Less believably, it suggested that enclosing a beetle into a hollowed apple would achieve the same effect. However, so far in my research I have found recipes that use mercury to far outnumber their more easily performed counterparts.
So then, why mercury? As a substance, mercury and its properties may have been familiar to a range of medieval people. Artisans used mercury to make pigments and purify metals, physicians used it to treat leprosy, and alchemists were fascinated by its aqueous properties. This broad familiarity may have encouraged playful experimentation, particularly amongst artisans and alchemists who were inclined by their profession or hobby to test and innovate. These workshop and laboratory experiments could have then passed, both textually and orally, into the households of less practically skilled people like Richard.
Figure 2- A recipe ‘Ad hoc ut anulus saltet per domum ad modum locuste’ ‘In order to make a ring jump through the house like a locust’ using mercury, saltpetre, and sulphur © Universität Erfurt, UB Erfurt, Dep. Erf. CA 4° 361, fol. 24r.
The more is more approach
A century after Richard compiled his book of magic tricks, recipes to animate small objects using mercury took on a new life. From the middle of the fourteenth century, and especially in manuscripts that can be traced to a monastery or university, saltpetre and sulphur, the two primary components of gunpowder, were added to the mercury. This addition would have yielded no effect as the encased sulphur and saltpetre could not be ignited, implying that these recipes were based on theoretical assumptions derived from a working but academic knowledge of gunpowder.
The addition of gunpowder may have been spurred by several factors. First and foremost, was of course the introduction of gunpowder into Europe in the later portion of the thirteenth century. This new, exciting, and dangerous substance piqued the interest of state officials, military engineers, and curious learned individuals who sought to understand and utilise it. Second, is the intellectual context of the fourteenth century typified across Europe, and particularly in England, Italy, and Germany, by the growing popularity of alchemy and increasing elite valorisation of craft and technological practices such as pigment making and metalworking. From the fourteenth century, educated non-specialists took interest in workshop practice and began to record it for both theoretical and practical purposes. The act of recording would lead to further copying which would inevitably invite errors into recipes. Finally, this growing valorisation led to the flourishing of a genre of late medieval recipe literature written by non-specialists. These collections were intended more as encyclopaedias of knowledge than as practical texts. As Bernard Guineau and Jean Vezin have identified, these texts directly correlated the efficacy of a recipe to the number of listed substances- adopting what I call a ‘more is more’ approach.
Compilers may have believed that the addition of sulphur and saltpetre to recipes that animate small objects would have produced a more dramatic effect because of their knowledge of gunpowder informed by textual sources and pyrotechnic displays. While, undoubtedly, some compilers and copyists would have tested these recipes that used gunpowder, their inefficacy and manuscript context of the university or monastery suggests that this adaptation was more a product of non-specialist, amateur hypothesis than workshop practice and experimentation.
Medieval magic trick recipes to animate small domestic objects using mercury alone or in combination with sulphur and saltpetre, are evidence of an interest in chemicals, their marvellous properties, and their uses outside of a workshop or other functional setting. Most fascinatingly, they highlight how medieval people sought to use this knowledge for play and entertainment. This is true whether or not these recipes were ever performed – the mental images they conjure are entertaining in their own right. The transmission and modification of these recipes further illustrates that the tradition of adapting chemical knowledge for entertainment was not static. Later readers would attempt to use new technological developments, such the discovery of gunpowder, to ‘improve’ these wonderous effects.
For the increasing correspondence between craftspeople and scholars see:
- Pamela O. Long, Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Sciences, 1400-1600 (Corvallis, Or: Oregon State University Press, 2011).
For the transmission and adaptions of recipes in different intellectual contexts see:
- Sylvie Neven, ‘Recording and Reading Alchemy and Art-Technology in Medieval and Premodern German Recipe Collections’, Nuncius 31, no. 1 (1 January 2016)
For medieval magic tricks see:
- Bruno Roy, ‘The Household Encyclopedia as Magic Kit: Medieval Popular Interest in Pranks and Illusions,’ The Journal of Popular Culture 14, no. 1 (June 1980).
- Robert Goudling, ‘Deceiving the Senses in the Thirteenth Century: Trickery and Illusion in the Secretum philosophorum’ in eds. Charles S. F. Burnett and William Francis Ryan, Magic and the Classical Tradition (London: Warburg Institute-Nino Aragno Editore, 2006).
 Sofie Lachapelle, Conjuring Science: A History of Scientific Entertainment and Stage Magic in Modern France (Springer, 2015), 37-57.
 My thanks to Dr Terry Wright, executive librarian at the Magic Circle Library for this explanation.
 Bernard Guineau and Jean Vezin, ‘Recettes et Couleurs de l’Antiquité et Du Moyen Age: Etude d’un Extrait Du Livre III d’Héraclius De Coloribus et Artibus Romanorum d’après Trois Manuscrits’ in Comprendre et Maîtriser La Nature Au Moyen Age: Mélanges d’histoire Des Sciences Offerts à Guy Beaujouan, ed. Comet Georges (Genève: Droz, 1994), 228.