Help a Library Transcribe Magical Manuscripts & Recover the Charms, Potions & Witchcraft That Flourished in Early Modern Europe and America

Magic is real—hear me out. No, you can’t solve life’s problems with a wand and made-up Latin. But there are academic departments of magic, only they go by different names now. A few hundred years ago the difference between chemistry and alchemy was nil. Witchcraft involved as much botany as spellwork. A lot of fun bits of magic got weeded out when gentlemen in powdered wigs purged weird sisters and gnostic heretics from the field. Did the old spells work? Maybe, maybe not. Science has become pretty reliable, I guess. Standardized classification systems and measurements are okay, but yawn… don’t we long for some witching and wizarding? A well-placed hex might work wonders.

Say no more, we’ve got you covered: you, yes you, can learn charms and potions, demonology and other assorted dark arts. How? For a onetime fee of absolutely nothing, you can enter magical books from the Early Modern Period.




T’was a veritable golden age of magic, when wizarding scientists like John Dee—Queen Elizabeth's soothsaying astrologer and revealer of the language of the angels—burned brightly just before they were extinguished, or run underground, by orthodoxies of all sorts. The Newberry, “Chicago’s Independent Research Library Since 1887,” has reached out to the crowds to help “unlock the mysteries” of rare manuscripts and bring the diversity of the time alive.

The library’s Transcribing Faith initiative gives users a chance to connect with texts like The Book of Magical Charms (above), by transcribing and/or translating the contents therein. Like software engineer Joseph Peterson—founder of the Esoteric Archives, which contains a large collection of John Dee’s work—you can volunteer to help the Newberry’s project “Religious Change, 1450-1700." The Newberry aims to educate the general public on a period of immense upheaval. "The Reformation and the Scientific Revolution are very big, capital letter concepts," project coordinator Christopher Fletcher tells Smithsonian.com, "we lose sight of the fact that these were real events that happened to real people."

By aiming to return these texts to "real people" on the internet, the Newberry hopes to demystify, so to speak, key moments in European history. "You don't need a Ph.D. to transcribe," Fletcher points out. Atlas Obscura describes the process as “much like updating a Wikipedia page,” only “anyone can start transcribing and translating and they don’t need to sign up to do so.” Check out some transcriptions of The Book of Magical Charms—written by various anonymous authors in the seventeenth century—here. The book, writes the Newberry, describes “everything from speaking with spirits to cheating at dice to curing a toothache.”

Need to call up a spirit for some dirty work? Just follow the instructions below:

Call their names Orimoth, Belmoth Limoc and Say thus. I conjure you by the neims of the Angels + Sator and Azamor that yee intend to me in this Aore, and Send unto me a Spirite called Sagrigid that doe fullfill my comandng and desire and that can also undarstand my words for one or 2 yuares; or as long as I will.

Seems simple enough, but of course this business did not sit well with some powerful people, including one Increase Mather, father of Cotton, president of Harvard, best known from his work on the Salem Witch Trials. Increase defended the prosecutions in a manuscript titled Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits, a page from which you can see further up. The text reads, in part:

an Evidence Supposed to be in the Testimony
which is throwly to be Weighed, & if it doe
not infallibly prove the Crime against the
person accused, it ought not to determine
him Guilty of it for So righteous may
be condemned unjustly.

Mather did not consider these to be show trials or “witchhunts” but rather the fair and judicious application of due process, for whatever that’s worth. Elsewhere in the text he famously wrote, “It were better that Ten Suspected Witches should escape, than that one Innocent Person should be Condemned.” Cold comfort to those condemned as guilty for likely practicing some mix of religion and early science.

These texts are written in English and concern themselves with magical and spiritual matters expressly. Other manuscripts in the project’s archive roam more broadly across topics and languages, and “shed light on the entwined practices of religion and reading.” One “commonplace book,” for example (above), from sometime between 1590 and 1620, contains sermons by John Donne as well as “religious, political, and practical texts, including a Middle English lyric,” all carefully written out by an English scribe named Henry Feilde in order to practice his calligraphy.

Another such text, largely in Latin, “may have been started as early as the 16th century, but continued to be used and added to well into the 19th century. Its compilers expressed interest in a wide range of topics, from religious and moral questions to the liberal arts to strange events.” Books like these “reflected the reading habits of early modern people, who tended not to read books from beginning to end, but instead to dip in and out of them,” extracting bits and bobs of wisdom, quotations, recipes, prayers, and even the odd spell or two.

The final work in need of transcription/translation is also the only printed text, or texts, rather, a collection of Italian religious broadsides, advertising “public celebrations and commemorations of Catholic feast days and other religious occasions.” Hardly summoning spirits, though some may beg to differ. If you’re so inclined to take part in opening the secrets of these rare books for lay readers everywhere, visit Transcribing Faith here and get to work.

via SmithsonianAtlas Obscura

Related Content:

1,600 Occult Books Now Digitized & Put Online, Thanks to the Ritman Library and Da Vinci Code Author Dan Brown

Behold the Mysterious Voynich Manuscript: The 15th-Century Text That Linguists & Code-Breakers Can’t Understand

Isaac Newton’s Recipe for the Mythical ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ Is Being Digitized & Put Online (Along with His Other Alchemy Manuscripts)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hōshi: A Short Documentary on the 1300-Year-Old Hotel Run by the Same Japanese Family for 46 Generations

Hōshi is a ryokan (a Japanese traditional inn) located in Komatsu, Japan, and it holds the distinction of being the second oldest hotel in the world, and "the oldest still running family business in the world." Built in 718 AD, Hōshi has been operated by the same family for 46 consecutive generations. Count them. 46 generations.

Japan is a country with deep traditions. And when you're born into a family that's the caretaker of a 1300-year-old institution, you find yourself struggling with issues most of us can't imagine. That's particularly true when you're the daughter of the Hōshi family, a modern woman who wants to break free from tradition. And yet history and strong family expectations keep calling her back.

The story of Hōshi Ryokan is poignantly told in a short documentary above. It was shot in 2014 by the German filmmaker Fritz Schumann.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in April, 2015.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

Related Content:

265 Free Documentaries Online

Early Japanese Animations: The Origins of Anime (1917-1931)

Hand-Colored Photographs of 19th Century Japan

A Hypnotic Look at How Japanese Samurai Swords Are Made

Female Samurai Warriors Immortalized in 19th Century Japanese Photos

Hand-Colored 1860s Photographs Reveal the Last Days of Samurai Japan

Legendary Japanese Author Yukio Mishima Muses About the Samurai Code (Which Inspired His Hapless 1970 Coup Attempt)

Behold 3,000 Digitized Manuscripts from the Bibliotheca Palatina: The Mother of All Medieval Libraries Is Getting Reconstructed Online

The internet, one occasionally hears, has overtaken the function of the library. In terms of storing and making accessible all of human knowledge, the ways in which the capacities of the internet match or exceed those of even the most enormous library seem obvious. In theory, digital libraries don't burn down, at least when properly set up, nor, with their ability to exist above national boundaries, do they get sacked by invading armies. Even so, as Google recently proved when its years-long book-digitization effort Project Ocean came up against legal obstacles, the physical realm hasn't quite ceded to the online one.

"When the library at Alexandria burned it was said to be an 'international catastrophe,'" writes The Atlantic's James Somers in a piece on the ambitious, troubled project. When the court ruled against Google's version, though, fewer tears were shed.




At least when Heidelberg's Bibliotheca Palatina, the most important library of the Germain Renaissance, became a piece of booty in the Thirty Years' War in 1622, its 5,000 printed books and 3,524 manuscripts remained, in some sense, available — albeit split, from then on, between Heidelberg and the Vatican's Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

"At the beginning of the 17th century," says Medievalists.net, the Bibliotheca Palatina "was known as 'the greatest treasure of Germany’s learned.' As a universal library, it contains not only theological, philological, philosophical, and historical works but also medical, natural history, and astronomical texts." Now, its "core inventory" of approximately 3,000 manuscripts has become available free online at the Bibliotheca Palatina Digital. Since 2001, says its site, "Heidelberg University Library has been working on several projects that aim to digitize parts of this great collection, the final goal being a complete virtual reconstruction of the 'mother of all libraries.'"

From there you can browse the Bibliotheca Palatina Digital's Codices Palatini germanici, "the largest and oldest undivided collection of extant German-language manuscripts"; the Codices Palatini latini, where "you will eventually be able to access more than 2,000 Latin manuscripts"; and the Codices Palatini graeci, which houses "digital facsimiles of 29 Greek manuscripts which are now kept in Heidelberg University Library." It also offers sections on the history of the Bibliotheca Palatina; on the Codex Manesse, "the world's richest anthology of mediaeval German song"; and (for now in German only) on the manuscripts' decorations and the insight they provide into "the thematically diverse art of mediaeval book-making." And none of it subject to sacking — unless, of course, history has a particularly nasty surprise in store for us.

Enter the Digital Bibliotheca Palatina here.

Related Content:

Discover Europeana Collections, a Portal of 48 Million Free Artworks, Books, Videos, Artifacts & Sounds from Across Europe

Discover the Jacobean Traveling Library: The 17th Century Precursor to the Kindle

How Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beautiful, Centuries-Old Craft

Wonderfully Weird & Ingenious Medieval Books

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Genius of Harry Beck’s 1933 London Tube Map–and How It Revolutionized Subway Map Design Everywhere

The subway is a marvel of engineering, and so is the modern subway map.

For the first 25 years of its existence, London Underground riders relied on a map that reflected the actual distance between stations, as well as rivers, parks, and other aboveground phenomena.

As designer Michael Bierut observes in the video at the top, the radically revised approach it finally adopted in 1933 proved so intuitive and easy to use, it remains the universal template for modern subway maps.

The brainchild of Harry Beck, a young draftsman in the London Underground Signals Office, the new map is more accurately a diagram that prioritized riders’ needs.




He did away with all aboveground references save the Thames, and replotted the stations at equidistant points along color-coded straight lines.

This innovation—for which he was paid about $8—helped riders to glean at a glance where to make the subterranean connections that would allow them to travel from point A to point B.

The former senior curator of London Transport Museum, Anna Renton, said in an interview with The Verge that Beck’s design may have helped persuade city dwellers to make the leap to suburbs serviced by the Underground "by making them look closer to the center, and showing how easy it was to commute.”

It’s not Beck’s fault if service falls short of his map’s efficient ideal, particularly on nights and weekends, when track work and service advisories abound, rendering such commutes a nightmare.

The appeal of subway map-themed souvenirs is also a testament to the visual appeal of Beck’s original design, especially given that such purchases are not limited to tourists.

Related Content:

Animated GIFs Show How Subway Maps of Berlin, New York, Tokyo & London Compare to the Real Geography of Those Great Cities

A Wonderful Archive of Historic Transit Maps: Expressive Art Meets Precise Graphic Design

The Roman Roads of Britain Visualized as a Subway Map

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, April 23 for the third installment of her literary-themed variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Colorful Wood Block Prints from the Chinese Revolution of 1911: A Gallery of Artistic Propaganda Posters

When you think Chinese Revolution, surely you think of Mao Zedong and the People’s Republic coming to power in 1949, a history that overshadows an earlier seismic event that overthrew the last imperial dynasty and brought the short-lived Republic of China into being. If your sense of this history is somewhat vague, you’re not alone—even those who know the events and the principle actors well are hesitant to ascribe any definitive interpretations to the 1911, or Xinhai, Revolution. “Significant thinkers and activists have… remained hesitant in their final judgment on it,” writes Oxford University’s Rana Mitter: “Its meaning continues to be highly contested… separated from any one path of historical interpretation.”

There is a general consensus, at least, among historians of the period and contemporary chroniclers alike that the Xinhai Revolution was foremost a struggle to modernize the country and get free of colonialist encroachments on Chinese self-determination. As in Russia around the same time, the concept of political modernization had many different meanings to the competing factions seeking to supplant the moribund imperial system.




“Some hoped for a constitutional framework, i.e., parliamentary monarchy,” notes University of Kansas professor Anna M. Cienciala, “while others worked for a democratic republic. Most wanted the abolition of the feudal-Confucian system; all wanted the abolition of foreign privilege and the unification of their vast country.”

This last hope would be dashed. The strongest faction succeeded in gaining support from wealthy Chinese living abroad, who funded the efforts of revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, a medical doctor raised in Hawaii who began in the late 19th century “to devote himself to political work for the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty” in order to “create a strong, unified, modern, Chinese republic” with a socialist economy. Despite support from the military, the Republic established in 1912 “proved a miserable failure,” Cienciala argues, and the country fragmented under the rule of various warlords, then suffered through several more upheavals and an attempted Qing restoration in the ensuing decades while the Communists consolidated power.

Looking back at the events at the time, historian Peter Zarrow has attempted to trace “the moment when the Wuchang Uprising became the ‘revolution’… that is when general opinion began to regard it as a movement that could overthrow the Qing and establish a new government.” Opinions were largely shaped, he writes, by Shanghai newspapers covering what Britannica Blog calls “a hastily and locally organized mutiny” that first began in one of the three areas that make up the city of Wuhan. In creating the narrative of events, news agencies “immediately printed illustrated sheets for a Chinese public avid for the latest news.” So writes the Princeton University Digital Library, who house a collection of 30 such prints, likely “based on upon artists’ imagination.”

News agency reports of the Wuchang Uprising and subsequent battles in cities across China “generally support the Revolution as a modernizing party, and hence some demonization of the enemy occurs in the prints, as was usual for propaganda prints of that and earlier periods.” What is notable is the degree to which broad themes of “modernity” and “nation” show up, creating a triumphant sense of unity that seems to have been exaggerated.

But this is the way propaganda works, in 1911 and today—“manufacturing consent,” to take Noam Chomsky’s phrase. It’s fascinating to see it work in images that seem so quaint to us today, but which, at the time, pushed forward a revolutionary break with over two thousand years of dynastic rule.

See many more of these images at Princeton’s Digital Library.

Related Content:

14,000 Free Images from the French Revolution Now Available Online

China: Traditions and Transformations (A Free Harvard Course) 

The World’s Oldest Multicolor Book, a 1633 Chinese Calligraphy & Painting Manual, Now Digitized and Put Online

Download 2,500 Beautiful Woodblock Prints and Drawings by Japanese Masters (1600-1915)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

One of the Best Preserved Ancient Manuscripts of The Iliad Is Now Digitized: See the “Bankes Homer” Manuscript in High Resolution (Circa 150 C.E.)

Each time I sit through the end credits of a film, I think about how weird auteur theory is—that a work of cinema can be primarily thought of the singular vision of the director. Typical examples come from artier fare than the usual Hollywood blockbuster in which crews of thousands of stuntpeople, special effects technicians, and animators (and several dozen “producers”) make essential contributions. In the case of, say, David Lynch or Wes Anderson—or earlier directors like Godard or Kubrick—one can’t deny the evidence of a singular mind at work. Even so, we tend to elevate directors to the status of godlike artificers, surrounded by a few angelic helpers behind the camera and a few star actors in front of it. Everyone else is an extra, including, very often, the actual writers of a film.

Of course, the notion of the auteur comes from the general theory of authorship that identifies literary works as the product of a single intellect. French theorists like Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes have cast suspicion on this idea. When it comes to writing from the manuscript age, hundreds or thousands of years old, it can be next to impossible to identify the author of a work.




Many an ancient work comes down to us as the product of “Anonymous.” In the case of the major Greek epics, The Odyssey and The Iliad, we have a name, Homer, that most classics scholars treat as a convenient placeholder. As a University of Cincinnati classics site notes, “Homer” could stand for “a group of poets whose works on the theme of Troy were collected.”

Though written references to Homer date back to the sixth century B.C., giving credence to the historical existence of the legendary blind poet, he might have been more director than author, bringing together into a coherent whole the labor of hundreds of different storytellers. For historian Adam Nicolson, author of Why Homer Matters, “it’s a mistake to think of Homer as a person. Homer is an ‘it.’ A tradition. An entire culture coming up with ever more refined and ever more understanding ways of telling stories that are important to it. Homer is essentially shared.” The narrative poetry attributed to Homer, Nicolson suggests, might go back a thousand years before the poet supposedly put it to papyrus.

You can read this National Geographic interview with Nicolson (or buy his book) to follow the argument. It isn’t particularly original—as Daniel Mendelsohn writes at The New Yorker, “the dominant orthodoxy” for over a hundred years “has been that The Iliad evolved over centuries before finally being written down” sometime around 700 B.C. We have no manuscripts from that early period, and no one knows how much the poem evolved through scribal errors in the transmission from manuscript to manuscript over centuries. This is one of many questions literary historians ask when they approach papyri like that at the top—an excerpt from the so-called “Bankes Homer,” the most well-preserved specimen of a portion of The Iliad, containing Book 24, lines 127-804, and dating from circa 150 C.E.

Purchased in Egypt in 1821 by Egyptologist William John Bankes, and acquired by an adventurer named Giovanni Finati on the island of Elephantine, the papyrus scroll, which you can see in full and in high resolution at the British Library site, was created like most other “literary papyri” for hundreds of years. As the British Library describes the process:

Professional scribes made copies from exemplars at the request of clients, transcribing by hand, word by word, letter by letter. Until around the 2nd century CE these manuscript books took the form of rolls composed of papyrus sheets pasted one to the other in succession, often over a considerable length.

In addition to the text itself, notes the site History of Information, the manuscript contains “breathing marks and accents made by an ancient diorthotesor ‘corrector’ to show correct poetic pronunciation.” The ancient practice of “correcting” was a pedagogical technique used for training students to properly read the text. Likely for hundreds of years before there was a text, the poem would be committed to memory, and recited by anonymous bards all over the Greek-speaking world, probably changing in the telling to suit the tastes and biases of different audiences. Who can say how many, if any, of those ancient bards bore the name “Homer”?

Again you can see the Bankes Homer in high resolution here.

Related Content:

Hear What Homer’s Odyssey Sounded Like When Sung in the Original Ancient Greek

Emily Wilson Is the First Woman to Translate Homer’s Odyssey into English: The New Translation Is Out Today

Explore 5,300 Rare Manuscripts Digitized by the Vatican: From The Iliad & Aeneid, to Japanese & Aztec Illustrations

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hidden Ancient Greek Medical Text Read for the First Time in a Thousand Years — with a Particle Accelerator

Image by Farrin Abbott/SLAC, via Flickr Commons

Long before humanity had paper to write on, we had papyrus. Made of the pith of the wetland plant Cyperus papyrus and first used in ancient Egypt, it made for quite a step up in terms of convenience from, say, the stone tablet. And not only could you write on it, you could rewrite on it. In that sense it was less the paper of its day than the first-generation video tape: given the expense of the stuff, it often made sense to erase the content already written on a piece of papyrus in order to record something more timely. But you couldn't completely obliterate the previous layers of text, a fact that has long held out promise to scholars of ancient history looking to expand their field of primary sources.

The decidedly non-ancient solution: particle accelerators. Researchers at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) recently used one to find the hidden text in what's now called the Syriac Galen Palimpsest. It contains, somewhere deep in its pages, “On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Drugs,” an "important pharmaceutical text that would help educate fellow Greek-Roman doctors," writes Amanda Solliday at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.




Originally composed by Galen of Pergamon, "an influential physician and a philosopher of early Western medicine," the work made its way into the 6th-century Islamic world through a translation into a language between Greek and Arabic called Syriac.

Image by Farrin Abbott/SLAC, via Flickr Commons

Alas, "despite the physician’s fame, the most complete surviving version of the translated manuscript was erased and written over with hymns in the 11th century – a common practice at the time." Palimpsest, the word coined to describe such texts written, erased, and written over on pre-paper materials like papyrus and parchment, has long since had a place in the lexicon as a metaphor for anything long-historied, multi-layered, and fully understandable only with effort. The Stanford team's effort involved a technique called X-ray fluorescence (XRF), whose rays "knock out electrons close to the nuclei of metal atoms, and these holes are filled with outer electrons resulting in characteristic X-ray fluorescence that can be picked up by a sensitive detector."

Those rays "penetrate through layers of text and calcium, and the hidden Galen text and the newer religious text fluoresce in slightly different ways because their inks contain different combinations of metals such as iron, zinc, mercury and copper." Each of the leather-bound book's 26 pages takes ten hours to scan, and the enormous amounts of new data collected will presumably occupy a variety of experts on the ancient world — on the Greek and Islamic civilizations, on their languages, on their medicine — for much longer thereafter. But you do have to wonder: what kind of unimaginably advanced technology will our descendants a millennium and a half years from now be using to read all of the stuff we thought we'd erased?

via SLAC

Related Content:

2,000-Year-Old Manuscript of the Ten Commandments Gets Digitized: See/Download “Nash Papyrus” in High Resolution

The Turin Erotic Papyrus: The Oldest Known Depiction of Human Sexuality (Circa 1150 B.C.E.)

Try the Oldest Known Recipe For Toothpaste: From Ancient Egypt, Circa the 4th Century BC

Learn Ancient Greek in 64 Free Lessons: A Free Course from Brandeis & Harvard

Introduction to Ancient Greek History: A Free Online Course from Yale

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

« Go BackMore in this category... »
Quantcast