A Celebration of a Year’s Work: A Medieval Invisibility Cloak

Yesterday was my last day’s work at the British Library in my role as Research Associate on the Digital Index of Middle English Verse. To celebrate, I thought that I’d just make a short post that revels in what has been undoubtedly my favourite element of the past year: the fact that almost every one of the three hundred manuscript books that I’ve taken into my hands has presented a little surprise – something unexpected that has brightened my day. My last day at work gave me a particularly lovely one of these moments. I leafed through British Library, MS Royal 17 A.III, a book comprising mainly medical recipes of the fifteenth century. I stopped still when I noticed a sixteenth-century annotation in the margin that read:

‘For Invisibility’

Wait, what?

This was particularly interesting, as the other recipes in the book are the usual types that one finds in this type of compilation: remedies for colic, charms against headaches, cures for all manner of wounds and infections.

Wellcome Library/Wellcome Images

Wellcome Library/Wellcome Images

All very interesting … but a recipe for invisibility – this was intriguing!

Unfortunately (and perhaps appropriately), the first few lines of the instructions for our medieval invisibility shield have been erased. However, a significant proportion of the text has survived, so I hurriedly transcribed it as the reading room began to close. I’ve pasted my transcription below, along with a modern English translation. I particularly like the Middle English word for ‘ant’ – a ‘pismyre’. I quite don’t know why we use ‘ant’ now, when such a glorious historical alternative exists!

It’s been a good year, and I’m glad I managed to end it with this!

For Invisibility

‘Take & make a water on a pismyre hil at euen & go þerto at morowen & þu schalt fynde þeron 3 stoonys. & take þo 3 stonys & bere hem to a rennynge water & leye hem þeron & which of hem þat beriþ aȝen þe streem take it up in þin honde & go to þe swalewis neest & take hir briddis & loke in hir mawis in whiche þou fyndis oþere 3 stoonys take hem & go to the water & do as before seid & take þo 3 stoonys & put up in þi purse or where þo wilt & thou shalt be invisible anoon’

Urinate upon an ant hill in the evening. Then go back to it in the morning and you shall find three stones on top of it. Pick up those three stones and carry them to some running water and lay them in it. Take up into your hand any of the stones that resist against the stream. Go to a swallow’s nest and take out her chicks, and have a look in their mouths – inside you will find another three stones. Take them, and go to the running water and do the same thing with the stones as you did before. Pick up those three stones and put them in your purse, or wherever you want to put them, and you shall soon be invisible.

I have translated ‘make a water’ as ‘urinate’, as I think it is the most likely interpretation. It could also mean ‘make a potion’ or ‘a solution’, but since many medieval medical recipes involve the use of urine, I think urination is very likely!

Happy stone washing.

Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 29v

Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, Folio 29v

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