Wolf Teeth, Cradle Knives, and Other Early Modern Sleep Superstitions

By Allison Meier

Sleep for early modern Europeans was a time to be wary of demons and other dangers of the night. Iron bracelets were worn for protection or a wolf’s tooth or bit of coral was strung around the neck; sometimes a steel knife was suspended over the baby’s cradle. The small acts of superstition were part of a greater presence of magic in people’s everyday lives in the 15th to 18th centuries.

'Book of Black Magic' (late 1500s, England) (courtesy Chetham’s Library). The 'Book of Black Magic' records spells that allow the magician to converse with spirits, find treasures, and summon the "Queen of the Pharies." This book was sometimes circulated under the name of Roger Bacon, the famous English philospher.
‘Book of Black Magic’ (late 1500s, England) (courtesy Chetham’s Library). The ‘Book of Black Magic’ records spells that allow the magician to converse with spirits, find treasures, and summon the “Queen of the Pharies.” This book was sometimes circulated under the name of Roger Bacon, the famous English philospher.

A woman sweeps demons from her home, in Ulrich von Lilienfeld, Concordantiae Caritatis (Concordance of Charity), Lower Austria, Late 1400s. Latin MS 69.A woman sweeps demons from her home, in Ulrich von Lilienfeld’s ‘Concordantiae Caritatis (Concordance of Charity)’ (Lower Austria, late 1400s) (courtesy the University of Manchester) (click to enlarge)

“People’s attempts to rest safely by devising a rich variety of ritual and devotional practices, and by the careful use of objects and arrangement of their sleeping environments, were framed by deeply held Christian beliefs that offered solace from an array of natural and supernatural threats,” Sasha Handley, senior lecturer in early modern social and cultural history of the British Isles at the University of Manchester, told Hyperallergic.

Handley co-curated Magic, Witches & Devils in the Early Modern World, now at the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library, with Jennifer Spinks, a lecturer in the history of early modern Europe. The exhibition includes books and objects from the library’s collections, focused on how beliefs in magic impacted every social class in early modern Europe, as well as other places around the world.

“The two iron bracelets that we have on display, one for an adult and one for a child, reveal the importance that people attached to material forms of magical protection at moments of vulnerability,” Handley explained. “Sleep’s approach was a time of acute anxiety because the unconscious hours of sleep were widely understood to endanger both body and soul.” Iron was a material thought to keep away all manner of diabolical creatures, whether evil fairy, demon, or witch. (Handley’s book Sleep in Early Modern England will be published later in the year by Yale University Press.)

Bracelets for "shackling" a child to life and warding off death (unknown maker, place, and date (Gaster Collection) (courtesy Chetham’s Library)
Bracelets for “shackling” a child to life and warding off death (unknown maker, place, and date; Gaster Collection, image courtesy the University of Manchester)

Magic, Witches & Devils in the Early Modern World includes the sleep superstitions alongside other early modern concerns, whether your neighbors being witches, or needing to exorcise demons to cure your ills. Many of these apprehensions about the vulnerabilities of sleep are still very familiar to us, like fires or theft, yet there were also worries about physical attacks by the devil. The early modern years in Europe saw an increase of information being shared through publishing and developing science. There were also religious wars, witch hunts, and more contact with non-Western people, whose own rituals could often provoke terror about the supernatural, even when cultures shared similar anxieties. A 1398 decree against ritual magic from the University of Paris, mainly condemning necromancy, resulted in churches discouraging even small acts of magic. Later books like the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of Witches) in the 1480s were designed so that clergy could prosecute witches. Nevertheless, people still often kept close their individual magical tokens.

“The use of these kinds of amulets and talismanic objects as forms of material protection was commonplace and it was something that united a disparate range of cultures and societies that feature in the exhibition, stretching from Europe to the Islamic world,” Handley said.

Rustam slays the White Div, in Abu’l Qasim Firdousi's 'Shahnama (Book of Kings)' (Shiraz, 1542) (courtesy the University of Manchester)
Rustam slays the White Div, in Abu’l Qasim Firdousi’s ‘Shahnama (Book of Kings)’ (Shiraz, 1542) (courtesy the University of Manchester)
'Compendium of Unnatural Black Magic' (late 1500s, Franconia) (courtesy the University of Manchester). The 'Compendium' contains a set of instructions to summon eight evil spirits. This book was attributed to Michael Scot, whose infamy as a supposed magician was noted by the Italian poet Dante.
‘Compendium of Unnatural Black Magic’ (late 1500s, Franconia) (courtesy the University of Manchester). The ‘Compendium’ contains a set of instructions to summon eight evil spirits. This book was attributed to Michael Scot, whose infamy as a supposed magician was noted by the Italian poet Dante.

Magic, Witches & Devils in the Early Modern World continues at the University of Manchester Library’s John Rylands Library (150 Deansgate, Manchester, England)through August 21.

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