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One of the pages from The Book of Magical Charms. Credit: The Newberry Library

Do You Have the Magic Touch? Chicago Library Appeals to Public for Help Transcribing Magical Manuscripts


Do you have a talent in solving magical puzzles and manuscripts? Do you have a penchant for casting spells? Well, if that’s the case, Chicago's Newberry Library is offering the right job for you as it is asking for the public's help with what might be one of the coolest mass transcription projects in recent history. Harry Potter here we come!

Chicago Library Seeks Help Transcribing Magical Manuscripts

The Newberry Library in Chicago hosts over 80,000 documents covering a wide area of interest, from religion to the late Middle Ages, the Industrial Revolution and the Cold War to mention just a few. As Smithsonian reports, back in July, the library also uploaded to its website several texts that date back at least to the 17th century—including real-life post-medieval manuscripts about magic and witchcraft—that users can help transcribe, translate and edit. Yep, despite sounding funny (or even crazy to some), the Newberry Library in Chicago is indeed inviting language and literary buffs from across the globe to help them out by transcribing a bunch of early modern texts that deal with magic—from casting charms to conjuring spirits.

“You don't need a Ph.D to transcribe,” Christopher Fletcher, coordinator of the project and a fellow of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, tells Smithsonian. “[The initiative] is a great way to allow the general public to engage with these materials in a way that they probably wouldn't have otherwise,” he adds.

One of the pages from The Book of Magical Charms. Credit: The Newberry Library

One of the pages from The Book of Magical Charms. Credit: The Newberry Library

Content of the Three Magical Manuscripts

The three magical manuscripts are called The Book of Magical Charms, The Commonplace Book, and Cases of Conscience Concerning Witchcraft.

The Book of Magical Charms was written by two unknown authors in the 1600s in England. So far experts have been able to determine that the manuscript contains everything from occult toothache remedies to prayers and litanies, some of which you can read below:

“For the toothache: Take a tooth out of a deadmans skull and hange the same about the partie's neck, till the payne cease.”
“For a Waterie Stomach: Roast a nutmeg on a knifes point at - fire and eate it;”
“For the Palsey or falling sicknes: [D]rink ech day your own urine and you shall not be troubled with any such disease.”
“Take the Iron that is found unlooked for make therof a key in the day and hour of Venus the moon increasing; and when this Key is made, put it at night wth the Sacrifice of a white Cock in a quadrangle way: Saying: O YEe Spiritts Naylon Achalaz, Receive this Sacrifice that no Creature may resist against me or this key”

The Commonplace Book is a post-medieval general-knowledge compendium of sorts that is also available online for transcription and edits. The text is written in old English and Latin.

A page from the Calligraphic Commonplace Book. Credit: Newberry Library

A page from the Calligraphic Commonplace Book. Credit: Newberry Library

Cases of Conscience Concerning Witchcraft focuses on the darker side of history, specifically the intense witch hunts that were responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of women worldwide. Written by Increase Mather, the Puritan minister who led the Salem Witch Trials, the book seems to defend the cruel crimes committed in the name of Church and specifies particular aspects of the process that Mather found tiresome:

New Historical Links have Emerged Thanks to the Public Input

The online portal of texts is part of Newberry's Transcribing Faith project, which partially examines the nexus between magic and religion during that far-off historical era. The collection went online for edits in May—and so far the response has been truly “magical.” Fletcher believes that the manuscripts add new interest to our perception of religious life during a period marked by grand, transformative movements. "The Reformation and the Scientific Revolution are very big, capital letter concepts that we all hear about in Western civ courses, or social studies classes,” he tells Smithsonian. And continues, “When we talk about them that way, we lose sight of the fact that these were real events that happened to real people. What we're trying to do with our items is give, as much as we can, a sense of … how individual people experienced them, how they affected their lives, how they had to change in response to them.”

Fletcher focused on The Book of Magical Charms’ content and its detailed chronicle of occult practices to point out how hard it was for a book like that to be written at the time, “Both protestant and Catholic churches tried very hard to make sure that nobody would make a manuscript like this,” he tells Smithsonian. And explains, “They didn't like magic. They were very suspicious of it. They tried to do everything they could to stamp it out. Yet we have this manuscript, which is a nice piece of evidence that despite all of that effort to make sure people weren't doing magic, people still continued to do it.”

A page from Cases of Conscience Concerning Witchcrafts. Credit: Newberry Library

A page from Cases of Conscience Concerning Witchcrafts. Credit: Newberry Library

Public’s Participation Could Make the Manuscripts Go “Mainstream”

Ultimately, Fletcher believes that by asking the public’s participation in transcribing these manuscripts, the Newberry could make these documents more accessible to both users and experts, “Manuscripts are these unique witnesses to a particular historical experience, but if they're just there in a manuscript it's really hard for people to use them. Transcribing the documents allows other users to come in and do word searches, maybe copy and paste into Google, try to find [other sources] talking about this sort of thing,” he tells Smithsonian, while he reassured that he first scanned the documents before putting them online.

The transcription portal is part of a larger project called Religious Change, 1450 to 1700, which features public programs and an exhibition at Newberry, which started earlier in September. If you wish to participate, you can find more info about the full project here.

Top image: One of the pages from The Book of Magical Charms. Credit: The Newberry Library

By Theodoros-Karasavvas

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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