A Bum Rap: Medieval Magic, Ancient Curses, Renaissance Paper and Peace Corps :)

Somebody please tell me Wikipedia loves me back.  Because I have fallen and cannot get up.

There was a time when chemistry, with its roots in observable chemical reactions, didn’t exist as an organized, procedure-bound field.  Instead, there was alchemy.  Some mixed it with magic.  Okay.

Well, that got me reading about what exactly those Medieval magical books, called grimoires, covered.  I won’t even MENTION–she said falsely–that the word “grammar” is linked to this word.  Because why set you on your own Wiki Free-Fall?  No reason at all.

So, these poor folk hiding their grimoires under floorboards and beds, in fear of the Church finding them and meting out punishment–what were they risking life and limb for?  Directions on spell-casting, recipes for medicinal powders and potions, instructions on making personal talismans, and (yikes) lists of angels and demons, as well as information on how to summon them to gain magical powers.   For this they died or were tortured.  Useful information, all.

But there’s more, if you’re willing to trawl history.  (And who isn’t, when such gems await?)

Turns out in days of yore, in this case Greco-Roman days, folks would hire others, consultants if you will, to inscribe “curse tablets” for them.  So, for instance, if my neighbor got away with stealing one of my chickens, I would have a curse tablet written with their name inscribed.

Business must have been good.  These consultants would apparently inscribe a bunch of tablets and have them lying around, waiting for someone to come buy and ask for a specific name to be added in the empty space.  Mass-produced curse tablets.

What will they think of next, our ancestors?

Well, I’m glad you asked.  Our democratic brethren the Greeks had another interesting system in place.  Back in the day before the reams of papers which throttle even our electronic period, they used broken pieces of earthenware pottery as voting ballots.  These were called ostraca.

Wait for it–

If they were voting to banish or exile someone, they would scratch the person’s name on the ostraca, leading to the term– “ostracism.”


And now, just because I’ve kept this inside for a whole day already, and truly that’s too long for my mortal coil, here’s an extra tidbit, which I’m going to toss at you as being at least peripherally related to the lack of paper in earlier days.

It’s related to my post yesterday on Cheapside.  I told you was looking up astronomical awareness and magic in the 1500s.  What I didn’t tell you, is that I bumped into Cheapside by means of stumbling over the links in Wiki’s chapbook page.  Chapbooks were pamphlet-like booklets printed during this period (and beyond.)  They were not bound, and not considered high literature, per say.  And today, remaining copies are very expensive and rare.

As Wiki puts it:

“Because of their flimsy nature such ephemera rarely survive as individual items. They were aimed at buyers without formal libraries, and, in an era when paper was expensive, were used for wrapping or baking. Paper has also always had hygienic uses and there are contemporary references to the use of chapbooks as bum fodder (i.e. toilet paper).”


Bum fodder….  What a term.  And believe it or not, I do have a story to relate.  I know, you’re mildly shocked I’m continuing past these gems and into territory so questionable.  I understand completely.  So only follow me if you’re ready.


This is the briefest of anecdotes from my Peace Corps days.  I’ve alluded to the varied maladies that strike one in Peace Corps.  One of these, which almost everyone got, was amoebic dysentery.  And when one has dysentery, one doesn’t really have time to run about town looking for soft and luxuriant brands of bum fodder.  Anyway, one’s town or village probably doesn’t carry anything softer than crunched up newspaper.

So, to be brief, it does happen that one simply grabs whatever’s near one, and runs to the outhouse.  One might, for instance, grab one’s language book and run out.  And then one might very, very, very rapidly try to study those words while squatting, realizing that whatever page gets torn out, ain’t no-one ever gonna study those words again later.


Yes, I really did say that.  And yes, that really is Peace Corps.  Welcome, if you’re here perusing for tips on what to do with your spare two years and three months of altruistic feelings.  😉

I think my photo should feature something completely different, so you can return to your day sprightly and clean.  As always when you leave my blog.  *cough*

Hot Air Ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey

Hot Air Ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey


About sputnitsa

Born in the US, I grew up in Africa and the West Indies, and returned stateside in my teens. After a decade in international development, democracy work, and inclusivity training for domestic NGOs, I joined Peace Corps, and after a year, experienced my first Russian invasion. I followed that up by volunteering with refugees and youth, and after some vacation time climbing minarets and mountains, I returned to New York City, where today I work on social justice with college students, produce short films, and write.
This entry was posted in alchemy, ancient Greeks, Cappadocia, dysentery, etymology, history, hot air ballooning, language, magic, Middle Ages, Peace Corps, photos, rambles, random info, research, travel, Turkey, whatnot, Wiki Hole and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A Bum Rap: Medieval Magic, Ancient Curses, Renaissance Paper and Peace Corps :)

  1. ralfast says:

    Cursed Tablets? Brilliant! Goes great with my Dark Ages analog fantasy story I’m working right now.

    Thank you!

  2. sputnitsa says:

    Pleasure 🙂 Isn’t this stuff FAB?

  3. JLC says:

    Fascinating! I like reading all these little tidbits. Its preparing me for my next Trivial Pursuit game!! 🙂

    • sputnitsa says:

      See, and I thought I was just falling into a hole alone, but actually I was gathering info dust to scatter widely and to great use. *nods sagely* 😉

  4. sayssara says:

    Sputnitsa, I love your ‘bum fodder’ anecdote.

    Brilliant! 🙂


    • sputnitsa says:

      🙂 It was a little crazy. 🙂 It made me evaluate the importance of words on a very different scale. 🙂 🙂 Thanks for enjoying what had to make your eyebrows pop when you realized I was really going there!!! 🙂

  5. There is definately a great deal to find out about this issue.
    I love all of the points you made.

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