A Medieval Guide to Predicting Your Future

Perhaps those fortune-telling games have been circulating for much longer than we think!

By Dr. Kate Thomas
Digitisation Support Officer
The British Library

How can you predict the future, interpret your dreams, and protect yourself against harm? Some of the manuscripts digitised for The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project have the answer. Many medieval manuscripts include charms, which seek to influence events through the use of words and ritual actions, and prognostics, which predict what will happen. These were usually created and written down by people who knew the church liturgy well and had a deep understanding of the changes of the Moon and the seasons. You can read more about medieval knowledge of such natural phenomena in our article about medieval science.

On the bad days and which months they are from’, Winchester, 3rd quarter of the 11th century: Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII, f. 9r / British Library, Creative Commons

Some particularly intriguing Old English charms and prognostics appear in the opening leaves of an 11th-century Psalter (Cotton MS Vitellius E XVIII). These include a list of ‘bad days’ in every month on which nothing you begin will be ended, which are calculated by counting how many days it has been since the last New Moon (the night on which the Moon is on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, making it invisible).

So in case you have any important projects coming up, the text reveals that in August these are the 8th and 13th nights of the Moon (counting the night of the New Moon as the first), in September they are the 5th and the 9th nights of the Moon, in October they are the 5th and the 15th nights, November the 7th and 9th nights, and in December the 3rd and 13th nights. So for the UK in 2019, these translate into the following calendar dates: 8th and 13th of August, 3rd and 7th of September, 2nd and 7th October, 3rd, 5th and 28th of November, and 8th December. Best not to start your projects on these days!

(You can calculate the unlucky dates for any place and year using an online Moon phases calendar).

‘On theft’, from Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, Winchester, third decade of the 11th century: Cotton MS Titus D XXVI, f. 79v / British Library, Creative Commons

If one of your treasured belongs has gone astray, you might find this Latin charm from a collection of liturgical, scientific and prognostic texts useful (Cotton MS Titus D XXVI). The charm claims to reveal the identity of a thief: ‘If you have lost something, write these letters on a blank sheet and place it under your head in the night when you sleep, and you will see him who has taken it from you’. Then it provides a group of letters and symbols for you to copy out.

But if you dream about something else, the prognostic on f. 9r-v might help. A dream which takes place on the 1st night of the New Moon pertains to joy, a dream on the 11th night will be without danger, and whatever you dream about on the 7th night will happen after a long time.

Prognostics could also foretell the course of a person’s life. A text on ff. 7v-8r claims to tell a person’s future based on how many days after the New Moon they were born. For example, we learn that whoever is born on the 21st night of the New Moon will be an ingenious robber, someone born on the 10th will travel around many places, but someone born on the 2nd will merely be ‘mediocris’ (average)!

‘Names to protect against a king or emperor’, perhaps written in Bréziers, Southern France, 12th century: Egerton MS 821, f. 59 / British Library, Creative Commons

Another manuscript in the collection is wholly composed of prognostics and charms (Egerton MS 821). One of these is a list of names that you should think through in your mind when in the presence of a king or emperor to work against his power: ‘in axbidino . henonia . adonay, sabaot iactriel. sa. adonai. eloym. hagai’.

If you wish to foretell the outcome of a fight, f. 40r instructs you to count the letters in the combatants’ names, add five to whichever is the longer, and deduct ten. If the resulting numbers are equal, the one with the longer name will win; but if they are unequal, the one with the longer name will be beaten. It’s oddly reminiscent of the games that many of us used to play as children: by counting the number of letters in someone’s name, or by drawing a spiral and counting the number of lines in it, you can find out what your future is. Perhaps those fortune-telling games have been circulating for much longer than we think!

Originally published by the British Library, 08.20.2019, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.