We find little information in eighteenth-century archives about the types of amulets and talismans worn by the common people. So, the Foundling Museum’s collection of objects provides a unique insight into popular magic. It was a period when most people still feared witchcraft and epidemic diseases were common.
The possession of amulets for magical protection and for the prevention of sickness was understandably widespread. While both wealthy and poor wore manufactured amulets of varying quality, such as the religious medals and red coral necklaces in the collection, other amulets were humble and handmade. We know from later folklore that simple hazelnut amulets were worn against toothache and carried in Ireland against rheumatism, for example.
The gold touch piece, by contrast, was a gift from kings and queens. The celebrated writer Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) wore such a touch piece suspended by a ribbon all his life. He was afflicted with the King’s Evil (the tubercular swelling of the lymph glands) as an infant and, like thousands of others from all walks of life, he was taken to London in 1712 to receive a curative royal touch by Queen Anne (who reigned from 1702-1714). Those lucky enough to be so blessed were given these commemorative gold medals as protective amulets.
One of the most striking aspects of the collection is that some of the items represent London’s international cultural links at the time. The mano fica (“fig hand”) is a good example. This is an amulet against the evil eye and witchcraft well known across the Mediterranean. It was not a part of British folk magic at all. The English vicar Joseph Townsend recalled seeing them fastened to the wrists of children during his tour of Spain in 1786–1787. In 1800 the poet Robert Southey (1774-1843) wrote a letter from Lisbon in which he described seeing such mano fica amulets attached to mules and asses to protect them from witches. Perhaps the Foundling example was purchased by a sailor or soldier on his travels or was carried to London by a migrant.
Hear Owen’s in-depth exploration of this amulet token in our podcast series Take this Token:
Red coral was another import from the Mediterranean, from Italy in particular. It was used in both medicine and magic in eighteenth-century Britain. The popular medical manual The Compleat Midwife (c.1750) recommended hanging a piece of red coral near the ‘privities’ of women during childbirth. In the form of necklaces, bracelets, and pendants it was commonly worn by children for protection from diseases. That such coral amulets were worn widely in eighteenth-century London is evident from numerous theft trials at the Old Bailey. From these we know that simple pieces of red coral cost around one shilling in 1774, while the following year a stolen child’s coral necklace with a gold locket was valued at two shillings.
Taken together, all these amulets represent a mixed emotional world of fear and reassurance in response to life’s myriad misfortunes.