Magic at Mount Holyoke: An Exhibition of Primary Sources, in Conjunction with ‘Harry Potter’s World’

Williston Library Court and Whiting Alcove, 6th floor
January 28 - February 26, 2010

Mount Holyoke College was one of only 12 libraries selected by the American Library Association Public Programs Office to host Harry Potter's World: Renaissance Science, Magic, and Medicine, a traveling exhibition that explores the Renaissance science connections in J.K. Rowling's massively popular fiction series. Using materials from the National Library of Medicine and coordinated by the American Library Association, the traveling exhibit features six panels depicting the works of 15th- and 16th-century alchemists, naturalists and occultists and explores the intersections between the Harry Potter novels and Renaissance thinkers, lore, and practices.

In addition to displaying the materials on loan, Mount Holyoke mounted a special exhibit of primary sources, drawn from Archives and Special Collections, the Art Museum, the Botanic Garden, and the Biology and Geology departments. Archives and Special Collections has an exceptionally strong collection of rare books in Renaissance science—herbals, psalters, astronomical texts, and more—a number of which were chosen for this exhibit.

Here, from Mount Holyoke's own Renaissance science collection, is a glimpse of some of the riches from this time period, along with connections to themes and ideas seen in Harry Potter's wondrous world.

The Primary Sources Exhibition is curated by Archives Assistant Nora Mariano, class of 2010, and mounted on the web by Simmons GSLIS Digital Collections Intern Lexi Walters Wright.

Elijah H. Burritt (1794-1838)

Burritt, a renowned astronomer, taught Mary Lyon at Sanderson Academy. Years later, students used his book and atlas in their astronomy classes at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. In addition to showing the stars to the sixth magnitude, Burritt outlined the figures of birds, animals, and mythical creatures that gave the constellations their names.

Shown above: page from Atlas, designed to illustrate the geography of the heavens. New York: Huntington and Savage, 1835.

“‘Centaurs have unraveled the mysteries of [the stars’] movements over centuries. Our findings teach us that the future may be glimpsed in the sky above us...’”
--Firenze, a centaur, in Harry Potter Order of the Phoenix, p. 602

Hieronymus Bock (1498-1554)

De Palma (‘Palm tree’) and Malus (‘Apple tree’)

A German priest, physician, and botanist, Bock played a major role in helping the study of botany evolve into a science based on direct observation of nature. Originally published as the New Kreuterbuch in 1539, this text features approximately 700 plants, accompanied by illustrations sometimes embellished with creatures decidedly not based on modern science, like this unicorn under a palm tree.

Shown above: pages from Hieronymi Tragi, De stirpium, maxime earum, quae in Germania nostra nascuntur, usitatis nomenclaturis, propriisque differentiis, necque con temperaturis ac facultatibus, commentariorum libri tres, germanica primum lingua conscripti, nunc in Latinam converse, interprete Davide Kybero, Argentinensi... Argentorati: excudebat V. Rihelius, 1552.

“‘... it is a monstrous thing, to slay a unicorn,’ said Firenze. ‘Only one who has nothing to lose, and everything to gain, would commit such a crime. The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.’”
--Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 258

John Dee (1527-1608)

Dee was an English mathematician, natural philosopher, and astrologist. Although he played a important role in English voyages of exploration and served as a scientific and medical advisor to Mary I, Elizabeth I, and James I, he is most famous—or infamous—for his work in the occult. This text describes his supposed interactions with the spirit world and elaborates on his conviction in the power of mathematics to reveal divine mysteries.

Shown above: pages from A true and faithfull relation of what passed for many years between Dr. John Dee (A mathematician of great fame in Q. Eliz. And King James their reignes) and some spirits: tending (had it succeeded) to a general alteration of most states and kingdoms in the world... London: D. Maxwell for T. Garthwait, 1659.

“The smoky shadow of a young woman with long hair fell to the ground as Bertha had done, straightened up, and looked at him... and Harry, his arms shaking madly now, looked back into the ghostly face of his mother.”
--Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, p. 667

Rembert Dodoens (1517-1585)

Groote Asphodelus, Asphodel (Asphodelae)

Dodoens, a Flemish physician and botanist, served as the physician to the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian II and his successor, Rudolph II. He was also a member of the faculty of medicine at the University of Leiden.

Shown above: page from Cruydt-boeck Remberti Dodonæi, volghens sijne latest verbeteringhe: met bivoeghsels achter elck capitel, uyt verscheyden cruydt-bescrijvers: item, in ’tlaetste een beschrijvinghe vande indiaensche ghewassen, meest ghetrocketn uyt de schrijften, van Carolus Clusius. Nu wederon van niuws overseen ende verbetert... t’Antwerpen: inde plantijsche druckerije van Balthasar Moretus, 1664.

“‘For your information, Potter, asphodel and wormwood make a sleeping potion so powerful it is known as the Draught of Living Death. A bezoar is a stone taken from the stomach of a goat and it will save you from most poisons. As for monkshood and wolfsbane, they are the same plant which also goes by the name of aconite.’”
--Professor Snape in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 138

Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566)

Lycotonum. Wolfswortel. Wolfsbane (Aconitum lycotonum)

Fuchs was a German botanist and physician. Having a thorough knowledge of the medicinal properties of plants, as well as a familiarity with ancient Greek and Latin authorities on the subject, he gave precise descriptions and accurate illustrations of the plants listed in his text. One of wolfsbane’s (Aconitum lycotonum) primary uses was as a poison against wolves: placed in meat for wolves to eat or on the tips of hunters’ arrows.

Shown above: page from Den nieuwen herbarius; dat is, dboeck vanden cruyden int welcke met groote neersticheyt beschreven is niet alleen die gantse historie dat is die namen tfaetsoen natuere cracht ende operatie van meesten deel de cruyden die hier ende in ander landen wassende... Door Leonhaert Fucha. Met drij tafeln oft registers. Basel: Michiel Isengrin [1543].

“‘Before the Wolfsbane Potion was discovered, however, I became a fully fledged monster once a month.’”
--Remus Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 353

Paolo Veneto (ca. 1370-1428)

A prominent medieval Italian thinker, Paul of Venice was an Augustinian logician, theologian, and educator. As this text indicates, his interests lay in the stars as well.

Shown above: page from Liber de compositione mundi / excelle[n]tissimi viri Pauli Veneti theologi insignis, philosophi summi, ac astronomi maximi opus aureu[m] de compositione mu[n]di quod Astronomie ianua nu[n]cupari po[tes]t ; i[n] quo omnium celestium signorum, segmentoru[m]q[ue] omnium figuratio & quasi typus quida[m] perspicitur nuperrime diligenter recognitum. Lugduni : impressum in edibus honesti viri Antonij du Ry calcographi, 1525.

“They had to study the night skies through their telescopes every Wednesday at midnight and learn the names of different stars and the movements of the planets.”
--Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 133

John Gerard (1545-1612)

Of the Yew Tree (Taxus baccata)

Gerard was an English herbalist and physician whose Herbal contains more than 1,000 species of plants with information about their usages as well as extensive commentary on folkloric references. Gerard most likely drew on other herbals, including those of Rembertus Dodoens and Jacob Theodorus Tabernaemontanus. Yew (Taxus) “is a tree... often planted in churchyards, and regarded as symbolic of sadness.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

Shown above: page from The herbal, or Generall historie of plantes. Gathered by John Gerarde... Very much enlarged and amended by Thomas Johnson... London: Printed by A. Islip, J. Norton, and R. Whitakers, 1636.

“Yes, thirteen-and-a-half inches. Yew. Curious indeed how these things happen. The wand chooses the wizard, remember.... I think we must expect great things from you, Mr. Potter... After all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did great things-terrible, yes, but great.”
--Mr. Ollivander in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, p. 85

The Luttrell Psalter

The Luttrell Psalter is one of the most famous medieval manuscripts because of its rich illustrations of everyday life in the 14th century. It was made in the diocese of Lincoln for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276-1345) of Irnham, probably sometime between 1325 and 1335.” (British Library)

The concept of transformation—child into adult, human into animal or monster, birth to life to death—abounds in both the Harry Potter series and medieval and Renaissance conceptions of the natural world and the body. Human transformation is depicted in a very vivid way in both The Luttrell Psalter and Harry Potter. The psalter contains some of the most imaginative marginalia seen in any manuscript, and it is filled with human/animal/plant hybrid creatures. Harry Potter's world features Animagi, people who turn into a specifically chosen animal through powerful magic, and Metamorphmagi, people who are born with the ability to transform their appearance at will. Transformation can also be induced through drinking potions such as the Polyjuice Potion.

Shown above: pages from The Luttrell psalter: a facsimile / commentary by Michelle P. Brown. London : The British Library, 2006.

“Here it is,’ said Hermione excitedly as she found the page headed The Polyjuice Potion. It was decorated with drawings of people halfway through transforming into other people. Harry sincerely hoped the artist had imagined the looks of intense pain on their faces.”
--Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, pp. 164 - 165

“...the Ministry of Magic keeps tabs on witches and wizards who can become animals; there’s a register showing what animal they become, and their markings and things...”
--Hermione in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, p. 351

Matthias de L’Obel (1538-1616)

Mandragora manneken. Mandragoren wijfken.
Mandrake Man, Mandrake Woman (Mandragora officinarum)

The herbal of L’Obel, a French physician and botanist, was a milestone in modern botany. L’Obel organized approximately 1,200 plants into rough genuses and families, a system which was elaborated upon by later botanists.

Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) is “a poisonous and narcotic Mediterranean plant... It was formerly credited with magical and medicinal properties especially because of the supposedly human shape of its forked fleshy root, being used to promote conception, and was reputed to shriek when pulled from the ground and to cause the death of whoever uprooted it.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

Shown above: page from Kruydtboeck, oft Beschryvinghe van allerleye ghewassen, kruyderen, hesteren, ende geboomten: deur Matthias de L’Obel... t’Antwerpen: By Christoffel Plantyn, 1581.

“'Mandrake, or Mandragora, is a powerful restorative,’ said Hermione, sounding as though she had swallowed the textbook. ‘It is used to return people who have been transfigured or cursed to their original state.'”
--Hermione in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, p. 92