Medieval Freakonomics: “A Witch Killed My Cow”

Matthew Hopkins[Note: the figures are approximate here, but it’s an interesting thought exercise.]

In the late 16th century, a London woman called Elizabeth Sawyer was hanged as a witch after a series of events set in motion by the death of her neighbour’s pig.

I, as much as anyone else, find there’s something quite Monty Python about someone saying that a witch killed their cow. I grew up near an agricultural community where I used to go horse riding working farms. Still, there’s something I can’t quite take seriously, something strangely quaint.

I’m probably not the only one. For modern people, unless you are someone who relies on smallholding to make a living, the value of a cow as an immediate thing is hard for us to grasp.

This is a time when around 70% of the population are grindingly poor: illiterate and relying on waged work which paid only 60-80% of their household bills.

They’d make that up by gleaning (i.e. scavenging) edible plants from the land, growing crops on common land, and raising tiny numbers of animals to get the eggs, milk and cheese they needed to not die for another year.

For this person, the average income is about £8-10 a year, at a time when there are twelve pennies (p) to the shilling, and twenty shillings (s) to the pound.

In the late 16th century cow was worth, according to a trial document from 1594, 40s.

For a waged worker that’s pretty much four months’ wages (bearing in mind that work is irregular, so we’re basing our calculations on a three day working week).

Not only that, but it’s four months wages based on them saving their whole income, which isn’t going to happen. In reality, it could take years for someone pay that off. About the same amount of time we’d take to pay off a £6000 loan (almost $10,000).

Another thing to bear in mind is that a cow is about all they could expect. One magistrate for Sheffield in the 17th century wrote of the poor in his community, “not one of which can keep a team on his own land, and not above ten who have grounds of their own that will keep a cow.”

In proportion to the modern day, we’re talking about the price of a really good laptop, or a low-average used car. How would you feel if your top-of-the-line-gaming-pc blew up because you annoyed the mad women down the road?

Even worse, how would you feel if you lived in a rural area and suddenly had to replace your car?

Even less valuable animals could still be expensive. A pig could cost 8s. That’s two to three weeks’ wages, if you were a labourer.

Again, we’re talking about the equivalent of almost a month’s wages. According to the British average, that would be £600-800 for a single person. In the US we’re talking about around $1500.

And bear in mind, when a witch came to trial she could be accused of much more damage: when Alice Alberte of Felstead died in prison, she was accused of doing £7 16s in damage to the local community. That’s almost a year’s wages for someone in 17th century.

So don’t think of a witch as someone who has killed a pig, think of her as someone who scrapped a car, burned some laptops, and then ransacked a convenience store, doing $30,000 (around £18,000) damage.

That’s a lot of money.


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The Superstition and Politics behind medieval corpse dismemberment.

CannibalsWhy would you dismember a corpse? Nancy Caciola wrote a fantastic article for Past and Present (one of my favourite journals) in 1996 suggesting one of the most obvious reasons: to stop it wandering around.

Caciola’s article was one of my first introductions into the world of medieval Revenants: the very physical, shape-shifting dead who can climb out of their graves and tear you to pieces. In a world where we have demons climbing into the fleshy suit offered by the unprotected form of a corpse, we can see why Bonocampagno wrote of the German custom for boiling and dismemberment of corpses. In the 12th Century burning, boiling or dismemberment was a popular solution for corpses who wouldn’t stay in their graves.

It’s equally important to know that medieval theology had a strongly held belief that until a body had dissolved, the soul would be trapped within it. That’s why William of Newburgh writes in detail about the intactness of corpses, like the corpse of a lustful dead husband who crawls into bed with his terrified widow. It’s not a surprise that the body doesn’t find rest until it’s burned to ashes.

Pope Boniface VIII even released a Papal Bull in 1299 against the barbaric practise of French nobles who were having themselves dismembered and interred in several different sites. Surely, such things can only go to illustrate the terrible decadence of the French? Continue reading “The Superstition and Politics behind medieval corpse dismemberment.”

Books Bound in Human Skin

One of the most irritating scenes in all of horror is in The Devil Rides out with Leon Greene and Christopher Lee. Green’s character, Rex Van Ryn, touches a leather bound book and shudders. He turns to Christopher Lee who nods sagely and says, “Yes, bound in human skin.” It’s a really annoying scene, because there are loads of books bound in human skin and I have it on good authority that you can’t tell the bloody difference between that and any other kind of leather.

At least unless it has a tattoo on the cover saying, “I love Mum”.

Okay, first myth first: to my knowledge there are no books of magic, black or otherwise, bound in human skin. The reasons are simple common sense: for most of history any form of magic has been really VERY illegal. Necromancers and evokers couched their magic in highly pious and religious terms:

Human Skin Covered Book

“I do invocate and conjure thee…by Beralanensis, Baldachiensis, Paulmachia…  Powerful Princes… and Ministers of the Tartarean Abode … also, I, being made after the image of God, endued with the power from him, and created according unto his will, do exorcise thee by that most mighty and powerful name of God …” – Pseudo Solomon, The Goetia (circa. 1566)

In Necromancy, the procedures for getting divinations from the dead and having conversations with Spirits weren’t called spells, but ‘experiments.’


The Selkie Wife a look at the image at the side of the article here. It’s a woman, draped at the feet of a man wearing a cloak. It has a touch of the 1970s about it, like the cover of a fantasy novel that makes you wonder if the artist should have stopped for a cold shower. Except the closer you look at it, the more WRONG you see: for example, yes, she’s naked, but she doesn’t look happy… in fact from the way she’s grabbing onto his arm, it might almost be as if he’s dragging her by the hair. Oh, and then there’s her face: ‘not happy’ is an understatement, she looks like an early version of Munch’s The Scream.

So, who is this woman, what’s going on?

It’s simple: she’s a Selkie, a beautiful and innocent water spirit, what’s going on is that she’s being dragged off into a life of sexual and domestic slavery. Not the good kind of slavery, where there’s a safe word and lots of special equipment ordered off the internet, this is the full Fritzl: the Orkney Islands story of Goodman O’Wastness is a great example.


Yeth Hounds, Lost Souls of the Moors

1942 was a terrible year for snow. RAF Davidstowe Moor records a significant spike in crashes wrecks due to bad weather. It was a dark time for the allies, but for one anti-aircraft gunner, time weren’t just dark. They were haunting.

Private Jack James was heading back for his bed, looking out over the moors, when he saw a mass of black spots. They were a long way off, but moving quickly, cutting across his path, lapping over one of the rolling white fields. Sheep and cows were a fairly common sight on the Cornish moors, but herds didn’t move so quickly or purposefully as that. This something much more dangerous than a herd, this was a pack.

Yell Hounds. Yeth Hounds. Wish Hounds. They’ve got many names and they appear all over Britain: in the North of England, Sussex and the West Country. Strange hounds with glowing eyes, baying on the Moors. Bringing back the kind of primal fear that we British have now forgotten: the fear of being outnumbered by predators, cornered and taken down. The fear of being forcibly returned to the animal world.


Doctor Faustus and Demonic Pacts

Believe it or not, the intelligentsia have always had a ‘thing’ that they felt set them apart from everyone else. When I was a teenager, it was Postmodernism, later it was the Sceptics movement. In the early modern period, it was Demonology.

Obviously, they didn’t call it Demonolgy. Well, the practitioners didn’t. They called them ‘experiments’. It was just that a lot of those ‘experiments’ involved standing in the middle of a magical circle calling out to various angels and devils to send a Lord of Hell your way.

Part of the reason that Demonology, or Nigromancy (i.e. black magic) was so pervasive was there were echoes of it accepted in the science of the time. Astrology and the physical influence of the Astrological planets was accepted to be fact. The only debate was about whether it was okay for man to take hand in his own destiny by manipulating the power of the planets through magical intervention.


The Deadly Chicken-Lizard of Hampshire

1533 and Britain was entering the first stages of the Reformation. The Priory at Wherwell, Hampshire, had escaped relatively untouched by the reformers. Unfortunately for them, something far darker was hatching.

Down in the vaults of the Priory’s Minster, the Prior’s aged cockerel, nearing the end of its life, had found a cool, dark place to lay an egg. There in the darkness it laid a single yolkess sphere, with a tough skin like a serpent’s egg, and quietly expired. Serpents and toads made their homes in the cool damp of the chapel’s crypt, strangely drawn to sit on and incubate the egg… and all too soon, it hatched.

Instantly a terrible poisonous vapour started to seep out of it’s mouth and nostrils, killing the crypt rats and driving everything else out of the chamber. The Cockatrice, barely six inches long, feasted on the days old body of the Cockerel, hissing at the footsteps of the unsuspecting monks above it.

It was a nightmare thing: standing on two upright legs, like a chicken, with the feathered upper body and beak of a bird, a crown of wattles on its head. It’s lower body was a long, writhing serpent-like tail. It ate anything it could: carrion, scraps, corpses and other serpents. And it grew.


The Fachen, A Strange Giant

Bit of weird personal information from me (this might be more than you really want to know:) I never really properly knew either of my grandmothers.

From what I remember, though, one of them (on my father’s side) was awesome and probably contributed the genetic material that made me turn out how I am.

When hearing that my mother was pregnant again, she immediately started taking her out to a series of walks in Cemeteries, Crematoria and derelict lunatic asylums (well… I might have made that last one up).

That’s why it’s a bit strange that I remember hearing about this monster from my Grandmother, despite the fact that the numbers don’t really add up.

On the other hand, from what I know of her, I can imagine her telling this tale to a baby squalling in its crib:

“When the world was young, there were a race of giants with only one arm. They also had only one leg, and only one eye. In fact they lived as if they were split down the middle, with all their guts hanging down one side. Imagine what that would be like.”

That’s the story, imagine my surprise decades later when (in the course of my daily weirdness) I find out it’s a real thing. Or at least, an authentic piece of folklore, rather than Grandma trying to warn me that I might get my arms and legs chewed off.


The Brag: Shape-Shifting Devil-Horse

Imagine the scene: you’re a medieval Geordie making your way back from the pub one night, feeling the toll of a hard day’s work and a hard night’s drinking, when you spot a perfectly good horse stand there at the roadside. Now, horses can be treated like bikes: there are places where someone can tie them up with some food and water, and go do their own thing. This, however, isn’t one of them. This is the roadside, not an inn or a stable.

So, you do the only thing you can do: you look both ways, call out feebly, and claim it for your own.

The beast behaves well. It walks well, it’s well fed and looks healthy. You decide to take it for a turn around the pond on your way home … which is where things start to go wrong.

As soon as you get near the water the beast tenses up, twitches, and bucks you straight into the pond. You splash and flounder in the water, coughing as you rise to the surface. What you see is a thing from your future nightmares: a shaggy, black, donkey-like thing with flaming blue eyes the size of saucers. You thrash to get away from it, but it turns tail and runs into the night, laughing an eerie, human laugh.