This is very much a work in progress and all input is gratefully received. I have deliberately steered away from making any analogy with modern society simply because I don’t have the expertise to do it in an informed way. If any reader has greater knowledge or capacity than me, they’re very welcome to use my work as they see fit.
In 1612, as a part of the infamous trial of the Pendle and Samlesbury witches, a young girl named Grace Sowerbutts gave evidence of her seduction to witchcraft:
“This Examinate did go with the said Jennet Bierly her grandmother, and Ellen Bierley, her aunt, to the house of Walshman, in the night time, to murder a child in a strange manner… after they had eaten [the child] the said three women and this Examinate danced every one of them with the black things: and after, the black things abused the said women. She describes four black things to go upright, but not like men in the face.”
Hello everyone. Today’s blog post isn’t quite like my usual ones: it’s not an article in its own right, but instead a digest of things that I mentioned in the interview I did for the Folklore Podcast episode that went live today, but didn’t have time/the memory to develop on. If you want to listen to the cast, you can do it at the address below:
This post comes with apologies for my not having posted anything last week. I was giving a rather fun lecture on Prospero at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside: a fantastic archaeological trust that also manages to be a working theatre (despite not being allowed to have toilets, and having very strict rules against heating). I gave the talk with a skilled and patient actor friend, Suzanne Marie, and pending permissions I hope to make the whole thing available on Sound Cloud.
With that out of the way, it won’t surprise any of you to know that my thoughts have turned to Christmas. The decorations are up, I’ve started working my way through my gin-themed advent calendar, and the Christmas telly beckons…
Which brings me around to the main point of this post: Ghosts.
I’ve yet to see a culture with no traditions of ghost stories, but the dark nights of Medieval Britain gave birth to an enchanting culture of ghost stories and monstrous tales rivalled only by the great Sagas of the Northern Tradition.
In writing the social history of the supernatural, it’s all too easy for to create a pantheon of heroes and villains. For heroes we have educated doctors and humanists fighting fanatical magistrates, bringing modern wisdom to backward country farmers. As villains, we would have a field of straw men: Puritan preachers, ‘Witchfinder Generals’, ignorant yokels, conniving magnates, and corrupt search-women.
Cards on the table: I haven’t had time to write a fresh blog post for this week, since I’m giving a lecture at the Rose Playhouse in London tomorrow (Monday 21st November 2016, to be exact), but things are gearing up towards Christmas, which puts me in mind of my favourite Christmassy Shakespeare play (that I’ve also given a lecture about at the Rose, and have extensive notes for).
What’s the title of that play? Well, just in case you didn’t have time to read the title of this blog post: it’s Twelfth Night.
In the second of our articles about the Witch trials of King James VI (see the note at the bottom of my previous article to explain why I’m not calling him ‘James VI & I’) we shall take up James’ witch hunting career as he officially accepted the English throne in 1603.
The Act of 1604
Popular perception has it that James’ zeal for witch hunting resulted in a tougher witchcraft act, emulating the much tougher law in Scotland.
I’ve already written about fairies in the witch trials on this blog. While it would be inaccurate to say that witches represented a survival of some pre-Christian Pagan religion, the idea of Pagan DNA lurking in the genetic makeup of Medieval and Early Modern Christian practises certainly bothered educated writers. In Buchard of Worms’ Decretum, written sometime around 1066, took time to attack perceived ‘Pagan’ practises such as dream travel, playing music around the dead, and dancing in cemeteries. Whether it was a deliberate campaign — not unlike the general campaign of imitation, assimilation and stigmatisation used through the rest of the spread of Christianity through Europe — or the result of writers attempting to use the Latin language to express native concepts, by the 16th and 17th centuries the idea had become entrenched.
We can see by the late 16th century, by which time the English witch trials were in full swing, and nowhere near the hiatus that would occur in the first Caroline era, that the ecclesiastical elite were very much of the opinion that witches whose work involved mention of the fairies were certainly minions of Satan. In 1579, in a book of medicinal recipes, William Bullein took time to attack a Catholic healer in Parham who used an ebony rosary and prayers to St. Anthony to cure illnesses caused by fairies and sprites.
In his 1590 Treatise Against Witchcraft Henry Holland, a graduate of Cambridge who was the Vicar of St. Brides while Christopher Marlowe was writing his Faustus, mentioned fairy witches in his list of terms for malevolent women, “the witches are sometimes called Thessalae, Thessalian Witches, Sagae, Wise Women, Magae, Persian Witches, Lamiae, Ladies of Fayrie, Stirges, Hegge…”
This is the story of a middle class woman from 1607. Her name was Anna Taylor. She was the wife of a brewer called George; she could read (as could her mother) and she might well have been a doctor. Not a ‘wise woman’ or local healer – a doctor. She made chemical medicines and astrologically charged distilled potions. She tested people’s urine to find out why they were sick, and she could tell you the progression of an illness. She also might have had magical books and attempted spells that would summon the fairies. Continue reading “Mrs. Anna Taylor — Chemical Physician, Ritual Magician and Seventeenth Century Woman”
In the parliament of 1541/2, Henry VIII passed a witchcraft act entitled ‘An Act against Conjurations, Witchcraft, Sorcery and Enchantments.’
The act had a very different focus to what we might expect for an act punishing witchcraft: killing by magic is only mentioned in passing, and the idea of the witch as being in league with Satan was given a backhanded reference:
“Where dyvers and sundrie persones unlawfully have devised and practised invocacons and conjuracons of Sprites, p’tendyng by such meanes to understand and get Knowledge for their own lucre in what place treasure of golde and Silver shoulde or mought be founde or had in the earthe or other secret places, and also have used and occupied witchcrafts inchauntment and sorceries to the distruccon of their neigbours persones and goodes, And for execucon of their said falce devyses and practises have made or caused to be made dyvers Images and pictures of men women children Angells or devells beastes or fowles, and have also made Crownes Septures Swordes rynges glasses and other thinges, and giving faithe & credit to suche fantasticall practises have dyged up and pulled downe and infinite nombre of Crosses within this Realme, and teaken upon them to declare and tell where things lost or stolen shulde become; wiche things cannot be used and exercised but to the great offence of Godes lawe, hurt and damage of the Kinges Subjects, and losse of the sowles of such Offenders, to the greate dishonour of God, Infany and disquyetnes of the Realme…”