Magico-Medical Talismans 2, A Deeper Analysis of the Middleham Jewel

Middleham Jewel 2As mentioned in a previous blog post, the Middleham Jewel contained the word ‘Ananizapta’, which was a charm against epilepsy, also known as ‘the falling sickness’ or ‘the sacred disease’ by various parties.

One manuscript where the charm is found suggests that the meaning of the word is “May the antidote of the Nazarene prevail over death by poison! May the Trinity sanctify food and drink! Amen”, while, according to Claude Lecouteux, another manuscript defines it as “May the bitterness of the Nazarene’s death remove us from the verdict of eternal damnation, by the power of the Father, for a harsher persecution,” which is based on the idea that the word is an acronym for Ancient Greek.

Whatever the true meaning of the word inscribed on the talisman, the rest of its construction can be traced back to the rules laid down in Middle Eastern books of ‘Natural Magic’ that made their way to Europe after the end of the Crusades. With these texts came ideas dating back to the Classical world that metals, stones and plants were infused by the power of various planets, which could give them powers to affect magical cures if they were properly calibrated. Continue reading “Magico-Medical Talismans 2, A Deeper Analysis of the Middleham Jewel”

Hamlet’s Father: Ghost or Demon?

Marcellus: What, has this thing appeared again tonight?

Bernado: I have seen nothing…

Marcellus: Horatio says ’tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him,
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us… that if this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak of it.

Horatio: But soft, behold, lo where it comes again!
I’ll cross it though it blast me. Stay, illusion.
If thou has any sound or use of voice,
Speak to me.
If there be any good thing to be done that may to thee do ease, and grace to me,
Speak to me.
If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, which happily foreknowing may avoid,
Oh speak.
If thou hast uphoarded in thy life,
Extorted treasure in the womb of the earth,
For which they say you spirits oft walk in death,
Speak of it…

Marcellus: Shall I strike at it with my partisan?

Horatio: Do it if it will not stand.

Marcellus: ‘Tis gone.
We do it wrong being so majestical
To offer it the show of violence,
For it is as the air invulnerable,
And our vail blows malicious mockery.

Bernado: It was about to speak when the cock crew.

Marcellus: It faded on the crowing of the cock.

Above is an abridged version of the scene from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet where three officers of the watch witness the ghost of Hamlet’s father haunting the castle of Elsinore.

When Hamlet himself, already identified as a bit of an odd bird, meets the ghost he says:

Hamlet: Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane…

Here, we see that the spirit seen in the castle of Elsinore has three possible identities: ghost, demon, or hallucination. Continue reading “Hamlet’s Father: Ghost or Demon?”

Medieval Folklore that D&D Got Right: Undead Knights and Dungeons Full of Treasure

skeleton_warrior_by_skullsdirectIf you follow this blog, you might have realised that I’m a bit of a geek: not just a folklore and mythology geek, but a geek in general. Knowing this, it probably won’t be a surprise that I spent much of my childhood playing Dungeons and Dragons. Even as an adult, I can still be found playing tabletop from time to time (but not D&D anymore, now I play 1930s-style pulp adventure games, where sexy occult historians get dragged into adventures with breathy femme fatales…)

Dungeons and Dragons was the creation of Gary Gygax, and was originally released as a supplement for a wargaming system called Chainmail. Over the years, and certainly by the time I was playing, a number of fantasy words were released with increasingly different world-building to anything you’d ever seen in real medieval history.

However, hidden at the core of D&D, buried, unspoken, in the rules and mechanics of the system (a system widely mocked for being pernickety and bureaucratic) are a set of tropes that represent a loving recreation of Medieval European folklore.

Just as the Ancient Egyptians worried about how the dead would support themselves in the afterlife, so did the Medieval Europeans. In the Early Middle Ages it was an important part of German Law that the dead were entitled to be buried with up to a third of their wealth so that they could support themselves in the life after death. Continue reading “Medieval Folklore that D&D Got Right: Undead Knights and Dungeons Full of Treasure”

Things that Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark (Part One of an Occasional Series)

Photo by flickr.com/photos/timo_w2s/

As modern people we don’t always appreciate it, but the world has changed for us only very, very recently. There was a world not so long ago where milk was seasonal and streetlights didn’t exist.

In this milkless era two-thirds of Britain was covered in thick forest that swallowed up the light, meaning that on a cloudy or moonless night those forests would be filled with invisible ditches, riverbanks and pitfalls. The 17th Century diary of a Reverend Heywood in Yorkshire records of how a man walked out of his house only to vanish without trace. Another Yorkshireman, Arthur Jessop, lost his way and fell into a stone pit. In Aberdeenshire a fifteen year old girl died in 1739 because she lost her way on the path and fell down a freshly dug grave. One elderly Suffock farmer even boasted that he’d been going around at night without injuring himself, although he had once fallen off his horse and gone down a steep riverbank.

Even the cities were pretty bad: until the early 18th Century there was no obligation for the city authorities to provide any sort of artificial light, and paving was a ragtag mix of the cheapest stone that various householders could get their hands on (since the house owner was directly responsible for paving the section outside his house, and your average slumlord wasn’t going to fork out on much.) This meant rain, darkness and garbage created a slick coating of grease and faeces the put hundreds of soon-to-be-dead people into the river Thames over the years. Continue reading “Things that Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark (Part One of an Occasional Series)”

Medico-Magical Talismans and the Middleham Jewel

MUK_middleham_304x400In 1985, a metal-detectorist found the Middleham Jewel, a possibly 15th century magico-medical talisman found in the verges of a bridal path near Middleham castle itself.

The artefact is just 6.4cm high, with a beautiful sapphire stone. It has a loop at the top for use as as pendant, with a compartment, possibly designed to contain some sort of healing relic. The rest of the Jewel’s design is linked with its purpose: an extract from the Latin mass, a scene from the crucifixion, and the word ‘Ananizapta’, a charm against epilepsy.

The idea of magical talismans for medicine was a mainstay of medieval medical thought. After the Crusades, a wave of culture came from the Middle East: works of philosophy and science previously lost had been perfectly preserved and developed upon in the Muslim East. The City of Toledo became a cultural melting pot, translating works of Hermetic Philosophy and Arab medicine into Latin, Hebrew and Spanish.

So, why does this mean a medieval lady would be trying to cure her epilepsy with a magical amulet? Continue reading “Medico-Magical Talismans and the Middleham Jewel”

The Tempestuous, Folly-Filled Reign of Edward II

King_Edward_II_of_EnglandNo one could accuse the reign of Edward II of being dull. Coming to the throne in 1307, one of his earliest actions was to declare the Knights Templar as heretics and sodomites ( and of possessing a talking brass head ).

He’d already been a fairly controversial Prince of Wales. His father, had ripped out a handful of Edward’s hair after the young prince had tried to persuade the Plantagenet king that Edward’s favourite, Piers Gaveston, should be created the Count of Ponthieu. Instead, Edward’s father (Edward I) banished the knight, enraged at “…the undue intimacy which the young Lord Edward had adopted towards him.”

Despite declaring the Knights Templar as sexual deviants, there has always been a suspicion that Edward II was a homosexual himself, perhaps explaining the addition of ‘Soddomy’ to what was otherwise a fairly standard set of misbehaviour accusations.

What can be said is that Edward had a politically and socially unhealthy fascination with Piers Gaveston. His first act upon becoming King was to recall Gaveston from banishment, and upon marrying Princess Isabella of France he immediately gave the most pleasing (and valuable) jewells to Gaveston as gifts.

In fact, one of the biggest indictments of Edward is that whether he was straight or gay, he was an idiot. After offending the twelve year old Princess of France (and her father, Philip IV) he engaged in openly mocking his most powerful barons, calling the Earl of Warwick the ‘Black Hound of Arden’ and ignoring affairs of state to shower gifts and clothes on Gaveston, who he’d created as the Earl of Cornwall (even at the time, their love was rumoured to be more than friendship, although I do think that if Edward had been a better governor, fewer of his subjects would have cared.)

After a series of humiliations that included Edward abandoning her at Tynemouth Abbey (or so wrote a Monk of St. Albans, John de Trokelow), Isabella began to turn against her neglectful husband.

She wasn’t alone: the reason that Edward had abandoned her in 1312 was because he was being chased by an army of dissatisfied Barons, who captured and executed Gaveston (this didn’t teach Edward, he just took a new favourite in Hugh Despencer).

By 1321, Isabella had joined forces with her lover, Roger Mortimer (whose direct descendant is the modern explorer Sir Ranulf Fiennes) to lead a rebellion against Edward and the hated Despensers, which resulted in his imprisoning at Berkeley Castle, where, on the 11th of Octorber he was quietly put to death.

The manner of his death is somewhat disputed: local lore in Berkeley is that he was killed with a red-hot poker shoved up his backside, and that the people of Berkeley could hear his screams for miles around, although contemporary chroniclers said that he died of either suffocation or strangulation.

 

Donations Keep This Blog Running

The contents of this blog are entirely free and always will be. I have a couple of books out, but the vast majority of the work I do, especially my historical work, is a labour of love. With that said, creating this content costs me money: I pay for access to academic journals, to a professional quality research library, for trips to specialised collections and archives, and for courses in Latin, Archive Skills and Paleography.

If you’ve read this material and found it useful, please consider donating a small amount of money towards my work. If one in a hundred of the people who see my blog this week bought me a coffee via Ko-fi, it would make a huge difference to my ability to deliver. If one in fifty did, I’d be able to significantly increase my output.

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Saint or Witch? The Fine Line in the Supernatural Before the Enlightenment

Saint AugustineHow and Why?
What makes a witch? It’s been a long time since you’d find anyone who argued it was the talent for magical power. Of the factors that come together to make someone a witch, alleged magical power was only one of many.

Witch stories have a strange mirror in the very myths made up society and religion for much society until the advent of the Reformation.

Part of this was how history was written. Almost until the Enlightenment, history was seen as an expression of the art of rhetoric. Historical events mines for morally pleasing stories, which could be adapted without troubling the historian’s conscience.

Adding to that, pre-Reformation law in Britain (which continued unmodified during the witch trials in many other places) involved torture as a mainstay of the trial process. Judges could only find a defendant guilty if they were able to secure two witness statements that agreed perfectly, or if the defendant could be persuaded to confess. The regulations for assessing the two statements were surprisingly strict, leaving many Judges little option other than to secure a confession.

Circumstantial evidence was enough to secure the Judge’s suspicion, which was grounds for torture. Suspected witches would be coerced into spinning a narrative that their interrogators could take into court. Motivated by the pain of torture, and the knowledge that their torturers could only stop when they’d reached a mutually agreeable narrative, witches would draw on the stories of their everyday lives.

Finally, many accusers would fall back on the stories they’d been culturally primed with in order to understand what they believed to be terrifying magical attacks. Continue reading “Saint or Witch? The Fine Line in the Supernatural Before the Enlightenment”

3 Strangest Medieval Creatures

16th-century-woodcut-of-monster-by-aldronvandi-8One of my favourite things about the medieval supernatural is the general strangeness: not silly strangeness – like bananas with fangs – but proper, John Carpenter’s The Thing, level strangeness. The strange and supernatural have a dream (or nightmare) logic that you never quite get if you just sit down and try to create something horrible with your conscious creative powers.

With that in mind, here are some of my favourite strange and disturbing creatures.

The Thing That Heralded The Great Fire of London
There were supposed to have been a lot of strange occurrences around the Great Fire of London: there was a pyramid of fire seen above London from St. James’ to Whitehall, it rained fish in Kent, and a group of apocalyptic anti-monarchists called (paradoxically) the Fifth Monarchists even predicted a fiery apocalypse on September 2nd, when the Great Fire started at 2am on that very day.

None of them were as strange as what the Spanish Ambassador to London said had been born up on Cornhill, only a few months before the Great Fire itself:

“A deformed monster… horrible in shape and colour. Part of him was fiery red and part of him yellow, on his chest was a human face. He had the legs of a bull, the feet of a man, the tail of a wolf, the breasts of a goat, the shoulders of a camel, a long body and in place of a head a kind of tumour with the ears of a horse. Such monstrous prodigies are permitted by God to appear to mankind as harbingers of calamities.”

Shapeshifting Medieval Spooks
As I’ve blogged before, the medieval dead are much more interesting and deadly than the ghosts of Victorian horror stories.

The ghost in the 1963 film The Haunting will hammer at your door, play tricks on you, and possibly drive you mad, but a revenant from Medieval England will kick its way in, drag you out of bed and beat you to death with its bare hands.

One of the other things the medieval revenant does is change shape prodigiously. M R James, my favourite writer of ghost stories, was no stranger to physically aggressive ghosts. The spook in ‘A Warning To The Curious’ isn’t trying to drive anyone mad. It finds the archaeologist who dug up its crown, stalks him, and gives him the kind of lethal violencing you’d reserve for someone who mugged your grandmother.

One of the other things that medieval revenants are good at is shape-changing disturbingly, which was something else that M R James knew all about. He was a Professor of Medieval Literature, and actually translated a collection of 14th century ghost stories now known as the Bylands Manuscript.

The ghosts here appear in a number of strange shapes: one appears as, “a horse standing on its hind legs, holding its front legs high up in front of itself…” which changes shape so that, “…it appeared in the shape of a rolling bale of hay, with a light glowing at its centre.”

The same revenant later turns itself into a goat, while another tells a human witness about a spirit that appears in, “the shape of a bullock without a mouth, eyes, or ears, and no matter how often he is sworn to confession, he is not able to speak.”

A Vampire that Robert Pattinson Couldn’t Play
The strangest supernatural/folkloric creature that I’ve heard about recently is flagged as a Vampire in Claude Lecouteux’s book, The Secret History of Vampires.

The story comes Schmitz, Germany, in 1565:

“A woman… gave birth to a diabolical being that had no head or feet. On its chest, near the left shoulder it bore a mouth, and near its right shoulder, an ear. It had suction cups instead of fingers, like a frog of toad; its entire body was the colour of liver and shook like lard or jelly. When the midwife set this being into a tub seat or basin to wash it, it emitted the most horrible cries… On the orders of His Lordship, Vratslaus, the aborted child was exhumed, placed on a cart, and given to the executioner to burn outside the village. Despite the enormous quantity of wood burned, it proved impossible to annihilate this diabolical mass; even the clothes in which it had been swaddled remained damp despite the heat of the raging flames, until the executioner cut it into tiny pieces and destroyed them in fire with the greatest difficulty.

 

 

Donations Keep This Blog Running

The contents of this blog are entirely free and always will be. I have a couple of books out, but the vast majority of the work I do, especially my historical work, is a labour of love. With that said, creating this content costs me money: I pay for access to academic journals, to a professional quality research library, for trips to specialised collections and archives, and for courses in Latin, Archive Skills and Paleography.

If you’ve read this material and found it useful, please consider donating a small amount of money towards my work. If one in a hundred of the people who see my blog this week bought me a coffee via Ko-fi, it would make a huge difference to my ability to deliver. If one in fifty did, I’d be able to significantly increase my output.

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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.

 

Donations Keep This Blog Running

The contents of this blog are entirely free and always will be. I have a couple of books out, but the vast majority of the work I do, especially my historical work, is a labour of love. With that said, creating this content costs me money: I pay for access to academic journals, to a professional quality research library, for trips to specialised collections and archives, and for courses in Latin, Archive Skills and Paleography.

If you’ve read this material and found it useful, please consider donating a small amount of money towards my work. If one in a hundred of the people who see my blog this week bought me a coffee via Ko-fi, it would make a huge difference to my ability to deliver. If one in fifty did, I’d be able to significantly increase my output.

Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com

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.”