From Witchhunter to Vampire Hunter — Henrich Kramer and the Undead

Malleus_1669I freely admit that I’ve never read the Malleus Maleficarum all the way through, simply because it’s the one witch hunting book that really bothers me. Heinrich Kramer (I refuse to call him ‘Institoris’) was, in my opinion, just a vile human being. He wasn’t trying to do the best he could in a bad situation, he was a genuinely insane, hateful, awful human being.

But here’s a story worth telling: apparently he was a vampire hunter.

Heinrich Kramer
I don’t have to call Kramer a madman, or impugn his abilities, because the Bishop of Innsbruck already did during his own lifetime. In 1484 Kramer was conducting the trial of an Innsbruck woman when he began departing from legal procedure to question the accused about her sexual history. In some times and at some places this wouldn’t have made the blindest bit of difference, but the Bishop of Innsbruck appears to have believed in a crazy thing called ‘the rule of law’.

The defence called for the case to be halted after such a strange and creepy deviation, and the Archduke decided to abandon the prosecution altogether. The Bishop wrote two letters to Kramer’s host in the town, first saying, “tell him that because of quite a few scandals that have arisen on account of his bad procedure, he should not stay in the place lest something worse ensue or happen to him. A few words to the wise: what he did was very inappropriate.” Continue reading “From Witchhunter to Vampire Hunter — Henrich Kramer and the Undead”

Tales of the Doppelgänger

Possibly coined by the Yorkshire Tradesman M A Denham, the doppelgänger, from the German for “Double Walker”, is one of horror’s creepiest figures. The book Walking Haunted London, one of the first books I bought when I started enjoying ghost walks, gives the fantastic story of Robert Percival, cousin to the Prime Minister Spencer Percival…

DoppelgangerPossibly coined by the Yorkshire Tradesman M A Denham, the doppelgänger, from the German for “Double Walker”, is one of horror’s creepiest figures. The book Walking Haunted London, one of the first books I bought when I started enjoying ghost walks, gives the fantastic story of Robert Percival, cousin to the Prime Minister Spencer Percival.

His story is the typically chilling tale of the supernatural: Robert was a student at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the most beautiful of the four Inns of Court. Unlike his cousin he fell into a decadent lifestyle of gambling, drinking and whoring. One night while studying alone (because his hedonistic lifestyle had severely damaged his studies) he became strangely spooked as the clock struck midnight.

Feeling the typical ghostly chill, Percival saw that a hooded, robed figure had somehow entered his room. Demanding to know the intruder’s identity, Percival took up his sword and lunged at the silent figure, only to have the blade pass right through it. Terrified, he attacked the spectre, managing to uncover its face: his own face.

As it pulled back its robes, Percival saw that not only was he looking at himself, but the doppelgänger had terrible wounds on its face and chest. Frightened, he attempted to reapply himself to his studies, but lapsed.

Totally dissolute, Percival ran up huge gambling debts, so much that the shady characters he was borrowing from eventually lost their tempers and he was found dead in a gutter: bearing exactly the same wounds as the phantom. Continue reading “Tales of the Doppelgänger”

Things that D&D Got Right: Paladins and Magic Swords

RolandRoncesvallesIf you’re playing a warrior class character (or whatever they call them now, I haven’t played since 2nd Edition) the greatest thing is the awesomeness of a magic sword.

The best kinds are the intelligent ones that come with a Swiss Army Knife’s worth of special powers (yes, when I was a teenager I spent some quality time with the Intelligent Weapon creation table in the DMG), but a good second choice is the Holy Avenger, the sword that can only be wielded at full power by a Paladin, the Lawful Good holy warriors of D&D cannon.

The Real Paladins

In this case ‘real’ is a relative term. I wouldn’t usually make this distinction, but there’s a great deal of mythology coming up that glamourises holy war, particularly war in the Middle East, which is something I want to be clear I don’t endorse.

The above disclaimer aside, there were real people behind the Paladins, or at least some of them. The word Paladin might come from the Latin word Palatinus, via the archaic French word Palatine, which was a word for imperial officials in the Roman Empire.

The Mythological Paladins were the twelve companions of Charlemagne’s steward Roland. Rather than doing all the hero-ing himself, Charlemagne delegates a fair share of it to Roland, acting as a medieval Charlie to his armoured, male angels.

While many of the Twelves Peers of Charlemagne, or Paladins, aren’t real (you have a cool Saracen warrior, a Ranger who uses fairy magic, a Danish warrior, and a treacherous Mordred-like turncoat) both Roland and the Archbishop Turpin were almost certainly based on real people. Continue reading “Things that D&D Got Right: Paladins and Magic Swords”

Things That Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark 2: Strange Lights

Photo by flickr.com/photos/vhhammer/

So what if strange noises don’t bother you? You might be too brave or industrially deaf to care about that strange voice under your bed, whispering the pet name only known by you and your childhood sweetheart (you remember the one? You haven’t seen her since that night but she knows what you did, dammit, she knows what you did.)

That’s okay! The Pre-Industrial darkness has another horror in store for you too! Stopping up your ears and screaming to drown out the whispers of “Help me… it’s so cold down here…” won’t be enough. There aren’t just strange noises, there are also…

Strange Lights

And here’s the worst thing: in the pre-industrial darkness, unexpected lights are as bad as the darkness itself. The nighttime was seen as the time when demons were leaking out of the air itself, and when the supernatural was licensed to be at work. This was where nonhumans like the faeries were thought to be using lights to tempt humans for their own purposes, and were old European folklore mixed with the new enemies presented by the Church.

One of the most common sources of light at night were Will-O’-The-Whisps, (also known as Ignis Fatuus or ‘Fool’s Fire’,) disembodied lights that could sometimes be mistaken for lanterns and took a perverse delight in leading travellers away from the safe path, often to their doom. John Pressy, a man from Massachusetts from 1668, set off to go home at night and encountered a series of strange lights that he hit with his staff. Immediately they vanished, and Pressy was dumped into the bowels of a pit. Continue reading “Things That Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark 2: Strange Lights”

Magic Circles, Their History and Anatomy

CircletriangleOne of the most iconic images of the ‘black magician’ is the ominous figure standing in a magic circle filled with intricate designs and mystical symbols. Magic circles have been a big part of my life recently, after being involved in a production based on the Elizabethan Occult, and watching NBC’s Constantine – so I thought I’d write a little about what they are and where they came form.

Christopher Marlowe, writer of demonological play Doctor Faustus, described the popular vision of the magical circle:

“Within this circle is Jehovah’s name
Forward and backward anagrammatized,
Th’abbreviated names of holy saints,
Figures of every adjunct to the heavens,
And characters of signs and evening stars,
By which the spirits are enforced to rise.
Then fear not, Faustus, be resolute
And try the utmost magic can perform.” (1.3.8-15) Continue reading “Magic Circles, Their History and Anatomy”

Codex Gigas: The Devil’s Bible

Codex-Gigas-Devil-enhancedYou might know if you’ve read my bio, but I work as a tour guide at the Globe Theatre. There are many reasons why I love the Globe, not least of which is that I get to make a living from history – but also because you never know who you’re talking to.

In this case I was at the entrance telling getting people onto tours, when I started having a chat with one of the security guards. We talked about his travels in Eastern Europe and South America, touching on Voodou, Santeria, Brujha and Macamba (none of which I pronounced correctly, despite having studied them). It was inevitable that we eventually got onto the topic of The Devil.

We talked a little about the medieval fear of The Devil when he said, “You’ve heard of the Codex Gigas? The Codex Gigas? No? Look it up later.”

Here’s what I learned… Continue reading “Codex Gigas: The Devil’s Bible”

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”

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”