Tag Archives: Medieval European folklore

I’m talking about Fairies and the Witch Trials on the Folklore Podcast!

johann_heinrich_fussli_058

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:

http://www.thefolklorepodcast.com/

You can find my episode (“Fairy Belief and the Witch Trials”) in Season Two. Continue reading

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Sceptics in the Witch Trials

woman_teaching_geometryI’m in the latest issue of The Skeptic at the moment, writing about standards of proof when looking at medieval and Early Modern sources (largely medieval in that article) who present the supernatural as fact. For me, critical thinking is an indispensably important part of what I do – although I wouldn’t say I identify as ‘a S(c/k)eptic’ in the sense that it’s arisen as a social group. There are sceptic pub nights, there are sceptic podcasts and magazines. That’s not me.

I’m not an anti-sceptic either. My personal beliefs are my own, and they’re not part of my historical work. If I’m honest with myself, perhaps the reason my work is about social history instead of being more phenomenological is because it’s a debate that I’d rather keep out of, in part because even if we can say (and we often can) that a certain thing didn’t happen, we can’t actually say what did. Continue reading

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Biblical Curses During the Era of the Witch Trials

Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden - stained glassFor this blog, spring is probably going to have a lot of articles about either cursing and diaries. I’ve got a paper coming up at a very exciting conference just as (hopefully) the weather is picking up (and by that, I mean ‘the temperature should be above 10°C’.) Therefore, the lion’s share of my writing will be taken up with research on cursing from the medieval era to the Early Modern.

Today’s will be the first of the cursing posts: curses and execrations were all around for the medieval and Early Modern citizen. It’s little wonder that, with the growing belief in providentialism that accompanied the Reformation, the English more and more believed that witches could lay lethally effective curses. Even the grave of William Shakespeare, a resolutely mainstream figure, is decorated with the words, “Good Friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

A significant part of the draw of the curse, as it existed in a licit context, was the idea of appeal to a higher power. Even in a modern society, with supposedly reliable access to the machinery of justice, a significant gap exists between law and practise. In medieval and Early Modern England, with courts convened cyclically, laws poorly understood, and where justice could be put on hiatus by anything from heavy rains to plague, an extra supernatural deterrent would have been reassuring. Continue reading

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Ghosts of Christmas Past: Christmas Ghost Stories, Scandinavian Revenants, and the Medieval Dead in England

werwolfThis 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.

And so, perhaps time has come to look into the Ghosts of Christmas: in the Northern Traditions, in Britain, and in Scotland… Continue reading

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Trumpageddon, The Revelation of John and the Apocalypse from the Middle Ages to the English Restoration

d5a9072468314a887f7ba9426743de45I rarely write about the modern world. From a personal perspective, my interest tends to peter out after 1650.

With that said, it would be impossible for me to write anything this week without discussing how utterly terrible 2016 has been so far… so I’ve decided this week’s articles will be about Apocalypse narratives, and predictions of disaster. Continue reading

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Medieval Chroniclers and the Demonization of Fairies

joseph_noel_paton_-_puck_and_fairies_from_-a_midsummer_nights_dream-_-_google_art_projectI’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…”

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Mrs. Anna Taylor — Chemical Physician, Ritual Magician and Seventeenth Century Woman

screenshot2012-02-29at3-35-57pmThis 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

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Liber Vaccae — The Book of WTF?!?

This article exists behind a disclaimer: the magical book I’m about to write about is just weird. It’s weird, it’s disgusting, and there are a lot bodily fluids involved. Enter at your own risk.liber-vaccae Continue reading

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A Prideful and Naughty Coniurer: Tudor England’s Crackdown on Semi-Learned Male Magicians

gilles_de_rais_murdering_childrenIn 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…”

The target of this crackdown was, of course, a class of troublemaker more threatening to Henry than all the village wise women and argumentative spinsters combined: educated sorcerers, very often former monks or clerically trained university men, who had turned to magic as a way of earning a crust. Continue reading

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Familiars: A Very British Witchcraft

Witches'Familiars1579While the witch’s familiar can be found in other countries (I found some in some French cases), it represents one of the features that most separates the English witch from her continental counterpart.

The era of the witch trials in England came before the creation of the idea of ‘Britain’, from the traumas of the Reformation in 1538, gradually losing judicial support from the mid-17th century onwards.

A part of the reason for familiars is an extension of the idea birthed in Continental witchcraft that the witch herself was powerless: witches did not truly wield magical power, but instead they made bargains with Satan, who would send demons to invisibly watch over them and reproduce magical effects when they performed certain ritual actions.

In the classic Continental trial this is expressed in the image of the Sabbat, where witches meet and worship Satan in a series of increasingly degrading and humiliating rituals, culminating with the ‘foul kiss’ where witches would kiss Satan on or  under the anus.

English witch trials feature the Sabbat less often. Scottish trials tend to be far more traditionally continental in character, with the North Berwick Witch Trials hinging on a lurid Sabbat at the North Berwick Kirk that could have come directly from the pen of Conrad of Marburg. By contrast, without searching my notes, I can only think of a single trial with a strong Sabbatic image: the Windsor trial of Elizabeth Style, where the witches involved confessed to meetings where they would agree their nefarious activities.

With the Sabbat being a less common image, the familiar seems to take a similar disempowering role. It also gave the searchers the hope of finding physical evidence. Even if an animal designated as a familiar could not be found, which they usually could not, the ‘teat’ the animal suckled from could usually be located on the body. Since the teat was a magical thing, not a natural part of the anatomy, it could be found anywhere… although it is of interest that the most common locations and description of witches’ marks conform to those of sebaceous cysts.

A final, especially sad feature of the English witch trials was the use of children as witnesses. While the influence of King James Stuart led to the discrediting of child witnesses in the early to mid 17th century, we see a significant use of child witnesses in the earlier part of the witch trials. In the 1582 trial of the St. Osyth witches Ursula Kemp’s eight year old son Thomas Rabbet gives us the names of four familiars whose names have clearly come from the mind of a child: Tiffy, Jack Pigin and Tyffin. We see similar image from the interrogation of James Device during the witch trials at Pendle, with a second era of the familiar during the brief activities of Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne in the South East of England in the 1640s.

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