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:
I’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 “Sceptics in the Witch Trials”
For 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 “Biblical Curses During the Era of the Witch Trials”
Welcome to this week’s instalment of Jon and the Magic Shoehorn, where I try and make this blog post in some way Christmassy.
So, in a gesture designed to produce the highest quotient of relevance per minute of effort, let’s talk about Ebenezer Scrooge. While Dickens’ story makes clear that he is a genuinely money-hungry, greedy man with little or no empathy, there is another to Scrooge’s character that is very relevant to one of the driving forces behind the witch trials: the idea of Charity Refused. Continue reading “Ebenezer and the Witches: Charity Refused in the Witch Trials”
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.
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 blog post comes from a conversation I had with someone in a pub. I can’t remember how the conversation had come around to witches – it was somewhere between one of them having a go at me for not owning a telly, but before when they had a go at me for using too many long words.
The thing that stuck with me was the outrage I got when I mentioned that the English didn’t torture witches. I was offered the famous quote that Medieval people were nasty, brutish and short, and that their lives were shaped correspondingly.
Because of this, I’d like to make it clear that this article isn’t meant to account for every abusive blow struck in the cellar of every parish goal. It isn’t meant to say that no abuse took place, or that the conditions of Early Modern confinement were in any way pleasant.