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.
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.
First of all: apology/disclaimer: I’ve written this while on holiday, without my books, so it might be a bit scrappy
This is a bit of a stray thought/idea to be developed coming out of my research for my presentation at the ASSAP Seriously Possessed conference in a couple of weeks. In the research for my paper I came across a strange overlap between cases of demonic possession, haunting and witchcraft. It’s a bit of a work in progress, but here’s what I’ve got so far…
Haunting — The Tedworth Drummer
According to the account written by Joseph Glanville, Charles II’s Chaplain, a vagabond artist named William Drury was arrested for causing a public nuisance and travelling under false documents in the town of Lugarspal in Wiltshire, 1661. The tenant of Tedworth House, named Mompesson, confiscated the man’s drum and had him bound over by the local bailiff to be seen before the Justice of the Peace, at which the man confessed that he had forged his documents and begged to be given his drum back. Months later,
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.
Imagine this: you’ve got everything you own on a cart, burning hot winds are whipping at your clothing, blowing red hot cinders into your face.
Then it starts raining birds. Charred, living birds.
Birds were an important part of London life. They were an important source of food: and keeping a few chickens was a good source of food and possible income for a Londoner. Even a relatively poor family who could keep a small flock of geese or a roost of pigeons would have an advantage when it came to the important task of ‘making shift’, i.e. paying their bills and getting through life. Of all the birds in Restoration London (and modern London, although they’re less welcome now) pigeons were some of the most common.
Unfortunately, the Great Fire of London was a bad place to be a bird. When the fire took hold the heat was unbelievable: historians usually compare the heat to the same order of magnitude as the Dresden Firestorm during the Second World War. This had a terrible effect on the large numbers of feral, domesticated and semi-domesticated birds living in London at the time.
Samuel Pepys, a late 17th Century Diarist who was caught up in fighting the fire, writes: “…the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down.”
Samuel Pepys was a civil servant living in London during some extremely important times: he witnessed the Restoration and the Great Fire of London. He saw the Enlightenment take hold, lived through the Great Plague of 1665, and the second Dutch War where the English burned the island town of Terschelling. He knew important people like King Charles II and the Earl of Sandwich. What people know less about was his fascination with the paranormal…
He Collected Spells (And Stories Of Them Being Performed)
Despite being a man of the Enlightenment, Pepys was partial to a few of the magico-medical charms that were popular at the time. The end of his diary of 1664 contains a few, including a charm for ‘stanch of the blood,’ one for the pricking of a thorn, one for ‘the clap’ and one for what he only calls ‘the burning’ (considering how much of a philanderer Pepys was this might also be something against VD.) He also kept a lucky rabbit’s foot to ward off the colic, which he didn’t entirely believe in but found pretty effective nonetheless. Pepys even remembered the collector Elias Ashmole telling him about rains of frogs and insects in 1661, saying that they fell out of the sky fully formed.