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)”
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.
[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.
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Why 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.
One of the most irritating scenes in all of horror is in The Devil Rides out with Leon Greene and Christopher Lee. Green’s character, Rex Van Ryn, touches a leather bound book and shudders. He turns to Christopher Lee who nods sagely and says, “Yes, bound in human skin.” It’s a really annoying scene, because there are loads of books bound in human skin and I have it on good authority that you can’t tell the bloody difference between that and any other kind of leather.
At least unless it has a tattoo on the cover saying, “I love Mum”.
Okay, first myth first: to my knowledge there are no books of magic, black or otherwise, bound in human skin. The reasons are simple common sense: for most of history any form of magic has been really VERY illegal. Necromancers and evokers couched their magic in highly pious and religious terms:
“I do invocate and conjure thee…by Beralanensis, Baldachiensis, Paulmachia… Powerful Princes… and Ministers of the Tartarean Abode … also, I, being made after the image of God, endued with the power from him, and created according unto his will, do exorcise thee by that most mighty and powerful name of God …” – Pseudo Solomon, The Goetia (circa. 1566)
In Necromancy, the procedures for getting divinations from the dead and having conversations with Spirits weren’t called spells, but ‘experiments.’
There is no single Halloween. The name itself, Halloween, comes from Hallowtide, also sometimes called Hallowmass, encompassing the festivals of All Souls’ on the 31st of October and All Saints on the 1st of November.
The ancient Celts celebrated it for three days before and after the part of the year that is now November 1st, and the Elizabethans observed Hallowtide from October 31st to just after November 5th, eventually all but combining the whole thing with their celebrations of bonfire night. But even that isn’t the whole story.
You might have heard Halloween called Samhain, or Sowan.
The quaint idea leaps to mind of a dark Pagan festival, brought from prehistory and forced to hide in Christian clothes… and the festival was dark: this was the dying of the summer, when the leaves started falling and food would become more scarce.
Most importantly, the night would come gathering in.
Darkness was a frightening thing before the era of streetlights: a moonless night was effectively blackness.
Even walking abroad could be fatal with travellers being killed as they fell down embankments and into ditches, without the predation of wolves and bandits. Strange shapes and noises would haunt the darkness.
As the world ground to a halt the ancient Celts needed something to get it started again, a ritual act that would kick the world’s momentum back into gear.
This was the night of the 31st.
In Ireland, folklore insisted that all fires would be extinguished for the night. Ulstermen and women would gather together, clustering around the leaders and kin.
In their crowded fortresses of light they would drink and dance in defiance of the darkness.
Nature’s slowing momentum meant that the world of man was weaker than ever.
A fragment written at the time says, “Any Ulsterman who did not come Samhain night to Emain (a fortress of the Irish Kings) would lose his reason and his… tomb would be and stone would be erected the next morning.”
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.