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…”
In 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…”
Here we see an image of the witch feeding her familiar from the 1579 pamphlet, A Rehersall Both Staunge and True. The familiar was a common feature of the English witch trial. In Scotland, where the legal system was more continental, familiars were far less common.
The Absent Familiar
With the exception of the brief reign of terror by self-styled ‘Witchfinder General’ Matthew Hopkins — which only really affected the South East of England, and only then between 1645 and 1647 — familiars are almost universally absent from trials. When Elizabeth Style, a witch from Windsor and the subject of the image above, was captured she said that her familiars had offered her the chance to escape captivity, but that she had told them to leave, accepting her fate.
In the St. Osyth Witch trial of 1582, a variety of excuses were employed to explain the absence of familiars during trials. Nine year old Henry Sellys told authorities that his mother’s familiars lived in the firewood, under a tree in their back yard, suggesting they were wild things that could have run away on their own. His brother John further explained their absensce by saying that the familiars had gone to Colchester, although he didn’t elaborate on why. Continue reading “A Very British Magic 2: St. Osyth and the Witch’s Familiar”
This blog post comes after a Twitter conversation with the awesome writer and publisher Theo Paijmans. One of the biggest motivations behind the history title I’m writing at the moment is to look at the people and legal developments behind the witch trials. To us, as citizens of the 21st century, the barbarism of the witchcraft accusation – flimsy evidence, torture, intimidation, false promises of leniency and finally burning at the stake – is palpable.
But nothing is ever so simple. Even the way we imagine the witch trials – a single monolithic persecution spanning hundreds of years – is far from what the evidence shows to be the case. Even the term ‘witch hunter’ is a misuse. Those who brought the witches to their deaths came from a variety of backgrounds, and most were never full time persecutors of witches.
Images like these have been very popular on the internet recently, with this listicle from The Poke giving some great examples of the genre, as well as the great Sexy Codicology website, and a lot of fantastic accounts on Twitter.
One thing that really winds me up is a statement that you often hear from Neo-Pagan wishful thinkers: ‘The Christian demons are just the gods of pagan religions.’ I don’t like to speak in absolutes, but very, very often the demons of Christianity were the demons of whatever religion dominated before Christianity. There were times when Christians said other people’s gods were demons (lots of rather hot words were exchanged during the persecutions and counter-persecutions of the Roman Empire, but those were difficult times). Generally though, Christianity preferred to spread by adopting and adapting. That’s why we have Irish Gaelic deities as Saints, and Halloween on October 31st.
Ah, the party Cleric. In my gaming experience there are two kinds of people who play the party Cleric: the pragmatic player who looks around the table, sighs, and then says “I’ll play the party Cleric”, and players who know the GM likes to fill dungeons with undead.
I’ve already touched on one of the sources of the D&D cleric class in my article on Paladins and Magic Swords. This was Turpin, the Archbishop of Rheims, who Gary Gygax’s first gaming group referenced (possibly) erroneously when they described ‘the priest Turpin who went into battle wielding a mace to avoid shedding blood.’