As the movie The Exorcist will show you, demons are a problem to this day. Modern clerics in both the Church of England and the Catholic Church still treat people who believe they’re possessed by demons (for the purposes of this blog I should state that I don’t care whether they really are possessed or not, I write about history not the paranormal).
However, demons could be a real problem if you were living in Medieval Europe. In fact, the idea that demons can get you killed is absolutely incontrovertible – in London of 1725 a drunk died of exposure in a well because neighbours ignored his cries for help, believing he was a demon. Not only that, but in 1597 Alice Goodridge, accused of sending a demon to possess Thomas Darling, died in prison awaiting trial for witchcraft.
Interestingly, though, those possessed by demons (demoniacs) occupy a more ambiguous status in the bible. Although John 8.44 describes The Devil as “a liar and the father of lies”, demoniacs in the Gospel were among the first witnesses to Christ, and often showed a clearer understanding of divine truth than the apostles. In fact, Christ himself was accused of being a demon, and of “casting out demons by the prince of demons.”
I freely admit that I’ve never read the Malleus Maleficarum all the way through, simply because it’s the one witch hunting book that really bothers me. Heinrich Kramer (I refuse to call him ‘Institoris’) was, in my opinion, just a vile human being. He wasn’t trying to do the best he could in a bad situation, he was a genuinely insane, hateful, awful human being.
But here’s a story worth telling: apparently he was a vampire hunter.
I don’t have to call Kramer a madman, or impugn his abilities, because the Bishop of Innsbruck already did during his own lifetime. In 1484 Kramer was conducting the trial of an Innsbruck woman when he began departing from legal procedure to question the accused about her sexual history. In some times and at some places this wouldn’t have made the blindest bit of difference, but the Bishop of Innsbruck appears to have believed in a crazy thing called ‘the rule of law’.
The defence called for the case to be halted after such a strange and creepy deviation, and the Archduke decided to abandon the prosecution altogether. The Bishop wrote two letters to Kramer’s host in the town, first saying, “tell him that because of quite a few scandals that have arisen on account of his bad procedure, he should not stay in the place lest something worse ensue or happen to him. A few words to the wise: what he did was very inappropriate.” Continue reading “From Witchhunter to Vampire Hunter — Henrich Kramer and the Undead”
Possibly coined by the Yorkshire Tradesman M A Denham, the doppelgänger, from the German for “Double Walker”, is one of horror’s creepiest figures. The book Walking Haunted London, one of the first books I bought when I started enjoying ghost walks, gives the fantastic story of Robert Percival, cousin to the Prime Minister Spencer Percival…
Possibly coined by the Yorkshire Tradesman M A Denham, the doppelgänger, from the German for “Double Walker”, is one of horror’s creepiest figures. The book Walking Haunted London, one of the first books I bought when I started enjoying ghost walks, gives the fantastic story of Robert Percival, cousin to the Prime Minister Spencer Percival.
His story is the typically chilling tale of the supernatural: Robert was a student at Lincoln’s Inn, one of the most beautiful of the four Inns of Court. Unlike his cousin he fell into a decadent lifestyle of gambling, drinking and whoring. One night while studying alone (because his hedonistic lifestyle had severely damaged his studies) he became strangely spooked as the clock struck midnight.
Feeling the typical ghostly chill, Percival saw that a hooded, robed figure had somehow entered his room. Demanding to know the intruder’s identity, Percival took up his sword and lunged at the silent figure, only to have the blade pass right through it. Terrified, he attacked the spectre, managing to uncover its face: his own face.
As it pulled back its robes, Percival saw that not only was he looking at himself, but the doppelgänger had terrible wounds on its face and chest. Frightened, he attempted to reapply himself to his studies, but lapsed.
Totally dissolute, Percival ran up huge gambling debts, so much that the shady characters he was borrowing from eventually lost their tempers and he was found dead in a gutter: bearing exactly the same wounds as the phantom. Continue reading “Tales of the Doppelgänger”
So what if strange noises don’t bother you? You might be too brave or industrially deaf to care about that strange voice under your bed, whispering the pet name only known by you and your childhood sweetheart (you remember the one? You haven’t seen her since that night but she knows what you did, dammit, she knows what you did.)
That’s okay! The Pre-Industrial darkness has another horror in store for you too! Stopping up your ears and screaming to drown out the whispers of “Help me… it’s so cold down here…” won’t be enough. There aren’t just strange noises, there are also…
And here’s the worst thing: in the pre-industrial darkness, unexpected lights are as bad as the darkness itself. The nighttime was seen as the time when demons were leaking out of the air itself, and when the supernatural was licensed to be at work. This was where nonhumans like the faeries were thought to be using lights to tempt humans for their own purposes, and were old European folklore mixed with the new enemies presented by the Church.
One of the most common sources of light at night were Will-O’-The-Whisps, (also known as Ignis Fatuus or ‘Fool’s Fire’,) disembodied lights that could sometimes be mistaken for lanterns and took a perverse delight in leading travellers away from the safe path, often to their doom. John Pressy, a man from Massachusetts from 1668, set off to go home at night and encountered a series of strange lights that he hit with his staff. Immediately they vanished, and Pressy was dumped into the bowels of a pit. Continue reading “Things That Made Our Ancestors Afraid of the Dark 2: Strange Lights”
One of the most iconic images of the ‘black magician’ is the ominous figure standing in a magic circle filled with intricate designs and mystical symbols. Magic circles have been a big part of my life recently, after being involved in a production based on the Elizabethan Occult, and watching NBC’s Constantine – so I thought I’d write a little about what they are and where they came form.
Christopher Marlowe, writer of demonological play Doctor Faustus, described the popular vision of the magical circle:
“Within this circle is Jehovah’s name
Forward and backward anagrammatized,
Th’abbreviated names of holy saints,
Figures of every adjunct to the heavens,
And characters of signs and evening stars,
By which the spirits are enforced to rise.
Then fear not, Faustus, be resolute
And try the utmost magic can perform.” (1.3.8-15) Continue reading “Magic Circles, Their History and Anatomy”
Magical Rings are one of my favourite things about D&D. The idea of having something that won’t ever wear out, but gives you superpowers, is one of the coolest things I could possibly imagine. My only regret was that my group only allowed you to have one ring on each hand. I would have been the Mr. T of magical jewellery.
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, one of the greatest Neoplatonic thinkers of the 16th century (who also became a doctor, a feminist, a sceptic, and a lawyer who defended witches while humiliating witch-hunters) talked about rings:
“Rings impress their virtue upon us, inasmuch as they do affect the spirit of him that carries them with gladness or sadness, and render him courteous or terrible, bold or fearful, amiable or hateful; inasmuch as they do fortify us against sicknessm poisons, enemies, evil spirits, and all manner of hurtful things, or, at least will not suffer us to be kept under them.”
Whether or not magic has ever really existed, people have been making magical rings for thousands of years. In what was Chaldea, a semitic nation nestled in the corner of the Babylonian Empire, archaeologists are still finding rings dedicated to the seven planetary spirits, corresponding with the planets of astrology.
If you follow this blog, you might have realised that I’m a bit of a geek: not just a folklore and mythology geek, but a geek in general. Knowing this, it probably won’t be a surprise that I spent much of my childhood playing Dungeons and Dragons. Even as an adult, I can still be found playing tabletop from time to time (but not D&D anymore, now I play 1930s-style pulp adventure games, where sexy occult historians get dragged into adventures with breathy femme fatales…)
Dungeons and Dragons was the creation of Gary Gygax, and was originally released as a supplement for a wargaming system called Chainmail. Over the years, and certainly by the time I was playing, a number of fantasy words were released with increasingly different world-building to anything you’d ever seen in real medieval history.
However, hidden at the core of D&D, buried, unspoken, in the rules and mechanics of the system (a system widely mocked for being pernickety and bureaucratic) are a set of tropes that represent a loving recreation of Medieval European folklore.
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)”
How and Why?
What makes a witch? It’s been a long time since you’d find anyone who argued it was the talent for magical power. Of the factors that come together to make someone a witch, alleged magical power was only one of many.
Witch stories have a strange mirror in the very myths made up society and religion for much society until the advent of the Reformation.
Part of this was how history was written. Almost until the Enlightenment, history was seen as an expression of the art of rhetoric. Historical events mines for morally pleasing stories, which could be adapted without troubling the historian’s conscience.
Adding to that, pre-Reformation law in Britain (which continued unmodified during the witch trials in many other places) involved torture as a mainstay of the trial process. Judges could only find a defendant guilty if they were able to secure two witness statements that agreed perfectly, or if the defendant could be persuaded to confess. The regulations for assessing the two statements were surprisingly strict, leaving many Judges little option other than to secure a confession.
Circumstantial evidence was enough to secure the Judge’s suspicion, which was grounds for torture. Suspected witches would be coerced into spinning a narrative that their interrogators could take into court. Motivated by the pain of torture, and the knowledge that their torturers could only stop when they’d reached a mutually agreeable narrative, witches would draw on the stories of their everyday lives.
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.