Defence Against The Dark Arts

Last year in the run-up to Halloween, Lauren posted on this forum a variety of objects from the database which had a spooky connection. Included in this selection was a deliberately concealed clog, LANCUM-76D192, hidden in the walls of a building as protection against witchcraft and evil spirits.

Image showing three views of a child's clog, for the right foot. The top image shows the sole of the clog, the middle image shows the top of the clog, and the bottom image shows the instep side of the clog.
A child’s clog found concealed in the walls of a building (LANCUM-76D192). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY.

This practice of concealing footwear in the walls or hearths was surprisingly common, and persisted well into the twentieth century; its origins are interesting. Whilst the association of footwear with good luck is probably very ancient, the specific notion that a boot or shoe can protect against diabolic attack can possibly be attributed, in England at least, to the legend of “Saint” John Schorne. Schorne was rector of North Marston in the late 13th century and several miracles are attributed to him, although he was never officially made a saint. In particular, he was supposed to have trapped a devil in a boot, and is usually depicted holding a boot with a little devil peeping out, as in this replica of a pilgrim badge.

Image of a silver badge in the shape of a monk. In his left hand he holds a book and in his right hand he holds a long boot. A winged devil peeks out of the top of the boot.
A replica pilgrim badge of John Schorne – he holds a boot in his right hand from which a small devil peeps. Copyright: Brian Hoggard (@folkmagicman on Twitter).

Footwear is not the only type of object to be concealed within walls as protection against witchcraft. Another surprisingly common and long-lived practice (again surviving well into the twentieth century) was the creation and placement of so-called “Witch Bottles”, examples of which can be found on the database, for example KENT-312DC2.

Anti-witch bottle would be a better term as this was a counter-measure. You made a witch bottle if you thought you were under magical attack. To make one, you needed a container – glass, ceramic or even metal, any sort would do. The bottle of choice, however, seems to have been a “bellarmine” – a 17th/18th century pot-bellied stoneware vessel bearing a bearded male face. An example on the database is LON-0480C0.

Image showing a brown ceramic vessel from six different viewpoints.
A complete Bartmann (“bearded man”), or “bellarmine” bottle dating to AD1500-1700 (LON-0480C0). Copyright: Portable Antiquities Scheme, License: CC-BY.

Inside you placed some sharp objects, such as nails or pins, along with something of yourself (e.g. hair, nail clippings, fragments of clothing), and most importantly some of your urine! The container had to be sealed, heated (do NOT try this at home!) and then concealed – in walls, under floorboards and especially around hearths and fireplaces. This was a type of sympathetic magic; whilst it might seem counter-intuitive to to use some of your own items, the thinking was that the witch who was trying to harm you had established a magical link with you. So, by using your own hair and urine in association with pins and nails, you could send the spell right back at them – they would be seriously afflicted, they would fine it painful to pass urine, they would have severe abdominal pains and possibly even die! The evidence for this practice is not just physical, there are multiple written accounts. For example, Cotton Mather, the prominent 17th century New England Puritan minister, describes the use of witch bottles as counter charms in one of his many pamphlets.

Another common concealed object, an example of which was recently brought into the museum where I volunteer, is a cat. A very real, and unfortunately very dead, cat. It was found within the walls of a barn in Nether Heage, Derbyshire. Cat lovers look away now!

A naturally mummified cat found concealed within the walls of a barn in Derbyshire. Copyright: Simon Nicholson, License: CC_BY.

Like the concealing of shoes, this is an astonishingly common practice and such naturally dried and preserved felines have been found in old buildings across the country. The idea seems to have been to invoke some kind of preternatural protection. Possibly, at least in some cases, it was protection against vermin – cats have been found deliberately posed in a pouncing position, some even with dead mice or rats between their paws.

But in other cases it seems the cats were placed with the intent of protecting against more than vermin. The association of cats with the supernatural is also very ancient. It is possible that again some sort of sympathetic magic was going on – using a creature associated with witchcraft to rebound harmful magic. The reasons cats are associated with witchcraft are complex. Malcolm Jones, writing in “The Secret Middle Ages”, suggests cats were believed to be the focus of idolatry in the Cathar heresy. They weren’t but people believed it anyway (fake news medieval style!). In any event, the link between cats and witches was firmly in the public consciousness by the post-modern period (remember Holt the Witch’s familiar in the famous woodcut of Mathew Hopkins?). And of course, the fact is that the poor cat seems to have been deliberately killed for the purposes of this ritual. Could this be a continuation of the very ancient concept of the foundation sacrifice?

Further information on such concealed objects can be found at the Concealed and Revealed Project and the MOLA website.

Have a happy Halloween!

Edward Defaced

Penny of Edward I, class 10ab, AD1300-1305 (PUBLIC-1F8F45). Copyright: Roger Thomas, License CC-BY.

With Hallowe’en just around the corner I thought it would be an appropriate time to share this spooky-looking coin. Someone has literally ‘punched out the lights’ on the kings face of this medieval coin, and made such a thorough job that they’ve managed to add two extra pellets on the reverse. There are many other instances of defaced English coins on the database, usually of monarchs who were unpopular because of religious reasons, like Edward VI, Mary & Charles I, but Edward I doesn’t appear to have been a regular victim of numismoclasm – so perhaps the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ was hammered by a Scotsman?

See you Jimmy – stitch that!