Sunday, 30 October 2011

17th-Century Medicine

A couple of months ago while visiting Trinity College in Dublin, I saw an exhibit in celebration of 400 years of medicine. I was intrigued by the display. It had an original copy of the classic John Gerard's Herbal, or Generall Historie of Plantes. The glass cases also contained tools used by surgeons throughout the years. Notably absent was any mention of the cunning folk. Without saying as much, the exhibit really meant 400 years of male history, namely doctors and physicians. Anyone who was not a learned physician was simply regarded as a "quack".

What many people don't realize is that during the 17th century there were few doctors. Even fewer people could afford the services of a doctor, and those who could often didn't trust them. Most healers were herbalists and/or users of magic. Anthropologists commonly refer to such healers as shamans.

In writing The Dreaming, I discovered that I needed guidance from the era I was writing about. I first looked to Gerard's Herbal, but it wasn't easy getting my hands on a copy. Instead, I turned to Nicholas Culpeper's Complete Herbal. Copies of this book are still easily available, and I was able to get a late 20th-century edition. Don't let a modern edition fool you. Culpeper's words were left intact. The book was, however, typeset in a modern font, making it a little easier to read.

Because my stories are set in Virginia, I also used medicinal guides that showed me what plants the Native Americans used. For instance, when I portrayed an outbreak of small pox, the Natives had no remedies. It was a new disease to the Americas and nearly wiped out the indigenous population. My cunning woman was all too familiar with the disease, and Culpeper let me know that saffron was a good herb of choice. But saffron was limited in Virginia because it had to be shipped from England. Thankfully, all was not lost. An African servant knew of another treatment called variolation.

In another scene, a teenager was bitten by a poisonous snake. In this case, my healer used a knife to make small incisions over the fang marks. She then sucked out the poison. I had been able to verify this treatment was indeed practiced by the Native people in the Virginia area for snake bites and thought it would make a good addition. It's only been within the last thirty to forty years that the method has fallen out of favor with modern emergency crews.

While these are only a couple of examples of 17th-century medicine, I think they give the general idea. There were gifted healers long before modern physicians.

Kim Murphy

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Pendle Witches and Their Magic: Part 1

In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest in Lancashire, Northern England were executed. In court clerk Thomas Potts’s account of the proceedings, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, published in 1613, he pays particular attention to the one alleged witch who escaped justice by dying in prison before she could come to trial. She was Elizabeth Southerns, more commonly known by her nickname, Old Demdike. According to Potts, she was the ringleader, the one who initiated all the others into witchcraft. This is how Potts describes her:

She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man knows. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies.

Quite impressive for an eighty-year-old lady! In England, unlike Scotland and Continental Europe, the law forbade the use of torture to extract witchcraft confessions. Thus the trial transcripts supposedly reveal Elizabeth Southerns’s voluntary confession, although her words might have been manipulated or altered by the magistrate and scribe. What’s interesting, if the trial transcripts can be believed, is that she freely confessed to being a healer and magical practitioner. Local farmers called on her to cure their children and their cattle. She described in rich detail how she first met her familiar spirit, Tibb, at the stone quarry near Newchurch in Pendle. He appeared to her at daylight gate—twilight in the local dialect—in the form of beautiful young man, his coat half black and half brown, and he promised to teach her all she needed to know about magic.

Tibb was not the “devil in disguise.” The devil, as such, appeared to be a minor figure in British witchcraft. It was the familiar spirit who took centre stage: this was the cunning person’s otherworldly spirit helper who could shapeshift between human and animal form, as Emma Wilby explains in her excellent scholarly study, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. Mother Demdike describes Tibb appearing to her at different times in human form or in animal form. He could take the shape of a hare, a black cat, or a brown dog. It appeared that in traditional English folk magic, no cunning man or cunning woman could work magic without the aid of their spirit familiar—they needed this otherworldly ally to make things happen.

Belief in magic and the spirit world was absolutely mainstream in the 16th and 17th centuries. Not only the poor and ignorant believed in spells and witchcraft—rich and educated people believed in magic just as strongly. Dr. John Dee, conjuror to Elizabeth I, was a brilliant mathematician and cartographer and also an alchemist and ceremonial magician. In Dee’s England, more people relied on cunning folk for healing than on physicians. As Owen Davies explains in his book, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History, cunning men and women used charms to heal, foretell the future, and find the location of stolen property. What they did was technically illegal—sorcery was a hanging offence—but few were arrested for it as the demand for their services was so great. Doctors were so expensive that only the very rich could afford them and the “physick” of this era involved bleeding patients with lancets and using dangerous medicines such as mercury—your local village healer with her herbs and charms was far less likely to kill you.

In this period there were magical practitioners in every community. Those who used their magic for good were called cunning folk or charmers or blessers or wisemen and wisewomen. Those who were perceived by others as using their magic to curse and harm were called witches. But here it gets complicated. A cunning woman who performs a spell to discover the location of stolen goods would say that she is working for good. However, the person who claims to have been falsely accused of harbouring those stolen goods can turn around and accuse her of sorcery and slander. This is what happened to 16th century Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop of Edinburgh, cited by Emma Wilby in Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. Dunlop was burned as a witch in 1576 after her “white magic” offended the wrong person. Ultimately the difference between cunning folk and witches lay in the eye of the beholder. If your neighbours turned against you and decided you were a witch, you were doomed.

Although King James I, author of the witch-hunting handbook Daemonologie, believed that witches had made a pact with the devil, there’s no actual evidence to suggest that witches or cunning folk took part in any diabolical cult. Anthropologist Margaret Murray, in her book, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, published in 1921, tried to prove that alleged witches were part of a Pagan religion that somehow survived for centuries after the Christian conversion. Most modern academics have rejected Murray’s hypothesis as unlikely. Indeed, lingering belief in an organised Pagan religion is very difficult to substantiate. So what did cunning folk like Old Demdike believe in?

Some of her family’s charms and spells were recorded in the trial transcripts and they reveal absolutely no evidence of devil worship, but instead use the ecclesiastical language of the Catholic Church, the old religion driven underground by the English Reformation. Her charm to cure a bewitched person, cited by the prosecution as evidence of diabolical sorcery, is, in fact, a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ, as witnessed by the Virgin Mary. The text, in places, is very similar to the White Pater Noster, an Elizabethan prayer charm which Eamon Duffy discusses in his landmark book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580.

It appears that Mother Demdike was a practitioner of the kind of quasi-Catholic folk magic that would have been commonplace before the Reformation. The pre-Reformation Church embraced many practises that seemed magical and mystical. People used holy water and communion bread for healing. They went on pilgrimages, left offerings at holy wells, and prayed to the saints for intercession. Some practises, such as the blessing of the wells and fields, may indeed have Pagan origins. Indeed, looking at pre-Reformation folk magic, it is very hard to untangle the strands of Catholicism from the remnants of Pagan belief, which had become so tightly interwoven.

Unfortunately Mother Demdike had the misfortune to live in a place and time when Catholicism was conflated with witchcraft. Even Reginald Scot, one of the most enlightened men of his age, believed the act of transubstantiation, the point in the Catholic mass where it is believed that the host becomes the body and blood of Christ, was an act of sorcery. In a 1645 pamphlet by Edward Fleetwood entitled A Declaration of a Strange and Wonderfull Monster, describing how a royalist woman in Lancashire supposedly gave birth to a headless baby, Lancashire is described thusly: "No part of England hath so many witches, none fuller of Papists." Keith Thomas’s social history Religion and the Decline of Magic is an excellent study on how the Reformation literally took the magic out of Christianity.

However, it would be an oversimplification to state that Mother Demdike was merely a misunderstood practitioner of Catholic folk magic. Her description of her decades-long partnership with her spirit Tibb seems to draw on something outside the boundaries of Christianity.

Although it is difficult to prove that witches and cunning folk in early modern Britain worshipped Pagan deities, the so-called fairy faith, the enduring belief in fairies and elves, is well documented. In his 1677 book The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, Lancashire author John Webster mentions a local cunning man who claimed that his familiar spirit was none other than the Queen of Elfhame herself. The Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop mentioned earlier, while being tried for witchcraft and sorcery at the Edinburgh Assizes, stated that her familiar spirit was a fairy man sent to her by the Queen of Elfhame.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

All Hallows Eve in Old Lancashire

Come Halloween, the popular imagination turns to witches. Especially in Pendle Witch Country, the rugged Pennine landscape surrounding Pendle Hill, once home to twelve individuals arrested for witchcraft in 1612. The most notorious was Elizabeth Southerns, alias Old Demdike, cunning woman of long-standing repute and the heroine of my novel Daughters of the Witching Hill.

How did these historical cunning folk celebrate All Hallows Eve?

All Hallows has its roots in the ancient feast of Samhain, which marked the end of the pastoral year and was considered particularly numinous, a time when the faery folk and the spirits of the dead roved abroad. Many of these beliefs were preserved in the Christian feast of All Hallows, which had developed into a spectacular affair by the late Middle Ages, with church bells ringing all night to comfort the souls thought to be in purgatory. Did this custom have its origin in much older rites of ancestor veneration? This threshold feast opening the season of cold and darkness allowed people to confront their deepest fears—that of death and what lay beyond. And their deepest longings—reunion with their cherished departed.

After the Reformation, these old Catholic rites were outlawed, resulting in one of the longest struggles waged by Protestant reformers against any of the traditional ecclesiastical rituals. Lay people stubbornly continued to hold vigils for their dead—a rite that could be performed without a priest and in cover of darkness. Until the early 19th century in the Lancashire parish of Whalley, some families still gathered at midnight upon All Hallows Eve. One person held a large bunch of burning straw on a pitchfork while the others knelt in a circle and prayed for their beloved dead until the flames burned out.

Long after the Reformation, people persisted in giving round oatcakes, called Soul-Mass Cakes to soulers, the poor who went door to door singing Souling Songs as they begged for alms on the Feast of All Souls, November 2. Each cake eaten represented a soul released from purgatory, a mystical communion with the dead.

In Glossographia, published in 1674, Thomas Blount writes:

All Souls Day, November 2d: the custom of Soul Mass cakes, which are a kind of oat cakes, that some of the richer sorts in Lancashire and Herefordshire (among the Papists there) use still to give the poor upon this day; and they, in retribution of their charity, hold themselves obliged to say this old couplet:

God have your soul,
Bones and all.

Other All Hallows folk rituals invoked the power of fire to purify and ward. In the Fylde district of Lancashire, farmers circled their fields with burning straw on the point of a fork to protect the coming crop from noxious weeds.

Fire was used to protect people from perceived evil spirits active on this night. At Longridge Fell in Lancashire, very close to Pendle Hill, the custom of ‘lating’ or hindering witches endured until the early 19th century. On All Hallows Eve, people walked up hillsides between 11 pm and midnight. Each person carried a lighted candle and if the flame went out, it was taken as a sign that an attack by a witch was impending and that the appropriate charms must be employed to protect oneself.

What do these old traditions mean to us today?

All Hallows is not just a date on the calendar, but the entire tide, or season, in which we celebrate ancestral memory and commemorate our dead. This is also the season of storytelling, of re-membering the past. The veil between the seen and unseen grows thin and we may dream true.

Wishing a blessed All Hallows Tide to all!

Source: Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain


Soul Cake Recipes

Souling Songs

Excerpt from Daughters of the Witching Hill

At Hallowtide, Liza insisted on walking up Blacko Hill, as we’d always done, for our midnight vigil on the Eve of All Saints. Under cover of darkness we crept forth with me carrying the lantern to light our way and John following with a pitchfork crowned in a great bundle of straw.

Once we reached the hilltop, after a furtive look round to make sure no one else was about, John lit the straw with the lantern flame so that the straw atop the pitchfork blazed like a torch. With him to hold the fork upright and keep an eye out for intruders, Liza and I knelt to pray for our dead. In the old days, we’d held this vigil in the church, the whole parish praying together, the darkened chapel bright as day with the many candles glowing on the saints’ altars. Now we were left to do this in secret, stealing away like criminals in the night, as though it were something shameful to hail our deceased. I prayed for my mam and grand-dad, calling out to their souls till I felt them both step through the veil to bring me comfort.

In my heart of hearts, I did not believe my loved ones were in purgatory waiting, by and by, to be let into heaven. There was no air of suffering or torment about them, only the joy of reunion. My mam, young and pretty, worked in her herb garden. She hummed a lilting tune whilst her earth-stained fingers pointed out to me the plants I must use to ease Liza’s birth pangs. Grand-Dad whispered his old charms to bless me and Liza and John.

A long spell I knelt there, held in the embrace of my beloved dead, till the straw on the pitchfork burned itself out, falling in embers and ash to the ground. Our John helped my pregnant daughter to her feet, then we made our way home through the night that no longer seemed so dark.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The Thirty Years War – A Beginners Guide Part 1

I must confess to pure self interest in writing this blog because for me the Thirty Years War  is something that happened in “the backstory” to my main interest in the English Civil Wars. Yet many of the men who fought in the English Civil Wars, Prince Rupert and Thomas Fairfax for example, served on the continent and gained their experience in the bloody conflict that raged across Europe and involved nearly all the main European powers .

So how did it all begin? 

As many wars of that time did...with religion! I won’t go into the complex toing and froing of the sixteenth century that began with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, brought about by Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and intended to end the war between the German Lutherans and Catholics. 

Instead we will begin in 1618 with "The Bohemian Revolt".

Round 1 (1618-1620)

In the absence of an heir in order to ensure an orderly succession, Matthias, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia (of the Habsburg line), appointed his heir apparent, the Catholic Ferdinand of the Habsburg line (later to become Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor) to the thrones of Bohemia and Hungary. This upset the Bohemian protestants whose preferred candidate was the protestant Elector of the Palatine (and father to Prince Rupert of the Rhine), Frederick V.

The Defenestration of Prague
In May 1618 Ferdinand’s (Catholic) representatives in Prague were seized by the Protestant Hussites and thrown out of a window in the palace (the "Defenestration of Prague" - footnote to history despite the drop of 50 feet they survived unharmed). This small local revolt quickly spread throughout all of the Bohemian crown (Bohemia, Silesia, Lusatia, and Moravia. The latter already in a protestant/catholic revolt).

The death of Empereror Matthias in 1619 fanned the flames of what should have been a short lived revolt that had been on the verge of settlement. The revolt spread to Western Germany and Ferdinand applied to his nephew, Phillip IV King of Spain for assistance. The Bohemians brought the protestant FrederickV Elector of Palatine in on their side. They were joined by Upper and then Lower Austria and further assistance was rendered in the east by  the Protestant Hungarian Prince of Transylvania, Bethlen Gabor, who led a spirited campaign into Hungary with the support of the Ottoman Sultan, Osman II. The Ottomans offered a force of 60,000 cavalry to Frederick and plans were made for an invasion of Poland with 400,000 troops in exchange for the payment of an annual tribute to the Sultan. These negotiations triggered the Polish–Ottoman War of 1620-21. 

On 17 August 1619, Ferdinand was officially deposed as King of Bohemia and was replaced by the Palatine Elector Frederick V. 

End of Round 1 New Year 1620:  Ferdinand V has been driven from the throne of Bohemia. Frederick, Elector of Palatine has been crowned King of Bohemia and over in the east war is raging between Poland and the Ottoman empire.

Round 2 (1620-1625)

You may recall Ferdinand had applied to Spain for help and in 1620 Spain dispatched an army from Brussels (Belgium at the time was a Spanish possession). Simultaneously, Saxony was persuaded over to the Catholic side and invaded Lusatia. The two armies united and defeated Frederick V at the Battle of the White Mountain (near Prague) on 8 November 1620.

Frederick was deposed as King of Bohemia and Bohemia fell into the hands of the Catholics (where it remains). Frederick and his family become exiles. (For those who haven't made the connection - Frederick’s wife is Elizabeth, “the Winter Queen”, sister of Charles I).  

The Spanish, also in conflict with the Dutch, saw the strategic importance of the Rhine Palatinate and sought to occupy it. The years from 1621-1625 were marked by continuing conflict over the Palatinate and by 1625 the Spanish had fully occupied the area, leaving the Netherlands vulnerable. The remnants of the Protestant army withdrew to service with the Dutch.

Meanwhile in France, the succession of Louis XIII to the throne following the death of the Hugueonot sympathiser Henri IV, marked a new period of religious intolerance against the Protestant Hugeonots leading to a general revolt that waged across France during the period 1620-1628. The English became embroiled in the Siege of La Rochelle which led to the Anglo-French war of 1627-1629. Charles I’s attempts to broker peace came to nothing and the English withdrew to deal with their own growing internal difficulties. The defeat of the Hugueonots marked another blow to the Protestant hopes on the continent.

End of Round 2:  1625 - Frederick V, Elector of Palatine and one time King of Bohemia is in exile, the Catholic Habsburgs are in full control of Bohemia, Holland and the Palatinate. The French Catholics, who are unaligned to the Habsburgs are in control of France. The Protestant cause is now resting in Holland, Denmark and Sweden (and over in the East where Transylvania has triumphed).

Ferdinand II, Holy Roman Emperor

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Beginners Guide to the Thirty Year’s War in my next blog.

For more reading on Hoydens and Firebrands see:
Nicola Cornick’s blog on William Craven’s affair with Elizabeth Stuart, the Winter Queen 
Anita Davison’s blog on Prince Rupert of the Rhine