Saturday, 25 February 2012

British Folk Magic and Familiar Spirits

In popular imagination, the figure of a witch is accompanied by her familiar, a black cat. Is there any historical authenticity behind this cliché?

Our ancestors in the 16th and 17th centuries believed that magic was real. Not only the poor and ignorant believed in witchcraft and the spirit world—rich and educated people believed in spellcraft just as strongly. Cunning folk were men and women who used charms and herbal cures to heal, foretell the future, and find the location of stolen property. What they did was illegal—sorcery was a hanging offence—but few were arrested. The need for the services they provided was too 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 herbal charms was far less likely to kill you.

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 could turn around and accuse her of sorcery and slander. Ultimately the difference between cunning folk and witches lay in the eye of the beholder.

While witch-hunters were obsessed with extracting “evidence” of a pact between the accused witch and the devil, there’s little if any substantive proof of diabolical worship in Britain in this period. It seemed the black mass was a Continental European concept first popularised in Britain by King James I’ polemic, Daemonologie, a witch-hunter’s handbook and required reading for his magistrates.

In traditional British folk magic, it was not the devil, but the familiar spirit who took centre stage. The familiar was the cunning person’s otherworldly spirit helper who could shapeshift between human and animal form. Elizabeth Southerns, aka Old Demdike, was a cunning woman of long standing repute, arrested on witchcraft charges in the 1612 Pendle witch hunt in Lancashire, England. When interrogated by her magistrate, she made no attempt to conceal her craft. In fact she described in rich detail how her familiar spirit, Tibb, first appeared to her when she was walking past a quarry at twilight. Assuming the guise of a beautiful, golden-haired young man, his coat half black, half brown, he promised to teach her all she needed to know about the ways of magic. When not in human form, he could appear to her as a brown dog or a hare. Her partnership with Tibb would span decades.

Mother Demdike was so forthcoming about her familiar because without one, she, as a cunning woman, would be a fraud. In traditional English folk magic, it seemed that no cunning man or cunning woman could work magic without the aid of their familiar spirit—they needed this otherworldly ally to make things happen.

Black cats were not the most popular guise for a familiar to take. In fact, familiars were more likely to appear as dogs. In the Salem witch trials of 1692, two canines were put to death as suspected witch familiars.

But the familiar was just as likely to assume human form, generally the opposite gender of their human partner—cunning men usually had female spirits while cunning women usually had male spirits.

Was there a connection between the familiar spirits and the Fairy Faith, the lingering belief in fey folk and elves? Popular belief in fairies in the Early Modern period 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. In 1576, Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop, executed for witchcraft and sorcery at the Edinburgh Assizes, stated that her familiar spirit had been sent to her by the Queen of Elfhame. For more background on this subject, I highly recommend Emma Wilby’s scholarly study, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, and Keith Thomas’s social history, Religion and the Decline of Magic.

Monday, 20 February 2012

IEYASU TOKIGAWA – Revolution in 17th century Japan

The seventeenth century was a time of enormous political and social upheaval. Europe is dominated by the Thirty Years’ War, the English Civil War and  years of fighting throughout the continent as France, Spain, England,  the Netherlands, the Catholic and Protestant Churches wrestled for power. It was also a time of exploration. The Americas began to be seriously colonised and in the East (as I have written in other blogs), the Dutch, the English and the Spanish wrangled for control over the lucrative spice trade and in this blog I would like to introduce you to another revolution...the coming of the Tokigawa Shogunate to Japan.
Ieyasu Tokagawa as Shogun of Japan

At the end of the sixteenth century, Japan had endured nearly two centuries of social upheaval and military conflict as regional war lords (the daimyo) battled for the ultimate control of the country. This period of Japanese history is known as the Sengoku, or “warring state” period). It was into this country torn by war that Ieyasu Tokigawa was born in 1543. Kidnapped by an opposing war lord at the age of six, he spent the next nine years as a hostage. Traded between the warring clans, Ieyasu reached the age of fifteen  (the coming of age) in the custody of the Imagawa clan. He married into the clan and went to war against the Oda clan and changed his name to Motayatsu.

The Tokagawa Clan symbol
Recognising brilliance in the new leader of the Oda clan, Oda Nobunagu, Motayatsu pledged his loyalty to Nobunaga. As leader of his own clan of Matdudaira, his military prowess became legendary and the next twenty years were spent in the continuing warfare between the states. During this period he changed his name once more and became Ieyasu Tokagawa.

In 1579 his first son was accused of plotting to assassinate Nobunaga and was forced to commit sepukku. His third and favourite son Tokugawa Hidetade became his heir. His second son had been adopted by Toyotami Hideyoshi. With the death of Nobunaga, a struggle for supremacy ensued and by 1583, Hideyoshi had prevailed in the struggle and become the single most power daimyo in Japan.

Ieyasu had remained neutral during the last part of the struggle but in 1584, he sided with Nobunaga’s son against Hideyoshi. The  Battle of Komaki and Nagakute would be the only time these two great leaders Hideyoshi and Ieyasu would face each other as enemies. In fact the campaign proved indecisive and Hideyoshi negotiated peace with Ieyasu and Nobunaga’s son.

In 1590 Hideyoshi conquered the last daimyo in Japan and in a risky move Ieyasu agreed to leave his home provinces and move his power base to Edo (now Tokyo). The move proved a good one and in a few years Ieyasu had consolidated his power base and  was second only to Hideyoshi in power. Hideyoshi came to rely more and more upon Ieyasu as one of his principle military advisors.

In 1598, on his death bed, Hideyoshi, appointed a Council of Five Elders to rule Japan until his son, Hideyori, came of age. Ieyasu was one of these men and in 1599 Ieyasu captured Osaka Castle, home of the young Hideyori. The remaining three regents were ranged against him with a powerful daimyo Ishedo Mitsunaro as their head. Japan was once again plunged into civil war.

The Battle of Sekighara
The Battle of Sekighara (or the Battle of the Sundered Realm) was fought on October 21, 1600. It is one of the most famous battles in Japanese history and worthy of a blog of its own.  I was a decisive Takogawa victory. In the next few years, Ieyasu systematically destroyed the power bases of his enemies. Hideyori, the boy king was reduced to the rank of daimyo and all his territory taken from him.

At the age of 60 Tokugawa Ieyasu was given the title of shogun on March 24m, 1603. Ruling from Edo he used his remaining years to create and solidify the shogunate. Officially he abdicated in 1605 in favour of his son Tokugawa Hidetada but he remained the power in Japan until hisi death 1616. However his last few years were far from peaceful as the usurped Hideyori became the focal point of the disaffected samurai.

Osaka Castle
The Takagawa laid siege to Osaka Castle which came to a peacable conclusion but Hideyori refused to honour the treaty and leave the Castle and once again the Tokogawa army settled in for a siege which ended in late 1615 with the fall of the castle and the death of Hideyori and al his family. Only Hideyori’s wife (a  granddaughter of Ieyasu) survived.

During his lifetime Ieyasu had an interest in European affairs. In his early years he had negotiated with Spain and Mexico and as the Duty and English began to take an interest in the Far East, Ieyasu allowed a small presence in Japan. However the European squabbles between Protestant and Catholic flowed into Japan and In 1614, he signed the Christian Expulsion Editct banning Christianity and expelling all Christian and foreigners.
Ieyasu Tokagawa's tomb in Nikko

Ieyasu Tokagawa died in 1616, possibly of syphilis. In his lifetime he had nineteen wives and concubines who gave him eleven sons and five daughters. An educated man, capable of great loyalty and yet utterly ruthless in dealing with anyone who crossed him, he brought peace to a country torn by war and established the Edo shogunate that would last two hundred years.

He is immortalised in the 21st century with an action figure and computer games!

If you are interested in the Battle of Sekighara, I recommend this video. The second part is found at

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Nettle Shirts and Venice Treacle – botanical secrets of 17th century England

This week we welcome back guest blogger, Deborah Swift , author of the highly acclaimed The Lady's Slipper.

I have loved researching 17th Century botany and herbs for my novels, The Lady’s Slipper and The Gilded Lily. For both of them I have had to research the botanical beliefs of a society that relied on native plants for a good many things, including medicine, cleaning agents, and home-manufactured goods such as cloth. One of my characters is a “cunning woman”, a person skilled in folk medicine. She has no daughters and is looking for someone to whom she can hand down her vast store of knowledge. Remedies were passed down orally, and the plants used were readily and commonly available to a populace which was mostly illiterate. Because little was written about it, evidence of these remedies is most often to be found in kitchen manuals because cooking and medicine were so closely related. (Pic1- gentlewoman’s manual)

The difference between folk medicine and the “official” medicine was largely that folk medicine used plants that occurred naturally in Britain and had not been brought over from abroad. Official medicine drew on metals, chemical compounds and herbs and spices imported from other countries, such as the Mediterranean or Arabia. Physicians could charge more for their exotic-sounding imports, which by the dint of their strangeness appeared to offer more appeal.

In the 17th century many Folk remedies were “simples”, ie a single species of plants used as a cure or palliative, whereas apothecaries mixed perhaps thirty or more of ingredients for their “treacles”. Venice treacle, given by Thomas Sydenham to Lady Sedley in 1686, contained more than 70 ingredients including:
wormwood, orange peel, angelica, nutmeg, horseradish, scurvy grass, white horehound, centaury, camomile, and juniper berries. All infused in 5 pints of sack!

And what was this medicine for? A headache.

Servants probably made do with feverfew leaves, and were probably better off for it. So in one of my books the middle-class Thomas Ibbetson is given a ‘drench’ (Pouring a vast quantity of liquid medicine into the throat) which worsens rather than cures his condition. In the 17th century, the richer you were, the more likely you were to die of the treatment rather than the disease. Mercury and antimony were common remedies, as was copious blood-letting to release stagnant humours.

17th century herbalists such as Gerard, Pechy and the Puritan, Culpeper, were immensely influential in their day, and there was much cross-over between the medicinal and the domestic. For example Culpeper recommends the leaves of the Alder tree for burns, but also for attracting fleas. The leaves were strewed on the ground to attract the fleas, and then the whole lot could be swept out and disposed of. Culpeper’s Herbal is one of the few 17th Century books still in print today.  I can also recommend Nicholas Woolley’s book about Culpeper, The Herbalist.

Napier’s History of Herbal Healing says that nettles were used as a pot herb in the Spring, but also its fibres were used in weaving instead of flax, to make tablecloths, sheets and even shirts! It was used medicinally to treat anaemia and as a general tonic, and also to dye the hair as it produced an intense yellow dye. With interest in ‘green’ products today, nettle fibre is again being used to make clothing such as the nettle blouse below.
Nettle Blouse!

Along with the practical uses of plants was a vast body of mythological lore, both superstitious and religious. Ideas such as that making love under a Rowan Tree was a certain cure for infertility, were common. So the herbs themselves were used in a broad rather than a narrow context, embracing the physical, emotional and spiritual being of the user. Many people believed in the “doctrine of signatures” of Paracelsus. This suggests that each plant bears a physical sign, placed there by God, of what it should be used for. So the small bulbs of celandines should be used for piles, because that’s what they look like.

The lady's slipper 
In The Lady’s Slipper, Alice Ibbetson is an artist fascinated by painting wild-flowers, the lady’s slipper being a rare wildflower with medicinal properties. In The Gilded Lily the plants are used as a beauty aid by Ella Appleby, a serving maid who becomes obsessed with her appearance and the glitter and glamour of Regency London. Many 17th century beauty preparations involved common plants. One for a fair complexion is to “take wilde Tansy and lay it to soake in buttermilke.” Anita Davison recently wrote a great post on this blog on 17th century beauty preparations, so please scroll down for more about this.

For more information of The Lady’s Slipper or The Gilded Lily (Sept 2012) please visit my blog

'Top Pick!' RT Book Reviews 'Women's Fiction at its best' History and Women ' Brilliant saga' Romance Reviews today' Rich and haunting' Reading the Past' Utterly captivating' Karen Maitland, author of The Owl Killers' Riveting narrative' For the Love of Books 'a great read’ Night Owl Reviews Highly recommended.'The Historical Novels Review

Thank you to Hoydens and Firebrands for hosting me.
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Sunday, 5 February 2012

The Catholic church's war against the theatre

In general, the 17th century was religiously intense in Europe. The Catholic church was particularly on the defensive, in part because of the threat from Luther's followers, but also because of anti-Catholic England.

(Drawing by Jean-Jacques Olier, image from the Confrérie du Saint-Sacrement, 1643)

The struggle for power (and souls!) helps explain the existence of extremist religious factions — and actions — everywhere.

In France, one of the things the Catholic church waged war against was the theatre, which they saw as a threat.

Actors, by their very employment, were excommunicated, and at least one archbishop prohibited his clergy from marrying them. They were forbidden Communion and were not permitted to be buried on holy ground.

In order to be buried by the Church, actors had to renounce the stage forever and ever. A number of players resorted to this on their deathbed, but others were caught out by an unexpected demise. The 18th century actress  Adriana Le Couvreur, for example, had to be buried in a field for cattle on the banks of the Seine, as one would bury a dog.

Molière was particularly despised by the Church. As he lay dying, the priests of his parish refused even to come to hear his renunciation. By the time one priest relented and finally did arrive, it was too late.

("The Death of Molière," artist unknown.)

It was only with extreme difficulty (and likely money) that King Louis XIV was able to persuade the Church to bury Molière — and even so, the Church required that France's most popular playwright and actor be buried at night without fanfare, in unconsecrated ground where criminals were buried. The people, clearly not in agreement with the Church's condemnation, thronged the streets with candles and torches to watch his coffin pass.

The "war" against theatre had been taken up by several extremist groups, including the secret society, Compagnie du Saint-Sacrament (Company of the Blessed Sacrament). Although Louis XIV is generally perceived to be an all-powerful king, he was powerless against the Church, and especially against the Company, which had insisted, earlier, that Molière's Tartuff be banned. Both the King and his brother were Molière supporters, yet they could do little when faced with this conservative faction. The ban lasted for five years (and nearly broke Molière's spirit) — in spite of Royal opinion.

(Vincent de Paul)

The novel I'm writing now is largely about the world of the theatre in 17th century France, and the "Company" figures as an evil force in it — as they certainly could be at times, historically. However,  they also did important good work. Vincent de Paul was of their number, and the Company no doubt contributed to his wonderful, compassionate work.

Click here to read more about the powerful secret society, the Company, described by some as "a state within a state, a church within a church."

Sandra Gulland