Evidence and Its Role in Witch Trials

By Elaina Alvis

When one pictures witch trials in early modern Europe they might conjure up frightening images angry mobs with pitchforks and torches executing anyone who is suspected of witchcraft. It is true that thousands were executed for witchcraft throughout Europe during the reformation, with sometimes more than hundred accused witches being killed in a single year (Gaskill, 78-80). However, at least in England, these cases weren’t usually the hysteric episodes many have come to visualize when confronted with the concept of witch trials. Evidence in the form of multiple witness statements was an integral part of Witch Trials and was often the deciding factor on the verdict. To greater understand how these cases worked and, we will examine a court document detailing the full trials of four witches from Worcester in 1690. This document describes the specific witnesses and evidences used against them which is an integral part in understanding how people were convicted of such a crime that would be unheard of in court cases today.

The first case concerns a woman named Rebecca Weft, who was accused of witchcraft and diabolical acts including the death of a man named John Hart. A man named John Edes who claims that the accused had confessed to him that she had been in contact with the devil himself and that she had wished to inflict revenge on John Hart (it is unspecified why). John Edes’ claims are supported by the testimony by an unnamed man who makes a similar claim, but he elaborates that Rebecca had told him that she was not only communicating with the Devil but that she had in fact married him and that she asked the devil himself to kill John Hart (Anon, 3). Having sexual contact with the devil was often involved in the accusations of female witches, as female sexuality was in direct relation with demonic magic (Gaskill, 31).The second point of evidence against her is the testimonies of the deceased’s father and the doctor who tended to John. Both claim that the deceased had cried out to Rebecca by name upon his deathbed. Rebecca plead guilty in hopes to gain mercy but, likely due to the heinous testimonies given, the court refused and declared her guilty.

The second case concerns Margaret Landis who was accused of murder of a child through witchcraft and sorcery. The first form of evidence against her was the testimony of the child’s father who observed Margaret clap in a threatening manner at his daughter who had called her a ‘witch’. His daughter then fell ill and died of ‘distemper’ (Anon, 4). An unnamed witness attested to this and added that the girl raved and spoke of seeing Margaret at her bedside ‘making strange mouths at her’ (Anon, 4). Similar to the first case, a doctor testified in support of the claim that Margaret caused this illness. This is likely because explainable deaths, such as the child’s ‘distemper’ were often blamed on witchcraft (Sharpe, 45). The second piece of evidence was that the girl had once claimed that Margaret had attempted to turn her into a witch. Margaret had then forced her to attend what was most likely a witch’s Sabbath, a demonic gathering in which witches engage in acts such as cannibalism and group sex with both humans and demons (Sharpe, 18). Another woman

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A circle of witches and demons, from Nathaniel Crouch, Kingdom of Darkness, 1688

testified to this claim and added that she had conversed with Margaret who was also plotting to inflict harm upon the girl. Margaret, unlike Rebecca, denied these claims and accused the witnesses of having grudges against her. In this case, the court was apprehensive towards convicting Margaret. Some members of the court likely knew of the accused before the trial due to the small size of rural communities at the time and this familiarity could have affected their willingness to convict as they could have been friends or acquaintances of the victim (Sharpe, 47).  Unfortunately, the jury eventually ruled that it would be too dangerous to let her go free, in case she really was a witch, and she too was condemned as guilty.

The third case involved two women, Susan Cock and Rose Hallybread, who were accused of murdering two children, Mary and John Peak. Abraham Chad and Elin Shearcraft came forward with shocking testimonies. To ensure that their testimonies were legitimate, the court separated them and questioned them individually to ensure their testimonies lined up (Anon, 5). This actions demonstrates how the courts attempted to maintain as much truth as possible in these cases, not wanting the witnesses influencing each other’s testimonies. In Abraham’s statement, he claimed to have seen Rose and Susan making a large fire in the latter’s home. He then observed the women holding wax figures made in the likeness of the children and torturing them by sticking pins and needles in their ‘bellies, heads, and eyes’ and burning them over the fire (Anon, 5). Abraham then claims that the next day he had heard from the children’s mother that the children were suffering from the same afflictions as the wax dolls. Elin gave a similar testimony but added that the children had called out the names of the two witches, like John in Rebecca’s case. These corroborating testimonies would have been seen as a clear evidence of witchcraft. Susan and Rose denied these claims but they were ultimately found guilty and sentenced to burn at the stake alongside the previous two women.

Through these cases we can gain invaluable insight into the mindset of those involved in witchcraft trials of the 17th century. It demonstrated how witness testimonies were properly presented in order to qualifiy as legitimate evidence in a witch trial. To convict a witch one needed more than a vague accusation or hunch from a concerned or possibly malicious neighbour, but a concrete testimony supported by the observations of several witnesses. In this way, while the subject may appear outlandish to a modern audience, we might see some logic in the machinations of these trials.

Peter Stubbe: Werewolf or Wicked Man?

Popular culture is defined by the sensational story, you can’t go a day without seeing an example “Killer Food Bug Hits Britain” or “Hackers Can Turn Your Home Computer into a Bomb”. This sensationalism is not unique to our current generation, however the topics have undoubtedly changed.

The story of Peter Stubbe is no exception to this, the headline found on the original pamphlet describes him as “a most wicked sorcerer”. The document goes on to describe his heinous crimes: killing pregnant women and children and ravaging maidens. These seem to be the worst crimes a person could commit, but it gets much worse. Not only was Stubbe thought to be inherently evil and cruel from his childhood, but he was also in a pact with the devil who gave him a magic girdle that allowed him to transform into a giant wolf (p.4). This traditional werewolf narrative may be somewhat familiar, with a few minor differences.

Our modern idea of a werewolf, for that is what Stubbe undoubtedly became, is not one of a man who changes at will and chooses an evil life. Usually in modern fiction a werewolf is cursed or infected and must change every full moon, this text however makes no mention of moons or curses. The form which Stubbe takes is familiar:

“the likenes of a gréedy deuouring Woolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkeled like vnto brandes of fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharpe and cruell teeth, A huge body, and mightye pawes”, (p.4)

In fact the text makes no explicit mention of Stubbe being a werewolf but judging by the physical description and his actions it is a fair assumption. But why is such a familiar supernatural phenomenon so different in both causes and symptoms. As I mentioned, Stubbe is not some poor unfortunate damned, to travel the world as a wolf every full moon. In fact this story falls very much in line with other Early Modern werewolf myths especially ones of German origin as presented by the Brothers Grimm. In this article, the main point of similarity between these stories is the magic belt.

Also, the shapeshifting being activated on Stubbe’s command in the manner of putting the belt on, takes away any sympathy that people may have harboured for a cursed unfortunate which we so often read of or see in movies today. Thus showing that the aim of Early Modern werewolf stories was completely different to that of today.

It seems to me that in Early Modern Europe tragic events such as a spate of killings, potentially by a serial killer, would often be blamed on a supernatural event. In this manner the common folk of Early Modern Europe could make sense of the world and attribute a certain amount of logic to seemingly illogical actions.

As in the case of Stubbe, it has already been established that he is ‘wicked’ but to kill as many as he is said to without being caught suggests supernatural aid. Thus the werewolf myth becomes useful; by explaining an unexplainable act of evil it gives a level of comfort to ordinary people who as a result don’t have to believe that it was a normal man. The fact that Stubbe communed with the devil for his gifts also answers the question as to why God would create such an evil man thus drawing the blame away from the church or religion and placing it at the feet of the ultimate evil. This inclusion of the devil is once again I believe a way of explaining why bad things happen such as murderers or natural disasters, without incriminating God.

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Peter Stubbe in wolf form

It is interesting to note that Stubbe is said to have sometimes killed in human form (p.10).  In theory this could have been actual sightings of him committing the murders this is however unlikely as he was never suspected until he was finally caught after metamorphosing from wolf to man by a group of hunters. Perhaps this does give some credibility to the fact that Stubbe was not a wolf man at all and was in fact an especially brutal serial killer. Of course it could also be a way of showing his descent into madness, this was completely opposed to the Early Modern beliefs regarding moderation in all things and would have further served to vilify him to the audience.

When discussing Early Modern sources it is always worth looking into the messages that the author is trying to get across, in this case it seems that the author is attempting to create a sort of moral revulsion toward Stubbe. Words such as wicked are used repeatedly, in fact wicked is used over fourteen times alone. Variations on cruel and cruelty are also used nineteen times. These words were carefully chosen to stir emotions in the reader: anger, revulsion, and horror. The fact that the writer also described Stubbe as killing while out of his beastly form shows that he has degenerated even more than initially thought. While killing out of wolf form Stubbe would have been thought of as worse than a beast as humans are supposed to be controlled and show restraint, and above all human beings are supposed to know better, whereas an animal is not. Above all else the story is one of morals; it is very similar to a fairy tale or fable in the way it works, as it starts with evil deeds and ends with the evildoer being punished and all ending well with the natural balance restored.

Stubbe himself may purely have been a victim of circumstance and have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was caught, he may also have confessed simply to end the torture as so many did. It is unlikely that the truth of Stubbe’s supposed shapeshifting killing spree will ever be known.

References:

“A true discourse declaring the damnable life and death of one Stubbe Peeter, a most wicked sorcerer.” (London, 1590) Original version and re-written 

Featured image credit to the Wellcome Collection

A Time-traveller’s Guide to Getting Drunk

By William Parker

By studying seventeenth-century cookery books one can gain a great deal of knowledge surrounding early modern medicine, cleaning methods, and, most interestingly, recipes for food and drink. Alcohol was consumed for recreation–not as an alternative for clean water, a myth that has since been debunked (see here and here for examples). A number of recipes in Margaret Baker’s book provide insight into alcohol production and culture in the seventeenth century, featuring as it does traditional and continued methods of brewing. An examination of the manuscript also suggests the potential for comparison to more modern methods, too. Using Baker’s book, I will analyse the changes that have occurred between early modern and modern brewing and display how these changes have affected modern brewing and drink culture.

Mead might be more widely associated today with Nordic cultures, but it’s worth noting the inclusion of a recipe for mead in Baker’s manuscript. Made with honey and excess yeast from brewing, known as ‘barm’, the recipe for this traditional drink displays methods that seem both unchanged in modern brewing and creative in the context of early modern Europe.

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To make meedd’ from Baker’s manuscript (Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.619, f. 80).

Calling for the boiling of honey and water, and the addition of barm to ferment it once it had cooled, the recipe is very simple. Though with the addition of lemon and cloves, the recipe offers an interesting view on drink production and culture in early modern England. Adding spices and flavourings to this drink, such as lemons from the European continent and cloves from Asia, Baker’s recipe displays an impact of global trade on household recipes as well as English drinking habits. While this desire to flavour alcohol is still commonplace, another continued practice can still be seen in Baker’s work.

With barm commonplace in modern brewing, being used to reduce waste and maintain a unique yeast culture, this practice in commercial and domestic brewing has been maintained thanks to a need for continuity for both large and small scale brewers. Yet while this brewing method may have continued similarly over the centuries, the practice of flavouring brews has had a renaissance in modern brewing.

Modern breweries such as ‘Brewdog’ continue to experiment with their beers, adding such ingredients as grapefruit and chilli to their brews, highlighting the change in tastes and continuity in flavour experiments. With an early modern decline in the consumption of mead in favour of other beverages, perhaps revealing a shift in the tastes of early modern drinkers away from sweeter drinks, there was a change towards beers and wines (Martin 61, 64) . Yet this too entailed a form of continuity, with the inclusion of spices and fruits in brews.

Yet fruit was not only utilised to flavour drinks. With a high chance of spoiling in transit from the European continent, imported wine was risky with regards to quality. As such, by utilising the vineyards of the south of England and the berries of the hedgerow, one could produce wine at home with the help of recipes, such as Baker’s.

There are two recipes for wine in Baker’s book, one made with grapes and the other with ‘respase’ (an archaic word for raspberries). Baker’s method for both is similar,  relying on natural yeasts–something still used in modern wine making.

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Recipes to make ‘respase wine’ and ‘wine of graps’: Baker, f. 56.

The recipe for grape wine simply required the mashing of rotten grapes, with the subsequent liquid bottled once it had finished fermenting. This simple method is mirrored in the ‘respase’ wine, which only required the brewer to add an indeterminate amount of ‘respas’ to a sack. This was then left to ferment for a week and the resulting liquid was sieved through a bag, then bottled with sugar, as per the brewer’s taste.

These recipes both show little change in the production of alcohol production, with natural yeast and sugars fermenting the liquid following a manual crushing of the fruit, while still showing an adaptation to the period. With the inclusion of respase suggesting an alternative to grapes, most likely thanks to their inexpensive nature as the cost of transporting grapes overland would be high and quality dependant on distance from the source, this displays Baker’s ingenuity with regards to using more commonplace fruits.

Within the bracket of drink culture and production, these recipes for wine display a great change in wine making from the seventeenth century. Using natural yeasts from the fruits themselves, in comparison to modern standards of sterility and farmed yeasts to provide consistency even in homebrewing, this method relied more on chance and created unique wines from every brew. The inclusion of other fruits, too, as opposed to the mass use of grapes in the production of wine in homebrewing and the global wine market, shows a great disparity between the homebrew of fruit wines in early modern England and production of wine in both large and small scales today.

Overall, these recipes in Baker’s book hint at a wider shift towards more a more modern form of drink production and culture. With simpler production at home, both in terms of using easily attainable fruits such as respase in the early modern period, and the rise of homebrew in modern times, a use of homebrew as a cheap alternative to drink produced in larger quantities is wholly relatable. With this in mind, therefore, it is clear with the presence of alcoholic recipes in early modern manuscripts and the rising popularity of homebrew in the past decades, people will always find a cheap way to get drunk.

Other Works Cited

  • Martin, A. Lynn. Alcohol, Violence, and Disorder (2009)

 

“I ain’t afraid of no ghost!” Meet Huguette Roy: the seventeenth century Derek Acorah

Today’s ghost-hunting programmes are often regarded with jest due to a tongue in cheek nature expressed in their filming and production. This is coupled with the majority of people believing that spirits beyond this world do not exist with the main aim of these programmes being to entertain. However there is slight eldritch minority for whom these productions shed just a little bit too much light on the subject for it to be all a distorted fantasy which makes me wonder are ghost stories that crazy after-all?

Turn the clock back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where religion played a greater role in explaining people’s lives and with the lack of scientific knowledge of the afterlife and death, it is not unhinged that a belief in ghosts was the norm. We need not look further than the story of Huguette Roy in 1628, which raised such interest it was documented by local clerical authority, Christophe Mercier. By consulting this account of events, edited by Kathryn A. Edwards and Susie Speakman Sutch, we can answer questions about spiritual apparitions, why people held these eerie views and the importance of religion during this period.

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Leonarde’s Ghost: Popular Piety and “The Appearance of a Spirit” in 1628 Kathryn A. Edwards & Susie Speakman Sutch trans. & eds.

 

In seventeenth century Dole, France, the wife of a soldier who was not only pregnant but was deemed to be on the cusp of death through illness is claimed to have received numerous visitations from an initially unknown spirit. Initially heedful, Roy embraced her inner Ray Parker Jnr. and opened herself up to the spirit. These visitations began during her pregnancy and continued after the birth of her child. This spirit, dressed simply in the style of a young housemaid, cared for her and assisted with housework due to her condition, returning at the same time each day. After being originally stubborn, the spirit revealed itself to be the spirit of her deceased aunt, Leonarde Colin [pp. 53-69, 90].

It can be said this is the first example of attitudes of the time as Colin announced later on that she was serving penance to escape purgatory. This highlights the fact that a large proportion of society held highly religious views during this time as many held beliefs of the notion of purgatory and serving penance to limit their time there or to escape purgatory. This would have been the main justification for the appearance of spirits during this period and the explanation of Colin’s visit to Roy follows this analysis of the period. The fact that Colin was visiting her niece as a result of penance highlights the fact that Roy was highly religious herself and believed that spirits could appear based upon the notion of serving penance. It also highlights the intrinsic nature of religion to people’s daily lives during the seventeenth century and how it affected them.

Huguette Roy struggled with the idea of no one else having seen this spirit and being the subject of gossip especially of the negative nature, with those not believing Roy’s story of events [pp. 73-4]. This highlights that although there was a centrality in the religious beliefs of the time, people (Roy) still wanted to prove that they had seen the ghost to others to validate their sightings. It is also telling that Roy would have wanted to justify her religious stance as her aunt was visiting her as penance, this part being essential within the story. How religious Huguette Roy was stands out from the account as she trusted that God had sent her aunt to serve penance and was willing to help to ensure she was released from purgatory. Eventually the nature of her religious beliefs prevailed as a Friar arrived to prove that a spirit had appeared at her house to assist her.

“Friar, thus, left well assured that a spirit from the other world had been in this room, with the opinion that it was good and from God, no longer attributing everything that had happened up until then to imagination or fantasy.” [p. 65]

A Friar visited and based on his religious learning argued that a spirit must have been present, and from God and of good nature, this highlights the nature of the general seriousness of religion during this period – the idea that religion could provide the justification and answer for spiritual apparitions. This proves the essential relationship between the spiritual world and religion during this period. The account was recorded by Christophe Mercier and this highlights the literary importance of events and that even though there were townsfolk sceptics, people still wanted to hear about other-worldly goings-on.

Although in reflection, this may seem a sceptical account of a spirit appearing and helping her niece while she struggles with pregnancy, parenthood and illness, as Huguette was the only person to see the spirit, it does shed some light on the coupling between religion and the supernatural in seventeenth century France. It provides us with interesting information about the ‘ordinary people’ in Early Modern France and their beliefs of the supernatural and how they were justified by their religious beliefs and ‘proved’ by local religious authority.

As 2017 dawns has much changed? One third of British people believe in ghosts and a huge 45 percent of Americans believe in ghost or the return of spirits. It may be interesting to note the decline in religious beliefs, yet although it is not a majority, there is still a modest belief in the supernatural today. Maybe Derek Acorah has something to do with it.

Preview of Leonarde’s Ghost: Popular Piety and “The Appearance of a Spirit” in 1628 Kathryn A. Edwards & Susie Speakman Sutch, trans. & eds.]: all page references refer to this book. http://tsup.truman.edu/files/2008/05/leonarde-s-ghost-popular-piety-and-the-appearance-of-a-spirit-in-1628-preview.pdf

Transcribing and the Transcribathon

By Amy Powis

Three months ago, transcription was not something that I had ever heard of, yet here I am writing this blog post about my experience with it. How much can change in a short space of time! I was both interested and excited about learning transcription, the form of comprehending early modern handwriting, typing it phonetically into a specially designed website so that they can be preserved online, as original copies of primary sources are not normally something that I view. So getting to analyse and look at the recipe book in its original format was intriguing to me, as I could gain more knowledge about the subject especially the recipe in question.

Transcribing has many perks as these sources are then easier to access, meaning that the sources are easier to view by historians and people. There are specific websites to complete the transcription including Dromio, the site that I used, which allows users to pick sources, including early modern recipes and then transcribe them. Any transcription that we completed as part of the Transcribathon could count as part of our transcription assignment, so of course, I was going to take part.

The Transcribathon, hosted by the Early Modern Recipe Online Collective (EMROC), took place on 9th November 2016, where over 100 people from across the world transcribed the 236 pages of Lady Grace Castleton recipe book (V.a.600) in under twelve hours. On the day of the Transcribathon, I tried my hand at transcription, for the first time, in a classroom that had been booked out for University of Essex students for three hours of the Transcribathon. Maybe not the best time for my first attempt, considering it was so new to me and I had no idea what I was doing, but the appeal of the Transcribathon was that it was open to professionals and amateurs alike including novice history students.

To my pleasant surprise, there was a bustling atmosphere in the room with discussions ranging from how transcription was easy, to people considering what a particular word in the recipe book was. As I started transcribing, I noticed there would be a social media aspect that made the Transcribathon enjoyable, as I could find others completing it through #Transcribathon. This was almost comforting knowing that other people were also having trouble with the recipes, which made the independent project feel that you were not alone, which was weird considering I was in a room with other people. It was also quite nice, as I got a few helpful tips through the hashtag. 

I encountered a few problems along the way, particularly in the beginning, constantly needing the Oxford English dictionary open to identify words, wondering what specific words were. For example, on page 17, whether a word was “Rose” or Kole, although I went for the latter initially. But it got easier with time as I only just found this mistake looking at my transcription for this post. The writing was also difficult for me at points particularly with the long “S” as encountered with “Rose.” This caused problems for me because believing that a letter could be something different can change the meaning of a word and a sentence. Like Tracy mentions on her blog, transcribing can be difficult with “ye” meaning “the” being used in the text, if I had not been told this previously, I would have struggled with it, not knowing what it meant. Dromio itself was useful, having buttons which did this for you, which was always useful. 

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A Line From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600. p. 17

Problems continued, especially with the handwriting at first, similar to Abbie, who also took part in the Transcribathon. For example, on page 17, I stumbled on particular words, thinking that a plant called “Egrimony,” as Agremony. I also thought that in places the handwriting was hard to read, cutting close to the bottom of a page meaning that I sometimes found it hard to understand, although with more practice this did become easier. This was seen on page 18 as in the beginning I did not know what the bottom of page stated, but with more perseverance, I understood it to be “a fare morter then take 3 pound of sheep scuer.

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A Line From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600. p.18

Abbie also mentioned the case of human error in the transcription process. Although this is something that I see as a problem, being a novice myself and making mistakes, as previously mentioned, the format of the event is quite helpful. It allows for errors to be cross-referenced to see which answer is the most accurate to what is written in the source. In this case, it means that by working in the Transcribathon suggests that human error may be less likely to happen, but not impossible. Human error could be a problem, however, causing the incorrect transcription to be used which could cause future mistakes, but this is unlikely especially if proof-reading of transcriptions is done effectively. 

I enjoyed being part of the Transcribathon, learning more about early modern recipes than I have before. For example, the ingredient list on page 17 contained “dragons.” I suppose that I would just laugh at this and think where would someone get a dragon, almost dismissing it. I mean where would someone in the 17th Century get a dragon! But on a historical basis, I would have to think what creature would a dragon have been, most likely a type of reptile maybe a snake, but where would it have come from? This meant that this was a glimpse into an Early Modern life that I would never have discovered had it not been for the Transcribathon.

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A Line From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600. p.17

I enjoyed my experience taking part in the Transcribathon for the first time, as it was a nice way to engage and learn how to transcribe as well as allowing me to expand my knowledge on recipes in the Early Modern period. It was things like this that made the experience enjoyable for me as it was something new and I learned a skill that I have been credited for and can put on my CV and let’s face it how many assignments can you do that!

Cursed by mortality: exploring the Pre-modern European attitudes to death.

As a nineteen year old university student, I find myself stressing over an infinite amount of things. I am a self-proclaimed worrier but something that rarely makes my list of worries is death.

However, in early Britain, the average life expectancy was forty years old[1] and 40% of people did not make it to adulthood[2]. As a result of such low life expectancies, death was a big concern to people of all ages. People accepted that it could arrive at any moment and so were vigilant in identifying signs that their impending death was looming.

After reading Stephen Wilson’s, The Magical Universe. Everyday rituals and magic in Pre-modern England, my lack of concern about death became interesting to me. Wilson describes death as ‘frequent, public and inescapable’, therefore it comes as no surprise that death and dying were given much more importance than they are now. Rituals were put in place to help the dying and after death there was still many procedures to be followed. These included ensuring that the feet of the corpse were facing the door and all mirrors were covered. This ensured that the spirit of the corpse would be able to find its way to the afterlife with minimal difficulties.

What intrigued me about Wilson’s novel is his mention on the signs of which predicted the occurrence of death. Today, unless told so by a healthcare professional (or google if I have decided to look up my symptoms), we are unlikely to go around predicting death. However, pre modern Europe, ‘death was never considered as a purely natural event’ it was seen as something that had magical and mystical dimensions and so could be announced by signs. Signs that are seen to indicate death today are often physical and behavioural changes that occur within the person about to die and are usually noticed whilst the person is in the process of dying. However, Wilson speaks of signs that can be noticed in all aspects of everyday life, from animals behaving abnormally to the disturbance of certain household objects. Interestingly, none of these signs have any medical origins and seem like random daily occurrences to the uninformed person. Nevertheless I decided to note down these signs and see if death was on the horizon for me.

A grave mistake:

I would like to say that the results of my observation allowed me to conclude that I had a long and fruitful life ahead of me, however, that is not what my experiment revealed to me at all.

On Monday, I woke up at 9am to get ready for my lecture, upon doing so I realised that a picture of my two younger brothers had fallen from the wall which I had stuck it on. The falling of a family portrait was the first sign of my untimely death.

On my way to my lectures I looked out for birds as the cry or appearance of certain bird’s signalled death. Except for a few pigeons, (which are only a sign of death if they appear and remain in the same spot until a death occurs), everything seemed okay.

V0050705 A bat and three fully dressed birds flying by moonlight.
Birds flying by moonlight. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

On Tuesday night as I attempted to sleep I heard what may have been a dog howling at an unusual time. This was then followed by my sighting of a German shepherd being taken for a walk the following morning. This seems relatively normal unless you were aware that a dog running wildly was another sign that death was round the corner.

What I found as the week went by was that although I did not necessary believe these signs indicated my death, I began noticing them more in everyday life. When I saw a magpie, I was relieved that it didn’t make any noise because the call of a magpie would be another indication that my days were numbered. I was also thankful that I hadn’t sighted it knocking at my window because apart from that being quite strange, this was another of the many things I needed to look out for.

By Friday I was over-analysing everything and began inspecting my bed sheets for coffin-shaped creases just to reassure myself I wouldn’t be dropping dead soon. Of course, if you look at anything long enough it can begin to take on coffin shaped qualities and so the results of this were not helpful at all. When my boiler began making noises, I debated whether or not boilers counted as furniture because furniture emitting loud wraps would be another signal of my upcoming death. On Saturday I decided to stop my experiment when my glass fell off the counter and smashed without reason. I had concluded that by pre-modern Europe standards my life was hanging on a very thin thread.

Digging too deep:

During my week, I encountered a lot of things that would be considered signs of death in early Europe. However, there were many more I did not notice, for example I did not hear a chicken crowing like a rooster or premonitions of death-bed scenes. What I happened to notice were often things with little significance which I gave importance to by over analysing them and turning them into things that I was looking out for.

I believe that the high death rates of early modern Europe caused the same effect in people. Death was not as feared as it is now, people were very aware of their mortality. Although a lot of these signs seem absurd to us today, it may have been oddly comforting to feel as though you have some insight into something so unpredictable.

[1] https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy/

[2] http://www.localhistories.org/life.html

Wilson, S. “Death and the Dead” in The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe (London and New York: Hambledon and London, 2000).

BREAKING NEWS: Kit Harington does deal with Devil

By Jessie Foreman 

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Limited, L.T.D. (2016) Doctor Faustus tickets, Duke of Yorks Theatre, London Theatre Direct.

If you have been unfortunate enough to study A-Level English Literature, you might’ve already come across this play: Doctor Faustus. Written by Christopher Marlowe, Faustus is an English morality play that was first performed around 1588 – 1593, but wasn’t published until 1604. It has recently made a comeback in the West End, with Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington taking the eponymous role. In exchange for his soul, scholarly Doctor Faustus is given the services of one of Lucifer’s chief demons, Mephistopheles, for 24 years. Whilst the play is first and foremost a piece of entertainment, there are historical accuracies about how men interacted with magic during the Early Modern period.

 

By the turn of the seventeenth century, England’s literacy levels had vastly improved from the previous century, with the literate males estimated as high as 35%. However, the proportion of literate women still hadn’t reached the 10% boundary. Education and literacy were still only available to the upper echelons of male society. Faustus seems to be an exception to this point. Although he was born ‘base of stock’ (Prologue, line 11), ‘shortly [Faustus] was graced with doctor’s name’ (Prologue, line 17) and took up residency as a scholar at the university in Wüttermberg. Literacy vastly divided how men and women practised magic: erudite men schooled themselves with the aid of grimoires (textbooks of magic), whereas women, often denounced for witchcraft, would inherit knowledge based on folklore and popular culture. One was treated as a respected, although illegal, intellectual pursuit, the other heretical. Some have even gone on to call the persecution of women as witches as a ‘uniquely lethal form of European misogyny[1].’

FAUSTUS:
What will be, shall be? Divinity, adieu! [Puts down Bible.]
[Picks up book of magic.] These metaphysics of magicians
And necromantic books are heavenly;
Lines, circles, scenes, letters, and characters-
Ay, these are those that Faustus most desires.
O, what a world of profit and delight,
Of power, of honour, of omnipotence,
Is promised to the studious artisan!
– Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 48-55 –

Doctor Faustus illustrates the general contemporary attitude towards scholars and clerics as ‘studious artisans,’ who were the main consumers of grimoires, since they were often written in a mixture of Latin or Hebrew, making it even less accessible to the female laity. The pursuit of magical studies and religion were not polar opposites either, as implied by the ‘heavenly’ status of Faustus’ ‘necromantic books.’ Many Christian churches actually promoted the studying and exploration of magic, siting the biblical King Solomon’s magical texts as justification for the use and control of demons[2]. Thus, many scholars didn’t see themselves as flouting their religious beliefs in favour of studying magic, but rather that they were seeking insight into otherworldly beings, according to Christian philosophy. Although, selling your soul to the Devil and using Mephistopheles to prank the Pope, as in in Faustus’ case, is clearly not the most Christian thing to do – this would have garnered a laugh from his Protestant audience during the early seventeenth century.

L0031469 The Devil and Dr. Faustus meet.
Hodgson, O. (1825) The Devil and Doctor Faustus Meet

Furthermore, the second main contrast between male and female interactions with magic, is how they interacted with the Devil and his demons. 

FAUSTUS:
[Cuts his arm.] Lo, Mephistopheles, for love of thee
I cut mine arm, and with my proper blood
Assure my soul to be great Lucifer’s,
Chief lord and regent of perpetual night.
View here the blood that trickles from mine arm,
And let it be propitious for my wish.
– Act 2, Scene 1, Lines 53-58 –

It is here that Doctor Faustus signs his name in his own blood on a contract with Lucifer, to make use of Mephistopheles’ magic for the next 24 years. The symbolism in this is obvious, and blood sacrifices were common in grimoires[3]. It also speaks volumes that Faustus negotiated with the Devil and came to a contractual agreement, in comparison to popular beliefs during this time that a woman had a sexual pact with the Devil, and then she became one of his minions whom he had total control over. Power imbalances between genders permeated through early modern society, so it shouldn’t be all that surprising that it reaches dealings with the supernatural too. It was thought that women were naturally inclined to give into temptation and therefore easier targets for the Devil. This idea comes directly from the Bible, whereby Eve was persuaded to take a bite of the Apple of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Women have thus been paying the price for this ever since.

Doctor Faustus cheerfully ends with the Devil cashing in on his side of the bargain after 24 years, and Faustus is dragged to Hell by a legion of demons. Whilst carefully analysing every line for my English lit A-Level might have been the most boring thing ever, this play is an extremely insightful source for analysing the relationship learned men had with magic, and how this differed with women’s. I’m sure it didn’t come to anyone’s surprise that women were demonised for doing almost the exact same thing as men. The theatre production of Doctor Faustus hasn’t blown critics away – perhaps Kit Harington should stick to making pacts with the Seven Kingdoms instead of the Devil. Interestingly, it is agreed upon in the historical community that Dr Faustus was a real person and died in Germany around 1540. Many sources of writings about him stress his nefarious character, and refers to him as a ‘nigromancer’ and ‘sodomite.’ 

[1]Scarre, G. (1996) Witchcraft and magic in 16th and 17th-century Europe (studies in European history). Basingstoke: Macmillan Education. P.52
[2] Timbers, F. (2014) Magic and Masculinity: Ritual Magic and Gender in the Early Modern Era. IB Tauris & Co Ltd. P.9
[3] Ibid. P.11

Bibliography

A Brief Timeline of Faust (2016) Available at: https://www.faust.com/ (Accessed: 19 January 2017).
Marlowe, C. (2005) Doctor Faustus: A Two-Text Edition (A-text, 1604 ; B-text, 1616) Contexts and Sources Criticism. Edited by David Scott Kastan. 4th edn. New York: Norton, W. W. & Company. 
Roser, M. and Ortiz-Ospina, E. (no date) Literacy. Available at: https://ourworldindata.org/literacy/ (Accessed: 19 January 2017).
 
Ryrie, A. (2008) The Sorcerer’s Tale: Faith and Fraud in Tudor England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Scarre, G. (1996) Witchcraft and Magic in 16th and 17th-Century Europe (Studies in European History). Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Timbers, F. (2014) Magic and Masculinity: Ritual Magic and Gender in the Early Modern Era. IB Tauris & Co Ltd. 

Welcome

By Lisa Smith

Welcome to Supernatural and Natural Worlds in Early Modern Europe! This is the blog for a University of Essex class.

In early modern Europe (ca. 1550-1815), people believed that there was a permeable boundary between the natural (what could be readily observed and explained by natural philosophy) and supernatural worlds (what was hidden, or lay beyond the natural world).

phantasmagoria
Alphonse de Neuville or A. Jahadier, Intepretation of Robertson’s Fantasmagorie (1867). Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Our module explores the shifting meanings of the supernatural and natural worlds during a period that encompassed three major shifts in intellectual outlook: the Reformation, Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. This was an age of collecting and classifying knowledge, objects… and wonders!

Not only did the relationship between natural philosophy and God undergo profound changes, but the shifts simultaneously resulted in many supernatural beliefs (e.g. werewolves) becoming less plausible while raising the possibility of other mysterious creatures (e.g. vampires and extraterrestrial life).

Please check in to read posts by my students, exploring the ways in which early modern people understood the boundaries between human and animal, body and soul, life and death, science and religion, and reality and imagination.