Agnes Waterhouse ~ the first British hanging for Witchcraft….

Agnes Waterhouse was born around 1503 and lived in the village of Hatfield Peverel, near to Chelmsford, Essex – and she was the first woman in Britain to be hanged for witchcraft….

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Agnes was known locally as ‘Mother Waterhouse’, which would suggest she may have been a wise woman and healer. It appears she was rather an argumentative woman, repeatedly falling out with her neighbours…. In July 1566 Agnes was accused of witchcraft – along with Elizabeth Francis (believed to be her sister) and Joan Waterhouse, her 18-year-old daughter….

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Elizabeth had a cat; a white spotted one called ‘Sathan’ – or Satan – given to her by her grandmother, ‘Eve of Hatfield Peverel’ – who taught her grand-daughter the secrets of witchcraft when she was 12 years old…. Sathan was able to talk; he taught Elizabeth how to make magical potions – and promised her a lifetime of riches – a promise that indeed appeared to have been kept, as she always had sheep in her pasture….

Sathan would do anything for his mistress – all he asked for in return was bread, milk and a drop of blood – her blood – which she provided by pricking herself and allowing him to suck from it….leaving spots on her skin never to disappear….

As a young woman Elizabeth took a fancy to an Andrew Byles – a man of wealth – to be her husband…. Sathan promised to get him for her….but in order for it to be possible she must allow Byles to ‘abuse’ her – which she did. Only things did not quite go to plan – for afterwards Byles refused to marry her. Enraged Elizabeth ordered Sathan to ‘waste his goods’ (destroy his property)…. Still not content she demanded the cat ‘touch his body’ (cause illness) – and so he did…. Byles subsequently died from his illness….img_0353

Soon after Elizabeth discovered she was carrying Byles’s child – so Sathan advised her which herbs to take to cause a termination of the pregnancy….

Elizabeth set her heart upon another man, Francis….although not as rich as Byles she decided she must have him and so set her trap…. After sleeping with him, once again she fell pregnant – they married and a daughter was born to them some three months later….

It was not a happy union, the pair fought constantly – family life was not as Elizabeth had expected; so when the child was just 18 months old she got Sathan to kill her….and inflict a lameness of the leg on to Francis – from which he never recovered….

By now Elizabeth had somewhat tired of it all – and this included Sathan who she’d had for some 15 years…. It so happened that she encountered Agnes one day, who was on her way to the ovens to bake some cakes…. Elizabeth decided to bestow the cat upon her as a gift – telling her that all she needed to do was feed him bread, milk and a drop of blood and he would do anything she wanted….in return Agnes gave Elizabeth a cake….

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Agnes was eager to try out the cat’s skills…. She asked him to kill one of her pigs – more than willing to prove himself Sathan obliged. Having fallen out with a couple of her neighbours Agnes then got him to kill three hogs belonging to Father Kersey and drown a cow owned by Widow Gooday…. Each time Agnes rewarded Sathan with a chicken and a drop of her own blood. Realising the power at her fingertips Agnes began causing no end of mischief for her neighbours….ruining their brewing and butter making amongst other things…. Sathan taught her the art of witchcraft, how to terminate pregnancies and helped her to kill people…. As she wasn’t getting along with her own husband Agnes arranged his demise too – she spent 9 years as a widow before things finally caught up with her….

Eventually, for whatever reason, Agnes too had had enough of Sathan, he was beginning to cause her problems; so, she turned him into a toad – he was far easier to keep under control this way….

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It was while she was away one day that her daughter, Joan, decided to amuse herself by playing with him…. Feeling hungry and as her mother had left no food, Joan went to the house of a neighbour to ask for some bread and cheese…. On arriving she encountered the neighbour’s daughter, 12-year-old Agnes Brown – who refused to give her any food. On returning home, Sathan offered her his help….providing she gave him her soul – Joan agreed to this…. Sathan went to visit the young Agnes and found her churning butter. The toad manifested himself into a demon – a black dog with horns – and asked the child for some butter….when she declined he then set about terrorising her….

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Image from page 10 of “The days of long ago, and Immortality (Antithesis of “The Rubaiyat”)”(1909) Internet Archive Books via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14790395683/

By now people were becoming suspicious of the tragic events and goings-on that seemed to surround Agnes and her cat…. It was after the death of yet another of her neighbours, William Fynne, who died on the 1st of November 1565 having suffered from an illness said to have been caused by her, that the accusations were finally officially made….

Agnes, Elizabeth and Joan were brought to trial in Chelmsford in July 1566, accused of witchcraft…. Agnes was cited as having caused illness that resulted in the deaths of William Fynne and her husband and also the deaths of her neighbours’ livestock…. But the evidence that actually convicted her was when the 12-year-old Agnes Brown testified against her…. Agnes’s first examination was on the 26th July, followed by a second one the following day….at which she confessed and pleaded guilty….

King Henry VIII had made witchcraft a felony punishable by death in 1542; some say he did this as he thought Anne Boleyn was a witch trying to harm him with her craft….img_0354

Agnes was hanged on the 27th July 1566. At her execution she asked God for forgiveness; when asked she said she prayed often but always in Latin to hide her doing so from Sathan, as he would not allow her prayers…. Along with her repentance she also added to the list of accused crimes…. She told of how she had sent Sathan to damage the goods of a tailor named Wardol and to do him harm….but the cat returned to her and said he was unable to do as he had been bade as Wardol’s faith in God was too strong. Agnes also confessed she had been practising witchcraft for 25 years….

Elizabeth was given a lighter sentence – but 13 years later she herself was hanged for a further conviction…. Joan was cleared during the trial; she had testified against her mother and Elizabeth helping to convict them – and so saving her own skin….

Agnes has been an inspiration for many writers and artists since – people remain fascinated by the story…. When we stop to consider what life was like back then it is hard to visualise how it must have truly been. In this modern scientific World that we live in, we know cats can’t talk to us, no matter how it sometimes seems like they can…. They certainly don’t go around killing pigs, cows and people and they definitely can’t turn themselves into demon dogs anymore than we can turn them into toads….

We also now have an understanding of that terrible illness dementia…. Many of us know only too well the heartbreak of having a loved one who suffers from this dreadful disease – the confusion, forgetfulness and sometimes argumentative, aggressive behaviour….

One can’t help wondering if the case of Agnes and Elizabeth centred on mass hysteria, the mischief of a 12-year-old girl, a couple of old ladies suffering from dementia and their obsession with a cat…. How many ‘witches’ hanged were actually people suffering from diseases of the mind? Not having any other means to explain odd, erratic, confused or aggressive behaviour it would not be surprising if people had considered those affected to be under the influence of the Devil himself….

Ride that broomstick…!

When you think of a witch, what image do you conjure up? Is it the one of an unkempt, old crone – dressed in black, with a flowing cape and pointy hat? Is she stirring a cauldron or flying on a broomstick, with her faithful cat? Where on Earth does this notion come from? Blame it on the drugs….

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Going Home tsbl2000 via Foter.com / CC BY-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/68942208@N02/16365078410/

Our vision of what a witch should supposedly look like is a fairly recent concept…. Go back to the pictures drawn by Medieval artists, during the times of the mass hysteria surrounding witchcraft – and a very different story is depicted….Wanton, naked women, cavorting with the Devil – if they did happen to be clothed, it was likely to have been in very ordinary attire of the day; any hat would most probably have been a simple bonnet. It wasn’t until the early 1700s that Western European artists began to draw witches with long pointed hats, possibly to symbolise devil horns, an indication to ‘dark magic’ – very likely coming from the Salem witch trials, after witnesses claimed to have seen the Devil himself – ‘a large man in a high-crowned hat’…. Later, during Victorian times, children’s books elaborated and exaggerated the image, adding the long black flowing cloak….

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“Witches” Artist Hans Baldung 1508 Source: R.Decker, Hexen, Frontispiz (2004) This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art

Back in the Middle Ages the World would have been a very scary place to live in….lack of scientific knowledge meant answers to the unexplained had to be found elsewhere…. For any situation – good or bad – that could not be accounted for by the obvious – it had to be down to magic…. People lived in constant fear of otherworldly beings….ghosts, fairies, monsters, witches…. At the same time, life was hard in so many other ways – not least the challenge of providing enough food to feed the family; not having the option of nipping to the local supermarket meant finding supplementary foods for the diet in any way possible – foraging was common-place….It is hardly surprising therefore, that certain plants were happened upon that had adverse effects on the body and mind – (indeed, the beginnings of our modern-day medicine can be attributed to some of these discoveries)…. Some of these discoveries would have actually of provided effects on the mind that some would have found rather pleasurable….

We may consider drug taking for recreational purposes a modern-day problem but people have been using mind-altering drugs since prehistoric times…. The earliest evidence of an alcoholic beverage dates back to 7,000-6,600 BC. Pottery shards discovered by archeologists, in the ancient Chinese village of Jiahu, were found to have remnants of an alcoholic drink consisting of ingredients such as rice, honey and fermented fruit….

Archeological finds in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras suggest hallucinogenic mushrooms were used between 500 BC and 900 AD. Fossil remains of a hallucinogenic cactus – ‘San Pedro’ – were found in a Peruvian cave and date back to between 8,600 and 5,600 BC. Finds in Northern Mexico and Southern Texas of Mescal bean seeds, dating from the end of the 9th millennium BC to 1,000 AD, all point to evidence Mankind has used hallucinogens almost from the beginning of his time on this planet…. A long with proof of opium being used from the mid 6th millennium BC, to South Americans chewing cocoa leaves 8,000 years ago and Argentinians smoking pipes as far back as 2,000 BC – it seems Man has always been getting high on some kind of drug or other….

So, what were they up to in The Middle Ages? As is so often the case, many a discovery is made by accident…. Bread has long been part of the staple diet of the World and Rye-bread would have been the most common type consumed in Medieval Europe…. Rye is susceptible to a fungus called ‘Ergot’ – eaten in large quantities this fungus can be fatal but smaller amounts cause a hallucinogenic reaction. Accounts from between the 14th and 17th Centuries record Europeans dancing through the streets, jabbering nonsense and foaming at the mouth after consuming Rye-bread infected with Ergot. Very often, large groups of people would carry on like this until they collapsed from exhaustion; when asked, they frequently claimed to have seen wild visions…. It became known as St. Vitus’s Dance – so named after the 4th Century Sicilian martyr, St. Vitus – Patron Saint of Dancers. We would nowadays liken the effects of Ergot to those of LSD….

Human nature, being what it is, meant there were those keen to experiment and gain knowledge to exactly what certain plants could do to the body – not always with the best of intentions…. Dabbling with ‘herbal remedies’ and in some cases outright poisons formed the basis of many an accusation of witchcraft….

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Witch’s tools http://www.chrisbirds.com via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/118292762@N02/16339427989/

In 1324, Lady Alice Kyteler was the first ever accused witch in Ireland….after some very damning evidence collected with which to condemn her…. Alice Kyteler was born as an only child in 1280 – By all accounts, those who knew her, thought her to be arrogant and bossy – she wasn’t much liked…. However, certain aristocratic gentlemen seemed to find her attractive and she went through a quick succession of wealthy husbands, each coming to an untimely end…. Rumours began to circulate…. At the age of 44, Alice was on her 4th husband, Sir John Le Poer…. Eventually, as the rumours became more rife, Le Poer became suspicious and carried out a search of his wife’s bed-chamber…. What he found were items referring to the Devil and evidence that Alice was an expert in the art of poisoning. Drawing the conclusion that she intended him to be her next victim, Le Poer sent his finds to the Bishop of Ossory….

The Bishop, one Richard De Ledrede, was a man on a mission – he was obsessed with exposing witches…. Alice, her son – William Outlawe (from her first marriage) and her personal maid, Petronilla de Meath, were all arrested….

The rumours continued to grow, stories became embroidered – tales of her sacrificing animals, performing black magic in local churches and carrying on with a strange man called Robert Artisson – who some believed could manifest himself as a black cat – (was this a symbolisation of the Devil?) – all added fuel to the fire…. The Bishop, although he hunted rigorously, never did manage to find this elusive man….

It all became too clear that Alice had indeed murdered her previous 3 husbands and aimed to kill her 4th…. Her reason? Pure greed, a desire to gain more money….

However, the Bishop did not have the power to bring Alice to trial…. Witchcraft and sorcery was overseen by the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, who happened at the time to be a certain Roger Outlawe, a relative of her first husband…. Outlawe and other rich relatives supported Alice and had the Bishop imprisoned within a castle for 18 days…. On eventually regaining his freedom, De Ledrede resumed his quest to bring Alice to justice….but by then she had fled to England, leaving behind her maid and even her son to face the consequences…. William begged for forgiveness, which he was granted – but in return he had to pay for a new roof for St. Mary’s Cathedral…. The maid, Petronilla did not have such luck – under torture she admitted Alice had taught her the art of witchcraft…. She was flogged and burnt at the stake on November 3rd 1324…. Alice was never heard of again….

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Burning witches, with others held in stocks 14th Century Author: Anonymous Public Domain Source: http://molcat1.bl.uk/llllmages/Ekta%5Cmid/E124/E124110.jpg

There are many plants Alice could have used to make her poisons…. Some of the most common belong to the Solanaceae family. Consisting of approximately 98 genera and some 2,700 species, many of these plants will be very familiar to us today….potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, chillies, foxgloves, petunias, tobacco and deadly nightshade to name but a very few….

Written references to deadly nightshade being used as a ‘flying ointment’ go back to at least the 9th Century…. Deadly nightshade, if taken orally, can speed up the heart and be fatal; however, when applied to the skin in small quantities it can cause hallucinations…. People began to make the connection to how certain plants could make an impact upon them and started to experiment in how to use them safely…. Mixing a concoction of deadly nightshade, hemlock, henbane, mandrake and wolfbane, usually in a base of animal fat, produced a potent balm called ‘flying ointment’…. All of these plants contain hallucinogenic chemicals known as ‘tropane alkaloids’ – causing vivid dreams that take the user to another world of fantasy – full of pleasure….feasting, dancing, singing and loving…. (apparently)….  Perhaps not so much ‘black magic’ but simply chemistry…. For those who found the World a particularly hard place to live in back in the day – such escapism must have been so very tempting…. For women, particularly, exploring their own sexuality, liberation and self-pleasure – totally unthinkable at the time – this would have been seen as a link to the Devil himself….

However, ingesting any of these ingredients causes a problem, in the form of nausea and vomiting. It became realised that the body can absorb in other ways….namely through the sweat glands – particularly those located in the armpits and genital regions….

Now…. I have often wondered why witches are associated with broomsticks – but never in a million years would I have suspected a reason such as this…! The broomstick, or besom broom, a symbol of feminine domesticity – yet at the same time, a phallic, sexual symbol – or perhaps in the case of the witch – one of femininity gone wild and out of control….

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Image from page 293 of “St. Nicholas [serial]” (1873) Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebook images/14772736232/
The besom broom was often used in Pagan fertility rituals….poles, pitchforks, brooms – in fact anything resembling a phallic object – were carried by folk dancing through the fields, jumping as high as they could, to encourage the crops to grow…. Then there is the traditional ‘jumping of the broomstick’, a feature of the Wicca hand-fasting ceremony – the broom being a reference to new beginnings, sweeping away the old…. The besom is also used in Wicca to cleanse and purify a space which is to be used for a ritual ceremony – sweeping out negative energies….

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Jumping the broom! morgan.cauch via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/67297972@N04/6444876189/

So, why the connection with the witch of the Middle Ages? For that, we need to refer back to the application of that ‘flying ointment’…. Having discovered it could be applied to the sweat glands, especially those that are in a very intimate place if you happened to be a woman, a utensil was required in order to apply it…. What better than the handle of one of the most common household items – the humble broomstick!! Yes, I’m serious….they really did do just what you’re thinking…. It puts a whole new definition on ‘riding that broomstick’…!

“In rifleing the closet of the ladie,
they found a pipe of oyntment,
wherewith she greased a staffe,
upon which she ambled and galloped
through thick and thin….” – English historian Raphael Holinshed – 1324 –
with reference to the evidence collected against Lady Alice Kyteler…

“The vulgar believe, and the witches confess,
that on certain days or nights they anoint a staff
and ride on it to the appointed place or anoint
themselves under the arms and in other hairy places….”
– Theologian Jordanes de Bergamo – ‘Quastio de Strigis’ – 1470

I will never look at a broomstick in the same way again….

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Besom in the Corner It’sGreg via Foter.com / CC BY-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/itsgreg/514745734/

A black cat called ‘Lucky’….

On my wedding day, my mother handed me a good luck mascot in the form of a black cat – a tradition that originates to the Midlands. Mum, being from that part of the Country (well, Worcestershire to be precise – but it’s in the same region) has always held that particular custom close to her heart, after receiving one on her own wedding day…. Now, some of you may be exclaiming in horror – ‘a black cat on a wedding day – and given by the bride’s own mother!’ To many, a black cat does not symbolise good luck, quite the opposite in fact – it really depends on where in the World you come from….

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Photo credit: ‘The Black Cat’ @Doug88888 via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/doug88888/4521073052/

Generally, in the UK, a black cat is seen as a good omen, there are many black moggies to be found answering to the name of ‘Lucky’….In Scotland, it is thought if a strange black cat arrives at the house, it will bring with it prosperity…. However, there are those who believe if a black cat crosses their path, this will bring bad luck; the same if one is walking towards them, where as a black puss walking away signals good fortune…. This possibly goes back to pirates in the 19th Century who held the same beliefs….

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Photo credit: ‘Frankie the pirate’ the1pony via Foter.com / CC BY-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/the1pony/535438833/

The connection with black cats and the sea is deep-rooted. Sailors always wanted their ship’s cats to be black as they were thought to bring good luck. A black kitty strolling on to a ship was good – but if it turned its back and walked off again, this meant the ship was going to sink…. Fishermen’s wives kept black cats, believing in doing so, they would keep their menfolk safe whilst at sea….

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Photo credit: ‘Oh Danny Boy’ hehaden via Foter.com / CC BY-NC Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/hellie55/6840498861

Most of Europe views the black cat as a sign of bad luck. However, in Germany it is believed if a black kitty passes from left to right, this is a bad omen but if it passes from right to left, there are favourable times ahead. French peasants once held the belief that if such a cat was released at a cross roads, where five roads intersected, the moggy would choose the road that led to treasure…. The South of France has a superstition that black cats are Magician cats ~ ‘Matagot’ ~ a spirit in the form of an animal. Tradition says a Magician cat must be lured with plump chicken and then be carried home without its new human owner looking back. If treated with respect in its new home, by being well fed with the first mouthful at every meal, the Matagot will reward with a gold coin each morning. So, if you happen to find yourself in the South of France and a black cat decides to grace you with its company, make sure it has plenty to eat and a cosy bed to sleep in and you never know, wealth and good fortune may come your way….

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Photo credit: ‘Odd-Eyed Black Cat fourbyfourblazer via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisyarzab/2847360874/

It is considered that if a black cat is in the audience on the opening night of a play, then the play will have a long and successful run…. In Japan it is said that if a lady owns a black cat she will find herself with many suitors – and if one crosses your path in Japan, this heralds good luck. Black cats are thought to be lucky throughout much of Asia….

In the USA, things are very different, black cats are deemed as being very unlucky. So much so, that American animal shelters sometimes have a difficult time finding new homes for such moggies. The myth still remains that they are evil. Some shelters even halt the adoption of them around Hallowe’en time in the fear they will be used as seasonal ‘props’ and then be left abandoned once again…. August 17th has become ‘Black Cat Appreciation Day’ in the States to attempt to raise the profile of and get rid of the bad image these poor, unfortunate mousers have undeservedly acquired….

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Photo courtesy: George W Bush Presidential Library ‘India peeks around a plant at the White House’ July 10, 2001 http://www.presidentialpetmuseum.com/pets/india,

So, where does this belief that black cats are unlucky and evil stem from? With their association to Hallowe’en and the witch, with her stereotypical familiar, it does appear we have to look back to times when the World was gripped in the fear of witchcraft….

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Photo credit: ‘Hallowe’en’ New York Public Library via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nypl/4056410832/

The Ancient Egyptians worshipped cats, literally. Bast (or Bastet) was the cat goddess. She represented protection, family, music, dance and joy. Originally she was portrayed as a lioness, fiercely protective and warlike; but over time, her image softened and she became seen more like a domestic cat, graceful, affectionate, playful, cunning…. Egyptian households believed by keeping a black cat they would gain favour with Bast….

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Photo credit: ‘bust of goddess Bast’ JimmyMac210 – just returned home from hospital via Foter.com / CC BY-NC Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/silveraquarius/12631394604/

In Norse Mythology, felines had their place ‘up there’ with the gods too….Freya was the goddess associated with beauty, love, sex and fertility. She wore a cloak of falcon feathers, kept a boar named Hildisvini at her side and she rode a chariot pulled by two magical black cats. Farmers would leave bowls of milk for these cats, to bring good fortune for the coming harvest. Freya was also the goddess of war, she represented death and the afterlife….and she practiced witchcraft….

During the Middle Ages, cats, especially black ones, fell out of favour. It is often thought all cats were hated during this time but that is untrue. They were still highly useful to have around as they caught mice and other vermin. The Church was especially fond of them, nuns and priests kept them as pets, presumably to catch rodents. In the 15th Century, Exeter Cathedral even had a cat on its payroll! Its salary was a penny a week. Still today a small cat door can be seen in the south tower of the cathedral…. A hermit was allowed 3 acres of land and a cow but the only companion seen as fitting for an anchoress, was a cat….

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Photo credit: ‘Evil Eye’ Chucknado via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chucknado/4991524418/

So, to say all cats were viewed as evil in the Middle Ages is incorrect; it is a myth. It could hardly be true when those giving up their lives for solitude and prayer allowed a feline presence. However, as much as members of the Church appeared to love their kitties, it could be said it was also the Church that was responsible for the bad reputation the cat, particularly the black cat, was to gain….

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Photo credit: ‘Stray Mog’ paulmcdee via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulmcdee/2744779182/

Muslims in Mediaeval times were very fond of cats (and of course, many still are). There are accounts that say Prophet Muhammed  especially liked cats, he treated them well; perhaps it was their cleanliness he found appealing. Middle Eastern street cats were often looked after by charities…. One European pilgrim, on returning home from his travels in the Middle East, remarked that the difference between Christians and Muslims was that ‘Christians like dogs and Muslims like cats’….

Christians in the Middle Ages thought all animals were made by God to serve and be ruled by humans. Dogs showed obedience and complied. Cats, on the other hand, even when domesticated, kept their independence and wilful ways…. Edward, Duke of York, said the cat had the spirit of the Devil in it….

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Photo credit: ‘Buzzy the cat’ Mark McLaughlin via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clocky/4198381496/

Writers began to portray cats in a bad light; they compared the way they caught their prey and tormented it to the way the Devil catches souls. William Caxton wrote: ‘the devil playeth ofte with the synnar, lyke as the catte doth with the mous’….

It became widely believed that the Devil could manifest as a black cat. Christianity saw things very much in black and white. White representing goodness and purity; black, evil, danger and corruption. Black cats became associated with witches and heretics. Heretical religious groups, such as the Cathars and Waldensians were accused by the Catholic Church of worshipping cats….

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Photo credit: ‘Purring in the Dark’ Tria-Media_Sven via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tria-media/24356576463/

1022 saw the first burning at the stake of the Cathars in France, when heretical Canons of Orleans perished upon the orders of the King. At the time there was no law to say heretics were to be executed in this way – was it that Robert the Pious was influenced by the Germanic custom of burning witches at the stake? Whatever his reasons, this became the form of execution for the so-called ‘heresy crimes’ of the Cathars….

Emperor Frederick II sanctioned the practice in anti-heresy laws in 1224 and 1232 but only when the Church authorities demanded the extreme sentence. It was believed that heresy was contagious, rather like leprosy or the Plague – many thought the only way to be rid of the disease was through ‘cleansing’ with fire. It was also the Christian belief that reducing to ashes would condemn to eternal damnation, depriving bodily resurrection on Judgement Day….

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Photo credit: ‘Witches burned at the stake’ ancientartpodcast.org via Foter.com / CC BY Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ancientartpodcast/12760822893/

Burning witches at the stake was a method of execution used across Europe and the UK (no witches were burnt in the English colonies of North America). It was commonly believed both in Europe, the UK and Salem, USA, that witches shape-shifted into the form of black cats in order to roam the streets unobserved…. The streets were dangerous places at night, no lighting meant darkness provided cover for all kinds of villains and evils….Cats, being nocturnal and their ability to see in the dark, made them the obvious choice for a witch’s familiar….

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Photo credit: Image from page 105 of ‘Our domestic animals, their habits, intelligence and usefulness;’ (1907) Internet Archive Book Images / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivebookimages/14763591474/

A Lincolnshire folktale from the 1560s, tells that a father and son were travelling on a moonless night; suddenly, a black cat ran across their path. Fearing bad luck, they started to hurl rocks at it. Terrified and injured, the cat fled to the house of an old woman who had recently been accused of witchcraft. The next day the father and son saw the old woman, she was bruised and limping…. Well, you can imagine the conclusions they drew….

Old women in Mediaeval times often cared for street cats. As the witchcraft hysteria took hold, it was so often that these were the women accused. In Europe there was a large scale massacre of black cats, many of them burnt…. Pope Innocent VIII, in 1484, declared the cat was the Devil’s favourite animal and the idol of all witches….

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Photo credit: ‘This is the season of the witch’ sammydavisdog via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/25559122@N06/5030536735/

Whether these deep seated superstitions have any truth in them, I really don’t know…. Charles I obviously believed in the powers of the cat; when his beloved puss died, he claimed his luck would run out. It certainly did, the next day he was charged with high treason….

Throughout history, the black cat has had an extremely raw deal, considering their only crimes are being nocturnal and they take pleasure from torturing their prey….the same as any other cat does…. Once a year or so, I get to make a fuss of a ‘Matagot’ in the South of France. He is gentle, loving, playful and affectionate, he’s right up there with the best of feline kind; just like the other two black cats I have had the privilege of sharing my life with in the past – and yes! One of them was called Lucky….

 

 

Within these walls….

Eager to use every inch of available space in No.3, our attention turned to the area under the stairs, that for some reason had been ‘bricked up’ – literally, it was inaccessible.  As we set about removing the bricks, I jokingly remarked to John, “I hope we don’t find a body under here….”

John made a hole big enough to poke his head through and using a torch, peered into the darkness…. Inside could only be described as resembling a ‘midden’ – and there on top of a mound of earth, lay a bone! Slightly nervous of what we were about to find, we continued to break our way in…. What we found was an assorted pile of rubbish and a quantity of animal bones, we can only assume what we had unearthed was a very old rat’s lair….

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Bones found under the stairs of No.3….

Oddly though, amongst the debris were a collection of marbles and another of old bottle tops…. We never did get to the bottom of why the under stairs had been bricked up (perhaps it really had been a midden and previous occupants, long gone by, couldn’t be bothered to clear it out – who knows) ; it now serves as a very useful cupboard space….

As this was one of the last areas to be explored, I think we were secretly hoping we were going to find something like a ‘concealed shoe’….or perhaps some other ‘offering’ hidden away….protecting the house from evil spirits. We had gone over just about every other inch of the place and all we had found were a few hairgrips under a window sill, a magazine from the 1950s under the bath and a few giant acorns stashed in a hole in a beam….

‘Caches’, the correct term for offerings, (from the French ‘cache’ – meaning to give), are items that have been concealed somewhere in a building; under floors, above ceilings, up chimneys, around windows and doors, plastered into walls….

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Photo credit : ‘Semaphore Reno 004’ – Marlene Manto via Foter.com / CC BY-NC  Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marlenemanto/2874151309/    (Shoe plastered into wall….)

They were believed to protect the inhabitants from evil influences; witches, ghosts, demons and the like. It was a custom that was with us for centuries, only really dying out at some point in the last century (may be the advent of burglar alarms made people feel safer?!)…. It is not a custom that was confined just to the UK, by any means; such offerings have been found in buildings all over Europe, parts of Scandinavia, North America, Australia, even China….

Shoes are the most common; nearly always a single shoe, usually well worn and often repaired. In days gone by, as much use as possible would be gleaned from possessions, unlike the throw away society we know today….

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Photo credit : Edmund Patrick – CC BY-SA 3.0  Collection of concealed shoes from East Anglia held by St. Edmundsbury Heritage Service

About half of the shoes recorded have been those of children; it was believed the innocence and purity of children would over power evil spirits…. The earliest shoe that has been found to date was discovered behind the choir stalls in Winchester Cathedral, the stalls were originally built in 1308; it is thought the shoe may have been there since that time….

It is assumed many shoes are found and simply thrown away, never to be recorded. Northampton Museum has a ‘Concealed Shoe Index’ that it has been compiling since the late 1950s; it has approximately 2,000 entries. Shoes have been found in a large variety of buildings : monasteries, churches, hospitals, theatres, schools, even army barracks. They have been discovered in pubs and breweries, museums, factories and of course private dwellings, from tiny cottages to manor houses, even the likes of Hampton Court Palace….

The shoe is the only item of clothing that truly takes on the form of the wearer, it shapes itself to the foot…. It was believed that the spirit of a deceased person would be trapped in the shoe – a ‘spirit trap’…. It is thought this belief comes from the 14th Century, when it is said John Schorn, the Rector of Marston, Buckinghamshire, cast the Devil into a boot, thus entrapping him….

The largest cache found in the UK was in a 400 year old cottage, which was being renovated in Snowdonia, Wales. Here, building contractors found nearly 100 single shoes buried under a chimney stack. The nearest recorded example of a concealed shoe being found to here, was in the neighbouring village of Hascombe. A house was undergoing repair work and from the rafters fell an 18th Century child’s shoe….its heel broken down where the child had continuously pulled it on and off….and the toe was worn through.

Although many think the ‘concealed shoe’ was to keep away evil influences, there are also others who believe shoes were hidden as a fertility offering. Shoes have long been associated with fertility. In Lancashire, there is an old custom called ‘smickling’ – it involves trying on the shoes worn by a woman who has recently given birth, supposedly this brings luck in conceiving…. Casting a shoe after a bride departing for her honeymoon was another old tradition, even today we still tie shoes to the car of a newly wed couple….

Bröllopsfotografering Frida Pettersson och Pontus Svensson 2007-07-28
Photo credit : Just Married – Johan Lindqvist Fotografi via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/johanlinqvist/4297282191/

Some think the connection between shoes and fertility is reflected in an old English nursery rhyme from Mother Goose :

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe;
She had so many children she didn’t know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed….

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Photo credit : Internet Archive Book Images “Mother Goose’s Melodies : or songs for the nursery” (1879) via Foter.com/No known copyright restrictions : Original image URL: https//www.flickr.com/photos/internetarchivesimages/14583156277/

This rhyme dates to 1794 and there are some that think it refers to King George II, who’s wife, Caroline, had eight children. George II had the nickname ‘Old Woman’ and it was widely believed that Caroline was the one with the real power….

Of course, it wasn’t just shoes that were used as caches. Other items of clothing have often been found; gloves, hats, belts, breeches, jackets. In a thatched cottage, in Pontarddulias, South Wales, a mid 18th Century corset was found in a wall…. It is not just clothing that has been found; objects such as coins, spoons, knives, books, goblets, pots, pipes, children’s toys and dolls and more macabre things, horses skulls and mummified cats….

Dried cats have been found on numerous occasions. It was thought the presence of the cat would deter vermin, such as rats. However, there was another reason cats were hidden within the house, cats were believed to be highly susceptible to detecting evil spirits : and because of their connection to witches, it was the belief that they would provide protection from such….

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Photo credit : Radarsmum67 via Foter.com / CC BY Mummified cat, found between floorboards in the attic of a Victorian house, built 1879, being renovated in Seaforth…. Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/radarsmum67/27029137971/

Witchcraft was greatly feared in centuries gone by. Witches bottles are also regularly found, no where more so than in East Anglia, where the belief in witches was very strong indeed…. Very often they are discovered buried under a fireplace, the floor or plastered into a wall. It was believed that as long as the bottle was kept well hidden and remained unbroken, the ‘spell’ contained within would keep on working…. The origins go back to the 1500s and they are particular to the Elizabethan period….

The earliest bottles to be found were typically ‘Bartmann jugs’ – made from salt glazed stone. During the 1500s and 1600s, Bartmann jugs were made throughout Europe but most especially in Germany. Shaped in the form of a bearded man, their intended use was to store food and drink. They were also manufactured in England, either by copycat potters or German immigrants. Because of the malevolent face of the bearded figure, it became adopted by many as the perfect vessel for a witch’s ‘spell’….

The contents were usually prepared by the local ‘witch’ or folk healer. The spells would be used not only to ward off evil but very often in an attempt to cure an affliction, condition or illness. Earlier spells would contain something personal of the person it was intended for, usually urine but sometimes hair or nail clippings….

Later witches bottles were often made of glass…. They would be filled with red wine, rosemary, pins and needles. The bottle would be buried and it was believed evil spirits would be caught on the pins and needles, drowned in the wine and then banished by the rosemary….

Other ‘ingredients’ could be added to the bottle; depending on the requirements of the particular spell – sea water, stones, earth, ashes, feathers, shells, vinegar….

Sometimes, instead of burying the bottle it would be hurled into the fire, causing it to explode; so if someone was thought to be ‘cast under a spell’, it would be broken….

Generally though, it was customary to bury the bottle, especially under the fireplace….

Now, there’s somewhere we’ve never looked…. Any one got a spade….?

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Photo credit : The British Library via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions  –  From the Ingoldsby Legends. Illustrated by Cruickshank, Leech and Tenniel (People’s edition) [A selection]  Original image URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11276749235/