Many of you may have been watching the TV historical drama series, A Discovery of Witches. Proving that our fascination for magic and sorcery is undimmed today even though we live in more enlightened times. The title ‘Discovery of Witches’ derives from a book by the 17th century English witch hunter, Matthew Hopkins, called The Discovery of Witches.
Hopkins was a notorious figure in the southern English county of Essex where I grew up. During the rule of Oliver Cromwell, he styled himself the Witchfinder General and set about identifying witches and executing them. His methods were not universally approved but at a time of religious fervour and social instability, few were prepared at first to stand up to Hopkins.
It’s often wrongly assumed that witch hunting was a medieval phenomenon. In fact, it really took off during the 1600s. This was a century of massive change in England with the monarchy overthrown for a period and huge social upheaval. Women bore the brunt of widespread anxiety and anger.
Hopkins and others were influenced by a book on witches written by King James VI of Scotland in 1597 called Daemonologie. It was reprinted in 1603 when he also became James I of England. The book covered the ability of witches to fly, raise storms and the keeping of animal ‘familiars’. It is thought to have influenced William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, written at this time.
But Hopkins took things much further. Women of all ages found themselves subjected to his questionable tests to ascertain whether they were consorting with the devil or not. He dunked alleged witches into ponds and streams with their right thumb tied firmly to their left toe and left thumb to their right toe. If they floated, it was said that the water was rejecting them in the same way they had scorned the water of the baptismal font. If they sank and drowned…they were innocent.
An even more barbaric ‘proof’ of witchcraft was to burn an animal alive that was said to have been bewitched by the accused. That apparently would force the witch to confess. As late as the year 1834, a case was reported in the Morning Herald newspaper of a farmer burning a young pig alive in the belief that the entire litter had been the subject of a witch’s spell.
Another method was to deprive a witch of sleep by forcing her to stand or adopt an uncomfortable position on a stool or table. Hopkins was convinced that after 24 hours, her ‘imps’ and ‘familiars’ would come to the witch’s rescue. An example of this is pictured below with the witch giving the names of her familiars.
Although Hopkins eventually ‘retired’ at what we would regard as a very young age, his methods jumped the Atlantic and were used in New England during the 1640s. They would be employed again to deadly effect during the 1690s Salem Witch Trials.
A story used to circulate that Hopkins himself was eventually accused of being a wizard and executed after floating in water. This is now thought to be incorrect. Church records suggest he died instead of tuberculosis in August, 1647.
In 1968, Hopkins became the subject of a horror movie with Vincent Price in the lead role.
Exorcism has a long history in human society. The casting out of evil spirits. Rituals to remove demons that were destroying crops or bringing illness into communities. Even Jesus is reported to have done some exorcism in the bible.
Only recently I was reading of the terribly sad story of three children sacrificed by the Inca around the year 1500 to please their Gods. The community was worried about their harvest. So two girls and one boy were imprisoned in a cave and starved. We only know about this because their mummified bodies survived.
There is a reviving belief in exorcism in the US and Europe. The casting out of devils is coming back into vogue. It’s something our ancestors would have understood. Evil spirits were all around them waiting to make them sick, mad or even kill them.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: Violent demons were expelled angels
Violent demons were believed to be extremely dangerous and their power was derived from the fact that they were originally angels – living in heaven. They rebelled against God and were cast out. They became ugly and hideous.
But they did not lose their power. Even when they fell from heaven, the power of their fall created the pit of hell. And forever, they are trying to escape from hell. Beneath the earth these demons are trying to grab at your soul while up above, angels are trying to guide you to God.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: How demons entered your body
It was once believed that demons could enter your body as a vapour through any opening. That might be your open mouth for example. Chester girl Anne Millner was possessed in this way in the 16th century when she found herself surrounded by a white cloud. She had no doubt it was a physical entity and it entered in to her.
People in the Middle Ages truly believed that demons could turn in to everyday objects like food – there are accounts of people inadvertently admitting a demon by consuming an apple or even a lettuce leaf.
Bad case of food poisoning? Maybe. Very probably. But the resulting fevers and lack of medicine to help meant these sick folk appeared to be possessed.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: How to get rid of a pesky demon?
So how to get rid of a demon? How to treat a ‘demoniac’? Well, an exorcism of course.
In 1585, Sarah Williams was subjected to an exorcism. Sarah truly believed herself to be possessed. She could not cross herself. She behaved strangely. Her verbal outpourings were taken to be the demon talking.
So, like a scene out of the Hollywood movie The Exorcist, she had holy water chucked at her and Sarah called her tormentors all sorts of unpleasant and profane words.
As there was no sign of improvement – the treatment became more intense. A cauldron stew of powdered root that smelt disgusting was held under nose and the smoke turned Sarah’s face black. Sure sign of possession!
The next step was to cram the bones of a dead saint in to Sarah’s mouth! And she was touched over and over again with a crucifix – particularly the extremities like the feet. And the rite of baptism and other prayers were chanted over her. After several months, Sarah was ‘cured’.
HISTORY OF EXORCISM: Some people rather liked demons
Not everybody wanted to get rid of demons – some people wanted to harness their power through necromancy…the conjuring up of spirits through spells. A crime punishable by death. Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester (1400-1452), was an infamous necromancer.
She consulted two astrologers who predicted that King Henry VI of England would suffer a life threatening illness. For this she was forced to do penance while one of the astrologers was hung, drawn and quartered.
The Munich Handbook was hugely popular in the Middle Ages and gave detailed instructions on just how to summon up the spirits. One spell described how to turn a beautiful maiden in to a love slave.
This involved finding a white dove, bite in to it near its heart, draw with the blood using a quill from an eagle on a parchment made from a female dog on heat….no, I’m not making this up! The dove, by the way, was seen as being the symbol of Venus while the dog was the symbol of lust.
Having turned the maiden one is after in to a slave, the demon that has been summoned would create a replica human in the shape of the maiden who would return to her home and pretend to be her. So you could never be sure who was a real human being and who was a demon in disguise.
Aaaah…but fairies you say. They’re nice spirits aren’t they? Cute little things with pink wings. Well, not in the Middle Ages. The medieval mind had not heard of Peter Pan or Walt Disney. To them, fairies did not have gossamer wings – a Victorian invention – and were not necessarily small – a Shakespearian invention.
Fairies were human size – possibly inherited from the Roman idea of nymphs. They were only invisible when they wanted to be.
Fairies could kill you, ruin your crop and worst of all, abduct your child and replace it with a ‘changeling’. In medieval Britain, the belief in changelings led to women advising new mothers to surround the cradle with cold iron – like shears, which should be placed near the head.
Draw a chalk circle around the cradle and recite prayers as you did it. But even this didn’t guarantee a child’s safety.
Demon changelings – when evil spirits replaced family members
If the child inherited an abnormality – a fairy had probably taken its place. A child being deaf, not moving much or throwing violent tantrums – could very well be a fairy changeling.
A parent in the Middle Ages might do something odd to test the child. They would bake bread in an eggshell to see if the baby or toddler laughed – thereby proving it was an old knowledgeable fairy in a child’s body.
So if the baby was proven to be a changeling – what then?
Well, according to contemporary sources, babies were left exposed on a dung heap or placed near a fire and the terrified fairy would fly out of the body and it would be replaced by your real baby.
Unfortunately, babies did die. And as late as 1895, a man killed his wife in England because he believed his own wife to be a fairy changeling.
So, as you can see, exorcism has a long and violent history – which I rather hope will not return!