|Witches, in a series of sketches attributed to |
Pieter Breughel (or to Hieronymus Bosch)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons).
One of the difficulties of considering the situation of witches in medieval England is the sources. Most of our information comes from trials in clerical or secular courts, and often these were motivated not by fear of sorcery but by greed, spite and politics. In England some kings feared witches – or found that accusing former mistresses or wives of witchcraft was an easy way to dispose of them, much as later Anne Boleyn was accused of sorcery by her disgruntled husband Henry Tudor.
These events were partly high politics. What of the position of witches in more everyday, village settings?
One clue comes from the folklore surrounding plants. Peonies, rowan and St John’s Wort, for example, were believed to protect households from sorcery, which shows how much witches were feared. At the same time, there were those men and women, known in many part of England as ‘cunning folk,’ or ‘wise men/women,’ who were turned to for help in fortune telling, charming and healing.
In the Middle Ages in England everyone was a bit of a witch because everyone believed in magic, often as a curious blend of pagan, folk and Christian ideas. Peasants would chant the Lord’s Prayer over their penned cattle each night, ending with singing ‘Agios, Agios, Agios’ around them every evening as a piece of protective magic. A mixture of charms and prayers were used to solve all manner of problems, and ranged from curing toothache by appealing to the Lady Moon and then praying, to the Anglo-Saxon prayer-charm ordering the devil of pain to flee 3 times and give way to Christ.
|Rowan, a protection against witches.|
Nobles had magic gems and amulets to protect them from evil. A medieval ring discovered at the Palace of Eltham, Henry VIII’s childhood home near London, was set with ruby and diamonds and carried an inscription promising the wearer luck. Merchants also had gems and rings to protect themselves, much as people in modern times might wear a St Christopher to give them luck on a journey. A burglar would throw a crushed magnet over hot coals to inspire the household to leave and let the thief work in peace. Priests would use blessings and prayers such as the Lord’s Prayer and add a charm or two to effect an exorcism or expel illness. Even the legends of saints have them using charms and magic to cure ills. When all sickness was seen as the result of evil, then it made sense to use ‘good’ magic to counter it.
If a man had to go to court, he might tuck a spray of mistletoe into his clothes to ensure he was not convicted. If he wished to inflame a woman’s lust, then he could slip some ants’ eggs into her bath. However, there were times when such simple ‘magic’ might not work (believe it or not) and people would seek out a recognised practitioner of magic.
To raise the dead or a demon needed a person skilled in rituals, who knew Latin, Greek, writing, astrology and fumigation and many of these necromancers were ex-priests or clerics. Some could be involved in the dangerous business of assassination by magic. In 1325 the necromancer John of Nottingham was accused of taking money in return for killing the king by making a wax effigy of Edward II and sticking pins into it. John was acquitted.
For love magic, however, and to inspire or stop affection, most people turned to their local ‘cunning folk’, especially the local midwife/healer or perhaps a white witch - who would use magic and witchcraft to good ends and within a Christian setting, using prayers as well as charms. These people could be both feared and revered and were vulnerable to being accused of evil-doing if a person or animal fell sick.
Throughout the Middle Ages good witches were mostly tolerated in England. It wasn’t until 1401 that the first act of parliament against witchcraft was passed. If a person was convicted of witchcraft, it was regarded as a form of heresy and the offender was excommunicated. In 1438, Agnes Hancock was excommunicated by a clerical court when she could not account for the meanings of some of the words she used in her love charms. The church took a dim view of love spells, feeling that they interfered with people’s free choice, but it wasn’t until the late Middle Ages or beyond that women casting such spells were threatened with burning.
If you are interested in learning about an English medieval ‘good’ witch in a fictional setting, please see The Snow Bride and its sequel, A Summer Bewitchment.