Mummified cats discovered in wall voids; old boots & shoes found in the chimney breast; ‘spiritual middens’ of worn clothes & broken objects concealed beneath the floorboards; written charms inserted into timber frames & witch bottles buried beneath the threshold…all were once considered to be disparate phenomena – but which are now recognized as the archaeological traces of a superstitious past – and the material residue of ‘ritual acts of building protection.’
To this litany of intentionally-concealed objects can now be added the phenomena of ritually-applied taper burns and instances of apotropaic graffiti, often found in and on the structural elements of late medieval buildings.
Churches, secular buildings, hospitals, manor houses, castles and farmsteads of the period all bear the material expressions of our ancestors’ cultural anxieties.
The Early Modern Period was a time wracked with plague, internecine warfare, crop failures and the Little Ice Age – which the population accounted for as punishments by God and the result of their sins. To compound the pragmatic hardships of the day, many still believed in the existence of ghosts, revenants and the possibility of demonic possession – not to mention the ever-present fear of bewitchment and the infiltration of their houses by witches and their familiars.
Wayne Perkins has been an archaeologist for over 22 years, seven of those spent excavating in France. He is a member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists.
Mummified or ‘Dried’ Cat, Stag Inn, Hastings
According to legend, local witch Hannah Clarke kept the town safe from French raids in the 17th century by flying over the channel on her broomstick accompanied by her two cats – who would give warning to the town in event of attack. When the modernized fireplaces of the Stag Inn were ripped out in the 1940’s the mummified remains of two cats were found on the smoke shelf in the chimney- where it was believed that they had been intentionally bricked in for fear of spreading plague. This is an example of an ‘illusory correlation’ whereby a story has been invented to explain the phenomena; the archaeological evidence now suggests that the cats had been intentionally sealed into the chimney to act either as an all-purpose prophylactic or as ‘apotropaic’ objects intended to guard against supernatural threats.
The Story of ‘The Little Blue Lady,’ Kent.
A single shoe was found under the floorboards by workmen at Milstead Manor, which had historically become associated with the legend of the ghost of the ‘Little Blue Lady.’ The story recounts the death of a 6-year-old girl who had lost a precious shoe then fallen down the stairs and died whilst searching for it in the night. Recent research has shown that what the workmen had found was an intentionally concealed shoe hidden in the 17th century – to act either as an apotropaic or in an effort to promote fertility within the household – possibly to replace a child cruelly taken at a young age. In the past, it was believed that old boots and shoes – usually inserted into fire places or voids within the house – were vessels which retained good luck and whose presence helped ward against evil spirits. The legend of the ‘Little Blue Lady’ grew in the 19th century – around 200 years after the shoe had first been concealed -and is another example of an ‘illusory correlation’ – where a story is invented to explain the phenomena encountered.
The Sittingbourne Cache or ‘Spiritual Midden’
A ‘curious’ cache of over 500 objects were recovered by local historians from a void alongside the chimney breast and from under the floorboards in the Plough Inn during its demolition. It included numerous worn-out clothing including a set of lady’s stays (bodice) a coif (cap) and a set of lining for men’s breeches of the 17th century – all delicately placed in position. Broken, soiled and fragmentary objects had also been deposited over a long period from a void in the attic. Interestingly, many of the fabric items had been intentionally tied into a knot; a practice known as a ‘ligature’ – believed to stop the passing of evil spirits along the objects’ length. It is now generally believed that spiritual middens performed an apotropaic function, acting either as a decoy or spirit trap.
(c) Wayne Perkins
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