Charm-Browsing at the Horniman

Yesterday Owen Davies and I were fortunate enough to have been invited to the Horniman Museum stores, where Tom Crowley, Anthropology Curator, is working on a display of charms. Tom wanted the advice of Owen and a group of other experts in the field on the interpretation and display of some of their artefacts – and so I tagged along, always happy for any excuse to see some of these objects for myself.

In preparation for our visit, the charms had been arrayed across a table in all of their enigmatic glory. A vast variety of objects were represented, all equally weird and wonderful, and our group approached them with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of kids in a sweet shop. Granted, to anyone not interested in historic charms these objects may seem unremarkable. None of them were particularly stunning; they’re not great works of aesthetic achievement. They’re all quite ordinary objects, some natural and others artificial; the kinds of things that you might find in your house or at the side of the road – but that’s what makes them so fascinating. Why were these mundane objects invested with power, with agency? Were they recycled as ritual objects and, if so, why? What is it about them that makes them ‘lucky’ or ‘protective’?

Not all of them were concealed; in fact, most of them were displayed – a horseshoe, for example, which has a long history of apotropaic employment (a subject which deserves its own blog post). I can’t detail all of them, but here are a few of my personal favourites:

The first, which was concealed, is a ‘witch-bottle’; this is a device used for countering a witch’s spell, which usually contained the urine of the victim along with metal pins, nails, and various other objects (see Brian Hoggard’s description of witch-bottles here). This is the Padstow witch-bottle found in the kitchen chimney of a Cornish cottage. It’s a Victorian cod liver oil bottle which contained urine and its cork has been festooned with pins. More details of it can be found in Semmens’ ‘The Usage of Witch-Bottles and Apotropaic Charms in Cornwall’ (2000, Old Cornwall 23 (6), 98-116). The thing I particularly love about this piece is what it shows about domestic magic: that any item can be ritually recycled. The “traditional” witch-bottle was a stoneware jug known as a ‘bellarmine’, but here the maker clearly thought that any bottle would do the trick. Waste not, want not.

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Another device for repelling witchcraft was the ‘hag-stone’. This is a fairly ordinary stone with a hole in it, found in South Devon, and is one of many, many similar holed-stones that appear to have been employed for a variety of purposes; as well as keeping witches away, they were used for curing ailments ranging from toothache and whooping cough to snake bites, and were also meant to prevent nightmares. Why might it have been believed to possess this kind of power? There are theories around the significance of the hole and the idea of magic passing through, a little like the healing custom of passing an ailing limb or a sick child through clefts in trees. Whatever the logic behind it, the hag-stone demonstrates two things. Firstly, that a perfectly ordinary, naturally-occurring item can be imbued with power because of a particular physical attribute – in this case, something as simple as a hole. And secondly, that near-identical items can be given such different meanings – from witch-repellent to whooping-cough cure – depending upon the where, when, and who of use.

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Here’s another example of a holed stone with a completely different use. It’s been attached to a 19th-century dice box and was purportedly used as a charm against high numbers being thrown. Folk customs clearly are very malleable.

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Another favourite object of mine was this nine-of-spades playing card, which was carried for luck in the First World War. What made this a lucky charm? Was it the 9, usually considered a particularly potent number (the significance of 3×3)? Or was it more personal than that? And where’s the bottom part that’s been torn off? Was it given to somebody else or has it simply been lost? The fact that it’s so patinated, with creases, rips, and discoloration, shows how much it was handled, and I’d love to know something about the soldier who carried it. How many battles did they carry it in? And did it prove lucky?

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As I said above, none of these objects are particularly striking: a cod-liver oil bottle, stones, and a playing-card. They’re not unique and, out of context, they’re not particularly interesting. But they’ve each been invested with emotion and significance; they’ve each been imbued with the power to ensure luck or to protect against threats, both natural and supernatural. While the material attributes of these rather mundane objects may go some way in explaining why they were used for such non-mundane purposes, our answers really lie in the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the people who used them.

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The Mystery of the Mains Hall “Witch-Post”

In 2005-6 Adele Yeomans was renovating her home, the 15th-16th-century Mains Hall Manor, Lancashire. A self-proclaimed “tapper”, she’d been tapping the walls of an upstairs room and discovered that it was plasterboard. Wanting to strip the wall back to its original features, she pulled away several layers of lime plaster until she came across timber and wattle-and-daub – and with it a rather unusual find: what she describes as the “witch-post”.

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When I contacted Adele requesting to see this “witch-post”, she responded with enthusiasm, inviting me to her home. And so it went that on a frosty Monday morning I travelled up to Mains Hall Manor, a beautiful Tudor building majestically situated at the end of a very long drive.

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The manor acts as Adele’s part-time home but also as a wedding venue; the hall was still decked out with red carpets and opulent dining-sets following a weekend wedding fair. Adele met me at reception and walked me over to her office in the main house; a cosy room of dark wood, densely-packed bookcases, displayed curiosities, and a roaring hearth. The kind of room that a “witch-post” – currently displayed above the fireplace – seems entirely in-keeping with.

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When Adele shows me her find, the first image that flashes into my mind is of the wooden metre rulers I used in school – and apparently Adele had a similar first impression. “My immediate reaction was, oh, this is a builder’s ruler or something, a measuring stick,” she tells me, laying it flat on the coffee table in front of me. It’s a wooden rod or baton, roughly the same length as a metre ruler, 38 inches long and one inch thick, and all along one side of it are inscribed markings. There are 12 distinct markings in total, irregularly spaced, in a variety of shapes: some of them look like flat-headed nails; another like a cross; and another is a half-circle with a line through it.

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The markings don’t seem to correspond with any distance measurements, so this probably does rule out its use as a measuring tool. But what else could the markings be? As Adele tells me, “at first I thought they look a bit runic. But then I thought hang on, no, not in a Tudor house, that’s not right.” If they are runes, they’re not any that people have been able to identify.

Other interesting features include the hole at one end, suggesting that it was possibly hung up vertically – which, as Adele points out, makes us view the markings from a different perspective.

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Then there’s the split, about two thirds of the way down, where the rod has broken into two pieces and been nailed back together again. Adele focuses on this feature; “You’d think if it was nothing of any value you’d just throw it away and get another one,” she muses. “But it was cherished enough to have been repaired.”

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This find appears to be unique; no other item has been found that is quite like this one, which makes ascribing both a date and an original purpose to it nearly impossible. That doesn’t stop people hazarding guesses though, and the most common theory is that it was hung up inside the wall as a charm or apotropaic device. “Let’s hope it was a good charm. Perhaps I should put it back into the wall and I’ll win the lottery,” Adele jests, before considering, “Maybe it’s a protection thing, something to protect the house or the owners.”

Adele is eager for answers; “I like a mystery,” she says, “but I’d love someone to tell me what it was.” I’d love that too, which is why I contacted several experts and asked for their opinions. Brian Hoggard, a specialist in apotropaic devices and creator of the web resource Apotropaios, noted the possible significance of there being 12 symbols, suggesting an astronomical connection, while Timothy Easton, an expert in timber markings and spiritual middens, made a very useful comparison with two objects discovered in a midden in Barley House Farm, Winston. In his 2013 paper ‘Four Spiritual Middens in Mid Suffolk, England, ca. 1659-1850’ (Historical Archaeology 47: 1), Easton describes two wooden sticks found amidst other deposits which, in his opinion, ‘may be crude, flatter versions of clog almanacs’ (2013: 17).

Clog almanacs are calendars indicating saints’ days, festivals, phases of the moon, etc., and were made by cutting notches and figures onto a long piece of wood. They have a very interesting history, detailed on this blog, and there are quite a few held in museum collections throughout the country: at the British Museum, for example, and a 17th-century one at Chetham’s Library, Manchester, shown here:

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Could the mysterious Mains Hall rod have been used for a similar purpose? Firstly, some of the symbols correspond with those on the other clog-almanacs: the crosses, the half-circle with a line through it.

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Secondly, the British Museum clog-almanac has a hole at its top for hanging, just like the Mains Hall rod. And, going back to Brian Hoggard’s point, the 12 symbols could indicate months. Granted, the Mains Hall rod is far less detailed than the others, but perhaps it was an example of cruder, more rudimentary craftsmanship. Or perhaps it was only meant to look like a clog-almanac, but was never actually used as one. Perhaps, as Owen Davies suggests, it was made by (or its making was advised by) a cunning-man/woman, who imitated the design of a clog-almanac but attributed it a different purpose. As for why it was found in the wattle-and-daub of a wall… Frustratingly, without speaking to the original concealers themselves, some mysteries simply can’t be solved.

The Pregnant Poppet of Burwash

In October I was contacted by Roy Carter who’d found a small wooden figure, about an inch and a half long, when he’d renovated a Tudor Cottage in Burwash, East Sussex. Although not sure of its exact location, Roy thought that it may have come from above a beam or within a wall, making it a possible concealed object – of a variety that is quite well known.

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Such figures are known as ‘poppets’ and they can be made from a variety of materials: wood, clay, cloth, straw, wax, etc. They’re sometimes found having been secreted away within houses, but for purposes that remain unknown to us. Some theories are given by Simpson & Roud in their ‘Dictionary of English Folklore’and by M. Chris Manning in her doctoral thesis ‘Homemade Magic’, and I’ll just outline them briefly here:

Some poppets were likely used in maleficium (harmful magic): the poppet represents a person, and through the process of sympathetic magic, as the poppet is ‘tortured’ (by burning, pricking with pins, etc.) the person is tortured too. But if there’s no evidence of the poppet having been ‘tortured’ in some way then other theories seem likelier. Did they represent domestic spirits? Were they concealed for luck or protection? Were they a child’s contribution to larger caches of concealed deposits? Were they a form of foundation sacrifice? A small stone figurine, held at the Museum of Manchester was found in the cellar floor of a Conservative Club in Hollingworth, Greater Manchester (picture below, courtesy of Manchester Museum, and a future blog post to follow) which was possibly concealed as a foundation sacrifice.

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What’s particularly interesting about Roy’s figure is its size (only an inch and a half long) and its appearance. It has two small holes in its back: perhaps it originally hung on a thread, and its small size suggests that it could have been worn as a charm. It also appears to have breasts and, when flat on its back, looks like a pregnant woman – was it associated with fertility magic, worn and concealed by a woman wanting to get pregnant and/or bear healthy children? There’s a rather uncanny foetus-like terracotta poppet held at the Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft (follow link here), found bricked-up in a wall in a house in Okehampton, Devon, which may have been concealed for similar purposes.

Of course these are all just theories, and I’m eager to hear what other people think about this small wooden figurine. So if anyone has any ideas, or has come across a similar find, please do get in touch!