Valentine’s Day: the time of year when the romantics amongst us splurge on chocolates and roses; the cynics roll their eyes and grumble about commercialisation – and the folklorists pen blog posts about anti-witch charms apparently.
Searching for a suitably romantic but not-sickeningly-saccharine Valentine’s Day card for my husband, I found myself having to choose between cards populated by cute teddy bears or plastered with love-hearts. I’d already had to wade through swathes of love-heart-shaped merchandise, from caramel-centred chocolates to novelty umbrellas, and this got me thinking – what is the history of the love-heart? Has it always been used to symbolise love or did it have a different meaning, and did it have any folkloric associations? So I rolled up my metaphoric folklorist sleeves and did some digging into the background of a symbol that we’re all very familiar with but rarely think about.
Apparently the association of the heart shape with the actual heart didn’t fully develop until the end of the Middle Ages, only becoming a popular metaphor for love in the 16th century. The heart (as a body organ) was used in many later love spells. A North German tradition, for example, maintained that if you wanted to be beloved by everyone, you should carry the heart of a pewit or frog with you. Other customs were more aggressive; if a person wanted revenge on an unfaithful lover, for example, then they should take a bird’s heart and pierce it with pins at midnight.
The heart wasn’t always associated with lovers though. In Scotland, for instance, the heart shape was considered a powerful charm against witches, and we see this in the luckenbrooth brooch, which Mary, Queen of Scots, was well-known for wearing. These were traditional Scottish brooches (named after the stalls round St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh), and were often worn by children to avert the evil eye and to protect against witches, and by mothers to prevent witches from stealing their milk. This example is at the V&A and is probably from the 17th century:
Why would the heart be considered a potent charm against witches? Possibly because of associations between witchcraft and the heart itself. Sticking pins into an animal’s heart was an action used in counterspells across England. So if an animal was sick – an occurrence that was often blamed on witchcraft – then a heart should be cut out and pierced with various sharp objects: nails, pins, thorns, etc. If a person was sick then the heart of an animal (e.g. a hen, pigeon, hare or toad) would do. The pierced heart should then be boiled, roasted, burnt, hung in the chimney, or buried, depending on where in the country you are. This ritual was meant to cause intense pain for the witch, subsequently breaking the spell.
This custom may have an equivalent in the witch-bottle. These are bottles or jars, often filled with pins, nails, and urine, concealed within a house or buried, also intended to cause pain for the witch and counteract any malevolent spells. In a couple of cases representations of hearts have been amongst the odd collections of items found in these witch-bottles. For example, inside the bellarmine jar recovered from beneath the threshold of the old ‘Plough Inn’ in King’s Lynn was a piece of felt which had been carefully cut into a heart shape and pierced with pins:
Another piece of cloth, also stuck with pins, was found inside a bellarmine from Stepney, but this was too decayed to be recognisable as a heart. Ralph Merrifield suggested that in other bottles where only pins and nails are found, perhaps they’d initially been stuck into a cloth heart but the cloth had completely decayed away over time.
These are just a few examples of the many heart-related customs in Britain, but they certainly testify to a time when the heart wasn’t a symbol of romance, but rather was a powerful charm against malevolent forces. You might want to bear that in mind if you’re having to pick out a Valentine’s Day card this weekend.