Concealed Garments as ‘Distributed Personhood’?

This week I was speaking at the Social History Society conference in Lancaster. Kathleen, Laura and myself had organised a panel for the ‘Inner Lives’ project, entitled ‘Selfhood and the Supernatural’, and while Kathleen spoke about rabies in the medieval world and Laura gave a paper on Lutheran witch-trials, I was talking about concealed garments as apotropaic devices and ‘distributed personhood’. A summary of the whole panel should appear on the Inner Lives blog shortly, but for now I’ll give a brief overview of my paper.

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I started my paper with a quiz, showing images of characters from TV and films, with their faces cropped out so leaving only their clothes. I asked the audience to identify them; they got 7 out of 7 right.

I used this to demonstrate how items of clothing often become synonymous with their wearers. Garments come to represent people, to the extent that we automatically know who is being depicted when we see a tweed deerstalker hat or a pair of ruby-red slippers. The garment and the wearer become intertwined, and this phenomenon was described by anthropologist Alfred Gell as ‘the objectification of personhood’.

However, as I argue in my paper, this connection between wearer and garment has been used by more than TV, film, etc. – it was also, I believe, used in rituals of protection.

Concealed garments, which range from hats bricked into walls, trousers concealed in roof voids, and shoes hidden up chimneybreasts, are a widespread phenomenon in Britain. Dinah Eastop has been cataloguing them for some years now on her Deliberately Concealed Garments Project website. Such garments are often found secreted away in the most vulnerable areas of a house: the areas that are most likely to admit malevolent supernatural forces, from witches to fairies.

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Why did people in the 18th and 19th centuries stopper these access-points with items of clothing? Timothy Easton proposed that the garments are meant to act as supernatural ‘lightning conductors’, luring the evil forces away. The evil force sees the concealed garment and thinks that it’s a member of the household, attacking the item of clothing instead. In the case of the concealed shoe, it could become trapped inside it.

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Another theory is that items of clothing are imbued with the essence, the power, of their past wearers, and so have the strength to repel evil forces. Take this example from Edwin Sidney Hartland’s 19th-century work The Science of Fairy Tales:

“It appears to be enough to lay over the infant, or on the bed beside the mother, a portion of the father’s clothes. A shepherd’s wife living near Selkirk was lying in bed one day with her new-born boy at her side, when she heard a sound of talking and laughter in the room. Suspecting what turned out to be the case, she seized in great alarm her husband’s waistcoat, which was lying at the foot of the bed, and flung it over herself and the child. The fairies, for it was they who were the cause of the noise, set up a loud scream…The suggestion seems to be that the sight of the father’s clothes leads “the good people” [i.e. the fairies] to think that he himself is present watching over his offspring.” (1891: 98).

This is an example of what Gell terms ‘distributed personhood’. When garment and wearer are intertwined, the separation of the two leads the garment to become a detached part – a ‘spin off’ – of the person. So when somebody conceals an item of their clothing, they are in fact concealing a part of themselves, filling those vulnerable voids and stoppering those access points with parts of their own protective power.

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Time-Travelling Devices: Concealments as time capsules

Two weeks ago I had a phone conversation with a retired builder called George, who was telling me about the concealed deposits he’s come across over the years when renovating old houses. His finds have included coins placed on beams, a Christening spoon beneath the floorboards, a pair of shoes in the ceiling, and a shoe behind the fireplace (which is detailed here in a blog post by Malcolm Gaskill about the shoe and its owner, Laura). George surprised me by saying that most owners of these houses aren’t interested in the objects he finds, with the exception of Laura and her shoe; “Haven’t got a lot of soul, a lot of people,” he lamented.

As the Concealed Revealed Project is interested in looking at builders’ customs, I also asked George if he’d ever concealed anything himself in these houses, perhaps to commemorate the completion of a job. His answer intrigued me. Apparently he doesn’t see the point in concealing anything because, judging from past experience, the finders of such deposits are largely indifferent. He would only be motivated to conceal something if he could guarantee that a future finder would be interested in it, rather than simply throwing it away.

This comment got me thinking about concealment in a different light. Were some of these concealed deposits sequestered away with the intention that they would one day be recovered? Were the concealers hoping that their deposits would eventually communicate something about their lives to a future finder? Were they, in essence, a form of time capsule? (See here for a list of official time capsules)

This could certainly be the case with some concealed deposits. Take the Savoy Chapel shoes for example. These shoes, currently held at the Museum of London and detailed here, are a pair of man’s hobnailed boots found in the roof of the vestry of the Savoy Chapel, London. They originally had a scrap of wallpaper tucked inside bearing a pencil inscription, which read: ‘William Chapman/ B 3d July 1828/ this was don in 1876’. I suggested previously that perhaps the protective power of the shoe might be more potent with an explicit personal connection to its concealer. However, now I’m wondering if (over-interpretation being a common trap in the search for ritual), this pair of shoes and scrap of wallpaper were intended as a form of time capsule: as ‘time-travelling’ devices, to use Jarvis’ term (1992, ‘Modern Time Capsules’, Libraries & Culture 27: 3), in preserving information for the future.

IMG_6478Photograph courtesy of the Museum of London

The same could be said of a concealed deposit found under a late 19th-century house in Christchurch, New Zealand: a green glass bottle containing a message on a scrap of rolled up paper.

Christchurch Bottle

Christchurch MessagePhotographs courtesy of Jessie Garland, Underground Overground Archaeology

The writing is hard to make out but says something along the lines of: ‘This bottel [sic] was put here by the Hon ? on the 20 day of ? 1887 in the year of our Father and Saviour Jesus Christ, amen amen. Witness David Baxter(?)’ The finders, Underground Overground Archaeology (take a look at their blog here), think it may have been some form of 19th-century builders’ prank, possibly parodying the more formal time capsules of the time. But whether it was done in earnest or in jest, it certainly shows that not all concealed bottles are “witch-bottles” – a notion I’ve explored on the Inner Lives blog here.

Obviously time capsules differ from these kinds of concealed deposits because they usually have an officially assigned date for being unsealed, whereas the Savoy Chapel shoes and the Christchurch bottle were stumbled upon by chance. As far as we know their concealers, ‘William Chapman’ and ‘David Baxter’, had no specific date in mind for the finding of their deposits, but it still seems likely that their messages were intended to be read by future finders. So is eventual discovery actually the ultimate goal of concealment?

I certainly don’t think that this is the case with all concealed deposits; some appear to have been hidden away with irretrievability as the primary aim. But I do think that ‘time capsule mentality’ might account for some examples, and so we’ve added a ‘Time Capsules’ category on our Historypin collection of concealed deposits, hopefully to be populated soon.

Horse Brasses up Chimneybreasts

Reading Alan Garner’s collection of essays in The Voice That Thunders (1997), I came across a really interesting example of ritual concealment. At an unspecified date in the past, Mr Garner was sitting in a house in the Mawddwy Valley, Wales, with an elderly friend called Dafydd. Dafydd announced that he would like to bequeath to him his ‘Beauty Things’, which Mr Garner describes as ‘junk beyond price’; the objects we accumulate through our lives that are simultaneously valueless and invaluable.

As Mr Garner writes, Dafydd retrieved the first of his ‘Beauty Things’ to give him:

‘He reached up into the chimney and pulled down a soot-blackened set of horse brasses. They may have been made in Birmingham for tourists, but Dafydd had used them correctly: as apotropaic talismans; good luck insignia for a harvest; offerings to earth for breaking her’

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This is the first reference to the apotropaic function of horse brasses that I’d come across. I was vaguely aware of the fashion of adorning horses with decorative discs of brass, but didn’t know their names – and certainly didn’t know that there’s folklore behind them. As Lovett wrote in his 1925 Magic in Modern London: ‘It is almost impossible to walk through London without meeting with horses (usually cart horses) bedecked with certain brass ornaments; and it is almost equally impossible to meet with anyone who knows what they are, or what they mean.’

Horse with Brasses

In early 20th-century London, horse brasses didn’t belong to the owners of the horses, but to the carmen, and they appear to have been passed down through the generations. But according to Lovett, even most carmen weren’t aware that their function went beyond the decorative: ‘they are, or were, amulets to ward off the effects of the Evil Eye’.

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Why would the horse brass have the power to repel the Evil Eye? Lovett has a few theories. Firstly, its association with the horse itself, an animal that was particularly liable to the attention of malign forces. It was popularly believed that if a horse was discovered covered in sweat in the morning, then it had been ‘pixie-ridden’ or ‘hag-ridden’, meaning that a pixie or witch had stolen and ridden it through the night. Below is a woodcut image from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), depicting a witch and the Devil riding a horse.

Witch and Devil ride horse

To prevent this from happening, another apotropaic device was employed: the ‘hag-stone’: a stone with a naturally-occurring hole running through it, hung up in a barn or stable.


So the horse needs protection from malevolent forces, and the horse brass is particularly effective for two reasons. Firstly, it’s made from metal, the most potent of apotropaic materials. And secondly, it instantly draws the eye through its shiny, bright colour and its swaying movement on the horse. It was believed that only the very first glance of the Evil Eye caused harm, and so the horse brass lured the malign gaze away, acting as a kind of lightning conductor. And over time it appears to have shifted its function from a charm used to protect horses, to one used for protecting homes. As Lovett remarked, ‘It is exceedingly difficult to trace back these brass amulets in an unbroken line to their first appearance as horse charms, but we find them still surviving in odd and out-of-the-way places’ – like up a chimneybreast in the Mawddwy Valley!