The hearth in which the Deanscales cat skeleton was found
Their presence there is usually explained as a form of protection: malevolent supernatural beings – be they witches, demons, ghosts, or fairies – can enter a house via the chimney. The hearth is therefore viewed as a vulnerable domestic area; an access point for those dangerous forces. An access point that needed guarding. So were these obscure objects – possibly seen as effective wards against, or traps for malignant intruders – secreted away in hearths and fireplaces because of their structural vulnerability? Was this also why mysterious markings were scratched into fireplaces?
That’s one way of interpreting the evidence, but there is another – and neither have to be mutually exclusive. It’s just as possible that the hearth was a popular place in which to conceal objects not because it was seen as an access point for negative forces, but because it was seen as central to the home and the family – central in both the literal and metaphorical sense.
We’re all familiar with the clichéd image of the family from a bygone era assembled cosily around a roaring hearth, regaling tales and keeping warm during the long, dark winter evenings.
The Victorian hearth
Well, clichéd it may be, but it’s also true. In a time before central heating and television, families would congregate around the fire, and this led to it becoming symbolically very important. When Robert St George was illustrating how the house metaphorically represents the body in his 1998 Conversing by Signs, he described the windows as the eyes, the timbers as the ribs, and the hearth as the heart. Just look at the two words and the connection is obvious.
So if the hearth is the heart of the household, then it’s no surprise that so many rituals and folkloric practices surround it. The significance of placing the Yule log in the hearth has been written about elsewhere on this blog: kept lit in the hearth until it burnt away completely it was considered good luck, and in Derbyshire they’d pile its ashes in the cellar to keep witches away, while in some parts of Wales they were spread in the fields to deter evil and ensure a good crop.
Barry O’Reilly, in his fascinating 2011 article ‘Hearth and Home’, describes many hearth-related practices in post-medieval Ireland. When relocating, for example, the hearth fire in the new house should be lit by coals taken from the old house. Fire shouldn’t be removed from a house – unless to light the fire in a new house. And it is a note of pride – and evidence of familial continuity – if a family can claim that their hearth fire has been burning continuously for generations, covered in ashes every evening and rekindled every morning. Similar practices can be found worldwide. The Russians, for example, had the Domovoi, the house god or spirit, who was believed to live in the ashes of the hearth; when a family move, they took some of the ashes with them, ensuring their Domovoi would accompany them to their new house.
The centrality of the hearth survived into the 20th century, with Lovett observing in his 1925 Magic in Modern London, that ‘in many cases, objects are hung over the mantelpiece for luck’. The examples he gives are of pieces of flint bearing uncanny resemblances to people or animals, used as toys by the children of London but also placed on the mantelpiece ‘“for luck!” In short, a votive offering’. Other examples include horse shoes and horse brasses placed around the fireplace (see blog post here) to ensure the luck of the household. It seems likely, therefore, that objects were secreted away within the fireplace for similar reasons – not just to keep the bad out, but to keep the good in.
Horse shoes adorning the fireplace in The Royal Oak, Laxfield, Suffolk
A horse shoe sits atop a hearth in modern-day Zadar, Croatia
But doing this research has got me thinking about the hearths and fireplaces of today. We’re living in a time with central heating and television; a time where radiators are more likely to heat our homes than an open fire, and where sitcoms, soap operas, and cooking shows are more likely to entertain us than a hearthside storytelling session. So is the hearth still the heart of the home? Maybe not, but it’s significant that we still have them. My living room is heated by a radiator; the electric fire which stands in the fireplace is broken and hasn’t been used for years. But I know that I’ll never get rid of it. Why? Because the room would look incomplete without it. Whether for pure aesthetics or something deeper, the lounge needs a fireplace.
Rachel Hurdley, author of ‘Dismantling Mantelpieces’, maintains that even though times have changed, the fireplace is still an important part of the home. While focus may have shifted from the hearth to the television, the mantelpiece is still being used as a (literal) platform for the display of a family’s identity. Christine Finn, writer of ‘Old Junk or Treasure?’, makes similar claims, writing that: ‘The Romans had their lares and penates, the household gods at the hearth; we have an equivalent in the mantel as a fixed place and focal point, even if the “votives” are secular and come in a bag from Ikea. Every object in the home tells a story, but the mantel is a place to perform, a paradise for people-watching’.
We may not put shoes up chimneybreasts, scratch markings into fireplaces, and adorn our mantelpieces with horse brasses and other lucky talismans anymore, but the hearth does still seem to enjoy a central place in the home. We use our mantelpieces to stage the stories of ‘us’; to display aspects of ourselves that we’re most proud of: wedding photographs, birthday cards, attractive ornaments, curiosities from our travels.
Christine Finn encourages us to excavate our mantelpieces; to reflect on how much we can learn of our own identities by studying the objects we place there. Looking at my own fireplace…
Six candles bought 12 years ago to decorate my Moroccan-themed 18th birthday party; a Balinese dragon incense-burner; two jewellery boxes from my childhood, one containing rings and the other drawing pins; a vintage-style globe; a Venetian mask bought on my honeymoon; a ‘thank you for your wedding present’ card from my in-laws; and a replica of Hermione Granger’s wand. What does this domestic assemblage say about me?
More importantly, what does your own mantelpiece say about you?
And what do they tell us about where the hearth stands in domestic culture, both past and present? Today, with central heating and televisions the size of cinema screens, is the hearth still the heart of the home?