Tag Archives: Witchcraft

A Conspicuous Courtesan

Narrowing in on the subjects of Tudors and trials of my last post, I am presently working on a scholarly paper about the famous/infamous Jane Shore (née Elizabeth Lambert), a favorite mistress of King Edward IV (r. 1461-83), who, after his death, was accused of conspiratorial witchcraft in collusion with Edward’s Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, and the powerful courtier Lord William Hastings by King Richard III. Hastings lost his head, the Queen emerged unscathed under the protection of the ascendant Tudors, and Jane was compelled to undertake a barely-clothed (“save her kyrtle”) public walk of penance through the streets of London for harlotry–not witchcraft. Perhaps you can perceive my challenge: Jane Shore’s life reads like a novel or a play, and consequently she has received far more attention from novelists and playwrights than historians. Jane’s walk of shame, in particular, has been the focus of dramatic and visual representations from at least the eighteenth century onwards.

Conspicuous Courtesan Penny

NPG D19938; Called Jane Shore by Edward Scriven, published by  Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, after  Walter Stephens Lethbridge

Jane Shore Doing Penance through the Streets of London between Two Monks null by British School 19th century 1800-1899

Conspicuous Courtesan 2

Conspicuous Courtesan Plaidy

Penitential Jane: Edward Penny, Jane Shore Led in Penance to Saint Pauls, c. 1775-76, Birmingham Museums Trust;  British School, Edward Scriven stipple engraving after Walter Stephens Lethbridge, published by Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, 1821, National Portrait Gallery London; Jane Shore Doing Penance on the Streets of London between Two Monks, 19th century, Tate Museum; Victorian penny novel and the first (of many to come) cover of Jean Plaidy’s The King’s Mistress/Goldsmith’s Wife, 1952.

You can see where this is going…the Jean Plaidy cover is quite something!  After Nicholas Rowe’s “she-tragedy” The Tragedy of Jane Shore appeared in 1714 Jane was resurrected as a dramatic character, but she had played that role before. As a new dynasty, the Tudors had a vested interest in emphasizing the tyranny of Richard’s brief reign, thereby rationalizing and legitimizing their own. Consequently Richard’s victims, whether the completely innocent “princes in the tower” or the not-so-innocent Jane, were presented as overwhelmingly sympathetic figures. In his History of King Richard III, even the priggish Thomas More (who was acquainted with Jane in her old age–yes, she survived the walk of shame) characterizes her as soft, pleasant, witty, merry, and above all, tender-hearted, using her power over Edward to help others rather than herself: she never abused to any man’s hurt, but to many a man’s comfort and relief; where the king took displeasure, she would mitigate and appease his mind; where men were out of favor, she would bring them in his grace; for many that highly offended, she obtained pardon. More’s characterization proved consequential, and she persists (always as “Shore’s wife” even though her marriage to goldsmith William Shore was annulled in 1476 on the grounds of his impotence!) as the subject of ballads, plays and poems in the sixteenth century and after, by more Thomases (Churchyard, Deloney, Heywood) and their peers. Even Shakespeare references “Mistress Shore” in his Richard III, though he does not put her on the stage.

The visual depictions of Jane continue as well, and my favorites are portraits rather than those of her penitential walk. For his Shakespeare illustrated by an Assemblage of Portraits and Views appropriated to the whole suite of our Author’s Historical Dramas (1789-93), the artist and publisher Sylvester Harding produced two contrasting portraits of Jane–as harlot and lady–clearly taking his inspiration for the former from the earlier portraits of another conspicuous courtesan:  Diane de Poitiers, mistress of the French king Henri II. A morphing of mistresses!

ART Vol. d7, image on pg. 51 (Jane Shore)

ART Vol. d7, image on pg. 52 (Jane Shore)

Sylvester Harding, Portraits of Jane Shore, after 1790, Folger Shakespeare Library.


Spring Semester 2014: Tudors and Trials

Classes started last week, but I really don’t get my mind focused on teaching until after the long MLK weekend, which marks the commencement of the spring semester just as Labor Day cues the fall. The administrative work of my other role as department chair is continuous, which makes teaching even more special: a regular break from the tedious. I get three course releases for being chair, which means I am reduced to teaching just one course (Tudor-Stuart England) per semester, but this particular semester I’m also teaching a graduate course (Topics in European History: the European Witch Trials): this particular combination of content and community will make for an interesting semester, I am sure.

The Tudor-Stuart class is always filled with the best and the brightest students, not only among our History majors but also English and Theater majors. The Tudors have been so consistently topical in popular culture over the last decade or so that my students will feel that they “know” them; the Stuarts are more elusive. We’ll cover all the big events, most prominently the English Reformation in the sixteenth century and the English Revolution in the seventeenth, but two of the course texts will (hopefully) enable my students to get a bit more into the homes and heads of Tudor and Stuart people. I’ve never used Orlin’s text in class before (but what could be more essential than privacy?), but Friedman’s subject matter–cheap print–opens up a much wider window into the Revolution.

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I teach two courses on the European witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one undergraduate and one graduate, and I much prefer the latter. The reasons why more than 100,ooo people were tried for witchcraft in this (early modern) era are complex, and I find that undergraduates want them to be simple. They don’t have the background, the patience, or the time (or inclination, really) to read all the texts they need to read in order to figure out all the factors that went into this frenzy. But graduate students read: we go through at least one book (or series of scholarly articles) a week in my class. It’s a dynamic field, so there are always great titles to choose from: I always start with a few texts on the fifteenth century to lay the foundation, and then take a regional tour around those areas that experienced intensive witch-hunting. There are definitely some universal causes of the witch hunts in this era, but the catalysts are more local, even personal, so this is a topic that can be well-served by case studies such as Carlo Ginzburg’s Night Battles, a classic study of counter-magic in northern Italy, Thomas Robisheaux’s Last Witch of Langenburg, and James Sharpe’s Bewitching of Anne Gunter.

Tudor Book 5

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We will try to understand sensationalistic cases of demonic possession in France (through Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France), some of the anthropological and psychological factors present in the region which experienced the most intense witch-hunting in Europe (through Lyndal Roper’s Witch Craze. Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany), and one of the last major European series of trials (30 years before Salem, through P.G. Maxwell-Stuart’s Abundance of Witches. The Great Scottish Witch-Hunt). I always try to switch out the books every time I teach a class to keep everything “fresh”, but two perennial texts for this course are Friedrich Spee’s Cautio Criminalis (1631), a plea for judicial caution and against torture by a Jesuit confessor and poet who had witnessed (and participated) in the worst trials in Germany and Charles Zika’s The Appearance of Witchcraft. The image of the witch, projected far and wide through the relatively new medium of print, is one of those universal factors I was referring to above, and Zika’s visual analysis is masterful.

800px-Friedrich_Spee_von_Langenfeld_Briefmarke_zum_400._Geburtstag

Tudor Book 4


Witches and Trees

It strikes me that there are many historical, folkloric, and cultural connections between witches and trees: witches are often described and depicted as gathering under, hanging from, and riding on branches of trees, “witches’ broom” is a tree disease or deformity, the rowan tree was traditionally associated with the warding off of witches. I’m leaving aside the arboreal associations of modern witchcraft. There’s something about the forest primeval in general, and trees in particular, that creates an environment of secrecy and sorcery: this was a setting that was cultivated by Renaissance etchers and resurrected by Victorian illustrators. The trees are often spindly, haggard, misshapen, and barren, like the women underneath them.

Witches Hopfer BM

Witches under a tree 1878

Arthur_Rackham_Witches_Sabbath_1000px

Daniel Hopfer, Gib Frid (Let me Go), early 16th century etching, British Museum; Edward Gurden Dalziel, illustration from Judy Magazine, 13 February 1878, British Museum; Arthur Rackham, ‘The Witches Sabbath’ illustration for ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, George Harrap & Co, 1928.

The association seems to be strongest in the folklore associated with Italian witchcraft. In Benevento, the “City of Witches” (occasionally referenced as the “Italian Salem”), witches from all over the world were said to gather annually under a storied walnut tree–a tree that was definitely fruitful. It’s an age-old, deeply-rooted story whose origins seem impossible to trace (at least for a short blog post), but the streghe under the walnut tree have certainly inspired a variety of cultural expressions and commodities, from works of art to musical compositions to the famous Strega digestif, manufactured right in Benevento since 1860.

Witches at Walnut Tree Guglielmo della Porto mid16th met

Benevento

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Guglielmo della Porta, The Witches at the Walnut Tree of Benevento, pen and ink drawing, mid 16th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Lithographed songsheet for Paganini’s Dance of the Witches, 1830s, British Museum; Strega label and walnut tree outside the Alberti factory in Benevento.

To the north there is another representation of witches gathered under a fertile tree:  the famous mural of Massa Maritimma, dating from the mid- to late 13th century and uncovered in 2000. Situated on a wall in the town center enclosing the communal “Fountain of Abundance”, this tree bears strange fruit:  phalluses which the women below are picking and gathering. The discovery of the obscene (???) mural was shocking for some (and its subsequent cleaning remains controversial—you can read about it here), but not to anyone who has any familiarity with the Malleus Maleficarum (the “Witches’ Hammer)  a practical guide to identifying, detecting and prosecuting witches published in 1487. Due to its sheer popularity, which is evidenced by many editions and translations, most historians believe that the Malleus contributed to the intensification of witch-hunting in the early modern era, though its exact role is open to debate. It seems pretty clear to me that the book’s popularity is based in its accessibility, and the sensationalistic anecdotes that its authors (Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger–probably more the former than the latter) include, among them oft-cited passages about witches stealing men’s “virile members” and hiding them in nests nestled in the branches of trees.

massa-marittima

Massa Maritime detail

The Massa Marittima Mural and detail; you can see it in situ here, and read more about its symbolism here.


Witches Three

Because I’m not going to make it to Scotland this summer (or Fall, probably) I have been perusing the various sites and reviews devoted to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s current exhibition, Witches and Wicked Bodies, to see if I can find witchcraft images that I haven’t seen before. The depiction of witchcraft from the Renaissance on is a compelling visual and cultural topic: I can’t believe there hasn’t been an exhibition before this. I have a whole portfolio of images that I use in my various courses, and rely heavily on the analysis in Charles Zika’s great book: The Appearance of Witchcraft: Images and Social Meaning in 16th Century Europe (for the best analysis of the really provocative prints of early sixteenth-century artist Hans Baldung Grien) as well as the sources and images available at another ongoing Scottish(digital) exhibitionThe Damned Art: Witchcraft and Demonology. Witchcraft has been serious business in Scotland, from the days of King James VI’s Daemonologie (1597) to the present.

WitchesOnlineVersion

Looking through the images from these various sources, I am struck by the rule of three:  how very often witches are depicted in a group of three, as in Henry Fuseli’s 1785 iconic image of the Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth on the exhibition poster above. Fuseli’s image is easily explainable: it is based on Shakespeare’s three prophetic sisters which is in turn based on those of Holinshed’s Chronicle, which is in turn based on the traditional threefold warnings of doom. But even before Shakespeare’s time, witches are often found in parties of three, perhaps to depict a closed and empowered circle, the smallest coven or conspiracy, or a demonic inversion of the Holy Trinity. The Scotland show features several witchcraft themes, Macbeth and magic circles (as well as witches in flight and devilish rituals) which highlight the power of three. But then what about good things come in threes or third time’s a charm?

Three Witches  Molitor 1489p

Three Witches Flowers 1619

John Runciman

NPG 6903; The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Anne Seymour Damer) by Daniel Gardner

William Blakethe Triple Hectate1795

Three Witches Rackham1911

Three Witches Belfast

Three Witches depicted in: Ulrich Molitor’s lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus (1489) and The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower (1619), Ferguson Collection, University of Glasgow; John Runciman, Three Satyrs’ Heads, 18th century, National Galleries of Scotland; Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Anne Seymour Damer, 1775) National  Portrait Gallery, London;  William Blake, The Triple Hectate, 1795, National Galleries of  Scotland; Arthur Rackham’s Three Witches/Gossips, 1911, from The Ingoldsby Legends of Myth & Marvels; the Weird Sisters in last year’s production of Macbeth at the Lyric Threatre in Belfast, Northern Ireland. No Goya—too scary!


Mother Shipton

Rather contrarily, my offering for Mother’s Day weekend is not a warm, loving, and lovely caregiver but a prophesying crone:  Mother Shipton, who most likely never existed.  Supposedly born in the first years of the new Tudor dynasty in a Yorkshire cave (the product of  a union between a poor wretch named Agatha and the Devil), Ursula Southeil or “Mother Shipton” rose to fame in the mid-seventeenth century, long after her supposed death. Just before the English Civil War, a time of high anxiety indeed, a series of Mother Shipton pamphlets suddenly appeared, containing predictions of things that, for the most part, had already happened, along with dire warnings of war and destruction.

Mother Shipton 1642p

Mother Shipton 1642 part 3p

The first prophecy on the second 1642 pamphlet is typical Mother Shipton: Joane Waller should live to heare of Wars within this Kingdome but not to see them. The Civil War broke out in the same year of as the tract was published, but of course Waller had died the year before. A similar assertion regarding Henry VIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, that he would see York but never get there, was one of Mother Shipton’s most famous “predictions”.  Her published prophecies continued through the Civil War (closely tied to current events) and after, and she joined the ranks of such legendary magicians as Merlin.

Mother Shipton 1648p

Mother Shipton 1661p

Shipton Prophecies from 1648 & 1661

In the later seventeenth century, Mother Shipton’s biography and predictions were embellished rather vastly by a series of publications entitled The Life and Death of Mother Shipton, and her story was adapted for entertainment purposes, thus cementing her now-legendary character. The transition from ominous witch-soothsayer to stock character is emblematic of the emergence of a collective rationalist mentality in the seventeenth century, with a corresponding decline in belief in magic and “wonder”, now assuming its more modern meaning.

Mother Shipton 1677p

Mother Shipton Life and Death

Mother Shipton play 1670p

And that would probably be the end of Mother Shipton, consigned to a relatively minor character in the long history of sibyls and soothsayers, if she was not resurrected in the Victorian era. It’s always the Victorians! Charles Dickens first referenced her in a 1856 story, and then the entrepreneurial bookseller Charles Hindley published a new set of rhymed and timely prophecies that were supposedly based on a newly-discovered manuscript in the British Museum (he later confessed to making them up). Now Mother Shipton was predicting railroads, ships made of iron, wireless communication and all sorts of industrial innovations, as well as the ominous warning that the world then to an end shall come/ In Eighteen Hundred and Eighty-One, which was changed to 1991 in early-twentieth-century reprints. By that time, she had evolved yet again, into a fairy-tale character and (later) a tourist attraction.

Mother Shipton 1800 BM

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Mother Shipton's Cave Yorkshire

Charles Townley print of Mother Shipton and her familiar, 1800, British Museum, Linley Sanbourne and W. Heath Robinson illustrations of Mother Shipton on her broomstick for Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies. A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby (1888 & 1915); the entrance to Mother Shipton’s Cave in Knaresborough, “England’s Oldest Tourist Attraction” (shades of Salem!).


Spring Witches

In central and northern Europe the closing days of April and commencement of Spring converge on Walpurgisnacht, a bonfire festival based on both pagan and Christian traditions. On the eve of May 1, the canonization day of Saint Walpurga, an English Christian nun and missionary based in southern Germany in the eighth century (and presumably was so named to replace a pre-Christian harvest goddess also named Walpurga), witches gather to fly off to the highest mountain (in the case of Germany, Brocken Mountain in the Harz mountain range) to pay homage to the Devil with a night-long bacchanalian celebration. Newly-empowered and inspired, they fly back to society, on broomsticks or goats, to continue their demonic service.

Spring Witches

Hermann Hendrich Die Walpurgishalle in Goethes Faust

Fireworks over the Rhine on Walpurgisnacht, 2012, and Hermann Hendrich’s vision, 1901.

Like Halloween, exactly six months later, Walpurgisnacht is a perfect example of early medieval assimilation, in which a saint’s day is grafted onto an existing “calendar” and there is a clash of evil and good, or perhaps a last hurrah for evil before good prevails in the merry new month of May. Evil is always very, very close–but the actual ritual by which the witch enters into the pact with the devil–described and perceived as in inverse Sabbath–happens far away, in a remote place that one could only access through flight. As I wrote about in an earlier post, fears about a conspiratorial demonic force intensified in the sixteenth century along with the Reformation, resulting in over 100,000 trials for witchcraft in the early modern era. Two hundred years later, after the Devil had lost much of his power, he was revived by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s epic and tragic Faust (1808-1831), with its vivid scenes of Walpurgis Night.

Spring Witches Faust

Spring Witches Faust 2b

Spring Witches Faust 3b

Title page of the 1908 Hayward/Hutchinson translation of Goethe’s Faust, with illustrations of Walpurgis Night by Willy Pogany.

Goethe, along with his near-contemporaries the Brothers Grimm and a host of other authors and artists, was both reflection and inspiration for an intensifying interest in German folklore in the nineteenth century. Witches became more fanciful than fearful; even if it was with or for the devil, they still danced. Given its long association with the witches’ sabbaths, the Brocken and its adjacent Hexentanzplatz  (a plateau long referred to as the “witches’ dancing floor”) became popular tourist destinations. A hilltop hotel on the Hexentanzplatz drew a steady stream of visitors from 1870 on, and the addition of an open-air theater and the Walpurgishalle, a museum dedicated to Goethe and Walpurgis Night, increased their number after the turn of the century. The Hexentanzplatz became a place where everybody could come to dance, on the eve of St. Walpurga’s Day, Beltane, May Day, or simply Spring.

walpurgisnacht pc 1890s

Walpurgisnacht pc 2

Walpurgisnacht in Meissen

The focus is clearly on the Hexentanzplatz hotel in postcards from the 1890s and 1911 (along with the now-naked witches); a century later the more generic Wulpurgisnacht is celebrated in Meissen (photo by Tobi_2008@ Flikr).


Weather Witches

The witch trials in early modern Europe, which resulted in the execution of between 40,000 and 60,000 people and targeted double that figure, focused on devil worship more than anything else, but maleficia (harmful magic) was often the trigger, and the evidence, for the identification of conspiratorial witchcraft. And of the various types of harm that witches were accused of committing, nothing was more generic, and more harmful, than weather witchcraft. One of the earliest printed depiction of witches makes the connection concrete:  two hag witches are literally whipping up a storm in a cauldron.

Ulrich Molitor, (fl. 1470-1501), De lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus (Cologne, 1500).

Even if we can’t understand the fear of witchcraft in our rational era, we can understand the threat of weather witchcraft to a civilization that depended on the climate for food, and life. Our supposed mastery of nature leaves us a lot less vulnerable–at least we like to think so. But in the premodern past, a storm could bring hunger at best and starvation at worst. The source of evil is always a problem in Christianity, as it is in every culture:  why do bad things happen to good people?  The devil and his witches–the servants of Satan–provided an accessible explanation. And for these reasons, I think that the earliest disseminated images of the witch focused on weather witchery:  certainly those of the greatest printmakers of the day, Albrecht Dürer and his apprentice Hans Baldung (Grien) did: Dürer pictures a goat-riding witch attending by several putti and bringing forth rain, while Baldung’s more shapely weather witches are yielding their apple-capped flask to bring forth a storm with the aid of another demonic putto and of course, the demon-goat. This particular image is obviously a painting, but Baldung created several influential woodblock prints of witches depicted in an overtly sexual manner, intensifying interest in them even more in the early sixteenth century.

Albrecht Dürer, The Witch (1500-02), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Hans Baldung Grien, The Weather Witches  (1523), oil on panel, Städel Museum, Frankfurt.

As I am writing this, I keep checking for updates on Hurricane Sandy, and I just read about the abandonment at sea of the Canadian replica tall ship HMS Bounty (made for the 1962 Marlon Brando film), and the loss of several members of her crew.  This was the particular witchcraft fear in Scandinavian cultures:  witches stirred up storms at sea and sank ships. You can see this fear illustrated in the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus of Olaus Magnus (1555), a grand compendium of Nordic popular culture and folklore, as well as in King James I and VI’s pamphlet about the famous North Berwick trials:  Newes from Scotlanddeclaring the damnable life and death of Dr. John Fian (1591). Upon his engagement to Anne of Denmark, James spent time in Scandinavia and became exposed to continental witchcraft beliefs: the stormy voyage he endured on his return trip home combined with his belief that as “God’s lieutenant” he was the target of demonic conspiracies inspired him to be a particularly zealous witch-hunter both in Scotland and England.

Magnus’s Historia and Newes from Scotland woodcuts:  Ferguson Collection, University of Glasgow Library Special Collections.

The contemporary record of one of the largest witch hunts in European history, occurring at Trier in western Germany from 1581 to 1593 and resulting in the death of over 360 people, is illustrated with a composite picture of all the activities of witches, including storm-making with a broomstick. In central Europe, hail seems to have been the most commonly-identified form of magical weather and could definitely provoke accusations. Hail does seem kind of magical, if you think about it.

Title page of Peter Binsfeld, Tractatus de confessionibus maleficorum et sagarum (1592).

You can see from the title page of one of the pamphlets reporting the Lancashire (Pendle) trials of 1612, the largest trials in England, that weather witching was one of the accusations, along with riding the wind. I am not certain if any specific weather charges were leveled at the accused witches here in Salem, although I do know that the intense cold, and the hardship it brought to this community, has been considered among several contributing factors in the background of the 1692 trials. This follows the European historiography, which has been considering the impact of the “Little Ice Age” on witch-hunting for some time.

A goat-riding witch brings down a storm:  from  the Compendium Maleficarum of  Francesco Maria Guazzo (1628).


Which Witch House?

One reason that I’ve been an ardent preservationist for most of my life is my belief that buildings hold extraordinary power–even more power, I think, than unbuilt spaces, no matter how beautiful. I can’t imagine a better example than Salem’s “Witch House” (more formally and accurately known as the Jonathan Corwin House), a structure that represents both the most tangible connection to the Witch Trials of 1692 as well as a symbol (and vessel) of Salem’s modern transformation into the “Witch City”. The Witch House seems to reflect the evolving aspirations and perceptions of the city that surrounds it:  for much of the nineteenth century, it was referred to as the “Roger Williams House”, a designation that tied it to the seventeenth-century minister who left intolerant Salem for free Rhode Island rather than the witch-trial Judge Corwin from a generation later. Freedom of conscience versus irrational jurisprudence.

The Witch House today and in an 1886 card by Edwin Whitefield, author/illustrator of Homes of our Forefathers.  Whitefield’s images seems to be based on that of Samuel Bartoll’s 1819 painting, in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum.

The early architectural history of the Witch House is a bit mysterious (a study has been commissioned by the city, but I haven’t seen the results yet), but most experts believe that it dates from much later in the seventeenth century than Roger Williams’ time in Salem. All of the above images, those from the nineteenth century and just yesterday, might be idealized images of this fabled house. We do know that Jonathan Corwin acquired a structure in this location in 1675, and that he served on the Court of Oyer and Terminer which tried the accused “witches” of 1692. That fact alone seems sufficient for the house’s transformation into the “Witch House” much later, after it left the possession of the Corwin family in the mid-nineteenth century. More than anyone, the person responsible for this identification was George Farrington, an entrepreneurial Salem apothecary who definitely emphasized the witchcraft (rather than Williams) associations of his new place of business:  Farrington grafted a box-like shop onto the house and sold medicines in bottles with a flying witch insignia, anticipating the marketing strategies of Daniel Low decades later and many Salem businesses today. He also published images of  the “old witch house”, effectively establishing that identity.

The Witch House in the mid-nineteenth century:  very influential photographs by Frank Cousins of the front and rear of the house just prior to Farrington’s purchase in 1856 (the house had acquired a gambrel roof in the mid-eighteenth century), a Deloss Barnum photograph from the 1860s, after Farrington’s pharmacy had been attached to the house, an “Old Witch House” stereoview published by Farrington, and a Farrington medicine bottle from the 1880s as pictured in a recent ebay auction.  All photographs from the Robert Dennis Collection, New York Public Library.

For nearly a century, the Witch House was configured as a strange (maybe not for Salem) combination of business and tourist attraction and thousands (maybe more) of postcards were issued, fixing and broadcasting its identity. In the decades before and after World War I, when Daniel Low was marketing its witch spoon and other witch wares nationally, there seems to have been a marked increase in the number and variety of Witch House cards. There are also some interesting private photographs of the house from this era, confirming its conspicuous place in Salem’s urban streetscape.

Two photographs of the Witch House in the 1890s from the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, and postcards from 1900, 1901, 1906, 1908, 1911 & 1922.  Just a random sampling of many on the market!

The 1940s was a decade of transformation for the Witch House, when it came to represent preservation–but also profits: change and continuity. With the planned widening of North Street, a main thoroughfare in and out of Salem, the house was threatened, and its survival (along with that of the adjacent Bowditch House) became the rallying cry for the formation of  Historic Salem, Incorporated and its subsequent restoration under the direction of Boston architect Gordon Robb (who had worked on Colonial Williamsburg as well as another famous Salem seventeenth-century structure, the Pickering House). Moved to a more secure northwestern position on its lot, its shop detached and gables rebuilt, the Witch House was opened to the public in 1948 by the City of Salem, and it has been doing steady business ever since.

The Witch House in 1940 (HABS photograph by Frank Branzetti, Library of Congress), 1945 & 1948.

For more on the evolving perception, and structural history of the Witch House, see Salem’s Witch House:  a Touchstone to Antiquity (The History Press, 2012) by Salem architectural historian John Goff.


The Long Hot Summer of 1692

Given that it is something you cannot and should not forget (or escape) in Salem, I touched on the chronology and geography of the Witch Trials and their impact pretty regularly last year, the first year of my blog.  In terms of the historical timeline, I focused particularly on the beginning of the trials in the spring of 1692 and their end in the fall, leaving the long hot summer of trials, executions, anxiety and suffering out.  But now we’re in another long hot summer, and we should remember the five women who died on this day, July 19, 320 years ago:  Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Susanna Martin, Elizabeth Howe, and Sarah Wildes.

A word about the weather. I am using the phrase “long hot summer” metaphorically here; I have no idea what the average temperature was in the summer of 1692. As someone who was trained in the history of early modern Europe, a time and a place that witnessed thousands of witch trials, I’ve always been surprised that American historians don’t make more of the weather as a contributing factors to the trials here in Salem because it is definitely a factor of consideration across the Atlantic.  A few years ago, an economist asserted the theory that the so-called  “Little Ice Age” (a long trend line of colder temperatures in this same early modern era, particularly noticeable as compared to the preceding “Medieval Warm Age”) might have been a background cause of the events and accusations in Salem, but the reasoning behind the assertion didn’t really fly with me:  why 1692 as opposed to 1682, 1672 or 1662?  Extreme weather (especially hail!) is better understood as a short-term catalyst for scapegoating accusations rather than a long-term, structural cause.

Nevertheless, the accusations started flying in the cold January of 1692, the first formal charges came at the beginning of March, and the special Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in Salem Town in early June, overseeing the charge of more than 150 people on charges of the capital felony of witchcraft and the eventual conviction of 29, of which 19 victims were hanged on Gallows Hill over the summer.

The women who died on this particular day in 1692 were somewhat representative of their fellow victims:  they were women of a certain age (Sarah Good was the youngest at 39, Rebecca Nurse and Susanna Martin were both in their early 70s), from the fringes of this little world, either geographically or socially.  None came from present-day Salem, then Salem Town (now, sadly, “Witch City), but rather from either Salem Village (present-day Danvers) or the outlying communities of Topsfield, Ipswich and Amesbury. The two Salem Village women, Sarah Good, could not have been more different in both age and situation:  Good was a destitute vagrant with a “disorderly” reputation which made her very vulnerable to accusations of witchcraft, while Nurse was elderly, pious, and from a well-established family:  her trial and conviction would ultimately cast considerable doubt on the entire proceedings.

What remains:  some pictures taken on a 99-degree day in mid-July of 1692:  the Towne field and Parson Capen House (1683) in Topsfield, and the Rebecca Nurse Homestead (c. 1678) in Danvers at dusk. Rebecca Nurse and her sisters Mary Eastey and Sarah Cloyse were the daughters of William and Joanna Towne, who emigrated from England as part of the “Great Migration” and wound up in western Salem Village/Topsfield. The field below is where their original homestead was located.  All three women were accused of witchcraft, and only Sarah escaped death. The Parson Capen house in Topsfield village has no connection to the trials beyond the fact that it was standing witness at the time.

After the women were killed on July 19 their bodies were buried in shallow graves in the crevices of Gallows Hill in Salem; the exact location is still somewhat of a mystery. When darkness fell, her family came to Salem and removed her body to the hallowed ground of the family homestead. In 1885, with all of her ancestors in attendance, a memorial monument inscribed with a passage from John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem Christian Martyr was dedicated on the site:  “O Christian Martyr/who for Truth could die/When all about thee/owned the hideous lie!/The world redeemed/from Superstition’s sway/Is breathing freer for thy sake today.”


Easter Weekend Witches

Given my city’s reputation, I think it is appropriate for a Salem-based blog to pay tribute to the Scandinavian tradition of påskkärringar: Easter witches.  According to this custom, most likely dating from a folklore “revival” in the nineteenth-century, Swedish children dress up as witches armed with broomsticks and copper kettles and go trick-or-treating on Maundy Thursday, the very day that their distant ancestors supposedly believed that “real” witches left on their journey to the faraway Blåkulla (Blue Mountain) to pay tribute to the Devil in a hedonistic sabbath.  These same witches returned from the mountain for Easter Sunday services (during which they would say their prayers backwards), if they could fit through the chimneys after several days of partying, or avoid the fires that were lit to keep them away.  Glad Påsk (Happy Easter) postcards from the first half of the century appear to feature the påskkärringar far more than they do eggs and chicks (or Jesus) and the tradition seems to be alive and well today.

It’s always interesting to trace modern customs and “traditions” as far back as you can go.  When you examine all the various details that make up the celebration of Easter in Sweden– flying witches, a far-off mountain, branches and bonfires, feasts–there definitely seem to be some pre-Christian elements, combined with pre-modern Christianity and modern commercialism.  At the very least, Blåkulla goes way back.  It is referenced in the key early modern source for Northern history and culture, the Historia de Gentibus Septentionalibus (History of the Northern Peoples) of Bishop Olaus Magnus, first published in 1555.  Magnus makes Blåkulla a bit more tangible by identifying it with a real island in the South Baltic, Blå Jungfrunwhich retains its mystical reputation.  He also describes, with a bit of skepticism that is later lost, the activities of witches and devils and other magical beliefs and entities.

The island of Blå Jungfrun, now a Swedish national park; devils and “weather witches” from Olaus Magnus’s Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, Book Three.

Magnus was writing (and living) right on the precipice:  the period of 1560-1660 was one of intense religious conflict and witch-hunting in Europe.  Sweden managed to escape the former but not the latter, though it was a little delayed: the most intense series of witch trials in the north were the Mora and Torsåker Trials (1668-76), which resulted in the death of 85 people.  The testimony in these trials is characterized by 2 distinct themes:  references to Blåkulla, and the accusations of children, who claimed to have been abducted by witches to demonic sabbaths which took place there.  The reliance on child witnesses, who were allowed considerable time together to get their stories straight, is indeed remarkably similar to Salem.

Title page of Joseph Glanville’s popular Saducismus Triumphus:  or Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions(1682), which includes the Appendix: A True Account of What Happen’d in the Kingdom of Sweden in the Years 1669,1670, and Upwards.

Given the central role played by Swedish children in these late-seventeenth-century trials, it’s a big jarring to see them on Glad Påsk postcards from several centuries later, but this is only one more example of how something very serious (and scary) in the pre-modern past becomes benign in the near-present.  The Easter witches of the past century are so weighed down by kettles and cats, and the occasional chicken and egg, that they have no room for children on their trip to Blåkulla.

Glad Påsk postcards from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s:  by the last decade, Easter Witches were taking planes to Blåkulla!


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