Tag Archives: folklore

Queen of the Garden

My garden is peaking now: next week I will shear off flowers and get another full-flowering in late August or early September. In between a few flowers will light up the back but it will mostly be a sea of green. This is fine with me; I have chosen plants as much for their leaves as their flowers. In my little garden, Midsummer is signaled by the flowering of meadowsweet, one of my very favorite perennials. I have a double-blooming variety (Filipendula vulgaris ‘Flore Plena’) which I purchased from Perennial Pleasures up in northern Vermont long ago: it is very dependable and very showy, and probably much too big for my small garden. Meadowsweet is commonly referred to as the “Queen of the Meadow” (in its native Europe) or the  “Queen of the Prairie” (in the U.S.) but I think of it as the Queen of my garden! Like most of my plants, it is more of an ancient wild flower than a proper “Garden Flower” (determined, like most things, by the Victorians I believe): if a plant does not have a proper medieval “wort” name and quasi-mythological medicinal heritage, it doesn’t find its way into my garden. Meadowsweet was alternatively known as dropwort, bridewort, and meadwort in the pre-modern past, and was used as a strewing and flavoring herb, as well as a painkiller and digestive. In the nineteenth century, salicylic acid was isolated from meadowsweet, a key event in the development of aspirin, which was named after the plant’s previous Latin name, Spiraea ulmaria. Though not named as one of the nine sacred herbs in the Anglo-Saxon Lacnuga (“Remedies”) manuscript, this particular Queen has ruled for quite some time.

July 2016 garden: I’ll let my cat Trinity lead us to the Meadowsweet in a meandering way.

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Queen of the Garden 9

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Queen of the Garden 4

I love my lungworts–another important medieval plant that looks lovely from May through September. Trinity wasn’t really interested in the meadowsweet, but here they are, for several different angles: I would love to see a prairie/meadow full!

Queen of the Garden 2

Queen of the Garden 3

Queen of the Garden 10


A Witch Cake for Early April

Those who are familiar with the established narrative of the Salem Witch Trials will recognize the reference to a “witch cake”, in that case concocted of the urine of the afflicted mixed with rye meal and ashes, baked in cake form and fed to a dog with the hope that the beast would somehow reveal the name of the malevolent witch. In 1692 Tituba assisted Mary Sibley in the preparation of a witch cake in order to identify the person(s) responsible for bewitching the young girls in Samuel Parris’s household, an act that would later be used to condemn her. In Salem the witch cake was clearly used as a form of counter-magical test; while in Britain it was more commonly used as a defensive amulet against the bewitchment of a person or household. There are many surviving examples of anti-witchcraft charms and amulets in British collections, everything from pierced “hag-stones” to very familiar horseshoes, but more perishable cakes are hard to find. But here is one, which doesn’t look very perishable at all!

Witch cakes in April Card

This witch cake, which dates not from the seventeenth but rather the twentieth century, is part of the large (around 1400 items) collection of charms, amulets and talismans accumulated by British folklorist Edward Lovett (1852-1933), who seems to have been more interested in the magical artifacts and beliefs of his own time than those of the past. Lovett was an amateur folklorist in a time when that pursuit was being professionalized: he worked as a bank cashier by day and walked the streets of London by night, listening to the stories and purchasing the personal charms of street hawkers, sailors, and washerwomen, or whoever came upon his path armed with “protection”. (You can follow his steps here). This research formed the basis of his fascinating book Magic in Modern London (1925), and his collection can now be found chiefly in three institutions: the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University, the Cuming Museum on South London (which has been closed due to a fire, but many of its collections have been preserved and digitized), and the Wellcome Museum. The items below, including a cow’s heart stuck with pins and nails (upper right-hand corner, used by a dairyman as a talisman against a man he believed had put a curse on his cows), and the two anti-witchcraft charms, the ram’s horn with attached key and hag-stone below, all come from the Cuming collection, along with the more familiar charms. Acorns abound, to guard against lightning, and the wishbone wrapped in blue and red ribbon is almost a work of art!

Charm Collage Lovett

Lovett Acorn Charm

Lovett Wishbone

And below are some Lovett amulets purchased from British soldiers who fought in the First World War: hand votives guard against the “evil eye”, geological charms protect the wearer from a host of evils, and black cats were actually lucky in some parts of Britain, unlike the rest of the world.

L0057378 Amulet brooch in the shape of a black cat, England, 1914-191

Back to the Witch Cake, about which I don’t have too much information. There is Lovett’s own description: around about Flamborough Head [in Yorkshire], “witch cakes are to be met with in almost every cottage. These are circular-shaped, with a hole in the middle and with spikes projecting on all sides. If you hang one up in your cottage and once a year burn it and replace it with another [presumably during Holy Week, or the first week of April], you will have good luck. But no recipe!


Epiphany Eclipsed

Why do we “celebrate” Christmas so spectacularly and ignore its closing act, Epiphany? How did Christmas come to overshadow Epiphany so completely? Well of course we know the answer to this question: crass commercial consumerism, beginning in the Victorian era. But before that, it was all about Epiphany, one of the earliest Christian feast days. Consider this beautiful painting by Hieronymus Bosch of the Adoration of the Magi, one of thousands of Renaissance paintings depicting this moment when the world, represented by the Three Magi/Kings/Wise Men, came to view the Christ child in his humble birthplace. Here we see nothing less than the manifestation of God in the form of human flesh through his Son, Jesus Christ, before the Kings and the world. It’s a really big moment, and one that medieval and early modern Christians wanted to think about, hear about, and see time and time again. I like this particular painting not only for its aesthetic qualities but also the familiarity and intimacy of its setting: Italian Renaissance painters like Sandro Botticelli and Domenico Ghirlandaio made this moment even more familiar and intimate by painting themselves and their patrons right into the scene!

Adoration of the Magi

Botticelli_-_Adoration_of_the_Magi_(Zanobi_Altar)_-_Uffizi

Adoration_of_the_Magi_Spedale_degli_Innocenti

Hieronymus Bosch, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1475; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1475, Uffizi Gallery (with Botticelli in the right lower calendar and all of the Medici clan present); Domenico Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Magi, c. 1485-88, Spedale degli Innocenti (with Domenico facing us in the midst of his patrons, on left).

It’s quite possible that the underestimation of Epiphany is apparent only from my western (American) Protestant perspective, but apart from its theological importance, there are many customs and traditions associated with Epiphany and Twelfth Night, its more secular incarnation, that would seem to lend this holiday towards more popular celebration (or exploitation): elaborate feasting, including a variety of Kings’ Cakes, containing beans, slips of paper, or Baby Jesus charms, wassailing, frolicking, dancing, gift-giving, marking homes with blessed chalk. Many of these Twelfth Night activities have been appropriated by Christmas in the modern era, especially here in the United States, where Santa Claus seems to have vanquished St. Nicholas, the Three Kings, and even the Italian “Christmas Witch”, la Befana, who delivers presents (or coal) to children on Epiphany Eve rather than December 24. Although given her identity rather than her occupation, I suppose it is only a matter of time before she finds her way to the Witch City.

Twelfth Night Feast 1662

Epiphany Coles 1888

Epiphany Le Petite Journal 1914

REUTERS/Manuel Silvestri

Twelfth Night Feast by Jan Havicksz. Steen, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Epiphany. Illustration from Holy Seasons of the Church by E Beatrice Coles (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1888); a Spanish Epiphany custom illustrated in Le Petite Journal, 1914; the famous “Befana Regatta” held every January 6 in Venice.


The Charm of Chimney Sweeps

It is somewhat difficult to comprehend how chimney sweeps–soot-covered, often very young boys who were virtually enslaved to climb up and down narrow flues, brush in hand–could be transformed into good luck charms in the later nineteenth century, but if you examine more than a handful of vintage New Year’s postcards, especially those from central and northern Europe, you will see them there, along with four-leaf clovers, horseshoes, mushrooms, pigs, and occasionally cats. Only in the British and American traditions do you see Father Time, and the infant new year, and numbers, and because Germany was so dominant in the greeting card industry at the turn of the last century their Schornsteinfeger turn up on cards made for those markets as well.  I understand the whole sweeping out the old year message, as well as the basic assurance of a clean chimney (especially now, with my new ones rising!) but that’s about all. The dissonance between the grim reality of one of the dirtiest jobs anywhere, anytime and its artistic representation on greeting cards from the 1880s onward is pretty glaring, as sweeps are depicted in elegant art nouveau compositions, as well as more commercial creations, as laughing, clean children of both genders. And then of course there is the sexy chimney sweep, again of either gender, with the masculine variety usually corrupting (dirtying) some naive chambermaid, and the feminine variety distinguished by her (lack of, form-fitting) dress. The only things that identify all these sweeps as such are their ever-present ladders and/or brushes.

Chimney Sweep Art Nouveau Card

Chimney Sweep MFA Card

Chimney Sweep Gnomes Card

Chimney Sweep MFA 1Card

Austrian New Year’s Postcards, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

As you can see from the images below, the angelic (whitewashed) little chimney sweeper sweeping in the New Year became a bit standardized in the 1910s and 1920s, and if the text message wasn’t enough, the addition of other good luck symbols–and even the very American champagne bottle–drove home the message. The very distinctive red-and-white-spotted “red fly” mushrooms (amanita muscaria) are ever-present on New Year’s postcards, even those that don’t feature chimney sweeps, and once again, I’m not precisely sure why. This species of mushroom is credited with both poisonous and hallucinogenic qualities, neither of which translate into good luck (or maybe it is good luck if you don’t eat them), but they were also used as insecticides in some parts of Europe I believe, so maybe there is another “clearing out” connection. Later in the twentieth century, both the chimney sweeps and the toadstools get a bit more abstract and a bit less cute, but they’re still there.

Chimney Sweeps Postcards

Chimney Sweep Skating Scenep

Chimney Sweep Estonian 1960 Playles Card

A Selection of New Year’s Postcards from the teens and 1920s available here; Skating scene sourced here; an Estonian card from the later 1950s from here.

The Lucky Chimney Sweep tradition varies quite a bit as you move westward in Europe: I couldn’t really find much of a trace in France and in Great Britain it is more associated with the occasion of weddings than the New Year. I have found several sweep motifs among the New Year’s postcards of Britain’s most prolific publisher, Raphael Tuck & Sons, but they were manufactured in Austria:  I imagine a somewhat confused British audience. Given all the horrific stories about the “climbing boys” in Britain, including the well-publicized death of a 12-year-old boy named George Brewster in 1875 which led to the passage of a Parliamentary bill prohibiting the use of such “apprentices” in the same year, it’s hard to see how chimney sweeps could be considered charmed or charming (even with the innocuous images below). John Leighton’s depiction of a shivering and suffering sweep (perhaps from the dreaded Chimney Sweeps’ cancer or “soot wart” though that generally appeared later in life) on a doctor’s doorstep, packaged with what can only be the sarcastic greeting A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, is a more realistic sign of the times.

Chimney Sweep Tuck

Chimney Sweep Cat Tuck

Raphael Tuck & Sons postcards at TuckDB; John Leighton’s Chimney Sweep, c. 1850, at Wellcome Library Images.


Books for my Winter Break

Late December and January is a key reading time for me: I’ve been teaching a lot in the summers over the past few years and I can seldom read much during the semester, so the next three weeks or so are really crucial to my instinct and ability to consume information for both work and pleasure. I compile a list all year long and this week I start working through it. Often I will read a book a day, but if a particular text doesn’t really capture my attention I will set it aside for later–usually bedtime–and pick up a new one. I want to be absorbed in what I am reading, and if I’m not–if the book is too dry or too abstract or too much of a choppy reference work–I will still finish it, but incrementally. Consequently there’s quite a stack of books beside my bed at this time of year. Only occasionally do I delve into fiction: I wish I could read more stories because their ability to absorb is potentially greater than nonfiction works, but I don’t really care for contemporary characterizations and historical novels often annoy me. That leaves the classics, and I really should put more on my list–something besides Austen and Poe and the usual suspects. But this is what I have for this year.

Books Revolution Cover

Books Rescuing Eden Cover

Books Invention Cover

Books Empire of Cotton Cover

Revolution: Mapping the Road to American Independence, 1755-1783 by Richard H. Brown and Paul E. Cohen is definitely a reference work but I saw the companion exhibition at the Boston Public Library and the maps are endlessly interesting and I want them for myself! Plus, this is a work in which the narrative is based on the maps rather than using maps as mere illustrations of the narrative. Another “pick-up” book, but one that I know I will pick up often, is Caroline Seebohm’s Rescuing Eden: Preserving America’s Historic Gardens, with photographs by Curtice Taylor. Andrea Wulf writes accessible books about the history of science and horticulture: The Invention of Nature. Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (a rather ambitious title) is her latest. I’ve got to get back in my world history game, and commodity history does that better than anything, so Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton. A Global History is on my list.

Books Collage

Books to refresh my courses: I’m sure I will enjoy them, but I also need to read them, as I’ve got an undergraduate Tudor-Stuart course to teach next semester and a graduate Elizabethan course in the summer. Two books by Peter Elmer–I’ve always been interested in Valentine Greatrakes, if only for his name.

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Strange Business Cover

book china collectors
NEWLY DISCOVERED FAIRY TALES!!! I don’t think I need to say any more about this book’s appeal. I love books about the art MARKET, so these two look very interesting to me–I’ve already started James Hamilton’s Strange Business and it has hooked me. I really like books about art thefts and forgeries too–please forward suggestions if you have them. And finally, below, a Bloomsbury-ish trio: one of the few novels I did read in this past year was Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and her Sister about the complicated relationship between Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf in the midst of the Bloomsbury set. It made me curious about these interesting and rather self-indulgent people, who were so amazingly fluid in terms of sexuality, morals, and creative expression: are they worth more of my time? (Dorothy Parker is said to have quipped, “Bloomsbury paints in circles, lives in squares, and loves in triangles”) I think so, for now, so I’m going to start with Jane Dunn’s Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell. A Very Close Conspiracy and then move on to several books by Vanessa’s granddaughter, Virginia Nicholson: Among the Bohemians. Experiments in Living, 1900-1939 and  (with her father Quentin Bell) Charleston: A Bloomsbury House & Garden.

The Eyes of Saint Lucia

The astronomical winter solstice will not occur for a week or so, but the shortest day on the Christian calendar is that associated with the Feast of Saint Lucia or Lucy, occurring on December 13. John Donne referenced this connection in his poem A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy’s Day: ‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s,/ Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;/ The sun is spent, and now his flasks/ Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;/ The world’s whole sap is sunk;/ The general balm th’hydroptic earth hath drunk,/Whither, as to the bed’s feet, life is shrunk,/ Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,/ Compar’d with me, who am their epitaph.

Lucia’s story is part late antique and part late medieval: the earliest accounts depict her as a young virgin martyr from Sicily who was put to death in the Diocletian persecution at the beginning of the fourth century. She had devoted herself to Christ following the miraculous recovery of her mother from chronic “bloody flux” (dysentery) and afterwards devoted herself to distributing her not-inconsiderable dowry to the poor of the island. Her spurned betrothed turned her over to the Roman authorities, and she was tortured and threatened with “fouling” in a brothel. Her virtue and virginity were maintained by another miraculous intervention which rendered her body immovable, but she was martyred by a sword to her throat (after burning also failed). Her veneration seems almost immediate, and by the sixth century Lucy’s story had spread through much of Europe. Her association with “light” (lux in Latin) seems to come principally from her name, but in the later medieval era she also became a patron saint to the blind and those with eye diseases: we increasingly see her with attributes of eyes (generally on a plate) from the fourteenth century on, and this depiction becomes standard with the Renaissance.

Lucy's Eyes BL

Lucy Francesco_del_Cossa

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British Library MS Additional 22310 (Venice, 1460-70); Francesco del Cossa, Saint Lucy, 1473-74, National Gallery of Art (and detail); Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Lucy, 1625-30, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Once Lucy became associated with both light and sight, the eyes appear in her depictions and then a story is constructed and grafted onto her hagiography–but it has variations: sometimes Lucy is punished for her vision of the end of Roman rule by the gouging out of her eyes before her martyrdom; in other accounts she gouges them out herself to repel her pagan fiance. Each tales develops its own embellishments: Lucy’s eye’s were so beautiful that both the emperor Maxentius (whose reign would soon end according to her “vision”) and her evil and equally pagan betrothed wanted them gone; Lucy’s faith was so strong that she sacrificed her most beautiful feature so that she could “see” in only that way.

The Martyrdom of Saint Lucy, Watercolor, n.d., Wellcome Library and Images, London.

The equation of “light” with “sight” in these ways, over time, is just one interesting aspect of Lucy’s veneration. Another is its durability–and its range: even after the Reformation she maintained her stature in Protestant Europe and even increased it in largely Lutheran Scandinavia. Lucy/Lucia is venerated in parts of Italy and eastern Europe too, but it’s the Scandinavian rituals that really interest me, because I can’t quite figure out whether they are a continuation or “invention” of tradition. As the first references to Lucia rituals are in the eighteenth century and the first national processions in the twentieth, I’m guessing the latter, but clearly they had a cultural basis that was rooted in both the Christian and pre-Christian past. On December 13, white-clad, red-sashed “Lucias” lead singing processions out onto the streets wearing head wreaths made of lit (by wax or battery) candles; in the home, the household Lucia serves her family a substantial breakfast of special saffron buns (lussekatter–with raisin “eyes”!) after the long winter’s night. These Lucias bring light into their world on the darkest day of the year, when there is none.

Lucia Christmas Morning 1923

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Photogravure of St. Lucia’s Day, 1898, Wellcome Library; The crowned Lucia at this year’s Festival of  St. Lucia at York Minster, sponsored by the York Anglo-Scandinavian Society (© Ian Forsyth/Getty Images); Carl Larsson’s Christmas Morning, published in “Lasst Licht Hinin”; St. Lucia’s Day Saffron Buns at Simply Recipes.


Krampus Cards

Krampus, that dark monstrous creature, cloven-hoofed, horned, hairy, and long-tongued, the antithesis of Saint Nicholas but also his companion, somehow did not make it across the pond with Old St. Nick’s descendant, Santa Claus–actually, he didn’t even make it across the English Channel. I’m not sure why not, except for the fact that he is a repulsive creature, who constrains mischievous children in his basket and carries them off to somewhere bad. So who wants him? Well apparently we do now, with the new Krampus film opening tonight and Krampusnacht festivals on the rise both in the old world (especially his native Austria, Switzerland and Germany) and the new on December 5th, the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas. He’s big in Los Angeles now, and Philadelphia, and also apparently Salem: can you imagine a better environment for Krampus than modern Salem?

Krampusnacht Austria

Saint Nicholas and Krampas

Krampus in the drawing room 1812-13

Krampuses getting reading for Krampusnacht in Stubaital, Austria, 2013, photograph by Sean Gallup/Getty Images; St. Nicholas bearing gifts and Krampus carting children away, two cards from the Christmas pictures by Raschka series by Raphael Kirchner, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Krampus sneaking into the drawing room behind St. Nicholas, from The Journal of Carl Baumann written 1813-25 by Franz Paumgarrten.

In his latest incarnation, Krampus seems a lot scarier now than he did a century or so ago, when he appeared regularly on Krampuscarten, holiday postcards issued in much of central and eastern Europe. He’s always been a beast, but he was a comical and/or polite one (almost knocking on the parlor door above!) at that time. His origins are somewhat obscure: his appearance mirrors the pagan or Neo-Pagan horned god but also the Christian devil. He seems like the embodiment of assimilated and dualistic Christianity to me, chained to remind everyone that as demonic as he may be, he is still under the command of God. According to all the “sources”, which cite one another but never the primary source, he becomes the companion of St. Nicholas at some point in the seventeenth century, and with the “invention of Christmas” and all of its “traditions” in the nineteenth century he assumes a major role in the festivities. Given his alpine origins, the most creative Krampuscarten are those created in Austria, in particular by the artists working for the Wiener Werkstätte before the First World War. These art nouveau Krampuses are a bit more stylized and whimsical than many of their more generic postcard counterparts, and they tangle with adults as well as children. Once men in Krampus masks begin to appear at the doors of their sweethearts on interwar cards, you know the Krampus has lost his sway.

Krampus and St. Nicholas WW 3

Krampus Koehler MFA

Krampuscarten by Wiener Werstätte artists Mela Koehler (1911), Arnold Nechanksy (1912) from the Neue Galerie and Josef Diveky (1909), Jutta Sika (1912) and Dora Suppantschitsch (1907), Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Appendix: A “Krampus versus Kringle” window at the Gulu-Gulu Cafe here in Salem snapped by my friend Lance Eaton—he’s going to put it on his own blog, but I’ve got it up first!

Krampus versus Kringle Eaton


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