Tag Archives: folklore

Pope Night in Salem

The colonial American equivalent of Bonfire Night, which has been celebrated in Britain ever since the foiling of Guy Fawkes’ and his fellow Catholic conspirators’ attempt to blow up King James I and Parliament on November 5, 1605, seems to have flourished in eighteenth-century New England as “Pope-Night” or “Pope-Day”. We have a pretty good idea of how Pope Night was observed, at least in Boston, thanks to the survival of a remarkable 1768 broadside: South End Forever. North End Forever. Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night, Or a Commemoration of the Fifth of November, giving a History of the Attempt, made by the Papistes, to blow up King and Parliament, A.D. 1588……..[interesting that the author has confused the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 with that other big triumph over militant Catholicism, the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588].

Pope Night Broadside LC

The “extraordinary verses” above can be supplemented with more narrative accounts in the Boston and Massachusetts Gazettes from around the same time. They describe elaborate “pageants” and processions in which effigies representing the Pope, the Devil, the Stuart Pretender, and other representations of “tyranny, oppression, and slavery” were paraded about before enthusiastic spectators before their consignment to the flames of majestic bonfires. While some accounts stress the “order” of the event: Boston Pope Nights in particular seem to have been characterized by considerable disorder, including brawling between the North End and South End gangs, extortion, destruction, and all sorts of mischief. They seem divisive, but also representative of the agitated environment of pre-Revolutionary Boston. One would think that this most British of holidays would have been dispensed with once the American Revolution began, but George Washington’s order of November 5, 1775 indicates that this was not the case:  As the Commander in Chief has been apprized of a design form’d for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the pope–He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soldiers in this army so void of common sense, as not to see the impropriety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are solliciting, and have really obtain’d, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we ought to consider as Brethren embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the general Liberty of America: At such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethren, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common Enemy in Canada.

482px-Washington_Before_Yorktown_Rembrandt_Peale_1823Washington and Lafayette in Rembrandt Peale’s Washington Before Yorktown, 1824, National Gallery of Art—Washington would not meet Lafayette for some time after his Pope Night order, but I imagine he was also thinking about France as well as Canada at that time.

And it is to our second President that we owe the first reference to Pope Night in Salem, long before he became our second President. When he was attending court in Salem he made the following note in his diary for November 5, 1766: Spent the evening at Mr. Pynchon’s [on Summer Street–a house that is still with us but much changed], with Farnham, Sewall, Sargeant, Col. Saltonstall &ct. very agreeably. Punch, wine, bread and cheese, apples, pipes and tobacco. Popes and bonfires, this evening at Salem, and a swarm of tumultuous people attending. I don’t know if people in Salem abstained from following General Washington’s order, but Pope Night certainly continued on after the Revolution: I can find references up to 1819 in the Reverend William Bentley’s famous diary. His entry for the 5th of November, 1792 reads: Not all the revolutions which have passed over our Country can efface the remembrance of this anniversary. The boys must have their bonfire. But the light of it is going out. We have little concern in powder plots of Kings at this day. The Town of Boston have determined not to disturb any ground in the antient Burying places. For a long time these grounds have been crowded & it was impossible to observe decency in the opening of graves. The Charge is just in a great degree against the old ground in this Town, but the objections have not yet become serious. I’m not exactly sure what he is referencing here: the Boston festivities did occur at Copp’s Hill Burying Ground in the North End, but I can’t find any references to Pope Night events occurring in Salem cemeteries: the bonfires were always lit at Salem Neck. He sounds like me complaining about the toll of Halloween on the Old Burying Ground! Every other year or so the Reverend makes a Pope Night entry, all of which express his increasing irritation, until his final words on the matter in 1819: We have had this evening the full proof of the obstinate power of superstition & habit. The 5 of Nov. was celebrated by the ritual & rubric of the English Church for political purposes. The history of the plot against all fact most pertinaciously insisted upon rea, & the popular celebration, by the carrying about the Pope & the Devil, most zealously encouraged. Tho we have lost all connection with Great Britain & have detected the fraud & the purpose, yet our common people still keep the 5 of Nov. and we had a roaring fire on the Neck on this occasion. We had not the old fashion transportation through the streets, nor the riots & quarrels, but we had enough to shew us that old habits are invincible against all the light which can be offered them.

Pope Night Dr. Bentley's Rock at Salem Neck SSU “Dr. Bentley’s Rock at Salem Neck”—the site of the Pope Night bonfires?—many decades later, Nelson Dionne Collection, Salem State Archives & Special Collections.

And after 1820 or so, no other Salem references, save Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Old Times” where Pope Night is something distinctly past. The “holiday” seems to survive over the nineteenth century in a few other places, namely Marblehead, Newburyport, and Portsmouth, where it became known as Pork Night. I think the boys of Salem transferred all of their mischief and mayhem and bonfire-building energies to two other more American holidays: Halloween and the Fourth of July.

gunpowderplot21

GunpowderSome exciting news!  BBC One’s Gunpowder miniseries, starring Kit Harrington of Game of Thrones (a descendant of conspirator Robert Catesby), will be coming to the US next month on HBO.


Toasts and Toadstools

There are myriad good luck charms associated with the New Year, and I’ve featured many of them already, including the Scottish “First Footing” ritual and the pig and chimney sweep traditions of continental Europe. I really can’t speak to the southern traditions of eating Hoppin’ John and collard greens, and horseshoes and clover seem to be universally lucky at all times of the year, so I think I’m going to go with toadstools this particular New Year. Very prominently featured on the New Year’s postcards produced and disseminated in large quantities a century or so ago are red-and-white-capped toadstools scattered about—these are “red fly” mushrooms called Fliegenpilze in Germany (which produced most of these same postcards) and they are very lucky indeed. If you’ve ever seen one of these (the proper Latin name is amanita muscaria) out in the wild, you would understand why it is such a storied plant: it looks not quite real, wondrous, and is said to have both insecticide and hallucinogenic qualities. Despite the fact that one of my favorite King Penguin books classifies this mushroom as poisonous, it was apparently a stroke of luck to encounter one: in doing so you becomes a Glückspilz (literally a lucky mushroom; metaphorically a lucky person).  It is no wonder these ‘shrooms ended up in both Alice and Wonderland and on all those New Years’ postcards, and on this particular year, on the mantle in my front parlor: I am taking no chances with 2017!

toadstool-nypl

toadstools-german

mushroom-new-year-card

new-years-collage

mushrooms-mela-koehler-mfa

toadstool-collage

An assortment of New Year’s postcards from my own collection and the Digital Collections of the New York Public Library; the holly and the……..mushrooms on a Mela Koehler Christmas card from the Lauder Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Amanita muscaria in John Ramsbottom’s Poisonous Fungi (1945).

I was just down in Rhinebeck, New York for Christmas at my brother’s house, and I had about twenty minutes in one of my favorite stores anywhere: Paper Trail. There were mushrooms in the window, and the most beautiful toadstool/mushroom (I must admit that I don’t know the difference) ornaments. So inspired, I switched up my own mushrooms (+ some hourglasses–very subtle) for the deer on the front mantle almost as soon as I got home. I think I have a pig somewhere in the basement so I might pop him on there too. And a horseshoe.

mushrooms-paper-trail

mushroom-mantle

Mushroom mantle 3.jpg

 


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.

Queen of the Garden 7.jpg

Queen of the Garden 9

Queen of the Garden photo.jpg

Queen of the Garden 11.jpg

Queen of the Garden 6

Queen of the Garden.jpg

Queen of the Garden 5

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.

the-turnip-princess-and-other-newly-discovered-fairy-tales

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.

%d bloggers like this: