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Cottage of the weird sisters
December 9, 2011 4:09 AM   Subscribe

With the death of the childless Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, the son of Mary Queen of Scots and the reigning King of Scotland became next in line for succession to the English throne. On 11 July of that year the crowns of Scotland and England were united as King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. The Union of the Crowns was made possible by the the fact that the James VI was protestant, married and had healthy children – heirs to the throne. The English were also comforted by the fact that the Scottish King was a scholar. Among other literary accomplishments, he had authored a number of books on witchcraft. Written in the Socratic form of a dialogue, Dæmonologie presented a wide-ranging discussion of witchcraft, necromancy, possession, demons, were-wolves, fairies and ghosts.

Believed to be the source for the witches Shakespeare's Macbeth, James I explained that witches could "rayse stromes and tempestes in the aire, either upon land or sea, though not universally; but in such a particular place and prescribed bunds as God will permitte them so to trouble"

In Lancashire, men and beasts were supposed to languish under the charms of the Pendelwitches who were put on trial in 1612. Based largely on evidence given by children, twenty people, of which 16 were women, were found guilty of causing death or harm by witchcraft and were hanged.

The sensation produced by these trials was immense, and Thomas Potts, the clerk of the court, was directed by the judges of assize, Sir Edward Bromley and Sir James Altham to collect and publish the evidence and other documents connected with the trial, under the revision of the judges themselves. The resulting book The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster described:

"The discouerie of witchcraft, wherein the lewde dealing of witches and witchmongers is notablie detected, the knauerie of coniurors, the impietie of inchantors, the follie of soothsaiers, the impudent falshood of cousenors, the infidelitie of atheists, the pestilent practises of Pythonists, the curiositie of figurecasters, the vanitie of dreamers, the beggerlie art of Alcumystrie, the abhomination of idolatrie, the horrible art of poisoning, the vertue and power of naturall magike, and all the conueiances of Legierdemaine and iuggling are deciphered: and many other things opened, which haue long lien hidden,[xiv] howbeit verie necessarie to be known"

The recent discovery of a a 17th Century cottage, complete with a cat skeleton, during a construction project in Lancashire, sheds new light on matter.

Stunned by the discovery, the United Utilities' project manager, said: "It's not often you come across a fairytale cottage complete with witch's cat."
posted by three blind mice (39 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
As I understand it, women who kept cats were often accused of witchcraft because the bubonic plague (carried by rats) did not gain a foothold in their domiciles while their neighbors sickened and died.
posted by Renoroc at 4:23 AM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


Ambrose Bierce:
The evidence (including confession) upon which certain women were convicted of witchcraft and executed was without a flaw; it is still unimpeachable. The judges' decisions based on it were sound in logic and in law. Nothing in any existing court was ever more thoroughly proved than the charges of witchcraft and sorcery for which so many suffered death. If there were no witches, human testimony and human reason are alike destitute of value.
posted by vanar sena at 4:48 AM on December 9, 2011 [4 favorites]


I think you have inherited some typos ("stromes" and "bunds") from your source for Dæmonologie. The text here more plausibly reads:
They can rayse stormes and tempestes in the aire, either vpon Sea or land, though not vniuersally, but in such a particular place and prescribed boundes, as God will permitte them so to trouble [...]
posted by pracowity at 4:49 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


One of the things I find weirdly fascinating about the Pendle witch-trials is the way modern accounts always mention that nine-year-old Jennet Device climbed on a table to give her testimony. Maybe because it emphasises how small she was compared to the adults, or how self-assured she might have been (although she also apparently burst into tears when her mother screamed at her just before)? Or because it's just such an odd mental image, this little girl climbing up on a table in a courtroom to denounce her entire family for witchcraft? It's such a strange story all round; maybe she didn't fully understand the consequences of what she was doing, after all.
posted by Catseye at 4:54 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Where shall we three meet again?

I saw the BBC link earlier today and thought it would make a good post. Glad that three blind mice made a more thorough job of it than I would have.
posted by arcticseal at 5:10 AM on December 9, 2011


Except that the cat would have been the opposite of a 'witch's cat', it would be there to ward away witches (and other forms of evil). If it was deliberately put in a wall of a building, then it would be an apotropaic deposit designed to ward away evil and to protect. They're very common in early modern buildings, usually at entry points in buildings - under or above windows, lintels, doors, fireplaces etc, though bits of clothing and shoes and witch bottles are more common than the cats. See this site. Variants of the practice have travelled round the world with emigrants - even to Australia and have survived to quite modern times. This site gives some examples too including cats but it's quite fanciful on the cats and witches.

The Scottish Witchcraft Survey actually looked at associations of witches with ritual objects/animals - you can do a search by ritual object on the database. Only 12 cases mention cats. And you wouldn't want to be a witch's cat, as the accusations concerning cats tend to be things like, the accused witch has tied bits of dead body to the cat and thrown it in the sea, or 'roasted four or five kittens and used the drippings to rub a sick person.' or even transferring the pains of childbirth to a cat - poor cat! (You can almost see why a ghostly cat might like to do duty against witches!), but anyway the poor animal would have been put there to ward them away.

So if you want to take modern anti-witch apotropaic measures, please make them cruelty free and use a shoe or a bit of clothing instead! For ultimate cruelty free counter magic- make it a vegan shoe!
posted by Flitcraft at 5:21 AM on December 9, 2011 [7 favorites]


modern accounts always mention that nine-year-old Jennet Device climbed on a table to give her testimony.

Or was placed there by prosecutors? There would be a big difference.
posted by pracowity at 5:23 AM on December 9, 2011


Except that the cat would have been the opposite of a 'witch's cat', it would be there to ward away witches (and other forms of evil). If it was deliberately put in a wall of a building, then it would be an apotropaic deposit designed to ward away evil and to protect.

I read the article yesterday and wondered exactly that -- why would the fact that the cottage contained a witch-repelling device mean that it was a witches cottage? (I also wondered how they managed to get the poor cat there in the first place, since trying that with my kitty would result in immediate loss of limbs.)
posted by Cocodrillo at 5:42 AM on December 9, 2011


The Guardian has more information on the Pendle cottage. Basically it's a Victorian cottage abandoned in the late nineteenth century:

The finds include 19th century crockery, a bedstead, tin bath, and a Victorian cookery range still in its original position

Not the most exciting archaeological find ever made, but very convenient for the Lancashire tourism industry:

Simon Entwistle, a historian of the Pendle witches, said that the discovery was "like Tutankhamun's tomb" for enthusiasts – and also very well-timed for Lancashire's specialist tourism market based upon the Pendle witches.

Well-timed indeed; some might say suspiciously well-timed, with the 400th anniversary of the Pendle witch trials coming up next year, and the local tourist board planning a year-long series of events.
posted by verstegan at 5:42 AM on December 9, 2011


Fascinating post. One of the theories of the rise and popularity of witch trials - particular the old 'wise women' or the village healers/midwives is attributed to the concurrent rise of male surgeons in esteem - from barbers to Doctors - thus needing to establish their dominance. From wiki on the book that made me think:

"Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Female Healers", a short paper by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English also in 1973.[2] The Ehrenreich/English paper examined the history of women in medicine as the professionalization of the field excluded women, particularly midwives, from the practice. Ehrenreich and English later expanded the work into a full-length book, For Her Own Good, which connected the exclusion of women from the practice of medicine to sexist medical practices;

posted by infini at 5:44 AM on December 9, 2011


I think you have inherited some typos ("stromes" and "bunds")

This may also be prophetic references to Strom Thurmond and his ilk, plus German political organizations, thus proving that James was divinely inspired! The concept that it might be referring to harbor districts in Asia is just silly, since we know that God doesn't care about Asia.

On the other side of the discussion, please, witches and anti-witches, leave the cats alone! They just want to have a nice long, warm nap and for you to get their dinner. They are not interested in furthering or fighting occult evil, either whole or in pieces. Cats basically don't give a shit.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:09 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


So, the third comment points out an error due glyph transposition, yet then predicates correction of this error upon use of the consonantal v.

There was a time when I thought that the adoption of unicode would make linguistic transcription easier, in practice it's just presented us 2^96 more opportunities to be a dick.
posted by 7segment at 6:18 AM on December 9, 2011


I stayed in a hotel once (in Sudbury, I think) where they had discovered a four-hundred-year-old cat entombed in the walls, presumably for this purpose. They left it there, glassed it in, and made a feature of it. Lovely.
posted by Segundus at 6:18 AM on December 9, 2011


At the NP Archaeology site, the people who dug up the cottage very helpfully offer:
Press interest has been intense - find out more here.
Oh, thanks very much.
posted by pracowity at 6:22 AM on December 9, 2011


I will note that Segundus, althing about a 400yo cat (was it dead? there is no information), was comment #13. Coincidence? Witchcraft? Have you buried a cat gif on your desktop for protection? Have you?
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:42 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Heaven help us if this is just foreshadowing for when Americans elect Stephenie Meyer to the presidency on the strength of her publications in the occult.
posted by jph at 6:52 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


The English were also comforted by the fact that the Scottish King was a scholar. Among other literary accomplishments, he had authored a number of books on witchcraft. Written in the Socratic form of a dialogue, Dæmonologie presented a wide-ranging discussion of witchcraft, necromancy, possession, demons, were-wolves, fairies and ghosts.

So that's what passed for a scholar in 1603? Today King James I would be considered a geek and would be revered only at FantasyCons.
posted by orange swan at 7:00 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Actually, James' mania for Witch Trials goes back to his marriage to Princess Anne of Denmark, when a storm delayed his return to Scotland fir several weeks, which was blamed on a curse by the wife of a Danish official. Heavy Metal History Lesson of the North Berwick Witch Trials here. Special Bonus Over the Top Cuckoo Banana Nuts Retro Video about Witch Trials here. \m/
posted by KingEdRa at 8:31 AM on December 9, 2011


The OvertheTopCuckooBananaNutsRetroVideo KingEdRa refers to is "Witchfinder General" starring the awfully awesome Vincent Price.
posted by February28 at 9:03 AM on December 9, 2011


As I understand it, women who kept cats were often accused of witchcraft because the bubonic plague (carried by rats) did not gain a foothold in their domiciles while their neighbors sickened and died.
posted by Renoroc


That's extremely interesting, Renoroc. I think it raises the possibility that preexisting toxoplasma infection (toxoplasmosis) might confer some protection against the plague upon cats and familiar enough human beings.

I find this plausible because cats, like other predators, with the exception of modern humans, are constrained to prey upon the old and sick, and you would expect them to have developed resistance to the endemic contagions of their prey.

If it's true, it would have to move our view of the rat's relationship to cats more toward the symbiont end of the predator-symbiont continuum, since rats with toxoplasmosis might lose some of their vulnerability to plague along with their fear of the smell of cats.

It also might offer a new perspective on the decline of the plague as a scourge of humanity in Europe, and go some distance toward justifying our apparently ever-increasing fondness for the furry little feline freeloaders.
posted by jamjam at 9:31 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


In fairness, my Special Bonus Over the Top Cuckoo Banana Nuts Retro Video about Witch Trials is a link another Cathedral song ABOUT the Witchfinder General movie, which features clip from the movie interspersed through the video, which features ladies in leather studded bikinis making out with almost naked Satan. Come for the Vincent Price, Stay for the Metal Cliches!
posted by KingEdRa at 10:11 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


As I understand it, women who kept cats were often accused of witchcraft because the bubonic plague (carried by rats) did not gain a foothold in their domiciles while their neighbors sickened and died.

That sounds a bit too cut and dried. Lots of people kept cats because cats are good mousers. They're also good company when you're old and alone.

It appears (says this and this, anyway) that a certain type of person would be more likely to be accused of witchcraft: female, older, alone (perhaps widowed and propertied), independent, assertive, not afraid to speak her mind.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that that sort of person frequently kept cats, formed close attachments to them, and was unafraid to be seen conversing with them as if the cats were intelligent beings. That sort of behaviour, plague or no plague, would help to attract the suspicions of people looking for reasons to call someone strange. I'm sceptical of a more elaborate theory that depends of cats significantly reducing the incidence of plague and "witches" significantly more likely than others to have cats and therefore significantlly less likely to catch plague.
posted by pracowity at 10:25 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Witchfinder General" starring the awfully awesome Vincent Price.

I prefer my Witchfinder General to star the awfully awesome Zeeb Parkes.
posted by snottydick at 11:54 AM on December 9, 2011


Are you Mary Queen of Scots?

I run rings round you, logically.
posted by Decani at 12:16 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


> They left it there, glassed it in, and made a feature of it. Lovely.

University College, London, did that to Jeremy Bentham.
posted by jfuller at 12:48 PM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Here is a similar blog entry to the thoughts I had expressed earlier, and she does use as one of her sources the book I got my information from: Lehr, L.J. (2006). “Cats, People, and the Black Plague: Those Who Kept Cats Survived.”

I have no doubt that the same personality traits and socioeconomic indicators that would make someone a great pet owner were looked down upon in Medieval Europe and Britain, but in a plague situation, the old crone who kept to herself, talked to her kitties, and never seemed to get sick was bound to get at least the stink-eye when she did not become ill.
posted by Renoroc at 12:49 PM on December 9, 2011


I meant article earlier, here is a link to it Lehr, L.J. (2006). “Cats, People, and the Black Plague: Those Who Kept Cats Survived.”
posted by Renoroc at 12:52 PM on December 9, 2011


I think that's supposed to go here.

So, back to the original idea:
As I understand it, women who kept cats were often accused of witchcraft because the bubonic plague (carried by rats) did not gain a foothold in their domiciles while their neighbors sickened and died.
I like the idea, but I'm wondering how much of that is groundless supposition and how much is supported by evidence.

We have two assertions:
1. People who kept cats were less likely to get the plague.
2. People who didn't get the plague (and had cats?) were more likely to be accused of witchcraft.

Do we have any reliable statistics related to cat populations (or prevalence of keeping cats at pets) and the plague? Is it possible that keeping cats would even make you more likely to get the plague (because cats can catch plague and give it to you)? The CDC says:
House cats also are susceptible to plague. Infected cats become sick and may directly transmit plague to persons who handle or care for them. Also, dogs and cats may bring plague-infected fleas into the home.
And do we have any statistics supporting that idea that people who didn't get the plague were more likely to be accused of witchcraft? It sounds possible, but is there even anecdotal evidence that it was happening?
posted by pracowity at 2:32 PM on December 9, 2011


I couldn't find good stats but as far as anecdotal evidence, here is an old essay that appeared in the New York Times regarding the scapegoating of people during epidemics. The relevant paragraph states how Jewish people would remove grains from their homes during Passover and were spared rat infestations and the plague, leading to unjust suspicions from their afflicted Gentile neighbors. It's not cats and witchcraft, but it is another example of a non-afflicted group being blamed. It supports our second assertion (but without cat ownership)

I am going to look up some peer-reviewed journals and get back to the topic.
posted by Renoroc at 3:00 PM on December 9, 2011


Cool.
posted by pracowity at 3:05 PM on December 9, 2011


Where When shall we three meet again?

Fixed that for you. While we're talking about Macbeth, one of the reasons the witches' chanting is kind of unsettling is that instead of being in iambic pentameter (da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM-da-DUM) like a lot of other Shakespearean verse, it's in trochaic tetrameter (DA-dum-DA-dum-DA-dum-DA-dum, "WHEN shall WE three MEET a-GAIN?"). It gives the witches the ritualistic rhythm that they need as well as contrasting with the usual blank verse the audience would expect, unnerving them from the start.

Shakespeare Nerd Man....awaaaayyyy!
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:06 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Forgot to add that it's not completely strict trochaic tetrameter--Shakespeare plays around with the stresses, as you can see in the first line I quoted. (The technical term is "catalectic".) It's still very different from his usual verse form, though.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:10 PM on December 9, 2011


I scoured PubMed. There were far more articles detailing the cat as disease vector instead of a proven disease preventer. The only article titled, CAT AS PLAGUE PREVENTER can be read here for free. It was written in 1908 in British India.

So far, the modern accepted scientific literature indicates that cats are more a disease vector than a bubonic plague preventer.
posted by Renoroc at 3:31 PM on December 9, 2011


I think it might depend upon how good the cat was at hunting. Rats hate the smell of cat and would tend to stay away from feline inhabited domiciles, so if the local cat was a lousy hunter who liked to stay home all day, they'd keep the place rat (and plague) free. But excellent hunters would go out and continually drag back the pestilent bodies of vermin, thus magnifying the odds of infection for everyone in the house. So somebody who coddled and spoiled their cats might have a better chance of surviving the plague, and thus be later seen as a witch.
posted by Kevin Street at 4:01 PM on December 9, 2011


Metafilter: come for the witches, stay for the tetrameter.
posted by arcticseal at 4:53 PM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


One quickie, since it's 3:23 AM and I must get to bed. James was quite sceptical about witchcraft; much of what he says in Daemonologie is simple reporting of ideas and assertions about witches rather than statements of belief, and he gets more rational as he ages.

His reputation for scholarship is deserved, but it's based on other texts: he was multi-lingual, not uncommon in Early Modern monarchs, and he wrote good Latin poetry. He also wrote the wonderfully titled Basilikon Doron and the True Law of Free Monarchies, both of which lay out the theory of Divine Right: a poisonous idea, but it's well argued and defended.

He was a conflicted man: wily, deeply political and cunning, but also a convicted pacifist personally and politically, who refused to take England into the 30 Years War and did his best to marry his children across sectarian divides. He was an intellectual who frequently drank himself insensible and was fond of appalling, third-grade boy level bawdy jokes. He was deeply fond of his wife and children but also very gay, conducting a series of passionate relationships with favorites (some of the letters are mind-boggling). His relationship with George Villiers, whom he made Duke of Buckingham, is one of the defining relations of the age: Buckingham had a huge effect on English politics and culture, and survived James by 3 years.

He was also weirdly ugly. An odd man, but not a bad one, and a rather good King.
posted by jrochest at 12:42 AM on December 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


...men and beasts were supposed to languish under the charms of the Pendelwitches who were put on trial in 1612. Based largely on evidence given by children, twenty people, of which 16 were women, were found guilty of causing death or harm by witchcraft and were hanged.

And 371 years later, childish imagination, adult credulity, widespread superstition, and the rule of law made another foul witches' brew in the McMartin Preschool Trial. Fortunately this time, only the reputations of the accused were destroyed.
posted by cenoxo at 8:54 AM on December 10, 2011


Witches... they still keep popping, but never fear. The brave Saudi Arabian law enforcers will hunt them down and chop off their heads.
posted by vanar sena at 5:03 AM on December 12, 2011


BBC4 recently had a documentary on this called The Pendle Witch Child which was pretty interesting. You can also still get King James I's Demonology book.
posted by TheDonF at 10:42 AM on December 13, 2011


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