Revealing the Concealed: English Folk Culture and Superstition

During the late medieval and early Tudor era, when superstition about witchcraft and the supernatural was at its height, people in England sought new forms of protection, and, for some, new ways of inflicting harm. It was at this time that many turned to concealing objects. Often found close to entrances, including doorways and fireplaces, these items were concealed to protect, or harm, the inhabitants of the buildings where they were placed.

An illustration from a witchcraft pamphlet. The image shows an elderly woman wearing a bonnet and late medieval style of dress. She has a hooked nose, and is holding a spoon in her right hand and a bowl in her left. With the spoon she is feeding three creatures, two resembling toads and one a cat, which are sat in front of her on a bench.
Image taken from ‘A Rehearsal both Strange and True’, 1579. This pamphlet was one of many published in the 16th century describing and detailing the signs of witchcraft. This pamphlet is currently held in The British Library, shelf number C.27.a.11.

Items found range from clothing to mummified animals – often cats – and are commonly discovered during renovations or demolitions. Over the years many have made their way into museums, including the collections at The MERL, becoming a point of interest for visitors and researchers alike.

So what does this have to do with English Rural Life?

The 20th November saw The MERL unveil yet another successful Late event, this time examining the diverse theme of Folk. Alongside a myriad of activities, trails, and talks, some of the Museum’s lesser seen objects made their debut, raising many an eyebrow and many a question throughout the evening.

From corn dollies, to horse brasses, pole heads to a Fool’s Bladder, visitors were given the chance to engage with folk culture from England and beyond in a pop-up exhibition on the Museum’s mezzanine and through volunteer-led object handling in the galleries.

Three objects in particular stood out however, each with its own ominous past, but all with one intriguing thing in common. These three items were a Bellarmine jar, a small leather pouch, and a pair of leather children’s shoes. All are related to concealed, apotropaic, objects.

So what are these objects, and why are they significant?

Shoes

These children’s shoes were found in a fifteenth-century farmhouse at Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, during its demolition. They were found in an attic, thought to have originally been a child’s bedroom, which had been sealed off in around 1800. At the time of donation museum staff suspected that the shoes were deliberately deposited in the attic as an apotropaic device to protect the home. Shoes are one of the most commonly found concealed items. Over 2,000 examples are on record so far – a number that will undoubtedly continue to grow – with the earliest known examples dating from the 14th century[1].

A pair of brown children's leather shoes, both measuring approx. 8cm in length. Both have been conserved and are, as a result, slightly shiny. One shoes has two holes, one in the toe and one in the side. The other is fairly whole, with a few splits in the sides. There are no visible indication of how they were fastened.
A pair of leather children’s shoes, found in a fifteenth-century farmhouse at Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. [52/345/1-2]
Leather pouch

This hand-stitched, circular leather pouch was found on the chancel arch of West Ogwell Church in Devon, and contains the remains of pages of writing. It was thought, by museum staff at the time of acquisition to have been a charm or a curse, and may date from the seventeenth century. Due to its age and condition, it is impossible to know what the writing once said or their intended purpose. Few paper items from this period survive, deteriorating over the centuries, or falling victim to pests.

Often written charms were used as a means of protection, however a couple of examples of written curses do exist[2]. Having been found in a church, this item could have been intended for either protection or harm – Maybe a prayer, placed high, closer to God, or harmful words, intended for the congregation.

A beige, circular leather poch, with hand-stitching around its edge. The pouch is folded in half, and is in a poor condition, with split edges. The pouch contains scraps of paper with illegible ink writing. The ink is slightly brown in colour.
A circular leather pouch folded in half, with the remains of pages of writing. It may date from as early as the seventeenth century [object number: 87/20]

Bellarmine Jar

Although this jar was not found concealed, having been dug up at Sandy, Bedfordshire, Bellarmine jars were a firm favourite for concealment, and were most notably used as Witch Bottles.

Witch Bottles were used as a counter-spell against witchcraft. A vessel would have been filled with ‘powerful’ substances, some of the most common being human hair, heart-shaped fabric, urine, and iron pins or nails – Iron metal was believed to repel witches.

This was then concealed by an entry point, preventing any unwanted entities from entering the building and causing harm. Witch Bottles have been found under fireplaces, beneath the floors, and under door frames.

Of approximately 250 recorded English witch-bottles, 130 are thought to be Bellarmine. Made in Germany and popularised throughout 17th century Europe, the jars’ name was inspired by Italian Cardinal, Robert Bellarmine, who was renowned for publishing anti-protestant literature.[3]

A Bellarmine jug, with a narrow base, wide centre, and narrow top - The top is more narrow than the base. The jug is a mid-brown colour, and has a mottled glaze. The top of the jug is ridged with three bands. The Jug has a handle on the reverse, the top of which sits at the top of the jug, and finishes about 6 cm down the body. On the front of the jug is engraved a face of a bearded man, below which is a circular motif in the centre of which is a lion-type creature.
A stoneware Bellarmine jar with a brown mottled glaze. This jug is said to have been dug up at Sandy, Bedfordshire (object number 55/675).

One Thing to Remember …

A lack of records and written accounts means that we cannot be certain that the purpose of these particular items and their concealment was based in the supernatural. These interpretations are ‘of their time’, reflecting the beliefs of those who found the items, and the museum staff who received them. Understanding the period in which they were hidden and the popularity of concealed, apotropaic items during a period of superstition, certainly helps in identifying and understanding these types of objects, but it must be taken with a pinch of salt. Nevertheless, these objects and their presumed history, is a fascinating insight into English Folk culture, superstitions, and beliefs.

For more information about concealed objects and supernatural folk culture, visit Apotropaiosand Inner Lives: Emotion, Identity and the Supernatural, 1300-1900.

[1] Apotropaios, Concealed Shoes. Available from: http://www.apotropaios.co.uk/shoes.html

[2] Apotropaios, Written Charms. Available from: http://www.apotropaios.co.uk/written-charms.html

[3] Apotropaios, Witch Bottles. Available from: http://www.apotropaios.co.uk/witch-bottles.html

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