Superstitious in the countryside

Bedknobs, bees, eels and broomsticks. The MERL does Halloween

Written by Nicola Minney.

An active part in the make-up of rural England’s pysche has always been a degree of superstition.

In agricultural communities, people’s lives critically depended on bountiful harvests and healthy livestock, as they still do, so the people would be vigilant for any and all signs of looming disaster, of portents and signs, of auguries both awful and auspicious. When things did sour, the people lacked the optics of modern science to determine cause, and would instead place blame at the door of the evil eye, of withcraft and devils, of envious fairies, knots of eels, and even mildly offended bees.

This Halloween, at this most superstious time of the year, join The MERL as we put on our bravest face, adorn ourselves with lucks charms, and venture from our archives to rural past, to share with you ten superstitions evidenced in our collections held historically by rural folk.

Harvesting of sugar beet, potatos and pumpkins! Taken by Peter Adams. (MERL PH2/122C)
A photograph of sugar beet, potatos and pumpkins being harvested, taken by Peter Adams. (MERL PH2/122C)

Besom broomsticks

A besom is a broom made of brush or twigs which are bound with a bond. This besom is made of birch twigs with hazel laps. It ws made by George Lewry of Crowborough, East Sussex, in 1977 at the age of 99. Mr Lewry had worked as a Wealden labourer all his life! (MERL 77/261)
A besom is a broom made of brush or twigs which are bound with a bond. This besom is made of birch twigs with hazel laps. It ws made by George Lewry of Crowborough, East Sussex, in 1977, at the astonishing age of 99. Mr Lewry had worked as a Wealden labourer all his life. (MERL 77/261)

The notion that witches favoured brooms as their mode of transport of choice was first popularised in 1612, at the time of the Lancashire Witch trials. Yet, older sources tell of witches travelling by more diverse means. These included (but were not limited) to riding pitchforks, plant stems, bowls, and even turning pig troughs into public transport. Which wouldn’t look out of place in Mario Kart. These would be commandeered in an extremely gruesome way (so do skip this line if you’re squeamish): by anointing themselves or their chosen vehicle with “the fat of children, dug from their graves”.[1]

It was said that brooms are particularly unlucky if purchased in the month of May, as immortalised by the extremely specific rhyme: “buy a broom in May / sweep a friend away”.[2] We don’t imagine we’ll be seeing this in Wilko any time soon.

Some believed that if a women stepped over a broom before marriage, she would give birth to a child out of wedlock. Stories from Yorkshire’s history speak of mothers fearing for their daughters stepping over brooms – and of mischievous young boys purposefully leaving them in awkward places.[3] Getting the brooms out with the lads. A classic.

A craftsman making a besom broomstick. (MERL PH1/45)
From our photographic archive: a craftsman makes a besom broomstick. (MERL PH1/45)

Did you know? A broom placed across a doorway is not just a dangerous trip hazard, but also, it was believed, a sign of witchcraft.[4] Either a witch lives inside, or someone has been cursed. The person who picks up the broom is the witch, so if you want to avoid being accused of witchcraft by your friends, it’s best to simply kick the broom out of the way. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Black cats

This cat-shaped bird scarer was made from tin and used in Surrey!
This cat-shaped bird scarer was made from tin and used in Surrey to (as you might expect) scare birds and protect crops. (MERL 56/371)

In English history, no domestic animal has been the object of more superstitious glances than the cat, with black cats bearing the brunt of them. Historically, this has been riddled with contradictions. While many believe that black cats are a symbol of good luck, it is also said that should you cross one on your way to work, you may get fired.[5]

In fact, the link between cats and witches has become something of a cliché. While witches were said to have cats as ‘familiars’, there would often too be mice, weasels and toads.[6]

Did you know? Beware: dreaming of cats suggests someone is being spiteful towards you.[7]

Witch bottles

This saltglazed pottery jug was known as a Greybeard. (MERL 55/675)
This saltglazed pottery jug (which wouldn’t look out of place in Skyrim) was used as a witch bottle, and is of a type known as a Greybeard. (MERL 55/675)

Should you need a form of counter-spell against a witch, your best option is to heed  as it so often is  the age-old idiom: ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’. Yes, you will need to invest in what is known as a witch bottle.[8]

These remedies, an apotropaic homebrew, meaning they were used to fend off the evil eye, would be bottles filled with your own nails, hair and often urine. Because at this stage, why not. When heated up, this awful solution, simmering away, would inflict immense pain on the witch afflicting you. In fact, being quite unpleasant for everyone, it is understandable that practices like these would be done in absolute silence. A small fire would be your light, and all the doors and windows must be blocked to prevent the witch from breaking in to stop the procedure.[9] Or, maybe, your extremely freaked out neighbours, or your perturbed close family.

Did you know? Examples of witch bottles have been found in ditches, hearths and in the foundations of houses, which were felt to be an advantageous position for warding off evil spirits effectively.

Mice

A humane mousetrap from The MERL collection. Somehow, in 2016, an unfortunate mouse managed to find its way into the mousetrap, where it died. (MERL 08/2015)

Whilst absent in pharmacies today, a popular ingredient in folk medicine, curing ailments such as whooping cough, bed wetting, sore throats, and fevers, were mice. Mice might be boiled, roasted, fried or mixed with jam and served in a sandwich.[10]

And while we have certainly shared some unusual recipes in our time, The MERL café will not be stocking mouse baguettes any time soon.

If mice arrive in large numbers at a house previously free of them, it is considered a portent of bad luck, of looming sickness or even of death. It is also bad news if they enter a bedroom, run across someone’s body, or gnaw at someone’s clothes. Even as a little treat.

To rid yourself of mice, tradition suggests the best way of doing this is actually rather intuitive. You should because of course you should  politely explain to the mice that their presence is inconvenient, and suggest another house that they might enjoy more.[11] Perhaps your neighbour’s getting a bit noisy? Perhaps they’re making awful witch bottles and it’s time for a little payback?

Did you know? Several years ago, a mouse somehow managed to make its way into a humane mouse trap on display in The MERL, where it unfortunately died. This was a collection object, rather than a trap actively in use.

Dairying

This butter churn was used for making butter, and is of a type generally used in larger dairies. It is inscribed: 'Champion churn used by the champion butter makers of England and Scotland'. (MERL 56/359)
This butter churn was used for making butter, and is of a type generally used in larger dairies. It is inscribed: ‘Champion churn used by the champion butter makers of England and Scotland’. (MERL 56/359)

An enormous range of different issues can be incurred in the process of tending to cows, of buttermaking and milking, and without modern scientific optics, determining cause would have been extremely difficult.[12] As such, dairying became believed to be the object of many unfortunate forces, which a range of magical precautions were taken to prevent.

Blood in milk, or no milk at all, would often be the consequence of disease or poor hygiene, but blame would be assigned to the work of a witch. Witches were well-known to use spells to steal milk’s goodness and make it impossible to churn it into butter. Fortunately, this could be remedied by a standard countercharm: by plunging a red-hot poker into the churn.

As milk sours easily in thundery weather, it was wise, maybe still is, to adorn a thunderstone to your windowsill. A thunderstone was a piece of flint or a fossil, found by a farmer whilst ploughing their fields, and believed once to have fallen from the sky. Others felt they were the remnants of an ancient elf battleaxe.[13] Either way, the power of these stones would be the perfect protection against all kinds of evil witchcraft.

Did you know? Next time you are churning butter, sing along to this verbal charm:

“Come, butter, come!
Come, butter, come!
Peter stands at the gate,
Waiting for a buttered cake,
Come, butter, come!”

Horses

This horseshoe was dug up during drainage operations at Colville Hall in White Riding, Essex, and is of the type common in 1100-1550. The donor believed it to be an ox shoe but it is more likely to be that of a horse, as ox shoes tend to be made in two parts to allow for inter-movement of the two halves of the foot. Its small size suggests that it was probably worn by a riding horse rather than a farm horse.
This horseshoe was dug up during drainage operations at Colville Hall in White Riding, Essex, and is of the type common in 1100-1550. The donor believed it to be an ox shoe but it is more likely to be that of a horse, as ox shoes tend to be made in two parts to allow for inter-movement of the two halves of the foot. Its small size suggests that it was probably worn by a riding horse rather than a farm horse. (MERL 51/378)

Of all animals, horses were regarded as being particularly vulnerable to supernatural attack, perhaps because of how essential they were to the rhythms of daily rural life.[14]

Night sweats and exhaustion were ailments attributed to ‘hag riding’, an early and eerie precursor to contemporary joy riding.[15] In the 17th century poem ‘The Hag’ (by Robert Herrick, 1648), a witch rides a horse alongside the Devil, using ‘thorn or burre’ as a spur. Throughout the night, Herrick’s portentious pair continue to gallavant around the countryside, frightening animals, causing thunderstorms, and riling the otherwise sleeping folk everywhere.

Fortunately, the horrible hijinx of the riders could be warded off by the use of a hagstone; a glassy rock featuring a natural hole and believed to once have had significance to druids. Across the British Isles, hagstones were known by myriad fantastical names: as serpent’s eggs and snake eggs in England, as Glain Neidr in Wales, as adderstanes in southern Scotland, and as Gloine nan Druidh in the north (‘Druids’ glass’). However, as it so often is, it is Germany that comes through with the best long word, knowing a hagstone as a Hühnergötter (a ‘chicken god’).

A horse’s tendency to shy or refuse to move for no reason would be attributed to a psychic awareness of the presence of evil, including haunted spots or places of bloodshed.

In particular parts of England, it was believed that horses could be tamed or immobilised by people with special magical powers. In some regions of East Anglia, for instance, men particularly skilled in working with farm horses were considered to have secret ways of controlling them, rumoured to involve a mix of incantations and substances with smells that were variably attractive or repellent.[16] We actually have a blog all about them in the works.

Did you know? Horseshoes are one of the most popular symbols of good luck, often featured on greetings cards. Tradition suggests nailing a horseshoe above your door in a ‘U’ shape to catch good luck. Good luck!

Fairies

This photo could be full of fairies and we'd never know. It's root harvesting in the Fens.
This photo could be full of fairies and we would never know. It portrays root harvesting, and was photographed in the Fens. (MERL PH1/54/11)

The Norfolk Fens is an area with rich traditional history, of Fen folk leading relatively isolated lives.

Some Fenland housewives would blame unexplained and unexpected unfortunate events on malovelent fairies. If annoyed, it was believed that a fairy could prevent milk from churning into butter, or sour the meat in the brine tub.

When leaving dough to rise before a fireplace, it was considered best practice to leave a door open to let a fairy to come in and watch over it. The kindly creature, however, had to be rewarded with food left beside the pan.[17] Because sure, they will help, but it’s going to cost you.

Did you know? Wearing green is sometimes considered bad luck, and it’s because of fairies, who especially like wearing green and resent anyone stealing their thunder.[18] “Rude, David!

Corn dollies

Corn dollies made by master craftsman Fred Mizen. This lion and unicorn were both made for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Photographed by John Tarlton. (MERL PH1/3/3/7)
Corn dollies made by the master craftsman Fred Mizen. This lion and unicorn were both made for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Photographed by John Tarlton. (MERL PH1/3/3/7)

Corn dollies are loosely based on traditional figures made of straw.[19] They have been known by many different names, including corn babies, corn maidens, or baby kern. The names and treatment of the dollies varied from place to place, but they would normally be made from the final batch of corn harvested in the year.

To ensure the safety of livestock and a bountiful harvest for the year to come, a corn dolly might be buried in a field or pinned up in a barn. Ones that were especially elaborate may form part of harvest festival parades and end up as centerpieces in local churches.

Did you know? The two corn dollies in this photograph were made by the extraordinary craftsman Fred Mizen for the Festival of Britain in 1951, where they were seen by over 8.5 million visitors. The animals were later purchased by Selfridges for their shop window, but were sadly left in the basement where they were eaten by mice.

Eels

 This eel trap, used for catching eels, was made by Stanley Bird of Great Yarmouth for the Museum. It is a Fenland eel trap made of cane, both round and split, with steel rings and galvanised wire. Because the pith has been removed from the cane, the trap is able to sink by itself without the need for weights. (MERL 63/606)
This eel trap, used for catching eels, was made by Stanley Bird of Great Yarmouth for the Museum. It is a Fenland eel trap made of cane, both round and split, with steel rings and galvanised wire. Because the pith has been removed from the cane, the trap is able to sink by itself without the need for weights. (MERL 63/606)
There is nothing quite so mysterious as an eel. Historically, many believed that they were formed from horsehair thrown into running streams.[20] Many folklorists have tested this theory. Results are yet to be conclusive.

Eels were a popular ingredient in folk medicine, and it was commonly believed that eel oil (try saying that ten times in a row) could cure deafness. A more generally reported medical use was to wear their skins as stylish garters, to prevent cramps or cure rheumatism.[21]

Many communities distrusted eels and refused to eat them, and the mystery of their allure endures in many different types today.

Did you know? Many believed eels would wind themselves into knots and could only be released by the sound of thunder. Others thought thunder killed eels, as witnessed in Shakespeare’s ‘Pericles’ (1608).

Bees

This skep, beekeeping equipment used at Whiteknights House, Reading, is made of coiled straw and is bound with bramble strip. It was probably made in the early twentieth century, and was in use at Whiteknights House from about 1914.
This skep, beekeeping equipment used at Whiteknights House, Reading, is made of coiled straw and is bound with bramble strip. It was probably made in the early twentieth century, and was in use at Whiteknights House from about 1914. We reccently wrote about bee skeps in an online object handling exercise. (MERL 52/60)

In Medieval, Elizabethan and Stuart times, bees were regarded as mysterious, intelligent and holy; a particularly wild trinity. Their wax was used in church candles; their honey was a biblical image of bounty; and poets praised the hive as a model society.[22]

Even today, beekeepers adhere to strict behaviours when caring for their bees. Bees must never be bought with ordinary money, only gold coin, although acquisition by gift, loan, or bartering is permissible. If there are any changes in the family of the beekeeper, such as deaths, weddings or births, then the bees must know. In the case of weddings and funerals, some food from the event should be provided for the hive. Listen out for the bees humming to show their approval.

Finally, and if you take anything from this blog let it be this: you must always speak in low and calm tones around bees. They take great offence to shouting and swearing. Don’t we all? And they have been known to vacate a hive (or, even, more dramatically, literally die) if their keeper fails to abide these rules.[23]

Did you know? If a bee flies into your home, it foretells the visit of a stranger. Or, possibly just a bee. The length of time it stays in the room denotes the length of your visitor’s stay. It can also be a sign to expect good fortunes.

Are you sufficiently spooked?

Thank you for joining us this Halloween! It’s been a spooky yet delightful descent into the weird, wonderful and often extremely specific parts of our archives. Take a look at our other blog content, or alternatively, if you would like to visit the Museum, as we would very much like you to, then head on over to our visitor information page and learn how you can book your free visit to The MERL.

References

[1] Bacon, Francis (1670) Sylva sylvarum; or, A natural history, in ten centuries. Whereunto is newly added the History natural and experimental of life and death, or of the prolongation of life. William Rawley : London
[2] Addy, S.O. (1973) Folk Tales and Superstitions Rowman & Littlefield : Unknown
[3] Roud, S. (2003) The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland. Penguin : London
[4] Canon E. P. Eddrup, ‘Notes on some Wiltshire Superstitions’, in Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, vol. 22 (1885), pp. 330–334
[5] Roud, S. (2003) The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland. Penguin : London
[6] Gifford, G. (1842) A Dialogue Concerning Witches and Witchcrafts Percy Society : London
[7] Simpson, J. & Roud, S. (2000) A Dictionary of English Folklore Oxford University Press : Oxford
[8] Roud, S. (2003) The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland. Penguin : London
[9] Glanvill, Joseph (1700), Saducismus Triumphatus: or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions, 3rd edition, A. L. : London
[10] Topsell, E. (1658) The History of Four-footed Beasts Sawbridge : London
[11] Simpson, J. & Roud, S. (2000) A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press : Oxford
[12] Simpson, J. & Roud, S. (2000) A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press : Oxford
[13] Leach, Maria. “Flint”. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. 3rd ed. Funk and Wagnalls : New York (1972)
[14] Simpson, J. & Roud, S. (2000) A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press : Oxford
[15] Object Biography, ‘Dorset Hagstone 1884.56.3‘, from Pitt Rivers collection
[16] Evans, G.E. (1979) Horse Power and Magic. Faber & Faber : London
[17] Porter, E. (1974) The Folklore of East Anglia. Harper Collins
[18] Simpson, J. & Roud, S. (2000) A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press : Oxford
[19] Simpson, J. & Roud, S. (2000) A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press : Oxford
[20] Harrison, W. (1577) A Description of England
[21] Porter, E. (1974) The Folklore of East Anglia. Harper Collins
[22] Simpson, J. & Roud, S. (2000) A Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford University Press : Oxford
[23] Braime, J. (2019) ‘The Strange World of Bee Etiquette’, from https://www.ernestjournal.co.uk/blog/2019/4/9/the-strange-world-of-bee-etiquette

Why not sign up to our newsletter?

Use the form below to select the newsletters you would like to receive!





Share This Post :

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • Visit us

    Visit Us

    We are looking forward to welcoming visitors back to The MERL from Tues 8th September.

    Free Admission. Please book a timed slot.

    The Museum of English Rural Life

    University of Reading

    Redlands Road

    Reading

    RG1 5EX

    Plan my visit