Thursday, 11 September 2014

Wise women and Cunning men

In the 16th c girdle measuring was a common practice for wise women to see if evil spirits or faeries had invaded a person’s body.
Any unexplained weight gain especially after an illness was considered very suspicious. The affected person’s girdle or belt would be measured then charms and incantations would be said over it. It would be then measured again, if the belt did not show a reduction in size it would be chopped into bits and buried. This was supposed to be a sure fire way of getting rid of unwanted possessions.

In Cambridgeshire Elizabeth Mortlock described this procedure in 1566. 'I begin with five Paternosters in the worship of the five wounds of our Lord, five aves in the worship of the five joys of our Lady, and one creed in the worship of the blessed Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost... and the holy Apostles, in the vulgar tongue. When done I measureth the girdle or band of any such persons being sick or haunted, from her elbow to her thumb, craving God for Saint Charity's sake that if they be haunted by a fairy, yea or no, she may know and saith that if it be so the band will be shorter and her cubit will reach further than commonly it doth.'

In this way she claimed that she cured many children troubled by the fairy. This account of a girdle measuring tallies exactly with another account by Agnes Hancock of Somerset over a century earlier in 1438. She also professed to treat children afflicted with the 'feyry' by inspecting the invalid's girdle or shoe.
Girdle measuring of this kind was an old procedure  widely used throughout Europe. The belief was that the evil spirit ( fairy) would show itself in the differing measurements of the girdle. It was still being used up until the end of the 16th c.
A variation of this method was used by Joan Sergeant of Minehead in 1532; she was advised by a wandering beggar to take her sick child's girdle and cut it into five pieces. She was then to go to the church and say five Paternosters and five Aves, and then to bury the pieces in five different places around the churchyard.

These methods were very popular with the  'wise women' or 'cunning men'. they were ever ready to diagnose a supernatural cause for the patient's malady by saying he was haunted by an evil spirit, a ghost, a fairy. or that he had been overlooked, forspoken or bewitched. Anybody in the middle ages who thought that they were suffering from a strange malady would put it down to supernatural powers and make haste to the local wise woman or cunning man.
In cases of suspected bewitchment boiling the victims urine, or burning a piece of thatch from the suspected witches house would see if this brought her running to the scene. They would also have recourse to a mirror, crystal ball, a sieve and shears  and a familiar spirit plus other means of divination.
 Joan Tyrry of Taunton claimed in 1555 that it was the fairies that helped her identify the witches in her neighbourhood.
 The cunning women or men that used fairies in their magic would often claim that their familiars would take them on a journey to Elfhame (fairyland). During this trip the cunning person's soul was believed to accompany the fairy into a hill, within which they would find a great subterranean fairie hall;  company of fairies including the King and Queen would welcome them with dancing and feasting.

British cunning folk would also often be involved in love magic, offering services pertaining to sex and relationships. One form of this was a form of fortune telling where they would divine the name or appearance of a clients' future lover, often through the use of palmistry, scrying or astrology. Another popular practice of the cunning folk was the casting of spells or charms to ensure a spouse's fidelity, preventing them from committing adultery, for instance, a cunning man from Newcastle, Peter Banks, was charged in 1673–74 for offering to draw up a magical contract which would bind a husband to staying loyal to his wife for a year.
There were also some cunning folk who claimed to have the ability to locate treasure, and for a fee would locate the said loot. Their expertise was needed as it was believed that a demon, spirit or fairy would be guarding the treasure .

They could also perform bewitching or cursing, all for a fee. These practices, of course, left them open to the  charge of witchcraft. As happened during the infamous witch trials many innocent wise women were put to death under the assumption that they were witches, sometimes for no more than a knowledge of herbs and healing.

 In the nineteenth century, a ritual known as the toad bone rite became popular, particularly in East Anglia but also in other areas of the country, amongst both cunning folk and members of magical organizations such as the Scottish Society of the Horseman's Word and East Anglian Society of Horsemen. Although there were many variations, the ritual typically involved the killing of a toad or frog, having its flesh stripped from the bones by ants, and then throwing the bone into a stream at night. It was believed that this would grant the practitioner, who was known as a Toad Man, the ability to perform certain magical tasks.

Toad men or Doctors were practitioners of a specific tradition of medicinal folk magic, operating in western England until the 19th c. Their main concern was healing scrofula (' the king's evil, a skin disease) though they were also believed to cure other ailments, including those resulting from witchcraft. They cured the sick by placing a live toad, or the leg of one, in a muslin bag and hanging it around the sick person's neck.

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