The Danger of Charms: 18thc Hawkshead spells

If you cut your hand in 21st century Britain, you’d be fairly surprised if someone seized it and started chanting verse about Judea, Jesus, the Holy Ghost and Bethlehem. You’d think a) that’s no substitute for Savlon and a packet of plasters and b) how extraordinarily devout. And yet for much of the 16th and 17th centuries, what sounds like a prayer to modern ears would have been seen as evidence of a pact with diabolic forces. Just a few miles north over the border in Scotland, it could have had you burnt at the stake1.

The Witch by George Walker, 1892

The Witch by George Walker, 1892

In the third quarter of the 19th century, this charm2 was found on a manuscript amongst the documents of the Skelwith Fold Estate, near Hawkshead. It is dated 1736.To stop Bleeding in Man or Beast at any distance, first you must have some Drops of ye Blood upon a Linen Ragg and wrap a Little Roman Vitrioll upon this Ragg put it under your oxter and say these words thrice into yrself ‘there was a Man Born in Bethlem of Judea Whose name was Called Christ. Baptized in the River Jordan In the Watter of the flood and the Child also was meak and good and as the watter stood So I desire thee the Blood of Such a person or Beast to stand in their Bodie. In the name of the father son and Holy Ghost Amen.’ Then Look into the Ragg and at that moment the Blood stopeth the Blew powder is Turned into Blood by sympathy.

This Cumbrian charm was given extra power with Roman vitriol, which is a chemical, cupric sulphate. In the early 17th century its medical use was developed by a German physician by the name of Rudoph Goclenius the Younger and brought to Britain by the notorious alchemist, Robert Fludde. The chemical was commonly known as ‘weaponsalve’3, and it was usually applied to a weapon that had caused an injury in order to cure that injury. The Cumbrian charm perhaps uses weaponsalve’s benefits in a more practical way.

These spells, or charms, had been in common use for centuries. They were folded into pockets, sewn into seams, and tucked into lockets; incribed on thin tin sheets and placed in wells and in walls; and used by village healers and wisepeople to fix all manner of problems. These people did not consider themselves witches, or anything close to this. They were just trying to get a little extra muscle on their side.

There was a fine line between prayer and an illicit charm in the 15th and 16th centuries. The pre-Reformation Catholic church had approved of written charms, provided their purpose wasn’t unlawful, but opinion began to swing in the 15th century. The Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of the Witches’), which was written in 1486, has a long list of ways to distinguish between a genuine prayer and witchcraft, culminating in the recommendation that only accepted church prayers were used.

15th century impression of a magician

15th century impression of a magician

The Malleus seems to have had little effect as charms continued to be used by village healers. The Discoverie of Witchcraft, written by Reginald Scot in 1580, includes numerous charms written out in full, including this one, also to stop bleeding: In the blood of Adam death was taken

In the blood of Christ it was shaken

And by the same blood I doo thee charge

That though doo runne no longer at large.

Whilst Reginald Scot was a sceptic, the idea was growing that any rustic charm, regardless of whether it called on Christian forces, was evidence of demonic alliance. Charms were seen as an attempt to usurp the skills of God; if the cure worked, the practitioner must be using the devil’s powers, and if it didn’t work, it was equally damning in that the person hoped for power that should be beyond human reach.

The 1604 Witchcraft Act finally made it a capital offence to use spirits or familiars – a definition of witchcraft – regardless of whether the user’s intentions were good or evil. As Rossell Hope Robbins says, ‘No witch was given the benefit of the doubt that her charm might be a prayer’4. A charm to cure bewitchment, enlisting the assistance of Gabriel, Jesus and ‘the Lord’, was part of the evidence leading to the execution as a witch of James Device at Lancaster in 1612.

The last execution for witchcraft in England took place in 16845, and in 17126, the last person to be found guilty of witchcraft was reprieved. The new Witchcraft Act of 1735 assumed that witchcraft was impossible, and it was only used to charge people who had effectively committed fraud by claiming to use witchcraft.

And yet our Skelwith Fold charm, dated 1736, was locked in a box with the estate deeds. Was it kept so securely because it was valuable, or because the owners feared a change in the law? Is the date significant, or accurate? Where did it come from? Was it used? There are so many questions.

© Diane McIlmoyle 27.01.12 (Revision 28.10.12)

  1. The Encyclopaedia of Witchcraft & Demonology by Rossell Hope Robbins (1959), p87
  2. Hawkshead, its History, Archaeology, Industries, Folklore, Dialect, etc by Henry Swainson Cooper (1899)
  3. As listed in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755.
  4. The Encyclopaedia of Witchcraft & Demonology by Rossell Hope Robbins (1959), p87
  5. Alice Molland was hanged in Exeter in 1684.
  6. Jane Wenham was found guilty but reprieved at Hertford in 1712.

10 thoughts on “The Danger of Charms: 18thc Hawkshead spells

  1. In 1736, the memory of the fearful persecution must have still been vivid. There’s always the chance that politically powerful busybodies will rise again and wreak their havoc so it doesn’t surprise me that someone would consider a charm to be a valuable heirloom but also be fearful of its discovery by the wrong people.

    • I think you’re quite right, there, Steve. The assorted witchcraft acts had swung with the wind over many centuries so you can see why people would wonder if it could happen again. This particular charm – to prevent bleeding – has such an interesting history, too.

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

  2. It’s a lovely example of similia similibus curantur or like curing like. The Witchcraft Act in England and Wales wasn’t finally repealed until 1951 and the last woman tried under it was actually found guilty (Helen Duncan – although she was a medium rather than a spell caster.) Lovely post as always!

    • A postscript to this particular charm is that I had a visitor on the blog earlier this year who mentioned that he believed that roman vitriol was used on weapons in some medieval battles as an agent to make wounds more severe – so whilst it’s like curing like in the format above, it may have its roots in the idea of the substance having the opposite effect to what was intended if the charm was performed in a certain way.

      I guess the 1735 Act was the repeal of witchcraft as witchcraft, insofar as it stated that witchcraft did not exist per se. It’s still bizarre that poor old Helen was prosecuted, though 😦

      Thank you so much for coming over. I always enjoy your insight.

  3. Very good post.The mix of Christian and pagan beliefs intertwined is quite a comment on how the two went hand in hand.Just shows the the continued mixing and melding of religions throughout history.As always,the perfect blog,informative and a pleasure to read.Thank you,Garry in Kentucky.

    • ‘morning Garry

      Glad you found it interesting! I am quite fascinated by these charms – people were only trying to do good but some people went out of their way to suggest otherwise. It does make you quite glad the world is more forgiving (usually!) now.

      Thanks for coming over! 🙂

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