History and Folklore Podcast

Holly Medland

Looking at folklore through history to understand people's perceptions of nature through time. read less
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Graveyards
Jan 27 2022
Graveyards
Churchyard grims, stacked graves and Judgement Day. How did English graveyards changed in England between the medieval and Victorian eras?   Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/historyandfolklorepodcast Instagram: www.instagram.com/historyandfolklore Twitter: @HistoryFolklore Facebook: www.facebook.com/historyandfolklorepodcast Transcript There pass, with melancholy state, By all the solemn heaps of fate, And think, as softly-sad you tread Above the venerable dead, “Time was, like thee they life possessed, And time shall be, that thou shalt rest.” Hello, welcome to the History and Folklore podcast, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs shape people’s perceptions of nature. In this episode we will be looking at graveyards. As this is a huge topic, I will be focussing predominantly on Christian graveyards in England as that is what I have the most experience and knowledge on, and looking at their development, uses and folklore surrounding them. Graveyards are interesting as hanges that have occurred in them over time often reflect a lot about the society that uses them including such wide ranging things as demographics, life expectancy, religious beliefs, attitudes to death, burial and remembrance, use of symbology, aesthetic design preferences and attitudes to the natural elements within the cemetery. The establishment of new graveyards can tell us about practical, political and religious considerations at the time regarding burial. Many graveyards that currently exist in England date from the medieval period, and rural graveyards would often have been the first enclosed space to have existed within a parish. Some of these graveyards were established even earlier as burial grounds dating as far back as the Iron Age, and were later adopted and sanctified to be used for Christian burials. A graveyard would usually be established in the grounds of the parish church, and would be consecrated before being used by the people in the parish. This sometimes caused issues for those living in distant, rural villages as the journey to the parish church could be long and dangerous. In these instances, the people living in these villages could apply to the parish church for their nearby chapel to be granted burial rights. However, as burial services provided a large income for the church or chapel at which the burial took place, these rights were hard won as the parish church would not want to lose the income from these burials. In the cases of burial grounds attached to hospitals often an agreement was made for the hospital to pay the parish church for every burial they conducted. However, disputes over burial rights were common, especially when a new monastery became established  in an area. These religious institutions often wanted to be perceived to be the preferred place for burial, especially by the elite, as this would bring the monastery both prestige and continued wealth from the families of the interred, who would pay for services and prayers for the soul of their deceased relative. These families would then be more likely to choose the same monastery for future burials, as family tradition often dictated where a person chose to be buried. In some cases these disputes got pretty intense and example being in 1392 when the monks of Abingdon actually hijacked a funeral procession and disinterred 67 people from the parish's burial grounds with the aim of reburying them at the monastery. Because of the loss of income and potential prestige, a compelling argument had to be put forward to justify the creation of a new graveyard and the giving away of burial rights. The most common reason given was that the journey was long and dangerous. In 1427 the people of Highweek complained of having to bury their dead at the parish church, despite being able to perform the burial rituals at their local chapel, meaning they had to undertake a long and dangerous journey for the sole purpose of burying the body. However, complaints could also be financial. Two years later the parish of St Ives applied for burial rights as people had to put their occupations on hold for so long that they lost a substantial amount of revenue when taking part in funeral processions. On top of this, as so many people would leave their homes to  undertake the journey their deserted homes and belonging would be seen as easy prey for pirates, causing more financial hardship and distress. In some places funerals were even delayed as the local economy could not sustain lengthy absences caused by people attending funerals. Whether a graveyard was being adapted from an existing burial ground or created from scratch, the land had to be sanctified before any Christian burials took place. In order to do this, the land would be cleared and a ceremony would be conducted by a bishop who would place a cross in each corner of the graveyard and another in the centre. Three lit candles would be placed in front of each cross and the bishop would walk around the churchyard, making sure to waft incense and sprinkle holy water at each cross. If a mortal sin was committed within the bounds of a graveyard then it would need to be spiritually cleansed before it could be used for burials. This would usually include some form of public penance by the perpetrator, the payment of reconciliation fees and a ceremony conducted by an archbishop that involved blessing and sprinkling water at specific sites on the grave yard. Until these processes and ceremonies were completed then the graveyard could not be used for burials. This period of disuse could last for a significant amount of time, an example being the Minster Yard at Beverley in Yorkshire, which was considered polluted for two years between 1301 and 1303 following the murder of Peter of Cranswick. Unsurprisingly, being unable to bury people in the local churchyard had a significant impact on both the income of the church and the life of the community. Interestingly another ceremony that seems very unchristian to modern eyes was often conducted by the parishioners once the graveyard was consecrated. This tradition stated that the first soul to be buried in the graveyard becomes the churchyard’s grim and must watch over and protect the inhabitants inside it. This would mean that the deceased soul was doomed to remain on earth, and would never have the opportunity to pass on to the afterlife. For this reason an animal, most commonly a dog, would be buried in a graveyard before any funerals had taken place. In other parts of England it was maintained that the last person to be buried in a graveyard must watch over and protect it until the next funeral occured, when the watch would be taken over by the more recently deceased. In these areas, if two burials were scheduled on the same day, it was known for the funeral parties to race and fight to get their loved one buried first to spare them the burden on acting as the graveyard’s protector. A medieval graveyard would have looked very different to how it would today. Burials tended not to be marked with permanent memorials like they would in later periods, with people using temporary markers such as flowers, pieces of cloth and mounds of earth for recent graves. It was not until the eighteenth century that longer-lasting gravestones made of local stone and decorated with symbols of the deceased’s profession and personality started to become fashionable. Partly due to this early the lack of permanent memorials, the graveyard was seen as a useful open space and was often used as a hub for the community where archery practice, markets, games, fairs and festivals would be held. The only permanent structure would be the wall, and often a stone preaching cross that would be used as the focal point for outdoor services such as palm sunday. The way that graves were organised in burial sites also differed compared today.  Although there was nothing to mark the grave, people were generally buried with care, usually on the south side of the church, with their feet pointing towards the east and their heads pointing towards the west. The primary reason given for this in medieval texts was that the dead would be facing Christ on the Day of Judgement, as he would appear from the east, which was the region of goodness and light. However, this explanation was not given until after the ninth century, and is likely to be a later attempt to explain an older tradition. There are instances of people not being buried according to this tradition. Often this appears to be due to a fear of the dead person rising from the grave, for example criminals and those who had died violent deaths. In St Andrews in York, the only body buried in the opposite direction had also been beheaded, a common deterrent against the wandering dead. Other less sinister explanations coud be that the orientation of the body got confused before burial, an issue that would be more likely when simple coffins were in use or when burials were conducted hastily, such as during times of plague. A particularly strange example of an otherwise normal, and even high status, burial was of a priest who was buried with his head facing the wrong way. It has been suggested that the east to west orientation was chosen in this case so that the priest could face his congregation on Judgement Day. As time went on, graveyards became more crowded, and with no markers to indicate where existing graves lay, bodies were often disturbed when new graves were dug. The most well known example of this is the famous scene in Hamlet, when Ophelia is being buried. In this scene Hamlet realises that the skull of his old friend, Yorick, has been dug up and, while he shows curiosity at the state of the skull and then sorrow at Yorick’s passing, he is not upset that Yorick’s grave has been desecrated as modern audiences might expect. The lack of available burial space meant that graveyards soon became overcrowded and the dead were often moved, buried on top of each other and even removed completely to maximise space. It has been estimated that most graveyards contain around 10,000 burials, making the ground within the graveyard much higher compared to the ground outside the cemetery walls. The point at which burials moved from carefully laid out rows laid shoulder to shoulder to a jumbled mess of layered bodies occurred at different times in different cemeteries. In some places this change occurred very early on, prior to the 1066 conquest. However, in others the change occurred much later, around the twelfth century, and it has been suggested that, as well as for practical reasons, this change in attitude may have been at least partially guided in the shift in belief from away from a Judgement Day where the dead would return in their physical bodies and towards purgatory, where the soul of the dead person would go almost immediately after death. The dead no longer needed their bodies in the afterlife, and so their physical remains could be treated with less care. Despite the constant rearranging of burials to maximise space, the overcrowding soon became an issue and eventually reached emergency levels, especially in urban areas. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, London had only 218 acres of burial ground. This led to some of the graveyards of the oldest churches being densely packed. St Marylebones, for example, had more than 100,000 bodies buried into a cemetery that measured about an acre in size. When the poet William Blake died in 1827 he was buried in Bunhill Fields on top of three other bodies, and four more were later buried on top of him. By the mid-nineteenth century graves became so shallow that scavenging animals could access the bodies, dragging the rotting corpses to the surface, a problem exacerbated by the fact that London lies on heavy clay soil that impedes decomposition, and causing the smell of decaying flesh to overwhelm the few visitors that might have ventured to visit a graveside. This issue could also be true of newer burial grounds. Enon Chapel, near the Strand in London, was licenced for burials between 1823 and 1842, a period of just nineteen years. The vaults were turned into a cemetery and the chapel’s reverend charged a low fee of just fifteen shillings for burial, making it a popular choice for interment. It was reported that over nineteen years at least twenty bodies per week were placed in a space measuring just 18 metres by 12 metres and speculated both that quicklime was used to speed decay and that a sewer ran through the vaults, allowing the bodies to be washed away to the Thames. Even if these suppositions were true, the smell became so overwhelming that worshippers in the church above were known to regularly faint due to the fumes. It was accounts of these types of events that led to the reform laid out in the burial act of 1852, which closed burial grounds within metropolitan Lonson and allowed the opening of large cemeteries in the countryside surrounding the city, with more available space and located on sandier, better draining soils. These graveyards were beautifully decorated, with ornate headstones and sculptures to commemorate the deceased. The fertile soil was planted with shrubs and trees and people would make trips on the recently built railways to go and enjoy the fresh country air, meet friends for walks and visits and visit the graves of the famous people buried there. In this way, despite changing religious attitudes concerning the need for the body in the afterlife, different ways of commemorating the dead and practical considerations regarding their burial, graveyards went full circle from open, community spaces with ordered  burials in the early medieval period to crowded, often unsanitary spaces reserved primarily for the dead, and back again in the Victorian era to enjoyable community spaces were designed to be shared by both the living and the dead. Thank you for listening to this episode of the History and Folklore podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. Special thanks goes to my patreons Jeremiah, Jill, Cat, Ryan, Andrew, Morganu, Joseph, Becky, Eugenia, Robin, David, John, Ben and the Fairy Folk Podcast. Patrons help pay towards the cost of running the podcast and are hugely appreciated. If you would like to support the History and Folklore Podcast by becoming a patron tiers range from £1 -£3 and gets you early access to episodes, voting rights for episode topics and a monthly zine. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram at history and folklore, twitter at HistoryFolklore and Facebook at the History and Folklore podcast where I post hopefully interesting history and folklore facts and answer any questions or feedback. Thank you so much for listening, and I hope to see you next time.
Alchemy
Nov 28 2021
Alchemy
This month we look into the history of alchemy and the worldview and aims of early alchemists.  Find out how metal gets married, why poisons are good and how humans reflect the entire universe.    Transcript: ‘From a man and a woman make a circle, then a square, then a triangle, finally a circle, and you will obtain the philosopher’s stone.’ Hello, welcome to the History and Folklore podcast, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs shape people’s perceptions of nature. In this episode we will be looking at alchemy, what alchemists were hoping to achieve, and what alchemical theories can tell us about how people perceived the natural world. Alchemists are often depicted as eccentric men in dark rooms conducting strange experiments with toxic and expensive chemicals with the aim of living forever or of turning lead into gold. Their experiments are often seen as being haphazard, illogical and dangerous, a stereotype that goes back a long way as seen in a legend regarding Roger Bacon and Thomas Bungay, thirteenth century friars who apparently blew themselves up in an alchemy experiment. This story was later adapted to the stage in a comedy written by sixteenth century playwright Robert Greene. However, alchemy has a complex history and the observations and experiments of alchemists around the world have helped shape our understanding of chemistry, metallurgy and medicine. It is believed that the origins of alchemy stretch back to ancient Egypt, with Plutarch describing alchemy as ‘the Egyptian art’. It has been argued that the ‘chem’ part of the word alchemy derives from the Egyptian word ‘km’, which meant the black land, a term used to differentiate between the black fertile soil of the Nile valley and the barren desert sand that surrounded it. Assuming this origin, the arabic word ‘al-kimiya’ was claimed by Egyptologist EA Wallis Budge to mean ‘the Egyptian science’, however this origin has been refuted by others who claim that there is no evidence of the word ‘kmt’ ever being used for anything resembling alchemy in Egypt, and it is therefore likely that this supposed translation is a case of folk etymology, where a well-known similar sounding words are erroneously linked. Others point toward alchemy having a Greek origin, arguing that the ‘chem’ portion of alchemy originates from the Greek word ‘chemia’, which first appeared in the fourth century and was used to refer to the art of metalworking, particularly the creation of gold and silver from base metals. It is clear that the influences of alchemy are varied, and draw from a mixture of technology, philosophy and science from areas and cultures as wide ranging as Iran, India, Egypt and Greece. Metal workers in Egypt were highly skilled and were known to be able to create alloys that mimicked the appearance of gold and silver. They also created a body of knowledge that grouped metals according to their external characteristics which was built on their experience of working with them. As well as this, the city of Alexandria became an intellectual hub and, following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 330BC, attracted scholars from across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, allowing different ideas to develop and merge. Two theories that developed during this period were particularly influential in the formation of later alchemical practice. The first was Aristotle’s theory on the composition of matter, which adopted an older idea that everything was made up of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, and built on it by hypothesising that these elements could be changed by the application of heat, cold, wetness or dryness. The second was a philosophy that originated in Persia and claimed that the human body was a smaller version, the microcosm, of the larger universe, the macrocosm. The microcosm-macrocosm theory claimed that the study of the universe would give direct insight into the workings of the human body, and vice versa. Therefore techniques that worked for the manipulation of metal could be applied in the same way, and to the same effect, on the human body. As the universe was a macrocosm of the body it followed that it must also be alive and in possession of a soul. This is interesting as, as we will see later, the process of transmutation of metal was often described and understood in human terms of birth, marriage and death. Alexandria’s influence eventually waned with the disintegration of the Roman Empire. The destruction of many texts from this period mean that none of the original Egyptian writing regarding alchemy survives from this time. However, at least some of the theories and practices developed by alchemists and philosophers during this period did survive and were translated into Arabic by scholars and alchemists such as Ali Ibn Sina, Jabir Ibn Hayyan and Abu Bakr Al-Razi, who built on these existing ideas to create a thriving body of alchemical work and thought in the Middle East. This eventually made its way to Spain, and from there to the rest of western and central Europe, with the first alchemical text titled ‘the book of the Composition of Alchemy’ being translated into English in 1144 by Robert of Chester. Despite these wide ranging origins, a legend concerning the origins of alchemy was particularly tenacious. This concerned an emerald tablet, apparently found by Alexander the Great himself in the tomb of a god named Hermes-Thoth, Hermes Trismeditus or Thrice-great Hermes. This emerald tablet, also known as the Smaragdine Tablet, was seen by alchemists to be the foundation of their craft, leading alchemy to become known as the ‘hermetic art’ after the god that created it. While this would be an amazing origin story, the text that was apparently found on the emerald tablet actually seems to appears much later. It was first seen in Arabic sources in the late eighth century and eventually came to be translated to Latin in the twelfth century. This text outlines the philosophy of alchemy through an overarching metaphor of the creation of the world, saying: ‘Truth! Certainty! That in which there is no doubt! That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above, working the miracles of one. As all things were from One. Its father is the Sun and its mother the Moon. The Earth carried it in her belly, and the Wind nourished it in her belly, as Earth which shall become Fire. Feed the Earth from that which is subtle, with the greatest power. It ascends from the earth to the heaven and becomes ruler over that which is above and that which is below.’ This text is significant, as it highlights the underlying concepts of alchemy - that of the microcosm and macrocosm and of the interconnectedness of all things. It also uses common metaphors for certain metals and alchemical processes that were used in the written codes of later alchemists, as we shall touch on later. In the West, alchemy had two main aims, to purify and transmute base metals into gold and to purify and transform the individual into a physically healthier, enlightened being. These two apparently disparate goals were believed to be entirely achievable through the same processes due to the connection between the microcosm and the macrocosm. . While some alchemists strove to achieve both of these goals, in England most alchemists were predominantly concerned with transmuting base metals into gold and silver, partly because the discovery of gold in the South America by the Spanish, combined with the need to fund ongoing wars against Europe drove a desire to find a more easily accessible source of wealth. This led to a number of fraudsters covering small amounts of gold with a substance that would dissolve in a demonstration, giving the appearance of true transmutation. This became so much of a problem that the Crown restricted the conducting of alchemical experiments through a system of royal licences. Those hoping to achieve actual transmutation tended to use the work of eighth century alchemist Jabir Ibn Hayyan, particularly his theory on the qualities of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. He claimed that each element had two for four basic qualities which he stated was hot, cold, dry and wet, so fire was hot and dry, air hot and wet, earth, cold and dry and water cold and wet. He went on to analyse different metals, claiming that every metal had a combination of these four principles, two being interior and two being exterior. Therefore, if someone was able to change these qualities, they would be able to change the metal itself. The basis of all metals was believed to be mercury. In its perfect state mercury was known as ‘philosopher’s mercury’ and was said to be the first metal to ever have existed. Sulphur in its purest state was called ‘Philosopher’s Sulphur’, a substance said to be related to elemental fire. When combined, it was believed that the Philosopher’s Sulphur would act as fire, working like a blacksmith’s furnace to transform the Philosopher’s Mercury, which would imbue its metallic essence into the gold. The idea that fire was the element needed to achieve transmutation came from observations of fire’s effect on mercury, as it caused the metal to dull and turn light red in colour. As nothing was known about oxidation at this time, it was logical to conclude that  fire was responsible for the change. It is clear that many of the overarching beliefs surrounding the transmutation of metals comes from experience, observation and experimentation. The Liber Sacerdotum, translated from Arabic into Latin described how a lead ore known as Galena, loses sulphur when heated, leaving the more malleable and fusible lead. As in this experiment heating the metal produced a more useful and superior metal, it would be logical to assume that heating it further could lead to the production of silver and even gold. Interestingly, Galena also tends to contain a significant amount of silver, which did actually separate from the lead upon further heating, thus supporting the theory of transmutation. It was believed that transmutation of base metals into gold could only be achieved through the mean of an elixir which when added to Philosopher’s Mercury and Philosopher’s Sulphur would work to rearrange the properties of these two metals. The master elixir that alchemists were working to create through a process often referred to as the ‘Great Work’ was the Philosopher’s Stone. Zosimus, in the sixth century, described it as ‘a stone which is not a stone, a precious thing that has no value, a thing of many colours and shapes. This unknown that is known to all.’ Descriptions of the Philosopher's Stone vary but it was most commonly said to appear as a red powder that had the ability to transform base metal into gold, common gemstones into diamonds, heal all illnesses, strengthen morality, increase wisdom and prolong the life of any who consumes a small quantity of it. As well as purifying metals, it was believed to be able to purify people, spiritually, physically and intellectually, transmuting an imperfect human into a perfect being. -> There were many theories and descriptions regarding the process of creating a Philosopher’s Stone. Some believed that it could be created through the purification of an ordinary substance, such as hair, eggs, plants, rocks or metals. Others believed that certain mythical elements such as alkahest or carmot. Descriptions of the creation of the stone include a series of colour changes, or a series of up to twelve chemical processes that included calcination, dissolution, putrefaction, fermentation  and multiplication. There have been a number of claims that the Philosopher’s Stone has been discovered by different people through history, the most famous being the French scribe Nicolas Flamel, whose wealth led to rumours that he was a successful alchemist. The earliest alchemist rumoured to have discovered caput mortuum, a substance believed to be the first step to the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone was an individual known as Mary the Jewess or Miriam the Prophetess, said by later historians to have lived in Alexandria some time between the first and third centuries, and one of the twelve sages of alchemy. None of her original work survives, leading to questions as to whether she was a real or mythological individual, or a combination of different figures in the study of early alchemy, but she is credited with the creation of a number of inventions including the bain marie, which she gave her name to. The Greek historian Zosimos referenced Miriam extensively, often directly quoting her in his work. In this, Miriam often describes metals as living beings with bodies, souls and spirits. She regarded metals as having a sex and believed that joining together metals of two different sexes would lead to the creation of a new metal, stating ‘join the male and the female, and you will find what is sought. Alchemists often imbued inorganic matter such as metals with human or animal qualities, which is entirely understandable within the microcosm-macrocosm worldview. The joining of substances was often depicted as a marriage or coupling, while the creation of a new metal was seen as a birth. The Philosopher’s Stone was seen as being similar to a seed or an egg, the starting point of growth and creation. Alongside the idea of the birth of metals, there was a co-existing concept of transmutation being the death and resurrection of metals, which linked to popular beliefs of the afterlife. Humans had to die and undergo pain and torture, often by fire, in purgatory, before they could be born again as perfect humans into eternal life. These concepts are most obvious in the codes used by alchemists to conceal their work from outsiders, both to protect their research and to protect untrained individuals from the dangerous processes of alchemy. In these the combination of sulphur and mercury is expressed as a marriage or union. As in the text of the emerald tablet, Philosopher’s Sulphur is often depicted as the sun, while Philosopher’s Mercury is the moon, and these are often shown as being the father and mother of the philosopher's stone. Celestial symbols to refer to metals and processes were very common, as it was believed the movement of stars and planets had a real impact on events and actions of people on earth. A common symbol referenced in the quote at the start of this episode was a circle drawn around a man and a woman, symbolising the union of feminine and masculine. This would be surrounded by a triangle to depict the three primary principles of sulphur, mercury and salt, a square to represent the four elements and finally a circle to represent the universe or the Philosopher’s Egg, another name for the Philosopher’s Stone. Given that humans and metals were considered to be a reflection of each other it is unsurprising that people started to turn towards alchemy as a means of medicine. The Swiss Physician Paracelsus was one of the first medical professionals to argue that a knowledge of chemistry was essential to the development of medicine, stating ‘many have said of Alchemy, that it is for the making of gold and silver. For me such is not the aim, but to consider only what virtue and power may lie in medicines.’ Paracelsus built on the concept of the human body as the microcosm of the macrocosm universe  to argue that humans needed a specific balance of minerals to survive, and that illnesses could be cured by chemical remedies. He rejected the popular theory of medicine that had been introduced by Galen, that the body relied on a balance of the four humours of phlegm, balck bile, yellow bile and blood and that disease was caused by an imbalance of humours. Instead, he drew from medieval alchemical practice to argue that the human body actually needed the correct balance of three humours, changeable mercury, stable salt and combustible sulphur. These three elements were also reflected within the makeup of humans - salt represented the body, mercury the spirit and sulphur the soul. Paracelsus argued that disease was caused by the separation of one of these elements from the other two due to contaminating poisons. Instead of trying to balance internal humours to treat disease, he argued that like was needed to cure like and the poison that caused the disease could be used to cure it. This theory was incredibly controversial with those who followed the humoural theory of medicine who saw the ingestion of metals and minerals as being extremely dangerous. Paracelsus, however, was adamant that it was the dosage, and not the substance, that made the poison, and that the aim was to use these to purefy the body. Although this explanation of disease proved to be ultimately incorrect investigation, Paracelsus’ use of alchemy marked a shift away from humoural theory of medicine and natural remedies to practices that are still used to this day including chemical medicines, an emphasis on dosage of medicine and chemical urinalysis to diagnose disease. Paracelsus’ inventions and discoveries are a just few examples that have been gained through the study of alchemy. While some of the assumptions of alchemists seem irrational and superstitious to modern audiences, such as animism, the interconnectedness of the universe and the belief that a single substance can help achieve both gold and immortality, many of these beliefs stemmed from a lack of knowledge or technology that was eventually filled with the aid of the work of alchemists. There is a consistent logic that runs through the process of alchemy, making it difficult to argue that alchemists were entirely irrational. Although flawed, it is clear that the work of alchemists through the centuries has shaped modern scientific methods and have helped build current understanding of medicine, chemistry and the natural world. Thank you for listening to this episode of the History and Folklore podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. Special thanks goes to my patreons Andrew, Ryan, Morganu, Joseph, Robin, Becky, Eugenia, the Fairy Folk Podcast, Louise, Ben, John and David. Patrons help pay towards the cost of running the podcast and are hugely appreciated. If you would like to support the History and Folklore Podcast by becoming a patron tiers range from £1 -£3 and gets you early access to episodes, voting rights for episode topics and a monthly zine. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram at history and folklore, twitter at HistoryFolklore and Facebook at the History and Folklore podcast where I post hopefully interesting history and folklore facts pretty much daily and answer any questions or feedback.
Vampires
Sep 19 2021
Vampires
In this episode we look into the origins of vampire mythology, learn how to properly accomplish the art of dying, discover why you should not answer strange voices in the night and find out what happens when you are buried alive with a reanimated corpse.  For more history and folklore content: Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/historyandfolklorepodcast Instagram: www.instagram.com/historyandfolklore Twitter: @HistoryFolklore Facebook: www.facebook.com/historyandfolklorepodcast Sources: Claude Lecouteux, 'The Secret History of Vampires, Their Multiple Forms and Hidden Purposes (2001). Katharina M. Wilson, ‘History of the Word ‘Vampire’, Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 46, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1985), pp. 577-583 Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (2019). Michael Ostling, 'Between the Devil and the Host: Imagining Witchcraft in Early Modern Poland' (2011). Scott G. Bruce, 'The Penguin Book of the Undead: Fifteen Hundred Years of Supernatural Encounters (2016). Stephen R. Gordon, 'The Walking Dead in Medieval England: Literary and Archaeological Perspectives (2013). The Medieval Bestiary, 'Bat' http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast250.htm Theresa Bane, Encyclopedia of Vampire Mythology' (2017). T.S.R. Boase, 'Death in the Middle Ages: Mortality, Judgement and Remembrance’ (1972). Zteve T. Evans, 'Bat Myths and Folkltales from Around the World' https://folklorethursday.com/folktales/bats-in-mythology-and-folklore-around-the-world/   Transcript ‘Vampires fit into no order, no class, or any reckoning of creation. They are neither death nor life, they are death taking on the appearance of life; or rather they are the terrifying grimace of one and the other. The dead reject the night with fear and the living dread it no less.’ Hello, welcome to the History and Folklore podcast, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs shape people’s perceptions of nature. Today we’re looking at the history and folklore behind vampires, their origins and the beliefs and superstitions that surround them. Vampires have really captured the popular imagination over the past couple of centuries. Over this time the vampire has seen many reimaginings, from early films such as Nosferatu, to later books and television series such as Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Vampire diaries. In Europe, the literary obsession with vampires began in the eighteenth century, with a number of ballads such as Lenore, written in 1773 by Gottfried August Burger. The beginning of the romantic vampyre genre is believed to be the short story ‘the Vampyre’, written by John Willaim Polidori in 1819. In this, the protagonist Aubrey meets the mysterious Lord Ruthven at a social event and agrees to travel Europe with him, but leaving for Greece shortly after they arrive in Rome when he learns that Ruthven has seduced the daughter of an acquaintance. It is in Greece where he meets Ianthe who tells him of the vampire legend that is well known there. Ianthe is killed by a vampire shortly after Lord Ruthven arrives, and Aubrey continues his travels with him. When Ruthven is killed by bandits Aubrey promises to lay his body out under moonlight and to not to talk of his death for a year and a day, an oath he regrets when he returns to London to see Ruthven living under another identity, and engaged to Aubrey’s sister. This story includes many elements that modern audiences are familiar with. A pale, mysterious and high-class stranger, adept at seducing and manipulating those around them, whose body mysteriously disappears after death and who viciously kills and feeds off the life force of its victims. These concepts are developed in later works, and it is probably Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897, that has had the strongest influence on the modern perception of vampires and has cemented certain superstitions into modern vampire mythology. In this tale, the vampire Dracula is tied to his tomb, to the extent that he must bring earth from it with him to travel, he is able to transform himself into animals, he is nocturnal, he induces nightmares, can hypnotise mortals and drinks the blood of his victims, causing them to grow pale, weak and waste away, he is repelled by garlic and holy relics, has no shadow or reflection and can be killed by beheading and by piercing his heart with a wooden stake. While stories such as this mark the beginning of modern popular vampire folklore, they did not mark the invention of the vampire mythology itself, and it is clear that these, and other eighteenth and nineteenth century authors were drawing from a much older and wider mythology, combining superstitions, folkloric beliefs, religious practices and cultural anxieties to create the modern vampire. It is often claimed that Bram Stoker drew his inspiration from real historical figures such as Vlad the Impaler, also known as Vlad Dracul, and Elizabeth Bathory. However, this theory has been widely questioned  and Stoker’s notes mention neither figure. Instead, in a book that speaks of a local ruler named Dracula, his notes just state ‘Dracula in the Wallachian language means devil’ implying that this simple reason is the reason he selected the name. Because of this, I am not going to focus on Vlad the Impaler of Elizabeth Bathory. They are interesting, if horrific characters, but I am not interested in talking about such horrors for the sake of it and I think that these stories will tell us less about the average person's general worldview than the folklore of vampires will, so that is what I am going to focus on in this episode. It is interesting that Aubrey in Polidori’s Vampyre learns of vampires in Greece, as this is where a tale that claims to be the original vampire story comes from. This apparently Ancient Greek tale concerns a young Italian man named Ambrogio, who travels to Greece and falls in love with a woman named Selene, who was attending Apollo's temple. This angers Apollo, who curses the young man to be burned by sunlight. In desperation, Ambrogio turns to Hades, who promises him and Selene protection if Ambrogio promises to get him a silver bow from Artemis. In exchange for Ambrogio’s soul Hades gives him a magical bow to hunt animals to gain Artemis’ favour and trust. So the now soulless Ambrogio goes out to try and steal Artemis’ bow which he finally manages after weeks of apparently just killing swans to write messages for Selene with their blood. Artemis catches him, and curses him to be burned by silver. Ambrogio apologises and explains his dilemma, which leads Artemis to take pity on him, and balances her curse with some blessings. He will be immortal, be almost as swift and as skilful of a hunter as her and will have fangs to allow him to get blood for his messages without the need of weapons. Eventually Ambrogio ends up with Selene, and the couple worship Artemis in thanks for her gifts. Towards the end of Selene’s life Ambrogio bit her, draining her of her blood and conferring her with immortality. This seems like a clear cut vampire origin story. An immortal with no soul and a weird obsession with blood who is burned by both sunlight and silver. When I looked into it further, though, this story seemed to have been recorded in the ‘Scriptures of Delphi’ which don’t appear to exist outside of an article on the website Gods and Monsters written by a person who had a friend he calls ‘Dan’ whos Grandad wrote down stories that had been passed down through the family since the time of Ancient Greece, where they had been told them by the Oracles of Delphi. So this tale is less of a conveniently neat ancient Greek origin story and more modern internet lore, which means you are going to have to listen to me talk for longer about potential vampire origins. Luckily, I think the actual origins are far more interesting and reveal a lot about contemporary anxieties about illness, death and the afterlife. There is a long history of tales in Europe of the dead raising to torment the living. While these dead were not referred to specifically as vampires, elements of these tales were borrowed and adapted to become later vampire lore. One of the earliest of these is found in The Russian Chronicle of Times Past reported a strange event in the Ukrainian village of Polotsk in 1092, where devils galloped in the street, killing those who dared to leave their homes so that it was said ‘the inhabitants of Polotsk are devoured by the dead.’ In the twelfth century Saxo Grammaticus recorded the tale of Asmund, who was buried alive with his sworn brother Asvith. When the then scarred and disfigured Asmund was discovered by a Swedish king and his army, hoping to uncover treasure in the grave, he described to them how Asvith’s soul returned from hell to repossess his corpse and had then gone on to eat the horse and dog they had been buried with before turning on Asmund himself, attacking with sharp teeth and claws, tearing off one of his ears before Asmund was able to decapitate his dead friend and pierce his heart with a stake. There seems to be a wide variety of ways that the dead could harm the living. As well as directly attacking them, as in the previous tales, they were also known to passively harm the living through sympathetic magic while still in the grave. They would do this by eating their shroud, causing those they had been close to in life to weaken and die until the shroud had been entirely consumed. In Germany, these types of living corpse were known as ‘nachzerer’, meaning ‘one who causes death by devouring something.’ One account of this type of revenant comes from fifteenth century Germany, where there was a rumour in a certain town that a plague was being caused by a recently deceased woman who was eating her shroud. When the woman was exhumed she was found with the shroud half eaten with pieces in her mouth and stomach. She was decapitated and the plague stopped. Other revenants caused harm by visiting their family and neighbours at night, calling the names of individuals or knocking on their doors before returning to their graves. Those who the revenant called upon would quickly sicken and die. Walter Map recorded an example of this in 1182 when a fallen angel possessed a corpse. The corpse called the names of a number of his old neighbours, who then died. The townspeople were advised to cut the neck with a spade and to sprinkle the grave and body with holy water. This does not work, and the revenant is only stopped when he is cut through the head with a sword. It has been speculated that this type of knocking tale was the inspiration for modern vampires being unable to enter the house without an invitation/ The Greek broucalaca operates in a similar way. According to the seventeenth century thelogian Leo Allatius ‘on the Island of Chios the inhabitants do not respond to the first voice that calls them for fear it may be a spirit or revenant...if someone responds the first time they are called the spectre disappears but the one it spoke to will inevitably die.’ Others can cause death merely by their presence. The Polish strzygi will climb to the top of church steeple at night, causing the death of all those who are the same age as it, for as far as it can see. While these tales do not specifically reference vampires, it is apparent that there are many overlapping ideas between these revenants and the later, more specific, vampire that we know today. Revenants are active at night, drain the life force of those around them, are tied to their graves and often target friends and loved ones. There are also many tales across Europe of creatures described as revenants eating flesh and drinking blood. Interestingly there is also a tale from the early seventeenth century Moravia where a village was getting terrorised by a vampire who rose from the grave. A man travelling from Hungary claimed that he could rid the people of the vampire which he succeeded in by waiting for the vampire to leave its grave and stealing its burial linens and cutting off the vampire's head when it came to retrieve them. This tale is interesting as the undead creature is referred to as a vampire, despite displaying no particularly vampiric tendency, such as drinking blood, further muddying the waters between vampire and revenant. Religious writers often explained such events by saying that the corpse had been possessed by a demon, but there were other common explanations for what may cause such a phenomenon. Sometimes it was believed that a person was born destined to become a vampire after death. In some parts of Europe those born with a caul were believed to become future vampires, unless the midwife burned the caul and forced the infant to injest the ashes. Children born with a tail were similarly cursed unless the tail was removed with a coin. People with red hair were believed to more often become vampires after their death, as were brothers born during the same month, or the fifth and seventh sons born to a couple. There was a belief in some Slavic countries that some people were born with two souls, and one of these souls could leave the body in order to cause harm to people, making them excellent vampires. These people were known as dvoeduschniki and it was said that they often hid their second soul under a stone and could not die unless it was found. This is an element found in the Romanian legend of the Strigoi, which is believed to have been a major inspiration for Dracula. In some versions of this legend the strigoi was created when a person with two souls died. When these individuals died the good soul went to the afterlife, while the evil one remained and would return to its body six weeks, six months or seven years after its death. These creatures would often have the same appearance they had in life, with larger teeth, claws and faces red from drinking blood. They were known for causing disease, spreading a pestilence that caused people to waste away. Many of these tales describe the revenant's victims succumbing to a mysterious wasting sickness, suggesting a deep anxiety and need to explain a type of illness or plague, often thought to be cholera. However, many tales also appear to emphasize a widespread anxiety around death in general, and about the afterlife in particular. Many tales of returning dead appear to highlight a real fear of not achieving the ‘good death’ that was the obsession of the medieval period to the extent that a significant amount of scholarly and religious thought and writing was put into the idea of the ‘ars moriendi’ or the art of dying. According to this philosophy, how you lived your life had less impact on your afterlife than the way in which you died. To achieve a good death, you must die with all of your spiritual and temporal affairs in order, righting all wrongs, repaying all debts and confessing all sins. You must receive the appropriate Last Rites of the church and take the final Eucarist, known as a viaticum. The idea was to break all ties to the mortal coil, so nothing could compel you to return. Even overly mournful relatives could impede the spirit’s passing, as it was said their tears would soak the shroud and prevent the dead from resting. Obviously this manner of death is difficult to achieve and there are a number of interesting stories of families meeting their deceased relatives, risen from the grave to beg for prayers or charity to be given or some wrong to be righted so as to shorten their time in purgatory. These tales often differ to some extent to those of the vengeful dead, so I will cover these tales in more depth in a Wild Hunt halloween special episode next month. Other folk beliefs about the afterlife also fed into the fear of the dead returning. In many areas of Europe folk belief maintained that the dead continued their own communities much like the living. Coins were placed into the mouths or in the coffins of the deceased as it was believed that this money may be needed in the afterlife. They had their own inns, continued their trades, danced, sang and celebrated and carried on their lives much as before. It was said that revenants often targeted family members and loved ones as they missed them, and longed for their company in the afterlife. It was even believed that the dead held their own sermons at certain times in churches and those that stumbled on these sermons often met a bitter end. One sixteenth century woman got lucky by first seeing a deceased friend at the church who warned her to run without looking back. She followed this advice, but the crowd of dead who chased her from the churchyard grabbed at her cloak and tore it away from her. The next day,when the woman returned she found her cloak torn to pieces and scattered so that each grave had a scrap laying on it, giving a fearful insight into her fate had she not heeded the warning. The way in which a person lived their life may also lead them to becoming a vampire or revenant. A person who made a pact with the devil, for example, would likely become a vampire, those who cast the evil eye, witches and magicians, those who never ate garlic and those who lived what was considered an evil life, or a life that was in some way outside of regular society. The manner in which a person died could also increase their likelihood of becoming a vampire or other type of malevolent revenant. Those who were hanged for a crime, children who died without baptism, those who were murdered or committed suicide may be more likely to linger on earth. Interestingly, it has been speculated that these types of deaths would have led to the people being buried carelessly in shallow graves, and so would more often rise to the surface and be regarded as revenants. The time of burial may also affect your fate in the afterlife, and in Eastern Europe it was believed that the gates to the afterlife closed in the afternoon, condemning people buried this time to wander the earth. A Latvian folk song even implores the listener ‘bury me before noon, after noon do not bury me, after noon the children of god have closed the gates of heaven.’ In this part of Europe it was believed that those who were buried after this time would make their way into homes through the chimney and torture, disfigure, eat the hearts and drink the blood of those living there. It was also said that they could change into animals, flame and shadow and would vanish when the cock crowed. There seems to be a widespread anxiety throughout Europe about being denied access to the afterlife. It was generally believed that a person was born with a fixed life span, usually given to be 70 to 80 years. The ancient Roman writer Censorinus claimed that if a person died before their allotted time then the gods may refuse him entrance to the other life. This idea was incorporated into popular belief, that a person’s soul must stay on earth, near their body, until their allotted time was over and they would finally be allowed to pass. Usually they remained in spirit form, but if the spirit became upset, or if some unfortunate event happened, they may reinhabit their body to attack the living. Even if a person managed to reach their allotted time it was believed that their spirit still remained on earth for 40 days after their death. This was a particularly risky time in which it was important not to draw the spirit back by reminding it of its ties on earth or offending them in any way so that they would seek retribution. Because of this, many rituals were developed to facilitate the souls passing at the time of death, often calling on sympathetic magic. Clocks were stopped, windows opened, mirrors covered and knots untied. The corpse would be carried feet first out of the house so the spirit could not look back and be tempted to stay. Often the body would be carried to the graveyard out of a different door and by a long winding route, so that the spirit could not find its way back to the house. When placed in the grave, they would ensure that no piece of fabric lay next to the mouth for the dead person to chew and spread disease. If it was suspected that a person may return as vampire or revenant they may be buried facing down, so that if they woke they would claw themselves deeper into the earth. Strong smelling incense and garlic would also be put into the mouth, nose and coffin to prevent them from rising, presumably because they were believed to be repelled by strong smells. A stone may be placed in their mouths to prevent them from chewing or calling the names of their loved ones. Sometimes poppy seeds would be scattered on the grave as it was believed the vampire would have to count every seed before leaving. Poppies or peas would be sown on the path from the graveyard while the funeral party chanted ‘may the dead man consume one of these every year, and not the heart of his kinfolk.’ These methods could also be used to protect the house. Poppy seeds could be placed outside the door, as the vampire would have to count each one before entering. The family of the recently deceased could eat garlic and spread garlic or incense around the boundaries of the house to use smell to repel their dead relative. In Denmark an old spinning wheel would be hung over the door as it was believed the dead person could only enter after walking around the building for as many times as the wheel had turned when it was in use. Occasionally steps were taken to physically trap the dead person in their grave by tying their legs or big toes together, nailing them to their coffins or cutting the tendons in their heels or the veins in their knees to prevent them from walking. In Scandinavia there were even laws put into place to prevent the return of the dead. The Saga of Erik the Red’s saga explains that since Christianity was adopted in Greenland it was common practice to place a pole on the chest of those who were buried on farmland instead of consecrated ground to fasten them to the earth. The pole would be removed when a priest arrived to perform a burial service and sprinkle holy water into the hole left by the pole, thereby laying the deceased person permanently to rest. This appears to have been a relatively widespread practice. In 1007 CE Burchard of Worms condemned women who pierced the heart of deceased unbaptised children to prevent their return and claims when a woman and child die in childbirth and are buried, both of their bodies are pierced with rods that nail them to the ground so they do not rise and cause further death. It is likely that this means of securing someone into the grave later transformed into the known method of killing a vampire by piercing their heart with a stake. If these methods of prevention and protection did not work, there were ways of identifying if a vampire was active and which of the corpses in the graveyard it would be. A number of people mysteriously wasting away would indicate vampire activity, which would necessitate opening the graves of those who had recently died. If the vampire was seen, it could be recognised by long teeth and claws, a ruddy complexion and in, central Europe, by lameness, iron teeth and the inability to count above three. This presumably would hinder its counting of any poppy seeds left out, although who is hanging round to ask the walking dead to count I don’t know. Any corpses that did not show the classic signs of death or decay, those whose hair or nails had grown after death, those with red faces or whose stomachs  were filled with blood when cut open could safely be regarded as vampires. If this was the case it could be stopped by putting a stake through the heart, cutting the head off and placing it by the feet where it could not be reached, placing strong smelling incense and plants in the grave and sprinkling with holy water. Of course, there were those who were skeptical of the existence of vampires. In 1764 the Benedictine monk Antoine Augustin Calmet wrote a treatise on vampires, concluding that the idea of vampirism came from an overactive imagination fuelled by the malnourishment by the Balkan people, while Jean Cristophe Harenberg claimed that it was illness that caused the fear of vampires stating ‘that vampires do not cause the death of the living, and everything that people reel off in this regard should be attributed only to disorder in the sick person’s imagination.’ It is notable that the interest in vampires in Western Europe grew in a time when anxiety, fascination and even romanticisation of illness, tragic premature death and communication with spirits in the afterlife was at its height. At the same time that many of the first modern vampire stories were being put into print, spiritualist mediums were gaining fame through communicating with the dead and women were applying makeup to mimic the pale yet flushed look of tuberculosis victims. I think that, even now, tales of vampires returning from the grave help us to explore and process, at least to some extent, our fear of death and the mystery of what may wait for us in the afterlife. Thank you for listening to this episode of the History and Folklore podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. An extra thank you goes to my patreons Joanne, Robin, Becky, Eugenia, the Fairy Folk Podcast, Louise, Ben, John and David. Patrons help pay towards the cost of running the podcast and are hugely appreciated. If you would like to support the History and Folklore Podcast, get early access to episodes, voting rights for episode topics and a monthly zine then patreon tiers range from £1-£3. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram at history and folklore, twitter at HistoryFolklore and Facebook at the History and Folklore podcast where I post hopefully interesting history and folklore facts pretty much daily and answer any questions or feedback.
Oak Trees
Aug 19 2021
Oak Trees
This month's episode is all about oak trees. There are tales of black doves and thunder gods, superstitions to protect you from aging and lightning and an exploration into how oak trees can help give us a sense of belonging.   For more history and folklore content: Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/historyandfolklorepodcast Instagram: www.instagram.com/historyandfolklore Twitter: @HistoryFolklore Facebook: www.facebook.com/historyandfolklorepodcast Sources Ali Isaac, ‘Tree Lore in Irish Mythology: Guardians of the Five Provinces’ https://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com/post/tree-lore-in-irish-mythology-guardians-of-the-5-provinces Cora Linn Daniels and C. M. Stevens, ‘Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult Sciences of the World.’ (2003). Fergus Kelly, ‘Trees in Early Ireland’ https://www.forestryfocus.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Trees-in-Early-Ireland.pdf Frances Carey, 'The Tree: Meaning and Myth' (2012). Margaret Baker, Discovering the Folklore of Plants (2019). Robinson, George W. (trans.) (1916). The Life of Saint Boniface by Willibald. Trees for Life, Oak Mythology and Folklore, https://treesforlife.org.uk/into-the-forest/trees-plants-animals/trees/oak/oak-mythology-and-folklore/ Transcript Come, cheer up, my lads, 'tis to glory we steer, To add something new to this wonderful year; To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves, For who are so free as the sons of the waves? Heart of Oak are our ships, Heart of Oak are our men, We always are ready: Steady, boys, Steady! We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again. Hello, welcome to the History and Folklore podcast, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs shape people’s perceptions of nature. Today we’re looking at the history and folklore behind Oak trees across Europe, but particularly focussing on Britain and Ireland. Oaks are one of the oldest trees in Europe and have acquired a great deal of symbology over the centuries. One of the most enduring associations of oak is with lightning and has been the sacred tree of various gods associated with thunder and lightning including Thor and Zeus. In Ancient Greece one of the most ancient sacred sites was the oracle at Dodona, which had an oak tree at the heart of the sacred sanctuary dedicated to Zeus and may date back to the second century CE. The priestesses at Dodona were called peleiades, meaning doves, as it was said the site was founded after a black dove appeared from Thebes and landed on an oak tree. The dove told people in human language that they must create a place of divination to zeus there. Herodotus theorised this tale was not about a literal dove, but likely recalled an Egyptian priestess who had been a handmaid at a temple of Zeus. The priestess was at one point taken to Dodona and began a shrine in her new residence, teaching divination once she learned enough of the local language. He theorised that the locals may have referred to her as ‘dove’ as her mother language to them may have sounded like a dove’s song, which seems a bit of a stretch to me, but may make more sense if you have a better understanding of Ancient greek attitudes and the ancient Egyptian language. The name dove was then repeated in the retellings and its actual origin lost. In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus visits this site to listen to the will of Zeus by interpreting sounds of the soft rustling of the oak tree's leaves. Further north the oak tree came to be associated with Thor or Donar, the Norse and Germanic god of thunder. One of these is recorded in the Wilibald’s ‘Life of St Boniface’, written in the eighth century, that describes St Boniface destroying a sacred oak of extraordinary size and turning the wood into an oratory to St Peter. It is likely that oaks have been associated with storm gods as they are more regularly struck by lightning, compared to other trees, due to their high water content and the fact they were often the tallest thing in the landscape. Despite this, they were often seen as having a protective effect and it was said that oaks would protect those that sheltered them under storms. I wouldn’t recommend this. Houses and ships built from oak were said to be similarly protected from lightning, and even having a shard of oak, an acorn or an oak apple on your person, in your house or on your ship would protect you from lightning. It was once common to use acorn shaped bobbins to decorate window blinds due to this superstition, and if an oak was struck by lightning people would travel for miles to collect the charred shards to use as lightning charms. Oak with mistletoe was especially revered as it was said that the storm gods showed their affection for the tree by sending a bright lightning bolt, leaving golden-berried mistletoe to decorate its branches. The Druids of the Celtic world saw mistletoe as being particularly sacred, and it has been suggested, looking back to its proto Indo-European origins, that the word Druid could be translated to mean ‘oak-knower.’ It can be difficult to know to what extent the Celtic peoples venerated oaks, as much of the folklore and mythology from this time has been muddied by the popular Celtic romanticism that developed in the Victorian era. However, Pliny the Elder does support a veneration of oaks by the Celtic people, writing ‘the druids -  that is what they call their magicians - they hold nothing more sacred than mistletoe and the tree on which it is growing, provided it is a Valonia oak.’ The importance of oak is also seen in the Brehon Law in Ireland. The law text that contains most information on trees dates from the eighth century and is called, translated into English ‘judgements of the neighbourhood.’ In this, twenty eight trees and shrubs were divided into four classes based on their economic worth. The dair, or oak, was in the most valued class which were known as ‘Lords of the Woods.’ Punishments were then laid out for the different types of damage that a person may do to each class of tree, with the breakdown of such crimes becoming surprisingly specific. For example if a person illegally removed enough bark from an oak to tan a woman’s sandals then they would be fined a cow hide, whereas if they stole enough bark to tan men’s sandals they would be fined an ox-hide. Oak trees were also important economically for their wood, which was used for houses and boat building, as well as for their acorns which were used to fatten pigs. Series of images across medieval Europe that showed rural life through the year, known as Labours of the Months, often show peasants taking pigs to the forest to feed on acorns as the most recognisable task for the month of November. Although strangely a superstition from Yorkshire claimed that if acorns were plentiful then the bacon that year would be bad, which is the opposite of what might be expected. The economic importance of oaks led to the depletion of oak forests in southern England due to the Roman’s use of the timber for boat building and charcoal for metal extraction and later when oak trees were felled for naval shipbuilding. As well as having spiritual significance, oaks are also known as being particularly sturdy and are often used to represent endurance and strength. This makes different elements of the oak tree valuable inclusions in folk remedies, as it was believed that this strength and longevity will transfer itself into the weak, frail patient. The ways that oak was used in medicine was numerous. Sometimes the bark or leaves were made into ointments or drinks, and oak is mentioned regularly in the medicinal recipes found within medieval medical textbooks such as the Lacnunga and Bald’s Leechbook. Sometimes the doctrine of signatures was used, where the physical appearance of a plant was assumed to be a hint at its medicinal uses. For example in Hampshire people would buy a ‘pennyworth of lungs of oak’, a lichen that grew on New Forest oaks that had a lung-like appearance, used to cure breathing ailments. Other times sympathetic magic was involved, such as driving a nail into an oak’s trunk to transfer your pain into the tree. Different parts of the oak were used as a charm or in magical potions. The Crouch Oak in Surrey was placed behind bars for protection as the harvesting of it’s bark for love potions put its life in danger. Dew gathered from an oak in May was said to make an excellent beauty lotion, while an acorn carried in the pocket, as well as protecting the owner from lightning, would also prevent them from aging, A bridegroom wearing an acorn in his pocket would ensure a long life and also the energy he would need to fulfil his marital obligations. The strength of the oak was also seen to infer magical protection onto those that stood beneath its branches. In the late sixth century King Ethelbert advised St Augustine to preach under an oak, to protect himself from sourcery. In Scotland, Highlanders drew protective circles around themselves with oak saplings, and as late as the nineteenth century in Cumbria couples on their wedding day would go and dance around an oak, carve a cross into its bark and drink an acorn beverage. This ritual was an adaptation of an older tradition of couples marrying beneath the protective branches of an oak on a day when they were particularly susceptible to evil influences due to their current liminial status. People would go to oak trees at other important life events, particularly people would walk to the nearest oak to tell the tree of the death of a family member. This may be as a courtesy to keep the otherworld aware of mortal events. It was believed that the fairy folk resided in these trees, the holes in the bark acting as an entrance to the fairy realm, and so telling the oak may have acted as a means of telling the residents inside it. Whatever the reason, the act of incorporating the oak into important family events such as marriages and deaths would likely cause people to twine their identities, to some level, with the tree. The hardiness, endurance and longevity of oak trees make them reassuring identity-markers for individuals, communities and even for entire nations.  As far back as Ancient Rome, oak wreaths were given to individuals to honour an individual to represent their military skills and the favour they held from the Emperor. Some plant oaks with the idea that they will act as a living remembrance of them after their death, a sign that they had once existed and made an impact on the landscape. Others go a step further and entwine their fate with a tree. In 1798 an 11 year old Byron planted an oak and cared for it tenderly for years, apparently saying that ‘as it fares, so fares my fortunes.’ More rarely a town will put it’s fortunes into that of an oak tree. According to legend the wizard Merlin once claimed ‘when Merlin’s oak shall tumble down then shall fall Camarthen town.’ Luckily for the folk of Camarthen, this oak has stood strong since the twelfth century. More commonly oaks were used by parishes as boundary markers, as near permanent and recognisable aspects of the landscape. Gospel or Holy Oak still appears as a common place name reflecting the tradition of beating the bounds, where the community would gather together and walk the boundaries of their parish as a way of remembering and reinforcing them during a time when maps were rare. Often boundary markers would be beaten with sticks as an action meant to imprint on the memories of the participants. In the case of an oak tree being used a marker then the parishioners would stop, and a gospel passage would be read by a priest, making these trees particularly notable and significant landmarks that gave the community a knowledge of place and shared sense of belonging. As well as an identity marker for local communities, the oak tree has been rallied behind as a national symbol by various nations across Europe. In Germany the ancient Hercynian oak forest became an important part of the German cultural and national identity that emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth century due to its association with the heroic Germanic chieftain Hermann who defeated the Romans in this forest in the ninth century. Invoked in comparison with the newer threat of Napoleon, the Hercynian forest became a symbol of strength, freedom and unity. Similarly, in England the Royal Oak is still known as a common pub name and through folk traditions enacted on Oak Apple Day. This day was celebrated in honour of the oak tree King Charles II hid in to escape the Parliamentarian forces after the battle of Worcester in 1651 as part of the English Civil War. This oak saved his life and when he was later reinstated as king of England, Ireland and Scotland in 1660 his birthday on 29th May became known as Oak Apple Day. On this day churches, houses, boats, horses and people would be decorated with sprigs of oak and children would go door to door singing the rhyme ‘It’s 29th May, Oak apple day, if you don’t give us a holiday, we’ll all run away’ while demanding donations from the inhabitants. Gamekeepers around this day would often be lenient and turn a blind eye to those collecting oak on their grounds, and those caught not observing the day would be threatened with nettles. In 1882 Reverend Cuthbert Bede watched the postman hide nettles to sting the housemaid with when she collected the post, as punishment for not adorning the front door with a sprig of oak. Through celebration of this event the oak became a national symbol, but this was not the only aspect of its importance to national identity in England. The Major Oak in Nottinghamshire is said to be the residence of the folk hero Robin Hood, and like the Hercynian forest in Germany is a symbol of resilience, freedom and the success of the underdog. One of the most tangible examples of the importance of oak to British identity was the navy. In 1664 the HMS Royal Oak was launched, named after the tree which harboured Charles II, and oak was used more generally to make naval ships. The hardy wood became a symbol of both the boats and sailors in the British Navy to such a degree that ‘Heart of Oak’, written in 1759 and quoted in part at the beginning of this episode, became the official march of the Royal Navy. However, the oak's importance was also its downfall and as early as 1664 John Evelyn was writing about the need to replenish oak stocks in his work ‘Sylva.’ It is clear that oak trees were held in great regard by people through the ages. Favoured by the storm gods, oak wood enabled people to meet their basic needs of shelter, safety and health through its use as building materials, protective charms and medicine. I think more interesting is the use of oak trees as boundary markers, as through this rituals they became a symbol to physically and symbolically separate those in the ‘in’ group from those in the ‘out’ group, especially as this use worked both on local and national levels. In this way, the oak had a role in helping people meet deeper, more intangible needs - the need to have a shared identity and the need to feel a sense of belonging both culturally and physically. Thank you for listening to this episode of the History and Folklore podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. An extra thank you goes to my patreons Robin, Becky, Eugenia, the Fairy Folk Podcast, Louise, Ben, John and David. Patrons help pay towards the cost of running the podcast and are greatly appreciated. If you would like to support the History and Folklore Podcast, get early access to episodes, voting rights for episode topics and a monthly zine, tiers range from £1-£3You can also follow the podcast on Instagram at history and folklore, twitter at HistoryFolklore and Facebook at the History and Folklore podcast where I post hopefully interesting history and folklore facts pretty much daily and answer any questions or feedback.
Spinning and Weaving
Jul 18 2021
Spinning and Weaving
In this episode we will be looking at the history, folklore and mythology surrounding spinning and weaving. Hear about Valkyries weaving bloody tapestries, how the sun is linked to spinning , why it is advisable to rest sometimes and what terrible things may befall you if you don't.     Sources: Christopher Dyer, 'Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520' (2002). D.L. Ashliman, 'Superstitions from Europe' https://www.pitt.edu/~dash/superstition.html Donald Haase, 'The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales: Q-Z' (2008). Freyalyn Close-Hainswoth, 'Spinning a Tale: Spinning and Weaving in myths and Legends' https://folklorethursday.com/folklife/spinning-a-tale/ Gunnvôr Silfrahárr, 'Women and Magic in the Sagas: Seidr and Spa' http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/seidhr.shtml Gunnvôr Silfrahárr, 'Valkyries, Wish Maidens and Swan Maidens' http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/seidhr.shtml Icy Sedgwick, 'Spinning in Folklore: Impossible Bets and Crafting with the Fates' https://www.icysedgwick.com/spinning-in-folklore/ John Martin Crawford, 'The Kalevala: Rune VIII Maiden of the Rainbow' https://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/kvrune08.htm Lisa Schnaidau, ' Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland' (2018). Marianna Vertsman, 'Kikimora, Domovoi, Baccoo, and Other Strange and Spooky Creatures', https://www.nypl.org/blog/2015/10/30/scary-creatures-world-folklore Mark Norman, 'Telling the Bees and other Customs: The Folkloer of Rural Crafts' (2020). 'Njal's Saga', trans. Magnus Magnusson and Herman Pálsson (1960). Ronesa Aveela, 'A Study of Household Spirits of Eastern Europe' (2018).   Transcript:   Pohyola's fair and winsome daughter, Glory of the land and water, Sat upon the bow of heaven, On its highest arch resplendent, In a gown of richest fabric, In a gold and silver air-gown, Weaving webs of golden texture, Interlacing threads of silver; Weaving with a golden shuttle, With a weaving-comb of silver; Merrily flies the golden shuttle, From the maiden's nimble fingers, Briskly swings the lathe in weaving, Swiftly flies the comb of silver, From the sky-born maiden's fingers, Weaving webs of wondrous beauty. Hello, welcome to the History and Folklore podcast, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs shape people’s perceptions of nature. Today we’re looking at spinning and weaving, why these crafts were important to people in the past and how they are depicted in folklore and mythology. Spinning is one of the oldest crafts. Very early in human history, as far back as ten thousand years ago, people learned how to get fibre from plants and would twist it between their fingers to strengthen it, creating string that could be used  for tools and weapons. The first items that were used to facilitate this process were simple stones and sticks that were used to wind the twine. At some point these were combined together to make spindles, one of humanity's oldest tools and one that has been found in nearly every culture across the world. In the neolithic period, as people started developing settled communities, the methods of spinning and and working with fibre also developed. Looms could be used to weave large pieces of fabric that could be used for clothes, blankets and sails for boats. Sheep began to be kept domestically on farms, and their fleece was used to make wool. The fact that both of these skills became so widespread across the globe at such an early point indicates how integral these skills were to humanity. They enable us to make clothes to stay warm and protected from the elements, make nets and traps for hunting, rope and sails for ships, rope to pull heavy loads and string to fix blades and handles together to make weapons and tools. Despite its importance, spinning was considered to be a low-skilled activity and, with a distaff, the stick used for holding the unspun fibre, tucked into a belt or under the arm, a spinner could produce yarn while doing other tasks. It takes a lot of time to make enough yarn for your needs and there are medieval images of rich and poor women spinning while sat chatting together, while riding on horses, caring for children and feeding the chickens, among other activities. It is apparent that at some point in European history spinning came to be seen as a predominantly female activity, unlike weaving which was considered to be more skilled. Anthony Fitzherbert, in his book of husbandry, states that it was not really possible to make a living from spinning, but that ‘it stoppeth the gap.’ Weaving, on the other hand, was a respected and established industry as shown by the existence of weavers guilds in larger towns by the twelfth century. The strong connection between women and the work of spinning is probably most well known through the term ‘spinster’ to describe older, unmarried women. This term often has negative connotations and has historically been used as an insult. The association between women and spinning seems to have been strongly entrenched by the late 1300s, with the English Lollard priest John Ball stating in a sermin in 1381 ‘when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’, alluding to gendered work after the loss of Eden, despite no mention of Eve spinning in the Bible. It has been argued that while spinning was predominantly done by women, it was probably not solely their domain, and it was likely men working in jobs such as travelling traders or shepherds would have been spinning to help meet the large demand for yarn. Unsurprisingly, as an important part of culture and society, many superstitions, taboos and celebrations developed around spinning and weaving. It was forbidden to spin or weave during certain times of the year - the exact taboo days varied across Europe, but they tended to be on particularly certain holy or rest days, with the longest taboo on spinning being over the twelve days of Yule. In Iceland it was expected that all spinning, weaving and sewing chores were completed by the end of this year, an expectation reflected in the tales of the Yule cat, who would eat children who had not received a new piece of clothing for Christmas - a sign that these jobs had remained uncompleted. In England this period of rest over Christmas ended on the 7th January, known as distaff day, when women picked up their spindles to work again. Although according to a seventeenth century poem this day was probably only slightly productive, as the men and women would play pranks on each other to impede the work - the men setting fire to the flax and the women throwing water over the men in retribution, a sign that the return to work was not necessarily an enthusiastic one. In many areas spinning during these taboo times was assumed to invite the wrath of a deity. In Romania spinning and other domestic activities were forbidden on Tuesdays, a semi-holy day in honour of a deity named Martolea. Those who were caught spinning on this day may have their guts ripped out and spread around their home or their husbands and children killed or possessed by a demon-like entity. Assuming that these traditions were developed to enforce rest periods from a task that was important and ever present it says something about the importance of the task that meant they needed such strong disincentives to stop. Other superstitions upholding these taboos and times of work were less severe. Spinning on a Good Friday would cause your fingers to become inflamed. In Germany not putting your spinning away on a Saturday evening ready for the Sunday rest would cause it to tangle, while any spinning left undone by the end of Saturday would ruin any leftover flax, making it impossible to spin or bleach. In this case the superstition was to encourage good time management, hard work and good housekeeping. Similarly in Slavic countries it was said that a type of household spirit known as a kikimora would come and tangle any textile crafts left out overnight. While in these instances leaving spinning out overnight is punished in some way, there is another German superstition that says that if someone gets up from a spinning wheel without loosening the thread, an elf will sit and begin spinning on it. The elf will not be seen, but the spindle will be heard whirring by itself. Traditional accounts of spinning in fairy tales often reflect the real life attitudes and folklore surrounding the craft. Characters are often shown spinning to represent their industrious and domestic nature. For example, in the Grimms tale of Mother Holle, the sister who gets rewarded for her hard work finds Mother Holle’s realm by spinning so much her fingers bleed, thereby dropping the spindle into the well that leads to her domain. Another Grimm tale spindle, shuttle and needle tells of an orphan girl who is left these three instruments by her grandmother after her death, using them to scrape by a living. When the King visits the village searching for a bride who was at once richest and poorest. He comes across the orphan spinning, but leaves when she shyly looks away. She remembers the rhyme taught by her grandmother "Spindle, my spindle, haste, haste thee away, and here to my house bring the wooer, I pray." her spindle magically flies out of her hand to follow the king, who follows it back to find her house beautifully decorated by the shuttle and needle. He declares her both poorest and richest through her skills and proposes marriage. Other tales recall assistance in the tasks of spinning and weaving by the fairy folk. One tale from the Isle of Man tells of a young woman who is given an impossible amount of spinning to do by her employer, but who manages to achieve it with the help of the fynoderee, the fairies native to the island. In the tale of Rumplestiltskin, a woman is imprisoned by a king after her father boasts she can turn straw into gold. This is not an entirely outlandish claim when looked at metaphorically, as a skilled spinner could turn straw-like plant fibre into fine yarn that could be used for weaving, and was worth far more than its original form. Taken literally, though, the task is impossible and Rumpelstiltskin agrees to help the lady in return for her first born child, a deal she gets out of after correctly guessing his name. A similar story is the Norwegian tale of the three sisters, in which a king hears other people’s claims about a young womans spinning and agrees to marry her if she can prove that these claims are true. This is unfortunate for the young woman as she actually has no idea how to do either. She is spotted weeping by three old women, who agree to help her at her task if she recognises them as her aunts at her wedding. When the wedding day comes the three old women arrive and, acknowledging the widespread alarm at their ugly appearance and the disbelief that they could possibly be related to the beautiful bride, claim that it was their years of hard work spinning and weaving that hunched their backs, wrinkled their faces and shortened their sight. Upon learning this the king decreed that his wife should never spin or weave again, despite her obvious skill, to maintain her beauty - letting her off the high expectations that had been set for her. In other tales it is the act of spinning itself that holds the wonder and magic. In the tale of the six swans a young girl is only able to lift a spell that is placed upon her brothers, turning them to swans, by silently spinning and sewing them shirts made of nettles. It is also unsurprising that many deities were associated with spinning and weaving, considering their importance. The Finnish Kalevala, compiled in the nineteenth century from oral folklore, contains a number of references to spinning and weaving, such as in the poem Rune 8 quoted at the start of this episode. In northern Europe sun and moon deities seemed to have a link to these crafts. The Sami goddess Beiwe, whose name derives from the regional word for the sun, was closely associated with spinning and flax and spinning wheels are left as offerings to her during major festivals. Similarly, in Baltc countries the sun goddess Saul is said to spin sunbeams and is represented by a spinning wheel. In this region spindles made from amber, known locally as sun stones, have been found in graves, further suggesting a link between the two, while in Finland the moon Goddess Kuutar spins and weaves golden yarn. Further south, in Ancient Greece, Ariadne, the granddaughter of the sun God Helios, was said to have spun the thread used by Theseus in the Minotaur’s labyrinth, while Athena was so proud of her weaving she turned Arachne into a spider for challenging her skill.  Interestingly, I was not able to find any European gods of spinning or weaving, reinforcing the feminine link with these crafts. Spinning and weaving were so integral to society that they were both used as a metaphor or lens through which to understand the world. In Plato’s republic he likens the axis of the universe as a spindle with the starry heavens as a whorl that spins round the centre. Telling stories, the means through which people communicate and explore ideas to understand the world, are also often referred to as ‘spinning yarns’ possibly because women would tell each other tales when they got together to spin, a theme found in the fifteenth century collection of stories named the spinners tales, framed through the motif of ladies telling each other the stories as they spin, in a similar manner to the Canterbury Tales and the Decamaron. Stories, and lives are also sometimes seen as a tapestry, with the individual strands of a single life woven tightly together, influencing the pattern of the whole. In some mythologies the deities responsible for the fates of gods and humans are spinners and weavers. In Ancient Greece the three fates worked the fibre that shaped a person’s life. Clotho spun the thread of life, Lachesis measured its length and, in some versions spun it into a tapestry, and their sister Atropos cut the thread to mark the end of life. In Norse mythology, the three Norns cared for and lived at the base of the world tree Yggdrasil, that connected the nine realms. Together they spun the threads of fate, determining who’s life thread was cut short. In The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane, found in the Poetic Edda, the Norns visit Helgi Hundingsbane at his birth and wove the golden threads of the web of fate to determine the shape of his life. The Valkyries were also known for their weaving abilities. While these entities are often seen as warrior women due to their association with battles and their role of carrying the slaughtered to Folkvangr or Valhalla but this is not either primary role in early literature. Often they were portrayed as having a role not dissimilar to that of the Norns, watching over the battle, weaving the fates of those fighting. The epic Beowulf tells of the valkyires crafting the weavings of victory. The Skaldic poem Darraðarljóð, found in the eleventh century Njal’s saga describes twelve valkyries weaving the fate of warriors in battle. This poem goes into quite gruesome detail saying. ‘Blood rains from the cloudy web, Of the broad loom of slaughter. The web of man, grey as armour, Is now being woven; the Valkries Will cross it with a crimson weft. The warp is made of human entrails, Human heads are used as heddle wights, The heddle rods are blood-wet spears, The shafts are iron bound and arrows are the shuttles, With swords we will weave this web of battle.’ I find the conflicting attitudes to these skills, but particularly spinning, to be absolutely fascinating. Both were obviously important skills to ensure people remained clothed, and also as a means of gaining a source of income. Vast quantities of yarn and cloth were needed to meet the needs of society, yet rest days were enforced with such conviction that horrors were threatened to those who ignored them. Those who span and wove were considered to be industrious, virtuous and ideal wife material, yet the skill of spinning in particular was not particularly valued outside of this. Spinning was in some ways such a low status activity that the word spinster was used as a pejorative insult towards women who had passed the expected age of marriage without a husband, and yet was the primary skill held by the very deities that maintain life on earth and controlled the lives and fates of men. Thank you for listening to this episode of the History and Folklore podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. An extra thank you goes to my patreons Robin, DD Storyteller, the Fairy Folk Podcast, Louise, Ben, John and David. Patrons help pay towards the cost of running the podcast and are greatly appreciated. If you would like to support the History and Folklore Podcast tiers range from £1-£3 a month in exchange for benefits including early access to podcast episodes, a monthly zine with more in-depth information about the topic of that month’s episode and a chance to vote on the next month’s episode theme. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram at history and folklore, twitter at HistoryFolklore and Facebook at the History and Folklore podcast where I post hopefully interesting history and folklore facts pretty much daily and answer any questions or feedback. Thank you so much for listening, and I look forward to seeing you next time.
The Northern Lights
Jun 13 2021
The Northern Lights
For thousands of years people have watched the Aurora Borealis with awe, fear and wonder and told stories to explain what created them.  In this episode we look into the tales of whales and frozen swans, fires and lamps, valkyries and the spirits of the dead to see how people in the past understood the Northern Lights.    Sources Aurora Zone, 'Mythology of the Northern Lights' https://www.theaurorazone.com/about-the-aurora/aurora-legends Francis Celoria, 'The Alleged Dark Segment in Aurora Borealis Displays', Journal of the British Astronomical Association, Vol. 78, pp.129-132 (1968). Harald Falck-Ytter, 'Aurora: The Northern Lights in Mythology, History and Science' (1999). Lapland: Above Ordinary, 'Dark Side of the Auroras: Legends and Myths' https://www.lapland.fi/visit/only-in-lapland/lapland-northern-lights-myths-auroras/ Musei Vaticani, 'Prophet Ezekiel' https://www.museivaticani.va/content/museivaticani/en/collezioni/musei/cappella-sistina/volta/sibille-e-profeti/profeta-ezechiele.html. Nasa, 'The History of the Borealis' (2006) https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/themis/auroras/aurora_history.html Richard Barber, 'Bestiary MS Bodley 764' (1999). Royal Museums Greenwich, 'What Causes the Northern Lights' https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/what-causes-northern-lights-aurora-borealis-explained Simon Hughes, 'Aurora Borealis: The Folklore of the Northern Lights' (2009) https://folklorethursday.com/myths/aurora-borealis-the-northern-lights-in-the-north/ The Viking Answer Lady, 'The Aurora Borealis and the Vikings' http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/njordrljos.shtml
Medieval Maps and Monsters
May 12 2021
Medieval Maps and Monsters
Maps from Medieval Europe are littered with strange lands, monsters and mythical races. On them you can find the Tower of Babel, the Minotaur's Labyrinth, unicorns and men with the heads of dogs. Find out what these maps can tell us about how medieval European's saw the world in the latest episode of the History and Folklore Podcast.    Sources: B.L Gordon, 'Sacred Directions, Orientations, and the Top of the Map' History of Religions Vol. 10, No. 3 (Feb., 1971), pp. 211-227 British Museum, 'Tablet' https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/W_1882-0714-509 Chet Van Durez, 'Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps' (2014). Edward Brooke-Hitching, 'The Phantom-Atlas: The Greatest Myths, Lies and Blunders on Maps' (2016). Gerhard Dorhn-van Rossum 'Al-Idrisi and His World Map (1154)' (2011) http://www.cliohworld.net/onlread/wg2/wg2.pdf#page=209 Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping, 'History of Mapping' https://www.icsm.gov.au/education/fundamentals-mapping/history-mapping John Block-Friedman, 'The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought' (2000). John Mandeville, 'The Complete Works of John Mandeville (Shrine of Knowledge, 2020) 'Mappa Mundi Hereford Cathedral.' https://www.themappamundi.co.uk/ Paul B. Sturtevant, 'A Wonder of the Multicultural Medieval World: The Tabula Rogeriana' (2017) https://www.publicmedievalist.com/greatest-medieval-map/ Richard Barber, 'Bestiary MS Bodley 764' (1999). Richard Jones, 'The Medieval Natural World' (2013). Robert Bartlett, 'The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages' (2006). Thomas Wright, 'Travels of Marco Polo, the Venetian.' http://public-library.uk/ebooks/60/81.pdf   Transcript: ‘Whatever Part of the Earth that Men dwell, either above or beneath, it seemeth always to them, that they go more up-right than any other Folk. And right as it seemeth to us that they be under us, right so it seemeth to them that we be under them.’   Hello, welcome to the History and Folklore podcast, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs shape people’s perceptions of nature. Today we’re looking at historical maps and the strange creatures and the mythical races found within them. This is a huge subject, so I am only going to be able to really give an overview of the subject, but am happy to make more indepth episodes on any of the different topics if there is any interest.   I find this topic really fascinating as maps, despite what we like to tell ourselves, very rarely show the world how it actually is. Instead they are excellent sources to show us the preconceptions, assumptions and prejudices of the map maker and the society the map is made in.    It has also been claimed that maps can affect the perception of people who view the map. We like to tell ourselves that maps are entirely neutral records of landscapes and settlements but this is not entirely true. Even today there are issues with our world map that are believed to affect  the way we see the world. The most well-known example is the Mercator Projection, invented in 1569 as a way of displaying a globe on a 2D surface. Because of the way the projection works, countries at the top are distorted to become larger, while those closer to the equator appear smaller. The creator of this method, Gerardus Mercator, also chose to orientate the map with North at the top, which is the way we still orientate maps today. It has been argued that, while this map is useful for navigation, the location and relatively large size of northern countries gives them a more prominent place in the mind of the viewer.   While there is still a lot of discussion as to whether this is actually true, it is clear that maps have traditionally been used as a means of communicating ideas and values to the viewer. The earliest maps that survive today depict very local places that highlight sites of interest. There were no real conventions in cartography yet and so the layout and orientation of these maps was pretty much all over the place.    While it seems normal and obvious to us, it is only really quite recently in human history that maps have been oriented with North at the top. In Europe, East was often placed as the highest point as in early Christian tradition heaven was located in the east. This is an idea that was likely borrowed from ancient Jewish traditions which saw the east as a particularly holy direction. Likewise, South was often seen as a desirable direction as it was associated with warmer, more hospitable weather. North, on the other hand, was considered a dark and sinister direction.   Ancient Egyptians also tended to orientate maps with east at the top, as this is the direction in which the sun rises. Early Islamic cartographers often placed south at the top of the map, as these mapmakers often resided in countries that were north of Mecca and they envisioned they were looking up towards it when they prayed. In Ancient China, compasses were oriented to point south, which was considered a more desirable direction as it was believed to be where the winds came from. However, maps in ancient China tended to place north at the top as the Emperor resided in the north of the country and the people were expected to look towards him. So it appears that there is a tendency among people everywhere to place that which they consider the most important at the top or centre of the image.    The oldest surviving world map is the Imago Mundi, which was created between 500-700 BCE in a town called Sippar in Iraq. This map placed Babylon in the centre, as this was probably the most important city to the map maker. The Euphrates is also shown and circles surround Babylon to show other cities and districts, including Assyria, Der and Habban. These cities are surrounded by a circular ‘bitter river’ in which other districts are located. These represent the unknown or unexplored world, and are labelled with descriptions such as ‘where shamash (the sun deity) is not seen, reflecting the belief that the sun does not pass through the northern lands. The map is accompanied by accounts of Babylonian myths, written in conform script, with the corresponding locations in which they happened.    Early medieval maps are remarkably similar in design to the Imago Mundi. Known as TO maps, they show the world as a round disc. Inside this disc the known world is split into three segments, with the East orientated at the top. Asia fills up the top half of the circle, and is separated from Europe in the bottom left quarter and Africa in the bottom right quarter by a river that starts as the Don or Tanais in the left and turns into the Nile half way through. Europe and Africa are separated by the meditteranean sea, depicted as a line that meets the rivers at the half way point to make a T shape. The rivers and continents are surrounded by a circle of sea, the O of the TO map.    It is unclear where this style of map originated from. Similarities can be drawn with the Imago Mundi, but some historians think that they may originate in the Ancient Greece or Rome. Others argue that they probably have a Judaic origin, due to the habit of labelling each continent in association with one of Noah’s sons - Asia often has the label of Shem, Africa is labelled with Ham and Europe tagged with Japhet.    TO maps are only concerned with recording areas of the world that were known to be habitable. Maps that showed all habitable and uninhabitable land on the globe were portrayed in a different way, based on the subdivision of the world created by Ptolemy in the second century and built on by Macrobius in the fifth century. In this, the world was divided into five latitudinal zones that varied in climate. The poles were the two frigid zones and considered to be too cold to sustain life. The fiery zone was located at the equator and was too hot to sustain life. Between these two extremes were the temperate zones, which were both theoretically habitable although it was believed that the southern temperate zone was uninhabited by humans.    The subdivision of the world in this way was still being used as late as the fifteenth century. It was also used as the basis for maps created by influential Islamic geographers and cartographers, such as al-Muqaddasi and al-Biruni, who developed this technique and further broke the inhabited world down into seven climes, which differed by half an hour each. These cartographers also believed that only the northern part of the world was inhabited and was separated by the rest of the globe by inhospitable climates that could not be crossed by humans. Islamic scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni claimed that the ‘sea separates the inhabitable world from whatever continents or inhabitable islands there may be beyond it, both towards West and East; for it is not navigable on account of the darkness of the air and the thickness of the water.’   This method of dividing the world was used in what was the most influential map of its time, the Tabulana Rogeriana, translated in English as the ‘Book of Roger’, which proves that everything sounds more impressive in Latin. This was created by Muhammad al-Idrisi in 1154 for King Roger II of Siciliy in a book containing 70 smaller regional maps which, when put together, created a huge rectangular map of the world. This incredibly detailed map was broken down into seven different climatic zones and ten geographical sections. As well as this al-Idrisi was able to calculate the circumference of the globe within ten percent of its actual size. To achieve this, al-Idrisi poured over Arabic, Latin and Classical records, as well as conducting extensive interviews with contemporary travellers, endeavouring to dismiss the fantastical and include only what could be corroborated or proven. While this technique was not foolproof, and popular mythical elements such as the islands of Gog and Magog were still included, it was by far the most accurate world map of its day, and was used and distributed for three hundred years after its creation.   Despite the creation and popularity of the Book of Roger, new maps continued to be made and distributed. One of the most well-known today is the Hereford Mappa Mundi, which was created around the year 1300. This was created at a time when European maps were becoming more complex, showing serrated coastlines and individual islands. Despite these details, it still keeps the early ‘TO’ format with Asia at the top, Europe on the bottom left and Africa on the bottom right. Christ sits above the world, looking over God’s creation, and paradise and the garden of Eden can be found just below him. Jerusalem sits prominently in the centre of the inhabited world.    As well recording existing cities and landscape elements we would expect to see on modern maps, the Hereford Mappa Mundi also depicts stories from the bible such as Eden, Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel, all located in the top half of the map, as well as stories from Classical Greece and Rome. The columns of Hercules, the golden fleece and the labyrinth can all be seen on the map. This reflects a method of map making that leaned more towards symbolism than accuracy. The purpose of maps such as this was not to create an accurate geographical record to assist travellers. They were instead created the greatness and expanse of God’s creation and the viewers place within it spatially, culturally, temporally and spiritually. Medieval maps were created to measure time and culture as well as space.    For this reason the anomalies in early maps can give a real insight into the mindset, worldview and values of the time. We already know that places like Eden and the Minotaur’s labyrinth were placed on maps due to their spiritual, cultural and historical importance. But some other elements are less easily explained. Strange islands and creatures pepper the seas and the margins of early maps.    Sometimes these were recorded through simple error, especially non-existant islands and land formations. Other times weather conditions such as low forming clouds could appear to sailors as an island, which would later be recorded on maps. Anomalies were sometimes included on purpose as a type of copyright protection. If an incorrect detail was found on a different map, the original cartographer would know they had been plagiarised.    I think the most amusing incidents were when islands were included on a whim. In 1659 Peter Helyn recorded a story about the explorer Pedro Sarmiento when he was captured by Walter Raleigh. Raleigh asked him about a particular island that was depicted on one of his maps, which Raleigh had never seen but which may have had some tactical advantage to him. Sarmiento explained that that island was known as ‘painters island’ because when the painter was drawing the map, his wife asked him to add an island for her, so that in her imagination she could have an island of her own. A really lovely story, but not very helpful to people trying to actually navigate.   I think that the monsters and so called monstrous races that were recorded in maps, bestiaries and encyclopedias of the time are even more interesting than mysterious island stories as they raise so many questions about medieval assumptions of the foreign, otherness and humanity itself.    Strange creatures were also often believed to be found in far flung lands. Dragons fought elephants in India, hyenas mimicked and ate humans in Africa, leopards were the ferocious offspring of lions and pards and birds the colour of fire and with razor sharp wings soar through the air in Asia. These creatures all give an impression of foriegn countries as strange and dangerous places to be, as though the further you get from the known world the more fantastic and deadly nature becomes, a reflection of understandable anxieties and real dangers involved in travel during this period.    Probably the most fascinating are the so called ‘monstrous races’ that are depicted on the edges of world maps, reflecting their perceived status as being just on the edge of civilisation.  Many of these races were taken from the writings of Pliny the Elder and were even further embellished over the years by explorers and traders, missionaries and pilgrims who would come back with tales of the strange lands, creatures and people they had seen on their travels.  Monstrous races that were commonly recorded included the Blemmyes, a warlike people found in Africa, notable in that they had no head but whos faces were instead located on their torso. Sciapods could be found in India. They had only one leg which they would use to hop about, and would use their one giant foot to shade them from the sun. Panotti had long ears that they used to wrap around themselves to keep warm at night. The Astomis were found by the Ganges river, they had no mouths but gained nourishment through pleasant smells. The cynocephalli were humans with the heads of dogs that were widely recorded from Scandinavia to Syria to India. In some accounts they were depicted as bloodthirsty fighters, while other writers claimed they were relatively shy and kept to themselves in peaceful communities.    While some believe that these people were solely the creation of overactive imaginations and tall tales spun by travellers, others think that there may have been a grain of truth in the stories, filtered through the perceptions of reporters trying to understand what they saw through the filter of a very ethnocentric worldview. For example, the Sciapods may have simply been people practicing yoga, lifting their feet above their heads as though to shade from the sun. While the true origins of these stories is not known, the fact that the stories exist at all raise a lot of interesting insights into the medieval European worldview.   There was a fair amount of contemporary discussion as to whether any of these races could be considered human, or whether they were closer to animals. This debate was based on the medieval Christian worldview that God created three different types of living spirit. Angels, which are not bound to a physical body, humans which are bound to a physical body but do not die with it and animals, which are bound to a physical body and who die with the body. It was believed that what separated humans from animals was their rationality. The issue then lay in defining and identifying rationality in the behaviour of the monstrous races.    The answer to this question had practical as well as theological implications. In the ninth century a missionary in Scandinavia wrote to a monk named Ratramnus asking whether he should preach to the dog headed people in order to win human souls for Christ, or whether it would be wasted effort, akin to trying to convert mice or birds. Ratramnus responded by stating that the dog heads should be viewed as human. He claimed that while certain elements of their behaviour, such as their barking speech, pointed more towards the animal, other behavioural aspects placed them firmly in the realms of the human. The fact they covered themselves with clothes showed they had a sense of shame and decency. They could farm and make tools and, according to Ratramnus, ‘knowledge of technical skills is granted only to the rational soul.’ The main point in their favour though was that they lived in communities and therefore had laws and were able to create and keep to the rules of society.   Personally I find Ratramnus’ answer unstatisying when looking at perceptions of other mythical creatures. Trolls, for example, were considered different from humans as they were not Christians and were, in fact, often believed to be angels that had remained neutral in the war between God and Satan and so fell to earth. Trolls could be killed and it was not believed that they had the promise of eternal life, as humans did. However, like other hidden people, they were portrayed as rational, they lived in societies that mimicked humans, wore clothes and used tools. It was not rationality or mortality, but lack of Chritian belief and immortal soul that separated the trolls from humans or angels, but Ratramnus made no suggestion of this possibility for the cynocephalli.   During the twelfth century Europe and Asia became linked in a way that it had never been before, largely due to the expansion of the Mongol Empire that spanned from Korea to Persia, Poland to Vietnam. This overarching administration facilitated merchants trading across borders and was also a tempting target for Christian missionaries, as the Mongols were not originally Muslim and appeared to be widely accepting of Christianity - employing Asian Christians as advisors and administrators.   As such a greater number of Europeans than ever before began travelling to places that they previously had either non-existent or very weak contact with. You may think that as explorers, traders and missionaries came to be more familiar with distant lands, and as travellers from across Asia came to be a more familiar sight in European cities, that medieval Europeans would quickly realise that the monstrous races on maps and monsters in bestiaries did not exist. In some cases doubt did begin to creep in. In 1253 William of Rubruck recalled a conversation he had with a group of Mogul people during his travels in India saying ‘I asked about the monsters or monstrous humans but they had never seen such beings, wherefore we wonder very much whether it were true.’   But belief in monsters and monstrous races was surprisingly tenacious amongst the general population. This was partly because returning travellers could not resist telling fantastic tales of ferocious and strange beasts to impress people back home. However, even when travellers wanted to present a more realistic view of the world their efforts could be undermined. Marco Polo’s Travels, for example, was published in 1298 and presented a fairly subdued and down to earth picture of Asia that was somewhat sabotaged by illustrators who added monsters and wonders to the margins, likely trying to meet the expectations of the readers.   In other cases, when monsters were not found where they were expected to be, it was sometimes assumed that they did exist but their location had been recorded wrong. As European travellers became more familiar with the wider world the monstrous races were pushed further, always pushed the edges of the known world, and those that were once believed to reside in India were later thought to reside in the habitable southern hemisphere, where humans did not live. An early example of this was the Panotti people with long ears. Around 43 CE Roman writer Pomponius Mela claimed they lived on the Orkney islands. When the Orkney islands became part of the civilised world they were recorded as living in Scythia and later, when Scythia was no longer considered particularly distant, it was believed that they resided in southern Asia.    It is probable that the belief in monstrous races reflects a need in people to create a recognised ‘other’ against which they can define themselves. Through these stories, they were able to explore what it meant to be civilised, what it meant to be human and understand and define their place in the world.    It is also apparent that this belief in strange and monstrous races was not just limited to Europeans. John de Marignollis  travelled extensively through China and India in the 1330s. Although he was originally sent by the Pope he extended his travels in order to search for the monstrous races he had heard about. He wrote ‘I travelled through all the provinces of India with great curiosity. . . never was I able to track down such peoples in the world in reality; instead people asked me whether there were such creatures.’    As well as giving the impression that medieval Asia was filled with people wandering round asking each other if they knew where the dog-heads were, de-Marignollis statement, and the quote from John Mandeville at the beginning of this episode, suggests that people around the world created their own kinds of strange and monstrous people, living in far away lands. I think it is likely that such stories were important in helping people strengthen their identity at a time of increased travel and exploration. Through these tales people could examine who they were, who belonged to their group, who were outside it and why. They could even be used to examine what it meant to be human at all.    Thank you for listening to this episode of the History and Folklore podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. An extra thank you goes to my new patreons DD Storyteller, the Fairy Folk Podcast, Louise, Vanessa, Ben and John. My supporters on patreon help make these episodes possible and I am so grateful.  If you would like to support the History and Folklore Podcast tiers range from £1-£5 a month in exchange for benefits including early access to podcast episodes, a monthly zine with more information about the episode topic, chance to vote on episode topics, recorded folktales and how to train your house elf fact files. Patrons help pay towards the cost of running the podcast and are greatly appreciated. You can also follow the podcast on Instagram at history and folklore, twitter at HistoryFolklore and Facebook at the History and Folklore podcast where I post hopefully interesting history and folklore facts pretty much daily and answer any questions or feedback. Thank you so much for listening, and I look forward to seeing you next time.
The Colours of Medieval England
Aug 4 2020
The Colours of Medieval England
In this episode we will be looking at the changing perceptions of colour in medieval England. What significance did colour have in the middle ages? Did they see colour in the same way as we do today and what evidence can we use to find out?    Sources used in this episode: Barley, N. F., 'Old English Colour Classifications: Where Do Matters Stand?' Anglo-Saxon England 3 (1974). Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the British People (London, 1990). Barney, S.A., Lewis, W.J., Beach, J.A. and Berghoff, O. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (New York, 2006). Crouch, D., The Image of Aristocracy in Britain, 1000-1300 (London and New York, 1992). Hall, L., Beowulf: An Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem (2005) https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16328/16328-h/16328-h.htm Hutchings, J., Folklore and Symbolism of Green, Folklore, 108:1-2, 55-63 (1997) Kress, G., and van Leehuwen, T., Visual Communication Colour as a Semiotic Mode: Notes for a Grammar of Colour (London and New Delhi, 1990). Langland, W., 'The Vision of Piers Ploughman' (1993) https://web.archive.org/web/20080920140652/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/LanPier.html Pistoreau, M., Yellow: The History of a Colour (2019). Roud, S., A Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles (2005). Sandred, K. I., 'The Place Names of Norfolk', The Survey of English Place Names, vol. LXXIX, part III (Nottingham,2002). Trevisa, J., Bartholomeus Anglicus De Proboetatibus Rerum: A Critical Text (Oxford, 1975).