The Mysterious Case of the Witch Bottle

In the 16th and 17th centuries, many people believed in witchcraft, and blamed ill-fortune such as their crops failing or the death of a loved one on a witch’s curse. People would do anything to ward off an evil spirit, from creating counter-curses to marking their doorways to keep the witches out. Nowadays we enjoy stories of magic and witchcraft as a part of English folklore, knitted into the history of our historic places, many of which may still hold evidence of a time when people’s superstitions took over their senses.

Chief Executive of Historic England, Duncan Wilson, tells us about his experience with an artefact of superstition, which may have been warding off witches for over 300 years.

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Bellarmine jug detail © Dave Gibbons

“I first encountered a Bellarmine jug wandering along the Thames foreshore near Barnes as a small boy: my first attempt at mud larking. More rocks than mud on that part of the river, but jammed between two stones was a fragment of stoneware, the neck of a bottle with a devilish mask. I found out that this was a ‘Bellarmine jug’ fragment. They were mostly made in the 17th century in the town of Frechen, west of Cologne, as containers for liquids such as wine and gin, and exported all over Europe.

They are named after Cardinal Bellarmine, the scourge of the Protestant Netherlands, who would have reputedly been cursed as his grotesque likeness was dashed to the floor. However since they predate the Cardinal’s notoriety by some decades the association is potentially misleading and they are probably more accurately called ‘Bartmann’ or bearded man jugs. They are often found on archaeological excavations of the period – salt glazed stoneware is very durable. Most evocatively, they are sometimes found buried beneath hearths or doorways in old houses. These are ritual deposits where the Bellarmines have been used as “witch bottles”.

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View of from Greenwich Park hill © Ed Webster

When I worked for the Greenwich Foundation for the Old Royal Naval College one of our biggest projects was the creation of a new exhibition “Discover Greenwich” telling the extraordinary story of Greenwich’s history, from Henry VIII’s favourite palace to Wren’s Royal Hospital for Seamen.  We sourced some amazing objects for the exhibition, and were helped considerably by the coincidental discovery of the tiled east end of Henry’s chapel under a car park next to the Queen Anne building. Many Bellarmine fragments were found. So when a builder working in the centre of Greenwich told me he had found an intact Bellarmine whilst excavating a basement, I was delighted to buy it for the Foundation’s exhibition. What I didn’t know until he handed it over was that it represented a deliberately buried “witch bottle” complete with its original contents, and still stopped with a cork more than 300 years after it had been buried. It rattled when shaken so we knew something was in it (although I was later advised that if you did this they sometimes exploded!)

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The witch bottle found in Greenwich, and the X-ray of it. Courtesy of Old Royal Naval College Greenwich

We found an expert with access to an X-ray machine – Dr Alan Massey of Loughborough University – and he and his team agreed to study the bottle. The X-ray results showed bent nails, pins and what looked like human hair, nail clippings and the outline of a heart shaped piece of material. Liquid drawn through the cork was analysed and shown to be human urine. The nail clippings showed no evidence of manual work, so it was assumed that the owner was relatively wealthy. For me the juxtaposition of superstition with the glamour and splendour of a former royal palace, near which the jug was found, only heightened the significance of the find.

The gruesome materials are said to represent a counter spell designed to repel curses placed on the occupants at the point which they would enter a house – through a door or window. The person who provided the materials for such a creation obviously believed that they were cursed.

The story of Bellarmine jugs, whose fragments can still be found where there are 17th and 18th century remains, takes you straight back to a superstitious past. Stories such as these paint our everyday surroundings with historical colour.”

There are many more objects of superstition in our historic environment. Here are two which are protected by listing. Do you know of any more examples? Let us know in the comments below.

Ducking Stools

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A ducking stool in Canterbury. Images © Karen Roe

Ducking stools were historically used as a method of punishing women who spoke back, and severely punishing those accused of witchcraft. The suspected witch would be held under the water for a couple of minutes, and if she lived, was thought to have been proven to be a witch. If she drowned, she was absolved of her suspected crime in death.

The ducking stool pictured in Canterbury is listed Grade II, and was last used in 1809. It bears the legend ‘Unfaithful wives beware, also butchers bakers, brewers, apothecaries, and all who give short measure”.

Witches’ Marks

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A daisy wheel carved into the roof beam of Scarrow Hill in Brampton, Cumbria. © Catharine Bancroft via scarrowhill.co.uk

Apotropaic or ‘witches marks’ are symbols that can be found carved into many historic buildings, including medieval churches and houses. They are usually carved into a building’s entrance points – doorways, windows and fireplaces- to protect inhabitants from evil spirits. They take a specific form such as the daisy wheel, which looks like a flower, pictured on the roof structure at Grade II listed 17th century dwelling Scarrow Hill.

Further Reading

  • Do you know of any listed buildings with a mysterious past? Share your knowledge and pictures with the nation by adding them to the National Heritage List for England, the official List of England’s most significant historic buildings and places. Read More about how you can help to enrich the list.

4 responses to The Mysterious Case of the Witch Bottle

  1. Stacy says:

    Very interesting read. As someone studying witchcraft I’ve been advised that witches themselves would make these bottles to bury outside their doorways to ward off evil spirits or unwelcome visitors. Traditionally buried at the time of Samhain (now Halloween) as the ending of the pagan year when all saints (or spirits) would roam as the veil between our world and the next was at its thinnest. It is a protection aid, typically made with nails, broken glass and some herbs for good measure. I understand so far that these bottles were not used against witches until the status of the witch trials that promoted fear of ‘witches’ and superstition. Some practicing witches still bury bottles the night before Samhain.

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  2. A.K.A. de Mik says:

    Very interesting. Those were the days … However, as a Dutchman, I have to question the phrase “Cardinal Bellarmine, the scourge of the Protestant Netherlands”. I think I am justified in saying that I have a fair knowledge of Dutch history; & I had never heard of Cardinal Bellarmine before. Nor, for that matter, are the Netherlands mentioned in the Wikipedia entry for Cardinal Bellarmine.

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  3. Chris Wood says:

    Very interesting, but old-fashioned in its approach! Magic is not superstition, and apotropaic devices are a rational response to extra-mundane threats. To write: “Nowadays we enjoy stories of magic and witchcraft as a part of English folklore, knitted into the history of our historic places, many of which may still hold evidence of a time when people’s superstitions took over their senses” suggests a real failure to understand the dynamics of the use of such things as these urine bottles. They were, it seems, popularised by physicians in the 17th and 18th centuries as a sympathetic counter-spell, a cure for bewitchment, as understood at the time. The evidence for this comes from Annie Thwaite’s work (see https://www.rca.ac.uk/students/annie-thwaite/ or http://www.apotropaios.co.uk/annie-thwaite.html), which references the Greenwich bottle too. Furthermore, the form of Bellarmines is highly appropriate, given the hairy face at the base of the neck: when the bottle is inverted, it becomes a representation of the human urinary tract. When placed in a fire or the embers of one, the contents would heat up and the pins become agitated – imagine that in your bladder! Afterwards, the bottle would be buried and this practice seems to have led to their use as more general apotropaic devices later. There seems to be no evidence of urine bottles before the heyday of the Bellarmine, which makes me wonder whether it was a new idea at that time, or whether it was an existing practice and the sturdiness of the stoneware bottles allowed them often to survive the heating process without exploding and thereby remain intact to be found today?

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