History Witch: Uncovering Magical Antiquity

Want to know about real magic from history? This is the place. Here we explore primary texts and historical accounts from the past.

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Kate Laity

Kate Laity

K. A. Laity is an all-purpose writer, medievalist, journalist, Fulbrighter, social media maven for Broad Universe, and author of ROOK CHANT: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON WITCHCRAFT & PAGANISM, DREAM BOOK, UNQUIET DREAMS, OWL STRETCHING, CHASTITY FLAME, PELZMANTEL, UNIKIRJA, and many more stories, essays, plays and short humour. Find out more at www.kalaity.com and find her on Facebook or Twitter.

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Plough Monday Play

The liturgical calendar was essential in the medieval age but a lot of the older agricultural time markers found their place within it: Plough Monday was the Monday following the Epiphany (AKA The Twelfth Day of Christmas). One of the tradition associated with the day was another type of folk play. The existing plays are all from the northeast of England, but the tradition may have been more widely practised. Chambers tells us that the performers called themselves, 'Plough Jacks, Plough Jags...Plough Witchers and Morris Dancers' and woe betide the churl who turned them from his door, for they would plough up the ground before his door.

Like Mumming for the New Year, there was usually a mock battle and a healing, but there was an additional elements: sometimes the recruiting sergeant but most often, the Fool's Wooing. It was the last chance for a party as Plough Monday meant a return to work after the yuletide holidays. The Fool's Wooing gave an opportunity for fun and his wedding an excuse to ask for food and drink.

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Mumming for the New Year

Mumming was long a popular entertainment for the dark time of the year. The Christmas and New Years or Hogmanay plays offered adventures, dragons and Saint George and other wild characters -- Turkish Knights or Kings became popular after the Crusades. They offered an opportunity for hijinks, costumes and ritual of course. But they had another important theme, too.

At heart the plays were about healing.

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Nature of the Four Elements

When you say 'medieval drama' people generally think of mystery and morality plays. Mystery plays, after all, are how many people in the later Middle Ages knew their bible stories. In addition to the colourful paintings on church walls, they were probably the most vivid information they had about what Christianity was meant to be all about. The comic approaches may surprise you if you've not encountered them before. Noah's wife has to be dragged onto the arc because she didn't want to leave her friends. Then there's the thief who tried to disguise a hidden lamb as a newborn babe; the suspicious shepherds think it's an ugly baby but they don't catch on at first that it's the lost sheep they're looking for. The morality plays are more generalised but have characters that embody good and bad qualities like Mercy. Mischief and Mankind. 

But between the Middle Ages and Shakespeare's time there are many other kinds of plays, from adventurous episodes in Robin Hood's life (all probably more entertaining than the new film) to seasonal mummings to more philosophical works. One of these is John Rastell's Nature of the Four Elements which may well appeal to folks here. The play is dated to about 1517-18. The one surviving copy is imperfect, but it gives an interesting insight into how people conceived of the four elements and their effects on the natural world.

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Charms A-Plenty

There's a wonderful new book out that I have just barely had time to crack open, but if you're interested in the history of magic you will doubtless want to look into it as well:

Traditional Magic Spells for Protection and Healing
By Claude Lecouteux. 2016. Rochester: Inner Traditions. 328 pages.
ISBN: 978-1-62055-621-4 

There's a comprehensive review over at the Journal of Folklore Research, which is why I picked it up at once. Yelena Francis points out the strengths of Lecouteax's background and the accessibility of the format. There are also some great additional and often rare resources in the appendices. And because it's from Inner Traditions rather than a big academic press, it's actually an affordable volume (though you should be able to get it via interlibrary loan as well). 

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John Barleycorn & the Ale Wives

There's an Old English riddle from the Exeter Book that is part of a long tradition about the abuses of alcohol through the ages. While there is much to celebrate in the joy of drinking, there is a dark side, too, that many have fallen prey to over the years. The poem goes like this:

Biþ foldan dæl     fægre gegierwed
mid þy heardestan      mid þy scearpestan
 mid þy grymmestan     gumena ge streona ·
corfen sworfen     cyrred þyrred
bunden wunden     blæced wæced
frætwed geatwed     feorran læded
to durum dryhta     dream bið iinnan
cwicra wihta     clengeð lengeð
þara þe ær lifgende     longe hwile
wilna bruceð      no wið spriceð
 þōn æfter deaþe     deman onginneð
meldan mislice     micel is to hycganne
wisfæstum menn     hwæt seo wiht sy.

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  • Tyger
    Tyger says #
    Very interesting. Thank you!

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We are the Weavers

Ic wæs þær Inne þær ic ane geseah
winnende · wiht wido bennegean
holt hweorfende heaþoglemma feng
deopra dolga daroþas wæron
weo þære wihte ⁊ se wudu searwum
fæste gebunden hyre fota wæs
biid fæft oþer · oþer bisgo dreag
leolc on lyfte hwilum londe neah
treow wæs getenge þe þær torhtan stod
leafum bihongen Ic lafe geseah
minum hlaforde þær hæleð druncon
þara flan on flet beran

The Anglo-Saxon riddle above falls in the group usually classified as 'domestic' items: better to call them work tools. The aim of the riddle of course is to disguise a very familiar object with an unexpected description. Here's Paull Franklin Baum's translation (because it is hot even in Scotland, too hot to come up with my own translation!):

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  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ says #
    Lots of great info in Max Dashu's book: https://feminismandreligion.com/2016/09/19/weaving-and-spinning-women-witches-and-pagans-b

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The Magic of the Quill

Ic seah wrætlice     wuhte feower
samed siþian     swearte · wæran lastas
swaþu swiþe blacu     swift wæs on fore
fulgum framra     fleotgan lyfte
deaf under yþe     dreag unstille
winnende wiga     se him wægas tæcneþ
ofer fæted gold     feower eallū


The riddles of the Exeter Book give us oblique snapshots of everyday life for the monks in the Middle Ages. You can easily imagine the scribes fixing on something within site and coming up with a poetic and misleading description where metaphor can throw a reader off the track. But the metaphors reveal power, too. Riddle 40 (51 in the Krapp-Dobbie edition) refers to one of the ubiquitous items in their lives: the pen or quill.

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