The Elizabethan People/Chapter 10
IT is difficult for us to imagine the sincere quality of the faith with which people then accepted the articles of folklore superstition that were in vogue. People not only believed in ghosts, witches, wise women, fortune tellers, palmists, astrologers, and fairies, with implicit faith; they also believed in omens by the score and score, connected with numberless plants and animals, with days of the week and hours of the day, with natural objects on the earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars. This was not a matter of faith with the common people alone; it was a part as well of the belief of the most educated, the most refined, the most intelligent of people. Elizabeth was a firm believer in astrology. She once sent in great excitement for a magician to counteract the direful effects of a waxen image that had been picked up in one of the fields near London. One of the customary ways of bewitching people was to fashion a small image out of wax to represent the person to be bewitched. Whatver was done to the image happened without delay to the original. If the model were stuck full of pins the person it stood for suffered sharp pains in all parts of the body. If the model were hung up before the fire and allowed to melt slowly away from day to day, the original would go into a decline and die simultaneously with the final disappearance of the waxen image. On another occasion Elizabeth sought the services of Dr. Dee, a noted astrologer, rather than consult a physician to counteract the effect of a toothache. The date of her coronation was determined by astrology with great success. Many intelligent people in the kingdom believed that Leicester's great influence over the queen could be explained only by taking into consideration the magical effect of the fact that they were both born at the same time, to the hour and day. Even the learned scholar John Stow in all faith explains the common accident of a church struck by lightning as the work of a personal devil who was actually seen entering the belfry window; and, furthermore, Stow himself had often examined the prints left by the claws of the evil doer, and had inserted a feather into them to the depth of several inches.
Laveterus who wrote a book, De Spectris, in 1670, which was translated into English in 1672, remarks that "if when men sit at the table, mention be made of spirits and elves, many times women and children are so afraid that they dare scarce go out of doors alone lest they should meet with some evil thing; and if they chance to hear any kind of noise, by and by they think there are some spirits behind them: ... simple foolish men imagine that there be certain elves or fairies of the earth, and tell many strange and marvellous tales of them, which they have heard of their grandmothers and mothers, how they have appeared unto those of the house, have done service, have rocked the cradle, and (which is a sign of good luck) do continually tarry in the house." The same writer also tells of a custom that helps to explain the generality of the credence of grown people, for it was bred in them from childhood."It is a common custom in many places, that at a certain time of the year, one with a net or vizard on his face maketh children afraid, to the end that ever after they should labour and be obedient to their parents; afterward they tell them that those which they saw were bugs, witches, and hags, which they verily believe, and are commonly miserably afraid. How be it, it is not expedient so to terrify children. For sometime through great fear they fall into dangerous deseases, and in the night cry out when they are fast asleep."
Anne Hathaway's Cottage.
so terrified us with an ugly devil, having horns in his head, fire in his mouth, and a tail in his breech, eyes like a bason, fangs like a dog, and a voice roaring like a lion, whereby we start and are afraid when we hear one cry boo: and they have so fraid [frightened] us with bull-beggars, spirits, witches, urchens, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, pans, fauns, syrens, kit with the can'stick, tritons, centaurs, dwarfs, giants, imps, calcars [astrologers], conjurors, nymphs, changelings. Incubus, Robin Grood-fellow, the sporne, the mare, the man in the oak, the hell-wain, the firedrake, the puckle Tomthumb, hob-goblin, Tom Tumbler, boneless, and other such bugs [terrors], that we are afraid of our own shadows: insomuch that some never fear the devil but in a dark night; and then a polled sheep is a perilous beast, and many times is taken for our father's soul, specially in a churchyard, where a right hardy man heretofore scant durst pass by night, but his hair would stand upright." (Discovery of Witchcraft, 1580.)
Addison tells us in The Spectator (No. 419) that "our forefathers loved to astonish themselves with the apprehensions of witchcraft, prodigies, and charms, and inchantments. There was not a village in England that had not a ghost in it; the churchyards were all haunted; every large common circles of fairies belonging to it; and there was scarce a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit."
Two other quotations are added from more recent writers that will help to fix in mind the generality of superstition in England in former times.
"In former times these notions were so prevalent that it was deemed little less than atheism to doubt them; and in many instances the terrors caused by them embittered the lives of a great number of persons of all ages; by degrees almost shutting them out of their own houses, and deterring them from going from one village to another after sunset. The room in which the head of a family had died was for a long time untenanted; particularly if they died without a will, or were supposed to have entertained any particular religious opinions. But if any disconsolate old maiden, or love-crossed bachelor, happened to dispatch themselves in their garters, the room where the deed was perpetrated was rendered forever afterward uninhabitable, and not infrequently was nailed up. If a drunken farmer, returning from market, fell from old Dobbin and broke his neck,—or a carter, under the same predicament, tumbled from his cart or wagon, and was killed by it,—that spot was ever after haunted and impassable: in short there was scarcely a bye-lane or cross-way but had its ghost, who appeared in the shape of a headless cow or horse; or clothed all in white, glared with its saucer eyes over a gate or stile. Ghosts of a superior rank, when they appeared abroad, rode in coaches drawn by six headless horses, and driven by a headless coachman and postillions. Almost every ancient manor house was haunted by some one at least of its former masters or mistresses, where, besides divers other noises, that of telling money was distinctly heard; and as for the churchyards, the number of ghosts that walked there, according to the village computation, almost equaled the living parishioners: to pass them at night was an achievement not to be attempted by any one in the parish, the sextons excepted; who perhaps, being particularly privileged, to make use of the common expression, never saw anything worse than themselves." (Grose's Provincial Glossary, p. 242.)
"Nothing is commoner in country places than for a whole family in a winter's evening to sit round the fire and tell stories of apparitions and ghosts. Some of them have seen spirits in the shape of cows, and dogs, and horses; and some have seen even the devil himself, with a cloven foot. "Another part of this conversation generally turns upon fairies. These, they tell you, have been frequently heard and seen; nay, there are some still living who were stolen away by them, and confined seven years. According to the description they give of them, who pretend to have seen them, they are in the shape of men, exceeding little: they are always clad in green, and frequent the woods and fields; when they make cakes (which is a work they have been often heard at) they are very noisy: and when they have done, they are full of mirth and pastime. But generally they dance in moonlight when mortals are asleep, and not capable of seeing them, as may be observed on the following morn; their dancing places being very distinguishable. For as they dance hand in hand and so make a circle in their dance, so next day there will be seen rings and circles on the grass.
"Another tradition they hold, and which is often talked of, is, that there are particular places allotted to spirits to walk in. Thence it was that formerly, such frequent reports were abroad of this and that particular place being haunted by a spirit, and that the common people say now and then, such a place is dangerous to be passed through, because a spirit walks there. Now, they'll further tell you, that some spirits have lamented the hardness of their condition, by being obliged to walk in cold and uncomfortable places, and therefore desire the person who was so hardy as to speak to them, to gift them with a warmer walk, by some well grown hedge, or some shady vale, where they might be sheltered from the wind and rain.
"The last topic of this conversation I shall take notice of, shall be the tales of haunted houses. And indeed it is not to be wondered at that this is never omitted. For formerly almost every place had a house of this kind. If a house was seated on some melancholy place, or built in some old romantic manner; or if any particular accident had happened in it, such as murder, sudden death, or the like, to be sure that house had a mark set on it, and was afterwards esteemed the habitation of a ghost. In talking upon this point they generally show the occasion of the house's being haunted, the merry pranks of the spirit, and how it was laid. Stories of this kind are infinite, and there are few villages which have not either had such an house in it, or near it." (Bourne's Antiquities of the Common People.)
With the fact of such widespread and deeprooted notions of the truth of the folk-lore traditions in mind, one will not be surprised to find how hemmed about every-day life was by an numerable miscellany of omens, good, bad, and indifferent.
Raven's eggs were good for the ague. A large house spider swallowed alive in treacle was a sure cure. The salamander's skin would keep one from sun burning. Tumours could be removed by stroking with a dead man's hand. Carduus Benedictus was called the Holy or Blessed thistle from its supposed virtue as an antidote for poison. The Thracian stone when touched cured grief and melancholy. Feeding on snakes was supposed to recover youth. Amulets were believed in and constantly worn. There were rings to counteract enchantments, charms against the evil effects of thunder—for it was the mysterious thunder-stone precipitated by a clap that the Elizabethan feared, not the lightning. There were waistcoats rendered shot-proof by charms. The carbuncle had the power of expelling evil spirits. It was a sign of excellent good luck to have the martlet build its nest about the house. Gerard, though a scientist, does not hesitate to record the following facts in his herbal (p. 147): "The roots of the garden angelica is a singular remedy against poison, and against the plague, and all infections taken by evil and corrupt air; if you do but take a piece of the root, and hold it in your mouth, or chew the same between your teeth, it doth most certainly drive away the pestilent air." This is but one of hundreds of the medical superstitions, some of them with more than a grain of truth, that clustered about plants or simples, in common use at that day.
This list of signs or superstitions with a favourable significance could be extended almost indefinitely; but omens of the opposite sort were even greater in number. It was ill luck to hear a toad croak, or the owl hoot. Mice only forsook houses before their fall. The withering of the bay tree was a sign of bad luck. Beasts of the field licking against the hair foretold a direful storm. Anything begun or finished during an eclipse was sure to turn out badly. It was a positive sign of an unlucky life to be born during the dog days. Friday was then as now, an unfortunate day on which to set out upon a journey, or on which to begin an important enterprise. It was a direful neglect if one passed a memorial cross without murmuring a pater noster. One who stumbled upon the threshold would certainly meet with trouble within. "He sleeps like a hare, with his eyes open, and that's no good sign." (Ford, The Lover's Melancholy, ii. 2.) It was bad luck to meet a splay-footed wench in the forenoon; so it was to sit at the foot of a sick bed. Anything out of the ordinary was interpreted usually as a bad sign rather than as a good one. Thus a ship painted black all over, without a white spot anywhere to be seen, raised great fear in the hearts of those who saw it. (See Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West, iv. 2.)There were numerous indications that pointed directly at death. "It is an unlucky sign in the chamber of the sick to talk of marriages; for my mother sayeth that it foreshoweth death." (Lyly, Sapho and Phao, iii. 3.) One whose name was mentioned frequently on a death bed would not live long. Drake quotes the following list of signs that usually implied either death or some dreadful calamity: lamentings in the air, shaking and trembling of the earth, sudden gloom at noonday, the appearance of meteors, eclipses of the sun and moon, the moon of a bloody hue, the shrieking of owls, the croaking of ravens, the shrilling of crickets, the night howling of dogs, the clicking of the death-watch, the chattering of pies, the wild neighing of horses, their running wild and eating each other, the cries of fairies, the gibbering of ghosts, the withering of bay trees, showers of blood, blood dripping thrice from the nose, horrid dreams, demoniacal voices, ghastly apparitions, winding sheets, corpse candles, night fires, and strange and fearful noises. Most of
Longleat. Illustrative of straight lines as an element of design.
these are referred to in the plays of Shakespeare alone.
Convulsions of nature on the grand scale were particularly apt of interpretation. They always heralded great events of world-wide importance, but were not always indicative of calamity. The births of great persons, Owen Glendower, for instance, were heralded by storms. "Every peer's birth sticks a new star in heaven." (Dekker, The Whore of Babylon.) A great storm with monstrous phenomena accompanying it preceded the murder of Caesar and of Duncan. The madness of Lear occurred simultaneously with a tremendous upheaval of the elements. That such signs generally, though not always, foretold disaster, is expressed in the lines:
"For I have heard the meteors in the air.
Of lesser form, less wonderful than these.
Rather foretell of dangers imminent
Than flatter us with future happiness."
"The sky is overcast, and there is a porspice [porpoise] even now seen at London Bridge, which is always the messenger of tempests." (Jonson, Eastward Ho, iii. 3.) Untimely storms were an indication of dearth.
People spoke of blood-drinking sighs, referring to the superstition that every sigh cost one a drop of blood. Sudden bleeding at the nose was an ominous sign. "Ha, bleed? I would not have a sad and ominous fate hang o'er thee for a million: perhaps 'tis custom with you." (Heywood, The Fair Maid of the West.) Bloodshot eyes were cured by the pressure of a ring. The bloodstone hung about the neck would staunch a wound.
The juice of the mandrake would take away an artificial mole raised by magic. It was a matter of common belief that the mandrake gave a peculiar cry when torn from the ground. One who heard this cry was likely to go mad. "I have this night digged a mandrake … and I am grown mad with it." (Webster, The Dutchess of Malfi.) This sound was also a sign of coming death and calamity. "Curses kill as doth the mandrake's groan." (2 Henry VI., iii. 2.) "O hark, hark. The mandrake's shrieks are music to their cries. The very night is frighted, and the stars do drop like torches to behold the deed." (Heywood, 2 Edward IV.)
Madmen were affected by the moon. The Elizabethans believed in the man in the moon, with a bundle of sticks on his back, and his dog following. Very sharp horns to the new moon indicated windy weather. The changeable nature of women was also attributed to the influence of the changing moon.
The raven was one of the most ominous of birds. It is mentioned in connection with Duncan's death. Ravens appear in Edward IV. before the battle of Poitiers. If ravens sat on a hen's eggs the chicks would be black. "O, it comes o'er my memory As doth the raven o'er the infected house, Boding to all." (Othello, iv. 1.) "Came he right now to sing a raven's note whose dismal tune bereft my vital power." (2 Henry VI., iii. 2.) And again Marlowe, in The Jew of Malta, says:—
" Thus like the sad presaging raven, that tolls
The Duke's House, Bradford on Avon, illustrating the irregularity of exterior construction.
This miscellaneous list of omens could be continued indefinitely. It is the purpose, however, of the present chapter to illustrate the generality of superstition rather than to record a complete list of beliefs. The people believed in angels who guarded or pursued the individual to destruction. The time was especially well provided with devil lore. Numerous contemporary devils of more than local fame are referred to in the old plays. Scot is detailed in his attack upon devil worship. Magic of all sorts was practised upon every hand. Palmistry, sooth-saying, various kinds of fortune-telling and divining all had their staunch adherents. The publication of almanacs containing forecasts of the weather, medical advice, and prognostications of various other kinds constituted a lucrative business.
Though Nash in The Terrors of Night violently attacks the theory of interpretation of dreams then in vogue, he was somewhat in advance of his time. It was well enough for him to say that "Anie meate that in the day time we eat against our stomackes begetteth a dismal dreame;" but his readers knew better than that what a dismal dream stood for. The Elizabethan plays abound in allusions to the fulfilment of dreams. Every one recalls Clarence's dream, and the dream of Calpurnia. Dreams were often significant in other ways. Maids hoped to dream of their future husbands on Saint Agnes's eve. "I dreamed mine eye tooth was loose, and that I thrust it out with my tongue … it foretelleth the loss of a friend." (Lyly, Sapho and Phao, iv. 3.) "They that in the morning dream of eating, Are in danger of sickness, or of beating, Or shall hear of a wedding, fresh beating." (Lyly, Mother Bombie, iii. 4.)