Close Analysis: A Tudor Witch Bottle

The object is a salt-glazed witches bottle, which was discovered in Greenwich in 2004. Inside was a sample of human urine, bent nails and pins, a pierced leather heart, fingernail clippings, naval fluff and hair and sulphur and brimstone. The presence of these materials was illuminated by Joseph Blagrave’s ‘Astrological Practice of Physic’ which noted that the objects in the bottle would ‘endanger’ a witches life, ‘making their water with great difficulty.’ This implies that the bottle was used to ward of witchcraft,

The early modern witch craze led to 90,000 trials between 1450 and 1750, and was inspired by beliefs in malign magic. The clergy deemed that all form of magic was evil, as the Devil was behind it. Conversely, popular belief in magic recognised that the magic of cunning folk had healing powers. It was ‘Maleficia’ that caused the most concern, as this was the kind of witchcraft that was harmful, as it was practised by witches who were serving the Devil. It was believed that witches had the power to injure people and ruin livestock, only needing substances containing a person’s vital spirit to harm them. Witches were also aided by Familiars as described in James VI 1597 work, ‘Daemonologie.’ Emma Vilbey roots this tradition in popular folklore, and notes that Familiar’s would appear as small animals like cats and dogs. Vilbey notes witches would feed their Familiars, indicating the ‘depraved’ relationship, and contract, between the two.

Other measures to keep witchcraft at bay included the concealing of garments. As the witch required an object that contained the essence of a person to harm them, when clothes deteriorated, people would bury them inside the walls of their house, to hide them from witches. Ritual markings also deterred witches, such as images of the eternal trinity. The letter ‘V’ was also used, for its association with the Virgin Mary. This inscription has been found in different houses of different social ranks. Iron nails were placed strategically around the house as it was thought to be repelling. Popular, and official religious belief, in the supernatural is further explored by the presence of the Ghost in ‘Hamlet.’

‘Hamlet’ is thought to be written in the late 1590s, and the Ghost recognises the presence of purgatory. The Ghost is ‘doomed to fast in fires,’ and was ‘cut off in the blossoms of my sin,’ meaning that the Ghost was not given the last rites, implying that this is a Catholic ghost. Before the Protestant reformation the Catholic church advocated the existence of Purgatory, and argued that souls of the dead may return from Purgatory with unfinished business. This is reflected in ‘Hamlet,’ as the Ghost tasks Hamlet with revenging his ‘foul and most unnatural murder.’ Keith Thomas noted that medieval ghosts would also return to confess their crimes and testify to punishments for sin to gain rewards in the afterlife. The presence of the Ghost therefore linked to salvation and raised questions about whether one would go to Heaven or Hell, and how one could change their destination. ‘Hamlet’ as a play is rare, as Hamlet himself questions the validity of the ghost and whether it just seeks to draw him into ‘madness.’

Protestants asserted, following the Reformation, that Ghosts were not the souls of the dead returning, but were an elaborate ruse constructed by corrupt Catholic priests. Protestants cited the authority of the Bible to assert this, as in Deuteronomy, Isaiah and the Israelites were warned not to consult with the dead. Jacobean bishop Thomas Morton said that Catholics had some infatuation with ‘ghostly apparitions, which Protestants dare not beleeve.’ Protestants also rejected Purgatory, due to its lack of scriptural basis. However, this did not quell popular beliefs, which made it more difficult for Protestants to explain supposed sightings. They concluded that it was unlikely that such apparitions were angels, as such incidences only occurred in the Old Testament. They even attributed sightings to Elizabethan melancholy, blaming madmen, the sick and menstruating women. They asserted that ghosts were no longer a problem in England, as they had been vanquished by Protestantism, a view articulated by reformer Robert Wisdom in 1543.

Popular beliefs still maintained that ghosts existed, and Keith Thomas argued that people believed that ghosts would return to rectify social arrangements, such as restoring stolen goods. The presence of the supernatural, in the form of the witches bottle and in ‘Hamlet’ tells us that fears of the supernatural occurred across all levels of society, and were affected by the changing religious face of England.

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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