Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Suffolk Superstitions

( Originally Published 1884 )

There are two old women of my acquaintance they are still living, though for obvious reasons I must not give their names who reside in the same house, the one occupying the front, the other the back room. One of these had retired to rest in the back room, " In peace," as she assured me, " with the whole world, for she had said her prayers to her neighbour aloud, I conclude, but not, I hope, in the boastful spirit of a real Pharisee. She had just "forgot the world," which, in the East Anglian dialect, means that she was just falling asleep, when she was startled by feeling something pass quietly over her face, and then proceed to hop quickly down her right side.She resolved, however, not to be alarmed, though she was doubtless in a great fright ; and she was comforted for a while by thinking that the mysterious visitor had departed, for the saltatory movement ceased.But by-and-by, to her exceeding consternation, she felt him rapidly mounting up the other side, and this resumption of his progress was attended by three loud raps on the wall of the bedroom near her head. She jumped out of bed, and rushing to her friend and patron saint in the next room, eagerly besought her protection. The two held a hurried consultation, and agreed to summon in a neighbour by some less ominous raps against the wall which separated their houses, and on her arrival the haunted bed was brought into the front room, and the original tenant was persuaded to re-occupy it. But she had scarcely laid herself down again before the persevering " Pharisee" [fairy], as she called him, mounted on her foot, and caused her wildly to entreat the pity and assistance of her friends. By this time, the belief in a supernatural visitor had possessed the trio, for they seized the warming-pan, and made a loud din in the persuasion that the noise would effectually drive the intruder away ; a persuasion which the event seemed to justify, for the " Pharisee " did not disturb his intended victim any more that night.

The alarm, however, had been too great to be altogether dissipated, like evil spirits by the return of light (I have been told of an old man who was described as a " half-bred Baptist," who assured an aged friend, with great solemnity, that whenever the devil appeared, he was permitted only to appear in white, and that our Blessed Saviour always appeared in red); and the old lady left her home next morning for the residence of her daughter, with whom she remained two days. She was then induced to go back to her own house, reassured in some degree by a charm against "Pharisees " which a neighbour had recommended to her. This was a large stone with a hole in it (a somewhat similar remedy is used in Yorkshire against the evil eye—" to be suspended from the top of her bed, so as to hang directly over her head. Butler, in " Hudibras," seems to allude to this charm, when he says of Sidrophel, that he knew how to;

" Chase evil spirits away by dint

Of sickle, horse-shoe, hollow flint."

The two friends of the old woman considered it to be the ghost of another old woman who had formerly lived in the same house. The three raps, which are said to have been heard, are popularly regarded as an omen of death. Three loud and distinct knocks at the bed's head," says Grosc, " of a sick person, or at the bed's head or door of any of his relations, is an omen of his death."

I believe also that the idea that sounds have a wonderful efficacy against evil spirits is very prevalent.

I inquired from the wiseacre who recommended this charm what his authority for it was, and then discovered another interesting fact. He informed me that such a phylactery was formerly suspended from the roof of the stables at Peyton Hall, in the parish of Hadleigh,when he worked there as a boy (a hag-stone, with a hole through) tied to the key of the stable-door, protects the horses : and if hung up at the bed's head, the farmer also. " Choice Notes Folk Lore of Lancashire," p. 186). The "Pharisees," he alleged, used to ride the horses about at night, so that the men who had charge of them, on going into the stables in the morning, often found them quite in a foam (Scott's "Discovery of Witchcraft," 1665, p. 51). But when these stones were hung up, no Pharisee was able to enter. [The author here quotes from Brand's.

I must add that, in the case of our old woman, the stone proved eminently successful. It hung for some weeks over the head of the sleeper, for whilst it remained there she always passed tranquil nights. I ridiculed the idea of its potency so much, however, that at length it was taken down ; but in a few months afterwards fear again overcame the better judgment of the old woman, and she placed large stones on various parts of the floor of the room. (Agate, however, has a very different effect : The common belief in Iceland is that you have only to place a piece of obsidian, or Iceland agate, on a farm, to cause all the inhabitants to quarrel. Forbes " Iceland," 1860, Scott's " Discovery of Witchcraft," 1665, pp. 166-167, cap. vi., on the virtues and qualities of sundry precious stones, is interesting, as it appears to explain the origin of coral necklaces for children.

There was an old man (he is now dead), living at a short distance from the former old woman, under whose bed (see " Our English Homes", it was reported, a " Pharisee " used to creep at night and try to throw him out.

I cannot refrain from giving here "an excellent way to get a fayrie." "First, get a broad square christall or Venice glasse, in length and breadth three inches. Then lay that glasse or christall in the blood of a white henne, three Wednesdayes or three Fridayes. Then take it out and wash it with holy aq., and fumigate it. Then take three hazle sticks, or wands, of an yeare groth ; pill them fayre and white ; and make them soe longe as you write the spiritt's name, or fayrie's name, which you call three times on every stick being made flatt on one side. Then bury them under some hill, whereat you suppose fayries haunt, the Wednesday before you call her : and the Friday followinge take them uppe and call her at eight, or three, or ten of the clocke, which be good planetts and houres for that turne.

In the times immediately preceding the great rebellion, and during its early progress, the Eastern Counties were notorious for the number of their witches. (See Isaac Wilson's "Sermons on Female Characters of Holy Scripture," " Celebrated Trials," vol. iii.; pp. 547, 548; Hook's "Archbishops," vol. i., p. 420.) About the year 164o they formed an association for the prosecution of witches, and Matthew Hopkins, of Manningtree, was appointed witch-finder, with the promise of a reward of one pound for every detection. The result was he brought many reputed witches to trial and death. According to one account, about forty were condemned at Bury, in the years 1645 and 1646 (Hudibras, pt. ii., canto iii., lines 139-144), and even after the Restoration, in 1662 and 1664, two women were tried for witchcraft at Bury St. Edmunds, before the humane Sir Matthew Hale, and by him condemned to death (see "Celebrated Trials," vol. ii., pp. 213-227, and Mackay, " Popular Delusions," vol. ii., pp. 148-149.) The belief in witchcraft still lingers amongst us. A few years ago I met, in a cottage at Hadleigh, a woman from Whatfield, who proved to be a devout believer in witch-craft. She said, with a positive earnestness which convinced me she was sincere in her error, that she knew of several instances of it, and of some families who were in possession of the secret. One case was that of a poor girl, who had been ill for a long time, and whose sickness apparently excited the commiseration of an aged female, who came every day to enquire after her. At length it occurred to one of the family that the old lady must needs be 'a witch, and accordingly it was proposed that a horse-shoe should be affixed to the sill of the outer door, in order to prevent her from entering the house. " On one of the bricks, which are close to the threshold of the door (south doorway, Stanningfield Church, Suffolk), is a glazed tile, on which is the figure of a horse-shoe, for the purpose, it is said, of preventing witches from entering the church."—" Proceedings of Suffolk Institute of Archaeology."

It was an ancient Saxon superstition that magical arts could not be practised, or practised so well, upon persons in the open air as in houses. (Turner's " Anglo-Saxons," vol. i., p. 196.) Thus when Ethelbert, King of Kent, gave audience to St. Augustine, A.D. 597, he would not allow the interview to take place in the palace, but met the great missionary in the open air in the Isle of Thanet; and it was the lingering influence of the same superstition, I conclude, which led all who were afraid of the devices of witches to exclude witches from their houses. [See note 28.] In the case of the reputed witch of Whatfield, the precaution succeeded ; the old woman was never able to cross the threshold after the horse-shoe had been affixed to it, and the young woman rapidly regained her health. (See Smiles' " Lives of the Engineers," vol. i., p. 192.)

Another case was also mentioned by the same person. The ability to practise witchcraft, it was stated, was handed on from one to another, usually by the witch on her death-bed communicating the important secret to her chosen successor. My informant added that she knew an instance in which a box, containing little imps, was given by an old witch to a young woman, whom she wished to succeed her in the art. The young woman, however, did not at all value the gift; but not knowing how to dispose of ,the disagreeable legacy, she called in the advice of a neighbour. The latter suggested that all the windows of the bouse should be closed, the shutters put up, and the doors locked and barred. This was the only preliminary to what was to follow. The windows were all closed and barred, a fire was lighted and the oven heated, and then the box which contained the imps was placed in the oven, and the door tightly fastened on the inside. The yells which soon proceeded from the oven were said to have been frightful beyond description, for the imps proved to be no salamanders. At length all was silent ; the two women cautiously reopened the oven, and nothing was discovered to be left, either of the box or of the imps, but a little dust.

I have been told that there was formerly a family in Hadleigh whose limbs used to fall off in a remarkable way. The description I have heard of them leads me to suppose that they must have lost their limbs much in the same manner as a family of children in the parish of Wattisham, in the year 1762. Lord Mahon in his " History of England," tells us : " It chanced that six children in one family died in quick succession of a sudden and mysterious illness their feet having first mortified and dropped of. Professor Henslow, who resides at no great distance from Wattisham, has given much attention to the records of this case, and has made it clear in his excellent essay on the Diseases of Wheat that in all probability their death was owing to the imprudent use of deleterious food the ergot of rye. But he adds that in the neighbourhood the popular belief was firm that these poor children had been the victims of sorcery and witchcraft."

Much the same belief was entertained with regard to the persons I am speaking of, in whose case there was one peculiarity; they used to whirl round upon their stumps with inconceivable rapidity. They gained in consequence the reputation of being either the victims or the practisers of witchcraft.

It was easy enough formerly to excite suspicion on this head. " Even a sinister and malicious look in an old woman's cat," it has been said, "was enough to make her mistress suspected of dealings with the devil." For the "water ordeal" for witchcraft, see Hook's " Archbishops of Canterbury."

A clergyman who was present at one of our clerical meetings told us that he had heard of a case in Suffolk I believe I am right when he says he witnessed it of a man running round a room in a condition of extreme excitement, with his body at right angles to the wall, half way up between the floor and ceiling. He suggested this might be an example of demoniacal possession.

I propose in this chapter to pass on to the subject of Popular Remedies for Complaints.

Calling at a cottage one day, I saw a small loaf hanging up oddly in a corner of the house. I asked why it was placed there, and was told that it was a Good Friday loaf a loaf baked on Good Friday; that it would never grow mouldy (and on inspecting it I certainly found it very dry), and that it was very serviceable against some diseases, the bloody flux being mentioned as an example. Some weeks afterwards I called again, with a friend, at the same house, and drew his attention to the loaf, which was hanging in its accustomed corner. The owner of the house endeavoured to take the loaf down gently, but failing in the attempt, he gave a violent pull, and the precious loaf; to his great dismay, was shivered into atoms, but in the catastrophe gave us further proofs of its extraordinary dryness. The old man collected the fragments and hung them up in a paper bag, with all the more reverence on account of the good which the loaf, as he alleged, had done his son. The young man, having been seized with a slight attack of English cholera in the summer, secretly " abscinded," and ate a piece of the loaf, and when his family expressed astonishment at his rapid recovery, he explained the mystery by declaring that he had eaten of the Good Friday loaf, and had been cured by it.

For the hooping cough many are the remedies. I have known the following employed : Procure a live flat fish a "little dab " will do; place it whilst alive on the bare chest of the patient ; press it close down, and keep it there till it is dead. I have been assured by a mother, who made a trial of it, that in the cases of her two children it gave great relief. I have also met with these four prescriptions, all made use of in succession, but without success, in the same family. If several children are ill, take some of the hair of the eldest child, cut it into small pieces, and put them into some milk, and give the compound to the youngest to drink, and so on throughout the family; or let the patient eat a roasted mouse (see " Choice Notes," pp. 164, 225, 226) ; or let the patient drink some milk which a ferret has lapped ; or let the patient be dragged through a gooseberry-bush or bramble, both ends of which are growing in the ground. A person who would be offended at being thought ignorant told me himself that he and his wife had had several of their children passed under a bramble, both ends of which grew in the ground, with a view of curing them of hooping cough. The party present at the ceremony, besides the father and mother of the children, consisted of the " wise man " of the neighbourhood and the nurse, and the scene of it was the large field opposite the west entrance to the Place Farm. I have been further told that to pass the patient through a slit in the stem of a young ash-tree is quite as efficacious as the gooseberry or bramble remedies. I have known other persons procure hair from the cross on the back of a donkey, and having placed it in a bag, hang it round the necks of their invalid children (" Choice Notes," p. 217). The presumed virtue in this hair is connected, I imagine, with the fact that the ass is the animal which was ridden by our blessed Saviour, and with the superstition that the cross was imprinted on its back as a memorial of that event. I have heard also of a woman who obtained a certain number of "hodmidods," or small snails. These were passed through the hands of the invalids, and then suspended in the chimney on the string, in the belief that as they died, the hooping cough would leave the children. At Monks Eleigh I have been informed they hang a live frog in the chimney in the same belief. Another popular remedy is to follow a plough, the smell of the newly turned earth being considered very wholesome.

I will mention next remedies for ague (see Lockhart's " Medical Missionary in China," pp. 58, 59 ; Scott's " Discovery of Witchcraft," pp. 153, 154 ; Wordsworth's " Ecclesiastical Biography," George Herbert, vol. iv., pp. 22, 23 ; Tymm's " Handbook of Bury," p. 18): a mixture of beer, gin, and acorns is sometimes employed ; mustard and beer are also given ; and the parents of one family have told me that they dosed their children so copiously with the latter draught that now, when they are grown up, they cannot bear the taste of its component parts. When I was suffering from ague a few years ago, I was strongly urged to go to a stile one of those which are placed across footpaths-and to drive a nail into that part over which foot passengers travel in their journeys.

To swallow a spider, or its web, when placed in a small piece of apple, is an acknowledged cure for ague, which was unfortunately urged upon myself. It is employed not only by the poor, but by the better informed; and I have been told that it is also used in Ireland. Miss Strickland mentions an instance of its being tried in vain, but its failure excited great astonishment. "As true as I am alive, he (the ague) minded neither pepper nor gin taken fasting on a Friday morning, nor the black bottle-spiders made into pills with fresh butter."* This remedy, according to Longfellow, is known in America. A prescription for the hooping cough was furnished me. Procure a live spider, shut it up between two walnut-shells, and wear it on your person. As the spider dies, the cough will go away.

This next method is reckoned efficacious. A Suffolk clergyman told me that he once caught the ague in Kent, and that for a long time every effort to cure it failed. At length an .old woman. under-took to free him from his malady by putting a bandage on his wrist, which was to remain undisturbed for two or three weeks. He was not to know what it contained till it was removed. At the expiration of the set time, he found that the material in the bandage was composed of tallow and cayenne pepper ; but it had cured him.,

This, indeed, the application of a plaster to the wrist, is an ancient kind of remedy in the eastern counties, for Fuller tells us, when speaking of James I., who died of a tertian-ague : "The Countess of Buckingham contracted much suspicion to herself and her son, for applying a plaster to the king's wrist without the consent of his physicians. And yet it plainly appeared that Dr. John Remington, of Dunmow in Essex, made the same plaster (one honest, able, and successful in his practice, who had cured many by the same); a piece whereof applied to the king, one eat down into his belly without the least hurt or disturbance of nature" ("Ecclesiastical Hist.," vol. v., p. 568). The two following remedies were also recommended to me : Take a handful of salt and bury it in the ground, and as the salt dissolves, you will recover; and many sympathizers were very clamorous that I should take an emetic. They had known persons, they said, who had thrown up some substance, which shook and "quaggled," and which they supposed to be an embodiment of the ague, for after it had been ejected, the patients got well.

I have, moreover, been assured by respectable persons that there was formerly a man in Hadleigh who "charmed" away the ague by pronouncing, or rather muttering, over each child a verse of Holy Scripture, taken, they believed, from the Gospel of St. John.

One more remedy for ague is for the patient to gather some teazles from the hedgerows, and carry them about his person.

I will now turn to another class of specifics. There were several old people, indeed there are some still, of my acquaintance, chiefly old women, who " bless " and " charm" different maladies, especially wounds from scalding and burning. I have been told on "good authority" of a man who could soothe persons, even when labouring under the wildest frenzies of some kind of fits, by the secret utterance of some particular words. (See Low's " Sarawak," etc., '848, p. 139, for similar customs among the Mahometans.)

There was an old woman, of very witch-like appearance, who was supposed to have great skill in curing burns. She prepared a kind of ointment, and when a patient applied to her, she placed some of it upon the parts affected, then made the sign of the cross over it, and muttered certain mysterious words, which she would not disclose to anyone. This use of the cross in healing seems to be of long standing, for Bede tells us of a certain bishop who restored speech to a dumb youth by making the sign of the cross upon his tongue.

A boy having scalded his foot when making "suckers," for the saucepan which contained the butter and treacle had "toppled over," and poured its contents into his unlaced boot upon his foot, as he stood by the fire intently watching the cookery, until the compound should be ready for his mouth, limped down,, though in great pain, to another old woman for her to "bless" the wound.

We read in Bede of an instance of a similar superstition as early as the eighth century. He tells us how Hereburga, the abbess of the monastery at Wetadun, entreated Bishop John of York that he would vouchsafe to go in and give her (one of the nuns who was suffering from a swollen arm) his blessing ; for that she believed she would be the better for his blessing or touching her. He accordingly went in and said a prayer over her, and having given her his blessing, went out. The result was that Coenburg, the sick nun, was cured of the pain in her limbs, the swelling assuaged, and she returned thanks to the Lord our Saviour.

I have made inquiries with the view of ascertaining what are the words employed ; but the old woman, like reputed witches, keep their own secret until they are on their deathbed, and then they communicate it to some favoured friend. I "pumped out" of a man, however, the following curious formula; and his wife, who was sitting by, confessed that the words were " not far wrong;"

"There were two angels Caine from the North :

One brought fire, the other brought frost ;

Come out fire, go in frost

Father, Son, and Holy Ghost."

(" Choice Notes,"

The words must be repeated three times ; and this fact, when taken in connection with the last line, warrants, I think, the common belief that in the number three, used here and in other instances, there is an allusion to the Holy Trinity. The common people at Moscow, when helping themselves to a third glass of tea, or in fact when about to do anything the third time, are wont to say carelessly, " One, two, three ; God loves the Trinity.

Persons in a consumption have been known to have soup made of dried snakes (eating snakes was formerly supposed to have the same effect, and to make persons young : for authorities see "Choice Notes," p. 22 ; Steinmetz's "Japan and her People," p. 47; Lock-hart's "Medical Missionary in China," p. 198; Low's "Sarawak," p. 146; Borrow's "Lavengro," vol. i., pp. 50-52), and I have been told that such snakes are kept on purpose in Covent Garden; indeed, the wife of a neighbouring clergyman assured me that she herself had sent up thither for dried snakes for a poor girl in her husband's parish. I have heard, though I forget the complaint for which they were used as a remedy, of snakes being caught and boiled down, so as to extract their medicinal properties.

The following remedy has been employed at Nedging for bilious attacks : Roll up a number of live " sow bags" (the armadillo vulgaris of naturalists), each one as a pill, and swallow them alive. They will remove the bile. We have several persons who profess to be able to cure warts, or "writs," as they are called, by passing the hand over them, and muttering some mysterious words. The operator must be told the exact number of warts which are worn by the applicant for a cure. If the remedy fail, he attributes the failure to his having been kept in ignorance of the real number of warts.

Other cures of warts are : 'Let the patient steal a piece of beef, and bury it in the ground ; and then, as the beef decays, the warts will gradually die away. Or go to an ash-tree which has its "keys" that is, husks with seeds upon it, cut the initial letters of both your Christian and surname on the bark ; count the exact number of your warts, and cut as many notches in addition to the letters as you have warts ; and then, as the bark grows up, your warts will go away. Or take the froth off new beer, apply it to your warts, when no one sees you (for secrecy is absolutely necessary); do not wipe it away, but let it work off of itself, for three mornings, when your warts will disappear. Or gather a green sloe, rub it on your warts, then throw it over your left shoulder, and you will soon be free from them. Or take a snail out of its shell, and rub them with it. Or rub your warts with green bean leaves for several mornings, and the result will be the same.

To cure " nightmare," a poor man at Monks Eleigh, having a strong belief in the virtue of a flint with a hole in it, hung one such flint over the head of his bed as a preservative against nightmare. It succeeded in driving the nightmare from his head ; but it was sent into his toes. Another remedy is : Before you go to bed, place your shoes carefully by the bedside, " coming and going "—that is, with the heel of one pointing in the direction of the toe of the other and then you will be sure to sleep quietly and well.

To cure or prevent cramp, take the small bone of a leg of mutton and carry it always about with you in your pocket.

An old man and his sister told me that they once knew of a frog being hung up in a chimney, in a bladder, as a cure for some complaint, the nature of which they had forgotten. The scratchings and noise made by the frog were awful, they said; but the sick man recovered.

I have spoken of roasted mice as a remedy for ague. I knew an old woman who had a dumb son, and she made him a mouse-pie in the hope that it would do him good.

A young woman had a swelling on her neck, and was advised to have it rubbed with a dead man's finger. She was accordingly brought down to the corpse of an old man, and, as she had not courage herself to apply the remedy, a female friend took the cold hand and touched the swelling with it. I have found another version of this remedy in a book of the last century: "A wen is said to be cured by the hand of a dead man, while hanging on the gallows. This is still a superstitious notion amongst the common people at this day. "

The following was reported to me as having been very efficacious in several instances. If a person has fainted, take a piece of tape, light it, let it burn for a few moments, then blow out the flame and put the smoking tape close to the nose of the patient. The smoke will very soon bring back consciousness.

For inflamed eyes, take a snail and place it close to the eye, then prick it with a needle and let the moisture which flows from the puncture trickle into the eye. It is said to have an excellent effect. A woman, when suffering from pain in her cheek, applied a mustard poultice to her instep, in the expectation of being freed from the pain. A person at Monks Eleigh, who was Subject to asthma, used to swallow a great quantity of shot, in order, as he said, "to keep down his lights." i believe that shots are given to horses whose wind is affected, and that they act mechanically and afford relief. I have been told of a man in Surrey who always took gun powder when he was unwell, the saltpetre which it contained acting medicinally.

When children shed their first teeth, it is considered necessary to burn them ; for if the cast-off teeth are destroyed in any other way, they will be succeeded by " cat's teeth."

There appears to have been almost universally a belief amongst the various nations, that certain days were more lucky and auspicious than others. We have still remains of the same notions in existence, not only amongst sailors, but in our rural parishes. Friday is considered unlucky, as being the day on Which our Saviour suffered on the Cross. Sunday, on the other hand, is regarded as auspicious ; and if persons have been ill and are become convalescent, they almost always, as an invariable rule, get up for the first time on Sunday.-(Turner's "Anglo-Saxons," vol. iii., p. 122, quotes an ancient Saxon saying to the effect that, if a man be born on a Sunday, he will live without trouble all his life. See " Choice Notes," p. 171.)

A lady who has married, but who has not, by marriage, changed her maiden name, is the best of all doctors, since no remedy administered by her will ever fail to cure. (See "Choice Notes," p. 181.) An old woman, who boasts that she was "born on the same day, and baptized on the same day, and married on the same day as her husband," and who did not change. her name by marriage, has told me that she was much plagued afterwards by patients who came to consult her ; and that she gave them pieces of bread, or cheese, or sugar, or any edible scraps that she had in her house.

Home | More Articles | Email: