The Folk Beliefs of Nineteenth Century Devonians

Exeter, Devon, England Seen From Exwick from the book From Our Own Country (1898).

Despite Christianisation, the onset of scientific advances, and the Englightenment, the common people of Britain (and plenty of its more formally educated citizens) continued for a long time to adhere to a wide variety of magico-religious folk beliefs, some of which remain today both in the form of popular superstitions and in the realms of ‘alternative spirituality’and ‘alternative medicine’. Indeed, even today, in every major city, as well as some towns and villages, shops can be found offering a wide array of products and services of this sort.

The West Country county of Devon, where I grew up, was a bastion of such beliefs and practices, up to at least the beginning of the twentieth century, as a number of writings attest. In ‘North Devon Customs and Superstitions’ (1867), JR Chanter (author of Sketches of the Literary History of Barnstaple), for example, states the following:

Devon in general, and North Devon in particular, has been very retentive of ancient customs, habits, and superstitions. Its folk-lore is especially interesting from its local form of fairy, the Devonshire pixy. But the most noticeable fact connected with North Devon is, not so much the variety or specially local character of its superstitions and vulgar customs, as of their being still generally interwoven with the daily life of the population. In most parts of the country it is necessary, in order to gather up local customs or legends, to seek out ancient crones or noted legend-tellers; but no one can live in this district, and mix much with the country folks, without finding a general belief in witchcraft still existing, and old customs and superstitions in full sway. A great many of these are, or were, common to all England, but having gradually died out in the more busy parts of the country, have continued here, most probably from the isolated nature of the district, and the stagnant character of the agricultural population.

In 1900, these beliefs were still widespread, as attested by Sarah Hewett, in her book Nummits and Crummits: Devonshire Customs, Characteristics, and Folk-lore:

West Country people generally, and Devonians in particular, are exceedingly superstitious, in spite of all that has been done for them in the way of higher education, and the enlightening influence of the press. Dwellers in the hilly parts of Devon, on Dartmoor and Exmoor, and in the villages bordering upon them, are as deeply imbued with faith in witches, as their forefathers were in the days when Alfred was king.

JR Chanter gives examples of these beliefs and practices:

The medical repute of charms is, in fact, very prevalent; any sudden cure is proverbially said to act like a charm. The seventh son of a seventh son is still in great request to “touch” for fits; and a case of this came out on a legal enquiry only a week or two since. Warts and swellings are removed by various charms, such as skeins of thread knotted with the number of the warts to be removed, and struck across the warts as many times, and then buried; or striking with a witch elm wand, or a piece of stolen bacon; in each of which cases as the buried article decays so do the warts gradually decrease; or by depositing a given number of pebbles or peas in a bag, and losing it, but in this case the unfortunate finder gets the warts himself. But the most favourite remedy for warts, and indeed all swellings, is to have “words” said over them.

A portion of a rope with which a suicide has hanged himself is a wondrous charm against all accidents, when worn around the person.

The tooth ache is cured, and, what is more, perfect exemption from it for the future is supposed to be attained, by biting out a tooth from a corpse or skull…

Accidents, or any obscure ailments to cattle, are commonly attributed to their being witched, or “overlooked”, as the term is, and can only be cured by a white witch; and it is well known that more than one person in North Devon gains his livelihood by acting professionally as a white witch, that is, the country people call him the white witch, though he professes to be a cattle doctor.

In fact, if any one gets into trouble in any way, it is quite a sufficient explanation that he has been “evil-wished and overlooked,” and the white witch is forthwith called into requisition.

Omens, presentiments, and death-warnings, are much believed in hereabouts…

If any one offends an old woman, the severest reply she can make is to say she will have him witched; and an instance occurred only last week.

Hewitt gives a number of examples of folk cures, and writes:

The White Witch… is always willing, for certain pecuniary considerations, to dispense charms and philtres, to cancel the evil of the other [the malevolent Black Witch]…

In cases of sickness, distress, or adversity, persons at the present time (A.D. 1898) make long expensive journeys to consult the white witch, and to gain relief by her (or his) aid…

Pinches of powdered plants, scraps of inscribed vellum, dried limbs of loathsome reptiles, juices of poisonous herbs, blood, excrements, and gruesome compositions all blend together to make up the witch’s charms…

I have interviewed many a believer in the efficacy of charms, and from them obtained curious examples of miscellaneous articles claiming miraculous powers to heal. Besides the sale of charms the white witch cures diseases by “striking” and blessing.

The Cathedral city of Exeter seems to have been particularly associated with such practices. An 1844 journal article cites the following example:

It is usual with many persons about Exeter, when affected with ague [a fever or shivering fit], to visit at dead of night the nearest cross-road five different times, and there bury a new-laid egg. The visit is paid about an hour before the cold fit is expected; and they are persuaded that with the egg they shall bury the ague.

William Henderson, writing in 1879, reports that ‘there are still plenty of white witches in Devonshire’ and gives the following example:

At Bratton Clovelly, in Devonshire, a farmer’s cows were charmed, so that his milk yielded neither cream nor butter. He declared on oath that he had put whole faggots on the fire, but the milk would not boil, a proof that it was bewitched. He therefore resorted to the white witch at Exeter.

Hewitt writes:

The word “Abracadabra” written on parchment was given by an Exeter white witch, to a person who desired to possess a talisman against the dominion of the grey witch, pixies, evil spirits and the powers of darkness! It cost a guinea, and was sewn up in a small black silk bag one inch square. This was hung round the neck and never removed.

Devonshire folk magic centred on a belief in the power of both malevolent and benevolent witches, creatures, and spirits. In common with various other magical systems around the world, it blended these beliefs with elements derived from Christianity, the ‘official’ belief system of the time. Hewitt offers various examples.

‘To frustrate the power of the black witch’:

Take a cast horse shoe, nail it over the front door, points upwards. While nailing it up chant in mono-tone the following:

So as the fire do melt the wax
And wind blows smoke away,
So in the presence of the Lord
The wicked shall decay,
The wicked shall decay.
Amen.

‘To destroy the power of a witch’:

Take three small-necked stone jars: place in each the liver of a frog stuck full of new pins, and the heart of a toad stuck full of thorns from the holy thorn bush. Cork and seal each jar. Bury in three different churchyard paths seven inches from the surface and seven feet from the porch. While in the act of burying each jar repeat the Lord’s prayer backwards.

As the hearts and livers decay so will the witch’s power vanish. After performing this ceremony no witch can have any power over the operator.

‘To cure sore throat’:

Read the eighth Psalm seven times for three successive mornings over the patient.

Interestingly, despite the Christian aspects, magical practices were not solely benevolent in nature. A number of examples can be found of the use of magic to cause harm.

‘The herring-bone charm to cause death’ (cited in Hewitt):

Sew into a garment which is worn next to the skin a long thin herring-bone. As the bone dries up, or withers, so will the person wearing it gradually pine away and die.

Henderson notes the following:

In Devonshire, witches, and malevolent people still make clay images of those whom they intend to hurt, baptize the image with the name of the person whom it is meant to represent, and then stick it full of pins or burn it. In the former case that person is racked with rheumatism in all his limbs; in the second he is smitten with raging fever.

Henderson, again:

It is said in Devonshire that you may give [ague] to your neighbour, by burying under his threshold a bag containing the parings of a dead man’s nails, and some of the hairs of his head: your neighbour will be afflicted with ague until the bag is removed.

Henderson cites an example of similar practices which were related to have been discovered in West Riding, Yorkshire, where a woman was wasting away to ‘nothing but skin and bones’:

She had no definite illness, but complained that she felt as if pins were being run into her body all over her. The village doctor was resorted to, but in vain. At last they applied to the Wise-man [white witch], who pronounced that some person was doing her harm, and advised them to search the garden for hidden spells. They did so, and found buried under the window a sheep’s heart stuck full of pins like a pin-cushion. The thing was removed and destroyed and the woman recovered.

How long such beliefs and practices persisted in Devon (and elsewhere), it is hard to say. Certainly, Devon seems to have been particularly resistant to the forces of modernity. Indeed, it would be unsurprising to find that some residual traces of these beliefs persist even to the present day, although the central role played by the white witch seems now to have been confined to the history books.

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