Last week, the Museum was visited by two photographers (Tom Last and Pauline Hubner). They took photos of objects which will be going on loan to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford later this year. These objects will be taking part in the exhibition Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft which will run 31 August 2018 – 6 January 2019.
They have kindly shared the photos they took of the objects and we thought this would be a good chance to share a bit of information about these pieces.
“In June 1792, an old woman from Stanningfield in Suffolk, who could no longer face the accusations of witchcraft being made against her … had to resort to popular justice to clear her name… [In court] the old woman charged another with having called her a witch, which she said had very much disordered her head. The justices told her, however that they could take no cognisance thereof and she was dismissed. Having received no legal help, she handed herself over to the community to prove her innocence by extra-legal means. First it was suggested that she be weighed against the Bible, but the clergyman refused to lend it, so she was forced to undergo the far more dangerous procedure of swimming. She was swum in a local horsepond, was found to sink, and was then dragged out ‘almost lifeless’. Her husband, who along with her brother and another man, held the rope at her swimming, was reported to have said that he thought it better to indulge her therein, than to suffer her to destroy herself, which she would otherwise have certainly done.” Owen Davies, Witchcraft, magic and culture, 1736-1951, pp.104-105
Why did this poor lady ask to be weighed against the Bible? She clearly thought it was a way to prove that she was not a witch as she would weigh more than it. But why did people think that this was a way to test for witchcraft? There are very few English records to work from but there are examples of weighing apparatus in museums in Holland and Germany (though these do not have Bibles on them).
The idea of weighing a suspected witch against the Bible may be linked to the idea that witches were unnaturally light (they could fly after all). Weighing therefore became a means of unveiling the witch and punishing them. Or it may be to do with the fact that the Bible was not just any book – its heavy words would prove the guilt of the witch. Bibles were sometimes used to hold down tables that were believed to have been moved by spirits (no other weight could do this, just the Bible because of its metaphorical rather than literal weight).
Or the weighing chair may have been a way used by local clergy to protect those accused of witches from an angry mob. It was extremely unlikely that anyone would have weighed less than a Bible, and it is possible that these chairs were a means of controlling mobs who were unaware of the changes in the law regarding witchcraft after 1736. The clergy may have played with people’s superstitions to save lives. In Bexhill in 1780 for example, inhabitants persuaded a local clergyman to weigh two women who were thought to be witches. Both were heavier than the Church Bible, and were therefore released.
The text below was written by Louise Fenton and appeared in our 2016 exhibition Poppets. pins and power: the Craft of Cursing.
In 1952 Cecil Williamson (the founder of the Museum) agreed to feature in a magazine article and was put in touch with a photographer called Juliette Lasserre. They were to become friends and in 1953 Juliette Lasserre wrote to Cecil Williamson asking for his help.
The letters can be seen in the Museum archive, they explain the situation that requires assistance. Miss Lasserre has friends, two sisters, who have fallen on difficult times. They have had to house a former Nazi wife (as was the requirement post-war if an occupant had spare rooms) and since have had injuries, illness and misery. The sisters known to Miss Lasserre live in Bavaria, Germany. She writes and asks if Cecil Williamson can help.
Although the letters to Miss Lasserre are lost it is clear from the letter below that he has offered to help. The letter is thanking him and explaining that the poppet will be made and that a weapon will be brought back.
The label that accompanied the doll states that it was made in EXMOUTH in 1909-1913. This aroused suspicion, as the location was one of Cecil Williamson’s default places. It was only when researching letters and cards that the story emerged.
This doll was made in Bavaria from the clothes of the person who was to be harmed in 1953. Miss Lasserre transported both the doll and the weapon used back to the UK to Cecil Williamson. At this time he vehemently denied participating in Witchcraft, however, he did create this poppet for the two sisters.
The doll has aged over time, she began with black hair as she was made as a likeness to the victim, this is now white.
Two witch bottles one with contents displayed next to it.
This text refers to the second bottle (with the contents): ‘An example of the famous bellarmine type jars and bottles much beloved by witches for use as spirit houses and hexing bottles. This one was found built into the wall of a bombed-out house in Plymouth in the Sutton Harbour area. The bottle was wax-sealed and the items within had been set in a dry hide, that is no liquid within the bottle. The items extracted can be seen in the glass covered box alongside. From the evidence to hand everything indicates that whereas the bottle is of considerable age, its filling and its concealment would have taken place between 1895 and 1912. None the less it is a good example of a west country witchcraft used for retribution magic most likely from an aggrieved employee against his or her employer or master if an apprentice.’ Cecil Williamson
Photos courtesy Tom Last.