”The seconde [finger] hyght Index and Salutaris, as it hyght demonstratiuus, the shewer, For with hym we grete, and shewe, and teche all thynges.”
Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum.
Monstro, I indicate/ advise/ teach, gives the root of words like demonstrate, remonstrate and the Latin monstrum, a divine marvel, omen, prodigy or wonder; a reminder,warning or portent. Both stem from the Latin root moneo, I serve as a reminder, I bring to the notice of, from which the words, premonition and admonish are also derived. The reminder/warning of monstrum often gives the appearance of effortlessly blending with the notion of punishment. Narrative often goes to a significant amount of effort to maintain such an identification and relationship.
In Praise Of Folly
A Belemmyae being pointedly demonstrable, “Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville”, 1775 (1)
The Monument Keeper
In the early modern period, monument was used in Scotland in a specific legal sense, derived from Latin usage, referring to a token/indication/ evidence/ serving to identify/ a mark (Maxwell-Stuart: 2001, 51). As demonstrated in an open letter from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to the Protestant Nobility of Scotland, which displays a keen interest in stamping out ‘Catholic’ superstition and ‘abuse’. The term abuse is used repeatedly in reference to witchcraft in early modern Scotland. It’s not viewed simply as an abuse of supernatural powers but of scientia (science in early modern usage refers to knowledge) . The manner in which knowledge is marked and divided here is subject to a very different cultural outlook and value system than our own modern one.
The letter asks.
“that all superstitions and idolatry and the monuments therof, might be utterly removit and banishit out of this realme“
It must be said that this ambitious, year zero, Protestant agenda was not met with full success and the administrators of this godly enterprise were not above finding the monuments of past superstition an attractive weapon to deploy themselves, as it sought to impose its radical perspective and vision on the population of early modern Scotland. But in these words we see its dreaming and the full extent of its cultural ambitions. P.G Maxwell-Stuart believes the sentence may have influenced the decision to include a new act in Parliament that slipped its way quietly into the day’s business on the 4th of June 1563.
Sleeping Now The Wide Eyed Host
“Item forsamekeill as (in as much as) the Quenis Maiestie and the thre Estatis in this present Parliament being informit that the havy abominabill superrstitioun usit be divers of the liegis of this Realme be using of Witchcraftis, Sorsarie and Necromancie, and credence gevin thairto in tymes bygane aganis the law of God; and for avoyding and away putting of all sic vane superstitioun in tymes tocum……….“
And in this moment these mundane administrators and regulators of the diabolical begin to stir and agitate. The past is not uniform in its belief systems or in its interpretation of cultural symbols. Such things are highly context sensitive and fluid. Tradition is constantly re-ordered in the moment, its context is present rather than past. It has a relationship with history but it is a very different creature.
The perspective of the General Assembly in regard to certain forms of tradition is somewhat different. Here traditional errors are rooted firmly in the past. An object that passively repeats past mistakes and that the protestant church, by it’s nature and distinct place in the historical record is without question immune from.
It is by inclination and desire, historically semi-detached. An object imagined to have no history, no past historical form and as such cannot be associated with the retrospectively drawn error strewn landscape that passes here for history. If I had a fondness and taste for devolutionary arguments I could slip in at this point mutum et turpe pecus, dumb and brute like, as it carries within it a secondary sense of that which is shapeless and unsightly.
At this moment in Scotland’s past, history and tradition blend with prophecy (The distinctly non-magical secret to the successes of the most ‘accurate’ forms of prophecy is that it is in all cases, retrospectively drawn according to well laid patterns, which it then projects vaguely into the near future). Gods plan is unfolding, the past is toast and its living residue and reminders will be placed on a large bonfire of vanity situated on Castle rock in Edinburgh. A bright future will in time and by Gods will, waft its way through the air of the dirty old town, mingling with the distinct smell of burning fat. Or so one particular section of the administrative classes surrounding the Royal body of James may have dreamed.
Dealt with one particular moment and two very small fragments of the past from one very particular perspective. Hopefully in future post will be able to demonstrate the element of negotiation involved in the construction of these narratives between the various social groups that formed them.
When you first confront these texts they appear distinctly comical (an element of social satyr and entertainment is certainly part of what gave them power) and decidedly strange, this is a world turned upside down and one in which Satan moves from interfering in great affairs of state to souring the good-wifes buttermilk.Removed from its context and position in time the texts look crazy.
In our realms of knowledge, Science, philosophy and the occult are separate spheres of thought and activity. In this time no such certainty exists. The relationship between a curse, a prophecy or an act of witchcraft, at times is somewhat difficult to determine depending in part on chance outcome and the social reception of you’re peers. Everyday emotional encounters had a range of potential outcomes and potential consequences. Losing ones temper and telling you’re neighbor to drop dead could be policed in any one one of a number of ways. The subject moves from daily life at its most intimate and its most mundane to take in the moon and the stars. The natural world is a place of deep uncertainty and the magical realm is not a distinct separate zone but a potential philosophical and observable possibility.
“mine eyes are stauls, and my hands lime twigs” (2)
Knowledge in this space can move across vast distances but it is an anxious and troubling thing filled with the potential for error, which in the worst case will ensnare and lime the soul in Satan’s deceptive bait. Perhaps the biggest slight of hand in regard to this form of material is the manner in which it disguises its fear and uncertainty, it paints a world that is black and white, were the correct path is very clearly laid and any error is simply caused by not rigidly adhering to the prescribed route. The deception at the beating heart of this fantasy is its seeming confidence; that its eye is not blind and its vision not internal and of its own making.
These narratives bear a resemblance to oral material but they are in regard to style of delivery and inflection very different. They have no life and the dead eyes of a scribe. Traditional narrative is done face to face, it is intimate, by the fireside, (into which you look and are encouraged to watch the story unfold) the heart of home and comfort, it is hospitality, engagement, a gift, an invitation, in which you are invited in. “here my story ends and no word of it is a lie.” This is the traditional standard form in which a tale ends, but when you gaze up from the firelight you distinctly see that the tellers eyes glitter like stars and you get the distinct impression that the hand may be engaged in a range of slight, fast deceptive movements. The relation between so and not so is intentional not drawn. If you are brave enough to question the truth you will often be met with a rich laugh that seems to give the impression that someone has drawn deep pleasure in suspending time and capturing in that moment a live soul. It is a satisfying answer and no further inquiry is generally required.
The narratives that surround witchcraft use similar familiar beliefs, the same desire to tell a tale that depends on action and movement and allows no pause for reflection as the tale unfolds; but the intention is to consume whole and allow no room to play or question. Anxious and tense in delivery. It imagined a world of single stories, one voice, no thought, no laughter. When it sought to entertain traditional culture choose to instruct this form seeks only to correct error. Traditional culture used both forms (this is not a romance) but allowed some room for maneuver and escape when it was relaxed. Tension constricts the body, movement becomes rigid, the voice will not project with any power and becomes hoarse and weak, the range of options open in performance become seriously limited, arms become rooted to the side with stress, the speaker stands rooted to the spot, arms flapping up and down like a penguin as they can’t be moved past the elbow, shouting in a hoarse voice, which is unable to resonate through bone and muscle and rips raw through the neck and throat, its only place of escape. Such is the effect of fear on the body, its ability to move and to inflect.
And as I finish this journey, the town of Edinburgh lies hushed and dark and at the start of it’s dreaming. Tonight it seems unsettling writing such a local history, a feeling that I have not experienced before. Castle rock hangs in my thought and vision, it is very close by. I drink my coffee some-day’s in the place where many of the charred remains lie deep in the ground. Walk past the places where the victims were held, questioned, stood in court, or were strangled before being burnt. Yet it is a distance place and most often as you hurry around performing the usual daily tasks it is a space that does not exist. I think tomorrow I will drink coffee and perhaps raise my cup to Dr Fian or any one of a large number of people from all genders and classes of society who met their end in such a way. These beliefs are often associated in particular with women or peasant society, this is not a historical statement but a common repetition which I suspect may prop up contemporary belief with regard to gender and class expectations.
Living in the space where many of these events unfolded brings with it no magical insight or ownership, it does not make the past spring magically back to life, but being in such a space does at times provoke the ghost of a memory and the thought of just exactly what we are capable of doing or what exactly we have the potential to become in moments of conflict and deep seated anxiety about the world in which we live. And in that moment as you walk through such shadows at the end of the day, the dark stones of Edinburgh, rain- slicked and glistening in the street light, look for a split second as if they may be weeping ice cold sweat and stirring uneasily in the unrelenting cold. The Glittering terrible beauty that is Castle Rock at Night. Or so in doing such time it seemed tonight, at least in that moment.
Such ensnaring things motivate both the telling of tales and the writing of history. Doing such a messy tangled sticky business as this is a struggle. First draft in large part, written on the hoof, I suspect it will look very different in the end.
(1) In Praise of Folly is my own addition to the image. An 18th century joke and one that bares traces of a distinctly Renaissance sense of humour, I think. It also hints perhaps that we should not expect the past to be uniform in its use of symbols ideas or perspective.
(2) Robert Greene, “mine eyes are stauls and my hands lime twigs (else were I not worthy of the name a she conny catcher). A conny catcher is a confidence trickster, staul = decoy, the eyes deceive and distract the victims attention away from what is actually taking place, while the hands coated in a viscous sticky substance (birdlime a glue also used in bird catching, had the advantage of catching pray alive without causing notable damage or physical injury i.e used to catch song birds) allows stolen goods to be extracted with ease by a person with ‘sticky fingers’ who may end up doing bird (birdlime= doing time/ jail-time).
P.G Maxwell-Stuart, “Satan’s Conspiracy: Magic and Witchcraft in Sixteenth Century Scotland“, East, Linton, 2001
C. Larner, “Enemies of God: the Witch- Hunt in Scotland”, Oxford, 1981