She was a very old woman, about the age of four-score years, and had been a witch for fifty years. She dwelt in the Forest of Pendle, a vast place, fit for her profession: What she committed in her time, no man knows. She was a general agent for the Devil in all these parts: no man escaped her, or her furies, that ever gave them any occasion of offence, or denied them anything they stood need of: And certain it is, no man near them, was secure or free from danger.
Description of the suspected witch known as Demdike, from The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, 1613, by Thomas Potts
One of my favorite academic articles was published in 1998 under the title “Where are the witches of prehistory?”. The abstract for the paper begins “Why are certain classes of ritually destroyed objects (persons, artifacts, or architecture), such as persecuted witches, so difficult to identify in the archaeological literature?”
Kind of grabs your attention, right?
The author, William H. Walker, goes on to outline a methodological approach to recognizing people understood to traffic in witchcraft. But his initial observation remains as true today as it was over a decade ago: not a lot of archaeology of witches out there.
There there have been occasional discussions of witchcraft and witches as likely parts of past societies, from the ancient Mediterranean to the 19th century US. In 2008, Archaeology magazine detailed the arguments of a British archaeologist, Jacqui Wood, for evidence of spell-casting in the 17th century near Saveock Water in Cornwall.
But nothing has seen quite as spectacular a reception as the recent publicity around the “Pendle Witch Cottage”, excavated by the firm NP Archaeology in the UK. On their website, they concisely report the circumstances and context of the find:
NP Archaeology uncovered a 17th century cottage beneath a grassy mound, near Lower Black Moss reservoir in the village of Barley, which lies adjacent to Pendle Hill. Work is being undertaken at the behest of United Utilities who are carrying out routine works on the reservoir there. During the course of the recording works, removal of a blocked doorway uncovered a mummified cat which had been walled in – this was often undertaken to ward off evil spirits or witches familiars. The room which the door lead into was sealed off.
The find set off a press frenzy. The Daily Mail headlined its story “Lucifer over Lancashire! Could this derelict cottage have been the setting for the Pendle witches’ coven?”.
To which I can give a simple one-word reply: No.
Not that there isn’t intrinsic interest to the find. Quoted by Britain’s Sky News, lead archaeologist Frank Giecco went so far as to characterize the site as a “Pompeii”, saying:
We rarely get the opportunity to work with something so well preserved. As soon as we started digging, we found the tops of doors, and knew we were onto something special.
The building is a microcosm for the rise and fall of this area, from the time of the Pendle witches to the industrial age. There are layers of local history right before your eyes.
And there’s the rub. Among the artifacts found were 19th century pottery, a stove, a bathing pan, and a bed. But the supposed witches who inspired the lurid press coverage lived a lot earlier.
Pendle, it turns out, is a well-known witch trial site in Lancashire, north of Manchester. In 1612, the Pendle Witch Trial brought sixteen women and four men to court, accused of a variety of practices. One of the accused, Elizabeth Southerns (aka Demdike) described exchanges with her familiar, named Tibb, who sometimes appeared to her in the shape of a black cat, although initially he appeared as a boy, and he also came to her in the form of a dog. Southerns, who died before coming to trial, was a woman in her 80s, and many of those accused were her family members.
Most of the press coverage slips uneasily between historical facts and sensationalism. The building, the media speculate, may have been “the mysterious Malkin’s Tower”, described in a 19th century source as the home of Southerns and her family, and as the gathering place for a group of the witches.
Unfortunately for the romantic desire to identify the buried cottage directly with Malkin’s Tower, there are other traditional candidates that probably have better claims to the title.
Malkin Tower Farm, identified as the traditional site of Elizabeth Southerns’ house, is located somewhat east of the Lower Black Moss Reservoir site. A local history buff posted an article dating to 2004 that discussed what seem to have then been the two alternative sites proposed, either Malkin Tower Farm on Blacko hill, or Sadlers Farm, Newchurch, historically called “Malkin field”. He noted that historical consensus was that the “tower” used by the witches was likely a barn or farm outbuilding, consistent with accounts from the 19th century. As the Burnley Express reported on August 1, a group of students from the local primary school, assisted by the Barrowford Archaeological Group (an avocational group based in Pendle), carried out test excavations at Malkin Tower farm, based on the traditional identification with Elizabeth Southerns’ residence, assumed to be demolished.
In fact, the only thing sustaining the press is the cat reportedly buried in the walls of a sealed off room of the cottage.
Press reports, even the BBC, repeat that the cat would have been placed to ward off evil. But Sky News suggests the cat was buried (and thus, presumably, the door to the room of the cottage was sealed off) in the 19th century– 200 years after the Pendle witch trials. The Daily Mail is more precise, saying the cat was placed ca. 1800 AD.
The main authority for the argument is Simon Entwhistle, described as an “expert” in the Pendle witch trials. Which in a way he is: he conducts tours of the Pendle Hills area, an extension of his professional practice as a guide specializing in “ghost, murder, and mystery” tours. Entwhistle is quoted by the BBC saying
Cats feature prominently in folklore about witches. Whoever consigned this cat to such a horrible fate was clearly seeking protection from evil spirits.
I find myself agreeing with Carole Elizabeth Ballard, who commented on another press report:
Wow, talk about an article dumbed down! There is no evidence that the cat was black, and they are often found in spaces where they can first reach, then cannot get out of. Chimneys where a favorite, the cat would go on a warm shelf and suffocate itself. Dead cats are alleged to be placed in walls to keep spirits away and bad luck, but, I doubt very much anyone alleged to be a witch would brick one up deliberately. As a further comment, the items in the house where 19th Century – NOT 16th or 17th when the Witch Trials took place.
But the story has legs. The version Ballard objected to was published on something called PRI’s The World, subtitled “Global Perspectives for an American Audience” from the BBC, PRI, and WGBH. So we have US Public Radio promoting unfounded heavy-breathing sensationalism originating with a professional ghost tour guide.
So what can we say? NP Archaeology says the original building dates to the 17th century, and was used into the 19th. That is, by itself, pretty neat. But not, of course, something to generate all that press coverage. For that, you need witches in the neighborhood– even if there is little likelihood that they lived in this building itself.
And then there is the cat, which NP Archaeology and more sober descriptions do suggest was deliberately placed in the building wall. While I want to follow Ballard in rejecting the entire narrative, the cat deserves a little more time and respect, especially if, as I think it does, such serious consideration puts the final nail in the coffin of “the witches’ cottage”.
I tried unsuccessfully to find anything to support the idea that walling cats up in rooms is a known prevention against evil.
James Serpell, Professor of Humane Ethics and Animal Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania, provides the most reliable overview of treatment of cats in human history that I know of. Writing in 2000, he traced suspicion of cats as associates, first of Catholic heretics (imagine attempts to derive “Cathar” from “cat”), and later of witches, to the medieval Catholic church’s campaign against other surviving folk religions, in which cats were well-regarded.
But while he chronicles a sickening array of systematic violence against cats, he does not describe walling cats up in buildings. For that, I had to compromise and accept sources with murkier authority. These sources do provide accounts of cats being buried, but in more complex locations and for more varied reasons– none of them to ward off evil, and none associated with cats as witches’ familiars.
A 1902 compendium of folklore from Scotland compiled by the well-recognized folkorist John Gregorson Campbell says that a cat could be buried alive to invoke a favorable wind. A woman wanting to keep a sailor with her could close a cat up in a cupboard (apparently, alive) to bring on contrary winds.
The closest I can come to the reported practice is contained in a long description of the way the Catholic Church treated cats in a popular book by Barbara Holland, described by Wikipedia as a successful general author. She describes similar practices to those mentioned by the more scholarly Serpell, detailing a history of European cat burnings on the occasion of Catholic festivals, in part to counter earlier traditions in which cats were celebrated as sources of fertility. In these older practices, cats were reportedly buried in or near agricultural fields.
In what seems to be a related practice, Holland writes that
Throughout Northern Europe and the British Isles cats someone retained their benign connection with hearth and home, so that when you built a house it was wise to bury a live cat under the threshold…In the footings of walls and towers of castles and churches cats were buried alive as guardian spirits and to make sure the building would stand stoutly; even august Westminster, during later repairs, gave up its withered feline body.
Nothing says that this practice is what was responsible for the cat reportedly found in the Pendle Hill house. But it is the only grounded account I can find that even suggests a history for cats being deliberately buried in buildings.
No witches, just superstition that might be deeply rooted in folk construction practices.