The Stepney Witch-Bottle
“After nearly eight hundred stories, it is my pleasure to welcome Matthew Sweet to take over for a week in celebration of his new publication The West End Front by Faber & Faber on Thursday 3rd November. Matthew’s witty and erudite books have always proved an inspiration to me, and I can happily recommend his writing to you in the knowledge that you are in safe hands until my return on Monday 7th November” – the Gentle Author
In March 1954, the mud of Stepney yielded a sinister piece of seventeenth-century treasure. Out it came, from under the earth of Pennington Street, on a plot where an orchard had once stood – a bulbous stoneware bottle, upon which had been carved the shape of a face: wide, goggling eyes, a prominent nose, a savage mouth, a devilish swoop of beard. The base of the bottle was in fragments. Not because it had been pulled from the ground too sharply, or smashed by its original owner – but because it had been cracked apart by forces it could not contain.
The contents of the bottle were also recovered: a small patch of cloth and the collection of objects that had once been wrapped and pinned inside. A twist of human hair, a handful of hand-made iron nails, a tangle of metal wire, and a small collection of fingernail clippings. These, according to the archaeology correspondent of The Times, revealed the true nature of the discovery. This was a “witch-bottle or Bellarmine jug … doubtless used to employ ‘sympathetic magic’ either to injure a victim or to ward off the supposed effects of witchcraft.”
In the popular imagination, witchcraft is rural. And yet, the record shows that belief in magic continued to thrive in East London as the cobbles advanced and the meadows and marshes retreated. In 1820, the American essayist Washington Irving reported that “an old woman that lives in Bull-and-Mouth Street makes a tolerable subsistence by detecting stolen goods, and promising the girls good husbands.”
In his essay Urbanisation and the Decline of Witchcraft, Owen Davies describes the case of Mary-Ann Gable, the wife of a coppersmith who lived on Russell Street in Stepney. In 1858 Gable told a court that she had ben so troubled with “frightful pains” that she suspected herself to be under some hostile supernatural influence. She sought the help of a Mrs McDonald of Cudworth Street, Bethnal Green, who confirmed her suspicions and sold her ten doses of powders at sixpence a twist. These Gable threw on the fire while reciting a prescribed incantation, with the intention of causing “torment” to her enemy. Gable took McDonald to court not because she had been sold a large amount of worthless remedies, but because she had discovered that the old woman was also in the employ of her antagonist, and was supplying that person with the same magical instruments.
The witch-bottle was, it seems, most often used as a counter-measure of this kind. According to Cotton Maher’s Late Memorable Providence (1691), those who felt themselves to be under attack by a witch could reverse the charm by filling a bottle with urine, into which would be dropped a little package of “Nails, Pins, and such instruments as carry a shew of Torture with them”. The sharp objects inside the symbolic body of the bottle would, if the magic worked, produce excruciating pain the corporeal body of the enchanter. The urine might be that of the witch, but it seems, more often and more pragmatically, to have been the urine of the bottle-maker. The reason being, according to Joseph Blagrave’s Astrological Practice of Physic (1671), that “there is part of the vital spirit of the Witch in it, for such is the subtlety of the Devil, that he will not suffer the witch to infuse any poysonous matter into the body of the man or beast, without some of the Witches blood mingled in with it.” If you wanted the witch to die of slow strangulation, you would then bury the bottle in the ground. If you preferred something more spectacular, you could throw it on the fire, though if the cork escaped before the stoneware exploded, then the charm would fail. The cocktail or urine an iron nails usually ensured that even those Bellarmine jugs buried under the earth would burst eventually – this is what happened to the Pennington Street specimen. Many such bottles have been disinterred, but so far only one has been found intact and stoppered.
One hundred and thirty of these objects have been recovered from sites all over Britain – though few of them are of British manufacture. Most were made in Germany, where the face carved on the neck of the bottle was held to represent a wild man figure from Teutonic folklore. The name Bellarmine is thought to derive from that of Cardinal Roberto Bellarmino, a hate-figure for Protestants across seventeenth-century Europe.
Are such objects still being fashioned? A modern Pagan whom I consulted for this article professed that she had used witch-bottles as part of her practice, though she stressed that unlike Mrs McDonald of Cudworth Street, she had never filled one for commercial gain. The fliers that come through the door from practitioners of African traditions, offering to improve my finances or cause trouble for my enemies suggest that sympathetic magic is alive in modern London.
In the 1950s, Ralph Merrifield, Assistant keeper of the Guildhall Museum in the City of London, bemoaned the lack of interest in discoveries such as the Pennington Street witch-bottle. “Unfortunately,” he reflected, “many archaeologists are curiously reluctant to show any interest in the less rational aspects of human behaviour, and finds of this nature are rarely publicised or discussed. It is not clear whether this is due to a modern superstition, contradicted by history, that man is a rational animal; or to the revival of an ancient one, that there is a risk of contagion in such studies, leading, if not to possession by the powers of darkness, at least to a collapse of scientific scepticism!”
My scientific scepticism is pretty robust. But I will concede to the believers on the question of sympathetic magic. The witch-bottle eased from the Stepney mud in 1954 is now housed, with many similar examples, in the Museum of London. You only have to gaze upon the strange, savage features of the faces that they bear to feel something of what they must have meant to the people who packed them, corked them, and bedded them in the earth.
Drawing of the Stepney Witch-Bottle by Joanna Moore
Montages by Sarah Ainslie using her photographs of skeletons exhumed during the rebuilding of the Spitalfields Market in 1999.
Drawing copyright © Joanna Moore
Montages copyright © Sarah Ainslie
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