To celebrate Halloween, we’re delving back into the collections to see what ominous objects we can find! All of these objects have a connection with witches and witchcraft…
Witch bottles were used to protect houses from evil spirits or to counteract spells cast by witches. They were often placed at entrance points to houses, such as fireplaces, doors and windows to stop evil spirits entering.
Many witch bottles were made using bellarmine bottles, like this one, which was donated to the museum sometime between 1835 and 1900. They were filled with rosemary, needles and pins, red wine and sometimes hair or nail clippings. It was believed that the bottle would capture the evil spirit by impaling it on the pins and needles, drowning it with the wine, and sending it away with the rosemary.
Shoes were also concealed in houses to protect them from evil spirits. They were hidden under floors, in roofs, around doors or windows, or in fireplaces. This shoe is one of a pair of children’s shoes found concealed behind the fireplace at 21 High Street, Saffron Walden.
The earliest recording of a concealed shoe was from 1308. Many of the recordings come from the 1800s and the practice appears to have died out sometimes in the twentieth century. Lots of the shoes hidden belonged to children.
This is a close-up of a fireplace on display in the museum’s Local History Gallery. The fireplace stood in the Harvey family home in Market Street, Saffron Walden, and is believed to have been designed by the Tudor author Gabriel Harvey, for his father John.
Visible in this photograph is a carved mark, similar to a letter ‘W’. It is, in fact, two ‘V’s written over one another. The letters stand for ‘Virgin of Virgins’ and refer to the Virgin Mary. The mark was made to summon the protection of the Virgin Mary over the house. It has been carved on the fireplace to protect the house from evil spirits that might enter down the chimney.
Historic England have done a survey of witch marks in historic buildings, which you can find out more about here