This morning, I got my walking boots, compass and map of Dartmoor ready and headed over to Belstone for some field research. I was following up an anecdote in one of my books, which mentioned a particular location in Belstone, but after a fruitless online search yesterday, I decided to head over there today to see the area for myself. I was expecting (and looking forward to) a good few hours tramping around taking photos and seeing what I could find. However, the day didn't pan out as I had expected!
No, I didn't end up in the village stocks!
I parked up and got out of the car. Nearby, a man was carrying out a survey so I asked him about my search. Amazingly, I had just encountered the village historian, who knew exactly where I was talking about! So my research took all of five minutes and I found out a lot about the history of the site as well, which was an unexpected bonus. I'm very grateful to him for giving so generously of his time and knowledge and I'm glad I was able to share something about the area that he wasn't already aware of.
Of course, when you find out one thing, it always raises a whole raft of other questions...so the research continues tomorrow!
(both images are my own copyright)
Things are certainly taking a very exciting turn WITCH-wise at the moment.
Having performed recently for students from two history courses at Bristol University, I was stunned and delighted to learn that the play has been made into a formal seminar for both courses, one of which is Witchcraft and the other History Outside the Box. There really are no words to describe how amazing it felt when the two lecturers told me. I am honoured and humbled to think that my play is being used to teach the historians of the future.
For the next couple of weeks, I will be WITCHing in Tiverton, at the fabulous independent bookshop Liznojan in Gold Street. They run a women's circle and I have been invited to speak at their next two meetings because people have been specifically asking for me. I am really looking forward to these evenings, not least because today, I found out some more fascinating facts about earthworms (yes, they're back!) and I can't wait to incorporate the info into my talk. Plus, there is the added bonus of all the fantastic cake Liznojan sell, too. Give their Facebook page a Like and, if you get the chance, pay them a visit. It's one of those shops where you can tell that every item on the shelves has been selected with the utmost care, so make sure that you set aside a decent amount of time for a proper browse.
Finally, in slightly less WITCH-related news, I have just sent off my first folklore column to The Moorlander, the fantastic Dartmoor newspaper. This is part of a new feature they are running and I am very excited to be part of it. If you haven't read the Moorlander before, I can highly recommend it - the articles are engaging, well-written and varied, with topics covering pretty much every interest. Check out their website here - and if you're local to the moor and feeling jaded with the tabloids, try the Moorlander for a refreshing change!
(photo is my own).
A couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to be a guest on North Manchester Radio's Hannah's Bookshelf, chatting to Hannah about all things book-related. WITCH naturally dominated the conversation as it is such a major part of my life, but we also discussed dragons, Dartmoor and human origins, amongst other things. I also fangirled shamelessly over the fabulous Shardlake novels by CJ Sansom and shared my three selections for the Library at the End of Days. If there was an apocalypse and you could only save three books, what would you choose? You can listen to the interview here.
If you haven't caught the show before, give Hannah a follow on Mixcloud here.
And if you'd like to see what Hannah's other guests have contributed to the Library at the End of Days, you can see all the selections on her website here.
.I am delighted to announce that the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle has invited us to bring WITCH back to the museum library for three performances this summer.
It is always wonderful to bring the show back to what I consider to be its spiritual home. There is something very comforting about the museum library and it is always a real joy to perform there.
So if you would like to enjoy WITCH in the setting for which it was written, make sure you book your ticket soon! Check out the Dates for your Diary page for a link to the Circle of Spears website, where you can pick up your tickets online. Tickets are also available from the Museum. Seating is limited to 20 per performance, so book early to avoid disappointment!
The dates are:
and each performance starts at 7.30pm. I'd advise getting there around 7.15pm.
The show lasts for 50 minutes and is followed by an informal chat with myself and my fellow cast members about the issues raised in the play and about Deanes Grimmerton's case - and, if you follow my blog regularly, you will know that I have a lot of new information to discuss! So do come and join us - and remember, book your ticket sooner rather than later!
A few weeks ago, I meticulously collated a list of all the primary sources I wanted to look at on my next visit to Dorchester. I rang the History Centre, emailed them the list...and then the Beast from the East completely messed up my plans.
However... it transpires that the delay was for the best! As I was working through the latest set of references I'd found, I discovered that one was an MA thesis from the late 1990s. After a brief initial moment of frustration, I realised that it was an Exeter thesis. Did the University still have a copy, I wondered.
Through the kindness of two of the university lecturers, who were incredibly accommodating and helpful, I have been able to meet with the author of said thesis, who is a lovely lady. We had a brilliant discussion about the case and it was simply wonderful to talk about it with someone else who has studied it in depth. She very generously offered to lend me the thesis to work on, so I have been carefully working my way through the primary sources she lists, double-checking those I have already seen and those which were on my Dorchester To Do list. As a result, I've added a few things and been able to prioritise some over others, so I'm now very well-prepared!
I cannot put into words just how much her act of kindness means to me. Anyone who has been following my work on this case will know that Deanes Grimmerton quickly changed from an inspiration to an obsession and the new leads *should* enable me to declare the research complete.
The best thing was seeing tiny snippets of Deanes's character finally springing from the page. It's clear that there is little record of her, but these hints have confirmed quite a few things which I suspected, having studied the depositions in her case. It's going to be wonderful to settle down with the original documents and see the details for myself. She has always been just beyond my reach thus far - but no more.
The only thing that slightly concerns me is the length of my To Do list...It looks like this research session will involve an overnight stay!
Don't forget to follow me on Twitter and Facebook for more frequent updates!
Last week, Circle of Spears Productions had the pleasure of taking WITCH back to its spiritual home at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle. We were performing for a group of students from Exeter University. I very much enjoyed our post-performance discussions and linking with new people on Twitter, which has led to some very interesting developments in my research!
The Museum has asked us if we'd like to bring the show back in the summer, so as soon as the dates are arranged, I will post them on all my social media - follow me on Twitter and Facebook to make sure you see them!
Photo by Marion Gibson:
I have spent a really productive morning gathering together all the outstanding queries I have regarding the (many) gaps in Deanes's story. Unsurprisingly, there were quite a few! They have now all been sent off to the lovely team at the Dorset History Centre, as I am hoping to head to Dorchester for more research at the end of the week. I see that the latest snow warning has been upgraded to amber, so I hope the weather won't mess with my plans! I'll be sharing fun facts and juicy details on Twitter and, time permitting, a Facebook live video, so check out Twitter (@WITCHplayCoS) and Facebook (@TraceyNormansWITCHBook) if you don't already follow my work on those platforms. Don't forget to bookmark this site, too, so you can keep up with my progress and findings!
My book is now all plotted out section by section and I have enquired about reproducing the original transcripts I worked from when I wrote the play. The main concept behind the book is to have Deanes's entire story in one place in as much detail as possible. I suspect that there won't be much more information to find than I already have, which is a great shame. Given the ages of the documents in question, it's hardly surprising. I really hope that in one of these final few places, I manage to locate something of Deanes herself. At the moment, all that is known of her personally centres on the pipe she smoked, a habit that really did have a life-changing effect on her.
Yet while it would mean so much to me to be able to describe her without reference to the pipe, I cannot lose sight of the fact that the pipe was the one aspect of her case which really intrigued me and caught my imagination. Deanes's pipe is a stark reminder of the fact that even an innocuous gesture like sharing tobacco was enough to trigger an accusation of witchcraft. That pipe devastated Deanes's life and, for me, it has become a symbol of the people like Deanes who suffered similar devastation for something equally mundane.
I'm hoping to have the manuscript finished by the end of the summer, so keep checking back for more news. I'll be sharing extracts here and there along the way, too, as the various sections start coming together. But for now - back to the research!
Another trip to the Devon Historic Society resulted in the appearance of yet more worms and a wealth of information that I can put to good use in my book and future talks. There was even a toothache cure featuring snails - I wonder if Margery would have resorted to that one if she ran out of her ingredients of choice and was unsuccessful in begging for more! "Ye snayles" are easier to come by than ye cloves!
I will shortly be putting up a list of the various talks I am giving this year on WITCH and WITCH-related subjects, so make sure that you bookmark this site and check out my Twitter feed @WITCHplayCoS and my Facebook page @TraceyNormanWITCHBook
Don't forget that if you'd like me to give a talk for your group, you can get in touch via the contact form.
In the last few days, they have gone from being something I rarely thought about to something I've thought about a lot - and in a pretty unusual context, too. After all, if you're ill, you probably wouldn't immediately think of worms as an essential part of a cure. Leeches, perhaps, but not worms. If you're wondering what worms have to do with my research, then you need to get yourself to Ottery St Mary library on 13th September for their event "Living off the Land - the folklore and traditions of country crafts". It's a joint talk with my husband Mark, creator of The Folklore Podcast. We are both members of the Exeter Authors Association and this is a FREE event organised via the EAA. Mark is speaking on the folklore of wool and associated crafts in Spindle, Shuttle and Needle. My talk, Plants, Persecution and Poultices, looks at medieval healers and the thin line they trod between being everyone's friend or their community's scapegoat. Check out the link at the bottom of this blog post for details.
I spent most of this afternoon at the Devon Heritage Centre in Exeter, researching medieval remedies. The Heritage Centre is one of those places which makes you immediately ask yourself why you have never been there before. Within five minutes of being let loose in the card index, I knew that there were going to be some truly fascinating discoveries to be made.
The Heritage Centre only has one reception desk (luckily for me after my National Archives comedy registration...) so getting in was a lot more straightforward than at Kew. I shed the plastic pockets and the folder like a pro and am delighted to report that there was not even a hint of eye-rolling from the lovely and very helpful lady behind the desk. I managed to get in with ONE locker key this time, too.
Even when I went to the enquiries desk, the staff there were not at all phased by my unbelievably vague request. Essentially, I was trying to locate the collection of family documents mentioned by Prof. James Daybell in his lecture, which was the subject of my last blog post. I didn't have the name of the family, or, indeed, any other details, so I wasn't expecting to have a particularly fruitful afternoon. However, after having been pointed in the direction of the card index...well. What can I say? There is so much amazing information to be found - and I found what I needed.
Well, first of all, I found worms, to be precise.
Back in the late 1600s/early 1700s, a lady from Filleigh, Devon, named Bridget Fortescue collected together a number of "receits" (recipes) for cures for the King's Evil. This is the common term for scrofula, a swelling in the lymph nodes in the neck which was a symptom of tuberculosis. It was believed that the monarch could cure this ailment with his 'royal touch'.
If you found yourself afflicted with the King's Evil and didn't happen to have a king available, then you had to resort to alternative cures. And worms.
Mrs Fortescue was evidently extremely concerned about the King's Evil, for in the documents I examined today, there were 40 different cures for it, which had been collected from a variety of people - I copied out those received from Lady Clinton and "my Lady Hollis". Lady Clinton's instructions begin thus (spelling and lack of punctuation as written):
"Take 40 or 50 earthworms alive cutt off both ends and with a penknife slitte and put them in water and salt, shifting till they are cleare whilst ye Broth boyle..."
The unfortunate earthworms are later added to the said broth and the whole lot boiled "till ye Broth be enough". It is then strained and ready for, one presumes, consumption, as there are no instructions for its use.
Alternative cures include the medieval equivalent of those healthy smoothies people make today which look like they are drinking algae. This is the recipe from Lady Hollis, who provided quite detailed instructions for use. The patient should "...just be able to endure" the taste of the concoction, which was made from steeped leaves.
The other use of earthworms as a "cure" came from Ruth St Leger-Gordon's The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor. If the thought of chucking worms into a broth is bad enough, it must have been far worse for the young girl who (pre-1964) was taken to a healer on Dartmoor after injuring her arm. The healer, having examined the injury, proceeded to sew a couple of earthworms into it. Not surprisingly, the arm became infected and urgent action was required to save it, this time by a more conventional medical practitioner.
I am very much looking forward to returning to the Heritage Centre to dig around for other (possibly worm-related) delights.
If you're interested in the Living off the Land event, please have a look at my author page on Facebook, where you can register your interest and share it with anyone you think might like to come along. Please be aware that Ottery library is a small venue! Mark and I are happy to bring the talk to a venue near you - just drop me a PM via my author page or use the contact form on here.
Tonight, I attended a public talk at Plymouth University. The speaker, Prof James Daybell, gave a fascinating insight into the lives of women in the sixteenth century, using a variety of different routes 'behind the curtain', including samplers and court records amongst others. This is the first in a series of talks about women in history, which promises to be extremely interested and varied - check out the links at the end of the post to see the other subjects being discussed.
In the talk I usually give after each performance of WITCH, I point out to the audience that in Margery's time (1580s-ish), the concept of "privacy" was almost non-existent and certainly totally different to the way we live today. Prof Daybell discussed how this makes it quite difficult to unpick 'privacy' in the context of sixteenth century women, particularly educated women who lived their lives surrounded by bodyservants and relatives.
From samplers to love letters to divorce petitions, the talk demonstrated just how much information may be gleaned about women's lives from seemingly mundane objects. I have always loved samplers, so I was particularly interested in Prof Daybell's decoding of his example. The young needlewoman was not simply producing a beautiful piece of work to demonstrate her skill - this is only part of it. In order to create the sampler, which in this case commemorated the birth of a female cousin, she is using maths and lettering. This, together with her skill with a needle, suggests that she was educated and was developing a skillset that would stand her in good stead when she entered the marriage market.
Deanes Grimmerton, the inspiration for Margery, was accused of witchcraft after sharing a pipe of tobacco - a neighbourly act involving a simple, everyday object. I was, therefore, particularly interested in just how much information may be unpacked from the mundane - I will certainly view samplers through a different lens from now on.
One of the sources Prof Daybell mentioned is a collection of letters to doctors, written by women. This certainly bears some investigation in the context of Margery's role as her community's healer. I was also extremely interested to hear about a collection of family medical records which have been passed down from relative to relative, documenting their recipes for cures and clearly demonstrating the extent of the medical knowledge present in this particular family. This would be a very valuable insight for me, as it would give examples of the sort of salves and poultices being made - if the collection contains a recipe for relieving toothache which involves cloves and ginger, I would very much like to see if I can recreate it - and if I could recreate it as Margery would have done in her rudimentary shelter after she lost her house and possessions. That is an experiment for another day and another blog.
The evening ended with a very civilised (small) glass of merlot and nibbles and the chance to chat with other attendees. It was an extremely interesting way to spend an evening - although I did then have to drive for an hour in the rain and gales, which was an experience of an entirely different sort...
I can highly recommend this series of public lectures. If you can get to one of them, do!
You can find out about Prof Daybell here: www.plymouth.ac.uk/staff/james-daybell
and about the series of lectures here: www.plymouth.ac.uk/whats-on/women-in-history-lecture-series