Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Item of the Day: More From a Provincial Glossary (1790)

Full Title: A Provincial Glossary; with a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions. By Francis Grose, Esq. F.A.S. The Second Edition, Corrected, and Greatly Enlarged. London: Printed for S. Hooper, 1790.

POPULAR SUPERSTITIONS

It will scarcely be conceived how a great number of superstitious notions and practices are still remaining and prevalent in different parts of these kingdoms, many of which are still used and alluded to even in and about the metropolis; and every person, however carefully educated, will, upon examination, find that he has somehow or other imbibed and stored up in his memory a much greater number of these rules and maxims than he could at first have imagined.

To account for this, we need only turn our recollection towards what passed in our childhood, and reflect on the avidity and pleasure with which we listened to stories of ghosts, witches, and fairies, told us by our maids and nurses; and even among those whose parents had the good sense to prohibit such relations, there is scarce one in a thousand but may remember to have heard, from some antiquated maiden aunt or cousin, the various omens that have announced the approaching deaths of different branches of the family; a copious catalogue of things lucky and unlucky; a variety of charms to cure warts, the cramp, and tooth-ache; preventatives against the night-mare; with observations relative to sympathy, denoted by shiverings, burning of the cheeks and itchings of the eyes and elbows. The effects of ideas of this kind are not easily got the better of; and the ideas themselves rarely, if ever, forgotten.

In former times these notions were so prevalent, that it was deemed little less than atheism to doubt them; and in many instances the terrors caused by them embittered the lives of a great number of persons of all ages, by degrees almost shutting them out of their own houses, and deterring them from going from one village to another after sun-set. The room in which the head of a family had died, was for a long time untenanted; particularly if they died without a will, or were supposed to have entertained any particular religious opinions. But if any disconsolate old maiden, or love-crossed bachelor, happened to dispatch themselves in their garters, the room where the deed was perpetrated became for ever after uninhabitable, and not unfrequently nailed up. If a drunken farmer, returning from market, fell from Old Dobbin, and broke his neck -- or a carter, under the same predicament, tumbled from his cart or waggon, and was killed by it -- that spot was ever after haunted, and impassable. In short, there was scarcely a bye-lane or cross-way but had its ghost, who appeared in the shape of a headless cow or horse; or, clothed all in white, glared with its saucer eyes over a gate or stile. Ghosts of superior rank, when they appeared abroad, rode in coaches drawn by six headless horses, and driven by headless coachmen and postilions. Almost every ancient manor-house was haunted by some one at least of its former masters or mistresses; where, besides diverse other noises, that of telling money was distinctly heard: and as for the churchyards, the number of ghosts that walked there, according to the village computation, almost equalled the living parishioners: to pass them at night was an atchievement not to be attempted by any one in the parish, the sextons excepted, who perhaps being particularly privileged, to make use of the common expression, never saw any thing worse than themselves.

Terrible and inconvenient as these matters might be, they were harmless, compared with the horrid consequences attending the belief of witchcraft, which, to the eternal disgrace of this country, even made its way into our courts of judicature, and pervaded and poisoned the minds of judges. At present, no one can, without a mixture of shame, remorse, and indignation, read of hundreds of poor innocent persons who fell victims to this ridiculous opinion, and who were regularly murdered under the sanction of, and with all the forms of, the law. Sometimes, by the combination of wicked and artful persons, these notions were made stalking-horses to interest and revenge.

The combinations here alluded to, were practiced by some popish priests during the reign of King James I. who was himself a believer in witchcraft. These priests, in order to advance the interest of their religion, or rather their own emolument, pretended to have the power of casting out devils from demoniacs and persons bewitched; and for this purpose suborned some artful and idle youths and wenches to act the part of persons bewitched, and to suffer themselves to be dispossessed by their prayers, and sprinklings with holy water. In order to perform these parts, they were to counterfeit violent fits and convulsions, on signs given them; and, in compliance with the popular notions, to vomit up crooked nails, pins, needles, coals, and other rubbish, privately conveyed to them.* It was, besides, generally thought necessary to accuse some person of having bewitched them; a poor superannuated man, or peevish old woman, and therefore pitched on, whose detection, indictment, and execution, were to terminate the villainy. Luckily these combinations were at length discovered and exposed; but it must make the blood of every human person thrill with horror, to hear that in New England there were at one time upwards of three hundred persons all imprisoned for witchcraft. Confuted and ridiculed as these opinions have lately been, the seeds of them still remain in the mind, and at different times have attempted to spring forth; witness the Cock-lane Ghost, and the disturbance at Stockwell. Indeed it is within these very few years that witchcraft has been erased from among the crimes cognizable by a jury.

*Since the printing of the first edition of this work, a farce somewhat similar was performed in the vestry-room of the Temple church, in the city of Bristol, by one George Lukins, a taylor, of Yatton, Somersetshire. This impostor pretended to have been possessed by the Devil for eighteen years, and at that present time to have no less than seven devils quartered in him; in proof of which he howled, barked, and counterfeited the most violent convulsions, occasionally swearing and blaspheming in a manner too shocking to repeat: at other times he sung several jovial and hunting songs, in different voices. But what seems the most extraordinary, is, that seven clergymen were found (one to each devil) so extremely weak and credulous as to be imposed on by this nonsense, and seriously to join in expelling these evil spirits by prayer; and one of them carried it still father, by returning publick thanks in Yatton church for the success of their endeavours, and the happy delivery of their patient.

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