Wednesday 31 October 2018

Magical Yorkshire

The magic of Yorkshire's history can sometimes be literal as well as figurative! 

We are all familiar with the idea of wisemen and wisewomen as people involved in occult activity. In Yorkshire, such people seem to have been helpful rather than malicious, although that didn't mean the Church approved. 

V.1567-8/CB1 f. 25v, Borthwick Institute for Archive

In 1567, Robert Garmann was the subject of testimony to the archbishop of York during a visitation, where he was accused of being a wiseman who 'had healed beastes beinge forespoken' (bewitched or charmed). The magic spell he used to break the enchantment was 

God and sancta charytie blysse the beast. 

The belief in forespeaking carried on in Yorkshire into the ninteenth century. Around 1840, a farmer from South Crosland near Huddersfield who was noted as a cow-doctor wrote down instructions for curing a forespoken cow: 

When Cattle is forspoken Catch her waters then get a new Pipkin never been used put the waters therein then Get some Glass shave both horns a little of then Cut some hair from between her horns and Tail end then get 9 Clogg nails 9 pins never used put all together into the pipkin then as near the full Moon as Possable at twelve O Clock at Night make the doors then set the Pipkin with the above in it on a good red fire and sit with it till all be boiled away and no Smook from it then take it off and when Cold scrape all the black in the pot and nails etc on to some paper then put all in as small a parcil as you can turning each end Contrary way and if any body come to the door don’t open nor speak when doing this then in the morning take the parcel and a Gimblet big enough and go to a live Oaktree and bore a hole and put the parcel in and make a peg for it and put it in and drive it up with a hammer and then Get a egg and break the small end and put tarr in when emptied and give it to the Cow next morning keep warm and give Aird water to drink a time or two till well 
Clearly, un-forespeaking an animal was a complicated process!

Other wisewomen are on record as folk healers. During the 1598 vistation, one Widdow Carre of Darfield was reputed to be a wisewoman with skill at curing sickness. And in 1693, at the Quarter Sessions in Silkstone, appeared one William Beever who was supposed to be able to 'finde things that are lost' by the use of 'a booke whiche he calls an alminacke'. 
A wiggen, or rowan tree, Barbondale

Although these people professed benign powers, there was still obviously a fear of magic and bewitchment. The wiggen (the rowan, or mountain ash) was supposed to protect people from evil. In 1674, a witch's plot was foiled because 'they tye soe much whighen about him, I cannot come to my purpose'. It was even a cure against sickness: in 1782, an Ecclesfield man's diary records an attack of ague from which he recovered after six days 'Under Bark of Wiggin'. 

We can even track the suspicion of the occult into people's names. The surname Pricker was evidently occupational but its meaning is uncertain. In some contexts a pricker was a huntsman and in others a witch-finder. One by-name which may derive from witch-finder is Helya Prickescin, who lived around Fountains Abbey 1168-1194.

Edit 25/01/18 The Yorkshire Historical Dictionary is now available online at 

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