Ritual Protection Marks & Ritual Practices

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Don’t Stop Believing! In 1979, fire ripped through the 14th century barn at Bredon; a conflagration which created enough damage that it took three years to repair. The barn was built c.1350, at the time of the Black Death to store the tithes collected by the Bishops of Worcester. There has always been some confusion regarding its appellation as the Bishop was also the Lord of the Manor making it, to some degree, both a ‘tithe’ barn and, more properly a ‘manorial’ barn. Back in 1987 Ralph Merrifield noted that, even in the later medieval period, “food production, preparation and storage had retained a strong religious element” – something which had also been true of for pre-industrial societies and their relationship to their crops. It is a truism that food has always been suffused with symbolism, something that modern-day consumers appear to have forgotten. By the Early Modern Period (c. AD 1650-1800) this belief was magnified through the lens of the Protestant (or the Puritan) work ethic. It was further conceptualised through their theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasised that diligence, discipline and frugality were the result of a person’s subscription to the values espoused by the Protestant faith. Merrifield was aware of the ritual protection of barns through his discoveries of concealed of objects within their fabric but he was less aware of other layers of magical protection that could be added to a building to ward against evil and the spoliation of crops. Ailing livestock, milk which soured or refused to churn and pest infestation was often blamed on ‘maleficium’ (witchcraft performed with the intention of causing harm). It was one of Merrifield’s students, Timothy Easton who made the crucial link between the practices of concealing objects to the ritual application of taper burns to timbers and the cutting of compass-drawn circles into the masonry. The latter often focus around the doorways in barns, particularly those which open onto the threshing floor. During a recent survey of Bredon Barn several compass-drawn circles were noted as well as a selection of less well-defined graffiti symbols. It was not until the end of the day that the irony of Bredon’s near destruction became clear. By mounting the external stair one can access the first floor solar which was the bailiff’s room over one of the projecting porches. A small door at the rear of the room opens onto a raised balcony that provides an aerial view of the whole barn. If one turns around, cranes one’s neck and is carrying a flashlight it is possible to see – at the point where the wall meets the slope of the roof – a number of deliberately applied taper burns. We have posted several times on RPM about taper burns and their apotropaic qualities. As most early medieval buildings were constructed mainly of wood, both unguarded fires and lightning strikes were greatly feared. It has long been held that the taper burn was applied as an act of sympathetic magic; by offering fire up to the wood then perhaps the act would help to protect the building against future fire. It would seem then, that these marks had succeeded in protecting the barn for nearly seven centuries. Perhaps belief in their apotropaic qualities had faded and fire took hold? Or perhaps someone got careless in a hay-filled barn? We will never know but we came very close to losing one of Worcestershire’s architectural gems.

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