Crossing the Threshold

…’they will come and pierce through whatsoever house or church, though all ordinary passages be closed, by whatsoever open[ing] the air may enter in at..”

Daemonologie (1597) James VI of Scotland (later King James I of England).

The above passage has been interpreted as a reference to the danger presented by the witch’s familiar. The above passage was first quoted by Timothy Easton in 1999 with reference to the apotropaic marks that he had recorded on the fireplace lintels above the fireplaces.The vogue for the brick-built fireplace that had become fashionable in the 16th and 17th centuries had brought with it its own problems. Whilst the hearth brought its attendant warmth, light and heat, it created a new ‘weak spot’ in the structure of the house.

The anxiety was twofold; firstly, the integrity of the building (usually constructed of timber) was breached to introduce the chimney into what were originally ‘long hall’ type farm buildings belonging to the yeoman class and, secondly, that there now existed a structure perpetually open to the sky that could not be shut off. He recorded many marks around the chimney that seemed to indicate that they had been made during construction work and whilst the house was ‘open’ to the elements before it was resealed.

He had noted that thresholds such as windows and doors had always traditionally been the foci for apotropaic marks and deposits (including horseshoes above the door and metal objects placed under the threshold step). In fact, any ‘liminal’ point between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ (or even between internal divisions within the same building) were often adorned with apotropaics.

In this photograph (above), the devil (or one of his minions) appears to be entering via a window in the church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Beckley in Oxfordshire. It is, in fact, part of the 15th century ‘Doom’ painting in the church. The painting bears a strong resemblance to the figure in the woodcut from ‘The History of Witches & Wizards’ (1720) (below) which appears to depict the Devil offering wax dolls to four witches with the aim, no doubt, to affect maleficium.

Easton, T (1999) ‘Ritual Marks on Timber’ in, Down & Weald & Downland Open Air Museum Magazine

Hall, Morton & Hale (1720) The History of Witches and wizards: Giving a True Account of all their Tryals in England, Scotland, Swedeland, France, and New England; with their confession and condemnation

https://wellcomecollection.org/works/abkab8tq

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