APOTROPAICS: THE ROUGH GUIDE #1: TAPER BURN MARKS
For the last 25 years archaeologists have been recording historic taper burn marks on Medieval building timbers, now understood to be the material traces of applied ‘pyro-technology’ – an act intended to protect the buildings from harm.
1: Taper Burn Marks: Morphology, defining characteristics.
A taper burn mark can be identified by its ‘tear drop’ shape – not unlike that of a candle flame – being round at the base and narrowing to a point, which is the result of the way the flame was applied to the timber (Billingsley 2021: 48). Its characteristic shape is the archaeological trace of a ‘controlled’ flame having been deliberately applied to a timber element within a building using a taper. A taper is described as a long, thin candle used for lighting fires, whose design was intended to create a long, steady flame. It is now generally agreed that the taper –rather than a candle or a rush light – was the most likely choice of ‘tool’ to affect the desired result.
Taper burn marks can vary in size, from a few millimeters in length to those of several centimeters and can be found as single burns or in overlapping multiples. One distinct characteristic of the burn mark is the depth to which the flame has been allowed to burn into the timber, which can be up to several millimetres. They are commonly found on fireplace lintels (bressumiers) as well as around thresholds and openings such as timber doors and windows (Hoggard 2019:94). In other instances they have been found in ‘inaccessible’ locations within a building, such as behind paneling or even under floorboards (Wright 2015:04, Champion 2017a)..
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2: A Little History of Research
Historically, taper burn marks had been either misidentified or not identified as being of any significance at all. Regarded as ‘commonplace’ marks on timber buildings they have often been overlooked or ignored. The presumption was made that the burns were the result of regular accidents in wooden buildings where only rush or candle lighting was available; the burn marks, therefore, were considered to be the result of accidents due to fallen or badly placed candles (Dean & Hill 2014, Champion 2017b:6).
The Rise of the Heritage Industry
This common-place attitude to the burn marks only changed with the introduction of modern building surveys undertaken by the heritage industry during the 1990’s and the 2000’s. A reluctance within the industry to excavate or perform ‘intrusive’ operations led to a greater emphasis on non-invasive surveys and techniques. Further, stringent rules and protocols were introduced which have regulated the way in which buildings could be restored and/or investigated. The move away from excavation or invasive investigation and an increased emphasis upon detailed recording promoted the discipline of ‘buildings archaeology’ to a higher prominence than it had enjoyed before. Now aided by new 3D scanning equipment, buildings surveys are being undertaken in painstaking detail.
The enhanced recording techniques which have now become standard protocols for archaeologists soon highlighted the fact that there were far more taper burn marks on internal timber elements within ‘discrete’ buildings than were far more than would be ‘reasonable’ when viewed just as casual accidents. The sheer quantity of burn marks recorded in old buildings have made the hypothesis of ‘accidental’ fires untenable (Easton 2012: 46) Further, building surveys that have recorded the official ‘dismantling’ (for the replacement of un-savable elements) or ‘renovation’ of old buildings by professionals have brought to light burn marks that had been made in inaccessible locations – such as those that have been found behind paneling, in ‘awkward’ (or restricted) roof spaces and under floorboards (Wright 2015:4, Champion 2017a).
However, the counter-argument for accidental burning persisted, and the phenomenon became the subject of heated debate. Back in the field, archaeological examination of burn marks on timber elements found that, in the majority of cases, where burn marks were found, candle sconces or candle fittings were absent (Champion 2017b: 6, Hoggard 2019: 94, Wright 2021). Further, multiple burn marks in inaccessible places or along the edges of timber framed doorways and windows continued to be equally puzzling and difficult to explain when resorting to the ‘accident’ theory. The results from ‘modern’ building surveys culled from the new generation of buildings archaeologists have found burn marks in ever more unusual locations. In churches, they are most often found on the inside of the main door (Champion 2017a), but also on Rood Screens and even on ‘portable’ objects and furniture.
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However, we may be inching towards a credible explanation using a combination of judicious and detailed building recording alongside the application of ‘experimental’ archaeology. In 2014 Dean& Hill undertook a programme of archaeological experimentation which attempted to replicate both the shape and depth of taper burn marks using a variety of flame types on green oak. This material was chosen as it has been recorded that the burn marks had been made either at the time of the timbers being felled and prepared or not long after construction. Their tests further illustrated that, during the burning process, it would have been necessary to scrape away the layer of carbon and charcoal at regular intervals to create some of the deeper examples. In their summary they noted that although the burn marks sometimes appeared alongside other known ‘apotropaic’ symbols they concluded that there was, ‘no close association between burn marks and other ritual markings’ (Dean & H ill 2014, quoted in Hoggard 2021:95).
The exercise illustrated that the great majority of burn marks had been made deliberately and their conclusion has led to the gradual acceptance that taper burn marks were the result of human agency. It is now generally agreed the burn marks can be viewed alongside other categories of ritual marks (and practices) often found on or within the fabric of ancient buildings. Their experiments were replicated with similar results and conclusions by the buildings archaeologist James Wright in 2021.
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3: A DAWNING REALISATION
The Archaeology of Ritual & Magic
To understand the current interpretative framework that is in place to explain the phenomenon of taper burn marks it is first necessary to place the explanations within their historical and cultural context. It is will also be necessary to briefly review the last twenty five years of academic research which has led to these conclusions.
The starting point is Ralph Merrifield’s seminal book, ‘The Archaeology of Ritual & Magic’ published in 1987. The importance of this book to this study area cannot be underestimated and is itself the subject of an article elsewhere on the RPM website. The book was published at a time when both the terms ‘ritual’ and ‘magic’ were considered to be almost the sole preserve of anthropologists studying pre-Industrial societies. They were generally considered subjects not worthy of serious study within ‘modern’ archaeological contexts. Merrifield had been pivotal to the excavations of Roman Londinium, and as part of his work, he became conversant with Roman ‘rituals of commencement’ (foundation sacrifices in buildings) and ‘rituals of termination’ (the ‘closing down’ ritual act of the intentional firing and destruction of buildings and structures) in the archaeological record (Merrifield 1987: 48).
Later, his work in the capital meant that he came into regular contact with buildings from all periods and he began to note ‘unusual’ deposits or artefacts found within the vernacular architecture of the 16th and 17th centuries. He gradually came to the conclusion that buried witch bottles, concealed boots and shoes, mummified cats and concealed charms were not ‘disparate’ phenomena but were, in fact, all elements of what would become known as ‘ritual house protection.’ He believed that the householders had intentionally inserted the objects to act either as prophylactics, apotropaics to avert the evil eye or they had been understood by the occupiers to have functioned simply as ‘good luck’ charms. Convinced as he was, Merrifield still waited until after his retirement to publish the book – such was the attitude to ‘magic’ and ‘ritual’ within the archaeological community at the time. Although he had a wide appreciation of most of the categories of ritual house protection, he had only just begun to understand the significance of apotropaic graffiti and may have been unaware of the phenomenon of ritual taper burns. This was more to do with the fact that buildings archaeology as a discipline was still in its infancy, and until recently built structures had not been placed under the minute scrutiny as they are today.
Timothy Easton: Ritual Marks on Timber
A breakthrough occurred in the late 1990’s, when Timothy Easton, a buildings historian and a student of Merrifield’s, began to notice the repetition of certain symbols carved into house timbers of buildings dating to between the 16th and 18th centuries in and around Suffolk.2 In his article, ‘Ritual Marks on Historic Timber’ (1999) he recorded the symbols on the timber elements which he believed had been made using a carpenters rase-knife; a very specific tool which leaves deeply-cut, prominent marks. The tool was the sort only owned by a craftsman and probably to obtain one would have ben out of the financial reach of most peasants and non-craftsmen.
The symbols consisted of repeated ‘M’ or ‘W’ symbols (actually formed of two conjoined or over-lapping ‘V’s and known as a Marian Mark) along with compass drawn circles and hexafoils (Easton 1999:22-31), these same symbols were to appear in many corpora of church graffiti. Easton had seen the unusual in the usual and made a huge interpretative leap; if the same symbols which had been considered to be masons’ marks exclusive to stone-built churches were present in the vernacular timber architecture of the 16th-17th centuries, then they could not belong exclusively to that profession or, indeed, medium. A link between graffiti and inscriptions found in churches and those recorded in secular contexts had been made. He concluded that apotropaic symbols in the context of domestic buildings …’first begin to appear during the early 16th century and remain an almost constant presence right the way through to the 18th…and may survive into the 19th and 20th centuries in rural agricultural buildings’ (Easton 1999 22-24).
Easton was able to differentiate the marks and symbols as they bore no resemblance to either Baltic Timber Marks or Carpenter’s Marks – which are also often made with a carpenter’s rase knife.
The work of Virginia Lloyd
Merrifield’s diligent work had helped to establish both ritual protection marks and practices to be acknowledged as genuine archaeological sub-discipline and his book has inspired many researchers since. , In 1997 it was Virginia Lloyd who made one of the earliest identifications of burn marks as a real and separate phenomenon worth proper study alongside other forms of ritual practice. Her pioneering work emerged a result of surveying the buildings of East Anglia. Lloyd was following a lead, having picked up a folkloric reference with regard to the burn marks having once been a ‘common folk practice’ undertaken in the timber buildings to counter the possibility of devastating fire. Although it almost went unnoticed, her ideas were revamped in a second paper in 2001 (with co-authors Dean & Westwood as part of the “A Permeability of Boundaries’ BAR report), in which they developed the argument that burn marks should be viewed as the material evidence for apotropaic practices (Lloyd, Dean & Westwood 2001).
4: Candle Powers: Twelfth Night & ‘Sacred’ Candles
The stage was now set for a new interpretation of the burn marks that were being recorded in both secular and ecclesiastical buildings across Medieval and Early Modern Europe c. AD 1550-1800. A third article by Easton, ‘Candle Powers’ (2011:56) appeared the same year as Lloyd’s paper – which saw him turning his attention to both the Christian symbolism of the ‘blessed’ candle as a ‘sacred’ object along with its central role within Christian ritual. In the article he highlighted the importance of the blessed candle bringing ‘light’ to the celebration of Twelfth Night. Some of the ideas put forward by Easton – as well as the ritual and symbolic importance of this festival – have been subsequently revisited by Fearn (2017) Hoggard (2019), Champion (2017a) & Wright (2021).
Although not dealing directly with the phenomenon of burn marks themselves, ‘Candle Powers’ outlined his discovery and subsequent recording of a collection of symbols and signs that he had recorded on a first floor ceiling of a farmhouse. The marks had been made by using the smoke from the fatty wax of a candle – a practice known among cunning folk as ‘candle writing’. The building, located in Woolpit, Suffolk, dated to the 16th century with later additions having been made to the building a century later. The marks had been hidden as they had been subsequently covered over with layers of lime-wash and distemper (Easton 2011: 56).
In an effort to interpret the range of symbols depicted on the ceiling, Easton made a link between the incorporation of several ‘grid iron’ and ‘ladder’ motifs among the symbols marked on the ceiling and the festival of Twelfth Night in which the grid iron was often taken up as a ‘rude’ instrument to help make ‘rough music’ whose cacophony would, ‘drive away spirits’ (Easton 2011: 56-57). Subsequently, both of these motifs have been regularly recorded as part of the corpora of graffiti recorded across the secular and religious buildings of England. In some cases they have been interpreted as visual representations of ‘spirit traps’ – an ‘overt’ type of apotropaic placed to entrap invading evil spirits (Champion 2017b).
Among the more esoteric symbols he managed to isolate the name ‘Sarah,’ which documentary research identified as being the daughter of the Sugate family who occupied the house in the 17th century. He posited that the marks may have been made as a way of trying to cure her of sleepwalking – which was often interpreted as possession in the medieval period. It was seen as a ‘disorder of the body and soul,’ episodes of which were believed to place the body in a ‘dangerous and disordered’ state (Easton 2011: 57, Mac Lehose 2013). The marks therefore, may have been the residue of a ‘specialist’ (such as a cunning man or woman) to make the marks, which had been done, perhaps, with suitable incantations or prayer (Easton 2011: 56, Gaskill 2018:134).
The Festival of Twelfth Night
’Candle Powers’ consolidated some of the ideas Easton had already been playing with in his 2005 article, ‘Twelfth Night & the Lord of Misrule.’ It was an evening when the world was metaphorically turned ‘upside down’ and the Lord of Misrule reigned, allowing participants to indulge in a momentary act of (sanctioned) chaos. In this brief piece he described the late medieval version of the festival which, at the time, was enacted as a ‘solemn’ observance made on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. Unlike todays ‘secular’ festivals, it ended a month’s fasting and ushered in twelve days of feasting following the appropriate ritual. In medieval Europe, Twelfth Night (or Epiphany Eve) was observed by the singing carols, baking the ‘King’ cake, having one’s house blessed, merry making (in the vein of unrestrained cavorting) and the ‘chalking the doors.’ Even by the Tudor and Stuart period people attached great importance to the rituals of Twelfth Night with the aim of, ‘placating unfriendly spirits and protecting the house for the coming year’ (Easton 2005: 26).
Burning issues 2012
The first article by Easton to directly address the phenomenon of ‘deliberate’ burn marks was his piece, ‘Burning Issues’ (2012) wherein he pulled together a number of disparate folkloric examples from a number of different architectural (and archaeological) contexts. For a short ‘thought’ piece he managed to include both examples of his fieldwork as well as proffering some imaginative interpretative models that could be tested through recourse to the evidence. As well as describing a few of his own discoveries he mused upon the traditions regarding the Yule Log, folk belief regarding apparently spontaneous fire events as well as the phenomenon of folk belief in the supernatural – which were often used to justify their explanations for lightning strikes. Finally, he also included an important passage from James I’s treatise on the ‘reality’ of witches and witchcraft, ‘Daemonologie’ which has since become a ‘staple’ text for researchers in this field.
The Tradition of the Yule Log
Although there are regional variations, the winter tradition of the Yule Log generally centred upon a the selection of a log to be burnt on the hearth; a portion of it was burnt each evening until Twelfth Night (on or around the 5th or 6th of January) and a piece of it saved to light next years’ log. The first generally accepted reference which records the custom is from the 17th century. As well as ‘keeping the home fires burning’ symbolically it was meant to illuminate the house and help turn night into day during the winter months. Other traditions state that two large candles were to be bought and once all the other lights in the house had been extinguished, they would be lit from the Yule Log. The implication is clear; one of continuity of the hearth and home and a domestic reenactment of the New Years’ celebration of candles being blessed in church.
‘Random Misfortune & Malficium
Once this ritual of the passing of the flame had been observed, the remnant of the log was then to be placed beneath the bed for luck. It was thought to be particularly efficacious totem for the protection of the household threatened by the dangers of lightning and fire. In the medieval world fire, lightning strikes and other apparently ‘random’ occurrences of misfortune were often interpreted as instances of ‘divine’ justice visited by God. Individuals to whom this occurred were considered culpable, as the wrath of God was visited only on those who had sinned. The human condition – unable to come to terms with such ‘random’ misfortune – and unable to locate the ‘sin’ that had led to their fate – often sought to blame such caprice on evil spirits or the result of willful and targeted ‘maleficium’ (malevolent witchcraft). However, even finding a scapegoat was not the end of their misery as, of course, because even though they located the source of their strife they had attracted the attention of witches as a result of their sin.
In the article, Easton quotes from the poem “Ceremonies for Candlemasse Day, included in the collection, ‘Hesperides,’
Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
Till sunset let it burn,
Which quenched, then lay it up again
Till Christmas next return.
Part must be kept, wherewith to teend
The Christmas log next year,
And where ’tis safely kept, the fiend
Can do no mischief there.
Robert Herrick (1647)
Having discovered a ‘spiritual midden’ at Hestley Hall, in Suffolk, Easton recorded among the many objects a number of burnt wooden fragments or cut pieces of timber. It included a partially burnt log and half of a small, sawn 18th-century log which had been split into three. The ends had been put to the fire, extinguished and then consigned to the cavity beside an upper fireplace The implication being that they looked very much like the physical remnants of the ritual of the Yule Log (Easton 2012:45).
Although Ralph Merrifield had recorded numerous examples of ritual acts including intentionally concealed objects within late medieval buildings, it was Easton who identified and gave name to a new category of apotropaic deposit; the ‘spiritual midden’. Broadly speaking, spiritual middens have now been archaeologically identified as ‘deliberately-curated’ deposits comprising old worn-out and broken objects – which often included large numbers of patched and repaired clothing and shoes. The deposits are characterized by having been intentionally concealed within inaccessible voids and spaces (such as in the voids alongside the chimney breast) whereby the objects had been inserted or dropped into place from a difficult-to-access point in the attic above.
Towards the latter part of the article, Easton began to expand upon the themes of witchcraft belief during the Early Modern Period (c. AD 1550-1800) a time to which many of the timber buildings that he had studied owed their origins. In the main, the 16th to 17th century buildings of the east of England had begun life as medieval ‘great’ or ‘open’ halls. The rising Yeoman class, keen to display there new-found wealth, had ‘modernised. their houses by inserting brick built fireplaces. Seeing a clear link between the folk beliefs of the period which blamed witches for bad luck and the advent of ritual protection marks appearing in buildings of the period, he turned to some of the literature of the day for further clues.
In 1603, during the first year of his kingship in England, King James I republished his book ‘Daemonologie’(1597), which he had written as a vehicle to re-enforce his (and others) belief about the ‘truth’ of witchcraft. It was a philosophical dissertation on contemporary necromancy and the historical relationships between the various methods of divination used from ancient black magic. The belief among the intelligentsia of the day that witches existed and could do ill was an adjudged reality; belief of their existence was embodied in the Witchcraft Acts of 1542, 1563 and 1604.
Easton highlighted a tract which reads,
“ being transformed into the likeness of a little beast or fowl, 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.”
So potent has this passage proven to be that it has been subsequently re-quoted by a number of researchers including (Wright 2015:5, 2021) & Fearn (2017:113). The passage appear to hint at the possibility of a witch’s small animal familiars infiltrating one’s home via the smallest ‘apertures’ or ‘openings.’
The passage from Daemonologie is informative as to the mindset of the time although the tract only alludes to the supernatural dangers of the witch. Herrick’s poem hints at recording a historic folk practice but, so far, research has yet to find a document which specifically details the practice and purpose of taper burn marks. As it stands, all interpretations thus far are based upon inference but textual detail is lacking. For example, relating to the phenomenon of ‘witch bottles,’ three historical documents exist which describe both their creation (and desired) contents with the intended outcomes which has transformed our understanding of their use (Blagrave 1671, Increase & Cotton Mather 1684, 1691). The contents outlined in these documents have now been verified (with some variation, admittedly) through chemical analysis of bottle contents and X-ray undertaken under modern laboratory conditions (Hoggard, Massey 2000).
‘Spontaneous’ & Devastating Fire Events, Lightning Strikes
For this article, Easton’s field work included the recording of a burn mark on the principal door frame of a Saxon church in Viscri, Transylvania. The mark displayed internal vertical cuts made with a pointed metal object, suggestive of it having been scraped internally to increase the depth of the burn (Easton 2012:46). A second example from a timber fireplace lintel (bressumier) from Anstruther, Scotland, presented another kind of ‘vertical’ stratigraphy. A number of symbols had been cut into the lintel which had been made with a carpenters’ ‘rase’ knife; a specialist carpenter’s tool. The symbols included an ‘M’ (for Maria) and ‘AM’ (for Ave Maria) better known now as Marian Marks . Easton considers the symbol to be one of the most common form of apotropaic mark often found in profusion in churches throughout England, a symbol which he believes had originally derived from ciphers associated with the Virgin Mary. After the initial rase knife marks had been added, a number of large burn marks had been made at some interval afterwards which had obliterated and burnt through parts of the original letters. Finally, in a third phase of activity, a sharply cut Marian Mark (this time made with a thin, pointed blade) had been cut into the hollows of the burn marks, completing a three-fold sequence (Easton 2012:46).
Finally, an identical example of burn mark cut through with an ‘M’ was cited from a wall stud at the top of the stairs in an Essex farmhouse. Easton surmised that the depth achieved within the burn marks would have only been possible if there had been a human intervention whereby the charcoal had been systematically scraped away whilst the taper was re-applied. He suggested that such burn marks were not exclusive to fireplace mantle beams and could be often discovered within both ‘cramped’ roof spaces and on the timber frames of windows and doors (Easton 2012: 46-7).
Finally, he concluded that the application of the burn marks could be viewed as a form of ‘inoculation’ whereby the act of presenting a flame (under controlled conditions) to the timber had been done to guard against the possibility of an ‘uncontrolled’ or random fire. This took the folkloric account collected by Lloyd and applied it to the laws of ‘sympathetic’ magic. The consequences of fire in the Middle Ages and through to the Early Modern Period could devastate people’s houses, livestock and livelihood and the danger was ever-present (Easton 2012: 46-47). Equally, lightning and thunderstorms were considered to be the work of supernatural powers in the Middle Ages and churches would ring their bells to dispel the storm and placate uncontrolled forces. As the bells themselves had been blessed and consecrated it was believed that it made them efficacious against evil spirits (Thomas 1971: 34). Ball lightning was also attributed to higher powers as it left a foul and sulphurous smell in its wake (Easton 2012: 46-47). Although the Puritans finally put paid to this particular practice, it appears that it may have been replaced by another form of ritual protection in the Early Modern Period: ritual taper burn marks.
On Sunday October 21, 1638 a great storm and lightning strike occurred at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon, which collapsed one of the pinnacles which fell through the roof and the descending fireball entered the nave. An engraving was made of the event 18 years later for a pamphlet which illustrated the event.
Recounted in, Easton (2012: 47).
To re-cap, within this one article Easton had presented a range of cultural milieus within which ritual activity may have occurred and posited several interpretations for the burn marks. Many of his ideas are still being discussed and revised by archaeologists today –
- The tradition of keeping fragments of partially burned wood in the house – which may represent the material trace of the custom of the Yule Log.
- The identification and classification of a new type of apotropaic deposit; the spiritual midden.
- Highlighting and drawing attention to the passage from James I’s ‘Daemonologie’ which appeared to suggest that there existed a very real fear or belief that witches could infiltrate a house (in their shape-shifted form) or via their familiars (often in the form of small creatures or insects)
- That spontaneous or unexplained fires were believed to be the result of ‘maleficium,’ as witches were deemed capable of ‘raising’ fires maliciously
- That ritual protection marks could come in various different forms and that the use of multiple types could ‘overlap’ in certain instances creating ‘layers’ of protection
- Taper burn marks were the result of deliberate, sustained burning which required the intervention of intermittent charcoal scraping or removal to permit deeper burning.
- The intention of making the burn mark was to ‘inoculate’ buildings against future random fires in an act of sympathetic magic
- He concluded that burn marks, graffiti symbols and spiritual middens were the material traces of different acts of ‘ritual building protection’ warding against supernatural attack
- In the preceding article, ‘Candle Powers’ he had alluded to folk beliefs regarding supernatural attacks under the cover of darkness and of ‘perceived vulnerability’ of humans during sleep
Case Study #1: Ritual Protection Marks & Witchcraft at Knole, Kent
Between November 2013 and February 2014 buildings archaeologist James Wright undertook a historic buildings fabric survey at Knole, near Sevenoaks, Kent. It included an examination of the joists below the floorboards of 38 rooms as part of a major programme of restoration and repair. A number of apotropaic marks were recorded, having been cut into the floor joists with a rase knife which included grids, meshes, interlocking ‘V’s (possibly Marian Marks) and overlapping ‘X’s (or saltires) (Wright 2015:1).
Historic documentation recorded that a range of works had taken place in 1606 which would have required the integrity of the building to be breached to allow for the insertion of the fireplace and other re-modelling. The works were intended to create a series of ‘royal apartments’ for a visiting James I, the author of the above-mentioned ‘Daemonologie.’ As well as writing on the existence of witches, James had also been responsible for taking measures against witchcraft in 1604 when he decreed it to be a capital offence to, ‘summon spirits for the purpose of injuring people’ (Sharpe 2001 quoted in Wright 2015:7). It can be easily surmised that these supernatural threats would have been still fresh in his mind during his stay at Knole.
As well as the incised symbols, Wright recorded a number of what he termed ‘scorch’ marks which had been made by, ‘directly burning the timber with a candle taper.’ The burn marks were found on a floor joist directly opposite the eastern jamb of the late 17th century fire surround in the King’s Bedroom and he concluded that they may represent the material residue of a form of sympathetic magic – using fire to fight the fires of hell (Wright 2015: 5)
Case Study #2: LLancaiach Fawr Manor
In 2017 researchers Brian Hoggard and Alicia Jessup recorded a number of apotropaic symbols at the 16th century manor which included a large number of ritual protection marks including crosses and Marian Marks. The first discovery of note was that of a dried cat that had been intentionally inserted into a ceiling space, a small ‘spiritual midden’ concealed in the fireplace and a larger midden discovered under the 17th century staircase (Hoggard & Jessup 2017: 1).
The wooden chimney lintel in the servant’s hall fireplace possessed an array of deep burn marks. Upstairs, a small attic space which was once the servants quarters contained a huge number of burn marks on the main beam and door frame which numbered over 100 in total (Hoggard & Jessup 2017: 1-2).
In an attempt to understand and explain the burn marks he found, Hoggard has ventured a metaphysical hypothesis based upon his own experiences. It runs along the lines of the historic practice known as the ‘ritually killing’ or ritual death’ of an object. Such practices are well attested to from the prehistoric record; intentional smashing of ceramics, and the deposition of high-status metal objects into watery locales are a common feature of ‘sacred’ sites. The act, for instance, of bending a sword double is now understood to have been done with the intention of putting the object out of service in this world and so to ‘transform’ it for use in the next otherworld / underworld. During excavations in London of buildings dating to the 16th-17th century Ralph Merrifield had begun to notice that some deposits contained objects which appeared to have been intentionally broken prior to deposition. This practice is also acknowledged as a component of spiritual midden formation as all the objects seem to have been patched, soiled and in some instances intentionally broken.
Hoggard’s suggests that the ritual burning of a timber component was undertaken with the same motivation, whose intention was to ritually ‘destroy’ the beam. The burn marks were intended to create lights, ‘on a magical or ghostly plane and were meant to have left a ghostly impression of the flame burning brightly on the ‘other side’ (Hoggard 2017:1). This idea was later finessed five years later, ‘I strongly suspect that ..the creation of burn marks is, in effect, creating some illumination on a more spiritual or astral plane, shining some light into the darkness’ (Hoggard 2021:95).
Whilst idea is very attractive, it is going to be almost impossible to prove ‘intention’ of the agents through normal archaeological techniques. Therefore, a document – similar to those which detailed accounts of the ingredients and intended consequences of the creation of witch bottles – would be required instead. So far, such a document has not been forthcoming, but as interest and research in this area has grown, so old documents are being examined for clues anew. Further, the hypothesis suggests that the marks were made with a candle specifically and, so far, direct evidence for the marks having been made with a candle per se is lacking. The taper allows for more ‘controlled’ burning when held at 45 degrees; candles at this angle would generate a lot of melted wax which would drip onto surrounding surfaces. For this author, close examination of taper burns over the last four years has not turned up any significant deposits of melted wax in proximity to the burns marks themselves. However, we may yet happen upon documentation which completely changes our mind in relation to the ‘true’ intention behind the making of taper burn marks.
Case Study #3: Gainsborough Old Hall
Archaeologist Matthew Champion undertook a survey of Gainsborough Old Hall in 2017 which he believed to be, ‘one of the best preserved and most beautiful manor houses to survive from the Middle Ages.’ In the Great Hall alone he found burn marks on almost every timber. In the Buttery the window was ‘surrounded’ by burn marks and at the base of the stairs he found, ‘literally dozens of burn marks’ , all of which definitively refuted the ‘accident’ theory for the marks (Champion 2017b:5).
Case Study #4: Donnington –le-Heath, Leicestershire.
In 2016 Alison Fearn made an examination of the assemblage of burn marks – along with other graffiti marks and symbols – which had been made onto the building fabric at Donnington-le-Heath Manor, Leicestershire. Most notable was the sheer quantity of taper burn marks of a distinctive ‘hollow-bowl’ shape. There existed clear spatial patterning within the greater density or concentrations on the first floor; focusing on doorways relating to the west wings and on the timber frame that divided the ‘public’ from ‘private’ spaces. Finally, the interrogation of the data highlighted the greater concentrations associated in proximity to the bedchambers. Interestingly, Fearn has put forward a case for the burning to be a ‘gendered activity’ based upon the historic role of the female within the household and her access to the various locations within the building. Her research has added an interesting new line of enquiry to the current research agenda (Fearn 2017: 92-102).
As part of the discussion she returned to Easton’s idea that the rituals of Twelfth Night might hold a clue to some of the ritual activity. Whilst perusing Thomas Kirchmaier’s, ‘Christmas of Old in Germany’ she noted the passage which seemed to at least allude to applying taper burns:
‘Another takes the loaf, whom all the rest do follow here,
And round about the house they go, with torch or taper clear,
That neither bread nor meat do want; nor witch with dreadful charm
Have power to hurt their children, or to do their cattle harm’
From the German of Thomas Kirchmaier (1553 quoted in Fearn 2017: 94)..
Case Study #5: Ightham Mote, Sevenoaks, Kent
In 2019 the author undertook a non-invasive survey of the 14th century Ightham Mote moated manor house using English Heritage Grade II protocols. The survey recorded a number a compass drawn circles, Marian Marks, saltires and other ritual protection marks both in the Great Hall and around the 17th century stone fireplaces on the first floor.
As well as a variety of symbols having been made on the exposed stonework, twenty-nine deliberately applied taper burns were recorded on the building fabric (and in one instance on a chair) at Ightham Mote. Many were recorded on the timber Rood Screen in the New Chapel but other examples came from the doors, timber studs and the newel post of the spiral stairs in the gatehouse tower.
Matthew Champion: Fighting Fire With Fire
In a 2017 blog, Matthew Champion cited a number of examples of burn marks found within a wide variety of buildings dating from the late medieval to Early Modern Periods. Echoing Easton’s earlier ideas outlined in ‘Candle Powers’ he set out a persuasive argument for the use of candles – specifically those having been blessed and derived of beeswax – in both Christian ceremony and how their application had been ‘interpreted’ within various folk traditions.
The festival of Candlemas is a Feast Day which is known variously as the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the Purification of the Virgin or the Feast of the Holy Encounter. It was traditionally held in early February, forty days after Christmas which, like Twelfth Night, was preceded by fasting. It was celebrated by way of service and prayers followed by a procession around the churchyard. The solemn procession represented the entry of Christ (who is the light of the world) into the Temple at Jerusalem (NA 2021). Traditionally, the congregation would bring candles to the church so that they could be blessed; the candles could then be taken home for use for the rest of the year. Candles which had been blessed by a Priest were deemed ‘particularly powerful’ as they were considered to be capable of driving away the Devil and so therefore protect the home (Champion 2017b: 10).
There Is A Light That Never Goes Out: The Paschal Candle
Rituals which that surrounded the Paschel Candle as its was meant to represent the Resurrected Christ. Both the candle and the precious nature of the melted wax thereof were venerated. Similarly to the tradition of the Yule Log, much ceremony was made of the fact that, during a special ceremony, all lights would be extinguished as the congregation gathered in the church when new candles lit from the Paschal Candle. . Tapers lit from the Paschal Candle were regarded as, ‘ a particularly potent charm for the protection of children and mothers to be’ (Champion 2017b: 10).
The Qualities of Wax
The practice of burning candles pre-fabricated to the height of an individual was another curious variation; Champion cites a document which recorded that, ‘in 1285 King Edward I made an offering of wax at St Mary’s Chatham of, ‘a total length equal to the combined heights of the Royal Family.’ In a perverse reversal of such beliefs, the candle (or wax) could likewise be used in malicious witchcraft whereby a candle could be ‘identified’ or modeled as a representation of the victim. So as the candle burnt, so the victim would ‘waste away’ (Champion 2017b:11-13).
There was also a trade in the wax itself; it was systematically recovered from shrines and remodeled into new candles or fashioned into ex-voto objects to complete the cycle of deposition at shrines. Ex-voto objects often took the form of a body part for which the pilgrim sought healing, leading to the creation of small models of feet, hands limbs and hearts to leave at shrines (Champion 2017b: 10-11).
Champion has highlighted the central role candles played in funerals and funerary ritual and quotes an example from Ireland where five candles were requested to be placed around the body of the departed to, ‘protect against evil spirits and the Devil.’ Their continued use as being central and crucial to funerary ritual survived the Reformation.
‘When a death takes place candles should be burnt in every apartment of the house during the whole of the night until it (the body) is buried’
1888 Folklore 263
‘On the Scottish lowlands… the body should be washed and laid out and the oldest women should light a candle and wave it three times around a corpse. The candles for saining (blessing) should be procured from a wizard or witch or a person with flat feet..for all these people are ‘unlucky’..the candle must be kept burning through the night’
c.1816 Wilkie MS (Henderson Northern Counties 1866 36-7
Both of the above cited in, Opie & Tatum (1989:53-56).
Champion gave several examples of highs status individuals leaving requests to be enacted on their death, which often included the financial provision for the lighting of candles to be placed around their body as it lay in state. In some ways these could be considered posthumous apotropaics, enacted after death and designed to aid the soul through Purgatory. In the early medieval church, it became the norm for the elite members of society to make such requests in their wills and build chantry chapels within which their requests could be enacted. A typical church scene of the period would include candles being burnt in side chapels or chantries, especially during the principal feasts of the church (Champion 2017b: 11).
Spontaneous & Accidental Fires & Lightning Strikes
Champion concurred with Easton’s statement that fire could devastate lives completely; ‘fire was one of the greatest threats to communities prior to the modern period, most major towns and cities in England suffered at least one major catastrophe.’ Unable to come to terms with misfortune, some inhabitants suspected that the fires were the result of supernatural acts, most specifically malevolent acts of witchcraft.
He illustrates the point by referring to the 16th century woodcut, ‘Hort an new schrecklich abenthewr Von den unholden ungehewr‘, wherein a burning house is surrounded by witches; elsewhere, ‘cancelled out’ Marian Marks on the fireplace lintel permit witches to enter a chimney. He concluded that burn marks also possess a direct apotropaic function as they, ‘both denied witches entry to the building via the portal onto which the marks were scorched and at the same time inoculated the timbers from further burning’ (Champion 2017b:13).
The Legend of Black Shuck
Not only witches were blamed for lightning strikes, there also existed a belief in black dogs – who in doing the Devil’s bidding – could wreak havoc as recorded in the legend of the ‘devil dog’ Black Shuck (Champion 2017b:13). In Blythburgh,
“On 4th August while the minister was reading the second lesson a strange a terrible tempest ‘strake’ down through the wall of the church, toppled the spire down through the roof so that it shattered the font, tumbled the bells and the jack of the clock (he was repaired and it still there), killed a man and a boy and scorched many members of the congregation. It was known that this visitation was of the Devil, because as he fled out of the north door on his way to Bungay his fingermarks were revealed, and the truth of the legend verified“
“The bronze plate at the Butter Cross records the event also occurring at Bungay on the same day and in the same storm as at Blythburgh. On Sunday August 1577, when Old Shuck or Black Shuck the terrible black dog of East Anglia, appeared in the church during a thunderstorm (the same one in which the Devil left his mark in Blythburgh church) and wrought great havoc.”
(Seymour 1970 :43-44,138).
This is, of course, a classic case of an ‘illusory correlation’ – on which is often encountered in folkloric accounts – whereby an unknown (or unexplained) phenomena (in this case ritual burn marks) has become the subject of a local legend which has grown up after the event to explain it. We now know of course that the marks were made deliberately made by human hands with a completely different motive even though it may have been driven by the fear of lightning strikes!
Case Study #6: St Mary West Malling Kent
During a preliminary survey at St Mary’s church, West Malling the author found the Nave and Chancel of the church almost devoid of graffiti, save for a Latin cross on a window mullion and several other ‘ephemeral’ marks. The main evidence for ritual protection of the building came the tower crossing below the bell chamber. The first clue was a lightly cut compass – drawn circle on the outer face of the crossing door. Inside, the stairwell to the tower had been paneled in by a series of wooden planks upon which a number of scratched motifs had been cut. The symbols included a large ‘mesh’ (or grid) motif, accompanied by a compass-drawn design, several saltires (composed of X’s – a known ‘occlusive’ or ‘barrier’ symbol) and numerous deep taper burns applied to the woodwork as different ‘layers of protection.’
Alas, even all these apotropaic precautions were not enough to prevent the tower being struck by lightning in the early 18th century,
“There happened a great tempest of thunder and lightening and sett a fire the spire of the church, (which) broke down through the roof and ceiling of the body of the church and through the belfry door, broke down the pendulum of the clock, melted the bottom of the pendulum, went through the head of the chancel, and did a great deal of other damage, especially to the spire, on Monday morning about 6 o’clock, the 17th day of November, 1712”
(Quoted in Tatton-Brown 1995)
Bless This House
Folklorist John Billingsley touched upon the subject of burn marks in his book ‘Charming Calderdale’ in 2020. Dismissing the hypothesis that such burns were accidental, he suggests instead that the process of creating burn marks was a, ‘deliberate and time-consuming act which fits the criteria that would allow for a spell or prayer to be spoken.’ Billingsley points out, as researchers and archaeologists, it is up to us to infer a meaning from what the act implies (Billingsley 2020: 48-49).
Burn marks, therefore, were a ‘willed’ magical act based upon folk custom communicated through oral transmission and copied by rote. Unlike other ritual practices such as hidden or concealed objects whose efficacy is based upon secrecy, the taper burn mark is often located on clearly visible locations for ‘overt’ display (Billingsley 2020: 48-49).
Experimental Archaeology Pt.2.
In 2021, James Wright returned to the subject of ‘accidental’ burn marks as part of his Triskele Heritage myth-busting series which aimed to replicate and extend Dean & Hill’s experiment. He found that rushlights dipped in sheep fat and hempen wicks resulted in ‘random’ burning and with which it was, ‘practically impossible to create the classic tear-drop shape.’ A wax taper however, produced the desired results when held at a 45 degree angle. He found that, as predicted, the carbon deposit which appeared on the surface of the wood required regular scraping to acquire the ‘hollow’ profile. In short, he found that it required time, patience and that the making of the marks had all the hallmarks of having been the result of deliberate human intervention (Wright 2021).
5: WHO MADE THE MARKS?
When it comes to the application of apotropaic symbols within the built environment it would appear that some may have required ‘specialist’ equipment; some may have been accompanied by chants and spells, whilst others required only the ability to replicate a folk tradition learnt by rote or that had been practiced (and copied) generationally. In most instances, it has become clear that many of the practices were transmitted orally as they would have been considered ‘common place’ actions that did not require explanation. Historical documentation is so far lacking.
It has been posited as to whether any of these practices were enacted by the local priest or clergy. The general consensus broadly seems to be that it would have been ‘unlikely’ – as they would have had recourse to their own spiritual ‘arsenal’ of tried and tested ‘official’ liturgical formulae (such as exorcism for extreme cases). Again, it is possible that some acts of ritual protection could have been perceived to be mildly heretical. That is not to say that the Clergy did not have knowledge of the folk practices undertaken within their communities, but rather that it was likely that they simply turned a blind eye to the practitioners and placed some distance between them and the undertaking.
Cunning Men & Women
Back at the beginning of this article we looked at Easton’s ‘Candle Powers’ (2011) and the case of the smoke writing that had been found on the first floor ceiling at Woolpit, Suffolk. The writing and symbols were of a completely different order to the phenomenon of taper burn marks but they may still have shared a number of characteristics in their execution. Certainly, some of Easton’s conclusions and his interpretation of the symbols has continued to stimulate discussion among researchers even today.
One of the main elements of his interpretation was the inclusion of those symbols which shared an affinity with both astrological signs and other known ‘ritual protection’ marks which included the grid irons and ladder motifs. To Easton, these drew to mind the kind of written charms illustrated in Merrifield’s book, such as the one that had been found in a barn in West Bradford, Lancashire and one that recovered from a cowshed in Pentrenant Farm, Powys. Both had drawn on a ‘formulae’ of mixed (and possibly contradictory) symbols (1987:149-153).
It was clear to Merrifield that the charms had been fabricated by a local cunning man (or wise woman) who had used a combination of symbols including Greek and Latin letters (often learnt and copied out by rote), magical word squares, astrological ciphers and ‘occult’ symbols, written out side-by-side with short Christian tracts and other ‘disparate’ symbols known to be associated with deflecting the evil eye. ‘The charms were an admix of prayer and spells, piety and ritual enchantment, invocations of various deities and corrupted Latin. It was a kind of white magic that lay on the borderland between religion and sorcery’ (Merrifield 149-153).
In ‘Candle Powers’ Easton asserted that it was possible that a different ‘specialist’ (or specialists) of some kind had been brought in to carry out the candle writing. Several of the patterns and motifs had re-occurred on a number of ceilings from other locations – often located a few miles apart – suggesting the same hand. The pattern appeared to reveal a ‘shared knowledge’ of symbols considered to be efficacious in offering protection against some kind of danger from evil spirits or witchcraft, rather than from the caprice of simple misfortune. He believed that the archaeological evidence (and the building’s chronology) pointed to it being highly likely that the marks had been made during the second half of the 17th century (Easton 2011: 56).
On the subject of taper burn marks themselves in Burning issues (2012), Easton clearly identified the suspects; ‘many of …(the burn marks) must have been made by the carpenters at the time of construction’ (Easton 2012:46-47). On examination, he concluded that the deep and well-defined marks made onto the timber had been made using a ‘rase’ knife which is the preserve of woodworkers as noted above. However, he was also the first to n record not only the evidence for internal ‘scrape’ marks (made to remove the charcoal during burning) but also when later symbols had been scored into the finished burn marks themselves. The later marks had been applied with a thin, pointed blade that had left cut lines of a completely different in character and profile to the rase knife (Easton 2012:46-47).
A similar conclusion was drawn by Wright at Knole House where he believed that the apotropaic symbols – in common with the carpenter’s marks – were carved using a rase knife. It was also evident that the taper burn marks that appeared to be ‘horizontal’ on the timber elements were in fact the result of having been made on vertical timbers in the framing yard before they were laid horizontally. This again implicates the carpenter’s intervention at an early stage of construction. Wright concluded, ‘it is possible… that the marks in the King’s store…were added by the carpenter’s in a planned system prior to construction on site…under the direction of the foreman Matthew Banks’ However, he did not dismiss the idea or possibility that it was the work of cunning men – or in fact the more prestigious ‘service magicians’ (of a stature such as John Dee for example ) – who had been engaged to mark the timbers (Wright 2015:2,5,8).
Matthew Champion has applied minute archaeological examination of the burn marks to provide solutions for dating. It supports the view that (at least in some cases) burn marks had been applied to the timber, ‘prior to their incorporation into the structure’ whilst other burn marks had been subsequently truncated when timbers had been re-cut or re-fitted. Close examination of other burn marks revealed that their shape had become ‘distorted’ through the opening up of seasoning cracks in the grain of the wood. It suggested that they were made onto the timber, ‘just after it had been felled or a short time afterwards’ which again implicates the craftsmen as, ‘marks applied during the construction phase…may have been put there by the builders to inoculate the house against fire’ (Champion 207:15).
Builders and carpenters – those present at the beginning of a house’s construction -are also thought to be responsible for the addition of such marks or the act of concealing objects within the building’s fabric according to Hoggard (2019:8), actions that were ‘not unlike installing a (modern day) burglar alarm.’ However, in other cases he suggests that a local cunning man or woman would have been necessary for the creation of a written charm. Illiteracy, even during the early modern period (c. AD 1550 – 1750) was still commonplace and many cunning folk were at best semi-literate.
However, it appears that common folk would have been able to copy contemporary folk traditions to add another ‘layer of protection’ to their homes themselves. It was not beyond the capabilities of the peasantry to conceal ‘magical’ objects within the fabric of the building – such as placing old shoes up the chimney – and having done something as seemingly mundane as hanging a horseshoe above the door (Hoggard 2019:8). Old customs would have been popularly understood at the time of their making and existed without record or explanation (Billingsley 2020:48). However, the more ‘exotic’ apotropaics – such as mummified cats and witch bottles- would almost certainly have required the intervention of a cunning man or woman.
In his review of the Calder Valley, Billingsley (2020:16) concurred with the general consensus that the builders were likely to have been culpable for burn marks, graffiti or concealed objects ending up within the fabric of the building; ‘…vernacular architecture of this period was created when builders still saw their responsibility as lying not just in construction but also in looking after the welfare of those who were to inhabit the buildings…it is likely that builders would have employed techniques they considered customary.’ Objects may have been concealed without the patron’s knowledge (the concealed) as opposed to ‘visible’ apotropaics such as graffiti (the revealed) which may have been added in line with the patron’s wishes (Billingsley 2020:16).
6: WHY APOTROPAICS?
It is now generally agreed that, where taper burn marks have been recorded on timber elements within the vernacular and ecclesiastical buildings of both pre and post Reformation England – they are the result of intentional ritual practice. The marks can be understood as the material vestiges of an act of sympathetic magic which was a result of our ancestors’ ‘cultural anxieties.’ Contextually, they are temporally and culturally specific. They belie the human impulse to allay the fears held by an individual (or family) using an apotropaic ‘technology’ as an insurance against future misfortune. Whether the motivation was driven by a pragmatic concern with the threat of fire (either ‘spontaneous or lightning driven) or fear of ranked malign forces of supernatural origin, is debatable. Both would have qualified as perfectly reasonable precautions in a pre-Enlightenment world. Whatever the motive, either scenario would have had the potential to lead to the downfall of and ruin an individual or family and/or a loss of livelihood and home.
Back in the late 20th century, it was the archaeological discovery of ‘exotic’ deposits and ‘unusual’ objects within late medieval buildings that led Ralph Merrifield to develop his theory of a ‘coherent’ (if eclectic) practice of ritual building protection having existed in the past. It was the nature of those deposits – which seemed to have parallels with those known from past societies and cultural groups (such as Roman ritual practices associated with buildings) – which lead him to believe that many of the ritual acts had been motivated by the fear of supernatural forces in a pre-Enlightenment age. Many seemed to have had ancient antecedents in rural folkloric practice which had then been carried into urban contexts and symbols only previously seen in churches into secular buildings, ‘the existence of a custom is revealed only by repetition (of) common patterns of ritual activity’ (Merrifield 1987: 189).
Merrifield had noticed that many of these deposits in post-medieval buildings were located close to, or marked upon, the threshold structures themselves. He believed that some of the objects may have acted as ‘decoys’ whos eintention was to divert any evil that might try and enter the house. ‘Those responsible (for the placing of deposits or objects) ..felt that by so doing so they were somehow giving spiritual as well as physical strength to the building’ (Merrifield 1987: 106, 120-21). He was one of the first to note the vulnerability of a building’s fabric by the addition of a chimney which, ‘might give ready access to spirits.’ Dried (or mummified) cats found in wall voids against, ‘the real fear,, (being) …spiritual vermin rather than rodents..as the great fear of familiar spirits..(which) often took the form of rats or mice.’ Old and worn shoes found concealed in voids around the house were, ‘evidence for the householder believing that they held some ‘virtue’ and (were believed to have) emanated general prophylactic qualities.’ Conversely, deposits containing ‘cut’ or mutilated shoes could be read as evidence for malevolent magic (Merrifield 1987: 128, 131, 136).
Finally, he highlighted the historical records of witchcraft accusations and persecutions of the early modern period, ‘ the fear of witchcraft…towards the end of the Middle Ages became a mania for complex historical and psychological reasons’ (Merrifield 1987: 159). As evidence, he noted the exhortations against witchcraft by Pope Innocent III, Luther & Calvin, the works of Sprenger & Kramer, ‘Malleus Malficicarum’ (1486) James I, ‘Daemonologie’ (1597), Jospeh Granvil ‘Sadducismus Triumphatus’ (1681) among others, ’the authors were much concerned with the counter-measures taken against witchcraft.’ In exhaustive detail he then went on to discuss the folk practices undertaken by the peasantry, which included the application of horseshoes (or iron objects) to thresholds, hag stones and churn spells in barns and farm buildings…all possibly climaxing with perhaps the most iconic of all counter-witchcraft object of all – the witch bottle – preserve of the cunning man or woman (Merrifield 1987: 162, 163-175).
Witchcraft was also considered to be one of the threats detailed in Easton’s ‘Burning Issues’ where conflagrations or lightning strikes could have been deemed supernatural in origin or attributable to witches and/or evil spirits. He also listed such counter-measures including the concealment of the Yule Log and the marking of symbols on the walls and ceilings of the house (Easton 2012: 45). The act of applying taper burn marks then was, ‘akin to an inoculation..if you touch the wood with flame…fire will be averted’ (Easton 2012: 47). 44
Wright has built upon this theme and identified witchcraft as the possible motivational force behind the application of apotropaic marks and taper burn marks. The belief in witchcraft was certainly widespread through the population of Early Modern England fanned by radical social changes; the doubling of the population; food shortages and various other socio-economic tensions including as a reaction to the gunpowder plot (Wright 2015:1, 5-7). The survey at Knole House revealed that the remodeling of the King’s Tower in 1606 as a suite of apartments for the forthcoming visit by James I (the author of Daemonologie) may have led to the apotropaic marks being incorporated into the structure(s) (Wright 2015:1, 5-7).
Fearn (2017) confirmed that the marks found at Donnington-le-Heath were likely to be ‘ritual’ in nature and that the majority had an apotropaic function designed to ward off evil influences and misfortune. The symbols had had the intention of, ‘adding a ‘significant layer of protection to ‘vulnerable’ areas of the structure.’ She revisited the idea of taper burn marks being a form of protective inoculation against fire and lightning but added that the burn marks were far more likely to reflect a, ‘more complex belief system’ rather than regarding them simply as protection against fire and lightning, which seemed to her to be , ‘overly simplistic’ (2017: 92, 1113). Far more interesting is her suggestion that the action of making taper burn marks could have been a gendered activity; giving birth, attending the dead, housekeeping and domestic animal husbandry would have all fallen to the woman’s role in the house. Therefore, e making the marks may have been the female preserve of the household, enacting a kind of ‘domestic religiosity’ (Fearn 2017: 92, 113-117).
In 2017, Champion ran through many of Easton’s original hypotheses whilst elaborating upon them and opening out the discussion. For him, it was the ‘object’ which facilitated the burn mark – the candle – as opposed to the marks themselves – which were considered to be the most important component that led to their interpretation (Champion 2017b:10). He reviewed the evidence relating to the celebration of Candlemas as the blessed candles taken back to the domicile would have had the power drive away the Devil and protect your home, ‘candles….were associated with protecting children, infants and mother-to-be. The use of candles in funerary contexts appear to be just as important as they, ‘put all the powers of darkness to flight’ and in Ireland, the five candles around the body were, ‘protection against evil spirits and the Devil.’ Similarly the Twelfth Night celebrations were aimed at ,‘driving away of demons and spirits..and, in the marking of crosses on ceilings, witches.’
As well as the importance of wax (as a sacred substance in of itself) he also noted that the danger of it falling into the wrong hands for perverse use by witches. The corruption of a once ‘holy’ substance being used for making diabolical images was, ‘…(an) act of malficium (which) was often an inversion of recognised beneficial charms and beliefs.’
Likewise, the threats of fire and lightning (of the kind generated through witchcraft) led to physical measures which were, ‘sometimes taken to counteract such apparent evils’ which would have included the use of ‘sympathetic’ magic. Lightning – and ball lightning specifically – was blamed on the devil or possessing a supernatural origin. He concluded by asking whether ritual taper burn marks had been made in an attempt to drive away evil spirits,…keep witches at bay or to protect the building from fire and lightning but concluded that, it was likely that all three may have been the case’ (Champion 2017b:10,11, 13).
Hoggard’s (2019) metaphysical explanation suggests that the marks made on the surface of the timbers had a twofold purpose; firstly, that they performed the ‘ritual death’ necessary to transform the object (in this case, the timber beam) which would allow it to function on the otherwise/underworld. Secondly, it was believed that the burn marks were then perceived on the ‘other side’ as, ‘ lights shining into the darkness’ (Hoggard 2019: 95-96). Although he does not explicitly say so, one presumes that this was meant to act as a ‘beacon,’ a decoy or to act as an ‘overt apotropaic or warning to potential dark forces.
Wright (2021) had had seven years of practical experience as a building archaeologist, recording burn marks in situ within a number of different architectural milieus. Reviewing the evidence for a second time, has concluded that there, ‘may be the physical manifestation of anxieties about the presence of evil or bad luck linked to the acknowledged protective powers of candles against evil spirits’ (Wright 2021). His conclusion echoes that of Champion’s in that it is perhaps better to conclude that they there may have been several causations, a number of folk belief systems running concurrently and a number of hoped-for outcomes operating simultaneously.
7. When were they made?
The problem with trying to date taper burn marks was eloquently put by Matthew Champion when he said that..’(they) could have been applied at just about any point between the construction of the building and the moment of discovery (Champion 2017: 7). Taper burn marks can be difficult to date precisely but a number of archaeological principles can be adhered to –understanding and unpicking the chronological construction of building can provide a solid foundation upon which a study of the burn marks themselves can be made. Once the chronology has been established, targeted dendrochronolgy would be required to date the separate timber elements. This is done by taking ‘cores’ and measuring the annual growth increments (rings) of a tree to provide a precise estimate of the age or period since the formation of a wood sample. The number width and pattern of the rings from certain tree species can provide the age of a piece of wood as well as information on the climatic conditions during the tree’s growth (Chrono 2022). This way a range of estimated dates for the felling of a tree which provided the structural elements for a building can be assembled.
One the timber had been felled, the conversion process was begun, where trees are transformed from trunks into beams (or other structural elements). In the period of pre-mechanisation the timber would have been converted by axe or adze before it was sawn to desired shape (Harris 2000:17). From the time the tree had been felled and the frame constructed the timber would have begun to warp and settle as the wood seasoned and slowly dried out. Some buildings were affected by their surrounding conditions and so therefore ‘movement’ within a timber house was moisture dependent. The third method which helps dating is the close examination of the burn mark itself; as green oak dries out (seasoning) cracks open up along the grain of the wood. If a taper burn is applied to the fresh (green) wood, its shape will become ‘distorted’ over time as the cracks open up – further, there will be no burning in the cracks as the mark was made prior to seasoning. Later burn marks made over cracks will not have the distortion and burning will be discerned in the cracks themselves. Taken together, all the above methods will only provide an estimate for when the burn marks were made.
An important development in this regard was the survey of taper burn marks recorded at Donnington-le-Heath Manor by Alison Fearn in 2017, as she was able to tie-in the application of the burn marks to the dendrochronology dates taken from the timber elements. Dendrochronological analysis had been applied systematically within the manor and it was found that the interior woodwork consisted of a mix of 13th and 17th -century timbers. The range of dates is accounted for by past structural addition, repair and renovation. The roof trusses that support the main roof had been dated by dendrochronology to circa AD 1618 and the internal door jambs to the arched oak doorways of the upper floor wings are dated to between AD 1272 and 1307 (Fearn 2017:99). During the survey she had recorded a number of taper burn marks that had become distorted as the seasoning cracks had subsequently opened up, which indicated that the scorching had occurred either as part of the construction process on green timber shortly after completion of the building (Fearn 2017:102,106) This provides us with one of the earliest examples and helps to establish that the practice was being undertaken in the pre-Reformation era (Fearn 2017:102,106).
Wright (2015:1) also saw the implication of the carpenters having made the burn marks on timbers used at Knole House during the remodeling of 1605-8 providing a post-Reformation example. One valuable outcome is that it has now been archaeologically proven that whilst taper burn marks were sometimes made at the beginning of the construction process, many were added later and some are ‘fresh’ on later medieval timber elements dating to around the 16th/17th centuries as well. It has been demonstrated that the phenomenon spans the medieval to Early Modern periods. (Wright 2021). This at last dispels the generally held view that the marks were confined to post Reformation England (Champion 2017b: 7).
Now that it is established that the practice could have spanned the entire medieval period, the question is; was it a continuum of belief or did the ‘meaning’ or desired propitious result from making the marks change over time? We have seen that the desired outcomes of both concealing shoes and burying witch bottles subtly altered between their early use in the 16th/17th centuries and the final dying out of the traditions in the late 19th/early 20th centuries (Perkins 2021). Could something similar have happened with taper burn marks? Unlike the two above examples, it appears to be harder to see – archaeologically – the ‘difference’ between the application of the pre and post Reformation burn marks – perhaps that subtle difference will only become clear through even more finessed spatial patterning and examination.
8: HOW WERE ‘TAPER BURN MARKS’ PERCEIVED TO WORK?
Reviewing the evidence, taper burn marks have now been recorded in ancient buildings dating to between the medieval period – c.13th century – through to the Early Modern Period (c. AD 1450- 1800), where dating methods have been carried out. It is still not understood as to whether the phenomenon occurred as a ‘continuum’ – which spanned both the pre and post-Reformation, or whose purpose may have developed and changed over that time span. The former period was characterised by the dominance of Catholic magic whilst the latter period – although often associated with the emergence of scientific thought – was one characterised by be a society still functioning in a pre-scientific, pre-‘mechanistic’ pre-Enlightenment world. That is not to say that it was not a period of intellectual ferment, as several intellectual belief systems were jostling for supremacy including variations on Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, Paracelsianism and Neo-Platonism – which were all practiced as a kind of pseudo-science.
From the 15th century onwards Neo-Platonism had flourished during the Western Renaissance. Neo-Platonism was a major influence upon Christian theology throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages in the west (SL 2022). Neo-Platonic theory saw the world as a ‘pulsating mass of vital influences and invisible spirits’ (Thomas 1971: 266). The Universe was believed to be peopled by a hierarchy of spirits which manifested occult influences and sympathies. The cosmos was understood to be an organic unity of which every part bore a sympathetic relationship to the rest (Thomas 1971: 265). Three main types of magic were being practiced –
Natural magic – which exploited the occult properties of the elemental world.
Celestial magic – which involved the influence of the stars (astrology was believed to have a scientific basis).
Ceremonial magic – which appealed to spiritual beings (rituals of this type multiplied during the Renaissance)
Magic during this period was not a medieval survival but a Renaissance re-discovery of the Classical tradition. In the intellectual climate of the day, magical activities gained plausibility and the ‘Doctrine of Correspondences’ was believed to exist between each part of the physical world (Thomas 1971: 265, 326).
In the Renaissance world, it was believed that networks of sympathies, analogies and correspondences linked everything in the cosmos together and enabled other than purely ‘mechanical’ means of manipulating the world. They believed that a variety of things from artefacts to landscape elements had special properties such as agency, consciousness and personality (Herva & Yilmaunu 2009: 234). People’s lives unfolded in relation to a richer ‘enchanted reality’ where the material and the spiritual were inexplicably intertwined. Spirituality was about recognising the richness of the rationally-constituted world and people’s deeply reciprocal relationships with that world (Herva 2012:76-7, 83).
The Weapon Salve or Powder of Sympathy
In 17th century, the Paracelsian movement saw nature working through the laws of sympathy and antipathy – of imitation and correspondence – which we understand today as the way sympathetic magic functions. One of the most famous examples of this application was the ‘Weapon Salve’ (also known as the ‘Powder of Sympathy’) whereby a salve (or ointment) was applied to a blade that had caused a flesh wound – rather than to the wound itself (Hood 2009). The understanding at the time was that it exploited the invisible ‘effluvia’ and influences within which the world vibrated, it was believed that, ‘one could assist the vital spirits of the congealed blood to reunite with the victim’s body and thus heal the wound even at a distance of 30 miles…‘(Thomas 1971: 225, 226).
The cure was supported by such leading thinkers as Robert Fludd, Jan Baptist Helmont & Wilhelm Fabry who attributed the cure to ‘animal magnetism.’ However, even by the late 17th century, this magical tradition had hardly made any substantial impact upon the population at large yet simultaneously was beginning to lose its intellectual repute (Thomas 1971: 268).
Sympathetic Magic: Taper Burn Marks
Imitation: an ‘imitation’ burn mark is made using the ‘regulated’ flame of a tape under controlled conditions and the person undertaking the procedure focuses intently upon the spot being burnt. The procedure requires intermittent scraping and cleaning out of the charcoal residue to create the bowl shape. The procedure may have been undertaken whilst uttering a blessing, the casting a spell or reciting a prayer.
Correspondence: the burn mark is meant to represent or ‘correlate’ to the marks that would have been left by fire which y possessed the power to devastate a building or buildings.
The desire, it would seem, was to remove the ‘random’ element so often characteristic of misfortune by attempting to control one’s physical environment appropriately.
The burn mark, therefore, became ‘apotropaic’ mark as the result of the human harnessing the power of ‘pyro-technology.’ Apotropaism as a constitutive component of cultural practices can be understood as the, ‘technology of protection’ (Boric 2009: 46). In each instance where an act of ritual protection has taken place, it is the manipulation of an object (a shoe, a taper, a dried cat, a ritually-killed object) which ‘transforms’ it into a magical talisman; it is part of the human condition to use technology to provide solutions to problems on both the physical and metaphysical planes.
From the Renaissance and until the later 17th century, it was believed that material things had properties which in today’s terms would have been understood as ‘magical.’ Renaissance Hermeticism was a crucial factor in the development of modern science (SL 2022). The study of magic was not separate from ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ pursuits because the difference between the natural and the supernatural was differently understood at the time (Herva 2012:73). Meanwhile, the practice of folk magic persisted and ran alongside Christian practice and scientific enquiry at the same time. During the period, neither Catholicism nor Protestantism had single-handedly eradicated popular folk beliefs as they were inextricably embedded in the local mode of perceiving and engaging with the material world in everyday life (Herva & Yilmaunu 2009: 234).
In Finland, for example, folk beliefs were; neither religious nor scientific; they involved a belief in supernatural powers; they presupposed that there were other than purely ‘mechanical’ ways of manipulating the world – Folk beliefs were fused with Christian religion in the medieval and (early) modern period comprising a syncretic belief system. (Herva (2012), has pointed out that it is only now that researchers are applying anthropological methods to this period to better understand the thought processes and beliefs of the day. In recent years, researchers have been applying these methods to the Early Modern Period in Sweden & Finland with enlightening results (Herva & Yilmaunu 2009, Herva 2012). This is something that would increase our understanding the same period in Britain.
The emergence of post-Reformation Protestantism brought with it the modernist (capitalist) tendency to objectify the world. Protestant reformers rejected magical powers and supernatural sanctions (Thomas 1971: 78). It was this new line of thought which was intended to change the way in which common people perceived the world and how they engaged with it (Herva & Yilmaunu 2009: 238).
9: CONCLUSIONS & THOUGHTS
From the earliest interpretations for taper burn marks, their apotropaic potential has been highlighted along with the belief that they may have functioned as inoculation against fire (Easton 2012). The question therefore, is that if they had been simply viewed ‘inoculation’ marks then logically each timber should bear a single mark – almost like a ‘quality control’ mark? Straightforward spatial analysis of each assemblage of burn marks has revealed that concentrations occurred predominantly on the bressumiers as well as around timber door and window frames – but not exclusively so.
The strongest evidence for taper burn marks functioning as apotropaics came from the precise recording by Timothy Easton of the bressumier where he had noted the symbols cut into the surface of the burn mark from Anstruther, Scotland. The three-fold stratigraphy of rase-knife symbols having been burnt through by the taper burns and then apotropaic symbols applied to the burn mark itself shows a meditated rather than random act (Easton 2012: 46). Its three-fold manifestation is also interesting due to the presence of the number ‘3’ in Christian sacred numerology and its relation to the Trinity..
In their original article , Dean & Hill ( 2014: 1-14 ) had concluded that, although burn marks were often found on the same surfaces as other recognized ‘apotropaic’ symbols…’the bulk of the evidence suggested that there was no close association between burn marks and other ritual marking’ (Dean & Hill 2014:10, quoted in Hoggard 2021:95).
In contradiction, Easton (2012:46) interpreted the archaeological evidence differently where burn marks were integrated with other apotropaic(evil averting) symbols. Wright also interpreted the burn marks found at Knole as being a ‘third form’ of apotropaic symbol alongside Marian Marks and incised pentangles (Wright 2015: 5). Hoggard’s (2017: 1) metaphysical reading suggests they form an apotropaic barrier – but on the other side of the spiritual divide. Champion (2017b:13) and Wright (2021) both suggest that there is no reason why the marks could not have performed a dual function as having been made as both an act of inoculation (through a ritual of sympathetic magic in which the house was blessed against fire) and as well as acting as a visible or ‘overt’ apotropaic intended to guard against supernatural forces.
This author has recorded something similar to Easton’s example at Anstruther from an internal timber frame stud at Ightham More in Kent. As part of a non-intrusive photographic survey of the building a number of apotropaic marks and symbols had been recorded in a number of the rooms. Moving into the Solar Bedroom (Room 131) a series of apotropaic marks cut into the stone fireplace were recorded. Also in the room is an area of paneling which has been removed to allow visitors to see the internal timber framing and studs.
The photographs of the timber framing were taken three years ago, one of which recorded a classic tear-drop shaped burn mark on one of the studs – but appeared to be ‘upside down’ with the narrow ‘tip’ of the flame facing downwards. The most reasonable explanation therefore was the timber had been inserted at a later date – possibly as a replacement or a repair. A number of the wooden dowling pegs on the tenon and mortice joint were absent which support this assertion. The other option was that the burn had occurred in the framing yard when the timber was oriented the other way up to its current position.
Although the burn mark was of interest the photograph remained on file for about three years without close attention being paid to it. It was only on subsequent re-examination of the photograph a few years later as part of a re-appraisal of the evidence at Ightham Mote that it was possible to see that both a saltire ‘X’ and a Marian Mark (in the ‘VV’ form) had been minutely cut into the burn mark itself; the letters are only a few millimeters in height and it must have been exacting work to keep the cuts within so small an area of only a few millimetres (Perkins 2019: 4).
10: WHERE ARE WE NOW?
Even after twenty five years of rigorous academic research it would appear that further work is still required; do we fully understood the motivations and agency which drove the creation of taper burn marks? Why have we not found the document that explicitly detailed their creation which would act as the smoking er, taper? It would appear that, at this moment in time, it has been ascertained that taper burn marks can be found on timber elements in a variety of architectural settings, dating from around the 13th century but through into late 19th century/early 20th century rural buildings – sometimes seen as a ‘rural’ folk custom ‘hang over.’ And that is not to discount the taper burn marks recorded on ‘portable’ non-architectural objects such as furniture, clothes chests and burnt into the canvas of oil paintings.
Future work on the spatial distribution of the burn marks – allied with more precise building chronologies and dendrochronology dates – may be able to chart the progress of the taper burn marks through a building (or on its components as they were added or replaced). It is only then that there may emerge a ‘pattern’ – which in turn would allow us to make more concrete inferences as to the motives, agency and intent that drove their creators to ‘vandalise’ decorative wooden panelling and works of art. Both the question as to whether mark-making was gendered and if the ‘meaning (and therefore purpose) of the burn marks subtly altered over time also has to be addressed.
There seems to be a general agreement that there were ‘favoured’ locations – areas which had received ritual burn marks as part of the earliest phases of the house which may have remained sacrosanct and which attracted further burns on a sporadic or annual basis. Did the inhabitants apply further burns to the same locations each year– as Easton has suggested – around Twelfth Night? I f certain locations were favoured then why are there so many ‘random’ examples?
Further, does the suggestion that the biases occur close to – or within- sleeping quarters reveal a genuine fear by the occupants of nocturnal attack or whilst unconcious?
It would appear that, after 25 years of academic research on the subject we were are only at the beginning of fully understanding the phenomenon. For this author, the discovery of the tiny symbols scratched into the burn mark at Ightham were a revelation – it seems to be no longer tenable to see them as possessing a purely ‘pragmatic’ function intended to avoid fire – if one can call employing ‘sympathetic magic’ to protect as house ‘pragmatic.’ Those tiny marks within the burn mark suggest to this author, that, once completed, the burn marks still required one last further mark of verification – and one more layer of protection added for surety!
This article has been at pains to illustrate that taper burn marks did not exist in a vacumn; they were just one element or category of ritual house protection that were deployed alongside concealed objects – hidden shoes and boots – dried cats, spiritual middens and witch bottles, etc. All were ‘mundane’ objects transformed into magical ones through re-appropriation as protective talismans and imbued with protective qualities. Each transformed object could be viewed as the use by humans of ‘technology’ to allay a fear or fears generated by the surrounding cultural anxieties regarding supernatural threats.
To finish, I ask the question, ‘is there any connection or relationship between taper burn marks and the so-called, ‘arrow-sharpening’ marks often found around doorways and windowsills of churches? They both share the same striking ‘teardrop’ shape and both possess a profile which is deeper at the base and which becomes shallower at the groove tapers towards the ‘tip?’
The ‘arrow-sharpening’ theory for these striations or grooves has now been reassessed and different interpretations posited. It is now generally agreed that the deeply-cut marks often found in church masonry are the result of a separate ritual act; the by-product of which was the creation of (potentially) large quantities of ‘dust’ or ground masonry. What could have been the motive behind cutting these grooves into church stonework?
NEXT TIME ON Ritual Protection Marks & Practices –
ARROW-SHARPENING MARKS: THE ROUGH GUIDE
London August 2022
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