With Halloween almost upon us, Karen Sayers, Archivist, looks at some of the more magical archives in Special Collections.

For centuries people have had a complex relationship with the supernatural often using it to explain mysterious events and sometimes turning to it for protection against evil.  The Ingleby Arncliffe charms are an example of the mixture of Christian belief and pagan superstition common in The Middle Ages.

A hollow enamelled cross containing two slips of parchment was found at Ingleby Arncliffe, near Northallerton.  The slips are covered in Latin handwriting and date from the early 13th century.  John Walker Ord (1811-1853), a journalist and antiquarian, translated the Latin revealing the charms or prayers.

Latin charm
Detail from a Latin charm found in the Ingleby Arncliffe cross. Image credit Leeds University Library.

One charm reads ‘I conjure you, ye elves and demons, and every kind of phantom, by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost… that you hurt not this servant (or handmaid) of God…’  It is an intriguing blend of pagan belief in elves and demons and of Christian faith.  Interestingly the charm was intended to be invoked by either a man or a woman.  Was the cross containing it passed from one person to another depending on their need for protection from evil?

The legal scholar, Ulrich Molitor (fl.1442-1507) wrote ‘De Ianiis et phitonicis mulieribus’ (Of Witches and Diviner Women) published in 1489 for the Archduke Sigismund of Austria.  At the time arguments raged in Austria as to whether witches’ power was real.  Molitor argued that their power came from God who allowed the devil to act through witches.  If humans did evil or believed it they were guilty of witchcraft.

woodcut of a woman and man
A woman attacking a man. ‘De laniis & phitonicis mulieribus (Of Witches and Diviner Women) by Ulrich Molitor. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Molitor’s book is a discussion among three men about witchcraft.  They are particularly concerned with witches’ ability to harm men.  The volume contains fine woodcuts, one of which shows a woman shooting at a man with an arrow.  A large spider and scorpion stalk the foreground of the picture.  Another image shows two sinister women feeding a cock and a snake into a steaming cauldron.  It clearly suggests their actions have triggered the storm in the background!

Over the centuries people have invented numerous ways of trying to protect themselves from witches.  An essay by Richard Wood on Folk Medicine in our Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture describes how a 19th century farmer in the Cleveland Hills attempted to protect his cattle.  The livestock kept dying and the farmer blamed witchcraft.  At night he loaded a gun with silver shot and took aim at a black dog worrying his cattle.  The next morning ‘the suffering witch [was] found groaning in bed with a terrible series of shot wounds in the hinder part of her person’.

If you are worried about malign powers this Halloween you could call on the fairy folk.  A report in the Yorkshire Weekly Post in 1919 suggests that fairies are partial to honey cakes.  By bribing them with cakes and reciting a rhyme you may persuade them to protect you!