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When Shakespeare plays are performed on stage and the magic of witches dazzles us with lights, smoke, and mirrors, it’s easy to think these spells and incantations are just folklore, designed to be nothing more than a theater spectacle. Archaeological evidence from Shakespeare’s lifetime, however, indicates that when Shakespeare had the Second witch in Macbeth declare “Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble” these items being listed in connection with a witches brew were more than just ingredients for a nasty smelling soup. Charms, and real life objects imbued with spells and magic were believed to be capable of causing not just harm but very real “double double toil and trouble.” To combat the evil spirits, and the rampant working of witches in the 16th century, your average man or woman in London would hide countermagic items such as witch bottles, cats, shoes, and even horse skulls in the walls of their home as good luck against very real evil spirits. Our guest this week is an expert in these charms, having written the journal article, The archaeology of counter-witchcraft and popular magic in which he set out to find the various surviving counter magic artifacts in the UK and cataloged a list of not only what kinds of items were kept to ward off evil like witches, but also where they were kept, and why. Here to share his findings with us and explain the details behind a few of the counter magic artifacts from Shakespeare’s lifetime, is our guest, Brian Hoggard. 

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Brian Hoggard about: 

  • Brian’s writes that when it comes to material evidence, “it seems that the decline of magic was a slow and long-drawn-out affair.” Brian, working backwards from the decline of magic to the life of William Shakespeare, was his lifetime a hey-day for the presence of magic? 
  •  What was the correct method of using a witch bottle so as to ward of the spell of a witch? 
  • Another object thought to ward off evil spirits is that of dried cats. Brian’s work draws attention to the fact that there is a controversy of sorts concerning the dried cats concealed in walls from Shakespeare’s lifetime, because many scholars contest that the animal could have simply crawled into the tight space and died there accidentally. Brian, what has your research uncovered in the archaeological record to address the objection of cats accidentally dying in the walls of Tudor homes? 

Brian Hoggard has been studying history, archaeology and folk beliefs since his teens. His undergraduate dissertation focused on folk beliefs and witchcraft he noticed there was a huge amount of work which could be done to further explore the archaeology of witchcraft. At that point – back in 1999 – his research really escalated into a major project which has culminated in the publication of Magical House Protection: The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft (Berghahn 2019).

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Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Image of a witch bottle artifact from the Mal Corvus Witchcraft & Folklore private collection
  • Depiction from a publication on the 1579 witch trials in Windsor
  • The Knacker’s Yard, 1909, by William Orpen
  • Photo of a traditional fireplace in northern England with a carved St. Andrew’s cross to prevent witch entry
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Resources Brian Hoggard Recommends:

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