Martin Whittaker works for York Archaeological Trust as a Visitor Services Host in the Attractions & Events Division of the JORVIK Group.
I was tasked to research the context behind Witch Bottles in England and post medieval 16th Century York.
I am a graduate of Medieval Archaeology at the University so I am already accustomed to research and know the libraries of York well, I had the pleasure of revisiting the Borthwick Institute, J.B. Morrell and Minster libraries as well as using the internal libraries at Aldwark and Dig. However the challenge of researching the Post Medieval period of York’s history although new and appealing to me was much more difficult than I imagined, there being very little records in terms of inventories and housing ownership from post-reformation York. I am much more familiar with reading through Close Rolls and Patent Rolls than Hearth Taxes and accounts of witch trials but the challenge proved enjoyable and intriguing. Although the time to do such a large amount of research was limited, in terms of sources it was generally easy to find references to primary sources on the witch trials and what was happening in 16-17th C York through secondary sources in order to quickly hunt down accounts that may be of use.
Having studied I was already familiar with the use of witch bottles and on my internet forum “Cumbrian Folklore” we often hear of objects such as bottles, dried mummified cats and shoes being found in homes that are being renovated. The finding of the witch bottle at the Judge’s Lodgings gave me the opportunity to write about a little known artefact type and delve into the archaeology of superstition. In recent years there has been a great interest in the archaeology of magic and ritual, one of my go to works was a book by Merrifield “The Archaeology of Magic”, since his pioneering work many have written about 17th Century society and witchcraft and I was therefore able compare these studies and frame the theories, particularly of Cunning Folk in the setting of post-reformation York. I wanted to argue that apopotraic charms such as Witch bottles were a product of the reformation particularly the destruction of York’s ecclesiastic “social services” such as St Leonard’s Hospital, Chantries, hospices, Friaries and monasteries which added comfort in medieval to early Tudor York. However upon hearing back from experts quite late on into the research that the pins found in the bottle were 17th C rather than 16th C (although similar copper alloy pins are listed as 16th C in the Museum of London) I had to revise this theory, I retained the theme but inferred that this particular Witch Bottle was a continuation of practice from the post medieval period on into the Early Modern Era when these finds are indeed in abundance.