It is always a treat when an email from Alan comes into my inbox. This week’s contribution is a beauty!
Magical House Protection by Volunteer Alan Crooks
I was most interested to read the article on ‘Concealed Shoes’ by Elizabeth Turner in the Museum Newsletter (August2019) as it coincides with a developing interest I have, arising from my research into the St Thomas Church alchemist.
In this context, I visited the ‘Spellbound’ exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum last year, and also attended a 15’ lunchtime talk on ‘Witch Bottles’, one of the ‘Folklore Thursday’ series of talks at Dorset County Museum, featuring the 17th Century Bellarmine jar from Wiltshire Museum, and which has been exhibited here under ‘Wicked Wessex’.
The ‘Spellbound’ exhibition featured a number of concealed garments, including a shoe found by builders in the chimney wall of the home of Ms Laura Potts in Norwich. (Fig 1)
This week two related papers arrived in my feed from the ‘Academia’ website:
- The Preface to ‘Magical House Protection – The Archaeology of Counter-Witchcraft’
- Homemade Magic: Concealed Deposits in Architectural Contexts in the Eastern United States (A Thesis for the Degree of Master of Anthropology by M.Chris Manning).
The abstract of the latter informs us that “The tradition of placing objects and symbols within, under, on and around buildings for supernatural protection and good luck… has been documented throughout the world” and while a range of objects and symbols are considered, their in-depth analysis focussed on three artefact types, witch-bottles, concealed footwear, and concealed cats.
Chapter 4 of the thesis concerns ‘Concealed Footwear and Associated Deposits’ and notes that in the British Isles, continental Europe and around the world, thousands of shoes and other footwear have been found concealed within the fabric of buildings, and dating from the 14th century through the early 20th century; and they’ve puzzled scholars for decades.
Hidden shoes are nearly always old shoes, well-worn, and are usually found singly. There is a tradition that old shoes bring luck, and people often throw shoes after wedding parties, or tie them to the back of the wedding car. If I recall correctly, we had a couple of old boots tied to the back of our ‘Just Married’ car. I must look out the photographs.
The first in-depth studies of concealed footwear were published in 1969. Thus, in that year, Ralph Merrifield introduced the topic in a short article, ‘Folk-Lore in London Archaeology’ citing six cases known to him at the time. He surmised that footwear was concealed near chimneys and thresholds to guard the vulnerable openings of buildings against evil spirits.
Later that year, June Swann, a former Keeper of the Boot and Shoe Collection at the Northampton Museum, published, ‘Shoes Concealed in Buildings’. Unlike Merrifeld, she did not offer any interpretations of concealed footwear. However, to assist in the documentation and ongoing research into concealed shoe deposits, she established the ‘Concealed Shoe Index’ – a registry of concealed footwear reported from around the world and maintained by the Northampton Museum.
This lists about 3000 shoes found in properties ranging from the Shetland Islands to the Scilly Isles, with the greatest number being from south-east England. The museum holds 250 found shoes, the oldest, from St John’s College, Cambridge, dating to the 1540s (Fig2).
The current curator, Rebecca Shawcross, told BBC News in 2017 that the oldest hidden shoe found in the British Isles was from behind the choir stalls in Winchester Cathedral, which were installed in 1308.
Northampton Museum has recently digitised the Index and this is due to go online this year in conjunction with the University of Hertfordshire. Furthermore, work began last year on a £6.7M refurbishment of the museum, due to be completed in 2020, and made possible by the sale of the Egyptian Sekhemka statue, owned by Northampton Borough Council.
Ms Shawcross commented to the BBC that homeowners are increasingly unwilling to donate their finds to the Museum; the superstitious aspect lingering on. A finder from Kent told her that removing a shoe from its hiding place brought a ‘whole catalogue of things that went wrong’ – until it was returned.
I am sure that it is for a similar reason that I am trying to find a suitable place to put the horseshoe I have found in the garden of the house I have recently moved into, being reluctant to ‘bin it’ (Fig 3).