Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Early Modern Henry Root Letters

To: Enquiry, British Horse Society
Subject: Inquiry from a scholar

Hello: a strange one for you, this. I am an academic at the University of London, with a teaching and research interest in cases of witchcraft in 17th century England. Below is an extract from Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus triumphatus, or, Full and plain evidence concerning witches and apparitions in two parts (1681). It describes one a series of events deemed supernatural at the house of a Mr Mompesson in Tedworth:

“About the beginning of April, 1663. a Gentleman that lay in the house, had all his money turned black in his Pockets; and Mr. Mompesson coming one Morning into his Stable, found the Horse he was wont to Ride, on the Ground, having one of his hinder Leggs in his Mouth, and so fastened there, that it was difficult for several Men to get it out with a Leaver.”

I know nothing of horses. This does not sound feasible to me at all. Do you have any comment, or suggestion about anyone I might ask about this?

Best wishes,

Dr Roy Booth


Dear Dr Booth

Thank you for your enquiry which is, indeed, an unusual one! In theory, a horse could make contact between his mouth and his hind leg quite easily - some animals do it if they have an irritation in the area. That said, it is not a usual movement / position for them and it would be done standing up rather than when recumbent. However, it would not be possible for a horse to actually place a foot in his mouth - anatomically the mouth does not open wide enough to permit this. It is not at all feasible to have a leg so stuck in the mouth that it requires several men to remove it. The only possibility - and I would consider this extremely unlikely - is that the animal had dislocated its jaw. This is not common and it is hard to say whether inserting the foot / leg into the mouth would be possible even if the jaw was dislocated. I am not a veterinary surgeon but I don't believe it is a satisfactory or sensible explanation. For confirmation you may want to contact BEVA (British Equine Veterinary Association)

Hopefully I have provided you with some useful information but if not, or you would like to ask more questions, please don't hesitate to get in touch.

Best wishes


Dear Mr Hackett,

Many thanks for your considered response to what might have looked like an inquiry from a madman. It is always perplexing to read 17th century books and pamphlets in which the most outrageous things are vehemently asserted as true. There is always a background polemic going on: my reporter here (Glanvill) was a die-hard maintainer of the veracity of witchcraft. But, always with these people, the question is how far down the slippery slope into absurdity they will go, where will they draw the line and say, ‘no, that’s incredible’? They are very committed to their evidence having truth in it.

I think that this anecdote betrays Glanvill’s boundless credulity. Someone rural was having a laugh (which one of them?), with an assertion that would have been preposterous to anyone with real knowledge of horses, but all part of the fun that the Tedworth case was creating locally back in 1663.

Thank you for making me feel far more confident about this,

Roy Booth

[My thanks to the kind man at the British Horse Society:

The quotation from Glanvill is, despite my ‘Henry Root’ quip, quite genuine. The image is Hans Baldung Grien’s ‘The Enchanted Groom’, which seemed appropriate.

I’m aware that Balthasar Bekker took on Glanvill in his The world bewitch'd, or, An examination of the common opinions concerning spirits their nature, power, administration and operations, as also the effects men are able to produce by their communication. Part one of this was translated into English in 1695, and the synoptic Preface indicates that there were counter arguments about fraudulence in the Tedworth case. However, the translation did not get as far as that later part of the book. I’d be interested to read it.]


Rachel Roberts said...

This is probably a rather foolish thing to say, but ... we're sure, are we, that the horse in this uncomfortable-sounding situation was supposed to be alive? Presumably it would be easy enough to mutilate a dead horse in suchlike a manner, and that such mutilation would, like the scene in the Godfather, be considered suitably diabolical. I'm thinking: leg severed and thrust down the throat.

DrRoy said...

I'm still preferring complete factitiousness, a tall story swallowed by Glanvill, rather than a leg by a horse. Mutilation, if it did take place, is a large omission by the reporter, and isn't very 'eldritch': it is just brutal. They still would have had to deal with the problem of aperture size. I must try to collect more examples of bewitched animals, for there is a rough sense of humour around these things: being supernaturally compelled to kiss your cow's backside appears in the pamphlets, and in 'The Witch of Edmonton'.

bdh said...

Sounds like a failed equine production of Macbeth with only one horse...