Sunday, December 10, 2006

Supernatural Reading with Mr Blagrave and Mr Morro

A couple of hours ago, I was cycling back through the Reading town centre along Blagrave Street; since then, I’ve been looking at a work written by one of the Blagraves (he passes among local historians as a famous resident), the book being [Joseph] Blagraves astrological practice of physick discovering the true way to cure all kinds of diseases and infirmities ... being performed by such herbs and plants which grow within our own nation ... : also a discovery of some notable phylosophical secrets worthy our knowledge, relating to a discovery of all kinds of evils, whether natural or ... from sorcery or witchcraft, or by being possessed of an evil spirit, directing how to cast forth the said evil spirit out of any one which is possessed, with sundry examples thereof (1671).

One reads in Hugh Trevor-Roper and the rest about the intellectual reasons for the decline in the belief in witchcraft - that orderly Cartesian universe (and the rest). Operating in Berkshire in the later 17th century, Blagrave was as remote from these developments as he could be. His book is garrulous, boastful, repetitious (and poorly printed by his nephew Obidiah), while his opinions date from the previous century. Joseph Blagrave was, essentially, a cunning man, who practiced herbal medicine, and whose cures often involved him in discovering that the afflicted person had suffered a ‘take’ inflicted upon them by a witch. He conceals from himself what he really is, by a fussy piety (patients under his care will be found to have neglected their morning prayers on the day of the first supernatural attack), and by a pompous astrological methodology (“how can any Doctor cure such distempers, when they are ignorant of the cause, for Witchcraft or Sorcery can no way be discovered, nor yet cured, but by the way of Astrology, except a Miracle be wrought’).

The typical anecdote in Blagrave tells of an afflicted person (fits, chronic obesity, dumbness, paralysis), unrelieved by a long regime of medical attention. A family member turns to Blagrave, who will work on a no-win no-fee basis. He erects a figure which points to witchcraft as the cause, and to a suspect witch. Counter-measures are launched: ‘Here followeth some experimental Rules, whereby to afflict the Witch, causing the evil to return back upon them’ – reads a section heading: and what follows is: ‘One way is by watching the suspected party when they go out of their house, and then presentlyto take some thatch from over the door, or a tile, if the house be tyled; if it be thatch you must wet and sprinkle it over with the patients water, and likewise with white salt, then let it burn or smoke through a trivet, or the frame of a skillet: you must bury the ashes that way, which the suspected Witch liveth. Its best done either at the change, full, or quarters of the Moon: or otherwise, when the Witches significator is in Square or Opposition to the Moon.’

He explains that ‘The reason why the Witch is tormented, when the blood or urine of the patient is burned, is because there is part of the vital spirit of the patient in it, for such is the subtlety of the Devil, that he will not suffer the Witch to infuse any poisonous matter into the body of man or beast, without some of the Witches blood mingled with it.’

Blagrave tends to see the Devil as working to secure the exposure of the witch; the Devil sucks the blood of the witch so as to be able to place some of it in any veneficial potion they make, rendering them liable to exposure by such sage practitioners as Blagrave: they suffer agony as the thatch is burned or tile is heated red-hot, because their vital spirits are in the urine of the person they have afflicted.

I am rather shocked by all this: Blagrave, cobbling together astrology, herbalism, demonology and sympathetic magic, goes around accusing people (including a local clergyman) of witchcraft, practicing exorcisms, and apparently gets away with it.

He knew he was among the last of his kind: in the Preface, he comments ‘I find that many being unsatisfied concerning the legality of my way of Cure, have refused to come or send unto me for help to cure their infirmities: and many of those who did come, came for the most part privately, fearing either loss of reputation or reproaches from their Neighbours, and other unsatisfied people; and also fearing that what I did, was either Diabolical, or by unlawful means.’ This in a book where he publishes ‘a wonderful Oyntment for Wounds’ made up from ‘the Moss of a dead Mans Scull… Mans Grease … Mummy…Mans Blood’, linseed oil, oil of roses and ‘Bolcarmeniack’.

No one stops him, but no-one he has accused seems to get arrested, tried and executed. Rather, he seems to counsel against prosecution of the witch exposed by his methods. They tend, in Blagrave’s tales, interestingly, either to be reported to have to run away, or to end up in prison on other charges.

Blagraves astrological practice might in the end be seen as an account of someone’s odd fantasy life. No doubt many potential patients shunned him, and that, on many, his odd methods had no effect, but he can write up his best cases, no doubt with improvements.

Mr Morro’s flyer came through my letter box a couple of weeks ago. I will urge the students on my ‘Witchcraft and Drama’ course at least not to consult a man of such uncertain grasp of grammatical agreement over their ‘Academic’ problems. Good name, though.

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