Category: prophecy

A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague Year

The Great Plague of London of 1665 to 1666 is vividly portrayed in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which we’ll be examining closely in this episode.  As the text is quite entertaining (much more so than his better known Robison Crusoe) we’ll be hearing more extensive quotes from the material than usual, delivered as usual by our diligent reader Mrs. Karswell.

We begin with a look at the presumed connection between the nursery rhyme, “Ring Around the Rosie” and the Black Death. Though the facts here may not satisfy our desire for macabre secrets hidden in plain sight, we will find evidence for something similar in a children’s song we review at the show’s conclusion.  We hear a snippet of the song as rendered in the game Dead Space.

Defoe’s book occupies a strange place between history and historical fiction.  As Defoe was 5 years old in 1655 and the book was published in 1722, the story is technically a work of fiction.  However, the narrative is an excellent window into contemporary perceptions of the tragedy as well as treasure house of factual information.  Characters within the story are nearly all actual individuals. Particular events described have widely been corroborated in contemporaneous accounts. Particular dates and locations are also meticulously anchored in reality – so much so, that scholars have frequently treated it as a contemporaneous source.  Hints given in the text suggest that Defoe was in fact telling the story of his uncle, Henry Foe, who lived through the Great Plague in London and shared a profession (saddler) with the story’s narrator.

plague pamphlet
Illustration from A Rod for Run-awayes, by Thomas Dekker, 1625,

Part of what makes the book so fascinating is Defoe’s meticulous cataloging of the way in which Londoners reacted to (and anticipated) the plague in terms of omens and astrological predictions and biblical prophecies articulated in pamphlets, broadsheets, and almanacs of the day. Here, the sighting of two comets over England as well as the biblical and numeric significance of the approaching year 1666 play a large role.  He also describes predictions of doom were also shared by visionaries and eccentric personalities on the city’s streets, such as those shared by the Quaker Solomon Eccles, known to Londoners as “Solomon Eagle,” a self-styled prophet who roamed the city with a pot of burning coals atop his head.

Solomon Eagle illustration
Illustration of plague prophet, likely Solomon Eagle, source unknown.

Defoe’s narrative also relishes some detail on the symptoms of the disease, the madness it brought upon those suffering from these symptoms, and the dreadful treatments offered by contemporary doctors.  We hear a number of passages describing these aspects, including horrific accounts of patient suicides and a lethal kiss offered by an insane victim of the sickness.

Also included in A Journal are extensive quotes from municipal edicts stipulating how the emergency was to be addressed.  From these descriptions we learn of the “Searchers of the Dead,” old women who roamed the city with red wands, prodding at corpses to determine which had succumbed to the disease, and of the watchmen posted at the doors of quarantined homes to ensure that those within (sick and healthy residents alike) remained incarcerated until the afflicted either recovered or was carted to the plague pits.  We also hear how these measures were defeated by more devious citizens.

Corpses, which were placed outside homes (or later those that simply fell dead in the streets), were picked up by “dead carts” preceded by a bell ringer.  Pickups and burial in the plague pits were only performed at night to avoid further distressing the citizenry.  He hear  a particularly dramatic description of the narrator’s visit to one of these pits and an encounter with a grieving loved one there  and his rough treatment by cynical drunkards in a tavern to which he retreats.

Unfortunately for Londoner’s the Great Plague was followed by the Great Fire of London in 1666. While the death count from the plague had already begun to drop sometime before the fire, it was nonetheless commonly believed that this disaster somehow put an end to the epidemic or even, in some way, purified the city of its sickness. We hear a clip of the song “London’s Burning,” commonly associated with the 1666 fire despite its mentioning anachronistic “engines” sent to extinguish the flames.

Defoe’s Journal also includes another story related to a song.  It’s his retelling of a legend circulating in London at the time inspired by a story from Vienna.  It relates how a piper, a tavern entertainer, becomes grievously intoxicated and while passed out, is picked up by one of the dead carts and is deposited, while still unconscious, in a plague pit — thankfully awakening before earth is shoveled in.  The story was eventually turned into the Viennese song “Oh du lieber Augustin,” (Oh, my dear Augustine) in the 1800s, and attributed to Markus Augustin, a minstrel and piper, who lived through the Great Plague of Vienna in 1679. While it’s set to the innocent-sounding melody of “Have You Ever Seen a Lassie,”  the  grim lyric tells how the piper has lost everything to the plague,  like the city of Vienna itself.  But its cheery tune and the fact that the singer has lived to tell his story has made it an anthem of survival for the city —  and popular song throughout German-speaking lands.  We hear a snippet of the song rendered in period-appropriate style by Ensemble Unisonos.

We end the show with a custom mashup of “Oh du lieber Augustin” and the curiously similar dead-cart scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Augustin Awakes in the Plague Pit by Adam Brenner, 1841.
Augustin Awakes in the Plague Pit by Adam Brenner, 1841.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Episode 9: Cave Witches

Episode 9: Cave Witches

In this episode of Bone and Sickle, we’re looking at the folklore and history of witches associated with caves.  We begin with the Bell Witch, of Adams Tennessee and a quick audio montage saluting the creature, one based around the eccentric country-western song “The Bell Witch” by Merle Kilgore.  Also included are snippets of The Bell Witch, The Movie, The Bell Witch Featurette, The Bell Witch Haunting, Cursed: The Bell Witch “reality” show on A&E, and a bit of Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures scaring himself in the Bell Witch cave. Just so you know, there is also a Bell Witch ballet.  It’s a love story.

Authenticated History of the Bell Witch,1961Reproduction
Authenticated History of the Bell Witch,1961Reproduction

I neglected to mention the source for the original Bell Witch legend.  It is An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch, published in 1894 by the newspaper editor Marvin V. Ingram.  His source was allegedly a diary kept by John Bell, the primary target of the witch’s animosity, though the existence of this diary has never been independently confirmed.

Next we visit the cave of the 16th-century seer Mother Shipton in Knaresborough, England.  Wilkinson provides a dramatic reading of an account of her birth from a 1687 volume, and we learn about the curious wishing well attached to Shipton’s Cave, a geological oddity known for “petrifying” objects hung in its waters, some of which are available through the site’s gift shop. You can read more of the prophecies attributed to Shipton here.

Our next stop in England is the cave known as Wookey Hole about 20 minutes northeast of Glastonbury.  Wilkinson reads us a poem from 1748, “The Witch of Wookey” describing how and why a witch formerly haunting the cave was turned into a stalagmite bearing her likeness.  We also learn of Leicester’s Black Annis, a monstrous hag said to occupy a cave in the Dane Hills and do terrible things to children.

Carving of Shipton at Cav
Carving of Shipton at Cave

Next we visit the town of Zugarramurdi in northeastern Spain’s Basque region, known for its “Cave of the Witches,” featured in the 2013 horror-comedy The Witches of Zugarramurdi, released to English-speaking audiences as Witching and Bitching. We learn of the world’s largest witchcraft investigation that took place in this town and something of the Basque folklore that may have given the inquisitors their idea of the Devil.  The song “Baba Biga Higa,” a Basque witches’ rhyme set to music by Mikel Laboa, is featured as well as music by the Basque folk group Kepa Junkera & Sorginak.

Film Still: Witches of Zugarramurdi
Film Still: Witches of Zugarramurdi

Then it’s off to Italy to learn about the Sibyls, seers rooted in classical mythology and associated with caves.  Our first stop is in central Italy’s Appennine mountains where the Sybils of ancient Greece and Rome was transformed into a sort of fairy, occupying an vast underworld entered through a cave on Mount Sibilla. Nearby is the town of Norcia and the Lake of (Pontius) PIlate, sites famous int he Middle Ages for witchcraft. Our story extends a bit to Germany as we learn that the Appenine legend was borrowed into German culture and associated with the minnesinger and knight Tannhauser, whose story was taken up by Richard Wagner in his opera Tannhäuser.  in the background of this segment we hear an excerpt from this opera related to the Appenine legend.

Tannhäuser und Venus, Otto Knille, 1873.
Tannhäuser und Venus, Otto Knille, 1873.

The second Sibyl, associated with a cave near Naples, is the Cumaen Sibyl featured in a story about some hard bargaining over her books of prophecy with the last king of Rome and another about the problem with wishing for eternal life.  The Cumaen Sibyl’s cave, described as an entrance to the Underworld by Virgil in his Aeneid, is also near a sinister body of water, Lake Avernus, whose mephitic atmosphere is more than a little harmful to certain mortal creatures who venture too close.  There’s also a mention of a rather obscure novel Mary Shelley attempted as a follow-up to her success with Frankenstein.  Yes, it also relates to the Cumaen Sibyl and her cave.

Aeneas and the Sibyl, artist unknown, ca 1800
Aeneas and the Sibyl, artist unknown, ca 1800

We close the show examining the strange way the prophecies of the pagan Sibyl intertwined with church teachings, and through this weird nexus ended up echoed in the soundtracks to certain horror films.