My Charming Ancestor: Lost Spells and Sick Cattle

By Catherine Flood

My 6x great grandfather, Timothy Butt, was a charmer. I discovered this recently when I came across a copy of a manuscript he wrote in a box of family papers.[i] Mostly a day book of accounts for his farm in Tillington, Sussex, it also contains a collection of thirty veterinary recipes, dated 1768.[ii] Amongst these, are two verbal charms, one for restoring a bullock that is ‘sprung’ (meaning poisoned in Sussex dialect) and the other for a bullock bitten by an adder.

Searching for some local context to this find brought me to an account of charmers and charming in the village of Fittleworth – just five miles from where Timothy Butt farmed – published by the folklorist Charlotte Latham in 1878. This includes a description of “an ancient dame” who had inherited a verbal charm for snakebite and another for curing giddiness in cattle from her mother, but had lost them both in later years when she moved houses (presumably they were written down). “Much did she grieve,” we are told, “over the loss of her viper charm; it had done such a power of good.”[iii]

Charm ‘For a Bullock that is Stung with an Adder’ in Timothy Butt’s book, 1768. Reproduced with permission of West Sussex Record Office.

It is not impossible that this lost charm was one and the same as my ancestor’s spell for snakebite, or a version of it. If this ancient dame was born around 1800, her mother could easily have known him.[iv] More pertinently, the old woman’s regret at losing it demonstrates that charms were important possessions. While they were commonly practiced for the benefit of the community as a whole, only a few knew and performed the words and restrictions applied to how they were transmitted.[v] It also demonstrates the ease with which such folk texts, carried in the memory or written on ephemeral materials, could disappear. According to Jonathan Roper, Timothy Butt’s book is one of only five known examples of a charmer’s book in English to survive, making it a significant document for the study of English verbal charms.[vi]

The snakebite charm itself appears to be a highly abbreviated, perhaps corrupted, example of a narrative charm that relates a micro-story (or ‘historiola’) in which a powerful protagonist confronts a snake that has bitten his servant and obtains a cure.[vii] The flesh and blood patient is healed by implication. While there is no space in this post to analyse the texts in detail, I reproduce them here in full since neither charm has been published in the last hundred years.[viii] I recommend muttering them aloud to appreciate their ‘incantatory force’ achieved through alliteration and repetition (especially the sibilant s’s used for addressing the snake).[ix]

For a Bulluck that is Sprung say these Words
Our Blesed Saviour for his Sons Sake Pray Down the Bladder
Blow that he may break In the name of the Father and of the
Son and of the Blessed Trinetey Saved may this Black
Bulluck be— or let the Coller be what it will, Name it
Then say the Lords Prayer and so Say it three times

For a Bullock that is Stung with an Adder
take Salt and fresh Grees & anoint the Beast from the heart
then say these Words — Simon Joan Hunt Why Wouldest
Thou thy Sarvant thou Stungest thou my man. I wish it
was thy man. Take Salt and Smare and lay to the Speer
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the
Holy Gost. Amen

As well as being a rare example of a charmer’s book, Timothy Butt’s manuscript is also notable for its veterinary focus.[x] Only one recipe for ‘eye water’ is noted as being adaptable for ‘a Christian.’ The charms are interspersed with the physical remedies and, on the basis of the collection as a whole, we should probably consider Timothy Butt as much a cow doctor as charmer; one whose medical arsenal evidently included powerful words together with kitchen physic, exotic spices, and strong chemicals.

The charm for a ‘sprung’ bullock is probably intended for curing ‘the blain,’ an often fatal cattle disease in which small black blisters or ‘bladders’ appeared at the root of the animal’s tongue. Early modern veterinary books are ambivalent about the cause of this disorder, but it was generally thought to be the result of ingesting ‘some poisonous thing.’[xi] The remedy they recommend is to ‘break’ the bladders between finger and thumb, or lance them with a sharp knife. This was a risky operation and the charm offered a less invasive method of ‘praying down’ the dangerous blisters.

Two of the recipes are attributed to neighbours, which suggests the others probably derived from family tradition. Timothy Butt hailed from a long line of yeoman farmers. Born in 1743, he was 25 years old and establishing a family of his own at the time he wrote down the recipes (he and his wife Jane went on to have at least 19 children). It seems likely that the creation of this collection represents a passing on of knowledge from one generation of animal caretakers to the next.

Inula Helenium, Elecampane, paper collage by Mary Delany, 1778. Elecampane, also known as horse-heal, was a herb widely grown in Sussex gardens for medicinal and veterinary purposes. Following the logic that like cures like, it appears in one of Timothy Butt’s recipes for the ‘yellows’ (jaundice) along with other yellow flowers and spices (celandine, turmeric, and saffron).
British Museum (https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1897-0505-466). Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum.

Furthermore, the recipes are concerned entirely with the larger and more valuable farm animals: oxen (or ‘bullocks’), horses and occasionally pigs. This probably reflects a gendered division of labour whereby the farmer’s wife would have been responsible for the medical care of the family, the dairy cows and the smaller animals around the farmyard, while the farmer tended to the animals who worked alongside him in the fields and forests in plough teams and timber tugs.[xii] Oxen remained the most important source of draught power in Sussex in the late 18th century and are named in over half of Timothy Butt’s recipes. The fact that one third of the recipes are also for strains and injuries is suggestive of the physical toll this labour could exact.

Sussex Oxen, hand coloured etching, 1808. Oxen often worked in the same pair for life. A team of six to eight pairs was used to pull a plough in Sussex. 
Wellcome Collection (https://wellcomecollection.org/works/uztak924)

The animals themselves remain mute in these recipes. Only in one instruction to apply a plaster of pitch, tar, and clay ‘hot as the bullock can abide,’ do we get a hint of the animal as a responsive agent in the healing process. When it comes to charming, it can be even trickier to account for the animal, since the verbal nature of the medium tends to focus attention on the thought-world of the human participants. And yet the performance of a charm could involve sounds, substances, and touch, becoming an embodied experience for both charmer and non-human charmee. The snakebite charm, for instance, calls for ritually anointing the beast ‘from the heart’ with salt and fat. It is not impossible to imagine that intentional touch and the whispering of words may have comforted both the charmer and his beast during a medical crisis. Charming, indeed, could provide rich ground for the study of human-animal relations in the early modern period.


Notes:

[i] The original is held in West Sussex Record Office, Add Mss 1593.

[ii] Timothy Butt was the tenant farmer at Grittenham Farm, just over a mile to the west of Tillington village.

[iii] Charlotte Latham, ‘Some West Sussex Superstitions Lingering in 1868,’ Folk-Lore Record,1 1878: pp. 36-37.

[iv] Jonathan Roper notes that charms in the English cultural tradition sometimes show a greater continuity over the years than from place to place in the same period of time; Jonathan Roper, ‘Towards a Poetics, Rhetorics and Proxemics of Verbal Charms,’ Folkore, 24, 2003: pp. 27.

[v] See for example Owen Davies, ‘Charmers and Charming in England and Wales from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century,’ Folklore, 109, 1998: pp. 42-43.

[vi] Jonathan Roper, English Verbal Charms, Helsinki, 2005: pp. 174.

[vii] I have found two other variations of this charm-type, both recorded in the nineteenth century, which shed more light on the narrative. See Henry George Nicholls, The Personalities of the Forest of Dean, 1863. The Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature, 17, 1885: pp. 121. The cryptic words ‘Simon Joan Hunt’ in Timothy Butt’s charm may represent an extreme abbreviation/corruption of the scenario of the historiola in which someone goes hunting/into the woods.

[viii] Timothy Butts charms were published in Sussex Archeological Collections, 52, 1908: pp. 187-9, and Notes and Queries, 1922 twelfth series, 11: pp. 147.

[ix] ‘Incantatory force’ is a phrase used by John Miles Foley in ‘Epic and Charm in Old English and Serbo-Croatian Oral Tradition,’ Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook 2. Cambridge: 1980: pp. 82.  

[x] In a study of seventy-five seventeenth and early eighteenth century recipe books in the Wellcome Collection, Louse Hill Curth found only 11 containing veterinary recipes. Louise Hill Curth A Plaine and Easie Waie to Remedie a Horse: Equine Medicine in Early Modern England, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013, pp. 191.

[xi] Michael Harward, The Herdsman’s Mate, Dublin, 1673: pp. 33-4.

[xii] See for example Louise Hill Curth, The Care of Brute Beasts: A Social and Cultural Study of Veterinary Medicine in Early Modern England, Leiden, 2009, pp. 69.