As a buildings historian, I work with conservation architects and specialist builders who are repairing the UK’s historic houses from manor houses to cottages, from the medieval period to Victorian. I see all the different building techniques and materials used over the centuries, whether cob, wattle and daub, stone, or brick. There are so many different types of building but they all have something in common; they were the homes of ordinary people who were subject to the same trials of life as each other.
In the days before science and technology, and burglar alarms brought a degree of security and certainty, our ancestors had to rely on more natural methods. In the medieval centuries, right up to the early part of the 20th century making their homes safe for their families meant not just keeping robbers and murderers out but also the powers of witches and other supernatural forces. This was done by drawing protective symbols on rafters, beams and window sills or even placing objects within the walls of their home, particularly shoes or animals.
When working with old buildings, it is not uncommon to come across a mummified cat or a child’s shoes in the walls, over door lintels, under roof rafters, between the chimney stack and the wall and under the floor boards. These were the lengths people went to to influence the intangible; warding off evil spirits, witches’ curses and disease, or more positively, encouraging fertility.
Because cats were so readily associated with witches, it would be perfectly normal to take a cat (usually already dead) and place it in a location that was vulnerable to witches entering the house. It was widely considered that witches could fly, so a witch could get in not just through the door or window but down the chimney too. Cats were also known to sense ghosts and other supernatural beings more readily than humans, which is why it was believed, their presence in the walls of the house helped ward off such malevolent forces.
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The Museum at Northampton, historically the centre of shoe manufacturing in England, has an Index of Concealed Shoes, which registers all footwear discovered within historic houses, not just in the UK but across the world. There are about 1500 items logged and half of them are children’s shoes and then women’s shoes are more common that men’s. The shoes also tend to be well-worn. If not now, shoes once used to retain the foot shape of the wearer and maybe, therefore their spirit.
It is also thought that the very shape of a shoe serves as a “spirit trap”. This comes from the 14th century when John Schorn, the Rector of North Marston in Buckinghamshire, is reputed to have cast the devil into a boot, thus trapping him. Shoes could also be a symbol of fertility. Shoes found under the floorboards of bedrooms could indicate this.
The discovery of mummified cats (or “Dried Cats” as they are officially known), is less common than shoes. In addition to protecting against witchcraft, it is possible they are also placed within the walls of houses to scare away vermin in those concealed areas. Trying to keep a perspective on all this, it is also possible that cats found beneath floor boards had, in reality, gone there to die and had never been discovered by their owners.
When carrying out repairs in old buildings, be careful to look around windows, doors, under roof rafters and behind old chimneys. The Northampton Index receives about one find a month, but curators there, think that hundreds of finds every year are simply thrown out.
Ellen Leslie BA (Hons) Dip. Cons (AA) is a buildings historian who researches the history buildings for the conservation industry and private home owners. She studied at the Architectural Association’s School of Architecture where she attained the Postgraduate Diploma in the Conservation of Historic Buildings.
Ellen has lectured at the Architectural Association’s School of Architecture and regularly gives talks on architectural history and house histories to interested groups. For more information: http://www.ellenleslie.com
Photographs of leather clogs (possibly Georgian) by kind permission of Bob Wall – Ibis Roofing. Woodcut image from www.indigogroup.co.uk
This is an article from ProjectBook which provides a wide range of information for the conservation, restoration, care and repair of period and listed buildings. Ellen Leslie is a member of the Heritage Register which contains over 500 vetted craftsmen, contractors and consultants from all over the UK. Updated daily with new content, the website features the heritage register, a products directory, informative articles, current news, events and more. For more information, visit www.projectbook.co.uk