WE shall read history very imperfectly, if we be not aware of the numerous superstitions which, almost down to our own time, influenced the conduct of even the most enlightened nations. Accustomed as we are to ascertain every thing by experiment and fact, and to look to really operative causes for the explanation of events, we can scarcely form an idea of the extent to which our ancestors were actuated by mere fancies. Cause and effect were not understood by them. A coincidence in initial letters was as likely in their eyes to bring about a particular event as anything else. What conceits are to poetry and puns to wit, was their perception of many of nature’s operations to science. Where we now plant iron rods to ward off lightning, our honest ancestors planted leeks.1 Medicine was with them a set of charms – such as holding the left thumb in the right hand for epilepsy – or a visit to certain sainted wells (none of which, however, were to be recognised as possessing any virtue without the bishop’s authority),2 or, at the best, some obscure speculations about the solids and humours. These superstitions, with the whole kindred tribes of omens, prophecies, and star-influences, though in themselves most contemptible, must not be overlooked by the historian, for to our ancestors they were motives and guiding principles. in a history, for instance, of the Revolution of 1688, to omit all notice of the bleeding at the nose to which King James became subject at Salisbury, and which continued nearly two days, till cured on the application of an ash branch,3 would be highly improper. An incident which the king himself and many of his friends regarded as portentous of misfortune, could not, at so critical a time, but have a great influence. Indeed, it is by no means unlikely that this extraordinary hæmorrhage was one of the circumstances which principally aided in bringing about that otherwise bloodless change of government. The whole history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – the most important in our annals – is only intelligible when read by the lurid light of superstition.
A supposed fatality in certain days was one of the fancies which prevailed among our forefathers. Childermass or Innocents’ Day (December 28) used to be regarded in England as unlucky for the beginning of any work or undertaking, the same character being supposed to affect the day of the week on which Childermass fell, throughout the whole year. This superstition extended to other countries. It is related of Louis XI. of France, that he would debate no state matter, and resented every attempt to trouble him with business, on the day of the Innocents. The superstition is said to have been transferred in the early days of Catholicism from the 14th of May, which is still deemed an unlucky day by the Scottish Highlanders, as well as ever recurrence of the day of the week on which the 14th of May chances to fall.4 The Romans had the same superstition in reference to the 13th of February, for which the alleged reason was, that they had experienced several defeats on that day. The 10th of August was the unlucky day of the Jews, on account of their temple having been destroyed on that day on both occasions. In England there was proverbial authority for the evil consequences of an Easter Sunday which fell upon Lady Day (25th March):
When Easter falls in our Lady’s lap,
Then let England beware a rap.
The coincidence was remarked to occur in the year of the execution of Charles I. In the middle ages, two-sevenths of the whole week were proscribed by this folly – namely, Monday and Tuesday. A disinclination to begin work on those days is still observable among our work-people, but, apparently, the cause has nothing of superstition in it. Some days were also deemed of old to have a peculiar influence upon the weather of the whole year. The St Swithin superstition may be overlooked, because there is said to be some shadow of a natural cause for it. But such cannot be said of the day of the Conversion of the Apostle Paul (January 25th), which was supposed to prognosticate not only the nature of the weather for the year, but some still more important circumstances:
If St Paul’s day be fair and clear,
It doth betide a happy year;
If blustering winds do blow aloft,
Then wars will trouble the realm full oft;
And if it chance to snow or rain,
Then will be dear all sorts of grain.5
Our ancestors seem to have been quite unconscious of the more than usual absurdity of attributing any such character to a day connected with the name of St Paul, who had so emphatically condemned all observation of days. The Scotch showed more good sense in selecting the day of the Purification (February 2) for a power of deciding upon the weather. According to them,
If Candlemas day be dry and fair,
The half o’ winter’s to come and mair;
If Candlemas day be wet and foul,
The half o’ winter’s gane at Yule.
The age of the moon was in those days studied with a regard to its influence in almost all the affairs of life. In a table, designed to serve as a popular guide on this subject, such hints are given as – “An unfortunate day; journey not to princes; converse not with old men; fly husbandmen:” – “A fortunate day; go unto great men and rulers; expect good counsel and justice:” – “A day of fear; beware of contention; the peace and truce shall not hold:” – and even such advices are given as – “Comb thy hair” – “put on new apparel” – “write letters” – “make verses” – “proceed to matrimony” – “exercise the mathematics” – “read law statutes.”6 We had the remains of this nonsense in the almanacks which continued till lately to be printed by the London booksellers. In the work last quoted, there is an old set of rhymes in monkish Latin, pointing out the unlucky days of each month, of which there are in no instance less than two. Of August, for instance, the 1st is said to kill the brave, the 2d to overthrow armies; of September, that the 3d and 10th bring diseases; and so forth.
It was also supposed that particular individuals were liable to the influence of certain days, for good or for evil. Saturday was a lucky day to King Henry VII.; Bosworth field, in which he gained his crown, took place on that day of the week, and exactly a week after, as was not unlikely, he entered London. The 11th of February was the “noted day” of his wife Elizabeth; being the date of both her birth and her death. Thursday was deemed fatal to the posterity of this pair: on that day died Henry VIII., Edward VI., Mary, and Elizabeth. The 19th of the month was thought to have some strange influence over King James [VI.]: he was born on the 19th of June; he first saw his wife on the 19th of May; his eldest son Henry was born on the 19th of February; his daughter Elizabeth, on the 19th of August; and his second son Charles, on the 19th of November.7 The 3d of September was considered as lucky to Oliver Cromwell, being the day on which he gained, in successive years, the victories of Dunbar and Worcester, till unfortunately he died on the same day, and so spoilt the charm. The recurrence of birth-days was wont to be much regarded, and it must have been from some undefined notion of good luck that Charles II. times his entry into London on the 29th of May, which thus became consecrated to him for a double reason. Charles V. had taken Francis I. and received the imperial crown at Bononia on his birth-day (February 24), which was thus supposed to be lucky to him. The restored Stuart could not fail to be aware of many such circumstances, for literature was then perpetually employed in celebrating them. The 6th of January had been five times auspicious to Charles Duke of Anjou. The 6th of July had been the birth-day of six successive representatives of the house of Trevor. Raphael, Francis Duke of Lunenburgh, and Sir Kenelm Digby, had died on their birth-days. Nor was there wanting classic authority for these frivolities. The 6th of April had given three victories to Philip of Macedon, and finally a son, who on the same day gained two victories, and died. Similar things were told of Pompey, Cæsar, Augustus, Timoleon, and many others. The church had also her instances of day fatality. Tuesday had been a day of fate to Thomas à Becket. Upon a Tuesday, the saint had been tried by his peers at Northampton; upon Tuesday, he was banished; upon Tuesday, he had a vision of the future glories to be achieved by his blood; upon Tuesday, he returned from exile; upon Tuesday, he was assassinated; upon Tuesday, he got the palm of martyrdom; and upon a Tuesday, fifty years after his death, his venerable body received the glory and renown of translation. Wednesday, in like manner, had been felicitous to Pope Sixtus V.: on that day, he had been born, made a monk, created general of his order, made cardinal, elected pope, and inaugurated. It might be insinuated that some of these phenomena were within the power of the human will; but such matters were seldom very deeply inquired into by our ancestors.
Mr John Gibbon, who in 1678 published a work upon Day Fatality, was of opinion that his birth-day, the 3d of November, was of an uncommon character, and fatal to himself. The Emperor Constantius had died on that day; so had the Earl of Salisbury, a famous commander in the reign of Henry VI.; do had Cardinal Borrhomeo and Sir John Perrot! The Long Parliament had signalised the day by the commencement of its proceedings, and so had the Parliament which dissolved the religious houses in England. But how was it fatal to Gibbon himself? Look and see. It was the date of the inundation which, in 1099, had destroyed Earl Godwin’s estate in Kent, and produced what are called the Godwin Sands. Now, Gibbon had inherited a piece of marsh land on the Kent coast, which was also overflowed by the sea, and rendered a source rather of loss than of profit; “so that I often think,” says he, “this day being my birth-day, hath the same evil influence upon me that it had six hundred years since upon Earl Godwin and others concerned in low lands.” The complete irrelativeness of this supposition is highly characteristic of the age.
Gibbon was a herald – holding the office of “Bluemantle” – and the object of his work appears to have been to pay a compliment to the Duke of York, whose birth-day was the 14th of October. In turning over our annals, as he tells us, he had discovered two great events which took place on this day, the victory of Hastings by William Conqueror, and the return of Edward III. to his kingdom in 1347, after taking Calais. Here was a sufficient theme for a paper of Latin verses, which he forthwith addressed to the duke. Afterwards, he discovered another great even which took place on the 14th of October, namely, a peace between England and France in 1360: this gave occasion to an additional stanza. Nor was this all. His royal highness had withdrawn from the storm of the Exclusion Bill to the Low Countries on the 3d of March. “The 3d of March,” we can conceive Bluemantle saying cogitatively to himself; “let us see what can be made out of the 3d of March.” The 3d of March, then, was dedicated to St Eutropius is derived, according to Bluemantle, from Greek words signifying “well” and “turn.” The duke was Maximus Princeps by birth, and Maximus Marinus by his character as a naval commander. By a curious philological process, our herald made it clear, from the word Lucius, that the duke was to shine yet brighter than ever. The whole, therefore, implied, in his opinion, that the great prince should return happily, and reach the highest honours.8 To us, all this appears the most arrant folly; but it was different in the seventeenth century. Such was then the state of mind, so little was the power of discriminating between the real and the unreal, merit and accident, that an allusion to something felicitous in the name of an illustrious person, in the date of his birth, or the day on which he did any thing remarkable, passed for quite as good flattery as the celebration of the most brilliant deeds.
Aubrey, in his Miscellanies, enumerates many places in England which were believed to be lucky and the reverse to their proprietors. He speaks particularly of Stourton, Hungerford, and Norington, in Wilts – of Clavel in Dorsetshire, and of Hampden and Pen in Buckinghamshire, as estates which had been fortunate to their possessors, continuing in one line since before the Conquest. On the other hand, Charterhouse in Somersetshire, and Butleigh near Glastonbury, had been unlucky, never yet having been possessed by three generations of one family. The Fleece Tavern in Covent Garden had been unlucky for homicides, of which three cases had occurred in the house during his own time. He speaks of a handsome house in Clerkenwell, which had been so unlucky for forty years, that nobody would now venture to occupy it. According to Aubrey, a gentleman named Wild had had more deodands from his manor of Totham in Essex, than from all his estates besides: two mischiefs had happened there in one field. In Scotland there are still preserved certain relics of antiquity with which the fortunes of families were, till a period by no means remote, supposed to be bound up. The Robertsons of Struan have a precious stone about the size of a pigeon’s egg, which they used to carry at the top of their standard for luck in battle; whence it was called Clach-na-brattich, or the stone of the standard. When the poet Robertson, the representative of this family, fled to France on account of his concern in Dundee’s rebellion, he carried the Clach-na-brattich along with him, in the gold box which was its usual receptacle. Being, like many other Scottish Jacobite exiles, reduced to the greatest straits for subsistence, he was obliged to sell the box; but nothing on earth could have induced him to part with the stone. The luck of the family of Coalstoun in East Lothian rested in like manner with a pear, which was supposed to be invested with magical properties. The family of Graham of Inchbrakie in Perthshire possess a small blue stone, set in a ring, of which the following story is told: Some time probably in the century before the last, as the laird of Inchbrakie was passing the Knock [hill] of Crieff, he found a large crowd, headed by Campbell of —, preparing to execute a witch. On going near, he discovered, in the victim, his nurse Catherine Niven, who had latterly resided in a rocky cave (still shown) near the place where she was about to suffer. Whether this aged female had become liable to the charge of witchcraft through the workings of a disordered mind, or had nefariously endeavoured to practise upon the credulity of the people, Graham felt interested in her behalf, and used all his eloquence to save her life, but without avail. In gratitude for his generous intercession, the poor woman threw from her mouth a small blue stone like a bead, which she desired her foster-child to keep for her sake; further telling him, that, as long as it remained with the Grahams of Inchbrakie, good fortune should attend them, while to the Campbells of — there should never be born a male heir – predictions which are said to have alike held true. The stone was lately pronounced by a competent judge to be a sapphire. Many similar palladia are preserved by Scottish families, but latterly, of course, only as curiosities. Precisely of the same character was the coronation stone of Scoon –
Whereupon the Scottyshe kynge wes breechles sette,
according to an old English chronicler, and which was supposed to mark out whatever place received it for the dominion of the Scots. When Edward I. took this “fatal chair” to Westminster, he thought he had broken the charm of Scotland’s independency; but he only, according to the belief of the Scottish people, determined that the northern race of princes should in time supplant the house of Plantagenet. Several families in Scotland possessed stones of the same external character as the Clach-na-brattich and the bead of Inchbrakie, but with a different virtue: they were supposed only to have a power of healing. A small red precious stone, which a crusading ancestor of the Lockharts of Lee in Lanarkshire is said to have obtained in the East, and which exists to this day, set within an only English shilling, was held to cure cattle, and even to be of some efficacy in cases of hydrophobia. The Marischal family also possessed, in 1624, “ane jasper stane for steiming of blood, estimat to 500 French crownes.”9
These are but a few scattered traits of the gross abuses to which the human intellect was subjected in ages not yet very remote. When reasoning consisted in the quibbles of the scholastic philosophy, and science confounded the dreams of alchemy and astrology with the ascertained facts of nature, it is scarcely surprising that particular days, and places, and stones, should have been thought to exercise an influence over human destiny. Thanks to Bacon, to Newton, and to the printing-press, such follies no longer hold the prominent place which they did – would that we could describe them as altogether extinguished!
1 Brand’s Popular Antiquities.
2 Canons of St Anselm, A.D. 1102.
3 Aubrey’s Miscellanies. The ash branch necessary for stopping effusion of blood, required to be cut when the sun entered Taurus.
4 Campbell’s Journey in Scotland, i. 261.
5 Brand’s Popular Antiquities.
6 Fosbroke’s Encyclopædia of Antiquities, 674.
7 Life of King James [VI.], in Constable’s Miscellany.
8 Harleian Miscellany, viii. 308.
9 Criminal Record, quoted in Sharpe’s notes to Law’s Memorials, liii.