Butter Tricks and Witches August 29, 2015Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
Here is a silly story from nineteenth-century Wales followed up with a serious point: or as serious as this blog ever gets.
Mrs. Braithwaite [of Caergwrle, Flintshire] supplied a Mrs. Williams with milk, but a short time ago refused to serve her, and the cause was as follows: Mrs. Braithwaite had to that time been very successful in churning her butter, but about a month ago the butter would not come. She tried every known agency; she washed and dried her bats, but all to no purpose. The milk would not yield an ounce of butter. Under the circumstances she said Mrs. Williams had witched her. The neighbours believed it, and Mrs. Williams was generally called a witch. Lut Tim, 21 Feb 1879, 7
Next comes the rage: not exactly How Green Was My Valley.
Hearing these reports, Mrs. Williams went to Mrs. Braithwaite to expostulate with her, when Mrs. Braithwaite said, ‘Out, witch! If you don’t leave here, I’ll shoot you.’ Mrs. Williams applied to the Caergwrle bench of magistrates for a protection order against Mrs. Braithwaite. She assured the Bench she was in danger, as everyone believed she was a witch.
Anyone who knows nineteenth-century courtrooms will know that village tragedy is about to become a judicial farce.
The Clerk: What do they say is the reason? Applicant : Because she cannot churn the milk. (Laughter.) Mr. Kyrke: do they see you riding a broomstick? —Applicant (seriously): No, sir. (Laughter) The Bench instructed the police officer to caution Mrs. Braithwaite against repeating the threats.
OK, OK another God awful claustrophobic community with a scapegoat: if this had been 1650… But let’s come to the facts. The incident that made Mrs Braithwaite angry was her inability to make butter, a particularly common trope in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century witch accounts. Beach wonders whether there could be any scientific explanation for these, evidently frequent failures. Margaret Murray wrote of this: ‘Certain powdered herbs dropped into the milk would prevent it from turning to butter. In the old days a dairymaid might not above doing this for some pretty ribbon. To-day an up-to-date witch might drop some soda into the milk with the same result.’
Is there anything to this or, indeed, is there any reason at all for which housewives might fail to make butter? MM’s theory sounds credible (though ‘certain herbs’ is delightfully vague and Murrayish), but often the story finishes with the housewife being able to make the butter when she prays or when she made peace with the witch: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com That doesn’t really work with belladonna and bat’s blood in the tub.
31 Aug 2015: Leslie writes in with the science. ‘I had to look this one up since I suspected there was something up with the cows nutritional status and that Mrs. Braithwaite was blaming poor Mrs. Williams for the results of her own poor animal husbandry skills. My suspicions were only partly correct. Dairy animals have to be freshened to begin or to continue producing milk. Freshening is breeding the female, allowing her to give birth and begin lactation. This thread discusses the same milk-won’t-churn phenomena with nary a mention of witches or naughty milk maids: