Welcome to the first blog post in our Crafts Month Special – in partnership with the Folklore Museums Network! Throughout the month of August, we shall be featuring charms, amulets and other folklore objects housed in Museum collections, as selected by Dr Peter Hewitt from the Folklore Museums Network database. This week (06/08/22), our theme is Agriculture & Farming – and our featured object is “The Witch’s Plough”…
There are so many ‘folklore’ and ‘folklife’ artefacts relating to Agriculture and Farming in museums across the UK. Fantastic repositories of such material can be found at the MERL, the Ryedale Folk Museum, the Highland Folk Museum and many, many more besides. Having been invited to pick just the one Museum object for Superstition Saturday related to this topic though, the first that came to mind had to be one of the most curious I have ever found – ‘The Witch’s Plough’ from the Museum of Witchcraft & Magic (MWM) in Boscastle, Cornwall.
Like many of the objects that the Folklore Museums Network seeks to shed light upon, this object treads a perilous path between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’. The ’Witch’s Plough’ also happens to be one of the strangest things I’ve ever encountered in my time in the museum sector and I still remember finding it in a storage box in the Museum back in 2016. A seemingly incongruous set of items, the object consisted of an iron plough-share, strung on a knotted rope with green and red markings, and a dried bull’s penis adorned with a flourish of brown hair. Its display label, written by the MWM’s founder Cecil Williamson, ran as follows:
“To cast a spell upon a person’s house and family, some witches resort to the following practice. At night, two witches go to the appointed place, taking with them this plough-share and whip made form a bull’s penis and human hair. They strip naked. The one who is to be the horse places the green cord across her shoulders while the ploughwoman puts the white cord around her neck. Then off they go with the iron plough-share swinging in the air between them. It is vital that at no time during the operation the plough-share touch the ground. Throughout the circuit incantations are murmured and the whip of hair applied and other acts not worthy of mention done. From Suffolk.”
Williamson is here describing (or imagining) a form of spell performed by two witches using this strange occult/agricultural object (more on its farming associations later). We don’t know who these witches were; when it was donated, or by whom. It is possible that this item was, like others in his collection, made for a paying client who engaged his magical services (Williamson, according to his own accounts, was a consulting witch). ‘The Witch’s Plough’ could have been made specifically for his museum – it is known that Williamson sometimes saw museums as akin to movies; with objects-as-props serving a greater vision. Williamson also had a penchant for creating objects and attributing them to the ‘folk’. Fifty years before Damien Hirst’s Treasure from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, Williamson was making and reappropriating objects he collected from other contexts and giving them new histories. A visit to the MWM today still elicits powerful reactions; the collection is both inspiring and problematic; questions regarding authenticity often give way to wonderment and intrigue and it has rightly been called (by Jeremy Harte): a place where “magisterium and charlatanism” go hand in hand.
‘The Witch’s Plough’ may have been inspired by Williamson’s knowledge of early modern witchcraft accusations and the folklore therein; indeed, a confession extracted from the famous Scottish witch, Isobel Gowdie is somewhat similar in form and purpose to the MWM object. It was supposed that Gowdie harnessed a ‘puddock’ (usually a toad) to a miniature plough made of a half-gelded ram’s horn and by this method magically transferred the ‘fruit of the land’ of her victim to her own coven and made “thistles and briars … grow there” instead.
Is ‘The Witch’s Plough’ an agricultural curse object used by a coven in the latter part of the 20th century? Is it a witchcraft trinket knocked up for a museum display to amuse/bait the tourists? Is it an artwork, a meditation on ‘the witch trials’, or something else entirely? The folklore of objects reaches into the dark recesses of what museums are and what kind of knowledge they are supposed to create or pass on. These objects unlock the creative potential of the viewer and demand personal responses. For me, this (and many other of Williamson’s objects in his Witchcraft Museum) is a creative expression of and intellectual engagement with tradition; a dynamic artefactual history of created and re-created meaning.
‘The Witch’s Plough’ is part of the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic’s online catalogue and can be found here.
The Folklore Museums Network is a a Subject Specialist Network (SSN) promoting folklore collections in museums world-wide. Founded in 2020 by Dr Peter Hewitt, the FMN works collaboratively with its members to identify, display and disseminate knowledge about the material folklore collections held in museums across Britain and Ireland. For more information, visit: https://folkloremuseumsnetwork.org.uk/