Discovering Witches’ Marks
By Nicholas Molyneux, Principal Inspector of Historic Buildings and Areas, Historic England
On Halloween 2016, we asked the public to help us identify and record apotropaic markings, also known as witches’ marks.
These intriguing ritual markings are under researched and not widely understood, though there are a growing number of individuals and groups doing some fascinating work on this subject, in various areas of England.
Our call out for help resulted in over 600 responses from the public, who all had information or images of different marks to share with us.
These marks remain a mysterious element of our ancestors’ lives but the responses we had from the public are allowing us to better understand how widely the marks appear across England. The responses have also strengthened our knowledge of the kinds of buildings apotropaic markings are traditionally found in.
These pages linked to below give a brief history of various types of markings and highlight some of the responses we had from the public after our call out for information on this little understood part of the historic environment.
Other ritual activities
Ritual activities throughout history have not been confined to inscribing apotropaic symbols on our homes, churches and barns. The range of ritual evidence includes concealed garments, cats, and shoes within a building to give it protection. Hiding shoes in chimneys, under floors, above ceilings and around a building’s openings was regularly performed in European countries since the 16th century. The earliest recorded finding in England was in Winchester Cathedral, where a pair of shoes was discovered behind the choirstalls, installed in 1308.
Where to find out more about witches’ marks
The pioneer in this field of research was Ralph Merrifield who published various works on the subject during the 1980s. Timothy Easton has also written extensively on the subject.
The most useful literature on the whole subject of the approach to the physical manifestations of ritual engagement with buildings is contained in the recent collection of essays by many of the current leading researchers, edited by Ronald Hutton. It contains an extensive bibliography with references to much of the periodical literature. There is also a growing number of excellent and accessible information online about surveys being undertaken in churches, which originated with the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey.