BtC 7/22. Witches and Werewolves and Hermits! Oh My! Back to Ireland

Previously on Beware the Cat: Mr Streamer is engaged in a discussion about whether people can turn into cats and whether cats can speak. Thomas, a servant who has lived in Ireland, has some germane stories to tell.

Layer 1: framing narrative spoken by Baldwin

Layer 2: main narrative spoken by Streamer

Layer 3: individual story told by another character

Witches, women and cats: the fear of all three are tied together in Beware the Cat. Throughout the ownership of cats is usually ascribed to the woman of the house. The main cat characters (including Mouseslayer who is the main narrator of the third part of the book) are female cats. The abuse of cats mentioned in 6 has sinister parallels with the persecution of women for witchcraft.

What position is the author taking on all this? Beware the Cat is a satire and its aim is the superstitious practices (as Baldwin saw it) of Catholicism. In reality, we know that the reformation did not lead to an end of witch persecution with both Catholic and Protestant European countries becoming even more obsessed with supposed witch conspiracies in the 1580s and beyond.

Baldwin though is mainly mocking these notions as absurd rationalisations. With the case of the Irish werewolves (discussed below) the original folklore is that the family have a curse that dates back to St Patrick. Rather than accept that possibility an attempted explanation is given that witches just make people think they’ve changed into another animal and that the whole werewolf issue is caused by a family succession of witches who trick this hapless family into thinking they’ve become wolves. The possibility that the core story isn’t true and there aren’t any actual Irish seven-year werewolves doesn’t occur to anybody. Somehow Baldwin manages to brilliantly satirise some Internet conspiracy forums 450 years in advance.

The legend of Irish werewolves is genuine (although, you know, not actually true) and you can read about it via Wikipedia here

Thomas Discusses Seven-Year Wolves

Then the man that had been in Ireland spoke, “I cannot tell, Sir, by what means witches do change their own likeness and the shapes of other things, but I have heard of so many and seen so much myself that they do it. For in Ireland, as they have been in England, witches are for fear held in high reverence; they be so cunning that they can change the shapes of things as they list at their pleasure, and so deceived the people thereby that an Act was made in Ireland that no man should buy any red swine. The cause was this,—the witches used to send to the markets many red swine, fair and fat to see and in that form they would stay for some time but if it chanced the buyer of the red swine were to bring them to any water, immediately the red swine turned back into either wisps of hay, straw, old rotten boards, or such like trumpery. By this means they lost the money or such other goods they had given in exchange for them.

“There is also in Ireland a belief that some man or woman at the end of every seven years would turn into a wolf, and would then live as a wolf in the woods for the next seven years. If they live out the time, they return to their own form again. This is a penance they say, placed on them by St. Patrick for some wickedness of their ancestors. A man that I left alive in Ireland told me this was true and he himself had performed this seven years penance, but his wife had been slain, while she was still a wolf, in her last year. This man spoke to many men whose cattle he had worried, and whose bodies he had assailed while he was a wolf and gave evident tokens, and showed such scars of wounds which other men had given him, both in his man’s shape before he was a wolf, and in his wolfs shape since. These scars all appeared upon his skin so that it was evident to all men. The Bishop also said (upon whose grant it was recorded and registered) that the matter was undoubtedly past all doubt.

“I am sure, you are not ignorant of the hermit who, as St. Austin writes, would ride on a witch, in the form of an ass, to market. These witches made their swine, and how folks were turned from shape to shape, whether by some ointment whose clearness deceived men’s sights, till either the water washed away the ointment, or else that the clearness of the water excelled the clearness of the ointment, and so betrayed the operation of it. I am sure that it was the spirits called demons, forced by enchantments which move those bodies, till chance of their shapes discerned caused them. The transformation of the wolves is either miraculous, as Nesmans lepry in the stock of Gekin, or else it is shameful crafty malicious sorcery; and as the one way is unsearchable. So I think this might never be found how it is done the other way.

“The witches are by nature exceedingly malicious. If it was to chance that one witch for displeasure with this warlike nation gave her daughter charge in her death bed, when she taught her the science, (for until they are dying, witches never teach it, nor then but to their eldest or best beloved daughter,) that she should every seven years end make some ointment, which for seven years might be in force against all other charms to represent to men’s eyes the shape of a wolf, and in the right season to go herself in the likeness of a mare, or some other right form, and anoint therewith the bodies of some couple of that kindred which she hated, and that after her time she should charge her daughter to observe the same, and to charge her daughter after her to do the like for ever. So that this charge is given always by tradition with the science, and so is continued and observed by this witches offspring; by whom two of this kindred (as it may be supposed), one from every seven, for seven years space, turned into wolves.”