Girdle measuring and fairy healing- some curious folk beliefs

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As I have described fairy blights before in a post and in chapter 20 of my 2017 book British fairies, it was widely accepted in the British Isles that fairies could inflict harm upon humans, whether by striking them with illness or disability or by abducting them.  This illness was so familiar as to be known as ‘the fairy;’ the symptoms might also be described as being ‘fairy- taken’ or ‘haunted by a fairy.’  This being the case, medical practitioners had to be able to respond to the condition.

Symptoms

In 1677 John Webster in his book The displaying of supposed witchcraft  had this to say on the belief:

“… the common people, if they have any sort of Epilepsie, Palsie, Convulsions, and the like do presently perswade themselves they are bewitched, fore-spoken, blasted, fairy-taken or haunted with some evil spirit and the like…” (p.323)

Clearly a range of maladies might be ascribed to supernatural causes, but it appears that ‘fairy-taken’ often had a more precise identity.  Speaking of Ireland, W. B. Yeats described how in the late-nineteenth century men and women would be ‘taken.’  This very often happened to women soon after childbirth, but it was also common for sufferers to take to their beds, perhaps for weeks, for years (frequently for the magically significant period of seven years, but sometimes for decades) or for the remainder of their lives, lying in a state of unconsciousness, as if in a dream or trance.  During this time they were believed to be living in Faery.  (Yeats, note 39 to Lady Gregory’s Visions and beliefs in the West of Ireland pp.287-8).

I’m not in any position to diagnose this coma-like state but it seems to have had consistent, recognisable symptoms.  Yeats’ description also helps to explain a detail of the record of the accusation made against Isobel Sinclair, an alleged witch, who was tried on Orkney in 1633.  The court heard that she had been “six times controlled with the fairy.”  In light of the above, we may conclude she had half a dozen periods of illness when she was unconscious and assumed by her family and neighbours to have been abducted to ‘Elfame.’

Treatment

Healers offered to diagnose and treat cases of ‘taken’ individuals.  Very frequently this was done by means of ‘measuring.’  This was an ancient practice worldwide, but in Western Europe  it can be traced back at least to the time of Pliny.  It was used in England until the late sixteenth century and in parts of Wales into the nineteenth century.  A change in the size of a girdle or belt could indicate that a person had been invaded by a fairy or evil spirit; clearly there are suggestions of demonic possession in this.  Charms and prayers could exorcise the spirit, although the belt might also be cut up as part of the cure.  In Ireland headaches were treated by measuring the sufferer’s head, whilst in Wales a range of conditions including depression, jaundice, nervous complaints, consumption and witchcraft were all detected by means of ritual measurement from the elbow to finger tip or by tying a cloth or rope around the body or limbs.

Girdle measuring was definitely used to identify and to help cure those taken by the fairies.  Here are a few examples:

  • in 1438 Agnes Hancock in Somerset was treating children afflicted with ‘feyry’ by inspecting their girdles or shoes;
  • in 1566 Elizabeth Mortlock of Pampesford, Cambridgeshire did the same.  She repeated a series of Catholic prayers, and then measured the child’s girdle from her elbow to her thumb, asking god to confirm if the girl was haunted with a fairy.  If the girdle or belt was shorter than usual, the affliction was clear and she had assisted several children in this manner;
  • in about 1570 Jennet Peterson was accused before the ecclesiastical court at Durham of using witchcraft.  According to Robert Duncan of Wallsend she practiced the “measuring of belts to preserve folks from the farye.”  Jennet seemed to make a good living by identifying and curing fairy blights upon her neighbours;
  • Lady Gregory (see citation above, p.237, but see generally her chapter IV, ‘Away’) told a story of a changeling child that seemed to be thriving until a neighbour called into the house.  She proposed to measure her child and the changeling with the string from her apron.  From that point on the infant did not thrive and was always screaming.

Once the ‘feyry’ had been diagnosed, presumably various talismans and charms would then have been used to drive off the malign elf or fairy.

Further reading

I have discussed the difficult issue of ‘fairy healing‘ further in another post.  An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

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