Fear and Magic: Fighting Fire with Fire

When I began work on the Inner Lives project, I was more or less content with books and manuscripts as my historical sources. But over the past few months, thanks to the research of my co-investigator, Owen Davies, and his research assistant, Ceri Houlbrook, I have become increasingly interested in apotropaic marks – ritual protection symbols in historic buildings.

These strike me as an extraordinarily direct way of making contact with past beliefs, albeit a beguiling one. When I run my hand over a strange inscription on a beam, a linked double-V (for ‘Virgin of Virgins’), I imagine the hand that occupied the same space, four hundred years ago, inscribing the mark in the first place. And such marks seem to be all around us in houses, churches, pubs, and so on. Yet this is not evidence that yields up its secrets lightly.

One of the most common apotropaic marks seems to be the burn mark, apparently some kind of inoculation of a building against catastrophe – literally fighting fire with fire. In 2014 John Dean and Nick Hill published a fascinating article in Vernacular Architecture, in which they argued that these marks, often dismissed as meaningless accidents with candles, were so widespread and difficult to replicate experimentally, that they must have been caused deliberately and therefore must mean something.

Pre-modern people were very afraid of domestic fires. After all, in the Middle Ages and early modern period, most lived in tinder boxes of wood and straw, and depended on the naked flame for heat and light. There had to be rules. The authorities in seventeenth-century Cambridge ordered houses to be roofed in tile not straw or reed, and in New England townships smoking near barns was forbidden. The Great Fire of London in 1666 was catastrophic, but only one of many terrible urban fires in the period. In 1676 alone both Northampton and Boston, Massachusetts were devastated. Parishes kept leather buckets, ladders and hooks on long poles (for pulling down burning thatch). In December 1583 the Cheshire town of Nantwich lost as many as 600 buildings, and the chains of women passing buckets of water had been powerless to prevent it. Defences against fire were primitive indeed: Leather fire hoses, a Dutch invention, did not appear in England until the 1670s, and even then were feeble weapons against a conflagration. No wonder minds turned to religion and magic as sources of fire prevention.

Great Fire

On 20 January the Inner Lives team was warmly welcomed at the Tower of London, courtesy of buildings curator Alden Gregory and Museum of London archaeologist James Wright. Together Alden and James gave us a tour from the top to the bottom of the Queen’s House (see Ceri Houlbrook’s blog post below). Almost all the 59 apotropaic marks discovered during renovations are protective burn marks, many of them up in the eaves – a space that might once have been occupied by servants. Early modern masters and mistresses saw domestic servants as potentially unruly, and in need of supervision and enforced discipline. But what they did when they retired to their beds, often in remote parts of the house, was beyond scrutiny. Typically servants rose early and retired late, and so needed constantly to move about by candlelight. This brought fear and danger to householders, and to other servants, and may go some way to explaining the profusion of marks in the upper rooms of the Queen’s House. The fire that laid waste Bridgetown, Barbados, in 1668 was blamed on a slave taking a candle to his garret and leaving it unattended.

The burn marks Alden and James showed us at ground floor level were situated on the frame of the door shown in the photograph. The small room into which this doorway opens may once have been a prison cell.

Fire 4

When Ceri and I were taking photos, I almost moved the fire extinguisher, but it suddenly occurred to me that it made sense to leave it there. After all, here was the perfect juxtaposition of sources of reassurance, modern and (probably) early modern, that fire would not seriously threaten life or property.

Of course, the development that in time bridged the realms of magical ritual and modern methods of fire prevention and firefighting was insurance. This emerged in the later decades of the seventeenth century, and led to the fixing of lead badges, now commonly known as ‘fire insurance marks’, to the front of insured buildings. The Sun Fire Office was the first to use such symbols in 1710.

Fire 5

The idea was that buildings displaying the badge would have their fires extinguished by the insurance company’s firemen, and those which did not would be left to burn. Keith Thomas, author of Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), sometimes used to claim, perhaps playfully, that a graph plotting the rise of property insurance was the mirror image of the graph plotting the decline of witchcraft trials – the point being that the human craving for security had not changed, but the means of satisfying that desire had. In a sense, Thomas was suggesting, these developments were signs of the secularization of daily life – although some historians today might baulk at the simple process of modernization this could be taken to imply.

I think there’s something in Thomas’s idea, though. In the twenty-first century, the opportunity to arrange buildings and contents cover, the enforcement of building regulations about fire retardant materials and escape exits, the existence of an effective fire service that can be summoned quickly by phone, the availability of cheap smoke alarms and even fire extinguishers all contribute to a sense of domestic safety. From day to day, we’re unlikely to be conscious of the effect, still less the cause – naturally we take these things for granted – but they keep anxiety at bay and obviate the need to reassure ourselves with magic.

Your insurance policy in the drawer has an ancestor in the eighteenth-century lead fire mark, and both are descended, if one follows the thread of emotion and need, from the fire marks that ordinary people once made with rushlights and candles and red-hot pokers. Perhaps the continuity here is not just that people continued to rely on magic into the modern era, but that secular defences against adversity work on human emotions in the same way that magical defences once did.

After all, modern safeguards are just there in the background, existing quietly and invisibly on the fringes of our consciousness, and not deliberately chosen or deployed by us. Only very rarely does anyone actually need to claim for loss caused by fire or phone for a fire engine or discharge a fire extinguisher. I’ve never had to do any of these things, and – touch wood – I hope I never do.

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