Maybe it’s the very human need to know that there’s something out there beyond what our eyes see in the everyday; maybe it’s a need to garner good mojo by any means necessary; maybe it’s just a kid with a pair of his father’s dividers going all Spyrograph on the house frame. Regardless, apotropaic marks, known variously as witch marks, ritual marks, heck posts, etc…are a source of mystery and interest for those who look at old houses.
There are so many varied marks on house frames. Sometimes, an unknown mark may be nothing more than a carpenter who has had a bad day and whose ax-nick may last in a frame for generations:
Or marks may simply be a layout for reference, as pictured on this re-created door in our pilgrim village. The lines scratched across each board’s joint help to orient boards one to another. This example of layout is taken directly from a mid-17th century surviving door.
Then, there is a whole world of “compass geometry” and ideal house proportions which may explain some daisy wheels found on house timbers. David Leviatin analyzes the proportions of a 15th century tithe barn in Essex with the help of Laurie Smith’s Daisy Wheel Analysis in the September, 2011 Journal of Timber Framing. (Laurie also presents work on compass geometry in Timber Framing Journals #70 and #95).
I feel hopelessly out of my reach in this field–thank goodness there are smart people out there who can recognize such patterns and present them in such an informed manner.
Sometimes, though, a daisy wheel might be scratched on a lintel or doorway or hearth for very different reasons. King James himself weighed in on the topic in his 1604 treatise, “Daemonologie”:
“For some of them sayeth that being transformed in the likeness of a little beast or fowl, they will come and pierce through whatsoever house or church, though all ordinary passages be closed, by whatsoever opening the aire may enter in at”.
Carpenters or house occupants hoped these witch marks put on or around such openings might serve to discourage malefactors from entering one’s home. Linda Hall documents numerous examples of apotropaic marks in her superb book, “Period House Fixtures and Fittings 1300-1900″, a treasured source of details we continually draw from.
From her observations, Linda believes that such marks are “proving to be much more common than had been realised”. Like earthfast architecture and cloam ovens, once you’ve identified a few, there seem to be a boatload more out there. Below are some of the various ritual marks Linda has observed:
Some marks seem like nothing more than harried scratches made by an awl or the point of a knife. It’s unclear whether the carpenter or dweller has made them. Amateur though they may at first appear, such ritualistic marks represented a deep and abiding trust in protection against things unseen. Appeals made to The Holy Mother are indicative of England’s Catholic past. This example is drawn from Domestic Interiors, The British Tradition 1500-1850 by James Ayres (Yale University Press):
Saltire crosses, or crosses on the diagonal, are a feature seen around hearth posts, windows, and even on door hardware. They are representative of Saint Andrew, patron saint of England and Scotland, and are a decorative way to make a stop on a framing element, but might also serve double duty as a “stop” to nefarious forces.
The 1637 Fairbanks House, up the road here in Massachusetts, has curious marks up in the attic across several rafters. We haven’t been able to figure out just what they mean, if anything. They seem more purposeful than random doodlings. They are wrought by about a 1/2″ gouge, in sequence, across the face of several–but not all–rafters. Witch marks? Layout marks? A recalcitrant apprentice taking a new gouge for a spin? So many questions…
In our own re-created pilgrim village, it’s likely most of Plimoth’s first settlers would see such marks as idolatry, a form of superstition for the credulous and against God’s will. That said, the increasing frequency of such marks being discovered in English houses of the period makes it tempting to surmise that knowledge and acceptance of such ritualized marks may have indeed made the crossing with some of the colonists. Perhaps a credulous carpenter, hedging his bets, hastily scribed a daisy wheel near a doorway:
Or quite possibly a cottage-dwelling yoeman thought it meet to throw a few arcs on a hearth post during a moment of desperation after a poor harvest…
Regardless, we have certainly come a long way in the 21st century. It’s a good thing that we are above such primitive superstitions. Now back to work–let’s get this shoe in the wall, shall we?