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Subject: ‘Superstition’

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The growth of travelling quacks came with the upsurge of Plagues

Posted in Historical articles, History, Medicine, Religion, Superstition on Saturday, 1 March 2014

This edited article about medicine first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 575 published on 20 January 1973.

Quack Hunters,  picture, image, illustration

John Halle, a leading Elizabethan surgeon, was bad for the Quacks’ business; he had many a quack whipped out of town by Angus McBride

Medicine is now one of the most specific and delicate of the sciences. All of us owe our very existence to some aspect of the modern doctor’s skill. Yet, how many of you have ever stopped to think about how the healing art – and it used to be called an art, not a science – began? It’s a long way from the clean, polished operating-theatre of a contemporary hospital to the dim, distant ages of magic and folk-lore, when the practitioners of medicine were little better than the most primitive of jungle witch-doctors.

To give you some idea of how long medicine has been established and how methods have improved, let’s go back for half a million years – back to Neolithic Britain. It’s a hard, dark time, with small groups of men fighting for a meagre existence in a tough and brutal environment.

One member of the tribe has been ill with the ‘falling sickness’ – probably what we would call ‘epilepsy’-and has been brought to the healer. He knows that this illness is caused, as are most ailments, by a devil being trapped somewhere in the patient’s body. In this case it is in the skull. So the simple and obvious answer is to release it. Using only sharpened flints, the healer would cut away the skin and saw a small hole in the skull of his patient. Once this was done, it was assumed that the devil would flee through the hole and the patient might recover. What is quite astounding, is that archaeological evidence points to the fact that some men actually did survive this savage operation. It was a fore-runner of the modern operation called ‘trepanning’ and must have called for extraordinary fortitude from the patient, when you remember that there was no kind of anaesthetic in those days. Just a few sympathetic friends or relations to hold one down.

Medical skill progressed fast during the rise of the Greek and Roman Empires, though there was still a deal of religious mysticism connected with the art. Then came the surge of the Goths and Visigoths which plunged the civilised world into the Dark Ages.

During the Middle Ages things improved and it is during this period that we first notice the emergence of the breed of men who concern us here. The rather mysterious group of medical dealers who operate somewhat beyond the fringes of recognised and organised medicine. Men whose living is tainted with the stigma of disrepute – the “Quacks.”

Nobody seems too sure about how the word “quack” originated, but the most common and likely suggestion is that the word is an abbreviation for quacksalver. Originally it was a Dutch word, meaning a person who “quacked” or sold salves, patent medicines and cure-alls.

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Matthew Hopkins was a witch-hunting religious fanatic

Posted in Historical articles, History, Law, Religion, Superstition on Tuesday, 25 February 2014

This edited article about Matthew Hopkins first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 564 published on 4 November 1972.

Matthew Hopkins,  picture, image, illustration

Matthew Hopkins, the Witch Finder

Not all men with a mission have been governed by worthy ideals. Many indeed have been fanatics pursuing evil aims, hounding their fellow men, seeking to destroy them for some misguided principle or cause. Such a man was Matthew Hopkins, the witch hunter, who was responsible for the deaths of more than two hundred women in three years in the counties of Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Huntingdonshire.

For his activities we have to put the blame partly upon the shoulders of Elizabeth 1. She renewed a law which was first passed in 1541 and which made witchcraft a crime. But it was not until the arrival of James I on the throne that the persecution of witches reached truly maniacal heights.

Between the arrival of James I on the throne in 1603 and the rule of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell in 1653, at least three thousand people were hanged or burned as witches. By his own efforts, aided only by an assistant and a “female searcher,” Matthew Hopkins personally sent to their deaths a very considerable portion of this appalling total. It is an achievement, which, although it cannot command respect, at least earns Hopkins a place in history, together with all those other frightful monsters of the past, whose main object in life seems to have been to kill as many of their fellow beings as possible.

Hopkins started his career harmlessly enough as a lawyer, but it was not a profession he was to follow for long. By the year 1644, the witch hunting hysteria was at its peak. Spreading like some evil disease across the land, it warped the minds of men in all walks of life. Countryman and courtier had fallen prey to it in the time of Elizabeth. Now it was the turn of the Puritans to be imbued with the same madness, but more severely than ever before.

Bringing their fanatical piety to bear on the so-called evil, they set about wiping it out with deadly efficiency.

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Was the ‘Great Republic’ just unlucky or was she doomed?

Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, Ships, Superstition on Monday, 17 February 2014

This edited article about maritime disasters first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 554 published on 26 August 1972.

HMS Albion,  picture, image, illustration

The Disaster at the launch of the H M S "Albion" at Blackwall

It is a well established tradition that a new ship should be christened with a bottle of champagne. If this is dispensed with on that auspicious occasion, bad luck inevitably follows. This sailors’ superstition is one that must surely bring a polite smile of disbelief to the lips of most people. But perhaps they might be less sceptical if they were aware of the disasters that have followed the careers of some ships that have been launched without the customary bottle of champagne being smashed against their bows.

Take for an instance, the story of the American ship, the Great Republic, which was launched with water.

It is a story which begins on the day she was launched from the Boston shipyards on the 4th of October 1853. It was a day of which the people of that fair city felt they could be proud. The Great Republic was a mammoth ship, a veritable masterpiece of wood and iron which had been designed by Donald McKay, whose family had been established at the pinnacle of the ship building profession for three generations. Her overall length was 825 feet, she had four decks, three square rigged masts, and her mainyard, which was 120 feet long, was nearly twice the length of any other mainyard on any ship anywhere. She was supposed to have cost more than half a million dollars, and by the look of her she was worth every cent that had been spent on her.

She was due to be launched by a sea captain named Alden Gifford, who now stood on the launching platform, holding a bottle in his hand. Surprisingly, there was a distinctly unhappy expression on his face as he smashed the bottle against her bows. The reason for his unhappy expression was one which any sea-faring man could comprehend. Thanks to a violent outcry by the local temperance league, the ship had been launched with a bottle of water.

In due course the Great Republic arrived in New York, where thousands came to stare and wonder at this giant of the seas. She was, after all, one of the last of the great clippers, potentially the greatest of them all, and designed to sail around the Horn and faraway Australia. The new steamships would eventually put an end to her and all ships like her. But until that time came, she would remain a thing of beauty to be admired by all.

That beauty was not to last for long. One morning the New Yorkers awoke to the news that the Great Republic had been set alight by a nearby warehouse going up in flames. A strong wind had carried the glowing debris on to her decks and almost within minutes she had become an inferno of crackling wood and falling timbers.

The fire raged through her for three days, consuming everything in its path, until the morning of the fourth day when the decision was taken to scuttle the ship. When she was raised again, months later, the inspectors went over her and decided that she was not quite beyond repair. It was an unfortunate decision which was to cost lives.

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A German U-boat was haunted by a phantom officer

Posted in Boats, Historical articles, History, Mystery, Oddities, Superstition, World War 1 on Thursday, 13 February 2014

This edited article about U-Boat 65 first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 550 published on 29 July 1972.

U-boat 65,  picture, image, illustration

The haunted U-boat

Before she had even left the dockyard U-Boat 65 had claimed five lives. Then a rating was lost overboard and a torpedo explosion killed four men and an officer. From then on the ghost of the officer haunted the German submarine, striking terror into the hearts of the crew. Superstitious tales maybe? But were they?

It began before they had even finished building her. A steel girder which was being lowered into place in her hull, suddenly slipped from its chains and crashed down on two workmen below, killing them both:

It was unfortunate and sad that two men should die, the foreman said, after the two shattered bodies had been carried away. But the work had to go on. The Fatherland needed ships. When this one was finished it would be yet another nail in the coffin of the British Imperialists who were already reeling under the hammer blows of the U-Boats, haunting the icy waters of the Atlantic. Now back to work. For the Fatherland.

With these words ringing in their ears, the workmen returned to their tasks, thinking no doubt that it was pressures like these which caused men to become careless.

The next accident could not be put down to carelessness. Just before the ship was launched, three men were sent down to the engine room to check over the equipment. Suddenly, inexplicably, they found themselves choking rapidly to death in a thick haze of poisonous fumes which seemed to come from nowhere. Gasping their lives away, the three men stumbled blindly to the door, only to find it jammed. Within minutes they were all dead. The subsequent enquiry could find no reason for the escape of the deadly fumes, nor any reason why the door should have jammed.

The U.B. 65 had already claimed five victims. She was to claim many more before her career came to an end.

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Shakespeare reimagined Macbeth as a murderous obsessive

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Scotland, Shakespeare, Superstition on Tuesday, 28 January 2014

This edited article about Scotland first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 529 published on 4 March 1972.

Macbeth in battle,  picture, image, illustration

Macbeth in battle by Neville Dear

Although William Shakespeare wrote a great deal about history, a historian would have to admit that the dramatist was not strong on accuracy, which in itself is the key to history. Some kings were lucky in the treatment they received from Shakespeare; others suffered cruelly.

One of those who suffered was Macbeth, King of Scotland. He was, says the Bard, an ambitious thane who one day, while crossing a moor with his friend Banquo, met three witches who told Macbeth that in due time he would become King of Scotland.

The prophecy, made over the old hags’ boiling cauldron, began to obsess Macbeth, and egged on by his even more ambitious wife, who liked the idea of becoming a Queen, he murdered King Duncan in his bed while the old King was his guest.

For a short time, says Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth then reigned over Scotland. But before long Malcolm, the son of Duncan, came against him with an army of English and Scots and slew him. The crown then passed to Malcolm, its rightful owner.

How true is this story? The answer is, hardly at all. Shakespeare, who was said to have heard it from a Scottish writer, would not have received many marks for this piece of history.

To set the record straight, we must begin with the reign of Duncan. England was still a Saxon kingdom and the future William the Conqueror was a mere boy of seven when Duncan, a handsome young man, came to the throne of Scotland in the year 1034.

At this time part of Scotland was called Moray, and it was a much bigger part than the present-day county of that name. It was ruled by a family who never stopped insisting that the crown of Scotland rightfully belonged to them. One Earl of Moray after another rebelled against the country’s successive kings, so that even the mention of the name Moray was enough to make a King of Scotland seize hold of his sword.

When Duncan reigned, the Earl of Moray was Shakespeare’s hero Macbeth. Like all his ancestors, Macbeth believed he should be king; it was, therefore, only a matter of time before he raised a rebellion against Duncan. At a battle near Elgin the King was killed and Macbeth took the crown.

What sort of a king was he? Not a great deal is known about his reign, but there is no evidence at all to suggest that he was the bloody murderer that Shakespeare made him.

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The incredible Count Cheiro predicted the Abdication

Posted in Historical articles, History, Oddities, Superstition on Thursday, 23 January 2014

This edited article about Count Cheiro first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 524 published on 29 January 1972.

Count Cheiro, picture, image, illustration

Count Louis Harmon was known by the nickname Cheiro and used his powers of palmistry to predict many future events by Richard Hook

Sixty-four years old Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener had many things on his mind on that day in 1915 when the enemy guns were pounding Dunkirk. His stern face, its black, drooping moustache giving it a sterner look, was furrowed in concentration as he considered his burdens of responsibility. To him had been given command of Britain’s armies during the First World War.

Suddenly he was disturbed as his old friend and comrade, Commander Balincourt, burst in on him. With a grave and anxious face, he reported the death of a friend of theirs.

“It needs only one stray shell to burst near you, Horatio,” pleaded Balincourt, “and then where shall we be? You must move your headquarters away from here at once!”

“Leave me in peace, will you?” replied Kitchener. “I have no fear of such a fate. I have been told that I shall die at sea.”

The following year, on 5th June, 1916, H.M.S. Hampshire ploughed its way through heaving icy seas towards Russia on a secret mission. Aboard was a very important passenger. To this day, no one is sure what happened, but the Hampshire went down forever under that bleak North Sea. And with it went its very important passenger – Lord Kitchener.

The prophecy had come true.

Fourteen years before, in June, 1902, there was consternation in London. The coronation of King Edward VII had been postponed because of his desperate illness, and doctors were even worrying for his life. Queen Alexandra, however, remained calm and reassuring. On a sudden inspiration, she decided to send for the man who would convince the king that his end was not near.

Shortly afterwards a coach drove through the palace gates, a tall, handsome man descended and was shown into the royal bedchamber where the pale king lay.

“Your Majesty,” the visitor said with a gentle smile, “why do you worry? Have I not told you already that death will not claim you until your sixty-ninth year? You have many years to live yet.”

Within a few days King Edward VII had recovered, and thousands cheered and hailed his coronation on 9th August of that year.

Another prophecy had come true.

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The seers that foresaw the fates of Scotland’s kings

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Scotland, Superstition on Thursday, 23 January 2014

This edited article about Scotland first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 523 published on 22 January 1972.

Culloden, picture, image, illustration

The son of a shepherdess who legend tells knelt and wept for the blood that would later be spillled at Culloden, by Richard Hook

Scotland has seen so many prophets and prophecies in its time that one is tempted to say that the country lies under thick clouds of uncanniness – and if Scotsmen can be said to be dour, as some would have us believe, it may be because their seers have always had a particular talent for predicting gloom and doom.

Scottish kings in particular before the union of the crown with England, must have feared the often cowled old men or women who tapped on their shoulders and told them the end was nigh.

Alexander III was confronted by one on his wedding day in November, 1284, and advised to enjoy the company of his bride while he might, for his death was not far away. In March, 1285, on his way to join his wife he was thrown from his horse over a cliff.

“An ye pass this water, ye shall never return again alive!” called an old Highland woman to James I as he waited in 1436 to cross the Forth on his way to a Christmas in Perth. He received two more warnings, paid no heed, and was assassinated in his chambers in February, 1437.

Perhaps his son, James II, should have listened attentively to prophecies after that, particularly to an ancient prediction that a dead king would take Roxburgh from the English. On 3rd August, 1460, James was laying siege to Roxburgh, then in English hands, when a heavy siege gun blew up in his face and killed him. Shortly afterwards Roxburgh was taken.

Then, too, if James IV – one of Scotland’s finest kings – had listened to a bald-headed old man dressed in blue who approached him at Linlithgow, one of Scotland’s greatest disasters might have been avoided. Warned of his death and defeat if he went into battle, James shrugged off the prophecy and died on Flodden Field in 1513, with over ten thousand of his men.

With the gifts of prediction apparently so commonplace in the country, it would not be surprising if no prophet had achieved any lasting fame, but a few Scottish seers are talked about in hushed, respectful voices even today.

Outside Scotland possibly the best known was Thomas the Rhymer, born a serf sometime in the 13th century, who foresaw much of his country’s future, delivering his pronouncements in heavy, ponderous lines which were inevitably accurate.

However, one suspects that Thomas was the one who found the most widespread fame because few people outside Scotland could even pronounce, let alone remember, the name of the country’s most outstanding prophet – Coinneach Odhar Fiossaiche, who was supposed to have been born on the Isle of Lewis sometime in the first half of the 17th century.

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Mother Shipton – the gifted prophetess from Yorkshire

Posted in Historical articles, History, Legend, Mystery, Superstition on Wednesday, 22 January 2014

This edited article about Mother Shipton first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 521 published on 8 January 1972.

Mother Shipton, picture, image, illustration

Cardinal Wolsey sent three messengers to question Mother Shipton by Richard Hook

Naughty boys and girls do sometimes get expelled from school for their pranks and misdemeanours, so when young Ursula Southell was told never to darken the steps of her convent school again, it hardly seemed newsworthy. She wasn’t the first to suffer expulsion, nor was she to be the last.

However, it would be interesting to know if any other child in history was ever expelled for the same reason – witchcraft.

Her companions at school complained hysterically that their hair had been torn almost from the roots, they were pinched till they were black and blue, suffered bruises the size of pomegranates and were knocked flying across the playground and classroom as Ursula’s fury fell upon them.

All right, you say – so she was a nasty little girl. But others have been just as nasty and suffered correction from a stern schoolteacher. The big difference between them and Ursula, though, was that she was never anywhere near the other children when they fell victims to her spite.

The hands that pulled, pinched and punched were invisible, as Ursula had promised, and she chuckled from a distance at her schoolmates’ sufferings. With good cause, too, she believed, for, until they knew better, the other children teased her mercilessly for her appearance. With a long, thin, crooked nose, bulging eyes and bandy legs, she was ugly and gawky to the point of being a freak.

Yet what did a freakish appearance matter to young Ursula when she commanded such powers – the powers of a witch, in fact? And of all Britain’s witches, this “Devil’s child,” as she sometimes was called, was to grow up to be the most famous, better known to the world as Mother Shipton.

Witches we have all heard about – the good ones and the bad ones – and discussions about their abilities have been never-ending. Ducking ponds and deaths at fiery stakes recall the times when they were persecuted savagely. Sick and dying people claim to have made miraculous recoveries with the aid of witches after medical experts have left them to their fate. All we can do is keep an open mind on the subject, for this story like other witchcraft tales, cannot be proved.

Ursula was literally born into the “mysteries” at Knaresborough, Yorkshire in July 1488. Her father’s name was never disclosed, though he was said to be a man with remarkable occult powers and wise enough apparently not to boast about them too widely.

He was said to have passed on many of his secrets to Ursula’s mother, Agatha Southell, turning her into a witch of some repute. At any rate, some of her comings and goings and doings led to her being charged as a witch by local magistrates, an accusation promptly dismissed, some say, through the intervention of Agatha’s supernatural powers.

But soon after Ursula’s birth Agatha died, and the young child was placed in the care of the parish. Eventually she was sent to school where she proved a brilliant pupil – though a rather troublesome one, as her expulsion reveals. No one knows if she continued her education after that.

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Merlin – master magician of Arthurian legend

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Legend, Myth, Religion, Royalty, Superstition on Tuesday, 21 January 2014

This edited article about Arthurian legend first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 520 published on 1 January 1972.

Merlin, picture, image, illustration

Merlin and the Lay of the Lake by Richard Hook

Barbarians were hammering at the gates of Rome, and the mighty Empire was collapsing in disarray. Hastily and frantically, the once powerful legions were recalled from far-flung outposts to defend their motherland in a bitter fight to save and restore the glory that had once been Rome.

It was round about 400 A.D. when they let loose their grip on Britain, abandoning the culture they had imposed on most of the island for about four hundred years. At the same time, raiders from across the North Sea were already steering a course that was to unleash brutal havoc on the confused country.

A period of darkness descended upon the land – and for several hundred years this Dark Age lay like a shroud over history, giving only occasional glimpses of the grim fighting, barbaric horrors and eerie mysteries of the time.

Among the more mysterious people in those distant days were the Druids – the strange priests of a cult that thrived among the Celts of ancient Gaul and Britain.

Since the beginnings of their history – which were long, long before any Roman set foot in Britain – they had exerted a strong and mystic influence over their followers Scholars, early scientists, men of medicine, extraordinary astrologers and astronomers who held the secret keys to all religious rituals and doctrines, the Druids were said to be masters of one of the world’s oldest religions.

Understandably they were called magicians and wizards, and there is little doubt they displayed powers that would mystify us even today. But of all their mysteries, one was more commonplace than any. Since the start of their history, most Druids were renowned for what was called An-da-shealladh – the two sights – the ability to see into the future.

Most famous of the Druids, and most uncanny prophet of them all, was one, Abrosius Merlin.

Merlin! His name must be known by millions, his reputation bound forever with that of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

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Many prophecies by Nostradamus remain bewilderingly correct

Posted in Historical articles, History, Mystery, Oddities, Superstition on Tuesday, 21 January 2014

This edited article about France first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 519 published on 25 December 1971.

Nostradamus, picture, image, illustration

Nostradamus by Richard Hook

Grinning courtiers gathered expectantly round their French master as he faced the striking, bearded figure before him in the farmyard of the great castle of Lorraine.

Smiling confidently, Seigneur de Florinville pointed to two sucking pigs, one black, one white. “Now, Monsieur Nostradamus,” he said, “Let us put these strange power of yours to the test, eh? Tell me their future.”

Nostradamus glanced down. “You will eat the black one. A wolf will eat the white,” he answered.

Immediately the wily seigneur visited the kitchens and ordered that the white pig be served for supper that night. Duly the table was prepared, and as the guests enjoyed the succulent pig, the old seigneur smiled with satisfaction as he informed Nostradamus that they were indeed eating the white pig.

“No,” insisted the controversial visitor. “It is the black one.”

At once the cook was sent for and told to confirm the seigneur’s words. The man shifted uneasily from one foot to another before telling his master a story that astounded everyone present.

As ordered, he said, the white pig had been killed and cooked, and then left on a table to cool. But, while the cook was out of the kitchen, a tame wolf-cub, to which some of the servants had grown attached, bounded on to the table and ate the pig. In a panic, the chef had killed the black one and served it for supper.

Once again, the astounding, uncanny, unnerving ability to see into the future had been revealed by the most sensational and celebrated seer of all time, Nostradamus. The glimpses into the future foreseen by this French prophet, born in 1503, are still being proved correct today, over 400 years after his death.

Sixteenth century France was not the healthiest of places in which to make prophecies. At that time, when superstition overruled minds and anything out of the ordinary went by the name of witchcraft, many who talked strangely found fiery deaths on faggots around burning stakes.

Blessed with a diplomatic tongue, however, and a gentle, amiable manner, Nostradamus took the risk of making the occasional prophecy.

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