F. Goya, Three witches or Fates spinning, with bodies of babies tied behind them. 
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Tale of Jane Wenham: an Eighteenth-century Hertfordshire Witch?

The Story

F. Goya, Three witches or Fates spinning, with bodies of babies tied behind them.  Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
F. Goya, Three witches or Fates spinning, with bodies of babies tied behind them.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The tale of Jane Wenham, found guilty of witchcraft in 1712, begins as all early modern witch stories do: with a suspicion.[1] A local farmer, John Chapman had long attributed the strange deaths of local cattle and horses to Wenham’s witchcraft, although he could not prove it. It was not until 1712 that he became sure of her guilt.

On New Year’s Day, Chapman’s servant, Matthew Gilston, was carrying straw outside the barn when Wenham appeared and asked for a pennyworth of straw. Gilston refused and Wenham left, saying “she’d take it”. As Gilston was threshing in the barn on 29 January, “an Old Woman in a Riding-hood or Cloak, he knows not which” asked for a pennyworth of straw. The old woman left muttering at his refusal and Matthew suddenly felt compelled to run to a farm three miles away, where he asked the farmers for some straw. Being refused, “he went farther to some Dung-heaps, and took some Straw from thence”, then took off his shirt and carried the straw home in it.

This was enough evidence for Chapman who “in Heat of Anger call’d [Wenham] a Witch and Bitch”. On 9 February, Wenham went to the local magistrate Sir Henry Chauncy for a warrant for slander, “expecting not only to get something out of [Chapman], but to deter other People from calling her so any more”. Now that the suspicion was in the open, Wenham could try to put the rumours to rest.

Chauncy, however, had “enquired after her Character, and heard a very ill one of her”. He referred the case to the local minister, Rev. Mr. Gardiner on 11 February, who advised them to live peaceably together and ordered Chapman to pay a shilling. Wenham thought this was inadequate; “her Anger was greatly kindled” against the minister and she swore that “if she could not have Justice here, she would have it elsewhere”.

Francis Bragge, another clergyman, stopped by just as Wenham was leaving. Within the hour, the Gardiners’ maidservant Anne Thorn, aged about 17, seemed to become the focus of Wenham’s wrath. The Gardiners and Bragge rushed into the kitchen when they heard a strange noise. There, Thorn was “stript to her Shirt-sleeves, howling, and wringing her Hands in a dismal Manner, and speechless”. She “pointed earnestly to a bundle which lay at her Feet”, which turned out to be oak twigs and leaves wrapped in her gown and apron.

Finally able to speak, Thorn said that “she found a strange Roaming in her Head, (I use her own Expressions,) her Mind run upon Jane Wenham, and she thought she must run some whither; that accordingly she ran up the Close, but look’d back several Times at the House, thinking she should never see it more”. Thorn claimed that she spoke to Wenham, then returned home–all within seven minutes, which meant that she had run over eight miles an hour. This was all the more impressive since she had injured her knee badly the night before. What might have been a wild fancy was verified by two witnesses: John Chapman and Daniel Chapman.

This was only the beginning of Thorn’s torments. The next day, Wenham asked why Thorn lied and warned her: “if you tell any more such Stories of me, it shall be worse for you than it has been yet, and shov’d her with her Hand”. And so she did suffer fron convulsions and pain, compulsions to collect more sticks or to submerge herself in the river, an ability to move quickly despite her injured knee, and a violent desire to draw the witch’s blood.

Wenham claimed that the Devil had come to her in the form of a cat. Here, Beelzebub - portrayed with rabbit ears, a tiger's face, scaled body, clawed fingers and bird's legs. From: Compendium rarissimum totius Artis Magicae sistematisatae per celeberrimos Artis hujus Magistros, 1775. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Wenham claimed that the Devil had come to her in the form of a cat. Here, Beelzebub – portrayed with rabbit ears, a tiger’s face, scaled body, clawed fingers and bird’s legs. (Compendium rarissimum totius Artis Magicae, 1775.) Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Wenham was arrested for witchcraft on 13 February. Four women searched Wenham’s body for witch’s teats or other Devil’s marks, but none were found. A local minister, Mr. Strutt, tried to get her to say the Lord’s Prayer, which she could not do. On 16 February, in the presence of Wenham’s cousin, Strutt and Gardiner took Wenham’s confession. She admitted to bewitching Anne and to entering into a pact with the Devil sixteen years previously, just before her husband’s death.

The trial by jury began on 4 March, presided over by Sir John Powell. Several neighbours gave evidence, blaming the deaths of two bewitched infants and various cattle on her. Some mentioned strange visitations by noisy cats, including one with Wenham’s face. Many described Thorn’s continued convulsions, her pinch marks and bruises from invisible sources, and strange cakes of feathers in Thorn’s pillows. The judge was sceptical throughout. For example, he “wish’d he could see an Enchanted Feather; and seem’d to wonder that none of these strange Cakes were preserv’d”. The jury deliberated for two hours before finding Wenham guilty and sentencing her to death. Justice Powell, however, reversed the death sentence and later obtained a royal pardon for Wenham.

The Pamphlet War

F.Goya, The Sleep of Reason produces monsters.  Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
F.Goya, The Sleep of Reason produces monsters.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In April 1712, Francis Hutchinson wrote to Hans Sloane about the trial, which he had attended. The case was a cause célèbre in England, dividing the educated elite along the lines of rationalism and superstition. On the one side were clergymen such as Bragge, who wrote A full and impartial account of the discovery of sorcery and witchcraft, practis’d by Jane Wenham of Walkerne in Hertfordshire (1712). On the other side were those like Hutchinson, a curate of St. James’s Church in Bury St. Edmunds, who was troubled by the excess of superstition that he had witnessed. Although he shared “some historical Collections and Observations” with Sloane on the subject of witchcraft as early as 1712, it was not until 1718 that Hutchinson published An historical essay concerning witchcraft. Why the delay?

Janet Warner of the Walkern History Society suggests that Hutchinson may have been worried about damaging his own reputation, but I think that the clue is in Hutchinson’s foreword, which he addressed to Sir Peter King, the Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas, and Sir Thomas Bury, Lord Chief Baron of Exchequer. Hutchinson claimed that he would have continued his historical observations in obscurity “if a new Book [by Richard Boulton], which very likely may do some Mischief, had not lately come forth in Two Volumes, under the pompous Title of A Compleat History of Magick, Sorcery, and Witchcraft, &c.”

Hutchinson feared the public reaction to the book, which promoted the belief in magic and witches. As if people needed more encouragement: Bragge’s Full and impartial account, for example, had gone to four editons within the first month! Such beliefs were dangerous, and not just as a habit of thought, as the events in Walkern had shown. To Hutchinson, the clergymen involved in the Wenham case had behaved irresponsibly, being “as deep in these Notions, even as Hopkins [witchfinder] himself, that hang’d Witches by Dozens”. Instead of preventing superstition from spreading, as Hutchinson intended to do, they had taken a leading role in encouraging it.

Afterword

It was obvious that Wenham could no longer remain in Walkern, given the town’s insistence that she was guilty. Captain John Plummer was described by Hutchinson as a “sensible man” for taking Wenham under his protection—“that she might not afterward be torn to peeces”. Wenham lived there “soberly and inoffensively” until 1720 when Plummer died. She lived another ten years under the care of William Cowper, the 1st Earl of Cowper, dying at the age of 90.[2]

 

[1] This account is taken from Francis Bragge, A full and impartial account of the discovery of sorcery and witchcraft, practis’d by Wenham Wenham of Walkerne in Hertfordshire, upon the Bodies of Anne Thorn, Anne Street, &c. (1712). (Yes, this is the same Francis Bragge who gave testimony in the case!)

[2] Both men were also correspondents of Hans Sloane’s.

Trade-card 'Sir Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate'. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sloane the Chocolatier: A Tasty Myth

By James Hawkes

Sir Hans Sloane is a man who is justly remembered for many things, as a philanthropist, President of the Royal Society, and father of the British Museum. But one thing it seems he shall always be remembered for is inventing milk chocolate. For that alone he would truly deserve to be remembered as one of the greatest luminaries of his own or any other age.  But…

Does Sloane deserve to be credited as the inventor of milk chocolate as he is so often lauded for all across the internet? Even the British Museum proclaims that “It was Sir Hans Sloane who introduced milk chocolate for drinking.” Unfortunately it seems that Sloane and milk chocolate is a myth with little basis in reality.

Three tin-glazed earthenware chocolate cups, ca. 1740-1745. Image Credit: British Museum.
Three tin-glazed earthenware chocolate cups, ca. 1740-1745. Image Credit: British Museum.

Chocolate had been in use long before Columbus, with the Mesoamericans drinking a bitter but spicy chocolate drink. Following the Spanish conquest similar chocolate drinks spread to Spain and gradually began to slowly make inroads throughout Europe. It was not until shortly before Sloane’s birth in the mid-seventeenth century that chocolate began to enter the English consciousness as both a medicine and an exotic treat for the English elite. Sloane’s life witnessed an increasing prevalence of chocolate in England, although it remained a luxury. Its status as a luxury good and status symbol is underscored by the beautiful chocolate cups Sloane imported from Italy. Chocolate was thought to have many different properties, it could serve as an aphrodisiac or help with hangovers.

Trade-card 'Sir Hans Sloane's Milk Chocolate'. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Trade-card ‘Sir Hans Sloane’s Milk Chocolate’. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But contrary to popular belief Sloane did not invent the concept of milk chocolate. In fact, a great variety of milk chocolates and even icy chocolate cream recipes had been published for the English market in the seventeenth century.[1] Shortly after Sloane’s death in 1753 an entrepreneur named Nicholas Sanders brought Sloane’s Milk Chocolate onto the market. Sanders claimed to have an original chocolate recipe from Sloane as he battled against others attempting to purvey chocolate with Sloane’s name.[2] Sloane’s name remained golden, so far as chocolate buyers were concerned. The famous Cadbury Company even sold chocolate under his name in the nineteenth century. And of course, there is the modern Hans Sloane Drinking Chocolate.

As James Delbourgo has argued, Sloane–a rich baronet–would have had little motivation to get into such a grubby business as chocolate selling. Particularly “in an era that prized the public fiction of gentlemanly disinterestedness,” a close association with an item which had such negative, even racy connotations, would not have served his hard won image of virtue.[3] Sloane was a doctor and as such had been known to prescribe chocolate medicinally now and again. He even appears to have enjoyed it as a treat on occasion.

Sloane’s time in Jamaica had given him first-hand experience of the exotic, including the use of cocoa. His scientific publications included high quality illustrations of cocoa and he preserved a botanical specimen in his collection.

Chocolate suffered a bit of a branding problem in England since first entering the market in the seventeenth century. Promoters often attempted to improve its reputation by claiming that their recipes had sanction from the high and mighty, whether a king, or like Sloane–a famed physician to royalty.

In the eighteenth century, the lower classes were unlikely to consume chocolate, while chocolate took on decadent, even subversive associations in elite culture. Chocolate houses often catered to gambling (such as the famous modern gentlemen’s club White’s which was founded as a chocolate house) and on the political spectrum it included the almost-Jacobite Ozinda’s, with the Cocoa Tree serving as an unofficial Tory headquarters.

White's Chocolate House, London c.1708 coloured lithograph published by Cadbury. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.
White’s Chocolate House, London c.1708 coloured lithograph published by Cadbury. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

So why does the idea that Sloane invented milk chocolate persist? Well, it makes a nice story and, once a story becomes common, it can be difficult to correct. It is an easy and compelling tale to have the first inventor of something be a famous and important person who got it right the first time… Unfortunately the attribution of milk chocolate to Sloane is no more than just another tasty myth.

[1] Kate Loveman, “The Introduction of Chocolate into England: Retailers, Researchers, and Consumers, 1640-1730,” Journal of Social History, No. 47 Vol. 1 (2013): 34-35.

[2] James Delourgo, “Sir Hans Sloane’s Milk Chocolate and the Whole History of the Cacao,” Social Text 106, Vol. 29, No. 1 (2011): 86.

[3] Ibid.                                                                          

How to Build a Universal Collection, or Nicknackatory

By James Hawkes

Sloane and me at the British Museum.
Sloane and I at the British Museum.

The sheer immensity of Sloane’s collection poses a daunting challenge for the researcher, especially given its present division among different institutions. It might be useful to consider Sloane’s collection alongside smaller and more manageable (not to mention intact!) ones.

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the United Kingdom as part of a senior-undergraduate course offered by the University of Saskatchewan. Coins in Early Modern Collections of Curiosities was a hands-on study of coins in two early modern cabinets of curiosities: John Bargrave’s seventeenth-century collection (Canterbury Cathedral) and William Constable late 18th century cabinet of curiosities  (Burton Constable).

Although Sloane’s numismatic collection has physically endured better than, say, his beloved butterflies, we don’t have many details about this part of the collection. The catalogues describing Sloane’s coins disappeared during the Second World War.  But by studying other complete (if comparatively small) early modern collections of coins, gives insight into Sloane’s goals and influences.

Cabinets of Curiosities were intended to represent the whole of Creation in microcosm, something far easier to discern with intact collections. In our age of narrow specialisation, Sloane’s collection has been divvied up so thoroughly between the British Library, the British Museumn, and the Natural History Museum, that the universalising ambition of Sloane can be hard to see. Smaller cabinets also provide an appreciation for how the sheer size of Sloane’s collection made it so exceptional.

No collector could bear to look at himself in the mirror without at least one unicorn horn in his collection (from Burton Constable)
No collector could bear to look at himself in the mirror without at least one unicorn horn in his collection (from Burton Constable)

So, how do you go about building a universal collection?

The world is filled with strange and wondrous objects and if you are as serious about building a microcosm of it as Sloane was, then you’ll need to get your hands on some pretty weird artefacts. These can range from simple oddities like a “rope snapped by a strong man,” to an alicorn or even a horn from a woman’s head. 

Not all of Sloane’s contemporaries were enthusiastic about his penchant for collecting almost anything that fell into his hands. As Horace Walpole, one of the trustees Sloane appointed to posthumously oversee his collection said:

You will scarce guess how I employ my time; chiefly at present in the guardianship of embryos and cockleshells. Sir hans [sic] Sloane is dead, and has made me one of the trustees to his museum. . . . He valued it at fourscore thousand; and so would any body who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear, and spiders as big as geese!

Sir Charles Hanbury Williams also expressed similar sentiments about the value of Sloane’s collecting in an ironic ode on the subject. In this poem he claimed that he was acquiring for Sloane’s “nicknackatory”  such fantastic curiosities as Dido’s sword, Eve’s snakeskin, Adam’s fig-leaf, Noah’s stuffed pigeon, a sultry glance from Cleopatra and a few “strains of Cicero’s eloquence.” He even suggested that Sloane’s inability to distinguish fact from fiction extended  to his medical practice… Sloane has acquired such invaluable medicine as: [1]

The stone whereby Goliath died, Which cures the head-ache, well apply’d.

It is certainly worth noting that Sloane’s medicine chest contained some items that we would now think of as pretty odd, such as holding bezoars (a mass from a goat’s intestines) as sovereign against poison.

Many major English museums originated–like the British Museum–in personal cabinets of curiosities, but these were so integrated with other collections that the institutions are uncertain about the provenance of a number of the artefacts in their care. For historians, this tendency to merge collections rather than to preserve them in pristine isolation (as the British Library treats stamp collections) may seem unfortunate.

However, this disregard of previous collectors and focus on the artefacts themselves was also the general practice of Sloane and his contemporaries. For instance, Elias Ashmole’s collection (which became the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford) was largely grounded in the Ark of the Tradescants. Sloane himself was (in)famous for how much of his incomparable collection was built on the wholesale acquisition of the collections of others.

Just as Sloane was attempting to present the world in microcosm, the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum can be seen as an attempt to represent Sloane’s collection in microcosm. Our class visit to the gallery was an opportunity to see items from Sloane’s collection, with its strange juxtaposition of naturalia and classicism. This gives a small taste of the experience that Sloane’s contemporaries might have had when visiting his in Chelsea so many centuries ago. It is a powerful moment to actually see the physical objects of centuries ago, rather than merely to read about them or look at pictures. The heady experience of actually seeing the objects is of course why–both in Sloane’s time and today–museums are so popular. Cliche but true, they make history come to life!

A Microcosm of a Microcosm, from the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum
A Microcosm of a Microcosm, from the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

[1] Barbara M. Benedict, “Collecting Trouble: Sir Hans Sloane’s Literary Reputation in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Eighteenth Century Life, 36, 2 (2012), 120, 126-128.