Friday, February 15, 2013

The Case of the North Devon White Witch (1877)

an excerpt from:
"Doctors: Or, The science of medical thought among the people." 
by W.R. Bartlett, M.D., New Haven Conn. published in "The Sanitarian" vol. 7, 1879 (

"At the Exeter Quarter Sessions last week, John Harper, aged 83, a quack doctor and herbalist, known as the North Devon White Witch, appealed against his recent conviction and sentence to a month's imprisonment for obtaining money by false pretenses some time ago. He was called in to see a woman who was ill and had been given up by the doctor. He prescribed for her and placed in her hands rods with the names of planets attached, and told her to strike with them a piece of metal which he held in his hand, while he at the same time uttered some formula of words. He received a fee of twenty five shillings, but the woman afterwards died, and he was then prosecuted and convicted of obtaining money by palmistry and subtle devices."

The White Witch of Devon
Published in "The Standard", October  18, 1877
As quoted in "Notes and Queries," Fifth Series, Volume Ninth, January - June, 1878

"The case of the North Devon White Witch came before Earl Devon and other magistrates at quarter sessions at Exeter yesterday. The name of the so-called witch is John Harper. He is eighty three years of age, appears in his younger days to have been a good deal connected with mines in the neighborhood of Combmartin, in the north of Devon, and he now described himself as a mining proprietor. He, however, did a considerable business as a herbalist, or quack doctor, and was commonly known as the 'White Witch' of North Devon. In visiting patients he usually took with him a number of sticks or rods of wood or metal, with small pieces of parchment attached, on which were inscribed the names of different planets, and these rods were supposed to have some mysterious instrumentality in the cures he professed to effect. The proceedings leading to his being brought before the magistrates arose in consequence of a death of the wife of a cattle doctor. A medical man attended her for some time, but on his pronouncing her case as hopeless, her husband went a journey of twenty miles to see the White Witch. He came to the woman, and inquired as to the day, the hour, and the planet under which she was born. From a box he produced some rods with the names of the planets written on the parchment attached, and, placing these one at a time in the woman's hands, directed her to strike a piece of metal which he produced, and as she complited with his directions he spoke some words in a low tone. He also prescribed some bitters, ad gave a powder whihch was to be mixed in boiling water, and which, he added, he always used in every fever but typhus. He stated that though the woman was very weak there was no reason why she should not recover. She, however, died a day or two afterwards. When asked what his charges were, the so-called witch said twenty-five shillings, and that sum was paid him. For the defence it was stated that the rods were struck by the patient on a piece of manganese, and this produced an electric shock. It was further contended that the different planets actually did exercise a powerful influence over the human frame and the electric currents permeating the system. Some persons spoke as to the cures effected by Harper in some cases after medical men had given up all hopes. When he first came to the house he said he was a humble instrument in the hands of God, and he was not sure he could do anything. It was denied that he said there must be three persons of one faith in the room before he could do any good. The magistrates in petty sessions sentenced Harper to one month's imprisonment, but owing to his age they did not impose hard labour. The defendant now appeared against teh conviction, on the ground that the use of certain means and devices to deceive or impose on Her Majesty's subjects had not been proved, and objections were also taken to the form of conviction, the words 'hard labour' having been inserted in the copy now before court, whereas no hard labour was imposed. It was explained that these words were inserted as after the committal of the defendant it was found that he could not be imprisoned without hard labour. The objection was held to be fatal, and the conviction was quashed."

John Lydus: Nominal Christian, "Submerged" Pagan. Part One.

"One could not find more anti-Christian circles than these .... The most cultured men of the age [5th and 6th centuries] ... should now be classified as non-Christian."
[Anthony Kaldellis, The Religion of Ioannes Lydos]

Part One: A little background
John Lydos was born in 490 AD and lived at least into the 550s, and probably into the 560s. His first name is given variously as John, Ioannes, Ἰωάννης, or even Johannes. His last name varies between Lydos (the Greek form, or, even more properly: Λυδός), and Lydus, the latinized form.

By the time he was born, the old religion of Paganism, which Lydos would have referred to as Hellenism, had been subjected to violent suppression for almost two centuries. And yet the old Gods continued to be worshipped by some, and there is very good reason to suspect that one of these die-hard Hellenes was John Lydos. But how does one properly investigate such a suspicion, and what might constitute reasonable cause for giving rise to the suspicion in the first place?

No one has given more thought to the subject of religious identity in general and religious conversion in particular than that professional harvester of human souls, the Christian missionary. A while ago I posted a long excerpt from a contemporary textbook on the science of "missiology" (Confessions of a Christian Missionary), in which the author (Alan Tippett) lays bear the religious realities of coerced conversion.

Tippett makes the painfully obvious observation that when religious conversion is imposed by force, the result is that people do not undergo genuine conversion of the heart. Instead, one finds that people who are forced to convert do so only "nominally", in Tippett's words. While going through the motions of the officially approved religion, victims of forced conversion have a tendency to nevertheless persist in covertly practicing their old religion, which Tippett refers to as their "latent" or "submerged" religion. And Tippett makes a point of adding this: "It will be this latent religion that speaks to their deepest feelings."

Tippett's focus is on the indigenous populations of the Americas, Africa and Asia whose forced conversion to Christianity took place hand-in-hand with their conquest and colonization by European nation-states during the modern era (going back to the late 15th century). As a Christian missionary, Tippett is troubled by the realization that these populations have not undergone genuine conversion because of the coercive manner in which Christianity was imposed upon them. It must be stipulated that Tippet never questions the agenda of his missionary predecessors, rather, his only problem lies with what he sees as the inartfullness of their methods.

Of great interest, and as noted in that earlier post, is the fact that Tippett draws the reader's attention to the obvious parallel between the more recent (historically speaking) examples of forced conversion (in the Americas, Africa and Asia) that he, as a modern missionary is mostly concerned with in practical terms, and the forced Christianization of the peoples of Europe during the Middle Ages. The violent and coercive Christianization of Europe, in turn, was itself nothing new, but was rather a seamless continuation of how Christianization had been accomplished going all the way back to the reigns of Constantius and Constantine in the fourth century (a small detail that Tippett does not address). Therefore, in my opinion, it is justifiable to extend Tippett's concept of "submerged" Paganism (which he himself extends to the 8th century in Northern Europe) all the way back to the sixth and fifth centuries and, in particular, to the case of John Lydos and like-minded contemporaries. [For more on the "liberal use of the sword" as a constant feature of Christianization from the 4th century forward, see Lawrence G. Duggan 1997 paper "Compulsion and Conversion from Yahweh to Charlemagne", which appears as the third chapter in the anthology The Varieties of Religious Conversion in the Middle Ages, edited by James Muldoon and published by the University Press of Florida.]

In subsequent posts, in addition to delving more deeply into Tippett's concept of "submerged" Paganism in the wake of forced conversion, I will be drawing upon three different works by Byzantine scholar Anthony Kaldellis (also see Kaldellis' list of publications here) listed below. These works by Kaldellis have a great deal to say about "The Religion of Ioannes Lydos", which is the title of the third work. What I will be attempting to do is to show how the evidence presented by Kaldellis concerning Lydos (& Co.) fits nicely into Tippett's conceptual framework of "submerged" Paganism: