Peter Hewitt is Doctoral Researcher in History at the University of Birmingham.
Thersites: Thou shouldest strike him [Achilles].
Ajax: [beating him] You whoreson cur!
Thersites: Do, do
Ajax: Thou stool for a witch!
Troilus and Cressida Act II, Scene I
Ajax’s insult, uttered in a heated argument with the foul-mouthed Thersites, may offer a clue to unlocking the mystery of a small 16th century stool now on display in Anne Hathaway’s Cottage.
It is made from ash and oak, and into the seat five separate circles have been carved, each with a concentric ring pattern. Of course it is impossible to know when these carvings were applied to the seat but they are similar to markings found on other furniture and buildings from this period. It is possible that these symbols are not merely decorative, but were specifically carved into this object to give it protective or evil-averting qualities. As we have seen in the two previous posts in this series (Object 19, a joint-stool and Object 18 a 'Bartmann' jug) witchcraft was an ominous presence in the daily lives of early modern people, who used various means to protect themselves from malicious attack.
Witches were thought to be in league with the devil and could draw upon his power. In England, however, witches were not punished as religious criminals (or heretics), but were prosecuted because of the harm they did to people and property. Witches were said to have used ‘familiars’, usually in the shape of animals, to enter a victim’s house through the doors, windows or even down the chimney. This belief may explain the presence of ‘witch-marks’ in many Tudor houses throughout England, so-called for their ability to stop the witch from entering the home. Concentric circles like these were therefore widely used to ward off evil, so maybe these markings are an attempt to stop this stool from being transformed into the likeness of a witch, as described in the previous post on joint-stools.
Ajax’s phrase – ‘stool for a witch’ – may suggest another way to interpret these symbols. In Thomas Cooper’s treatise The mystery of witchcraft (1617), the author reveals numerous ways of detecting the ‘bad witch’:
‘… by casting her into the water, sticking of needles, or bodkins, under the stoole where she sits, burning of the thing bewitched, &c.'
The stool here is mentioned as part of process where other items, needles and bodkins (a long thin needle-like object), are used to identify a witch. This is seen by Cooper as an unlawful means of detection – something that communities would do on their own without the intervention of a magistrate.
Matthew Hopkins, the famous witchfinder of the 1640s, also used stools to extract confessions from accused witches. The suspect was bound to a stool in a sitting posture, feet raised from the floor, or made to stand on a stool in a locked room, and deprived of sleep, in the hope they would eventually break down and confess. As a kind of unofficial ‘consultant’, Hopkins used these cruel methods at the behest of local people who believed a witch was in their midst.
So perhaps the symbols indicate that this is a ‘stool for a witch’. These circular designs, used elsewhere as protective symbols, could be seen in this context as marks that helped to identify, and perhaps even exorcise, the perceived evil from the individual.