|Leechwells at Totnes, Devon|
Recently a triangular immersion pool was discovered behind one of the walls. This, together with the three springs and three branches of the path leading to the wells, made a number which was important both to the medieval Christian – three times the trinity – but also to those who still followed the elder faiths, for nine was the number of completeness or wholeness. So what must have been an ancient pre-Christian site, easily became adopted as site of Christian pilgrimage.
|Offerings are still left at the leechwells today|
For me one of the most fascinating aspects of this magical place are the ancient names given to the three springs which are in the photo above, from left to right, ‘Toad’, ‘Long Crippler’ and ‘Snake’. They sound like the ingredients of a witch’s cauldron in Macbeth. By tradition the spring known as ‘toad’ was supposed to cure skin diseases, ‘long crippler’ which is an ancient name for a slowworm, cured eye problems and ‘snake’ healed snake bites and melancholia. But why would the names of three creatures believed in the Middle Ages to be poisonous come to be associated with healing wells?
|Witch feeding her her familiars or bids in the form of toads.|
|A slowworm otherwise known as a blindworm.|
Snake – that is more obscure. Although the Rod of Asclepius, the serpent-entwined staff, has been adopted as a medical symbol, this cannot have been the association here. We only have one poisonous snake in Britain and today few people are bitten, so I can’t imagine many people in Totnes today would have cause to rush to the spring for treatment. Yet, in the middle ages and earlier there are a large number of legends of plagues of snakes infesting towns generally driven out by saints such as St Hilda, St Keyna and St Birinus. Birinus when dying from a adder bite, declared that anyone who stayed within the sound of the church bells at Dorchester would henceforth be protected from snake bites. The Tenor or heaviest bell at Dorchester cathedral, cast in 1380, is inscribed with the prayer ‘Protege birine quos convoco tu sine fine. Raf Rastwold’ – ‘Birinus, protect for ever those whom I summon. Ralph Rastwold. And the superstition says that vipers will slither away at the sound of the bell.
|Witches adding a snake and other creatures.|
No snake or adder ere can dwell.’
Were there plagues of snakes in the middle ages? Certainly more people worked on the land then, therefore there may have been more bites. But a more probable explanation was that the adder or viper was associated with evil and the devil, so was thought to be a creature of ill-omen bringing bring bad luck. In Christian times, a snake spring might have been used not so much to cure actual bites, but to break of run of bad luck or misfortune and to ward off evil.
So if you are visiting Totnes – you might want to take a bottle with you to fill at the snake spring just in case.