Thursday 8 May 2014

'Toad, Long Crippler and Snake' by Karen Maitland

Leechwells at Totnes, Devon
If this summer you find yourself in Devon, it is well-worth visiting the town of Totnes and following the sign up an ancient medieval lane to the 'leechwells' on the corner. There, three springs flow out of a wall into three rectangular troughs. For the centuries the healing springs were visited by the sick, or by those wanting make offerings for protection or luck. In 1444, visitors were so numerous that two town wardens were made responsible for the care of the wells.

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
In the nineteenth century, it was believed that patients from the town’s leper hospital, founded in the twelfth century, bathed at the leechwells for healing. But this seems most unlikely since lepers were forbidden even to touch well-ropes that healthy people might use, or pass along narrow lanes for fear they might brush against someone, much less bathe in a spring also used by non-lepers.

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.
The toad, because of its bumpy skin, was considered a cure for tumors, warts, abscesses, sores and skin diseases. Rather horribly the cure entailed wearing a live toad in a bag round the neck until it died or by cutting off a hind leg from a living toad and wearing that. So widespread was this belief that a Toad Fair was held annually in Dorset at the beginning of May during which amulets and cures made from toads were sold to protect against various illnesses were sold, including scrofula otherwise known the ‘king’s evil’. Using the spring water at Totnes instead must have helped to spare the lives of many hapless toads.

A slowworm otherwise known as a blindworm.
The ‘long crippler’ or slowworm, also known as the blindworm would be the obvious choice of name for a spring thought to heal eye problems. The slowworm was erroneously believed to be venomous even in Shakespeare’s time and was thought to lame horses. But, like the viper, its flesh was not only thought to be the cure for its bite, but also was the remedy prescribed as late as the seventeenth century for ‘clearing the sight’, ‘helping the vices of the nerves’ and ‘exceedingly good for resisting poison’.

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.
‘Within sound of the great bell,
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.


michelle lovric said...

Goodness, Karen! The idea of wearing toad in a bag around the neck is ... original, but perhaps feeds into the quack psychological trope that the nastier the cure the more efficacious it is?

Totnes is however a joy at any time. What a lovey place.

Becca McCallum said...

Looks like a fascinating place - great post.