Issue 5: cheese and witchcraft

These are two of my favourite things; here’s a couple of stories about them.

Last month a Twitter post by anthropologist Dr Holly Walters generated thousands of likes and retweets.

The image comes from ‘The Complete Book of Magic and Witchcraft’, by Kathryn Paulsen.

Dr Tabitha Stanmore, from the University of Bristol, elaborated on the history of cheese and witchcraft in an article for The Conversation.

In it she listed potential reasons for the links between milk and magic, including:

  • its nourishing, life-sustaining properties

  • its miracle-like ability to transform from liquid to solid

  • its tendency to produce strange dreams, and

  • the accusation that sour milk was the result of a witch’s curse

All fascinating stuff to me, given my great love of cheese and my great interest in witchcraft.

So this month I thought I’d share an intriguing story on each subject.

I Eat Cheese, Therefore I Write

Of course it’s slightly more complicated than my play on Rene Descartes’ famous philosophical proposition. But in simple terms, the discovery of cheese and the evolution of human tolerance to lactose is linked to the development of written language.

It all started around 10,000 years ago. Hot dry summer and cool wet winter weather patterns had stabilised following the last major ice age, and the people of the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East began to cultivate and domesticate food crops, and later, the goats and sheep attracted by those crops.

But at this time, human adults were universally lactose intolerant, so while they may have milked their cattle, it would have been exclusively for infant consumption.

A turning point came shortly after 7000BC with the Neolithic era of ceramics and pottery. The people now had a vessel in which to collect animal milk. That stored milk, sat in warm temperatures, would have fermented and the curds coagulated into a ricotta-like cheese within just a few hours. At some point a brave individual must have tasted this cheese and realised they could tolerate more of it than they could milk (as around 80% of the lactose is lost in the fermentation and whey separation process).

Dairying was now proved viable, not just for the very young, but for the whole population. This more frequent exposure to dairy products ultimately led to the natural genetic selection of those who could tolerate lactose later into childhood, then into adulthood. Archeo-genetics show that in perhaps as short as a few thousand years, the mutation for lactose tolerance had spread throughout the region.

Around 4000BC the Sumerian city of Uruk – one of the first cities ever established – grew up east of the current bed of the Euphrates; its people worshipped Inanna, the goddess of love, fertility, and the cycle of the seasons.

Legend has it that Inanna chose her partner, the shepherd Dumuzi, on the basis that he could provide her with all the cheese, cream, yoghurt, and milk she could ever want. As such, the citizens of Uruk (as well as government-controlled shepherds of sacred flocks) would bring cheese and other agricultural products to its temples to gain favour with the goddess. After the offerings had been through a series of rights and rituals in honour of Inanna, the government, in a deal with the temple priests, redistributed this stockpile of produce to civil servants.

But managing all those goods in and out quickly became a logistical nightmare. And so the people of Uruk developed an accounting system using pictographic symbols inscribed on clay tablets. (The symbol for cheese looks a bit like a bowtie.) These tablets, the earliest examples of which date to 3300BC, have been described as a proto-cuneiform text, and the first step in the evolution of written language.

And thus, the discovery of cheese and the evolution of human tolerance to lactose is linked to the development of written language.

Girl Power and Persecution

When author Syd Moore was researching her 2011 debut novel, ‘The Drowning Pool’ – a ghost story that mixes historical fact and folklore with contemporary fiction – she discovered that her home county, Essex, used to be known as ‘Witch County’.

“I came across a statistic, which is, that between 1560 and 1680 in Hertford, Surrey, and Sussex there were 185 indictments of witchcraft. But for the same period of time, Essex on its own had 503, that we know of, which is huge. I was really shocked by that.

“On one day in 1645 in Chelmsford there were 19 women put to death. Compare that to Pendle, where there was 10; or Salem, where there was 19, but over 11 months. This was just one day in Essex!

“Being a feminist and woman of Essex, I couldn't believe that I hadn't heard about this before. That's when I started digging in much more detail.”

That digging uncovered a commonality among the majority of Essex’s accused witches.

“They were mostly poor, so therefore at the low end of the social scale. They were also called ‘loose’, which at the time meant they were not under the protection or shelter or control of a man, because — certainly in the era of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins — a lot of the men were away fighting in the civil war. And because they didn’t have a man to speak for them in court, they were considered legally ‘dumb’.”

Moore — who had already developed an “obsession” with the Essex Girl stereotype — says something suddenly “clicked”.

“What if these centuries-old feelings of dismay and revulsion for the women of Essex never actually went away? It’s my theory that, despite memories of the witch hunts fading, the reputation of the county’s women never really recovered.”

The modern-day Essex Girl — and the stereotype of her as all glamour, dim wit, and loose morals — bears a striking resemblance to the Essex women who were drowned, tortured, and hanged 400-odd years ago, Moore realised.

 “The jury is still out” on what exactly it was about Essex in the 15th and 16th centuries that made it such a hotbed for witch hunting, and earned it the nickname of ‘Witch County’. Theories around the dissolution of monasteries, land enclosures, and remoteness abound.

None of these quite satisfy Moore, who — while admitting that “a lot more research has to be done” — does offer a consequence of the intense activity, if not a definitive cause: “the scapegoating of women”.

Almost without exception, Moore says, victims were the old and the poor, or the unwed mothers, who received support from the local parish via taxes levied against the rest of the community, and therefore were a financial burden. They were the healers who recommended herbs which successfully, ‘magically’, alleviated various ailments, and therefore were just as capable of magically making crops fail or milk sour.

“What you find is that there is a grain of truth to the underlying story, but the witch aspect has been elaborated.

“Witch hunts were about superstition and scapegoating and bullying, and it’s really important to remember that the victims of the witch hunts were just that: victims,” Moore says.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to hit reply to share your thoughts or feedback.

Til next time,

Amy @ Born Free Press

PS: If you enjoyed this newsletter, please forward it to your friends/family/workmates. If you're seeing this newsletter for the first time, subscribe to get it delivered direct to your inbox.