Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Question from Annabel - Possible Tudor building ritual

Whilst replacing the original front door of our 16c house, the builder found small bones (possibly cat) embedded in the door surround. Could this be some sort of ritual during the building of houses in tudor times?


PhD Historian said...

How absolutely fascinating! First, that you own a 500 year old house! Second, that you found bones embedded in the door surround.

I am curious: Were the bones actually "embedded" in the sense that they appeared to have been deliberately placed there? Or is it instead possible that they came to be there when some small animal (e.g., a large rat, cat, small dog) got stuck?

I am not myself aware of any building rituals that would involve animal bones placed in doorways. If such practices existed, they would have been quite localized and the product of quasi-paganist or animistic superstition. The practitioners would have been keen to keep such rituals out of the eye of church authorities, lest they lead to charges of heresy and witchcraft. And since the majority of the population was illiterate, it is improbable that records of such practices, in the form of DIY instruction manuals and such, would have been produced and survived.

If the bones actually appear to have been deliberately placed in the door surround, it is remotely possible that you are living in a house once owned by a practitioner of witchcraft! How exciting that would be!

Lucretia said...

Annabel, I agree with PhD Historian that your story is completely fascinating on both counts!

Although I don't remember the source, I have read that during the Middle Ages in Europe, live cats were deliberately sealed into the drying plaster walls of houses under construction. Since cats were identified with the devil, a dead cat was supposed to be a warning to evil spirits to stay out of a house.

So it sounds to me as if you may be right about the builder finding evidence of a Tudor building ritual.

It's interesting that the bones were in the door surround, next to a point of entry into the house. Thresholds such as doorways, chimneys and crossroads were considered spiritually dangerous because they were "cracks" between worlds, through which evil could enter.

The same sort of quasi-pagan world view also existed in Puritan New England, where worn-out shoes, supposed to keep away evil, were found in the walls of seventeenth-century houses. Those findings surprised at least one archeologist, who had thought the Puritans were more consistent in their beliefs. According to a newspaper article on the topic a number of years ago, one or more of the houses was in Plymouth, MA.

Lucretia said...

I should have added in my previous post that animal bones might have been substituted, at least by Tudor times, for animals left to die in the walls of new buildings.

PhD Historian said...

Lucretia, your response makes perfect sense, and I found it fascinating. You are absolutely correct that points of entry into buildings were considered spiritually dangerous. I had forgotten about that. Academics call them "liminal spaces." But I was totally unaware that New England Puritans believed in such superstitions. Thanks for expanding my knowledge!

entspinster said...

I suggest that you get those bones to a vet or a veterinary school for species ID. Rats and such lived in walls, and might leave their bones by accidents. If a living cat were trapped by accident, you can bet it would be noticed, and either rescued or silenced by execution.

Lucretia said...

Thanks, PhD Historian, I'm glad to have had good information to share regarding Annabel's question. Here's more on poor dead cats, cat bones, shoes and other items, from a Google search on SHOES FOUND INSIDE WALLS OF HOUSES:




[Also check apotropaios' other internal links, including one on horses' skulls.]


An accidental cat-in-the-wall incident with a much happier outcome -