Book of the Week: Halloween, Witches, and Cattle

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It’s almost Halloween, and to celebrate, we wanted to feature a book that properly connoted the Halloween spirit. What did we find? Observations Suggested by the Cattle Plague, About Witchcraft, Credulity, Superstition, Parliamentary Reform, and Other Matters (1866), by H. Strickland Constable. This book is a delightful, tongue-in-cheek discussion of the unconventional cures for ailments and diseases that were popularly accepted during the time period. You might be asking, why is this kind of a book in BHL? The answer: Cattle! The whole discussion around which the book is based relates to a outbreak of Cattle Plague that was sweeping the globe, and Mr. Constable had quite a few things to say about some of the methods employed by citizens attempting to protect their livestock from such a devastating catastrophe.

For our post, we want to concentrate on the first chapter, entitled “Charms-Witchcraft-International Veterinary Congress.” Mr. Constable starts by observing that, over the past year, there had been many “valuable precautionary measures” utilized by various cattle ranchers and farmers to protect their livestock from the deadly outbreak of the plague (called Rinderpest). These included “hanging camphor bags or strings of onions round the necks of all healthy animals, painting their noses with tar, etc.” Apparently, all such measures had met with “great success!” Mr. Constable points out, however, that he was surprised at the apparent lack of awareness that many people demonstrated regarding similar devices that were used in the past, and this is where things really start to get good.

Since people seemed to be largely unaware of the methods taken over previous centuries to protect against ailment and disease, Mr. Constable makes sure to enlighten us. He facetiously demands, if onions and camphor are already being used, that these alternative methods also “ought at least to have been tried.” For instance, there is the use of the word “Abracadabra,” which, according to Serenus Sammonicus, is “of the very utmost value in all cases of…fever.” And then one must consider the use of precious stones. Camillus Leonardus asserted that emeralds prevent epilepsy and “unmask the delusions of the devil,” serpentine cures dropsy (“because if people stand with it in a very hot sun for three hours, they break out into a profuse perspiration”), red coral “strengthens digestion,” red cornelian cures dysentery, green jasper prevents fever, and chrysolite “held in the hand cures fever.” Mr. Constable asserts that, since Rinderpest is a fever, chrysolite and green jasper should be tied around the cattle’s neck.

And, since we’re talking about unconventional methods, why not bring witchcraft into the mix? Constable states that the 1489 book of witchcraft, Hexenhammer, “teaches witches how to make magic ointment for the destruction of cattle,” which can be applied to cow-house door posts to spread the disease. And, while we’re talking about witches, although it has nothing to do with cattle, Constable thought it fitting to bring up the 1669 incident in Sweden in which 62 witches were executed for bewitching children. It seems that, riding on goats, these witches would abduct children and take them to a rock in the sea called Blokula, after which they, the children, and the devil would “feast on cabbage and oatmeal porridge.” However, only the older witches were allowed to feast. The younger witches “were set to take care of the toads and keep them in order with long, white sticks.” And if that wasn’t enough, for his amusement the devil would “make the witches ride on long poles, and then all at once he would pluck away the poles, when down would tumble the witches, to his very great glee.”

Constable ends the chapter by discussing, with extreme gusto, the Grand International Veterinary Congress, as recounted by Mr. Gamgee in “The Cattle Plague.” It appears that the purpose of this Congress was largely to debate the origin of Rinderpest in German cattle, with some additional mention of scab, pigs, malignant disease in Stallions, and the keeping of dogs. Constable writes, “It is exceedingly entertaining. Such as charming farrago of antiquated ideas about contagion, infection, Government interference, official inspections, police regulations, veterinary supervision, restrictions on traffic, quarantine, inoculation, etc. etc., I could not have believed possible to find extant in any civilized country in this the nineteenth century.” The conclusion of the Congress? Rinderpest comes only from Russian cattle, and that “the Russian cattle will impart the disease in any country, at any distance of time after leaving Russia, and without ever having any disease themselves.”

So, what does our good Mr. Constable conclude after all of this speculation and discussion? He purports that the ridiculous ideas that people come up with to account for the occurrence of diseases like Rinderpest, and the fact that some individuals contract it while others don’t, only occur as a result of people being unwilling to admit that they do not know where the diseases come from or how they work. Men instead prefer to concoct “idle theories” that blame witches and Russian cattle.

There are several more great chapters in this book, including topics such as the origin of Cholera, “erroneous popular notions about disease,” utilitarianism, and metaphysics. As you prepare for your Halloween celebrations, maybe you should consider wearing a nice necklace of onion or camphor to protect yourself against all that rampant Rinderpest! Happy Halloween! (And, for your ghoulish Halloween delight, we thought we’d share this lovely image of a spider ensnaring it’s prey. See more spider images in our Flickr account).

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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.