SIDEBAR

A Cat named Pusse. A dog called Tibb. A mouse by the name of Daynty. These were not merely the house-companions of eccentric old women. According to suspicious-minded Englishmen of the 17th century, they were the devil’s agents. Curious about the origins of the “Halloween cat,” Dr. James Serpell, director of Penn’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society, began researching the history of the “witch’s familiar;” he compiled a database on the use of animals as evidence in more than 300 English witchcraft trials from 1530 to 1712. He writes about his findings in a paper entitled “Guardian Spirits
or Demonic Pets: The Concept of the Witch’s Familiar in Early Modern England.”

    “These animals were known as imps, which literally means an offshoot,” Serpell explains. “They were grafted onto the witch by the devil. They could detach themselves and do bad things on the witch’s behalf. You know, go next door and smother the neighbors’ child, stop the farmer’s cow from producing milk.”
    Most frequently cited were mice, cats, dogs and toads. But ferrets, snails and even beetles were implicated. That was due to the practice of assigning watchers to peer at the accused through a spy hole day and night. “Sure enough, a beetle would crawl across the floor toward them, and they would go, ‘Aha, a familiar!’” The familiar supposedly fed off this witch, “who had a supernumerary nipple somewhere on her body.” As Serpell writes, “This image of the post-menopausal crone giving suck to her demonic animal companion—this grotesque mixing of animal and human categories, reproductive roles, and body fluids—was virtually tailor-made to provoke horror, revulsion and sanctimonious outrage in the puritanical minds of early modern Englishmen.” Interestingly, farm animals were seldom named as familiars—probably, Serpell surmises, because most everyone in then-pastoral England would have been incriminated.
    Even the aristocracy couldn’t escape suspicion. A case in point is Charles I’s nephew, Prince Rupert, whose poodle accompanied him everywhere, even to battle. Puritans who were trying to overthrow the Catholic monarchy circulated the rumor that the poodle, Boye, was a “familiar” which kept Rupert from harm. When Boye was killed at Marston Moor, it only confirmed their suspicions. “Henceforth, the tide of the war turned against the Royalists and we all know the end. The Puritans won and got rid of the monarchy for a while.”

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