Hidden in the home: the concealed revealed roadshow
By Dr Ceri Houlbrook, University of Hertfordshire
In this post, learn about supernatural beings and shapeshifters responsible for boots up chimneys and cats in bricked walls. These stories are the basis of the Being Human event ‘Hidden in the home: the concealed revealed roadshow‘ organised by the University of Hertfordshire.
A cat bricked up in a wall. An old shoe perched up a chimney breast. A book concealed in the thatching. A miniature figurine balanced on a beam. A braid of human hair hanging in the roof. These are just some examples of the many objects – weird, wonderful, and in some cases downright disturbing – that people have found hidden within their homes during renovations.
The Concealed Revealed Project is currently cataloguing and mapping these odd concealed items, and the numbers are reaching the thousands. The workshop ‘Hidden in the home: the concealed revealed roadshow’, which is being held as part of the Being Human festival in Digby Hall, Sherborne, on Friday 17th November, will be exploring these mysterious finds.
Most of these objects appear to have been deliberately hidden away in the fabric of houses, probably with no intention of retrieval, but why? Literary sources give us few answers, leaving us guessing as to why such an odd assortment of objects were hidden. Who hid them and what were they hoping to achieve? Fortunately, folklorists, historians, and archaeologists are nothing if not thrifty. We are used to making a little evidence go a long way, so theories abound.
The most popular theory, proposed by archaeologist Ralph Merrifield, holds that these hidden objects were protective devices. The post-medieval household was, after all, vulnerable to attack from a veritable menagerie of malevolent, supernatural beings. Spirits and revenants still haunted the popular imagination. Witches and their shape-shifting familiars were still feared to threaten the community. The fairy – still a far cry from the wing-fluttering and wand-flourishing figure of today – was widely believed to abduct human children whenever opportunity arose. And of course the Devil was an ever-present force, sending his demons to taunt, tempt, and torment.
So the outside world was rife with dangers – dangers the home needed protecting from. But these forces were not deterred by locks and latches. They could gain access to the home via the tiniest gaps around windows, slender slivers beneath doors, fissures in the walls, and of course the dangerously assailable chimney. The very places that these strange hidden objects are found. So were they placed in these vulnerable locations in order to protect them? Were they a form of supernatural safeguarding? Without the historic hiders themselves to question, we can but guess, and so the custom remains shrouded in mystery.
Evidence of this cryptic custom appears across the globe, particularly in Europe, North America, and Australia. However, most of the records are from Britain, and a number of museums – both national and local – have brilliant collections of concealed objects. One of these collections is housed at Sherborne Museum, Dorset. This museum holds a baffling array of objects – from a 19th-century boot to a 17th-century Riders British Merlin almanac – that have been found within the thatched roofs, chimneys, and walls of the houses in Sherborne. The workshop ‘Hidden in the home: the concealed revealed roadshow‘ will be exploring some of these objects in an attempt to unravel the mystery around them.