Cattle and curses

“For a few years, we lived in the cottage across the road from the farm. There was an old lady called Mrs Hartland who lived next door to us.”

“Your great grandfather was very worried. The bullocks all seemed sick with something. No-one knew what was wrong with them or what to do. They looked ill.”

“One day your Grandad was going out to work on the farm and Mrs Hartland said to him, ‘Tell your father not to worry, those bullocks will be alright.”

“She was right. They all began to recover and were healthy again. I don’t know if she could see into the future, or what.”

Being a rationalist, I said, “maybe she had seen cattle with a similar illness before.”

It was an odd story, one I had never heard before. My mother will be eighty-four in a couple of months’ time, so it was from seventy or seventy-five years ago.

Mrs Hartland sounded like the sort of woman towards whom fingers would have been pointed in former times, a woman who was seen as having powers that were not natural.

Even if her having encountered such a disease before is the logical explanation, Mrs Hartland did not present her opinion in such terms, instead she behaves as if she had been a seer of some sort, as if she possessed some inexplicable power. Perhaps she felt that she was being a good neighbour in offering words of reassurance.

In pre-scientific communities, curses, or, more accurately, the fears of what might happen if someone cursed you,  were taken seriously. A mysterious illness coming upon your cattle might easily be seen as due to the malevolence of someone who had used magic against you.

Of course, there are tales of people being cursed and then suffering misfortune, but such misfortune owed little to the magical power of the curse and much to the subject of the curse believing something bad might befall them. Nervous, worried, anxious, constantly tense, losing sleep, because of the belief that someone might have unseen powers, of course the cursed person suffered misfortune, they worried themselves into ill health and accidents.

The other reaction to the notion of a curse was to accuse a person of witchcraft, an accusation that could be fatal in pre-modern societies.

Stories of Mrs Hartland deserve pursuit. Were there other powers she was deemed to possess? Was she someone who had cures for humans? Or was she just someone with long experience of cattle?


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