There are many stories of witches plaguing those who have wronged them with lice and fleas and other infestations of the body. It seems to have been a popular form of curse. Mind you, back in the unwashed past, most people would be more or less lousy so the reality is probably the usual case of something normal but unfortunate occurring and then being blamed on witchcraft.
However, there is one account, mentioned in Christina Hole’s Witchcraft in England (1945), that makes one pause for thought. It features a veritable army of spiders. Arachnophobes look away now!
‘A Mr Duncombe of Bury St Edmunds believed himself to be bewitched on September 6, 1660,’ writes Hole, ‘when a host of reddish brown spiders, “so many as would have filled a Peck” [ie barrel], were seen going up Broad Street towards his house in an orderly company, without stragglers.
‘All attempts to stop them were fruitless, and they continued on their way until they reached his door. Some crept through the cracks into the house, and the rest swarmed up the two posts and spun a huge web across the door, from which they hung down in living bundles almost to the ground.
‘Evidently they were real insects, for the servants destroyed them by lighting fires under them, but in view of their extraordinary purposeful march, and the known power of witches to bring such plagues, it is not suprising that the unfortunate Mr Duncomb unhesitatingly ascribed the visitation to sorcery.’
This creepy – in more ways than one – story reminds me of M R James’s classic yarn, The Ash Tree, in which malevolent, venomous spiders, engendered by the vengeful spirit of an executed sorceress, kill anyone who sleeps in a room of the manor house which is overlooked by the tree. I always found this tale more than unsually far-fetched for James – now I’m not so sure!