How did a fear of climate lead to a climate of fear in which demonic witchcraft loomed large? Professor Helen Parish explores the connections between weather, witchcraft, faith, fears, and the human imagination…

In the first blog in this summer series, my colleague Ruth Salter invited us to hang up our umbrellas and celebrate the role played by St Swithin in our summer weather. While Ruth encouraged us to turn our eyes to the heavens, I was musing on the connections between manipulation of the weather, and, well… the other place.

That connection is not as tenuous as it sounds. We know that extremes of weather can leave an indelible mark on collective memory, and it is hardly surprising that these events are reflected in miracle collections, sermons, providential writings and discourses on the supernatural.

The summer of 1666 was so hot and dry that the diarist Samuel Pepys made the prescient observation that ‘even the stones were reading to burst into flames.’  But when the tinderbox ignited, the Great Fire was attributed to the wrath of God, and a day of fasting, prayer and repentance declared for October. That same mindset is evident in the anonymous A True Report of Certain Wonderful Overflowing of Waters(1607) in which such weather events were described explicitly as a call to ‘tremble, be fore-warned, Amend.’

We can see here a reciprocal relationship between weather and human imagination within which it is read and interpreted. And that relationship exposes the extent to which the sky and the land were – and are – a palimpsest on which successive human generations have inscribed their faith and their fears.

In the early modern period, these ideas started to crystallise around the formidable figure of the witch, capable of unleashing storms that caused widespread disruption. The authors of the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) established a clear connection between witchcraft and the weather, including first-hand encounters with witches who used demonic magic to conjure hail.

In response to what was interpreted as a politically-charged act of weather magic in 1589, more than 100 suspected witches were arrested, tortured, and condemned in the area around North Berwick. And when storms swept across Europe in 1562 they left in their wake a sense of panic which was fuelled by preachers and cheap popular print. Sixty-three witches were burned in the German town of Wiesensteig.

References to climate permeated other cultural forms – in A Midsummer Night’s Dream cataclysmic floods left the fold ‘empty in the drownèd field’ while Titania declares ‘the summer still doth tend upon my state.’ Prospero can cause a storm in The Tempest, and the rain and thunder that attends the three witches of Macbeth establish an association between witchcraft and weather.

Torrential rain, storms, and flooding were certainly to be feared, but how do we get to the point at which a fear of climate created a climate of fear in which demonic witchcraft loomed large?

Part of the answer to that question lies in what is often referred to as the ‘Little Ice Age.’ Between c.1300 and c.1850, Europe experienced bitterly cold winters and cool wet summers. Seas and rivers froze, fish migrated to warmer waters, and crops failed, and famines followed.

The English chronicler John Stow recorded near-continuous rain between May and July 1594, and further ‘greate raines’ in September. Rivers swelled, and destroyed vital bridges. Simon Forman’s diary paints an equally dismal picture of a summer “very wet and wonderful cold like winter, that the 10 dae of Julii many did syt by the fyer yt was so cold.” An unusually chilly spring disrupted crop-growing the following year, in a cycle that was repeated across Europe for decades to come.

But such weather itself did not cause witch hunts. A fear of climate might create a climate of fear, but the link between witchcraft and weather events was the product of the linguistic, cultural and religious interpretations that were layered onto personal and collective crises. Witches, providence, and miracles each provided a language of causation that constructed meaning, established accountability, and offered a solution in the face of disaster.

Fifty year ago, in his history of the Mediterranean, Fernand Broedel suggested that humanity was a ‘prisoner of climate.’ I read the opening pages of his book with my second year class as a route into thinking about the ways that climate and landscape shape cultures, societies and beliefs. And yes, we read it in the context of a much sharper awareness of the extent to which we are not just the creation of climate, but also its creators. But the complexities of the human imagination and its imprint on culture, nature and environment demand a better understanding of our history, and enable a more nuanced and ‘human’ response to the challenges of the present.

Helen Parish is Professor in History at the University of Reading, with interests in the history of belief, broadly understood, in the early modern period.

An earlier article on connections between meteorology, magic, and miracles in early modern Europe was published in The Conversation on 14th July 2021.

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Summer Weather and Winchester’s Patron Saint, by Ruth J. Salter

If you are anything like me you will be thinking that after what felt like a prolonged grey, cold winter it feels like we should’ve turned a corner into summer. I suppose it’s mild at least and that’s almost enough to break out into a rendition of Reading Abbey’s own thirteenth-century composition ‘Sumer is icumen in’ … almost (you’d have to be a better singer than me for that though!).

Of course, as is always the case with the British weather, there’s no guarantee that it will stay warm, and it’s looking like this summer might be a bit of a washout, if this rain continues! But, what does any of this have to do with St Swithun, Winchester’s saintly ninth-century bishop?

Swithun (d. 863) was a Winchester churchman through and through, rising to the position of bishop of Winchester in c. 852-4.[2] However, it is his posthumous work, as a saint and miracle worker, that Swithun is best known for. Among various miracles of aiding and healing those who petitioned him for his aid, a curious reputation has become attached to Swithun and his feast day, 15 July – oh, wait, that’s today!

This superstition is perhaps best summed up in the words of the following Elizabethan poem:

St Swithin’s day if thou dost rain,

For forty days it will remain,

St Swithin’s day if thou be fair,

For forty days will rain na mair.[3]

Where does this folkloric tradition come from? Well, the earliest-known textual reference of weather prophecy in relation to Swithun comes from a manuscript now held by Emmanuel College, Cambridge, that dates from the late thirteenth to early fourteenth century.[4] However, the claim is backdated to the translation of Swithun’s tomb in the tenth century. This translation (the moving of a saint’s tomb or reliquary, or the moving of a saint into a new tomb or reliquary) occurred on the anniversary of Swithun’s death, his feast day, 15 July 971.

George Cruishank (d. 1878) ‘St Swithun, Patron Saint of Umbrella Makers’, produced 1895 [5]

According to the later texts, the moving of his body from its initial burial place outside the church into Winchester Old Minster was proceeded by a storm that lasted (as the above poem states) for forty days. From this grew a tradition that if it rained on 15 July it would rain for the next six weeks.

Now, while Swithun is pretty amazing (I’ve always had a soft spot for him), it would be fair to say that this belief sounds like superstition. But, that doesn’t mean that there’s not some truth about the weather patterns between mid-July and the end of August. While I am all for encouraging my students (as well they know!) to understand sources and beliefs within their own time, this is one occasion where a little modern meteorological know-how actually adds to our understanding of this idea…

St Swithun from Robert Dudley’s Monthly Maxims: Rhymes And Reasons To Suit The Seasons, And Pictures New To Suit Them Too (London, 1882).

Why? Well, it has to do with the jet stream and its positioning. As meteorologist Derek Brockway (among others) has highlighted, the jet stream’s position in the middle of July can impact on the weather for the remainder of the summer.[6] If it’s north of the UK, then we can expect warmer, drier weather. However, if it’s over the UK this causes low pressure and wetter weather.

The Met Office on the jet stream [7]

Although it is unlikely to rain continually for forty days, prolonged wet weather during the summer can feel like it drags on. So, if it rains on St Swithun’s day will it rain until late August? Probably not. But, does this old association with the saint’s feast day and the weather have some grounding in meteorology? Yes.

So, let’s hope that this year we get good weather on 15 July and that both Swithun and the jet stream permit us a warm, dry summer!

Forecast for Thursday 15 July 2021 for Reading (UK), via Weather Underground (as of 11am, Monday 12 July 2021) – let’s hope this doesn’t change![8]

Dr Ruth J. Salter is a lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Reading. Keep up with her blog ‘Medieval Miracles, Medicine and Miscellany’ here.


[1] This blog post can also be found on Ruth’s own blog.

[2] B. Yorke, ‘Swithun [St Swithun] (d. 863), bishop of Winchester’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 23 Sept. 2004, (accessed 16 June 2021).

[3] J. Somerladd, ‘St Swithin’s Day 2018: Who was the British saint and why is he associated with the weather?’, Independent, 12 July 2018 (accessed 12 July 2021). NOTE: this article states the poem is twelfth century in origin but I am not aware of this being the case and the use of Middle English would suggest later.

[4] ‘St. Swithin’s Day’, Encyclopedia Britannica, rev. E. Rodriguz 30 April 2020 (accessed 12 July 2021).

[5] G. Cruikshank, ‘St. Swithin, Patron Saint of Umbrella Makers, vignette fragment from Plate 6 of Scraps and Sketches, Part II’, Ackland Art Museum (accessed 17 June 2021).

[6] D. Brockway, ‘St Swithin’s Day’, BBC Wales, 15 July 2009 (accessed 16 June 2021)

[7] Met Office, ‘What is the jet stream and how does it affect the weather?’, YouTube, 29 May 2018 (accessed 17 June 2021).

[8] ‘Hourly Forecast for Thursday 07/15’, Weather Underground, as of 11:00 12 July 2021 (accessed 12 July 2021).

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‘Can You See the Real Me’: Bank Holidays and Quadrophenia, by Professor Matthew Worley

 ‘Quadrophenia’ by The Who, Polydor/MCA.

August Bank Holiday means it’s time for my annual viewing of Quadrophenia (1979), the film built around The Who’s 1973 LP of the same name. Jimmy, a young mod from London, prepares for a beano in Brighton, travelling to the coast for pills, punch-ups and a knee-trembler in a back alley. Set in 1964, the backdrop to both the film and the album is provided by the clashes between mods and rockers that sparked a moral panic in the media at the time. Deckchairs fly and windows smash as style wars play out in spectacular fashion. Heady highs and crushing lows coalesce as Jimmy experiences the best and the worst time of his life. He gets the girl and loses the girl. He’s inspired by the ace-face mod and rises to the challenge, sharing a police van and staring down ‘the beak’ in court. He feels a camaraderie and a liberation, but then has to return to a mundane job and a troublesome home with troublesome parents: trapped. He also discovers the ace-face (played, rather incongruously, by Sting) is by day a Bellboy at a hotel, carrying bags and doing what he’s told. Having travelled back to Brighton, with added eye-liner accentuating the fact he’s out of his brain on the train, the film ends with Jimmy hurtling towards a cliff-edge on the ace-face’s scooter. The arc of flight leads only to the rocks below, the scooter smashed – like Jimmy’s mod identity – to pieces. There’s no sign of Jimmy (at the start of the film we see him walking away from the same spot) and no sign of a way out. We know, from the album sleevenotes, that Jimmy’s on route to the psychiatrist. More than schizophrenic, his psyche is so fractured that he’s ‘quadrophenic’ – only the ‘real me’ for a moment.

Moral panic in the media, Daily Mirror (1964)

I’ve always loved the film, as much for the aura around it as the actual ‘viewing experience’. When I was at school in 1980, Malcolm Grant brought in a copy of the tie-in book written by Alan Fletcher. Its cover was garish: a purple (violet?) scooter decorated with mirrors set beneath a bulging title in silver and red. Being a Corgi paperback, it was pure pulp and well thumbed, the pages of sex and violence flopping open on command. We were 9 or 10 and Malcolm was a mini-mod with an older brother. He even had a parka if memory serves; bunked off school to buy The Jam’s ‘Funeral Pyre’ the day it came out. Magic. None of us had actually watched the film: we’d just seen the pictures, heard the rumours and imagined the ruckus. Pre-teen dreams of what life might be like.   

Quadrophenia, by Alan Fletcher

When I finally did see Quadrophenia, circa 1983 or 1984 (probably Channel 4), I was smitten. I absorbed and adored the dialogue: ‘pillhead’, ‘you killed me scooter’, ‘I AM one of the faces’, ‘it don’t matter where you go, there’s always some c*** with stars and stripes wants to tell you what to do’. I wondered about the youth cultural stylings: the custom-made suits and Steph’s leather raincoat. I liked the deviant thrills and, though I’d not express it like this at the time, the capturing of temporal experience. Equally, and I guess this is why I ended up an academic, I liked the existential quandaries the film (and album) explored: the search for a way out of (or around) the structures that contain and shape you; an escape from the boredom of everyday life; a desire to feel life lived in the moment rather than viewed vicariously (and, yes, I realised the irony of thinking this while watching a film based on an album with a fictional narrative). I also liked the music, especially ‘My Generation’, ‘Green Onions’ and an opening sequence where Jimmy rides his scooter through London streets to the flailing noise of The Who in full flight.  

Forty years on and the film still forms part of my cultural fabric. The obsessions of my youth – integral to the film – now determine what I write, teach and think about. Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972), inspired by the same seaside scuffles that triggered the album and film, remains a set-text and essential reading to understand how the media works and perceptions of youth cultures repeat. The Subcultures Network I’m part of published a book on Quadrophenia as part of its book series for Palgrave Macmillan (Quadrophenia and Mod(ern) Culture | Pamela Thurschwell | Palgrave Macmillan). And the existential angst remains, now ravaged by age rather than the desperation of youth.

So, when the August Bank Holiday comes, I’ll watch Quadrophenia again. I’ll enjoy the bath-tub sing-off between Phil Daniels’ ‘Jimmy’ and Ray Winstone’s ‘Kev’ (The Kinks vs Gene Vincent). I’ll think about what might have happened if Johnny Rotten had, as was touted, played Jimmy. I’ll mull over how the notion of youth (sub)cultures providing only an illusory (‘magical’) solution to life’s inequities still has resonance.  Maybe I’ll play the album. Most of all, however, I’ll remember Malcolm bringing the book into school and sparking my imagination. ‘Me’ in a moment.

Matthew Worley is a Professor of Modern History at the University of Reading, specialising in twentieth-century British culture and politics.

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For better or worse? The impact of the railways upon Berkshire, by Richard Marks

On the 30th March 1840, Reading would change forever. The Great Western Railway (GWR) had arrived. The original station opened as a temporary terminus on Brunel’s main line to Bristol followed quickly by the completion of the line throughout, a new branch line to Basingstoke (opened 1st November 1848), the Berks and Hants line which would eventually reach the West Country via Newbury and Exeter and the completion of the Oxford and Great Western Union railway to Oxford and beyond to the Midlands.

 Figure 1: Reading Stations, 1865 The South Eastern Railway Station is on the left, the Great Western on the embankment to the right (Unknown Author, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In order to take a share of the London traffic from the GWR,  the Reading, Guildford, and Reigate Railway was proposed to join Reading to London Bridge via Reigate, supported by the South Eastern Railway (SER) who operated the line from its opening on the 4th July 1849, absorbing it in 1852. The London and South Western Railway (LSWR), supported and later absorbed the Staines, Wokingham & Wokingham Junction Railway which opened in 1856, with running powers over the Wokingham to Reading section of the SER.

Figure 2: The Railways Around Reading

Histories of the railways and the Industrial Revolution, would have us believe that the network of railways should support a massive upsurge in economic and industrial development in the county, but there is a problem.

The histories of the Industrial Revolution and the Railways are based upon the big cities and the industries therein and appear limited in scope. Whilst the conclusions drawn are certainly correct for the United Kingdom as a whole, they do not appear to reflect the situation at a local level or within individual industrial sectors in those places.

A study of the industrial sectors operating in Reading at the time suggests something very different was happening.

One could assume that, with increasing population during the nineteenth century and the arrival of the railways, the need for manufacturers of footwear would increase.

Figure 3: Boot and Shoe Makers in Reading

It would seem, from the local business directories, that something at odds with the histories had occurred. The Great Western Railway opened to Oxford in 1844 in turn to Birmingham and the Industrial Midlands, including Northampton and Leicester, which were specialising in the mass manufacture of footwear. The cheaper goods from these places would appear to have impacted negatively upon the small manufacturers in Reading, for whom, it seems, the arrival of the railways was nothing short of a disaster.

Contrastingly, footwear retail seems to have experienced a huge growth later in the century, the number rising to 33 in Reading by 1884. The increase would suggest that these companies were taking advantage of the railways to access cheaper mass-produced products, and also of the availability of the railway telegraph to increase the speed of commercial communication to a level not far short of that provided by modern email.

Direct evidence of how successful retailers took advantage of the railways but to the cost of local businesses can be found by examining surviving account books. The account books for the Heelas and Sons stores in Wokingham and Reading fortunately survive for most years of the nineteenth century. The early years show a business trading locally, with suppliers based close to the stores. The account book for 1890-1911 shows a very different picture. The clerk who kept the books, has made a note of the telegraph addresses of their main suppliers, which suggests that this method of communication was now important. The supplier accounts contain the addresses of the companies concerned, which gives a useful picture of from where goods were being sourced for sale in the two stores. The majority of suppliers are located in London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Plymouth, Sheffield, Bradford and Dewsbury (Leeds). This suggests a shift to longer distance trade within the UK, facilitated by the availability of fast, cheap logistics through the railway companies.

It would appear that the picture is very different at a local level from that expressed in the histories of the railways and the industrial revolution. The conclusions drawn therein cannot be applied locally and seem to be generalisations. It appears that the impact of the railways is very different across industry and place and that general conclusions may not be made.

Richard Marks is a PhD Student researching the impact of the railways upon industry and economic development in Berkshire between 1830 and 1900.

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“Deference or drudgery? The census, community, and Berkshire servant life”, by Peter Jolly for Local and Community History Month

County outline, hand-drawn: Peter Jolly

Undertaking a demographic study of Berkshire domestic service has opened my eyes to how distinctive and varied were communities within the historic county at the turn of the twentieth century.

Given the impossibility of analysing all 15,000 county female servants, I examined specific communities from Sunningdale in the east to Lambourn in the west: from Wallingford on the Thames to Finchampstead on the Hampshire border. I found two-and-a-half times as many of Wallingford’s servants lived in as single domestics than the proportion in Finchampstead. Twenty-eight per cent of single persons in Lambourn who maintained servants were female, compared with 82% in Wokingham Borough.  Staff complements in Sunningdale houses with servants on average were double those in Lambourn, whose percentage of teenage servants was more than twice that of Sunningdale.

Decennial censuses, protected by the hundred-year rule preserving the privacy of the form we have all just completed electronically for 2021, provide neither full chronological timelines nor evidence of personal experience, but permit us to delve behind statistics to glean intriguing insights into contemporary society.

Take Eastbury, a village of some 300 souls within Lambourn civil parish, a couple of miles downstream from Lambourn itself in the eponymous valley, its properties clustered on both sides side of the chalk stream.  Although it had its own grocer, post-officer, various craftsmen, three inns, a village school, parish church and chapel, Lambourn itself, to which it was linked by valley road and since 1898 by the Lambourn Valley railway, was close enough to offer wider service and employment facilities. Eastbury reveals a striking example of the importance of local knowledge, as Frederick Quartermain, who notoriously lived for part of the year in an old tree trunk in the village is nonetheless included in the  census count. Fifty-three village menfolk directly worked in agriculture: a racing stables offered further male employment.

Eastbury, hand-drawn: Peter Jolly

There were nine female domestics in the village, of whom two were still living with their birth families, neither stereotypical young servant girls  as yet to leave home. Respectively 33 and 54, living with widowed mothers, perhaps the need to offer care and support at home inhibited taking residential posts.  At 31, the mean age of Eastbury’s servants was far above Lambourn as a whole.  Amongst servants only 38-year-old Louisa Clark had been married. But her servant designation by census officials is questionable. ‘Housekeeper’ for an agricultural labourer widower and his two children, she brought her own two offspring with her and they shared three rooms.  We might suppose he needed child-care, and she a roof over her head to escape the workhouse.  Of the eight unmarried domestics, none came from urban families: seven were daughters of agricultural workers, the other the youngest child of a master carpenter. Three domestics grew up in the village or East Garston a mile distant, and none was born over forty miles away.

Ellen Belcher, employed as housemaid by a local J.P and farmer typified the unmarried female domestic. The daughter of an agricultural labourer, (subsequently a shepherd), she was born in Wallingford, and at the age of fourteen was out in service to a widow in the town. By 1901 she was a single servant to a photographer, his wife and child in Henley-on-Thames, before  her appearance in Eastbury in 1911 as a single servant. As the 1921 census remains under wraps at the time of writing this blog, we next find Ellen in 1939, in her early sixties and still a domestic servant, living in the home of her much younger brother in Cholsey, only a mile or so from her birthplace.  

As well as Ellen’s employer, two more farmers engaged residential servants. Two of the other households maintaining servants were headed by ladies without declared occupations (though one was a farmer); the third was by the vicar. All these homes contained just the one residential domestic. The pattern of village female employment was completed by two cooks, two women running or helping run public houses, another a lodging-house-keeper, all between their mid-thirties and mid-fifties, bookended by a married school cleaner in her early thirties and the village bootmaker, a widow in her mid-sixties.  Although eight single women under the age of 25 were without employment, two were daughters of ladies themselves keeping servants, leisured classes who socially would not be expected to work, and two more daughters of publicans who may have given indirect assistance to family businesses.

Fascinating facts lie within every census enumerator’s book and household schedule complementing trade directories and newspapers as rich evidential sources for the local historian.  

Following a career in the law, Peter Jolly is now a PhD Research Student using decennial censuses to investigate aspects of domestic service in Berkshire.

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