About a month or so ago I was having a meeting over coffee to discuss some future research project ideas. The conversation turned (as I find conversations tend to) to folklore and the odd ways that little stories and nuggets of information get imparted.
In this instance, an elderly lady taking part in an oral history project on farming practices nervously told her interviewer about some of the “dark things” she remembered her father doing.
Her remembrance was of him making what she called “shrew trees”; he drilled a hole in the trunk of a tree, inserted a live shrew and sealed it up. The woman had no idea why he did this, and was quite anxious of why her father should do such a thing.
Having some vague recollection of something like this (something about shrews being venomous??), but nothing I’d put forward openly, I offered to do a bit of searching to see if I could find anything remotely similar. It didn’t take long; going through some old journals I quickly came across a couple of references to practices which shared remarkable similarities.
Usually called ‘shrew-ashs’, the branches of such trees were thought to be the cure for acute pain and swelling in animals and humans thought to be caused by shrews touching the skin.
From my quick search it looked like the practice was 17th – 18th century in origin, and the most famous incidence was recorded in the 19th century: the “shrew ash of Richmond Park” .
I passed on this brief intelligence, hoping to alleviate the poor woman concerns regarding her father and the thought that he was up to something more sinister.
What I can’t ascertain is why the harmless shrew was persecuted in such a way, and how wide-spread this practice was. Obviously there is evidence in the south-east of England, and my own example is from the south-west, but was it prevalent further north? Scotland? further afield?
I’d love to hear of other examples.