Kathy Lynn Emerson here, writing on March 15, 2022. Superstition claims March 15 is an unlucky day because the “ides” was the date Julius Caesar was assassinated. The quote comes from Shakespeare, and that isn’t surprising. From my research for writing numerous novels and short stories set in the sixteenth-century, it’s clear that Tudor England was an extremely superstitious place.
Almanacs were popular reading in Tudor England and contained lists of lucky and unlucky days. There was only one problem. Other than agreeing that Fridays were especially unlucky, no two almanac writers agreed on which dates to avoid if you were planning to get married or start a new business venture. There was, however, a general consensus that the age of sixty-three was particularly “fatal and climacterical.”
“Portents” were also greatly feared. These were natural phenomena interpreted as being signs of greater disasters to come. A comet, also called a “star with a long tail” and a “blazing star,” was seen as a harbinger of disaster, particularly the one in 1533, which was said to foretell the divorce of King Henry the Eighth. The comets that appeared over England in 1500, 1506, 1514, 1518, 1527, 1531, 1556, 1577, 1579, and 1596 weren’t linked to such a specific event, although the one in 1596 was blamed for the floods that occurred the same year.
Earthquakes were popular fodder for superstitious interpretation. Notable ones occurred in 1571,1574, 1575, and 1580. Two days after the latter, a book about it was already being sold to report on the damage and speculate about the implications. One of the casualties was London’s George Inn, which was being converted into a playhouse. Puritans interpreted this as proof God disapproved of plays and players. It didn’t take much for them to turn current events into propaganda. In 1583, when scaffolding collapsed at a bear baiting, killing eight spectators, they claimed to see the hand of God in the accident.
There is an alleged ghost in the first book in my Face Down series (Face Down in the Marrow-Bone Pie). My amateur detective is a sixteenth-century gentlewoman, Susanna Appleton, an expert on poisonous herbs. Because of her expertise, superstitions about witchcraft and sorcery frequently crop up in the novels and short stories. Socially ostracized older women were particularly vulnerable to accusations that they’d bewitched their neighbors (or their neighbors’ cows). I’ve written about various aspects of the persecution of accused witches in the sixteenth century in three different novels, the romantic suspense Unquiet Hearts, the series mystery Face Down Under the Wych Elm, and the standalone mystery The Finder of Lost Things.
Although I treat the beliefs of the time seriously, since they play into characters’ motivations, I had a little fun with the idea of witches and curses when I created one of the continuing secondary characters in the series. Jennet, first Lady Appleton’s tiring maid and later her housekeeper (and her close confidante), in contrast to her rational-minded employer, is prey to just about every superstition prevalent in the Elizabethan era. This is most apparent in Face Down Beneath the Eleanor Cross, in which an old woman who is reputed to be a witch has cursed her. When Jennet is told by one of the other servants that she can divert the hex into an animal, she buys a cow that appears to be on its last legs, reasoning that when the cow dies, she will be free of the curse. Naturally, the cow thrives. This incident turned into a running gag and provided much needed comic relief in a novel in which my sleuth has been accused of murdering her husband and faces execution if she can’t find the real killer.
I’ve just finished compiling and publishing my three-volume e-book collection of all the novels and short stories in the Face Down series. Almanacs are key to the plot of “Encore for a Neck Verse.” Comets appear in “Much Ado About Murder.” An earthquake reveals a hidden body in “A Wondrous Violent Motion.” There is also my one “woo-woo” story, written to suggest another supernatural possibility in “Lady Appleton and the Creature of the Night.” My short stories have appeared in various magazines, anthologies, and collections, but they are all contained in the new collections. For more information and buy links, click here
What about you, dear readers? Could ghosts (or were-creatures) be real? Do you avoid walking under ladders or stepping on cracks in the pavement? And how do you feel about black cats?
Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett has had sixty-four books traditionally published and has self published others, including several children’s books. She won the Agatha Award and was an Anthony and Macavity finalist for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category. She was the Malice Domestic Guest of Honor in 2014. Her most recent publications are The Valentine Veilleux Mysteries (a collection of three short stories and a novella, written as Kaitlyn) and I Kill People for a Living: A Collection of Essays by a Writer of Cozy Mysteries (written as Kathy). She maintains websites at www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com. A third, at A Who’s Who of Tudor Women, is the gateway to over 2300 mini-biographies of sixteenth-century Englishwomen.