Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Vote for Matt Salusbury for the editor of the Journalist!

Dear NUJ colleagues,

This is Matt Salusbury. I’m contacting you to ask you to consider voting for me in the election for the editor of the Journalist, the NUJ’s magazine. (Details of the timetable of the election are below.)

Matt Salusbury. Photo: © Pierre Alozie

You may already know something about me – possibly from reading my work in the Freelance newsletter.

The Freelance is distributed to over 3500 NUJ members in print (as an insert mailed out together with the Journalist) and read by many
more online. I have been co-editor of the Freelance for over a decade.

The subjects I have covered for the Freelance have varied enormously – from the NUJ gaining recognition by employers in workplaces where it hasn’t previously had recognition, to advice on negotiating higher rates, how Brexit will affect our many EU national members in the UK (as well as our members who are UK nationals in the EU) to court cases on whether colleagues are self-employed in law or have the legal rights of an employee. My coverage has often included developments affecting our members in the Republic of Ireland and in Continental Europe as well as the UK. The Freelance editors have always striven to explain to their audience the trade union terminology – what union recognition is, what an NUJ Chapel is, what “work to rule” is and why members are on strike.

Transferable skills
As a result of my background in the Freelance I have gained a deep understanding of – and a passionate engagement with – important issues and developments across our industry. I feel that the skills and insights I have gained, as well as the contacts both inside and outside the NUJ and the wider trade union movement, would be transferable to an editorial role at the Journalist.

I have worked in various sectors of our industry – as a staffer in a commissioning editor role on a business-to-business magazine, as a freelance writer and sub-editor, as a researcher for a media forward planning agency, as a lecturer to international students preparing to start Masters courses in media. I feel this range of experience gives me the ability to fulfill the Journalist’s stated mission of ensuring “adequate coverage is given to all sectors of the Union.”

Another area where my experience in the Freelance would transfer well to the Journalist is my understanding of the need to consult various stakeholders within the NUJ on stories before they are published, while at the same time maintaining strong editorial independence.

What changes would I make to the Journalist? Our industry is changing rapidly, many of us are struggling to make a living from journalism. So I’d like to see fewer opinion-based columns, less arts coverage and more on issues that affect us as journalists and how we can respond to these developments.

NUJ campaigns
The Journalist could work with the NUJ campaigns team to make the Union’s campaigns more visible to members, and periodically revisit ongoing campaigns to help keep them alive. One possible way to do this would be via a small “Campaigns” box in print in the Journalist with links to current NUJ campaigns.

Online strategy
Currently the Journalist is only available online as a pdf, it’s not easy to find online. You can’t cut and paste links to individual articles. I would look into the feasibility – with an eye to budget constraints and copyright – of having the individual articles of the Journalists available as web pages each with a URL. (Possibly behind a members-only area, I’d consult stakeholders about this.) This is turn would create possibilities for generating more advertising revenue.
The Journalist also needs its own Facebook presence and its own suitable unique Twitter handle.

Engagement with members
As editor I would plan to contact some of the more active Branches and ask if I can drop in to one of their meetings to discuss with them the Journalist and what they’d like to see in it – this would also likely pick up some stories for the Journalist. An active Twitter feed for the Journalist – including periodically Tweeting out Journalist articles – would also keep reader involvement going beyond the cycle of issues appearing in print and online. I would also include a phone number for the editor of the Journalist in the “Contacts” section of the Journalist in print.

Communicating NUJ policy and activities
Space should be given in the Journalist to important issues in the run-up to the Delegate Meeting (where timing allows) and reports on decisions made at Delegate Meeting should be included.
A “more online” page linking to other union resources that are updated more frequently – NUJ Active, the National Executive Council's NUJ Informed, Branch and sector newsletters and Twitter feeds including @NUJofficial – is also a very good idea. This would include information on which of these are in a members-only area and advice on how to get help for those who are struggling with logging into the NUJ members’ area.

NUJ posts held
Currently Vice-Chair, NUJ London Freelance Branch (LFB).
Previously Secretary, NUJ LFB.
Deputy editor, the Freelance (LFB newsletter, elected post) since 2006.
Currently member of Freelance Industrial Council (FIC), with a London region
seat. (I was previously in an East Anglia seat on FIC).
Previously on Newspapers and Agencies Industrial Council, representing FIC.
Previously NUJ rep on Writers’ Organisations Advisory Group (WOAG), a body advising the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS).
Delegate for LFB at numerous Delegate Meetings. NUJ member since 2002.

As an NUJ member, your ballot paper for the election of the editor of the Journalist should have been on its way to you by post on Wednesday 16 October and should arrive not long after that. If it doesn’t turn up, contact the NUJ via
If you’re voting, you need to post your completed ballot paper to arrive by Wednesday 6 November at the latest.

Please consider giving your first vote to me, and your second vote to Lynne Wallis.

See below for testimonials.

Can I count on your vote? Please let me know. Please also forward this email to other NUJ members who you feel may be interested in voting for me. If you’re happy with me letting members know you support me, or are prepared to write a short endorsement for me, even better!

Many thanks,

Kind regards,

Matt Salusbury


"I can’t think of a better candidate for this job than Matt Salusbury.

I’ve known him for a great many years – having sat with him on London Freelance Branch committee and the Freelance Industrial Council, and know well the depth and breadth of his experience across the media – and his commitment to the NUJ and trade unionism.

I’ve seen first-hand how his work on The Freelance has not only given him insight into and understanding of issues that affect our members in all parts of the industry. He is also an excellent communicator, who can give those issues the space and analysis they deserve.

The Freelance is an invaluable source of information about our industry and trade union issues to members throughout the UK. I trust Matt to do the same as editor of The Journalist and produce a union journal that looks outwards to and supports NUJ members from all sectors and all across the UK and Ireland."

Jenny Vaughan
Treasurer, NUJ London Freelance Branch

"Over the decade in which Matt Salusbury has been its co-editor The Freelance has been essential reading for me and thousands of other freelancers. It does not seek to entertain but to impart essential information, including facts that I have been able to produce in negotiations and to circulate among colleagues, arming them to get a better deal and know their rights. With his experience in both staff and freelance journalism, commitment, energy and technical skills I believe Matt could turn The Journalist into a more activist, informative and federating publication. Making it more accessible online would be a major plus."

Alison Culliford, former Deputy Chair, Paris Branch

Other members who support me include:
Barry White, NUJ Leeds and Wakefield Branch
Jens Anders Sorensen, Secretary NUJ Netherlands Branch
Pierre Alozie, Committee, NUJ London Freelance Branch
Tony Levene, Secretary NUJ London Freelance Branch (jobshare)

If you are not a member of the NUJ but you are a journalist and you're reading this, I would strongly suggest that you consider joining. By the time you realise that you should have joined, it's probably already too late.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Opposing the normalisation of lies

This article is from the Freelance, October 2019.

RECURRING themes at the Byline Festival of journalism in August were crime, corruption, misinformation, dark money and lies, lies, lies. Read more...

No deal Brexit looms again

This article is from the October 2019 Freelance

HIGH DRAMA struck as we were editing this Freelance: the UK Supreme Court ruled that the government's "prorogation" of Parliament was unlawful and void. Nothing is clear about what the revenant Parliament will do: but one effect may be that it can revisit the 99 pages of changes to immigration laws "laid before Parliament" just before it was unlawfully shut down. Read more...

Leave now, says immigration lawyer, as crackdown on foreign teachers in China continues

This story appeared in the September 2019 issue of EL Gazette

“DO NOT teach in China” says American lawyer Dan Harris. Writing in his award-winning blog , the international law expert recommends expatriates currently teaching there to “leave now.”

Shortly after the blog appeared, 19 people, including seven teachers working for language school chain EF, were arrested in the eastern city of Xuzhou. The story hit the headlines nationwide, with the China Daily running the headline “Keep toxic foreign teachers away from kids.”

EF issued a statement regretting the behaviour of its teachers and confirming it would dismiss those involved.

In his blog, Harris had warned of a crackdown on drug users, reporting stories of language schools suddenly ordering drug tests for foreign teachers. Read more...

Friday, 11 October 2019

A Roman carcal in Norfolk

This article first appeared in Fortean Times FT 382, August 2019

ONE explanations offered for sightings of big cats in Britain is “the escape theory,” the idea that British big cats are introduced exotics that escaped from menageries from Roman times onwards. (See FT 224;38).

A caracal, Image: Matt Salusbury

The problem with this idea is that there hasn’t been much evidence for historical escapes from circuses or menageries – the occasional escaped circus lion was usually quickly recaptured or shot.

Sure, the Romans had their circuses and wealthy Romans in Britain may have kept exotic big cats as pets. The huge Londinium amphitheatre under what’s now The Guildhall in the City of London had foundations showing signs of there having been a massive gates – and smaller sliding gates – suitable for releasing big animals into fights with gladiators in an arena that could have seated a quarter of Londinium’s population.

The Roman army included specialist venatores troops whose role included capturing wild animals, probably for the arena. Several Roman camps in Britain including Caerleon (Newport) had small arenas, more likely for the entertainment of the troops than for drilling. Venatores would have captured wild animals to be slaughtered before the crowds in local military arenas, their skins then being used for the headgear of legionary standard bearers.

We know venatores were active in Britain – the poet Martial describes seeing a Caledonian (Scottish) bear brought all the way to the Colosseum in Rome for its inaugural games. Mini-circuses involving animals – even imported ones – were cheaper to put on for the enjoyment of the legionaries than gladiatorial games. (“The Venatores – animal hunting in the army”, Duncan B Campbell, Ancient Warfare, Vol. XII, issue 5, Karwansaray Publishers, Rotterdam 2019.)

The bones of leopards have been found in a rubbish heap in Ancient Rome, with leopard remains unearthed in a Roman legionary camp in Dacia (modern Romania). The Emperor Gordian was recorded in AD 241 as having “60 tame lions” in his game parks around Rome, while The Augustan History, the Three Gordians, notes that “Caesar’s herd” had a facility to accommodate new arrivals at Laurentium, near the port of Ostia.

Most of the traffic in captured exotics, though, led to Rome rather than to the outlying province of Britannia. Homo Tyrannicus – A history of man's war against animals (Peter Verney, Mills & Boon, London 1979) recounts how the Eternal City’s demand for ventationes – combats between animals or between men and animals in the arena – all but wiped out African elephants in Tunisia and Libya during the Roman period. By the time of the birth of Christ, lions were rare in Libya and were later driven to extinction in much of North Africa and the Middle East to feed the games.

Venatores hunting a tiger from a mosaic in Istanbul, Wikimedia Commons

While ventationes continued right up to Rome’s final collapse, long after gladiatorial combats between humans had gone out of fashion, later Roman circuses featured huge herds of deer to make up the numbers. Circuses had by then already stripped the Empire of big cats and other exotics. As the Empire shrank, acquiring and bringing to Britannia whatever big cats remained in its territory became harder. The whole point of shipping over such animal was to kill them in front of a crowd. All this makes the prospect of exotic big cats surviving and escaping into the Romano-British landscape sometime before the legions abandoned the province in AD 410 a remote one. Nor is there any archaeological or documentary evidence.

Until now. Yes, that’s right, there’s new evidence for a big cat in Roman Britain. Well, not exactly a big cat, but an exotic introduced species of respectable-sized wildcat. The latest edition of The Annual – Bulletin of the Norfolk Archaeological Research Group (No. 27, 2018) includes “Some faunal remarks on the Aylesham Roman Project 2016/17 – a dog, a beaver tooth amulet and animal marks on tiles” by archaeologist Julie Curl. This looks at finds from the site of a Roman villa with a pottery and two kilns in Aylesham, Norfolk, excavated in 2016.

Here wet clay tiles were left out in the sun to dry, some ended up in a rubbish heap after various animals had walked over them and left their footprints in them – a pine martin, a European wildcat, newts and a small dog. One tile in particular has three toe marks of which Curl comments, “At this stage of the investigation, the prints compare well both in size and shape with the Caracal.” Lynxes survived in northern Britain until Saxon times (their range limited to further north than Norfolk) but Curl says the toe marks are “more oval” and slightly too pointed for a lynx. A caracal is the best match.

A caracal is a species of long-legged wildcat, easily twice the size of a domestic cat, red-brown in colour with long, elaborately tufted black ears (its name comes from the Turkish for “black ear”). Caracals now live in the wild in Africa and Asia. Turkey – where caracals are now very rare – is currently the nearest place to Britain to find them in the wild; their range in Roman times would have been greater.

Caracals are known to have been kept as pets by wealthy Romans; ancient Egyptian art shows caracals wearing collars. It’s not clear whether the caracal walking over tiles in Aylesham was a pet or a feral that had escaped, although most of the tracks found on the site were made by wild animals. Curl speculates that our Romano-British caracal could have been an “escaped pet, status symbol, performing animal or curiosity.” It wouldn’t have been impressive enough for the circus. While we know Romans used caracal pelts to make cloaks, its skin would also have been too small to end up as a standard bearer’s headdress.

The Dangerous Wild Animals Act requires owners to have a licence to keep a caracal, which needs to be on a lead and accommodated in a “secure outdoor area” with CCTV. In the days of the British Raj, normally solitary Indian caracals were trained to hunt in packs for birds or hares, but the drawback with caracals was they were reluctant to surrender their prey – they were never regarded as being all that tame. Caracals are, to put it mildly, a bit of handful for their owners. So a “pet” Romano-British caracal could easily turn into an exotic escapee.

Whether it was a pet or escapee, this discovery introduces something new and exciting to the “British big cats” controversy. Could there have been caracals loose in Roman times, and possibly later? 350 years of Roman occupation is enough time for an awful lot of caracal escapes.

The Mabinogian, a series of Welsh tales collected in the 11th century, describes a giant wildcat, the Cath Palug, or “scratch cat.” Could the descendants of the Roman caracal from Aylesham be it?

Could Romano-British caracals have hybridised with British lynxes, or with Roman domestic cats – more like African wildcats than today’s moggies – or with the European wildcats then endemic to England, injecting exotic genes into Britain’s feral cat or wildcat populations?

Hybrids of caracals and domestic Abyssinian cats have been recorded – they’re known as “caracats”, they’re still quite a lot bigger than domestic cats and have the luxurious tufted ears of the caracal, without their difficult temperament.

A 1997 census of exotic wildcats in the United States listed three hybrid cats of the “Caracal/Lynx” type. However, caracals (Caracal caracal) are sometimes called “caracal lynxes” or “African lynxes” because of their lynx-like tufts, although they are not that closely related to lynxes. Official publicity photos of an animal in London Zoo in the 1950s, for example, were captioned “caracal lynx” at the time.

Although caracals share with lynxes the tufted ears, caracals are actually in a distinct sub-family along with servals (Leptailurus serval) and African golden cats (Caracal aurata.) The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) belongs to a different sub-order of the Felidae (cats) family than the caracals. Any “caracal lynx” hybrids are thought to be dubious and misnamed. (See the Messy Beast website.)

This is not an image of the footprint possibly of a caracal in Alyseham. For copyright reasons I do not have it. This photo shows the paw print of a domestic animal ona Roman tile from around Londinium in the London Museum. There's some interactive task that asks visitors to identify the animal, so I won't spoil it by revealing what it is

© Matt Salusbury 2019

Oil, elements and aether

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the periodic table, MATT SALUSBURY reveals that its inventor, Dmitri Mendeleev, had some pretty strange ideas.

(This article first appeared in Fortean Times, FT380, June 2019)

Dmitri Mendeleev. Image out of copyright

This year marks a century and a half since the appearance of the ground breaking periodic table of the elements. Unesco has declared 2019 the International Year of the Periodic Table (IYPT2019 for short), with celebratory events throughout the year.

IYPT2019 honours both the periodic table and its inventor, Siberian-born Dmitri Ivanovich Mendeleev. His An Attempt at a System of Elements, Based on Their Atomic Weight and Chemical Affinity was published in February after being conceived in a single day – 17 February 1869 – at St Petersburg University as an aid to a textbook on inorganic chemistry. Mendeleev’s first version of the periodic table was more a list arranged into columns than the beautifully designed minimalist chart we have today.

The periodic table is a popular subject for commemorative mugs, here's one from the collection of my brother, a chemical engineer.

Recognition of Mendeleev’s periodic table really came in 1876 when French chemist Paul-Émile Lecoq de Boisbaudran, unaware of Mendeleev’s work, discovered a missing element, which he named gallium. Mendeleev had predicted this element as “68?” on his table, accurately foretelling its characteristics.

Mendeleev didn’t regard his periodic table as his greatest achievement. He saw himself as a physicist more than a chemist, although he also found time to design Russia’s trade tariffs system and do battle with what he regarded as the alarming rise of Spiritualism in Russia – even within its scientific community. He instigated the 1875 Commission for the Investigation of Mediumistic Phenomena, which tested Spiritualist claims almost to destruction in a series of gruelling and highly publicised scientific trials of spirit mediums. Mendeleev concluded in his Materials for a Judgement about Spiritualism that these were frauds, that “the Spiritualist doctrine is superstition.”

Mandeleev's first limited edition periodic table, more elements arranged in a list than a table, from February 1869. Out of copyright

He was also an art critic, balloonist and a political influencer with access to ministers and the tsar. He introduced metrification into Russia, had a go at arctic exploration and volunteered his services as an expert witness in poisoning trials, as an inspector of cheese and as an adviser on alcohol taxation. (His doctoral thesis was On the Combination of Alcohol and Water.)

Some of Mendeleev’s big ideas, though, were bizarrely wrong. Much of his career was spent in sometimes heavily state-subsidised research into gas expansion, looking for that mysterious entity the “luminiferous aether”. This was a fluid medium saturating the entire universe, which he thought was lighter than all the elements “by a million times.” Aether would account for the “undulations” of light, but also gravity, Mendeleev believed. A heavily revised later version of his periodic table included the aether – indicated by a lower-case italic “x” on a row of its own at the top left, above what’s now accepted as the lightest element – hydrogen. To the left of hydrogen in the same chart was another lighter-than-hydrogen fantasy element, “coronium”. Mendeleev had lost interest in the expensive quest for aether by 1878, but returned to it in later life.

A later version of Mendeleev's periodic table with the "luminiferous aether" on a row of its own above hydrogen, and another lighter-than-hydrogen element "coronium". Out of copyright

It was with yet another of his many hats on – as a consultant to the Imperial Russian oil industry, based in Baku, Azerbaijan – that Mendeleev came up with another of his paradigm-shaking fortean ideas. Mendeleev helped establish Baku’s first oil refinery and was an early advocate of innovations in oil production and safety such as pipelines, although it was a while before the Baku oilmen adopted his ideas.

The oil industry was then still in its infancy, most of its commercial cracking of crude oil was to obtain paraffin for “illumination”. An 1865 technical manual for the oil industry by Henry Erni noted that oil-based paints, varnishes and petroleum soap were already a thing. The first petrol-driven vehicle, Karl Benz’s 1893 motor tricycle, was still a long way off.

As long as oil prospectors knew what surface signs giving clues to oil-bearing strata they should look for below, they didn’t bother much with the theory of what oil actually was.

The periodic table commemorated on stamps from the USA (top), Spain (centre) and North Korea (bottom)

The mainstream view formed at the time, which still mostly holds today, was that oil is a fossil fuel, the product of vast amounts of decayed marine algae and plankton. Oil is made of hydrocarbons – complex combinations of carbon and hydrogen molecules – that are supposed to be the broken down cell membranes of microbial life-forms that died and sank to the beds of seas and rivers hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago.

There, so the theory goes, the dead plankton and algae became trapped under layers of sediment. As geological action over the aeons pushed the oil-bearing strata further down, the action of immense heat and pressure caused the hydrocarbons in the algae and plankton’s cell membranes to break down. And that’s what crude oil is. There is an “oil window” of around 2-4km below the surface, where the temperature is about 60°-120°C, where the distillation process producing crude oil is thought to occur. The oil can then percolate through layers of porous rock, such as sandstone or pumice.

Erni declared that oil was “proved by its composition” to be “evidently of organic origin… a product of chemical decomposition, derived from organic remains, plants and animals, whole generations of which perished and accumulated during many destructive revolutions at the various ages of our planet.”

A display of periodic table-obilia on sale at the Geological Survey shop at the Natural History Museum in 2019.

The evidence for this biological origin was mostly the “fetid” or “garlic” smells encountered in some oilfields. “Sweet crude” – crude oil with low sulphur content – is so-called because of its sickly sweet smell and taste, while hydrocarbons in which the chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms form into circles are known as “aromatic hydrocarbons” because they often have a fragrant aroma to them.

Early attempts to explain the process by which dead plankton ended us as crude oil included “steam generated by volcanic action”, “uplifting gas forces” or “dry distillation”. As Erni noted, “many other theories have gained some ground, though mostly with the vulgar.”

Mendeleev, though, was having none of this. He found the “biotic” (biological) explanation for oil not “satisfactory.” In his 1877 article “L’Origine du Pétrole”, he asked, “Where, when and how happened this useful substance?” He insisted that “metal carbides” reacted with water “deep within the Earth” to form acetylene (C2H2) which subsequently condenses to form heavier, more complex hydrocarbons.(Mendeleef, D., 1877. "L'origine du pétrole", Revue Scientifique, 2e Ser., VIII, p. 409-416)

A carbonaceous chondrite meteorite that fell in Poland, on show in the Geological Museum of the National Research Institute, Warsaw. Mendeleev observed that these meteorites, that contained carbon, could not have been of terrestrial origin. Photo: Matt Salusbury

Mendeleev noticed that hydrocarbon-rich areas tend to be hydrocarbon rich at lower levels of different geological epochs, even in the basement rock below strata of sediment, from epochs showing no similarities in vegetation or climate. He noted that in some oilfields were in Tertiary strata, from early in the age of mammals, while on other continents, crude oil was extracted from much more ancient Silurian strata, from the age of primitive toothless fish. He observed that whatever it was in oil had clearly travelled great distances from the places where it is found, and that the material “we take from the heart of the Earth” had apparently “never seen the light of day” before. He noticed that a small proportion of meteorites – the carbonaceous chondrites – contained carbon, which can’t have been of biological origin. Nor was there evidence in oil of the enormous quantities of organic debris we’d expect to see if it really was just deceased sea creatures. He suspected oil originated within the bowels of the Earth, in much “deeper layers than those where we encounter it.”

An IYPT commemorative lanyard

A lot has happened in science since then to support Mendeleev’s apparently wacky-sounding idea. Carbon turns out to be much more common in space and on other heavenly bodies than we thought. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is now known to have clouds and rains of methane, with lakes and seas of ethane and methane, while there are vast dust clouds in space that contain glycolaldehyde (HOCH2-CHO), a carbohydrate that’s a distant cousin of sugar. Carbon, it turns out, is the universe’s fourth most abundant element – almost none of the remains of dead creatures, nearly all of it in the form of hydrocarbons. We now think that the young Earth was never completely molten – it seems vast quantities of hydrocarbons formed in the Earth as it cooled and became trapped at great depths.

A glycolaldehyde molecule, an example of "sugar in space". Wikimedia Commons

The discovery of deep sea tube worms Riftia pachyptila happily living in volcanic deep sea geological vents, surviving by chemically synthesising hydrogen sulphide, even throws up the possibility of life forms living down there among the oil. Others have taken Mendeleev’s “abiotic” (non-biological) oil origin idea and run with it. Professor Thomas Gold’s The Deep Hot Biosphere (Springer Verlag, 1999) goes so far as to propose that hopanoids – vey basic micro-fossils found in crude oil – aren’t fossil plankton biomarkers at all, but recent life forms that live by chemically synthesising the hydrocarbons deep beneath the Earth – he estimates 10km down, at temperatures of 100°C and above. Gold even suggests that very early life forms billions of years ago colonised the deep subterranean oil reservoirs long before life on the surface evolved.

Unlike Mendeleev’s “luminiferous aether” fantasy and his lighter-than-hydrogen element coronium, his bizarre-sounding idea that oil forms in the centre of the Earth may have been right on the money after all.

Hopanoids - very basic trace micro-fossils found in crude oil. Wikimedia commons.

A Well-Ordered Thing: Dmitri Mendeleev and the Shadow of the Periodic Table, Michael Gordin, Basic Books, New York 2004

Crude: The Story of Oil, Sonia Shah, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2004

The Deep Hot Biosphere: The Myth of Fossil Fuels, Professor Thomas Gold, Springer Verlag, 1999

“Sugar in Space”
, NASA Science, 20 June 2000

© Matt Salusbury 2019

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Every old woman pronounced for a witch

A short history of witchcraft sceptics

This article first appeared in Fortean Times FT367; June 2018.

It takes courage to challenge the accepted orthodoxy of the day, to take on whatever madness has gone mainstream. In the Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth century it was witchcraft and the persecution of alleged witches.

Just as important as "How did it happen?" was how to end it. After belief in witches had become so entrenched, how did society manage to talk its way out of it? There survives a rich vein of writings by those who stuck their necks out and expressed scepticism regarding the philosophical, theological and legal justifications for the witch trials. Some were themselves men of the church; many were lawyers or judges who’d found themselves sitting in on witch trials. One was a physician, later seen as a pioneer of psychology.

Most witchcraft sceptic literature was targeted at the men at the top of the social order, the "learned" gentlemen and scholars whose influence and opinion was so important in keeping belief in witches mainstream. For witchcraft trials you needed not just fearful local accusers but also judges and "expert" witnesses - scholars, lawyers, theologians and physicians - to testify that witches existed and did the Devil's work. These "learned men" could be found in surprising abundance.

Witchcraft sceptics generally trod carefully, going to great pains to agree that witches did actually exist. Long sections of their books were devoted to describing in detail the workings of phenomena such as sabbaths and compacts with the Devil, laced with Biblical citations. Works sceptical of witchcraft usually emphasised, though, that witches were likely to be few in number, younger, male and politically influential, rather than destitute, eccentric old women with a warts and pet cats.

Sceptics did not initially try to persuade audiences that there was no such thing as witchcraft, more that almost none of the suspects paraded before the courts were likely to be the real thing, that the judicial process of witchfinding was flawed. Some witchcraft sceptics, though, went further, questioning whether even the Devil existed. As we shall see, sticking out your neck and saying that there were no witches and no witchcraft was dangerous even after the witch craze had supposedly abated.

Scepticism on the existence of witchcraft was official policy in the Catholic Church for centuries. The Canon Episcopi, an influential treatise on Canon law dated to around 1020, condemned belief in witchcraft as part of pagan superstition. The Canon Episcopi’s position was that while the Devil existed, beliefs in witches were “delusions in the mind”, created by the Devil himself. The Canon gave as an example the belief held by certain “wicked” women devotees of the goddess Diana that they rode through the night on “beasts”, except that they didn’t actually do so, they were just gripped by a mass delusion sent by Satan.

This created problems for the late fifteenth century witch persecutors. The most influential witchfinders’ manual, Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches, 1487,) dealt with this by re-interpreting the Canon to insist that the “rides of Diana” were real. The early witchfinding career of Malleus Maleficarum’s author, Dominican monk and inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, ended with him expelled from the city of Innsbruck in 1484, denounced by bishops as “senile and crazy”. Kircher appealed to Pope Innocent VIII, who responded with the Papal Bull Summis desiderantes affectibus. This officially confirmed witches existed, warning that many “of both sexes” had “abandoned themselves to devils.” It empowered Kircher and his associates to prosecute witches, calling on the clergy to support him. This was important in kicking off the European witch craze, which took hold relatively quickly.

The influential witchfinder's manual Malleus Maleficarum, title page from the fifth Cologne edition of 1520

Protestantism inherited Catholicism’s then prevailing witch panic. The upheaval of the Reformation and Counter-reformation, and the wars of religion that accompanied it, fuelled a tense atmosphere in which the denominations viewed each other as vast Satanic conspiracies. Lutheran pastor and witchcraft sceptic Balthasar Bekker, writing at the end of the seventeenth century, noted the ease with which even Protestants of the “True Faith” succumbed to the “error” of thinking that the Catholic Church was the empire of the Devil, while Johannes Weyer (see below) denounced an unnamed Catholic bishop who preached that Martin Luther was literally the son of Satan.

Johannes Weyer, born in what’s now the Netherlands, was a student of the occultist and theologian Cornelius Agrippa before training as a doctor. He became town physician to the Dutch city of Arnhem. He asserted that “uneducated physicians and surgeons attribute what is really their own ignorance and error to witchcraft.”

Portrait of Johannes Weyer, author of De Prasestigiis Demonum, believed to be the first author to use the term "mentally ill". Out of copyright

Weyer’s De Praestigiis Daemonum (On the Illusions of Demons), a rebuttal of Malleus, appeared in 1563 and became a Latin language bestseller. In De Prasetigiis, Weyer argues that there are “magicians of ill repute” and “exorcists” - male heretics who employ the Devil’s power to create powerful illusions through magic. He was careful to make a “distinction of meaning,” to differentiate “magicians” from “witches”. He argued that the Devil’s power was not as great as claimed. Through natural laws, “God has established the limits in which He is willing to tolerate the Devil’s activities.” Most of the deeds attributed to witches were impossible – most witchcraft was psychological in origin. Those confessing to such crimes suffered from the “credulity” of the female sex, “the distorted imagination of melancholics” or were “mentally ill” - Weyer is believed to be the first writer to use the latter phrase.

The Devil, argued Weyer, was an expert at obfuscating the truth, so witch hunters by persecuting the “mentally ill” were playing into the hands of the Devil, with his thirst for “innocent blood.”

One of the odder aspects of De Prasetigiis is its detail on the demons that can be summoned by “magicians” and “exorcists” (but not, he argued, by the poor old women accused of witchcraft). He went into chapter and verse on how readers could summon these spirits to do their will. In a later appendix to De Prasetigiis, titled Pseudomonarchia Daemonum (False Monarchy of Demons), he lists the complex hierarchy of Hell, with statistics on 69 demon kings, dukes, presidents and princes, their powers, how many legions of demons they commanded and the best time of day to summon them.

While influential in the Netherlands, Weyer’s appeals for clemency in De Praestigiis for “poor innocent women punished” went largely ignored elsewhere. The physicians, lawyers and authors of the late sixteenth century waded in to oppose Weyer, among them King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England), who in his Daemonologie (1597) insisted that witches existed and were “most severely to be punished.”

King James also branded as “damnable” Reginald Scot, author of The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), which was strongly influenced by Weyer. An urban legend persists that King James ordered the destruction of all copies of the book.

The Discoverie
opens by lamenting how “The fables of witchcraft have taken so fast hold and deepe root” in England, to the point where English people “if any adversitie, greefe, sicknesse, Losse of children, corne, cattell, or libertie happen unto them by & by they exclaimme upon witches.”

Scot asks whether those accused of witchcraft are “worthy to die”. Echoing Weyer, Scot also notes “how easily they (witches) may be brought to confesse to that which they never did; nor lieth in the power of man to doo.”

He also introduces the term “witchmongers” – witch hunters and witchfinders, whom he lumps together with “papists.” Many column inches are devoted to “Popish exorcists and other conjurers”. Discoverie, like De Praestigiis before it, also covers thoroughly the appearance of the word “witch” in the Old Testament, going back to the various original Hebrew words later translated as “witch” and what they actually mean.

There are long descriptions of how witchcraft works (allegedly), the Devil’s compacts, how witches are brought to trial, tortured, tried and convicted. There are lengthy critiques of contemporary writers who were defending the existence of witchcraft – of whom there were already plenty. The Discoverie was written at a time when belief in fairies was going out of fashion in educated society in much of England, so Scot compares witches to the fairy Robin Goodfellow (also known as Puck), who “ceaseth now to be much feared”, yet “witches’ charms” are still widely believed.

John Gaule was vicar of Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire at the height of the reign of terror of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, during the turmoil of the English Civil War. Hopkins secured himself a commission to investigate witchcraft in the East of England. (He made up the title “Witchfinder General” for himself, it was never official). The total number of his victims, including those hanged, has been estimated conservatively at perhaps 230 or more.

In this atmosphere, where in the Reverend Gaule’s own words, “The country people talk already… of the infallible and wonderfull power of the Witchfinders; then they doe of God, or Christe, or the Gospell preached,” it took courage for him to preach against Hopkins from his pulpit and then publish in 1646 Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcrafts. This opens with what Gaule claims is a copy of a chilling letter he received from Hopkins, in which the Witchfinder General tells him he is coming to his area, and sounds him out on whether he will be well received, whether there are any “sticklers” locally who can be relied upon to pursue witches with zeal.

Select Cases eloquently denounced Hopkins, and how “every old woman with… a dog or cat by her side… (is) pronounced for a witch”. Some of Gaule’s sources include his interview with a “committed witch” who confessed, and one of the witchfinders, “as they call themselves”, adding that “the office of Witchfinding is exceeding doubtful”. Gaule asked whether witchfinders “aim not more at a privat Advantage, then at the publicke Good… Whether he may not give occasion to Defame Ten that are Innocent; before he discover one that is Guilty?”

Like most witchcraft-sceptic works, Select Cases didn’t deny the existence of any witches; “It is safe to believe that there are witches… But very unsafe to pronounce on such and such for witches, and that upon false grounds, as vulgar report, bare superstition, suspected Ancestors, decrepit age... ” Furthermore, “No kind of Witchcraft may be named, which is not found on superstition”, while incubuses in particular were “the height of all fantastical delusions.”

Select Cases was influential in exposing the abuses of the witchfinders. When the regular Norfolk assizes, briefly interrupted by the Civil War, started up again, Hopkins found himself questioned before it. He retired shortly afterwards. Select Cases was also a book whose time had come. In the upheaval of the Civil War, Parliament’s authority over the courts system had briefly slipped; allowing freelance chancers like Hopkins free reign, and now it was looking to re-assert its power.

Sir John Keeling was Sergeant at Law - a junior judge brought in to assist the regular circuit judge in complex cases. It was apparently in this capacity that he sat in on the trial of the “Lowestoft witches” Rose Cullender and Amy Duny, at Bury St Edmunds in 1664. The difficulties he encountered demonstrate the power of expert testimony from those who firmly believed in witchcraft.

Duny was indicted for causing the death of a child, with testimony on “a great Toad” which hopped out of the child’s blanket. Witness evidence, much of it from children, stated that Duny and Cullender had sent imps and “Lice of an extraordinary bigness” to torment them.

Keeling was “most unsatisfied” with the evidence, which he identified as based “upon the imagination only of the parties afflicted.” He arranged a test in which the children, expecting to be touched by a suspected witch, were tricked into throwing fits on cue.

However, counter-arguments from the “most knowledgeable” expert witness - physician, author, philosopher, naturalist and antiquarian Dr Thomas Browne of Norwich – won the day. Dr Browne said that while fits thrown by children were the result of hysteria, their hysteria could be heightened by the “the subtlety of the Devil” that was here at work. The judge didn’t even refer to Keeling’s arguments in his summing up; Duny and Cullender were convicted and hanged.

John Webster’s The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (1677) returned to the theme of witchcraft as “a passive delusion of melancholy or fancy” and “utterly denied” all the usual testimony about a “corporeal league made betwixt the Devil and the witch.”

Balthasar Bekker, the son of pastor from what’s now the Dutch-German border, became a Lutheran pastor in Amsterdam and travelled to London, Cambridge, Oxford and Paris. An enthusiastic fan of the philosophy of Rene Descartes, he drew on this in his three-volume Dutch-language work De Betoverde Wereld (The Bewitched World, 1691).

Portrait of Balthasar Bekker by Johannes Hilarides, from 1691. Out of copyright

This questioned “Upon which foundation the Christians in general, and the Protestants in particular, say such extraordinary things of the Devil.” It included an exhaustive study of comparative religion - “The opinions of the Heathens concerning God and spirits”, comparing their doctrines and whether they agree or differ. He concluded of these “Heathen” superstitions about the Devil that “the witchcraft practised among the people proceeds from the same source.” As well as “The witchcraft practised among the Jews” and in India, China, Africa and the Classical world, “very near the same opinions are to be found in America” among Native Americans. His survey of “Heathen” beliefs about the Devil found that “The Opinions and doctrines already mentioned have been most of all introduced in Popery... new inventions of men.”

Of belief in witches, Bekker concluded, “Those Opinions already deeply rooted in the mind as deeply as they can be; before the Holy Bible be ever read”. Over the centuries, witchcraft “consists almost nothing else but the Tricks of Priests.” Furthermore, “Some of the Heathen opinions upon this subject have in the process of time, kept in amongst the Christians”.

De Betoverde Wereld
also took on the army of writers whose intellectual contributions have kept “witchmongering” alive and well - “James the First” and Jean Bodin who “imploy all their skills and capacity to confirm” belief in witches, and to anticipate witchcraft-sceptic opinions with elaborate counter-arguments. (Influential French jurist and demonologist Jean Bodin believed that evil spirits instilled doubt into judges, bewitching them so they showed leniency to real witches in court.)

That Christianity was just another religion among many, possibly sharing much of its “origin” with “Heathen” belief systems, was discomforting. De Betoverde Wereld suggestion that the Devil might not even exist raised questions about even the existence of God. The book caused a Europe-wide sensation. It was a bestseller in several languages, although it never took off in England due to poor business decisions by the publisher of the English edition, The World Bewitch’d (1695) – Part One of the original only, from a French version but approved by Bekker himself.

While witchcraft trials had ceased in the Republic of the Netherlands by the time Bekker was writing, persecution of alleged “witches” still persisted in much of Europe. As a result of De Betoverde Wereld, Bekker was denounced as an atheist, stripped of his ministry and banned from many towns. But the City of Amsterdam continued to pay Bekker his salary and formally kept him in post. He was later inducted into the Royal Society.

Contemporary with De Betoverde Wereld was Lord Chief Justice Sir John Holt, a judge who is known to have presided over at least 11 witchcraft trials as far apart as Suffolk and Cornwall, with every suspect before him being acquitted.

In the case of “Mother Munnings”, up before Holt in Bury St Edmunds on charges of causing her landlord’s death by magic and for keeping imps, it was established that her imps were probably just misidentified balls of wool. Several “witches” accused of having witch’s marks on their bodies, causing lice infestations or making victims contort, throw fits or vomit pins walked free after an appearance before Holt. So strict was Holt in establishing the facts of alleged deeds of witchcraft that the trial of Sarah Murdoch on a “causing to vomit pins” rap - over which Holt presided at Southwark – ended with Murdoch’s accuser tried for “imposture” and her employers charged with assaulting her.

Holt was a man of great influence – he became Lord Chief Justice of the Court of the King’s Bench, and a Privy Councillor – so his rigorous cross-examination of the so-called evidence for witchcraft helped turn the tide of legal opinion against the existence of the phenomenon. But he wasn’t just up against the superstitions of the common people. Many of his recent predecessors on the bench – such as Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale, judge at the Lowestoft witch trial – were firm believers in the need to prosecute alleged witches, letting through much obviously false testimony.

Christian Thomasisus, a German judge and philosopher, spoke out against witch trails (and trials of atheists) and the use of torture in his 1704 legal textbook Kurze Lehrsätze van dem Laster der Zauberei mit dem Hexenprozess (Kurt’s Theorems about the Vice of Sorcery in the Witch Trial).

Witchcraft sceptical works had become rarer by the beginning of the eighteenth century.Witchcraft had fallen out of the judicial mainstream by then. There was less of a perceived need to engage a shrinking witchfinding industry in philosophical argument. The rise of the educated classes speeded the decline of witchcraft, with the errors of the witch trials eventually influencing the development of law.

But over a century after Lord Chief Justice Holt, being a witchcraft sceptic in the East of England in the early nineteenth century could still be a thankless task. One such local witchcraft sceptic, Richard Grey of Aldeburgh, practiced as a lawyer in London before inheriting money and returning to his native Suffolk, making it his mission to travel around (often sleeping rough) for the next 20 years trying to convince whoever would listen that neither witches nor their imps existed.

This was not a popular idea. When he came to the Suffolk fishing port of Orford in the early years of the nineteenth century, they so didn’t like his ideas about the non-existence of witches that they tied him to a stake and piled up wood around him, ready to set fire to him. He only escaped when he promised never to show his face in Orford again.

See also: The Heksenwaag (the Witch Weigher), Oudwater, the Netherlands - Fortean Times, FT 255, 2009.

On Witchcraft: An Abridged Translation of Johann Weyer’s De Praestigiis Daemonum, edited by Benjamin G. Kohl and H. C. Erik Midelfort, translated by John Shea, Pegasus Press, Asheville,1998

Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, Johanes Weyer, English translation, edited by by Joseph H. Peterson

Sir John Holt (1642-1710) a Biographical Sketch – with especial reference to his witchcraft trials, Tim Holt-Wilson, 2001

The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, John Webster, 1677

Lowestoft witches trial report

The World Bewitch’d (abridged 1695 English translation of De Betoverde Wereld by Balthasar Bekker)

The Discoverie of Witchcraft, Reginald Scot, 1886 facsimile

Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft, John Gaule, London 1646

Account of Richard Gray of Aldeburgh from The Folklore of East Anglia, Enid Porter, BT Batsford, London 1974

Thinking With Demons, The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe
, James Sharpe, 1999.

Demon Lovers - witchcraft, sex and the crisis of belief, Walter Stephens, University of Chicago Press, 2002

© Matt Salusbury 2018

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

A big cat sighting from Mellis

Mellis, on the edge of Suffolk not far from Diss, is famous for having the biggest unfenced common in England, with rare orchids growing on it. It's not to be confused with another Suffolk village, Mells, which is on the edge of Halesworth by the Halesworth golf course. Somebody in Suffolk Highways Department did apparently confuse Mellis with Mells once. There was said to be a sign pointing to "Mellis" which was in fact pointing to nearby Mells, with the "I" crossed out in marker pen by a helpful local resident (allegedly).

I recently met a man who had relatives in Mellis, who told me of a big cat sighting he had there back in 2012. I hear more and more historical reports of big cats seen in Suffolk from that year, it seems as if there was a 2012 big cat wave in the county that no one noticed at the time.
My witness had just got up and was in his garden, looking over nearby fields - he thinks it was probably wheat, still growing as it was early summer. It must have been around 7am.

Suddenly, he saw in the field a black big cat. He described it as like a "muscular" domestic cat, with the same proportions and the same pointed ears, only HUGE. It was so huge that it was carrying a hare in its mouth - not a rabbit, a hare. I've seen a hare up close to my own domestic cats when they were out walking near my house, and the hare (an adult male, I think) was bigger than my small tortoiseshell female cat. Dog owners who have dogs who chase rabbits and hares (despite their efforts to stop them) tell me that in order to accommodate a hare in its mouth, a big cat would have to be "spaniel-sized" at the very least.

Our massive big black domestic cat had long teeth and "eyes like the Devil", with which he looked at our witness. He was glad he only got a look at him for "seconds", he told me, so disturbed was he by what he saw. After giving him a casual glance, the big cat sauntered off and disappeared among the crops.

Some big cat investigators believe that Britain's big cats aren't escaped black leopards or pumas or lynxes and their descendants after all, but really huge feral cats who've somehow gone gigantic. Recent camera trap footage of Scottish wildcats picked up a wildcat that was almost four feet long, so it is possible.

According to the Big Cats in Britain Yearbook 2007, at around 8.30 am on 11 August of that year, a witness driving through Mellis Suffolk, driving along Main Street to join the A143 at Wortham, saw a "large black cat, long and wiry," in field, for 30 seconds before it "crouched down and slunk off into the undergrowth.