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Medieval Madness: The role of the sacred well

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PostPosted: Sun May 17, 2009 3:57 pm    Post subject: Medieval Madness: The role of the sacred well  Reply with quote

In medieval times, illness, especially mental illness, was thought to come from sources outside the body. Physical manifestations of such illnesses were seen to be the result of evil spirits, external possession or sensitivity to natural forces such as the full moon – hence the name “lunatic” from luna touché – touched by the moon.

If madness is thought to arise from the presence of “something evil within”, then the common sense cure was to remove the evil spirit from the person. In pre-Christian times, this could mean the local shaman walking between the worlds to both identify the spirit involved and discover the best means of getting it to leave. Such methods could include offering special food and drink, chanting, working on an etheric level to cut any chords binding the spirit to the living person or channelling positive energy to move the spirit on into the next world. It could be as simple as asking the spirit to move on or making the physical body too uncomfortable a place to stay in. This might include purges, beatings or other violent means.

With the national establishment of the Christian church, the responsibility for casting out evil spirits fell to the local priest, who might use personal power, through Christ, to drive the spirit out, drawing on Biblical examples of Jesus casting out demons from those sent to him for healing. He might use the power of voice, rituals, censing and/or sacred relics, depending on what he had to hand.

In Cornwall, some village priests had access to another tool, the sacred well, where the healing properties might include the ability to cure madness. The local term for this practice was known as bowsenning. Nigel Pennick, in his book on Celtic saints, relates the term bowsenning to the ceremony whereby pilgrims were immersed in the healing waters of identified sacred wells in order to receive the blessing of the Saint associated with the location. This was a voluntary activity and would be preceded by visiting to the sanctified well on the evening before the Saint’s day. The night would be spent in prayer and contemplation, presumably within the nearby chapel or sacristy associated with the well, rather than at the side of the well itself.

Most sacred wells had chapels built by the side of them during the middle ages. This was part of the Catholic Church’s attempts to control both the influence and veneration of holy sites. Terry Faulls writes that “In 1102 it was decreed that any reverence to a fountain could only be given by the authority of a bishop and from that time onwards the sanctity of holy wells was very much the business of the church authorities.”

The three Cornish wells associated with voluntary bowsenning by Pennick are Gulvall, Nantswell and Roche.

By the eighteenth century, when local clerics began to record sacred sites, only one of these three wells were associated with bowsenning.  Gulvall, or Gulfwell, meaning "the Hebrew brook", was noted by Borlase in 1748 for it’s divinatory properties. Our Lady of Nantswell, in St. Colan's parish, near St. Columb Major, was used by local people to fortell their future.

St Gundred’s well at Roche was said to ebb and flow with the tide, due, according to Carew in his “Survey” of Cornwall, to water only being present in wet weather and drying up in fair weather. His measurements of the well as being only twelve inches deep and six wide, makes it difficult to see how anyone could be immersed in the waters. However Hope, writing in 1893, drew’s attention to another well at Roche which he calls “The wishing well” . Hope places this well “near a group of cottages called Hollywell village”. He notes that “maidens would repair on Holy Thursday, to throw in pins and pebbles, and predict coming events by the sparkling of the bubbles which rise up. Lunatics were also immersed in it.”

The practice of immersing people during a “period of madness” in a bowsenning pool was a very different practice from that carried out by pilgrims seeking the Saint’s blessing. Hope’s description of what happened at Altarnun well, based on the writings of Carew and Borlase, carries a chilling account of events.

“The water running from this sacred well was conducted to a small square enclosure closely walled in on every side, and might be filled at any depth, as the case required. The frantic person was placed on the wall, with his back to the water; without being permitted to know what was going to be done, he was knocked backwards into the water, by a violent blow on the chest, when he was tumbled about in a most unmerciful manner, until fatigue had subdued the rage which unmerited violence had occasioned. Reduced by ill-usage to a degree of weakness which ignorance mistook for returning sanity, the patient was conveyed to church with much solemnity, where certain Masses were said for him. If after this treatment he recovered, St. Nun had all the praise; but in case he remained the same, the experiment was repeated so often as any hope of life or recovery was left.”

The Quiller-Couch sisters, following their father's footsteps around Cornwall's sacred wells, believed the bowsenning pool at Alternun to be the remains of a roman bath. Today, the pool is very muddy around the edges and it is difficult to see the source of the spring in the shade of the overhanging trees. When I visited last summer, it was sad not to find any mention of the bowsenning pool in the church nor of the key role the mediaeval priest would have played in organising and "performing" the treatment.

The other sacred well clearly associated with bowsenning, was St Cleer's well, not far from Bodmin Moor. Hope says, " The well of St. Cleer, the baptistery or chapel by which it was enclosed, and an ancient cross about 9 feet high, form a group by the roadside 100 yards eastward below the church….The water flowing out of the well fills a pool or basin, supposed to have been used as a bowsenning pool for curing mad people. " Hope reports the well was restored in 1864 as a memorial to the Rev. John Jope, who was Vicar of St. Cleer for sixty-seven years. St Cleer is thought to have been dedicated to St Clare, an Italian nun, born in 1200, who became abbess of a Benedictine nunnery and was the founder of the Order of Poor Clares.

It would be interesting to know to which Saint or deity the well was originally dedicated. In the 14th century Bishop Grandisson of Exeter tried to expunge any influence of the original Celtic Christians and took every opportunity to rename churches away from their original links with Celtic founders.

St Cleer's well was one of the few holy wells to fall foul of the Roundheads during the Civil War. Given the size of it's current remains, the baptistery, pool, 9ft cross and associated chapel must have been an impressive sacred area both for pilgrims and local people.

Although there are only two holy wells associated with bowsenning left in Cornwall today, it is clear that this was a widespread practice in a time which had little understanding and no effective cures for the conditions they saw as madness. We have no knowledge of how many people were drowned or left permanently disabled from being forcibly thrown into bitterly cold water, nor any statistics to show whether such a treatment was efficacious and how many sufferers were able thereafter to live a normal and productive life. We can only hope that somehow, the power of the sacred water helped to heal the suffering.


CAREW, "Survey of Cornwall," p. 139 quoted in

Faull, T  Holy wells in Tarka Country

Hope, RC, The Legendary lore of the Holy Wells of England 1893

Pennick, N “Celtic Saints: An Illustrated and Authoritative Guide to these Extraordinary Men and Women New York 1997 p184

Quoted in Persoon, J “Ethiopian Monasticism and the Visit of the Holy Family to Ethiopia” in  Kirche und Schule in Aethiopien , Heft 56, November 2003

Quiller-Couch, M & L Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall - 1894 reprinted 1994 Tamara Publications, Liskeard, Cornwall: ISBN 9-780951-282250

Rowan, BUTTONS, BRAS AND PINS (The Folklore of British Holy Wells)

Straffon, C Fentynyow Kernow : In Search of Cornwall's holy Wells
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Fey Hag

Joined: 29 Apr 2009
Posts: 749

Location: Sealainn Nuadh Dawn's Birth Place

PostPosted: Mon May 18, 2009 3:56 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

A forerunner tae shock treatment ah guess.
Very interesting Ygraine; thanks for that.
This Bothy's Clachan a Choin
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PostPosted: Mon May 18, 2009 9:23 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Apparently bowsenning treatment was well known and practiced in Scotland in a slightly different form until the mid 19th Century.

From Phillip Curren's article The sacred island of the moon

"The sacred well is one of the two main attractions on the island (the other being the stone circle). Recently, the well was said to cure lunacy. The cure worked like this: before docking, the boat with the insane person on board would circle the island three times, clockwise. On each lap the patient, who had a rope tied around him, would be plunged in the water. Upon landing, the patient was taken to the well and given some of its water to drink; then an offering was made by nailing a rag or a ribbon to the tree, or by driving a coin into it edgewise. (The person to be cured did not have to be there, but did need to drink water brought back from the well.)

Going to the “Isle of Maree” in a hope to cure the patient of lunacy was continued until around 1858, when a young woman was brought over from Easter Ross and afterwards placed in the Inverness Asylum. A prior case was reported in the Inverness Courier dated 4th November 1857.
A visitor who witnessed the rites in 1772 told how a lunatic was forced to kneel before a weatherworn altar and then to drink water from the well before being dipped three times in the loch. The process was repeated each day for several weeks in the hope of curing him. Similar rites were recorded in 1836 and 1952, when local people insisted that cures were most likely to be effective on St. Maelrubha’s Day, August 25. "

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