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Get ahead, get a hat!

Halloween salsa party 2013 

With Halloween upon us, sales of broad brimmed, generally black, tall and pointed hats have reached their annual peak. Mine was worn proudly at Strictly Salsa’s annual spooky bash, at least until it got in the way of my partners’ arms as they spun me round.

Have you ever wondered, though, how such hats acquired their evil reputation? Until the Middle Ages, illustrations showed ‘witches’ bare headed or wearing a variety of headgear current at the time. Heretics condemned by the Christian Church had long been made to wear conical hats* and yet there was a short period during the 15th century when the shape was all the rage in London.  By the time the fashion spread out to rural areas, though, it had already been dropped by city dwellers and became something only country people, particularly women, would wear. These were often highly respected members of the community who gathered herbs for healing and maybe it was they who added a broad brim for practical reasons. Unfortunately, the Church continued to associate pointed hats with the horns of the Devil and many a ‘wise woman’ found herself accused of using ‘black arts’ and branded a witch. Chased, ridiculed, ostracised and murdered after trials in which they had no hope of being found innocent, this was one of the darkest periods of our history. Maybe that is why the Puritans and even the notorious Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins, who also had a penchant for tall hats, were careful to choose the flat crowned variety.

The statutory offence of witchcraft, punishable by death, was repealed in 1736 but fear of witches persisted long afterwards and was exacerbated by the many artists who portrayed them as old crones in pointed hats. From the stories of the Brothers Grimm to Disney cartoons, the image persists. (As an aside, my first memory of a witch’s hat was neither of these but a ride that pre-dates modern health and safety regulations. We hung on for grim death as it whirled us round a couple of feet or so above the rough concrete surface of the playground – a far cry from today’s vulcanised rubber. Nor did the thing have rounded corners and everything covered in plastic. Sharp edges abounded, the chains were orange with rust and there was always the possibility of our being flung off at high speed when older children spun the ring round the central pole as fast as they could.)

Terry Pratchett’s hilarious Discworld novels wouldn’t keep anyone awake at night (unless determined to finish his latest one), but his wizards and witches are generally devotees of the ‘pointy’ hat, as Terry puts it. In this extract from Wyrd Sisters, which has more than a little in common with Macbeth, he writes: As Granny Weatherwax says, she wears the Hat because ‘What’s the point in being a witch if no one can tell?’  The Hat says it all.

*These may have been predecessors of the notorious dunce’s cap, although some believe that this was originally a learning device. The idea of an apex or point representing the pinnacle of knowledge is common to many societies, and and a 13th century philosopher by the name of John Duns Scotus believed that the hat would funnel learning down to the learner.


31 October, 2013 - Make the first comment on this story

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