Friday 23 October 2015

Who Were the Witches? by Leslie Wilson

'Who are the witches, where do they come from?

Maybe your great-great-grandmother was one,

Witches are wise wild women, they say,

There's a lot of witch in every woman today.'

We used to chant that at Greenham Common, and maybe that's why, when I was wondering what to write a novel about in the late eighties, I thought: 'I'm going to write about a witch.' People are very fond of asking writers how novels are born: in this case, it came in this bald sentence.

It was going to be about an English witch, I thought, indeed, one from near my place of residence, so I went to the Local History section of the library and asked if they had any material about actual local witch prosecutions. They came up with one, the unpromisingly-named Mabel Modwyn, of Waltham St Lawrence. The record describes her as:

'widowe abact 68 years old arraigned for witch craft at Redding 29th Feb: and condemned on the 5th of March, 1655. Shee lived at ye south-wist cornr. of lower Innings in ye cornr. next to Binfield" She was buried in the churchyard at Waltham.

The librarian couldn't understand why I was so delighted with this information, when it was so scant, but it gave me a place to visit, and a date. And the next entry in the small typed and hand-bound book of extracts from the Parish Register was the story of a suicide who was secretly buried in the churchyard by her son and her female relations (I think I've got that right.) I felt I had the spark of a story there. My witch should be buried secretly, too. There was a question, however, as to why Alice Slade, the witch of Whitchurch St Leonard (I really couldn't stay with Mabel) might have been forbidden burial in the churchyard, when it wasn't a problem with Mabel. The Vicar would have to be involved.

Research taught me that England hardly ever experienced anything like the Great Witchhunt of seventeenth century continental Europe and Scotland. The notable exception is Matthew Hopkins's Essex witchhunt, in the course of which a staggering 200 or so witches (men and women) were hanged. So who was the English witch?
Three women examined in the case of the witches  of Belvoir
Well, the witch was usually but not invariably female, and most often old and annoying (though not invariably). There were many old women and some men who actually found it very useful to have the reputation of being a witch, because people were reluctant to offend them and would let them have a cup of flour or some 'yeaste to make beere', when they needed it. However, this useful strategy could, under certain circumstances, tip into catastrophe for 'witches' when they suddenly found themselves formally accused, or just murdered. What is striking in these cases is the way in which often the 'witch's' offence was the result of some offence against her: her bees had been stolen, or she had asked to hold a child, or had been refused that 'yeaste to make beere.' She might then mutter something or even strike the offender, and if some catastrophe occurred in that household, she would then be blamed. I built Malefice round the narratives of Alice Slade's accusers, and the reasons for her supposed magical assaults were the commonest reasons cited for a witch to have taken maleficent revenge on her neighbours.

What happened to the accused witch (I'm saying her for convenience) was far less clearcut than in the Continental witchhunts, where the unfortunate victims were tortured until they confessed and then burned. The English witch might be acquitted; many witches were. If she'd been convicted by an ecclesiastical court, she might have to do penance in a white sheet, and then could return home. If she was convicted by the Assize courts, she might be put in the stocks.

However, if she was condemned to death, she would be hanged, not burned, though under English law you could be burned alive for murdering your husband (petty treason) and also for coining, if you were a female. I don't know when people stopped being burned for heresy, though I believe the practice, contrary to the impression I grew up with, continued under Elizabeth the First.

It shows how rare witch prosecutions actually were in England that one judge told an accused witch that she would burn, only to be publicly corrected by his clerk. I assume that the judge had never had another such case come before him in his career.

The English witch was very seldom a cunning person or white witch. It did occur that a person came before the courts accused of black witchcraft after a previous prosecution for 'white witchcraft' but it is rare in the court records that Alan Macfarlane examined. Cunning folk carried out healings and found lost property, but most importantly, they pointed the finger at witches or at least witchcraft as the source of someone's problems. They were largely distrusted by the ecclesiastical authorities, who believed they drew their power from the Devil, though churchwardens and clerics were sometimes cunning folk! But they were considered to do good, and relied on in England, and often their evidence was accepted in a witchcraft prosecution in a court of law. 'They played an important part in both spreading and directing witchcraft beliefs,' Macfarlane says. This pattern continues in Africa, where the witch-doctor will identify unfortunate people as witches. Where the cunning person was prosecuted as a witch, he or she had become the victim of a practice that s/he had actually encouraged.
witch's 'familiar'

Alas, therefore, if I was looking for a feminist heroine when I wrote about a witch prosecution, I didn't find her. Even the cunning woman was no good candidate, because her accusation might cause the death of some harmless, if weird, old woman. On the other hand, it was an opportunity to write about the lives of obscure women, so often sidelined in history, about the kind of things that might happen to them, and about people's attitudes to perceived female power. And so Alice, my witch, was one of those cunning folk 'gone bad', and it became important to find out why the community that had relied on her suddenly turned against her. The story of this witch prosecution was thus the story of relationships gone wrong, of an outsider whose utility to the community failed, about the 'criminal' being persuaded that she had in fact committed a crime. I was helped by a psychotherapist friend who had travelled in Peru and told me that in the small places he visited he could believe the plot of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude,' because it was 'a different kind of reality.' Going to Cecil Sharp House and reading broadside ballads of the time showed me what kinds of images lived inside people's heads at that time.

At a time when fits, strokes, plagues, and the sudden and terrifying diseases of livestock and children could strike without warning or explanation, when the devil's existence was official (and not just one devil, there were dozens of different ones, all with separate specialities), when night-times were truly dark, and only lit by flaring torches and weak candles and rushlights, and the shadows danced on the staircase when you went up to bed, people looked for supernatural explanations (nowadays some people blame immigrants for all the ills of society, and actually, the narrative is the same; clear these bad people out of the way, and society will be healed. See Theresa May's speech at the Tory Party conference.) A different kind of reality, but driven by psychological forces that are still with us. Injury produces anger, and then it's natural to want someone to blame.
Hansel and Gretel

And there was something else I recognised. I found stories of people who said a witch would visit them at night and sit on their chest so that they could not breathe. Sometimes they saw demons flitting about too. Now I knew what this was, for I had experienced it. My mother had, too, though neither of us actually saw demons. It was sleep paralysis. My mother felt that a person with whom she was in destructive conflict was actually attacking her; she dealt with it by having a crucifix blessed by a vicar and placed in her bedroom, when it left her.

What I experienced was a terrifying sensation of suffocation (I didn't personalise it), and though I cried out for help, I couldn't wake up or make a noise. It felt as if I was dying. However, after a few years this would change  into a sense of being on a high cliff and about to fall. I dealt with it by, in my sleep, spreading my arms and launching myself out into the void, when I flew. I had a vivid view of the landscape beneath me which I can still remember (in colour.) The flying was exciting, and after a while the sleep paralysis left me altogether. I was having therapy at the time, and had acquired a shortlived lucid dreaming facility (when you can direct your dreams). In both my mother's case and mine, it was stress related, but I met a woman who suffered from it who got very angry with me for saying so (in a day school about witch prosecutions, which I ran).

The experience, and the hallucinations, are prevalent nowadays, and they are not connected with mental illness. Some poor people suffer lifetimes of bad nights as a result.

I'm not about to pronounce on what causes sleep paralysis for other people than myself and my mother, but one can see how easy it was to be convinced it was a direct attack from an enemy. My mother's and my experience brought the 'different kind of reality' very close to home.

The most influential studies I used, when writing 'Malefice' were Alan Macfarlane's 'Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England,' and Keith Thomas's 'Religion and the Decline of Magic.' Also Alice Clark: 'The Working Lives of Seventeenth Century Women.'

There is a school of witch studies nowadays that relates the witch cases to psychology and culture. I read one of these books, but it was too Freudian for me. I have no problem with psychology, but what I like about Macfarlane's study is that it gives me a solid grounding in the reality of historical witch prosecutions.


Anne Booth said...

That was absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for writing it - I feel I have learnt so much, and have just ordered a copy of Malefice which should come to me via USA. It sounds really good.

I was also really interested in the fact that you were at Greenham Common, and wondered if you would mind me asking you about that for a book I am writing?

Leslie Wilson said...

Sure you may, though my experience was atypical, as I used to take off and do supporting, driving wimmin to get wood, bringing food, driving them to court in Andover, doing night watches...

Clare Mulley said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Clare Mulley said...

I live in Saffron Walden, Essex, where several women were accused of witchcraft. We have a wonderful old library and very active historical society - one day I must ask them about these women. Meanwhile I will look for your book!

Leslie Wilson said...

That would probably have been under Matthew Hopkins?

Catherine Hokin said...

Fascinating post - I did my thesis at university on witchcraft and its use as a political tool with particular reference to women and Religion and the Decline of Magic was the definitive text the (1980s), superb book.