Before we start, I have a small confession to make. I have gone all medieval again because I have started playing an online empire building game. I have become, I say with not a little embarrassment, an online gamer. And I am obsessed. It is quite difficult to remember to feed my corporeal body in between feeding the bodies of my imaginary army.
What this means for all of you, my beloved readers, is that my reading choices, my dress, my pattern of speech have all been affected by the fact that every morning when I wake up and every night before I go to sleep, I tend to my crenellated buildings, I train my light cavalry and prepare for war with my clan mates in imaginary smoky taverns. Look, I have even rewritten Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale to tell my story, my tales of derring do. My alterations appear in square brackets.
Heere bigynneth the knyghtes tale.
Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
Ther was a duc …[Tracy]
[S]he was lord and governour,
And in [her] tyme swich a conquerour,
That gretter was ther noon under the sonne.
Ful many a riche contree hadde [she] wonne,
What with [her] wysdom and his chivalrie;
[She] conquered al the regne of Femenye,
23Thorns is always unhappy when I go medieval (sadly, it happens quite often) because I rush about the place wielding imaginary swords. One memorable evening after watching The Lord of the Rings, I all but broke my hand on the lintel with my imaginary shenanigans.
Now, add to this gamer/Chaucerian mania the fact that I am reading Nigel Cawthorne’s book, Witch Hunt: A History of Persecution and you will see why I was so delighted by the gods of coincidence when last Wednesday, our daughter started a fairground ride all on her own without having to insert the coin in slot.
We take our son for soccer training on Wednesdays. (And it’s Rubbish Day. Go and look at my new blog.) The training pitch is just next door to a lovely outdoor pizza restaurant with a large children’s playground round the back. The playground has jungle gyms, wendy houses, and black plastic bikes to drive on a little track. It also has those coin-operated children’s rides. When I see them in a public place I usually sigh with the resignation of a mother who has paid out absolute fortunes in coins over the course of a meal in order to have even a minute to eat over the whining for “another R2”, but this time it all worked out just brilliantly. As soon as we arrived, young whippersnapper dashed off to the play area with her first (and I promised myself ONLY) R2 coin. She was back at the table within seconds to tell me that she had just touched the ride and it started to go all on its own AND she hadn’t even had to put in her money. It was still going. It was magical.
“It won’t go off, Mom. I made it start and it won’t go off. Do you think I’m actually a witch? I think I am really a witch,” she said to me wide-eyed with wonder.
With equal wonder, I thought how lucky she was to grow up in a time of Hermione Granger instead of Tituba. Magic, for my little girl, is whimsy and delight; it doesn’t see you beaten and on a scaffold.
I don’t consider myself a feminist. I will be quite rabid about issues relating to women’s rights but I just don’t like the term ‘feminist’. I’ve never been very good at joining clubs and perhaps that’s why. Reading this book on the witch hunts, however, I’m starting to think that maybe, despite not wanting the word to be used to refer to me, I am actually a legitimate bra-burning feminist. Of course there were men who were accused of colluding with witches and with using witchcraft to kill off livestock or crops but for the most part, it was women who were subjected to scrutiny. And such demeaning scrutiny it was.
One of the sure fire ways of telling whether or not a woman was a witch was to carefully scan her body for the devil’s mark. This could be a birthmark, a mole or a third nipple which was apparently a common finding (for nursing her succubi, you know) on the bodies of the accused. To perform their examination of the accused, groups of men would strip the woman naked and examine her sinful body in minute detail. Apparently the devil’s mark was very often found in the deep recesses of the genital areas, so greater care was taken to examine that area of her body. If found the poor outcast would be tortured into a confession before being hanged all the same. This whole process just makes me mad as a snake.
Despite their being witch hunts in England from about the 7th century, punishments didn’t always involve torture and death. Fasting was one punishment imposed on witches. Unfortunately for some, the 8th century Archbishop of York required witches to fast for 7 years (!) before they could consider themselves cleansed. I have even managed a small giggle in between being feministically outraged. One early witch was punished by being made to sit in the town square in a white paper hat. Not in a pillory. Just in a hat. How Agnes Samuels must have longed for so simple a punishment or perhaps not…
Agnes Samuels’ and her family’s story particularly upsets me. In 1589 Jane Throckmorton, who was only 10 years-old, accused 76 year-old Alice Samuels, her husband John and their daughter Agnes of witchcraft. Jane’s father was the Squire of the town of Warboys and had friends in high places. Oliver Cromwell’s granny visited them for a time and threw her weight behind the prosecution of the Samuelses. When Granny Cromwell subsequently died in 1592, the townsfolk were finally ready to act. The Samuelses had obviously been the instigators of her demise. After nearly 4 years of living under the weight of shame and suspicion, the Samuelses were sent to trial. All three were sentenced to death by hanging. Agnes was urged by those friends she had left to feign pregnancy. Unborn babies were protected by the law; they were not guilty of their mothers’ sin. Instead of taking her one chance at prolonging her life, Agnes Samuels was hanged on April 5th 1593.
She chose not to feign pregnancy with the words, “It shall never be said that I was both a witch and a whore.” And that was just a woman’s lot, wasn’t it? Wife, witch or whore.
Do you know we still have witch hunts here in South Africa? In 2013 women are still persecuted and occasionally killed for being witches. Sometimes our witches are genuinely bad folk too, killing for body parts with which to make powerful “magic”. Good grief, time is tiring. Even after all this time we’ve barely moved forward.
Luckily though, it has moved forward in our house. It has even moved forward in the playground at the pizza place. My daughter is a witch. She knows it. She can do magic. She could make a fairground ride work without money for the whole hour her brother played soccer. She could even make it work for him after he had finished playing. She is not a scary outcast witch, she is the sort who brings a little bit of joy with her. And I think really that finding that joy and then being able to share it is the real deal as far as magic is concerned. That’s magic. There’s just too little of it around.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a palace to build, an army to whip into shape and a neighbour to subjugate.