Of Witch Hunts and Fairground Rides

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.

This is how it feels.

This is how it feels.

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.

Chaucer's The Knight's Tale. I am so living it.

Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale. I am so living it.

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…

witch hunt

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.

My joy witch, making magic.

My joy witch, making magic.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a palace to build, an army to whip into shape and a neighbour to subjugate.

25 thoughts on “Of Witch Hunts and Fairground Rides

  1. See also Hildegard von Bingen, who said, among other things, “Woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman.”

  2. The closest I get to going Medieval is reading Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, over and over and over and over again. I never tire of them. Witches get their own mini-series inside the covers and underneath the humour lays that peculiar ability for the English to be able to expose their grimy underbellies to scrutiny with a degree of honesty that keeps me coming back for more.

    I admire your online gaming. I admire anyone who can both arm themselves and fight within the space of about 20 minutes. I am one of those sad people who can’t multitask. Don’t get me wrong…I can cook a cake, make a cup of tea, yell at the dog AND walk around my kitchen but give me a console controller and ask me to “Play” anything other than a straightforward game and I am gone. I spent 5 minutes trying to find a bag of money to pay for medicine once and ended up dying from rabid giant rat poisoning because I couldn’t find the bloody bag in my inventory…not, methinks, someone who would be able to cope with wars.

    I love that your daughter has “magic”. We all need a little bit of magic in our lives. The kind that will see us dancing around in a moonbeam rather than having our heads surreptitiously removed because our husband decided to sleep with the widow Twinkie and gave us genital warts…I, too, resist the feministic call but sometimes…just sometimes…I wish I really did have the ability to turn some men into the toads that their human forms bely…

      • Me too 🙂 My wonderful kids got together and bought me the entire discworld series for Christmas a few years ago. I just headed over to The Book Depository and bought the last few in the series that I had been missing (published since their wonderful gift) and am eagerly awaiting the newest one coming out in November…I LOVE how Terry Pratchett writes.

    • I never read Terry Pratchett when younger. I read the youngster Carpet People the other day and loved it. I never read fantasy at all but find myself drawn to it these days when I’m not reading non-fiction. Perhaps getting older, learning about the real world has made me want to retreat into painfully predictable hero’s journey type stories

  3. Great post! Margery Kempe has always been my favorite medieval woman. It’s a wonder all she did in her life under the circumstances. To be a woman in the dark ages (or in communities still somewhat stuck in the dark ages)! Not so magical! Definitely makes me appreciate that my little witch grows enchanted plants in our garden and is free to be as mischievous as she pleases.

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  5. Which online game are you playing? I got into Dragons of Atlantis a few years ago. Thankfully, the company running the game kept freezing my account even though I did nothing wrong, making it easy to quit. I still play Age of Empires, though…

    You should really invest in a real sword. You can get cheap, blunt, stainless steel reproductions. I won’t recommend using them in the house though…

    • 23 would absolutely refuse to let me have a sword. Even a blunt one!

      Realm of Empires. I used to play Age of Empires on the PC years ago and loved it. I am so pleased to hear that another sensible adult became involved in this world!

      • What I enjoyed most was joining an alliance. Actually met a few people I wouldn’t mind being friends with in real life. But it’s a terrible time-sink and definitely not to be recommended for people (like me) with impulse control issues.

  6. Brilliant post, but I am increasingly cynical about a lot of the witch stuff. Why were certain people – women included – targetted? How reliable are these sources – we know that history is written by the victors. It sesms the famous Pendle witches were covering up for priests – under the Act of Conformity, when fines were imposed for non attendance at church, it became common for men of the family to go to anglican church, whilst the women kept the Catholic faith, which included supporting and hiding the priests. Also, these body searches need to be seen in their historical context. People did stuff in public that today would get them arrested, and punishment for adultery for example, involved being paraded through the streets naked. People – from the rulers to peasants – had no real privacy, so these searches had less impact than they would today. As for your daughter – maybe she’s an extra terrestrial. There’s another blog for you!

    • Thanks, Barb. It is difficult too imagine life at that time. I was trying to get my head into the space yesterday where if somebody was a killer, a psychopath, that your first thought would be that they were a werewolf. It is strange to imagine that it was perfectly plausible to go that route. It is bizarre to me that courts of law would send out officers to search for the magical ointment the devil spread on acolytes to enable the transfiguration. It is too strange for words that judges in the civil courts felt that evidence gained through torture was valid, when any one of them would themselves have confessed to satanic orgies and such put under that sort of strain.

      Years ago, I dated a guy whose mother claimed to be half extraterrestrial. Maybe that magical thinking is not so deep in the past.

      • You need to strip away lots more. These witch hunts happened in the vacuum after the Reformation, whihc lasted much longer in Britain than elsewhere. The courts were just local people, and their judgements had to be acceptable to the locals or their property would be damaged – like Sharia law, so it wasn’t necessarily that they believed this stuff, they had to go with what the mob had whipped themselves into believing. Without a well defined moral and legal framework, logic and justice often didn’t enter into it. Think more Lord of the Flies than any modern system. Death was not seen as a punishment, as it offerfed access to paradise, so torture had to be part of it.

  7. Being a feminist is nothing but believing in equal rights for men and women. You decide whether or not you are one. There is a lot of negativity applied to the term, because of the heavy abuse often met out to feminists. The word itself is sadly equated with hating men, but it does not mean that in any way. Feminists need to reclaim the term and use it with pride.

    Many witches were from rich families because both the accusers and the State got their spoils. That’s one of the major reason for such hysteria surrounding witch trials. Everyone was out to grab what they could.

  8. I’ve never come across any rich witches, and you talk about the state as though it was some powerful central power, whereas most witch trials were local and conducted by local magistrates. The hysteria about witch trials was that bad things were happening and nobody had any answers. I think this makes it the opposite of the above.

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