‘Did all women have something of the witch about them?’ Jane Chandler is an apprentice healer. From childhood, she and her mother have used herbs to cure the sick. But Jane will soon learn that her sheltered life in a small village is not safe from the troubles of the wider world. From his father’s beatings to his uncle’s raging sermons, John Sharpe is beset by bad fortune. Fighting through personal tragedy, he finds his purpose: to become a witch-finder and save innocents from the scourge of witchcraft. Inspired by true events, Widdershins tells the story of the women who were persecuted and the men who condemned them. [Description from Amazon UK]
This was our book club pick for January 2020, and I really enjoyed reading it. It’s based in my hometown of Newcastle Upon Tyne and is based on a true story of 15 (or 16) witches executed on the Town Moor in 1650. Witchcraft is an interesting subject, and this novel didn’t disappoint as it examines the lead-up to an accusation in the lives of two very difference people. It’s cleverly done, and everything comes together in the end, if not in the way that you expect.
Steadman’s writing is engaging and swapping between the two different sides – one chapter from the view of a witch hunter and one from the view of an accused witch. Both have very different demons to deal with, and it takes them in very different directions, but their lives will ultimately intertwine. Jane is very much an innocent throughout the novel, taking things at face value and not asking too many questions, almost accepting. John had so many bad experiences that he translated it into blaming someone else and wanting those people punished. He moved from victim to abuser and watching that journey is enlightening, but I still don’t fully understand it.
The book is very atmospheric and really brings to mind what life must have been like at that time. There was also great period detail which reminds you of when the book is set even when you’re focused on the characters rather than the time period or events. The author depicts a time when misguided judgements and superstitions were commonplace and led to a fear-driven craze as people wanted to remove what they didn’t understand.
The afterword adds a lot of clarity to what you’ve read when you’ve finished the novel, listing the women who, in real life, were executed in the Newcastle witch trials. The author handles the whole event sympathetically and makes sure in her note at the end to separate fiction from fact and what changes she made to the factual account.
It is a fictional portrayal of an event I knew very little about, though I have studied the European witch-craze as part of my degree. My favourite thing about the book is the way it is written because it’s so atmospheric and really gets into the heads of the two main characters, from whose point of view the story is told.
Witch-hunts were irrevocably tied in to the Reformation. Both Catholic and Protestant countries had cases, but they increased in number during the pivotal period of the Reformation. This was the second half of the sixteenth century. James Sharpe claimed that witchcraft operated ‘within the context of the reformation and counter-reformation’.[i] Witchcraft did not become a major factor in people’s lives until the Reformation, and it died out as the religious situation across Europe settled down and stabilised. In England, for example, the last person executed for witchcraft was Jane Wenham in 1712.[ii] This was a time when England was settled and unified with Scotland. It was probably the most peaceful time to be English.
In some Catholic countries, like Italy, Spain and Portugal, there were actually relatively few witch trials. However, Pope Sixtus IV still felt that the danger was enough to warrant him approving an Inquisition to deal with them.[iii] However, Pope Alexander IV explicitly stopped an Inquisition from dealing with witches as early as 1258. This was possibly because the Church still had its power, whereas in the later period that power was slowly slipping away. The Inquisition, although originally allowed to deal with Jews and Moors in Spain, widened out to include heresy like Protestants, and then witches. Continue reading “Witchcraft and the Reformation”
To what Extent can Women’s Unruly Speech be seen as Quasi-Public Power?
Women’s unruly speech can take a variety of different forms: gossip, slander or treason, to name a few. The term ‘quasi-public power’ is seemingly, partly or almost public power, as women did not have obvious public power; their only weapon was their speech. The key themes in this question are the ways in which women were targeted over treason, monarchs being victims of gossip, gossip in writing, cases and statistics, comparisons of male and female speech, as well as the connections between gossip and witchcraft. This essay will argue that women’s unruly speech was largely considered to be quasi-public power because attention was drawn towards it by the fact that the male population was threatened by it. There were repeated attacks on gossiping which showed a widespread concern that ‘unsupervised female solidarity posed a threat to the order and values of a patriarchal society’. Hence, groups of gossiping women were seen as a threat to male order. However, there are a few historical problems in this area. Women’s speech is recorded a lot less than men’s unless it gets to court, so we have a lot more records of male speech than female. Also, women’s speech only became powerful when men gave it credence, so we cannot see evidence of it unless men gave it credit.
Simply the fact that many women went to court over cases of scandalous, slanderous or treasonous speech gives them quasi-public power, as courts more often than not made the cases public. Treason cases particularly were always very high-profile and, if it was a case of female treasonous speech, this brought women’s unruly speech to the attention of the population. Continue reading “Women’s Unruly Speech in Early Modern Europe”
How do Historians Account for the Comparative Differences in Witch Hunting and the Witchcraze Throughout Europe?
The witchcraze was a period in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries where so-called ‘witches’ were hunted and punished for practising witchcraft. This belief in witchcraft was most noticeable in Scotland and continental Europe as this is where the majority of accusations took place. This essay will look at several different areas of witchcraft and the witchcraze, including where beliefs did and did not take hold, the proportion of men and women who were accused, the influence of the Protestant Reformation and the prosecution of witches across Europe. Historians tend to agree that the witchcraze took off in Protestant areas more than Catholic areas, and also that it was largely female-identified. Historians also agree that there were different punishments for witchcraft in different countries, with some being stricter than others. However, there are some problems in analysing the differences in the witchcraze in different countries because for some countries it is difficult to access the trial records and historians do not even agree on the number of people who were executed as witches in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries at the height of the witchcraze.
The witchcraze had more of an effect in some countries than others but the questions that were asked to accused witches by the interrogators and the authorities were often given the same or very similar answers all across the globe, and it was this which first gave rise to the idea that the witchcraze was an ‘international conspiracy’.Continue reading “Witchcraft in the 16th and 17th Centuries”