Book Review – ‘Widdershins’ by Helen Steadman


‘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.

Book Review – ‘The Peasants’ Revolting Crimes’ by Terry Deary


Popular history writer Terry Deary takes us on a light-hearted and often humorous romp through the centuries with Mr & Mrs Peasant, recounting foul and dastardly deeds committed by the underclasses, as well as the punishments meted out by those on the right side’ of the law. Discover tales of arsonists and axe-wielders, grave robbers and garroters, poisoners and prostitutes. Delve into the dark histories of beggars, swindlers, forgers, sheep rustlers and a whole host of other felons from the lower ranks of society who have veered off the straight and narrow. There are stories of highwaymen and hooligans, violent gangs, clashing clans and the witch trials that shocked a nation. Learn too about the impoverished workers who raised a riot opposing crippling taxes and draconian laws, as well as the strikers and machine-smashers who thumped out their grievances against new technologies that threatened their livelihoods. Britain has never been short of those who have been prepared to flout the law of the land for the common good, or for their own despicable purposes. The upper classes have lorded and hoarded their wealth for centuries of British history, often to the disadvantage of the impoverished. Frustration in the face of this has resulted in revolt. [Description from Waterstones]

Thanks to Pen & Sword for the chance to read and review this book.

I think this was one of the most enjoyable history books I’ve read in a while. I thoroughly enjoyed the Horrible Histories series by Terry Deary when I was younger, and I think it was those books that made me want to study history. This book on the crimes of peasants throughout history doesn’t disappoint when compared – the only thing I miss in comparison to the Horrible Histories are the cartoons, which I suppose have been removed to make this book better for adults.

Deary brings in primary sources throughout, and quotes from various famous people from history, both fictional and real. The book is split down into easily digestible chunks chronologically from the Normans, through the Medieval, Tudor and Stuart periods and on to the Georgians and Victorians, discussing all kinds of crimes from football hooliganism, rioting, grave robbing, poisoning and murder. The whole spectrum is covered, along with different punishments.

I’m not normally a big fan of footnotes – I actually prefer endnotes as it means that you can read without getting distracted by them, and just look at the endnotes that are interesting to you. Some books have really long footnotes, which also really annoys me, but this book doesn’t have that problem. The footnotes in this book are actually really enjoyable, as they seem to add some comic relief and jokes, which are very much like what I remember of Terry Deary.

The chapters are all broken down into sub-sections, making this easy to dip in and out of, or if you are interested in a particular type of crime or a particular period. He goes deeply into some cases where there is a lot of evidence or a moral tale. Deary has a great writing style which makes his work easy to read and engage with, and makes you want to keep reading, which is great in a non-fiction history book, as some of them can be a bit dry. This definitely isn’t a problem with Terry Deary’s books and writing!

This book is definitely worth a read and apparently there will be more in the series with the next one entitled ‘The Peasants’ Revolting Lives’. I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in to the next one, it’s already on my wish list!

Chapters:

  1. Norman Nastiness
  2. Mediaeval Misery
  3. Wild Women
  4. Tudor Twisters
  5. Sinful Stuarts
  6. Quaint Crimes
  7. Georgian Jokers and Victorian Villains

Assess the Effects of the Reformation on the Lives of Women in Sixteenth-Century Europe?


I was very proud of this essay which I wrote as part of my Masters degree. It got me a first. Please don’t use sections from it in your own work without proper referencing.

The issue of women in history has been neglected until relatively recently. Hence the historiography on the effects of the Reformation on the lives of women is quite up-to-date. Cissie Fairchilds and Peter Wallace have two contrasting opinions which will both be explored in this essay. Fairchilds argues that the Reformation brought ‘some losses but more gains’ for women and ultimately improved women’s status in society.[1] Conversely, Wallace argues that the reformation ‘bound women more tightly to men’s authority’ which diminished their status.[2] These two opinions are irreconcilable, so one must triumph over the other. In this author’s opinion, the Reformation allowed women a measure of freedom, more than had been achieved in the Medieval period, but they were still ultimately subject to patriarchal authority. It was not until much later, into the twentieth century, that women managed to completely break away from man’s authority. The Reformation acted as a catalyst for these later changes. In examining the Reformation in relation to women it is politic to look at several fields of interest: education, marriage, witchcraft, religion, scholarship and monarchy. These key areas will demonstrate the effect of the reformation on the lives of European women in the sixteenth century. Continue reading “Assess the Effects of the Reformation on the Lives of Women in Sixteenth-Century Europe?”

Witchcraft and the Reformation


 

Title page of the seventh Cologne edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1520 (from the University of Sydney Library)
Title page of the seventh Cologne edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1520 (from the University of Sydney Library)

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”

Women’s Unruly Speech in Early Modern Europe


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’.[1] 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.

Ducking Stool
Ducking Stool

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”

Witchcraft in the 16th and 17th Centuries


How do Historians Account for the Comparative Differences in Witch Hunting and the Witchcraze Throughout Europe?

Title page of the seventh Cologne edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1520 (from the University of Sydney Library)
Title page of the seventh Cologne edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1520 (from the University of Sydney Library)

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.[1] 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’.[2] Continue reading “Witchcraft in the 16th and 17th Centuries”