The first witches I encountered were Macbeth's hags, and I was only five. That was because my mother, who was training to be a primary school teacher, had helped stage a glove puppet performance of the play, and afterwards I got her puppet to play with. She had a papier-maché head with bulging eyes and a hooked nose (of course), a lot of grey woollen hair, a pointy hat made of felt and a black dress under a rather elegant sleeveless purple satin overdress decorated with silver stars, testament to my mother's sense of style. You can't be terrified of a witch who lives in your toy box, and I just thought she was fun, as well as giving me the opportunity to happily (and incorrectly) chant 'Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble'.
The creature who did give me nightmares was the Witch Baby from 'Old Peter's Russian Tales,' with her iron teeth and insatiable appetite.
'Eaten the father, eaten the mother,
And now to eat the little brother.'
The thought of those pointed iron teeth (sharpened with a file) continued to be a terror to me, and it still wakes a residual shiver on me now. It's allied to the vampire fear, I suppose; something that looks human opens its mouth and there are the teeth all ready to eat you with.
In 1990, I found myself writing a poem I only partly understood, and called Hecate. It contained this verse:
This year, the night wrapped her
velvet around me
naked white flesh
- yet once I fled
devouring, iron-toothed hags -
I have turned to the
shadows for healing.
And I said to myself: 'I'm going to write a novel about a witch.'
I wanted an English witch; a witch out of history, and preferably local, so I phoned up the County Archivist's office in Reading and asked if they had any record of witch prosecutions. The man I spoke to told me about Mabel Modwyn, of Waltham St Lawrence: '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'.
|Old house, Waltham St Lawrence, copyright David Wilson|
The man couldn't understand why I was so delighted with this very scant piece of information. Clearly, if I'd been a historian it would have been disappointing, but it gave me a place to visit, and a period; from having the whole of English history to choose from, I had been given a date that was highly congenial to me, since it was within the Commonwealth period, which has always deeply interested me. It was also a period of great social upheaval. I was told that there was a typed book of extracts from the Waltham Parish Register in the library, and there I found the brief paragraph about Mabel again, and just below it, the story of a suicide who was secretly buried in the churchyard by her son and female relations. And that gave me the first chapter of my novel: my witch's daughter and son-in-law in the churchyard at midnight, fighting the flint-laden Berkshire clay with their spades. I sat down and wrote that chapter; it poured out of me and needed very little editing later on. I changed the witch's name, however, as it seemed to me that there was something slightly comedic about Mabell, particularly with two lls at the end.
|Waltham St Lawrence Church|
The story of witchcraft is about the intersection of fairytale/folkore and history; it's about economic factors and social stresses, but also about long-held beliefs which one might call peri-religious, since they use Judaeo-Christian imagery, but are not, emphatically, the official doctrines of the Church. I'd thought I was going to write about the Great Witchhunt of the seventeenth century, but I soon discovered that it never really took off in England, not even when James the First came south from witch-hunting Scotland and introduced a much stiffer Witchcraft Act. The witches in Macbeth are probably a compliment to his beliefs. Only in a couple of cases, such as Matthew Hopkins's Essex witchhunt or the case of the Pendle Hill witches, did England see the active seeking out of possible witches and the naming of other witches by unfortunates under torture. As for the organised witch-cult of popular fantasy, there is no evidence for it.*
In England, witch accusations were a sporadic thing, and didn't inevitably end in conviction; when it did, the offenders were sometimes mildly dealt with by the Church courts, sometimes they were swum in ponds and drowned (which proved their innocence, since the water wasn't supposed to accept a witch; floating was evidence of guilt). Sometimes they were brought to court for maleficent witchcraft, and in a few cases, hanged. They were not burned alive (though the bodies sometimes were, which in an era that believed in bodily resurrection was just as bad). But it demonstrates how sparsely distributed English witch prosecutions were that people believed a witch would burn, and it's on record that once even a judge thought that was the penalty, and had to be corrected, in open court, by his clerk.
So, you might think, not much drama there. Yet drama can be just as powerful with a restricted cast, on a small stage, and the stresses and murderous tensions within a small community are the very stuff of drama, particularly when you're dealing with people whose lives are so very different from our own.
A German friend, who'd spent a year travelling in Latin America between university and starting work, told me that he came to small villages and towns that made him understand 'One Hundred Years of Solitude', because they simply had a different kind of reality. I kept that in my head while I was writing the book. This was a world without street lamps, for one thing, when if there was no moon the only light the poor had was a rushlight (a rush dipped in tallow). Anyone who's stayed anywhere in the depths of the country knows about that all-encompassing darkness, though street lamps have largely banished it (and the stars, though not, where I live, moonlight) from modern European life. What might be in those deep velvet shadows beyond the reach of the faint, fragile rush-light, or even the extinguishable candles of the wealthy? I can well remember the terror of the dark in our Victorian house in Kendal, where my mother and brother did see a ghost, though I never did, a little old lady who walked up and down the stairs.
To investigate those shadows, I turned to broadside ballads, as well as reading historical accounts of witch beliefs in England. When I went to Cecil Sharp house to read them, the librarian told me that they were the 'tabloids' of that time. I think we have a better parallel nowadays, in the stories that go viral on the Internet. Those stories went viral more slowly, as diseases moved more slowly before the age of jet travel; they trudged along the muddy roads of England in pedlar's packs, but they spread. So everyone knew that the Devil sometimes came to poverty-stricken old women, and sometimes old men, and bargained for their souls, the price of which was truly pitiful: often no more than about a penny a day for the rest of their lives, but also the power to harm their fellow creatures as well, and many an old creature scraped a living through her neighbours' nervousness about offending her (or him), and thus escaped starvation. The witch story had its utility - up to a point.
The image we often have of this scenario is the 'harmless old woman' wrongly accused, but the harm occurred, and if the victims had offended the woman, and if she'd scowled, or shaken her fist, or even worse, gone off muttering 'you'll pay for this', there was the story all ready to apply to the events. So when my witch, Alice was refused 'yeaste to make beere', when her bees were stolen by her neighbour, when she was insulted by the village no-good drunk, and the Squire's servant refused to buy her honey, her revenge was terrible; the butter turned rancid (offences against butter ranked high in the tally of witch's crimes, incidentally, hardly surprising when butter-making was such a difficult, chancy business, particularly in summer), a child's hands suddenly turned the wrong way round and couldn't be mended till she'd been made to scratch the witch's cheek; a beam fell on the offending servant's head, children and livestock died, the bee-stealer was lamed all along one side of her body, and the village drunk was pursued through the night-time lanes by the witch's black dog, with coal-red eyes. Alice once made a man walk on his two feet all the way up a wall and across the ceiling upside down, like a fly (drawn from a broadside ballad), but that was outside the village and only she knew about it.
It's easy to patronise these beliefs, looking back from what we believe to be a more scientifically-oriented age, but throughout history human beings have made up narratives about the world and how it operates, and what we might nowadays dismiss as myths were as widely accepted in those days as narratives about strokes, hysteria, the effect of warmth on lactic products, and chance accidents would be nowadays. In any case, those other narratives still play in our modern world; horoscopes, 'healers' and 'dieticians' who diagnose by swinging a pendulum over you, fear of a single magpie, of the ladder over the pavement, touching wood - only we can reach for rationalism if we get spooked by these things, an option that wasn't so available to our forbears.
If you weren't sure who had harmed you, or you thought you knew, but wanted your suspicions confirmed, you could turn to a 'cunning person', analogous to witch doctors in Africa (though there, nowadays pentecostalist pastors are often involved). They used magic and quasi-religious rituals, many of them undoubtedly of great antiquity and pre-Christian, though Christian symbols were incorporated to placate the Church authorities. They found treasures and stolen property, undertook healings (some of them fairly scary, such as dragging people through bushes). The marjority of them were men, and sometimes middle-class men, too, but there were cunning women also. And they fingered witches. In England the cunning person's evidence was often crucial if a witch was brought to trial. In Scotland and continental Europe, the Great Witchhunt of continental Europe and Scotland scooped up cunning folk along with witches, which has confused many people's ideas of what a witch was. That's not to say that cunning folk weren't prosecuted for dubious magic in England - they were, and were even referred to as witches, sometimes 'white witches', but in England, it was very rare, though it did sometimes happen, that a cunning person was accused of maleficent witchcraft; ie, harming property and people and sometimes causing death. I did use this scenario, however, and therefore it was part of the story that the community has turned against Alice. People did say that 'you can't trust cunning folk.' They were slightly outside the community. Alice has always been lonely. But the key to her death lies in the relationships that have turned toxic.
|Lychgate, Waltham St Lawrence (where coffins used to rest).|
This story, then is about a woman who loved Alice and wished she didn't, a clergyman who turned his coat to match the times, a Royalist one moment, a Parliamentarian the next (like the Vicar of Bray), who loathed himself, about a mean-spirited, pernicketty woman with a skeleton in the family closet, a man with a grudge, a churchwarden with a guilty secret - all of whom have come to believe that the death of an old woman will make them safe. In that way, at least, the English witchhunt is related to the Continental orgies of torture and judicial murder. Norman Cohn, in his introduction to his history of the Great Witchhunt, 'Europe's Inner Demons', drew an analogy between that and the Holocaust, the 'Final Solution.' You find someone to wipe out, and then everything will go well, that's the story. We know it too well. Gretel pushes the witch into the oven and she turns to ashes, sister and brother return home. and not only have they found pearls and jewels in the witch's house, but the evil stepmother who wanted to get rid of them has died. The newly wealthy children are received only by their own penitent and joyful father. It's one of the most dangerous stories we tell ourselves. Alice knows that her death is mostly to do with the people who send her to the gallows; their fears, their hatreds, their darkness. 'You needed the harm,' she says to the Vicar.
But in the end, she's worn down, forced to accept her role in the fairytale. 'If I believe what they believe,' she thinks, 'I will not be completely cast out.' She's a human being; she needs her community, even if it means accepting that she's evil and has done the Devil's work. Indeed, one of the issues that fascinated me in writing the book was the way in which people do confess to crimes in 'appropriate' ways, and the ways in which guilt can be foisted onto people.
Talking to the Vicar in her cell, Alice says: 'You talk about truth and falsehood as if they could be weighed out like dried peas. But you don't really want the truth, nobody does. We all want short weight, and have it made up with falsehood. Then we feel safe.' In fact, only one person in the novel really wants the truth in all its bewildering complexity; Alice's daughter, Big Margaret, who begins by hating her mother, but who does find a measure of compassion and understanding through reflecting on Alice's story, particularly the last chapters. I wrote those in a kind of trance-state, just letting the words out onto the page. That is the strange thing altogether about this book. It's solidly rooted in research, but I've never been so little aware of the process of writing. It's the weirdest book I ever wrote, when I turned to the shadows.
Malefice is now available as a Kindle book (see this link)
Visit Leslie at her website: http://lesliewilson.co.uk/
*For information about the witch cult fraud, see
Hansel and Gretel - from a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1907, owned by Leslie Wilson
All photos copyright David Wilson