If my great-grandmother had lived in the 17th Century there’s a good chance she would have been named a ‘wise woman’. Great-grandmother Margaret was ‘fey’: she knew things. Take for instance the time she and her husband, who was a forester, took a few precious days holiday in a remote area of the Mountains of Mourne. During the night, Margaret woke with a start saying she must get to a poor woman who was giving birth. She dressed, hurried out into the rural black night and somehow located a lonely croft, where a woman she had never met was in labour – alone. Margaret, who had a large family of her own, delivered the child safely, and the family talked about it ever after. There were other incidents, but this on its own would have named her as ‘suspect’. How did she know? And how is it that I can answer questions about events I know nothing of or people I have never met? Actually I haven’t used a hand-pendulum for a very long time, it makes me too nervous. But it does explain my rather empathic interest in women accused of witchcraft, and why, when I was an English teacher, I tried to get adolescents to seriously consider Shakespeare’s use of the witches in Macbeth.
Let’s take these famous three – or four, if you count the doubtful inclusion of Hecate – as a starting point. Popular history tells us that in the early 17th Century Shakespeare needed to curry favour with King James, who had written a tract on witches in 1597, Demonologie. Knowing this, and apparently in an effort to emphasise James’ right to the English throne, Shakespeare opens his play on the wickedness of those who usurp a legitimate monarch with this famous scene:
Thunder and lightning. Enter three Witches
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won.
That will be ere the set of sun.
Where the place?
Upon the heath.
There to meet with Macbeth.
I come, Graymalkin!
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
Why, I used to ask, are the women on the heath; what are they talking about; and who is Greymalkin? Well, I think they are on the heath because they had no place in the village. They had no home other than a remote hovel, and no means of feeding themselves except by gathering and begging. They were on the heath, well away from any local hamlet or cultivated land, gathering berries to eat, bracken to burn . . . who knows, but they were there for a practical reason. These women are not welcome in villages because they make the inhabitants feel guilty (about not helping or housing them), and because they are accused by these same villagers as being the cause of anything from a bad harvest, to dry cows, to bringing about the death of an innocent child. The three witches here speak in riddles and call to their cats or ‘familiars’. Lonely people talk to their animals; people who live alone talk to themselves. Women who are close friends or family often chat together in a manner that makes little sense to outsiders, and laugh in unison at things other people can’t see, or don’t find amusing. These women on the blasted heath are quite easy to explain: they are social outcasts, misfits, ‘other’. They are too ugly to have found a marriage partner; widowed and childless so they have no home or income; or mentally and/or physically infirm so local villagers fear them. They know each other well and offer mutual support in a friendless environment, and chatter to each other in riddles.
Here is Polanski’s version of the witches in the first scene of his 1971 Macbeth. www.youtube.com/watch?v=tY2rWPN4uoE
There’s an old crone in black, a childless woman in late middle age, and an unmarried wench who’s mentally unstable. Polanski’s witch scenes are somewhat extreme, but I think he probably comes as close to identifying who these women really were as the script permits.
I also used to ask my students to think about how poor, aging single women and elderly or infirm men survived before workhouses or social welfare; to consider how they kept themselves alive. Then I’d ask why so many of those accused of witchcraft were women. To us it may seem obvious, but to sixteen-year-olds in the healthy, wealthy western world it’s an eye-opener. Keith Thomas, in his book Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971) says;
it is necessary to bear in mind that judicial records reveal two essential facts about accused witches: they were poor and they were usually women. (…) James I estimated the ratio of female witches to male at twenty to one. (…) Contemporary writers also agreed that witches came from the lowest ranks of society.
Lonely, elderly, infirm, malnourished women were easy to blame and they had no way to retaliate. People couldn’t or wouldn’t support them, and so consciously or subconsciously local communities wanted rid of them. Keith Thomas points out that witch trials during the 17th Century “included people from each social strata, but those condemned were overwhelmingly from the bottom of the social hierarchy”.
This leads me back to who was considered ‘suspect’. Apart from the reasons outlined above, I think society feared them primarily for their solitary ways. Any woman without a man – father, husband, son or brother – was suspect. A woman without a home or anyone to speak for her was suspect. Here’s Crook-back Aggie from my novel The Chosen Man, she is agonising over how to disobey her employer who
had as good as promised to protect her if – when – anyone accused her. Lady Marjorie understood: a woman as deformed as Aggie was always at risk.
If she hadn’t got a proper home and she had to sleep in the woods and beg a bite of food, people would lay all the crimes they could name on her. And prove them too. It’d take just one girl to see her picking berries or herbs, just one girl who’d lost her beau, or one woman who’d miscarried; one woman who’d be expecting and see Aggie’s crooked back and know her own child would be deformed – which was what had happened to her own mother – she’d be tried for a witch and burnt on the same day…
Crook-back Aggie, like Deborah Swift’s fictional wise woman Margaret Poulter, knows about herbs and medicinal plants. She also knows that if she loses her job this skill will be her downfall. As Keith Thomas says, “In a society more backward technologically than ours the immediate attraction of the belief in witchcraft is not difficult to understand. It served as a means of accounting for the otherwise inexplicable misfortunes of daily life”.
The adjective ‘inexplicable’ here is the key to perhaps all the cruelty and malevolence involved in witch trials. This is what led to Joan of Arc’s trial; her inability to explain her success as a charismatic leader in terms that grown men, soldiers and ecclesiastics (on the losing side) could understand. What people do not understand they fear.
However, centuries later, that which to many of us is inexplicable or uncertain is keeping fortune-tellers in business. I live in Spain, where every daily newspaper has at least one page of advertisements by women (and a few rather odd-looking men) offering their so-called skills with tarot cards or crystal balls. In this current period of severe unemployment, bad harvests and economic uncertainty fortune-tellers are doing a thriving business here. I do not understand the words of economists, I cannot grasp GDP or what is happening in banks, but if I wanted to I could seek comfort from the words of one of these wise women. And then, when what little security I have left is taken from me, when I realise her words were meaningless or have caused me greater problems than I already had, I could point my finger at that soothsayer and say ‘hex’.
If I were to direct a modern adaptation of Macbeth I’d like to introduce an alternative reading of the witches. In my version there’s a group of older women winding up a young man, who’s very full of himself, very eager and sharp-suited. They could be the cleaning ladies down in the basement of a high-gloss business premises; and he – let’s call him Mack – could be one of those New York ‘Mad Men’ or a London merchant bank executive. He’s gone downstairs because he’s after a huge account that will change his future and he knows Iris does the tea leaves. Iris is tickled pink. She and her pals have got him in their kitchenette where there’s a huge kettle steaming on the gas ring, and they’re pretending they can cook up a magnificent future for him in their cauldron. They’re having a tremendous time at his expense: “. . . Oh, yes, and an eye of a newt and a toe of a frog. What else shall we pop in Maud – a slice of tiger’s guts, baboon’s blood? You still got that bit of umbilicus . . .?”
What I’ve always wanted to know is how those supposedly illiterate women on that blasted Scottish heath in 1606 knew about tigers and baboons in the first place.
Written on Sunday 2nd of June, 2013 for Hoydens and Firebrands