I picked up Witch Child (Bloomsbury, 2000) by Celia Rees because of its striking cover: a sepia-toned photo of a young woman staring back you. I took it home because it was a YA historical novel revolving around witchcraft trials in England and New England in the 17th century, and I wanted to see what Rees had to say about them. The story was also potentially compelling: the life of a granddaughter of an accused witch who crosses the sea to Salem.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far before I had to put it down. Because of this bit:
This must be the great Temple of the Winds. My grandmother had told me about it. A circle of stones, much, much greater than any other, built far to the south of us. Such places are sacred to those who live by the Old Religion. At certain times of the year my grandmother would set off for some stones that lay a day’s journey or so from where we lived. […] The rituals practised there were mysteries, the celebrants known only to each other. (31)
[This was initially supposed to be a post about the difficulties of reconstructing pre-Christian Slavic religious beliefs, but obviously, my mind wandered, and it should be fairly clear why.]
Studying the history of witchcraft trials in early modern Europe has inevitably put my patience under stress from understandings of those trials in popular culture—encountered every time I have to explain just what I’m studying for my Master’s degree to folks outside of the cozy academic womb. In Canada, the NFB’s The Burning Times (1990)is the main source of information for most. I’m amazed at how often people recommend that documentary to me, perhaps more amazed by how vigorously they defend it when I attempt to point out its errors, and completely dumbfounded that professors in English departments screen it for undergraduate courses. I’ve seen it, I dismissed it, but the damn thing keeps on coming back into my life.
Physical torture was inadmissible as evidence in early modern English court except under exceptional circumstances. Witchcraft, however, was not considered “exceptional” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The sorts of crimes people thought witches didwere linked to the everyday misfortunes of agricultural life: causing illness, killing cattle, spoiling butter, ruining beer. While central judicial authority lapsed during the English Civil War, for the simple reason that assize judges couldn’t get to local courts, Justices of the Peace still didn’t accept confessions gained from straight physical torture, a key difference from judicial practices in the Holy Empire, France, Northern Italy and Switzerland, hearts of the so-called “witch-craze.”