Sunday, November 30, 2008

Butterfly effect

I had the honor of meeting another one of Mary Bliss Parsons’s descendants at my reading at Books Inc. in Palo Alto. We are related through Mary’s son Joseph, but after that the ancestors differ: I am the descendant of Joseph’s son Josiah, while she descends from his son John.

I noted that Joseph was only nine years old at the time of his mother’s first witchcraft trial. In a sense, that gives me a genealogical sigh of relief: even if she had been executed, he was of a “safe” age and would have still gone on to sire his line.

However, we will never know if her presence saved him at some later point: did she nurse him out of a fever as a teenager? Did an errand she asked him to perform mean that he was not in the “wrong place, wrong time” during an Indian raid? (One of her other sons, Ebenezer, died in a surprise Indian attack at Northfield, Massachusetts in 1675.)

He must have been one terrified nine-year-old, knowing his mother could be put to death in front of the whole town… and him.

. . . .

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

An update on medieval glass

My friend Carolyn saw my post about the stained glass windows still “moving” and sent me this link to a NYT article that says that is probably a myth:

It is well known that panes of stained glass in old European churches are thicker at the bottom because glass is a slow-moving liquid that flows downward over centuries.

Well known, but wrong. Medieval stained glass makers were simply unable to make perfectly flat panes, and the windows were just as unevenly thick when new.

Yet most people don’t understand why glass should be a liquid and so, well, solid-seeming. Even physics people are involved in this discussion, with Harvard physics professor David Weitz reported as saying, “It just can get so controversial and so many loud arguments, and I don’t want to get involved with that myself.”

One of the controversies involves why molecules in some part of glass move faster than in other parts—but to the eye, the glass appears the same in both regions.

If anyone can find the article I’m thinking of (circa 2001-02) that talked about conserving Europe’s stained glass, with the lead soldering suffering from the glass seemingly moving, please send a link. Thanks for this one, Carolyn! Lots of food for thought.

. . . .

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Stained glass

At the book signing after my panel at Book Group Expo, a reader asked what made me include the stained glass window. [Don’t worry… no plot spoiler. I’ll talk about it very generally.]

A number of years ago, I came across a newspaper article* discussing conservation of stained glass in European cathedrals. Apparently, the molten glass continues to move, infinitesimally slowly--somewhat like a glacier-- so that hundreds of years down the line, the soldering needs to be conserved. Soldering is the lead outline between the different colors of glass.

I found that idea very compelling, that the seemingly-static images of saints were slowly creeping from their bounds.

I also liked the idea that a medieval glass smith, while unable to know the future of his chemical handiwork, might intuitively guess that the glass still moved.

For my novel, having the subjects depicted in stained glass meant that they could still progress, and this worked for the notion of remembrance and legacy that I was looking for.

*I tried to google this particular article but was unable to locate it.

. . . .

Friday, November 14, 2008

The missed salon

Somehow I missed the fact that Kate Harding at blogged about my Chicago Tribune op-ed on witchcraft, also discussing Starhawk's piece in the Washington Post. Here's a link to the Salon piece.

I appreciated Kate's piece--and I enjoyed looking through the various comments to her post. Unfortunately, I'm so late to the game that no more comments are permitted. That's a shame because I'd like to clear up one bit of misinformation left by a commenter.

Very quickly, my op-ed talks about my ancestor Mary Bliss Parsons, who was accused of witchcraft, and how I view the playful Halloween decorations a little differently now, thinking of her own potential execution (she was acquitted). The commenter incorrectly stated that Mary was not immune to accusations herself, that she in fact accused her own husband of witchcraft.

There were, believe it or not, two different Mary Parsonses of Springfield, Massachusetts, both accused of witchcraft within a few years of each other. That's why I am always careful to state that my ancestor is Mary BLISS Parsons--the other is Mary Lewis Parsons.

The two Mary Parsonses knew of each other... in fact, as Mary Lewis Parsons caused the minister's children to suffer fits in church, somehow Mary Bliss Parsons also spasmed although she was an adult, and not connected to the minister. This is, in fact, one of the first things that began to cause suspicion against my ancestor.

Mary Lewis Parsons was found guilty and condemned to be hanged--but her execution was delayed due to her sickness and it's believed she died in prison. Her husband was also found guilty, but he was released after his wife's confession and acquitted in 1652.

It was a few years later, in 1656, that Mary Bliss Parsons first went to court for a slander trial against the neighbor who most stridently called her a witch. She won! (Actually, her husband won; he filed the suit on her behalf). But 18 years later, she found herself a defendant, when that strident neighbor's daughter died--supposedly as a result of her witchery. Once again, she prevailed and was acquitted.

Later, I'll post more about Mary Lewis Parsons. Her story is absolutely horrifying, for many reasons. She did accuse another woman of witchcraft, and indeed her own husband. But she is not the one I wrote about and that I am related to. This is all very confusing, and I will freely admit that when I first began learning about my ancestor, I too was momentarily misled by the two women's similar names.

. . . . .

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Misery heaped upon tragedy

The AP wire reported this summer that doctors in Spain were preparing to offer low-cost in-vitro treatments to women in certain African countries (not necessarily Zimbabwe, as I mistakenly wrote in my last post). The procedure, which costs thousands in the U.S., will be offered for a mere $200.

Why? Because infertile women run the risk of being accused of witchcraft.

As if the heartache of infertility isn’t enough, these women fear for their lives—because as I’ve been blogging about for a while now, being called a witch can get you killed in Africa (lynched, set on fire with gasoline, lynched: these are just a few that spring to mind from news reports in the last few years.)

The article reports that one in three women in Africa suffers from infertility. These high rates are due to “complications from unsafe deliveries, abortions or infections.”

"The cost of being infertile in Africa is much greater than in the West," said Oluwole Akande, an emeritus professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. Akande acknowledged the price of the procedure would still be available only to Africa's upper and middle classes.

He said that in many parts of Africa women who are unable to have children become social outcasts, are labelled as witches, and in extreme cases, are even driven to suicide.

Anyone who has ever endured infertility knows how it bewilders you, makes you feel your body is betraying you, and puts that germ of fear in your heart that you will never have a child. To add the jimmies on the crap sundae, so to speak, and realize your neighbors think you wield dark magic … well, that just would make me go into a room and close the door. For a long time.

The full story can be found here.

. . . . .

Monday, November 03, 2008

Pardoning witches

My editor at Random House forwarded me this CNN news item about a campaign in England to pardon its executed witches between the 16th and 18th centuries.

This is great news, and I hope Queen Elizabeth II will indeed extend the pardon.

A London costume supplier called Angels launched the campaign, which in some ways raises my eyebrows: was this a bid for publicity around Halloween by a large store that presumably does most or all of its business this time of year? Fortunately, Angels enlisted a witchcraft historian named John Callow to help them compile evidence, lending some scholarship to their cause.

The article states that 400 souls, men and women, were executed in England, while an exponentially larger 4,000 were killed in Scotland.

Angels put up a website to garner signatures for their petition—when you click through to the story, there’s a link to that site as well.

The piece mentions Salem’s witchcraft trials (all were eventually pardoned), but not the other 150-odd cases in the U.S. It’s so strange—people tend to believe that the Salem trials represent America’s only foray into witchcraft persecution.

Sadly enough, the Angels spokesman Benjamin Webb said the pardon isn’t a given:

Webb said while few people today may believe those men and women deserved execution, their stories still generate suspicion and stigma. That extends to modern-day criticism of children dressing as witches at Halloween with the idea that it's evil or connected to the devil, he said.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Welcome to November

Wow, October was really flurried, and I hope November will slow down somewhat. I'm trying to get up momentum to post about low-cost, in-vitro fertilizations being offered to women in Zimbabwe, since infertile women run the risk of being called a witch. Yes... that's today. Not five hundred years ago.

In the meantime, I guest blogged yesterday at the Historical Tapesty blog as part of their "Why I Love" series. I wrote about loving historical fiction, how I'm grateful I live when I do, and how fertility issues lay at the heart of many witchcraft accusations--including for my ancestor, Mary Bliss Parsons. Please check it out.

I'll be doing three book events for The Witch's Trinity this month: Nov. 19 at Books Inc. in Palo Alto (7 p.m.); Nov. 21 at Book Passage, Ferry Building, San Francisco (6:30); and Nov. 22 at good friend Kathleen's bookstore A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland (7 p.m.).

Finally, here's the link for yesterday's op-ed in the Chicago Tribune about witches vis a vis Halloween.

. . . . .