Thursday, May 07, 2009

This originally appeared as a guest post for Historical Tapestry.

I love historical fiction, because I love the opportunity to learn about women's lives of thepast, whether glorious or painful. It helps me hold a mirror up to my own life, and see that I am lucky to live when and where I can vote, where I can speak my mind, where I can take penicillin and not die from a minor infection, where I can undergo labor that is still risky, but knowing my chances of coming out of it alive, with a healthy child, are pretty strong.

History seems to give the lion’s share of textbook coverage to men and battles, but I like to know what women of the day were doing. Sometimes it takes some digging, but the research is always compelling and allows me to feel kinship for these women who made the best of the world they were given.

In the most recent instance, I buried my nose in books about medieval witchcraft. I studied a world where society measured women’s value by how many children they produced, and how many of those they managed to raise to a “safe” age. I learned that having a male relative (father, son, husband) was key to protecting oneself—many widows or unmarried women found themselves accused.

I learned that the cards were stacked against women accused in medieval Europe (New England was far more reasonable—more on that later). Getting one’s case dismissed is hard when you are not allowed to have an advocate (lawyer) speak for you, or even to know who is accusing you. Those were two procedural suggestions from the Malleus Maleficarum, the witch hunting Bible written in the late 1480s. This pseudo-legalistic book by two friars provided a guide to help magistrates figure out how to properly try a witch. A bestseller of its day, it winged its way across the countryside, allowing baffled lawmen to confidently hold inquisitions.

The reason magistrates withheld the accusers’ names? So that the witch could not summon the Devil or other witches to visit retribution on the accusers’ heads.

And why not permit her to be represented? Because anyone who supports heresy is a heretic in turn.

Fertility plays a huge role in witchcraft accusations—and as women are childbearers, they were more frequently accused, although certainly men also faced trial in significant numbers. In a world without supermarkets, staying alive requires that you have a successful harvest and properly store the food, effectively raise and keep animals, and have your own children to help do all this work…all of which hinges on fertility.

Small wonder, then, that so many of the accusations relate to cows and chickens dying—there’s milk and egg production squandered and lying in the dirt. Other accusations involved controlling the weather (and hence crop growth)… this medieval woodcut shows witches calling down the rain with the magic stew in their cauldron.

And of course, many, many accusations related to miscarriages, stillbirths, newborn deaths and outright infertility. These are issues we still struggle with today… imagine that grief compounded by an angry belief that someone else did that to you.

In 1656, a woman was pregnant at the same time as my ancestor, Mary Bliss Parsons. While Mary’s baby thrived, the other woman’s died soon after birth...and she called Mary a witch for it.

This was just one of many crimes her Massachusetts neighbors felt she was responsible for. The others also fell in line with the fertility concerns of centuries: that she made a cow, pig and sow die, caused a neighbor boy to trip in the woods while tracking down his family’s errant cow, and made spun yarn diminish in volume. (She also faced oddball accusations like being able to go into water and not get wet.)

Mary spoke for herself in court, so effectively that she won. And here’s where New England was fairly reasonable: nearly 30 percent of witchcraft cases ended in acquittal. As a new country, not so deeply entrenched in the centuries of witch hunting that Europe endured, the colonies behaved far gentler to their witches. Even when executed, witches knew kindness—the preferred method was hanging, a presumably quicker death than burning at the stake.

Mary again faced the witchcraft accusation 18 years later; apparently, the court’s ruling was unconvincing. She was—mindblowingly—acquitted again, and died of old age in her eighties.

Mostly these sojourns into the past make me so, so grateful that I live when and where I do. Although to be honest, I’d give my eyeteeth (who needs them, really—and in fact what are they?) for a chance to visit the 1800s just for a day.

Preferably not a day when someone with tuberculosis sneezes on me, or a day when I’m giving birth to a breech baby…or a day when a migraine hits…or I have food poisoning and it’s 30 below zero and I have to keep running to the outdoor privy… or I really hate the candidate running for office and wish that I could cast a vote, and my husband tells me it isn’t proper for women to vote… or a day when… actually, maybe I’ll stay here in 2008.

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The image comes from a 1489 book on witchcraft, De Lamiis, reproduced in Kors & Edwards: Witchcraft in Europe 1100-1700.

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