Marjory Jourdemayne, also known as the Witch of Eye, was punished for wishing to see a pathetic, ineffectual child-king dethroned. I can certainly relate to this.
For years, leading up to her trial in 1441, Marjory had been known as someone who could provide potions useful in advancing love, curing impotence, bringing about conception, or ending pregnancy. The wife of a cowherd, more often she was seen in the company of learned men, astrologers, and well-born ladies.
Her client, Eleanor Cobham, was wife of the successor to a very young and sickly King Henry VI. Eleanor, it seems, wanted to know if the boy would die in time for her to become queen.
For my part, I would prefer not to know the future, it being the place where I and others die sooner than I would wish. But I wouldn’t object to knowing whether there really is a future waiting for us, staying up late and worried into the night watching for our little lights returning home to punctuate the darkness.
As we drive through the ancient pine forests of this sea-battered island as far from home as we can get, my daughter in a booster seat in the back, my husband with his eyes fixed on the road, I have been passing the time by reading us all fairy tales about deals with the devil.
In general it is brothers or soldiers who have three years or ten to crack the whip that summons treasures or pull out of the coat’s magic pockets as much gold as they like. They know exactly how long they have to enjoy their life and they enjoy it heartily right up until that last month or year when they get clever about riddles and crafty about contracts.
When they win their souls back, they win that big expansive blue sky of a life that is now nothing but the most exquisite pleasure of undeserved extra.
I have not yet read the account of a woman making a pact with a devil that ends so well.
The only accounts we have of women doing such things are in the court documents written to justify the violence done to them.
Marjory Jourdemayne was burned for treasonable witchcraft after constructing a star chart that foretold the death of the king. An act to which she confessed. She and her accomplices were also accused of, but denied, the more serious charge of trying to call up spirits from the infernal world by making an image in wax and then setting it before a fire to melt, “expecting that, as the image gradually faded away, so the constitution and life of the poor king would decay.”
I wrote about Marjory Jourdemayne during months when I was very busy looking at rental properties and applying for jobs in different cities because my current address, it seemed, could not be erased from the public record. Every day I was collecting new documents for some affidavit. I spent hours on the phone and in offices with authorities trained to tell me all the ways they could not speculate and would not help. I lost count of how many womxn told me about the threats they had endured during their years as teachers, professors, public intellectuals. I spent all of my time, it seemed, learning about our responsibilities and vulnerabilities and liabilities to each other. Liabilities and vulnerabilities and responsibilities that include what I can and cannot say in an essay like this.
In the essay I talk a lot about the philosopher Bertrand Russel’s Our Knowledge of the External World. I talk about fear and the future and only allude to the uncertain violence that looms, unspoken and hidden, over so many of our lives. It ends with these paragraphs:
Bertrand Russell is trying to be helpful to all of us who wish to be safe from each other but also gentle and good and meaningfully connected. “What happens now can only be accounted for, in many cases, by taking account of what happened at an earlier time.” When we do not understand a person’s past actions or their present desires, when their gait is unsteady and they twitch in a way our old instincts regard with alarm, we might respond with fear or we might respond with anger. “People who have never read any psychology seldom realize how much mental labour has gone into the construction of the one all-embracing space into which all sensible objects are supposed to fit.”
Unlike her servant Marjory, Eleanor Cobham was high-born, so her punishment was not execution. Instead she was paraded through the street while a candle tied to her hand burned down into a nub atop an agonizing wound. Then she was exiled to the Isle of Man to spend the rest of her life looking across the water towards her old home.
Did she really want the king dead? Or did she just need someone to chart all of the possibilities for the future so she wouldn’t feel so rattled with hope and fear of her own stars? These are among the endless sky of things we cannot possibly know.