Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 13, Agnes Sampson

Agnes Sampson, a prominent midwife, got caught between a king, a queen, and an ocean’s worth of power-hungry liars scapegoating their way across the Scottish countryside. She was convicted of witchcraft for having given a woman in labor medicines that would ease her pain. These medicines included an unspecified powdered substance, a bored stone to keep under her pillow, and some “ichantit mwildis,” which are the finger, toe, and knee joints of a disinterred corpse, and she instructed the woman to put her husband’s shirt under the bed during her labor.

Agnes Sampson, known by all of her patients and clients as the Wise Wife of Keith, was famous for the help she could offer women who wanted children, women who didn’t, women in love, and women in pain. When the king decided he wanted to interrogate this “wise wife” personally, she had been shaved bald, tortured with a rope around her neck for an hour after being pinned to a wall for days by the witches’ bridle, which is an iron muzzle with a bit to hold down a woman’s tongue. Sampson began at last to speak after her naked body was inspected and a suspicious mark that was said to be the place where the devil put his tongue was found on her privates.

Agnes Sampson confessed so rapidly and so much – a dead cat was thrown in the sea, there was some kind of spell involving the “chiefest parte” of a dead man, a black toad hung up by his heels – the king said he could hardly believe her. With one eye on the instruments hanging from the wall of her cell, she took the king aside and “declared unto him the very words which had passed between the King’s majesty and his Queen the first night of their marriage.” After that James “wondered greatly, and swore by the living God, that he believed all of the devils in Hell could not have discovered the same.”

Hers is such a sad, infuriating injustice of a story, I almost can’t bear to tell it. Let’s end instead with the confessions of James Fian, a schoolmaster and the rare man to be accused of sorcery. He told his crimes like an old tale: Once upon a time he had tried to use a spell to make a woman love him back. He sent a pupil to get the young woman’s hair, but her mother intervened and sent the little boy back with hairs from the udder of a cow, which is how he came to be followed everywhere by a lovesick bovine. Surely the children he taught would have laughed at this punchline the first time he told the story. Let’s think of them now and of how this tender man made them laugh. We can forget for a moment the look on the inquisitor’s face the second time he told that story.

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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