The devil, it is said, keeps a book of names where you sign in your own blood or some other potioned ink like a liquid iron gall. There is no erasing it, there is no smearing it.
If your name appears in the devil’s book, to hear the Puritans tell it, he is now your master. If they let themselves think very much about it, the Puritans must have been terrified that what they had done to other people might in turn be done to them.
When Nathan Putnam, master of Mary Black, told her in no uncertain terms she was forbidden to confess to anything the court asked, no matter how they pressed, did she appreciate the encouragement to hold fast to truth or just fear his command more than those of the magistrate?
Unlike Mary Black, the enslaved woman Candy confessed and she also accused. “Candy no witch, Barbados.” She said, “In this country mistress give Candy witch.” When the magistrates asked how her mistress made her a witch, Candy answered, “Mistress bring book and pen and ink, make Candy write in it.” The historian Cassander L. Smith lingers over the 40 words of hers in this fragmented slip of a trial record we have left from that moment. Smith sees in her testimony an “instance of verbal resistance” when Candy “circumscribed the transcriber’s (and court prosecutors) own rhetorical strategies” and makes us think about who her mistress really is, of what she is capable, and what it means to see your name written on someone else’s pages. She makes those who would have dismissed her as nothing more than property consider what it makes you when you say you have the papers to prove you own someone’s soul. The records say that the afflicted Puritans in the room, upon hearing Candy’s words and then seeing her dunk some knotted rags in a bucket, “were greatly affrighted and fell into violent fits.”
The truth is here and has been the whole time. Even, or perhaps especially, pathological liars get their tongues all tied up in it. Medieval Christians called this phenomenon the Anti-Christ – every good has its opposite, every Christ his Satan, every Bible its Devil’s Book, every congregation its coven. They preferred to imagine that opposite existed outside themselves.
When I try to imagine the devil’s book, I see the piled-up files as the historian combs through every record, bill of sale, ship’s manifest, and diary, trying to find one enslaved woman’s name in that sea of ink. I try again to see his book, but called to mind instead is that scene out of the transcripts of Salem when a judge asked the enslaved woman Candy if she had signed the devil’s book. She answered that her mistress had once shown her that her name was written in a book and she felt the presence of a great evil, the kind of thing the Puritans called “the devil.” Candy said “Candy no witch in her country. Candy’s mother no witch. Candy no witch, Barbados.”
Margaret Hawkes, on the other hand, the white woman who imagined herself to own Candy, was a very real kind of monster profiting from a very real kind of pact with a devil.
Agnes Naismith laid a dying woman’s curse on the town of Paisley and who can blame her, given how she was scapegoated, along with six other people, after that spoiled brat of a laird’s daughter, Christian Shaw, fell into fits. Or at least that’s one way to tell the story.
Christian Shaw was eleven when she saw her servant Catherine steal a drink of milk. She told her mother what the maid had done, and Catherine, pissed off at the stinginess of the whole household, cursed the girl, saying she wished the devil would “haul her soul through Hell.” Not long after, Christian encountered old, trembling, much-whispered about Agnes Naismith on the road. Soon the girl was having fits and seizures, feelings of flying through the air, and coughing up bits of hair, charcoal, chicken feathers, and straw. The usual symptoms.
It is possible Christian Shaw was a murderous, conniving psychopath. Others have suggested we might attribute cases like hers to what the DSM-V calls Functional Neurological Symptom Disorder. There are experts who say it is worth considering the possibility that witchcraft is real, especially to those who believe in it. So far as we know, the girl herself never wondered whether the story of her life was a delusion or a sin or a convenient occasion for landed gentry to demonstrate their power. She was after all the daughter of the Laird of Barragan, and the daughters of lairds seldom have to contemplate, must less justify, the reasons for or the consequences of their actions.
When Christian Shaw grew up she travelled widely across Europe with her mother who was also her business partner. After finding such fine thread being spun in Holland, they smuggled pieces of that new invention, the spinning jenny, back home in their skirts. And then founded Bargarrem Threads, which would become the industrial backbone of Paisley’s mill-town economy for the next four hundred years. Whether Christian felt like a survivor of something terrible or a murderer of the innocent or just never thought of anyone but herself at all is impossible to say for certain.
But Paisley, now an old mill town of mostly shuttered factories, still trembles a little to remember Agnes Naismith’s accusing finger. After dumping the burned remains of the Paisley witches in their mass grave at a crossroads, authorities sealed it with a horseshoe. If it ever comes loose, the city sends out a crew to repair the seal. That horseshoe now sits in the center of a traffic circle, cars whizzing around. Though it seems to me most likely that horseshoe has only locked the evil things — the mobbing, the fear, the accusations, the unrepentant violence — out here in this world of ceaseless making and doing, so much unrelenting industry.
Behind door number 18 is Maria Sibylla Merian, the great botanist and first ecologist, who discovered and documented insect metamorphosis in the 1600s. She had to be very careful about her reputation, because there were many who still believed in witches and their power to take the form of butterflies and spoil the milk. She kept her laboratory of silkworms and caterpillars very secret.
Maria Sibylla Merian’s first book was about caterpillars. She was a most unusual artist and a most unusual scientist for how she painted insects on their host plants. Because her plants were always surrounded by their pollinators, she is called the first ecologist. Even as a girl who had been given a present of a silkworm, it was dangerous and must be kept secret, this interest in things that creep and crawl and grub. Before she discovered metamorphosis, it was thought the flying things spontaneously generated or were tormentors sent up from Hell. She had to be cautious with her propriety – butterflies were still believed by many to be transfigurated witches doing the devil’s work to sour the milk. It was the end of one mean age, everyone so hungry or afraid of being hungry again, and the beginning of another; she would have been foolish to think herself safe from the accusations of those who feared witches, those who feared women, and those who feared science.
Her second book was a lavishly illustrated monograph on the flowers and insects of Surinam that included footnotes on the uses of the plants, including those that were used as abortifacients. There was a kind of peacock flower she drew with its stamen uncurling like a luxurious tongue licking butterflies right out of the air. The yellow cheeks of petals buttercup their way around the seductions of vines. The rich depth of those seeds – crushed they make the richest ink in the world.
“The Indians, who are not treated well by their Dutch masters, use the seeds to abort their children, so that their children will not become slaves like they are. The black slaves from Guinea and Angola have demanded to be well treated, threatening to refuse to have children. They told me this themselves,” Maria Sibylla Merian wrote in her footnote to the portrait of that beautiful flower.
In 1647 in every ditch and byway of Europe there were plants growing that you could have used to prune back the abundance of your body, but you’d have had to catch a witch-in-butterfly to get the recipe. In the footnotes to a book of pretty flower engravings this woman’s secret, revealed in such plain terms, is very great and dangerous.
She didn’t know much Latin. Women had no occasion to learn it. She used instead the names the indigenous people used and footnoted each flower with the uses the indigenous people knew. She does not name her sources for any of this knowledge, though that source was likely an indigenous woman, likely enslaved, likely someone who could have benefitted from a share in those royalties that granted Merian the freedom to live her life with more freedom than most.
Maria Sibylla Merian had the revolutionary idea a plant was not an object you picked out of the field, but a point of intersection for pollinators and predators and fruit and weather. She might have extended this ecology even further to include the human societies that grew up around them.
She might at least have left us a name. A woman with no name and no story is holding out a flower. I don’t know this woman. I have tried to imagine her. I have tried to imagine being her. To be human, after all, is to look at each other and imagine how it would be. But then again, maybe we are not so capable of everything we imagine ourselves to be. It could have been any of us, but it was her who lived her life, her who died that life, her whose name the botanist never once bothered to write down in a footnote or journal or dashed-off letter. Most likely it was her secrets so carelessly given away.
The Bird of Paradise is one of the most vibrant blossoms to spring out of this earth – its crimson tongue, the ocher of its petals. The seed makes the darkest ink a blank page has ever swallowed.
Yesterday my friend Bob sent me a picture of the railroad tracks that ran along the edge of the defunct dairy farm outside Glouster, Ohio where I used to live. I walked over or under that bridge with my dog every morning. And yesterday another friend, Darcy Higgins, shared her beautiful graduate thesis on conservation education in that county (which you can read here). So today on my Advent Calendar of Witches I want to talk about Mountain Mary, Appalachian magic, hex signs, acid mine drainage, and a little stretch along the banks of Sunday Creek where I keep a piece of my heart.
A well-laid hex can last a long time. Pow-Wow, or Long Lost Friend: A Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts and Remedies for Man as well as Animals, with Many Proofs of Their Virtue and Efficacy in Healing Diseases, Etc., was an Americanized English translation of a very old book of spells and home remedies. From the German tradition of braucherai, it was translated as “pow-wow,” in keeping with the many other appropriations that would be committed by the European immigrants against Algonquin and other indigenous peoples.
In this book, the line between magic and folk wisdom is not a line, but a gauzy billowing. There are spells to make molasses and beer, recipes for eye-water, words to protect a traveler on a journey, remedies for burns and colic. To prevent a wicked or malicious person from doing you an injury, you should recite the following: “Dullix, ix, ux. Yea you can’t come over Pontio, Pontio is above Pilato.” To cure epilepsy, take a turtle dove, cut its throat, and let the person afflicted with epilepsy drink the blood. For the spell “To Prevent Gun-Barrels from Rusting,” you will need an ounce of bear’s fat, half an ounce of badger’s grease, half an ounce of snake’s fat, one ounce of almond oil, and a quarter of an ounce of pulverized indigo.
We used to live inside the orbit of all those old hex signs on the barns and whispers of this or that granny woman and what folks remember of how she used to heal. Our defunct dairy farm straddled a stretch of Sunday Creek and in that place my husband and I liked to sit on the back porch making plans for the crumble down barn on our stretch of the banks. We thought it would be idyllically pastoral to hang one of the old charm signs over the hayloft. My favorite was the good luck distelfinke, which is a stylized bird with a red feather coming out of the top of his eye that makes you think of quail. There is a curving fretwork of blue feathers down his neck like an echo of fish. The wings are a yellow plumage of jagged lightning folded close against the body. The distelfinke often perches atop a tulip that means faith but opens out petals like a kiss.
Like most everyone else in those coal boom turned depopulated and opioid-addled towns known as Little Cities of the Black Diamond, we found it hard to justify the expense of barn paint when we were being so carefully, anxiously strategic about groceries and gas. The foundation was leaking and the furnace had a troublesome rattle that echoed through the silent winter.
A local conservation group hired my husband for minimum wage to be an assistant to the water quality specialist, because he knew a something about wildlife biology and something about lab work, and because once in another watershed another lifetime ago he lost the Ozark farm of his childhood to the lead mines, who owned the underground rights beneath his family’s farm and sunk the water table during a bad drought summer. There was a spring next to the foundation of his great-grandfather’s cabin that burbled up a little creek where the cows drank. That summer the water ran yellow and then it didn’t run at all.
Sometimes our stretch of Sunday Creek ran gray and turbid like smoke and we did not know why, despite repeated phone calls to Buckingham Coal who still had a dig upstream. In Truetown, 9 miles downstream of us the creek had long since turned orange and stank of rotten eggs because of a collapsed 19th century mine. Gob piles of coal too poor to burn lined the creek banks in a tarry mess of barren sludge weeping acid for a hundred years now.
Old timers say you can dunk your kid in the waters of that acid mine drainage, holding on tight to her ankles, to cure her of lice. It’s the kind of spell you can find in Long Lost Friend beside suggestions for stinging nettles, which are “Good for Banishing Fears and Fancies, and to Cause Fish to Collect.” The book promises, “Whenever you hold this weed in your hand together with Millifolia, you are safe from all fears and fancies that frequently deceive men.” It goes on to say, more practically, “If you mix it with a decoction of hemlock, and rub your hands with it, and put the rest in water that contains fish, you will find the fish to collect around your hands.” I read this to my husband on a day when he came home sweaty and broke-down tired after dragging a 150lb generator through a mile of brush to send voltage through their nets to shock the fish. Momentarily stunned, the creatures bob to the surface, where the scientists record their paltry numbers and the distressing absence of certain key indicator species. Before long they flicker back to life and disappear beneath the murk once more. If only he had known it could be so much easier, he says, stretching his sore arms out behind his back.
Here is a remedy to be applied when anyone is sick. “Let the sick person, without having converse with anyone, put water in a bottle before sunrise, close it up tight, and put it immediately in some box or chest. Lock it up and stop up the keyhole; the key must be carried in one of the pockets for three days, as nobody dare have it except the person who puts the bottle with water in the chest or box.” There are no instructions about what to do at the end of three days. Drink the water? Pour it down the drain? Forget you ever put it in that box in the first place?
There is a remedy you can use when anyone is falling away, and which, the book swears, has cured many persons. “Let the person in perfect soberness and without having conversed with anyone, catch rain in his pot, before sunrise; boil an egg in this; bore three small holes in this egg with a needle, and carry it to an ant hill made by big ants; and that person will feel relieved as soon as the egg is devoured.”
Where we lived there was talk of dangerous river witches like Nelly Noll. And there were memories of women like Mountain Mary and her legendary goodness. With her hands alone, the old timers said, she could heal you. But all you can find now of Mountain Mary is her name. It’s on a forest here, a wet weather ditch there. There are the last few logs of this or that abandoned cabin in the way-back woods people say must have once been hers.
They say she was something powerful good in the midst of these terrible hard hills, they say she walks them sometimes still like a sweet wind looking to brush past your hair and make you alright.
There is a mist every morning that fills up the hollers so thick you can hardly see, and then there comes a moment each day when you crest a high ridge and see the sun all of a sudden fully risen. You can look down the valleys to the barns, some red, most gray with age and neglect, a few very fine ones decorated by a large painted quilt square or one of the many hex signs. A red horse head in silhouette protects animals from disease and the barn from lightning. A maple leaf brings contentment, oak leaves are for strength. Often the two symbols interweave in a sunburst of fortitude and happiness. Raindrops are a call-down promise of fertility for the soil and the family. On other days there is that other haze, the one still smoking out of the earth, ever since 1884 when miners in New Straitsville had been striking hard against the poverty, the exploitation, and the dangerous working conditions. When the owners brought in scabs, the miners slipped into the coal seams and started a fire. By the time anyone who might have stopped it realized what was happening, the underground was blazing and a hundred years later it’s still burning, smoke still escaping through sinkholes to the surface every now and again.
The spell to prevent conflagration is a long and complicated affair involving a black chicken, a scrap of shirt worn by a chaste virgin and cut off according to her own terms, an egg laid on a Thursday, wax, pots, and various days of burying things beneath the threshold. Another method of stopping fire is to say these words:
Our dear Sarah journeyed through the land, having a fiery hot brand in her hand. The fiery brand heats, the fiery brand sweats. Fiery brand, stop your beat. Fiery brand, stop your sweat.
Among the dozen ways to stop bleeding, one is to say these words:
I walk through a green forest; There I find three wells, cool and cold; The first is called courage, The second is called good, And the third is called stop the blood
I have gone and will go to many public hearings. I know the spell “To Gain a Lawful Suit.” I know you take large leaves of sage and write the names of the twelve apostles on them, then put these in your shoes before entering the courthouse. Nevertheless, our little town and all of our neighboring towns took “donations” of fresh coal ash the companies were otherwise required by law to dispose of as hazardous waste. To save money they used the flakes instead of salt on the roads in the winter. So with spring thaws new coal ash ran off the sides of roads directly into the creeks and we didn’t even have to wait for some new disaster to turn another spring orange.
Nevertheless, treatment plans for the worst acid mine drainage sites were proposed. One city council voted the plan down because the acid neutralized the wastewater they dumped directly into the creek, as they had no sewage system. Another reason was that the passive treatment ponds full of water reeds and other plants that would filter the toxins through their roots would not look as sightly as a smooth mowed lawn. Hanging heavy in the air of so many meetings was the conviction you couldn’t trust scientists and you couldn’t trust conservationists and you couldn’t trust people with nothing more to show for themselves than pride in all their degrees and accomplishments come to tell folks what to do.
During these public hearings mountain tops were removed. The earth began to shake as fracking destabilized the balance of bedrock and shale beneath our water table. We asked ourselves if orange water weren’t the least of our worries and we knew the answer was simply that we had too many worries.
I buried a stillborn baby on the banks of Sunday Creek. Sometimes when I looked out at that orange and stinking water, I think Long Lost Friend must be a broken book. A support beam cracked, the roof collapsed, the water poured in or the fire did, the tailings and the ash everywhere. Now no one dares drink from the poison of those pages. It has spells to make divining rods, spells to lift a curse, spells for mending. I wish I believed it could do us any good.
And then I turn the page and find I must try to believe once more.
To Mend Broken Glass: Take common cheese and wash it well, unslaked lime and the white of eggs, rub all these well together until it becomes one mass, and then use it. If it is made right, it will certainly hold.
Today I’m thinking about Titiba (or Tituba as you have likely seen her name spelled). There are many versions of her story, but the one I prefer is the one that highlights how her testimony turned the eye of the mob and its inquisitors away from the poor and marginalized and towards the wealthy elites for a change.
“Of all the accused witches, Titiba is the one who seems to have been the most radically transformed from who she actually was into who certain people wanted her to be. Unlike the white people of Salem, whose names, lineages, and racial identities have remained fixed since that time, hers went from Titiba in the trial records to Tituba in the popular culture. She was called “Indian” in court, but imagined in the histories that followed as African, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in Giles Corey of the Salem Farms, fictionalized her into “the daughter of a man all black and fierce,” while in The Crucible, that play performed in high schools all over the country every October, Arthur Miller called into being a reckless storyteller sowing wild fancies in the minds of the village girls.
Glamour, grammar, and grimoire all share the same root. The Inquisitors imagined in one testimonial after another the transformation from person to demon before their eyes, even as they clung more fiercely to the illusion they held about themselves, that they were not the ones conjuring such nightmares. It was Goodwife Sibley who asked Titiba to perform that old English spell with bread, dirt, and urine to ease the suffering of the poor afflicted child Betty, but that moment glimmered back in court as Titiba’s idea, her spell, her fault. And though she was compelled by the violence of Samuel Parris’s open hand into this line of questions by Constable John Herrick, the dominant narrative that emerged in the historiographies was that her confession was the reason for the craze that followed, that Titiba’s words conjured what we would come to know as the Salem Witch Hunt.
I’m always surprised by the number of intellectuals I have seen throw up their hands and say we’ll never be able to understand what happened in Salem or why. It is, after all, fairly identical to what happened in Bamberg, where three mayors in ten years were executed as witches along with hundreds of others, not to mention in Paisley and Scotland, all across Spain and its colonies, etc., etc. – there is the same line of questioning, the fear, and then the fear, hunger and drought or winter, a fungus, maybe, in the damp grain which causes delusions, something like what the DSM-5 might call PTSD from the most recent war, gaslighting gaolers and judges, a little torture, then a lot of torture…. In most of the trials you can tell nothing about the lives of the judges or the accused or afflicted or the audience feels sustainable based on how often one person will say and another person will agree that the world is surely ending soon.
And then there is that same old faith. In general the inquisitors won’t relent until a confession includes something new. New variations reassure them that they aren’t just being told what they want to hear. This is why they torment the accused past mere confession to the point where the trembling person accuses someone else.
So let’s observe that Titiba never points the finger at anyone else. This is the only thing about the trials in Salem that is actually unusual at all. When asked who was torturing the girls, Sarah Good said it must be the insufferable Sarah Osbourne. Sarah Osbourne said if anything Sarah Good was the bewitched one and anyway she’d had a dream of being pricked by “something like an Indian.” When pressed, Titiba, who was often referred to by her neighbors as “Indian” or “Titiba Indian” named the two already-accused Sarahs, sure – they were already in shackles and accusing each other; what could she do for them? But when asked to name more, she said she could not make out any other names or faces. There was a powerful act of resistance in this description of the nameless and faceless members of a coven, dressed in the fine clothes of well-to-do people. Her testimony turned the usual script of a witch trial on its head. Suddenly anybody could be a witch, not just the marginalized. Powerful and influential people were accused, tried, even executed in Salem before the ruling class suddenly and conveniently realized nothing they had believed mades sense anymore.
Capitalism, it is widely known but seldom said, is dependent on the invention of scarcity. Salem villagers were obsessed with firewood, which had been made very scarce by their over-harvesting. As it became clear it would not be so easy to simply spread European colonization north, a three-generation-old feud over a tract of land between the influential Putnam and Proctor families was more and more on everyone’s mind. It came up each time the village had to agree to hire or fire a minister, build or not build a new meeting house, issue a warrant for some new arrest. You can grow and then cut down and burn a lot of trees on 1000 disputed acres.
In the negotiations conducted by letters from that Barbados plantation, Samuel Parris had secured a promise of firewood as well as a home to go along with his modest paycheck as part of his contract with the convening members of the church. But when winter arrived, neither the wood nor his paychecks were delivered.
It is all too easy for those who benefit from the power, land, and wealth that trickles down through the generations from this moment in Salem and the other colonial villages to say there is nothing to learn from the uncertainties of these trials. That the mist of spectral evidence clouds all judgement. This is, after all, what the Governor eventually said when he issued a general pardon to all of the accused who had not already been executed. But in fact there is a great deal the afflicted know quite well and anyone who cared to could learn.
Did you know that Titiba was likely married to John Indian? He also survived the trials. He joined the ranks of the afflicted, trembling and fainting and accusing, which was a clever way then for anyone to stay alive, or exact vengeance, or both in that strange year. His name was probably not really John Indian. I like to imagine he and Titiba knew each other by the names their mothers or grandmothers or aunts or fathers or brothers or whoever it was loved and cared for them had given at their beginnings.
What was known then and is known now, but almost never is included in the story is that Titiba had a child who was about two years when the trials began, just over three years old when it was over. Her name was Violet.”
I could have just cut his name from the list, finished the book, and never thought about him again. But it seemed so important, maybe even essential to the project.
Because men were rarely, but not never, burned for witchcraft and I wanted to be accurate.
Because I wanted an easy answer at the wine box after readings when some case study out of a Solnit essay wanted to correct my “historical inaccuracies.”
Because my point was not Woman, per se, but something about social control and the mythologies of justice systems.
Because I’m can be as practical about money and influence as any of the witches I’d been studying and I thought maybe men would buy my book too, if it didn’t seem too entirely girly.
I wasn’t making any progress with Johannes Junius because my notes kept turning into an essay about the time a panel was convened to discuss the documents and security requests I myself once submitted under the auspices of Title IX. The time I don’t want to talk about here.
The time I would like to, but feel I can’t, talk about here.
The time that makes me so grateful Catalina decided to share what happened to her.
To open the file she sent – it was like she has taken the meanest words, the ones that question a woman’s integrity and sanity, out of all of our heads and handed them to us on paper, where we can see them clearly for what they are.
When you are sitting before a panel your words aren’t words, your words are evidence, your memories are words, your feelings are evidence of the opposite of your words, except when they are consistent with something the panel considers evidence. Your feelings are not well-spoken. If they were well-spoken they would be evidence, possibly of what you call truth and possibly of a truth of your alleged overreactions, misunderstandings, or lies.
“It’s the Law of the Father over there,” my friend said about the Title IX office, from which I had just received an email with conclusions and findings, an email on which many of the people I worked with were cc’d. This was the best sad joke and most painfully relevant example of Lacanian analysis I ever heard. It was also the best translation of a panel’s findings I would encounter, until Catalina said in her letter to me, as she offered to send her full report provided I bear in mind, “The official account is often inaccurate and poorly representative of what I actually said/things that actually occurred because the entire Title IX process is an ineffectual, negligent, corrupt shitshow.”
Because I realized if I wanted the world to get as big as I need it to be, I had to learn how to identify with, or at least understand, the male characters too.
But is that true? I never finished the essay because I couldn’t figure out what was true anymore.
Johannes Junius was convicted in the Bamberg witch craze of 1626-1627 by a panel.
In his case, thumbscrews, leg vices, and the strapado were applied. Among other things he confessed to succumbing to seduction by a succubus and flying to a Black Sabbath on the back of a dog. Like almost anybody being tortured, he did and said what he had to to make it stop.
And then he did what not everybody is able to do – remember it is all a lie and use his literacy and money and influence to smuggle a letter with the truth out of his cell.
In the letter to his daughter Veronica, he wrote, “Here you have all of my confessions, for which I must die and they are sheer lies and made-up things, so help me God.”
Almost every paragraph in the letter contains an apology. These are devastating to read. He feels so guilty about how he couldn’t seem to translate his humanity into a language that his judges, from within the peculiarity of their official positions on a panel, would understand as human. He feels so guilty for having to tell his daughter that in the end he couldn’t figure out how to do anything besides let himself die this way.
I know something of how irrationally guilty a person can feel for having been a victim. Of how someone might walk out of a room full of officials wondering how she had so thoroughly and painfully done all of this to herself. I do not know when I will ever be able to write about that with forthright clarity. So I translate what I know into essays about people who have been dead for hundreds of years, whose lives have become torn and water-stained pieces of parchment. The binding of folios of court records came unstitched. Many were lost altogether, burned in fires, thrown out with the garbage, flooded in basements. What is left is full of silences, enough silence to make room for mine and for most anyone else’s.
Maria Gonçalves Cajada, the accused sorceress from colonial Brazil, once said, “If the bishop has a mitre, I have a mitre, and if the bishop preaches from the pulpit, I preach from the cadeira.” Like most any woman who makes demands, Maria Gonçalves Cajada was almost entirely alone in her insistence that the world be fair and also that she be granted a just place in it. I appreciate deeply, almost as a kind of profession of faith, that there is an historical record, cited by Laura de Mello e Souza in The Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross, of how a woman looked a priest in the eyes, then turned the other way to set three pieces of cheese fermented in her own vaginal fluid on a windowsill to feed the demons. It is a gesture with many layers of meanings and one of them is a very lovely note ringing across the centuries “I am.”
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.
Agnes Waterhouse, age 64 in the year 1566, was an impoverished woman who had a white cat named Sathan that spoke in a strange hollow voice and would do anything for a drop of blood. She had him kill her pig to prove what he could do, and then had him kill the cows and geese of her neighbors, with whom she had quarreled; neighbors themselves, with whom she had quarreled; her husband, with whom she had quarreled.
Government officials tortured her, of course, to wring out this weird confession, but they wouldn’t necessarily have had to. There is ample research to suggest that a little menace, a little kindness, the promise of approval from someone in authority – this is enough, even today, to make people very confused about what they know to be true.
Her daughter Joan, for instance, was induced to confess she had seen her mother turn that cat into a toad. Why turn your demon cat into a demon toad? You might as well ask why a police officer would kill a man for selling cigarettes or taking out his wallet or carrying a cell phone, living in his apartment, or opening his own front door. The child went on to admit she sold her own soul to that selfsame toad so she could get a bit of bread and cheese from the neighbor girl, Agnes Brown. Of course the tribunal believed this testimony. People knew the devil to be real, and his magic, his witches, his familiars, his blood spells and poison. Their whole lives they knew the devil was coming for them. This century is not so different.
Hildegard von Bingen knew all the plant medicines, all the minerals, all the tender words you could whisper over a body in pain. In ecstatic trances she saw the face of the divine spread over the world. Despite the obvious similarities and the fact she was summoned to an inquisition, Hildegard von Bingen was not a witch, she was a canonized saint. Her epiphanic hallucinations are gathered into one text, Scivias, which would later inspire the Heresy of the Free Spirit. Her remedies for ailments (collected from Persian translations in her convent library and folklore from the fields beyond the cloister garden walls) are kept in the Physica.
“Whoever is plagued by wrong dreams should have betony leaves close by when going to sleep.”
“If anyone have a headache, and his head is buzzing as if he were deaf, let him eat often of cloves, and they will ameliorate the buzzing in his head.”
“If any have a weak and sad heart, let him cook mullein with meat or fish … and it will strengthen his heart and make it merry.”
“If a man have any rotten flesh in him, then boil this herb [vervain] in water, lay a linen cloth on his wounds, and when the water has been pressed out lay on the vervain too. Do this until all the rottenness is gone.”
“If a man is forgetful and would be cured of it, let him crush out the juice of the stinging nettle, and add some olive oil, and when he goes to bed, let him anoint his chest and temples with it and do this often, and his forgetfulness will be alleviated.”
“Lavender wine will provide a person with pure knowledge and a clear understanding.”
She explained her visions as an arrival of light, rooted in the green of the soul, which glows as the leaves glow after a rain when the sun is bright and every droplet becomes a convex mirror. “Then the greenness of the earth and the grasses thrives with the greatest vigor,” she says. “For the air is still cold and the sun is already warm. The plants suck the green life force as strongly as a lamb sucks its milk.”
“However fennel is eaten, it makes men merry, and gives them a pleasant warmth, and makes them sweat well, and causes good digestion.”