Witch: some definitions and lists
= old woman, beauty (as in ‘bewitching’), hell-hag, fairy, crone, sorceress, sage, seer, healer, wise-woman, Jezebel.
= misogynistic insult directed at powerful women (often politicians/company directors). Designed to intimidate, undermine achievements and intimate success only due to magical help (dealings with devil). Increasingly used more recently following the success of the #metoo campaign, itself created to expose and highlight examples of everyday sexism and physical/verbal/sexual abuse of women.
= amusing children’s book character wearing stripy socks, flying on broomstick with black cat companion – possibly elderly, forgetful, but ultimately kind and helpful. OR a terrifying trope (usually ugly, often elderly) in a fairy tale with strange and evil powers who needs defeating.
= someone (usually female) on the margins of society: poor, elderly, disabled, vulnerable, ill; someone who speaks out of line, someone well-read and intelligent.
= campaign against people suspected of having unorthodox/unpopular views and opinions.
= sadly, still happens in some African countries, some Indian states and elsewhere. Also (see You-Tube) in some American ultra-evangelistic congregations.
= historical religious mania and hysteria throughout Europe, combined with ignorance, superstition and misogyny leading to the persecution and murder of thousands of innocent people, largely during a period of political unrest and change after The Reformation.
On International Women’s Day, Nicola Sturgeon, first Minister for Scotland, issued a “long-overdue” apology from the state to those in Scotland who, over a long historical period, had been arrested, imprisoned, starved, tortured and put to death on the basis of vague ‘evidence’ from jealous neighbours, ignorance, malicious gossip, a need for control, scapegoating and for simply being the wrong sex in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t the only huge miscarriage of justice perpetrated on innocent women in those times throughout Europe. Hear more here: The Witches’ Pardon, BBC Radio 4, 16 March 2022.
Much closer to home, 36 women in the Tendring area were accused of witchcraft in the 1640s, and most were put to death. If you were: a little different, lived alone, widowed and owned property, if you kept to yourself, kept pets, grew herbs for healing or if anyone was jealous of you, you probably lived life in fear.
I recently took part in a Snapping the Stiletto project: Revisiting the Tendring Witch Trials. Follow the walking tour around Manningtree, or read the stories and poems on the website. They are about women and what happens when superstition, scapegoating, fear and intolerance spin out of control.
After learning fascinating background information from brilliant academic Alison Rowlands, and following creative writing input from wonderful novelist Syd Moore, I researched the individual lives of Mary Johnson, widow of Wivenhoe, and Helen Bretton of Kirby-le-Soken. Did you know, for example, that Wivenhoe was considered a ‘godless and lawless’ place in the 1640s? Or that there was a causeway across the River Colne, between Wivenhoe and Fingringhoe? Me neither – but I wove some of this information into Mary’s story, and aimed for accuracy wherever possible. As for the rest, I used my imagination.
In historical fiction, vast amounts of research is often condensed radically – but that’s material for another blog post. Bringing detail of atrocities from the past into a modern spotlight can – hopefully – prevent their repetition, and promote greater understanding and tolerance nowadays, still sorely needed.
Recommended fiction based on real-life ‘witch-hunting’ events:
The Mercies – Kiran Millwood Hargrave
The Manningtree Witches – AK Blakemore
Witch Hunt – Syd Moore
The Witchfinder’s Sister – Beth Underdown