Hag used to be such a positive word, derived from those thought ‘holy’ and applied to wise women who healed, nursed and delivered newborns. Until one day, as if by magic, it came to mean reclusive, garrulous and spiteful. Even today there are many more words for ugly women than for ugly men. The equivalent, perhaps, is old codger, possibly originating from a lack of financial means, having to cadge for scraps of food, a beggar.
“Agism is said to be the ultimate prejudice, after racism and sexism,” which sort of suggests it’s not the ultimate one after all. But there is one story that encapsulates all three, and that is the story of Devon’s witches.
Old, forthright and outspoken are deemed to be so threatening they become the very foibled features demonising the witch. Such stereotypes have denounced the lovers of magic as malevolent, vexed and bedevilled. Characters best defined as…
A witch is almost always depicted swathed in tattered, dank clothing, clawed hands, the face warty and withered, and partly shrouded by a black…
They are said to be accompanied by a scrawny cat: one with a penchant for hissing, spitting and offkey wailing. Just like a Siamese, except one with black fur. Unfortunately, I don’t have one of those, so we’ll have to make do with a…
Witches were to be found in every village. Most lived in villages in the 17th century, which was the pinnacle period of witch hunting. Although such practices had a wide range of names: necromancing, conjuring, sorcering and enchanting. Villages weren’t usually the tranquil havens of the well-healed, but a hotpot of labourers, spouses, children, and men of the faith.
But within such confined populations, there is always poverty - a fight lost for limited resources. Limited by financial conspiracies, by favour, by fever and by misfortune. The poor are always much feared - a stark mirror of what might happen if fate deals out a bad hand: they are the unthinkable alternate universe, and one not welcome in anyone’s backyard.
When the great plague blew through a parish, it took with it the weak, the infirm and the perfectly adequately fine, thank you very much, too. That’s plagues for you. One day all seems well, then the next your beloved is
To the town’s healers, one must turn - for respite can only be found in the cauldrons of the medically-minded, the herbalists and the magicians.
“Take yeself deep into Cockwood and gather me a crapstone and whilst you’re there acquire the scrotum of a tufty grey squirrel…just follow the signs, they will lead you” a scratchy voice lists what is perhaps the beginnings of a recipe of a bygone age. Unlikely, but perhaps.
Cockwood, Crapstone, Nutwalls,
“…then gather up one rat’s tail…,” they continue to list out more ingredients
“But where would one find a rat?” the desperate may quiz.
Naturally, at a
“Bring also forth the red tail of a rooster…”, the witch continues,
“...and the toenail of a nun.” the conjurer would add finally.
“And where would I find a nun’s toenail?” the desperate may quiver in panic for they know of no such place.
Thereupon, the desperate would be led on a merry dance. A true tour of the countryside, with its harsh realities, and dangerous foe until they have satisfied the list and the cauldron could bubble its toil and trouble.
Only should this magic potion fail in its optimism, dire times would follow. Swear words would proliferate, although the more politely-minded might emit a milder …
But blame needs to land somewhere. And in very darkened times, blame often came to the door of the aged and the childless. Those who didn’t have the requisite
For it was widowed and single women who were amongst the most poor. Childless women were the poorest of all. It was they who resorted to begging for alms, knocking from door to door, bowing or stooped by hardship, and it was they who were most likely condemned as
Exeter was the first and last place that people were hanged for the dark arts of sorcery, dragged there from far and wide to face trials, which were usually no more sophisticated than a quick look up and down, in order to pronounce the condemnation. For the crime of witchcraft, hanging was the preferred punishment. Took up by the neck until the body stopped
In Britain, we didn’t bother with burning them at the stake - that was more of a continental pastime. But of course, their guilt had already been established long before the trial with a simple question: Can it swim? For if it…
…then it is not thought to possess the spirit of the devil. Except, in Devon, where they didn’t seem to follow this practice either. Instead, following a lengthy interrogation, they were then taken to be displayed before a baying mob. A public shaming like no other.
The witch would be stripped down to the nether regions. It was the investigators’ quest to find skin tags, piles or other lumps and bumps of the warty kind. Diligently scouring the body’s nooks and crannies for the devil’s teats from which imps and familiars could feed, or birthmarks or scars that could be interpreted as signs from the devil. Once found, they were taken then to trial before sentenced to hang at
Devon’s preferred destination for those convicted of witchcraft, even when your name was Richard Wilkins and you are the first person to be hanged in the county for being a witch.
Odd because I always thought witchcraft was