Monday, 9 December 2019

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Review: Witches by Tracy Borman

Witches by Tracy Borman

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Witches: James I and the English Witch Hunts by Tracy Borman

Published: 2nd October 2014 | Publisher: Vintage | Source: Bought
Tracy Borman's Website

September 1613.

In Belvoir Castle, the heir of one of England's great noble families falls suddenly and dangerously ill. His body is 'tormented' with violent convulsions. Within a few short weeks he will suffer an excruciating death. Soon the whole family will be stricken with the same terrifying symptoms. The second son, the last male of the line, will not survive.

It is said witches are to blame. And so the Earl of Rutland's sons will not be the last to die.

Witches traces the dramatic events which unfolded at one of England's oldest and most spectacular castles four hundred years ago. The case is among those which constitute the European witch craze of the 15th-18th centuries, when suspected witches were burned, hanged, or tortured by the thousand. Like those other cases, it is a tale of superstition, the darkest limits of the human imagination and, ultimately, injustice - a reminder of how paranoia and hysteria can create an environment in which nonconformism spells death. But as Tracy Borman reveals here, it is not quite typical. The most powerful and Machiavellian figure of the Jacobean court had a vested interest in events at Belvoir. He would mastermind a conspiracy that has remained hidden for centuries.
From Goodreads.

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Trigger/Content Warnings: This book features discussion of mob-mentality, violence, abuse, sexual assault, torture, death, murder, and various forms of execution, such as people being hanged, burnt at the steak, and pressed.

As I've been studying witchcraft, I've found there to be a great focus on our ancestors, those who came before, and remembering what witches of the past have been through. I spotted Witches by Tracy Borman while visiting Treadwell's Books, and knew this was going to be the book to get me started on learning about our past. What I didn't expect was how much it would effect me.

There is a specific focus in Witches on one particular trial, that of the Flower women of Bottesford, Lincolnshire, but to really understand what led to the accusations, trial and execution of Joan Flower and her daughters Margaret and Philippa, we need a lot of context. Witches is a thorough history of the time of James I's reign as King of Scotland, and then of England after Elizabeth I died, the superstition of the time, James I's own obsession with witches, and various witch trials of the time. What's particularly special about the Flowers' trial is that they were accused by not only someone of the aristocracy - the Earl of Rutland, Francis Manners - but also that this aristocrat had very close ties with the King, who took an interest himself. Normally, witch accusations came from the common people, but not in the case of Joan, Margaret and Philippa Flower. And what's more, it's likely that there was a major conspiracy in having the Flower women found guilty, for someone else's own gain.

The story of the Flower women is complex and dramatic - I really think it would make a great TV period drama; there are so many players with their own motivations, drama otherwise, and a number of unexpected twists. It's also bloody terrible, and upset me greatly. I'm not going to go too much into their story, because I do feel it's one that should be discovered as you read. Witches is thoroughly researched, and was just brilliant, really. Not only are we told about why people would be accused of witchcraft, but also the horrors they then had to endure to get a confession, and trying to find physical "proof" of their liaisons with the devil and spirits. This is not just the story of the Flower women, but the stories of so many other people - mainly women - too.

It upset me and made me so mad to when reading about those who were accused of witchcraft: women who didn't go to church, Catholic women, windows who didn't remarry, promiscuous women, old women, poor women, "ugly" women, disabled and mentally ill women - the outcasts and the vulnerable. And as someone who had a grandmother with dementia, the way those who clearly would get a diagnosis of dementia if they were around today were treated really upset me. Because of their frailty and confusion, they may confess to witchcraft because they believed what people said about them. Or because of flights of fancy, they might actually think they were witches when they were nothing of the sort. And then they were executed. So many innocent people, dying because of fear and superstition, because of dislike and held grudges, because of mob mentality. It's just horrific.

However, some of the people who were accused of witchcraft, while not guilty of the crimes of the crimes they are accused of, were actually "witches", depending on your definition; cunning folk, wise women, and midwives, who used herbs in healing and spells to help out those who came to them in desperation. Those who have had no medical training, but somehow managed to help people - most of which were women, at a time when women did not become physicians. People who only helped. Add to the fact that if a physician was unable to diagnose what was wrong with a patient, or simply wasn't good enough to figure it out, to cover their own back and hide their ignorance, would say the patient's condition was due to witchcraft. And then there were those who were so out cast, so abused, so poor, so ill treated by those above them, who had absolutely nothing, who would then resort to witchcraft in order to get revenge. That's not to say that what they did actually had any effect necessarily, but if they wished someone ill, and that someone then experiences bad luck or tragedy, links would be made. But for these people, they felt witchcraft was their last resort, they are starving, and no-one is helping, that they end up doing that which they have been accused of anyway.

I've barely scratched the surface of what Witches discusses, because our history is so vast, and Borman covers so much of it. Witches is, for the most part, an accessible and easy read - except in some cases where Borman quotes people from the time, whose language is quite different from our own, and I simply couldn't get my head around some of it, but that's more my problem than an issue with the book. It's fascinating, but also rage inducing, and such a great, great read. If you have any interest at all in the UK's witch hunt past, I really recommend giving this a read.

You might also like:

Waking the Witch by Pam Grossman

Over to you graphic
Have you read any book on historical witch hunts? Any you would recommend? Have you read Witches, or will you be picking it up? Let me know in the comments!

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