What is a witch?

Before I begin… I wish you all moments of joy and wonder in this challenging time, pockets of peace in your minds and hearts, and a blessed Samhain. Magda Digby reminds you to keep thy distance and wear a mask.  

As you know, I’ve spent this strange year writing the 13th Owen Archer novel (oh, yes, now that’s a number with some baggage). Because Magda Digby, aka the Riverwoman, is a major character, I’ve been exploring what it means to label someone a “witch”, not in the sense of name-calling, but when claiming that someone practices “witchcraft”. That depends on when and where it occurs, and who is doing the labeling. So what was going on with the idea of a witch in Magda’s time? In England in the late 14th century neither the concept of witches nor the burning of witches was yet well formed. The precursor was to accuse people of heresy. But how had the country women with a deep knowledge of healing herbs, roots, barks, fruits, long accepted as important for the health of the community come to be considered heretics? What was heretical about plant lore? Because some charms were included? How did they differ from the birth girdles or saints’ relics people sought for protection during childbirth or illness, or the holy water priests sprinkled on fields to bless the crops? And who would their accusers be? As a crime writer one of my first questions was, who benefited from the downfall of these women? Certainly not the community who depended on them. Perhaps particular members of that community who had no need of them? One group came to mind: the members of religious communities with their own infirmaries. But why did they care?

I consulted one of my favorite trustworthy sources, Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane’s A History of Medieval Heresy and Inquisition (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2011), and found chapter 6, “Medieval Magic, Demonology, and Witchcraft” to be particularly helpful. I was grateful to find her simple definition of magical practice: “the exercise of a preternatural control over nature by human beings, with the assistance of forces more powerful than they.” (185)  Right away I saw the key issue—”forces more powerful than they”. It’s interesting that she adds that “for the historian, magic is particularly tricky to study because (like heresy) it is more concept than reality, and because our sources are (like those on heresy) so often written by authors hostile to their topic.” (186) And she quickly gets to the meat of the issue, that clerical theorists became increasingly worried about how prevalent and accessible all this was as all levels of society, from the healer to the priest to the court astrologer, used a mix of charms, blessings, herbal remedies, signs, and sky for all sorts of situations. They believed that although a monk might be trusted to be using all of this with God’s blessing, an illiterate woman living in the woods might be highly susceptible to evil forces. What was important was not so much what a person did, but who they were. Clerical thinkers delved into esoteric books of magic, alchemy, and astrology, and it was these who attached the concept of demonology to the work of folk healers. What strikes me as absurd about this is that they were the ones flirting with “secret” books, not the midwives and other female healers, who did not have access to libraries housing such items—not to mention being far too busy to spend their days bent over books. I’m oversimplifying, but for my purposes this helped me think through how the very people who had depended on the character Magda Digby, the Riverwoman, for healing might be persuaded to turn on her in a time of pestilence, if they were convinced by someone in whom they placed some authority that her healing skills came to her from infernal sources and God would punish them for seeking her aid.

It would be more than a century before the concept of a witch was fully explicated in the Malleus maleficarum (or The Hammer of Witches written in 1486). Some might call Magda a witch, but more likely they would consider her a pagan or a heretic, and a danger to their souls.

As happens when I take a deep dive into a subject, my research has gone way beyond what I needed to know for this book. I’ve been reading everything from parts of the Malleaus maleficorum and histories of medieval magic to examinations of the history of the witch trials to novels, even watching a few seasons of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. (I love Sabrina’s aunts Zelda and Hilda.)

Of the novels I’ve read the two that stand out are Wise Child by Monica Furlong, a young adult novel in which the character of the witch/healer echoes Magda in many ways, and A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness for the geekiness of the detail regarding the three groups of creatures—witches, vampires, and demons. A book I’ve read quite a few times, the splendid Circe by Madeline Miller was highly influential in convincing me that it was time to write more about Magda Digby. And Gemma Hollman’s recent Royal Witches: From Joan of Navarre to Elizabeth Woodville (nonfiction) served as a good reminder of how convenient and easy powerful men found an accusation of witchcraft could be in separating powerful women from their property and reputations. I highly recommend all four of them.

Do you have any recommendations? I’d love to hear them! I’m sure I’ll have more to say about all this.

Be sure to check out the website’s EVENTS page for a 14 November virtual event!

3 Comments on “What is a witch?

  1. It occurred to me yesterday that Magda’s ability to understand people and situations may have its source in what Michael Polanyi called “Tacit Knowledge”. He explained this in its simplest form as “knowing more than you can tell”, which may be why she can offer hints to Owen about wolves but tells him to “think clearly”. Polanyi explains that tacit knowledge is a product of studying something with compassion over a long period of time, accumulating vast and deep understanding of the topic. [I need to think further about this.]

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  2. Michael Polanyi disagreed with the logical positivist philosophers of his time who thought that science was simply verification and proof of explicit, objective facts. Instead, Polanyi believed that discovery was the most illuminating, significant part of science. He believed that there was a subjective, intuitive aspect to scientific discovery in which the discoverer perceived the particulars, but with skills learned over a long period of time was able to integrate these particulars into a fuller picture of reality and truth. At some point he began referring to this acquired skill as tacit knowledge.
    The following texts are examples of where I believe Magda Digby is offering wisdom based on her tacit knowledge of reality.
    Kate smiled. “You bring calm with you, Dame Magda. It is a gift.”
    “It is a skill”, said Magda, “learned by observing, listening, trying, and discarding. Thou couldst do the same.”
    Magda laughed. “Canst though look at the crow [Archdeacon Anselm] and see a comely boy in him? Nay, he lured [Nicholas Wilton] with stories of Mary, Mother of God, and the boy Jesus… Magda has watched folk crawl on bloody knees where their saints beheld visions, Bird-eye [Owen Archer]. ‘Tis powerful stuff for some.” “Soft eyes, soft head… Soft eyes [Nicholas] is weak, not evil.”
    “She [Alisoun Ffulford, Magda’s apprentice] is maturing in your service,” said Owen. “She is,” said Magda, a smile in her voice. “She is a lesson in trusting thy gut about someone. Magda doubted up here,” she tapped her head, “but believed down here,” she pressed her stomach. “She was patient when Magda stopped to help an injured man on the way to the barge. She uttered not a word of complaint.”
    Lucie Wilton looks to Magda for answers to how to treat Joanna Caverly, but Magda dialogues like a psychologist attempting to lead Lucie to come up with answers from her own knowledge.
    “[I had a dream that] Joanna was a spider and I followed her as she wove a web.
    “Was the web well-ordered?”
    “There were strands that broke the harmony, but much of the web was well-ordered.”
    “What dost thou think it means?
    “I hoped that you would tell me!”
    “Surely thou hast a thought or two, Master Apothecary?”
    “I guess that Joanna knows what she is saying, that she deliberately confuses me.”
    A spider does not set out to weave an imperfect web.”
    “So I am wrong?”
    “’Tis the trouble with dreams. They seduce the dreamer with their seeming wisdom.”
    ”What would you do with her?”
    “Thou art alert. Thou hearest Magda’s silences. Thou wouldst not take Magda’s advice.
    “Please, Magda, tell me.
    “Magda would leave the child in peace.”
    “You have a feeling it would be best not to know what happened to her.
    But thou wouldst not abide by Magda’s feeling. Nor shouldst thou. Thy task is to learn her secret. The Churchmen insist.”

    Owen Archer asks Magda how she had known about Hoban’s murder, and she answers:
    “Magda recognizes the signs, not how or why this or that is revealed to her. She has no answers for thee, Bird-eye. This is thy conspiracy of wolves. Thou hast the charge, Magda merely warned thee. Thy task. Open thine eye.
    “I don’t understand. Had I the Sight I would have known what was to come.”
    “not fore-seeing, clear seeing. A gift to all who count on thy protection. Trust thyself. Thou seest far more clearly than most.”
    “Conspiracy of wolves ⸺ what did you mean by that?” Magda had previously said, “What do folk see when they see a wolf, Bird-eye? The animal? Think again.”
    “That is for thee to discover. And how thou must move forward.”
    “You speak in riddles.”
    “Thou’rt a riddle breaker.”

    Magda’s wisdom is evident in her assigning names to many of the characters in the books according to their physical appearance or their character. It is her ability to evaluate a person, which enables her to lead people to conclusions without imposing her own ideas on them. It allows her to make a judgment about people by her own standard, not by logic or an outside authority. It gives her the freedom to live by her own values, with no need to conform to the Church. And it allows her to offer advice to other people that she herself might not follow or with her own sense of truth.

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