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!
An editor sent me the following questions for an event that didn’t happen. But as I took the time away from writing Owen Archer 13 to answer them, I can’t let them go to waste. Enjoy!
Q: Your new book, A CHOIR OF CROWS is set in 1374, when the Plantagenet King Edward III was on the English throne, and England was in the midst of the Hundred Years war against France. Why do you choose to set your novels in the past, and what attracted you to this particular period?
A: The present is too much with me. I much prefer to spend my days imagining what it is like elsewhen. In graduate school I discovered the richness of Chaucer’s description of medieval England and thought it would be fabulous to spend my life teaching his works. But as I continued to research his century I found myself imagining my own tales. I’ve been happily writing about the period ever since.
Q: Candace – you are American, based in Seattle, Washington state. What inspired you to set your series in the northern English city of York?
A: A trip to York while in graduate school piqued my interest. In researching the city in the 14th century, learning of its importance in the church, the realm, and economically I was surprised so little fiction was set there. It begged for an author. I obliged.
Q: In your novels, you depict real historical characters who co-exist and interact with your fictional cast. For example, the action in your new novel, A CHOIR OF CROWS, kicks off with the all-powerful nobleman Alexander Neville – a real historical character – having been appointed Archbishop of York, and the city in a state of high alert at his imminent arrival. He is a character to be feared in the novel, a real Machiavellian schemer. Is this a purely imaginary portrayal of the man, or have you or have you found any historical evidence to back up your theory as to his character?
A: I have found no historical record regarding Alexander Neville, Archbishop of York, that describes his as anything but an ambitious, spiteful man wholly unworthy of his high appointment. His vindictiveness results in battles with many religious houses in his archdiocese, and his eventual banishment from the realm. He is a gift to a writer. But the real power behind Alexander is his brother Sir John Neville, Lord of Raby, admiral of the North, and the king’s steward. He is every bit the Machiavellian I portray. Delicious!
Q: Without giving away any spoilers, A CHOIR OF CROWS poses an intriguing theory as to the cause of the untimely death of Edward III’s son, the Black Prince – who was supposed to have died of dysentery. Do you have any evidence to suggest that he was, in fact, murdered?
A: I came up with the theory based on many historians’ conclusions that dyssentery just isn’t a satisfying diagnosis. I was reading about the poisonous effects of a particular chemical element (as crime writers do) and realized how well it fit his symptoms. He might have done this to himself over time, but considering who he was and the politics of the times, someone administering it to him for a long while seemed highly plausible. I’ve tried it out on a few historians who encouraged me to run with it.
Q: Which author has most inspired you in your own writing – and why?
A: Ursula LeGuin, not only because she encouraged me to stick with the European middle ages in my writing, but also because of her lean, emotionally clear writing and fearlessness.
Q: If a TV series or feature film were to be made of your book, who would you see playing your protagonist, Owen Archer?
A: A popular question! My answer changes as time goes by. My current choice would be Aidan Turner (Poldark).
Third Place Books in Seattle hosts a virtual book event for A Choir of Crows on Thursday afternoon 13 August, 5:00-6:00 pm PDT As it’s online, you don’t need to be in Seattle. The event is free, but you do need to sign up here in order to receive the Zoom invitation.
Join me in conversation with my friends in Seattle’s Medieval Women’s Choir for a lively discussion! I’ll be talking about what it’s like to base an important character on a good friend, and Molly (Marian) will share what it’s like to BE that friend. Michelle will talk about what we know about music in medieval convents. And we’ll all laugh about our teamwork in sorting out the basic concept and the detail.
Want a signed and personalized copy? Order online from Third Place Books and mention in “Notes” what you’d like. Once they have the orders ready, I will sign the books and add personalized notes before shipping!
At the heart of the 12th Owen Archer mystery, A Choir of Crows, is the tension in the city when the corpses of three strangers are found at dawn after a heavy snowfall that isolates the city. Two of the bodies are found in the yard of York Minster, both deaths violent, one clearly murder. The timing could not be worse. The lay and religious communities in York are already frantically preparing for an influx of Northern nobles and their traveling parties for the enthronement of Alexander Neville as Archbishop of York. Owen Archer’s task is to find the murderer (s) before Neville’s powerful older brother arrives. The family worked hard to elevate Alexander to the post, calling in many favors to achieve it. Readers who have been following the series will know that Alexander Neville’s elevation to the post was strictly political. As time goes on it became clear to all that he was singularly ill-suited for the position.
You might wonder why the Nevilles were so keen to have one of their own in this position. John Neville was already a Knight of the Garter, Admiral of the North, and Steward of the King’s Household. But now they would have power both among the secular establishment and the religious: as Archbishop of York, Alexander would be the second most powerful cleric in England (after the Archbishop of Canterbury.) “Appointments during the latter half of the century were particularly political: Alexander Neville (1374-1388), Thomas Arundel (1388-1396) and Richard Scrope (1398-1405) all came from influential baronial families who were closely involved in the contentious politics of the courts of King Richard II and Henry IV.” For more about how the archbishops were chosen in the 14th century, you can read this post on the blog for The Northern Way; it is the source of the quote above.
The Northern Way is a research project funded by the AHRC and based at the University of York in partnership with The National Archives and with the support of York Minster. Running from February 2019 to October 2021 the project aims to make the administrative records of the archbishops of York more accessible to both students and the general public, and to provide a history of the role of the Archbishops in governing the region over that period. You can be sure I am watching them closely!
Curious about the role in modern times? Earlier this month, a new Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, arrived in the city for his confirmation. You can see photos of the 9 July celebration here (including a walk down the Shambles!) And here‘s another article about the day.
In anxious times, crime novels engage us and reassure us. Seems crazy, doesn’t it? A murderer is loose on the streets. We watch the sleuth(s), the more familiar the better, sort out the clues as they race against time to prevent more deaths. Although more people might fall, and the authorities might decide that the solution is inconvenient and choose to conceal the details with some vague palliative blather, the deaths are stopped, thanks to the sleuth. The community returns to “normal”, or very near—a new normal, or, as novelist Emily Wilson said “…creating a new, second-place vision for life after a terrible thing has taken first-choice hopes away. Justice can be part of that new hope, but it’s inherently a compromise. Justice is like a beautiful funeral: better than a terrible one, but the best would be not needing one at all.” [*] In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron cites a wealth of mind research to support her thesis that our brains crave stories because we learn via stories, trying out experiences to learn ways to cope with new challenges.[†] In a crime novel we follow the sleuth’s investigation, learning how we might do the same. We learn from their mistakes and their successes. We see how troubles might be resolved. We can even find comfort in realizing that everyone in a community has secrets, some more interesting or dangerous than others, but no one’s perfect. Even the familiarity of the regular ensemble of characters and settings in our favorite series is reassuring when calming down after a day of worries. All in all, it’s not such a crazy idea to pluck a crime novel off the shelf and curl up in our reading chair to read away the jitters.
As COVID-19 wormed its way into our lives I calmed myself before sleep by reading some of my favorite crime writers. For all the reasons I’ve just mentioned, I found them a comfort. Beginning in crisis, ending with order restored. To a degree. Donna Leon, Marty Wingate, Chris Nickson, Craig Johnson, Miranda James, Daphne du Maurier (suspense)… Some light, some a mix, some decidedly dark. Yet restorative. I have a good friend who once told me she wished I’d keep writing as Emma Campion because she could read those books; she can’t read my mysteries because they’re too scary. Time and again I’ve tried to explain to her why my novels about Joan of Kent and Alice Perrers are far scarier than my mysteries—Joan and Alice had so little control over their lives and I could do nothing to prevent their suffering. But she just couldn’t see it. Plenty do, thank goodness.
Of course, I have the added comfort of writing crime novels. I’m engaged in a new Owen Archer tale with some of my favorite characters, particularly Magda Digby. I find the plotting of crimes, followed by the investigation of a sleuth I love and trust, a curiously soothing endeavour. I know that Owen is determined to solve the crimes and that he will do everything in his power to do so.
It’s this commitment and deep sense of responsibility that pushes him to investigate. Compared with so many of the movers and shakers I read about in the news, Owen is an honorable, trustworthy person, a man who keeps his word and cares about others. I find him a reassuring companion in these troubled times. And Magda Digby, the Riverwoman…I would love to seek her out at her rock in the Ouse right about now to ask if I might just stay there under her care until COVID 19 spends itself.
How about you? What’s helping you cope?
(I hope one answer is reading A Choir of Crows! Out now!)
[†] Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Ten Speed Press 2012.