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  • Writer's pictureMaggie Davies

Burned at the Stake?

It is tempting to dream of being magically transported into the past. Not, of course, to be Anne Boleyn, kneeling on the scaffold awaiting the swipe of that French headsman's sword, but as an ordinary woman in 16th, 17th or 18th century London. To be able to experience the exotic scents and foul stinks; the sights and sounds; the extravagantly dressed nobility; the elaborate wigs; the horses and fine carriages.

Yet might such a dream turn into a nightmare?

I read recently that King James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England in 1603) published a book in 1597 entitled Demonology, setting down how to identify and convict witches. Hundreds of suspected women were subsequently imprisoned and tortured until they confessed. A thumbscrew might be tightened until the pain was sufficient to elicit the required admission of guilt. If this failed to work, trial by water involved being placed on a ducking-stool and lowered below the water line of a pond or river. When completely submerged, if an accused woman sank, she was deemed innocent (though was by then probably dead from drowning); if she floated, she was guilty and would be dealt with accordingly. For those found guilty, punishments ranged from (if she was lucky) a severe beating, time spent in the pillory or the stocks, or up to a year in jail being fed only on bread and water. For the worst cases the penalty was a horrible death.

The initial identification involved a number of pointers: being female, being not from the top echelons of society, being no longer young, or behaving occasionally in an eccentric manner. Having a brown patch somewhere on their skin, or a superfluous nipple, was highly suspicious. As was being childless. Having a black cat. Or owning a besom broom.

Woe betide you if your neighbour disliked you and his well dried up, his wife's chickens died, or their cow failed to produce milk. Evil arts might soon be suspected and fingers pointed at you.

In England, more than 2,500 women were executed for witchcraft and in 1621 a crowd of up to 30,000 watched Elizabeth Sawyer hang for the imputed crime at Tyburn. North of the border, in 1727, Janet Horne became the last so-called witch burned alive in Scotland.

In the light of this, I have decided, as a working class female past the first flush of youth, with stepchildren but no offspring of her own, that I'd be unwise to travel back at time. After all, I frequently read books aloud to my cat. I sing carols loudly in my car. In midsummer. And I happen to be the owner of a very fine besom broom.

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