Courting Ghosts

A stand-in for the face of Mary Smith, hanged for witchcraft in 1616.

396 years ago today a woman named Mary Smith was hanged for witchcraft in Norfolk, allegedly after a falling out with other villagers over the price of cheese.  Just one of the thousands of women to die in such a way at this time, the details of her life are completely lost to us.  Margaret Murray’s “The Witch Cult in Western Europe” contains a long Appendix of just such a list of witches in England and Scotland.  Mary Smith, with her common, every-woman name, is not among them.

Some claim the epidemic of witch burning during the 17th century was a systemic extermination of a certain kind of woman, or it was a mass hysteria. It certainly was singular consolidation of power– of supposed medical science over herb lore, of Christian customs over ancient, inherited Pagan ritual and the written word over oral history.  And the losers in it all were women folk.

Now, it’s big in the tourist trade, this particular bit of history.  In York, ghost tours make their rounds every night, the guides competing fervently for the tourist dollars. They might visit Tyburn on the Knavesmire near the race track, where executions once took place.  Many women who died there were accused of killing their husbands– considered high treason at the time.  The “Terrible Tales” bus makes its rounds, its sides painted with garish atrocities, and there’s the York Dungeon’s new attraction– “See Witches Burned Alive.” The ads promise “the witch hunt is on! Hear the screams and feel the heat as the accused are burnt alive before your eyes.” I can’t say how much I hate this aspect of the tourist trade, this sentimentality in reverse– the indulging in the sufferings of others.

Looking back at history will always be like looking into a shattered mirror.  How much more if one is a woman, picking up the shards and finding so many missing, deliberately destroyed.  And yet the impulse to wholeness is human, and we persist. As mothers of invention, we fill in the blanks, courting ghosts and making do– mending, as we have always done.

2 thoughts on “Courting Ghosts

  1. She was probably edited out by Murray because she did not fit her theory(which was mostly erroneous) of pagan cult survival. Remind me not to see witches burned alive in York when I am there. They were actually strangled first (small mercy I am sure). But england had the least witch trials that ended in execution, at least, thanks to the strength of the common law in the court system. Still a tragic time for the world. It is interesting to me that the majority of witch trials occurred under protestant regimes, and seemed to intensify in england during the civil war, and reflected nascent state building and centralization at the expense of regional and religious differences.

  2. Hi Dylan, yes– much of Murray’s theories were based on using the tortured confessions of the witch trials as a kind of shadow record of actual practice. It is sad that this is the only written record left to us in most cases. Patricia Crowther, in her Witchcraft in Yorkshire argues that the increase in witch trials in the UK during that time was due to exiled Catholics returning from the continent where burnings were much more common. I don’t know about the validity of this– as you say, it was rampant under protestant regimes in the UK and US.

    In all my complaining about the tourist trade’s treatment of inhumanity, the York Castle Museum’s projected displays in the old prison are effective, hair-raising yet human– and mention the “mercy” of strangulation.

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