Saturday, 27 December 2008

The Starving Time

The holiday season of 1609-10 was anything but a celebratory occasion in Virginia. At Jamestown, the colonists referred to the winter as the "Starving Time." According to George Percy, youngest son of the eighth Earl of Northumberland and a prominent member of the original band of Jamestown settlers, the men, women, and children resorted to eating their horses and other "beastes," then came the "doggs, Catts, ratts, and myce." Some starving colonists dug up corpses. Another man killed his pregnant wife, cut out the unborn child, and ate her. Hanged by his thumbs until he confessed, he was burned alive for the crime.

What could have caused such dire circumstances? A combination of poor planning, faction fighting, and dependence on England and the native Powhatan for supplies was largely responsible.

On 2 June 1609, nine ships sailed from England for Jamestown. In late July, a hurricane separated the Sea Venture from the rest of the fleet. The ship ran aground in Bermuda, carrying most of the colony's much needed supplies with it. The shipwrecked survivors arrived in Jamestown the following spring.

In the meantime, approximately 200 colonists were already at Jamestown and barely able to feed themselves. Suddenly, they were faced with 300 hungry newcomers. With the new Lieutenant Governor Sir Thomas Gates presumed lost at sea, factions ensued. John Smith was unwilling to relinquish his role as president, and the aristocracy thought it galling to take orders from a farmer's son.

Smith sent a number of the colonists up river to the Falls, near modern-day Richmond, to fend for themselves, as well as down river to Nansemond, before being wounded by an exploding bag of gunpowder. Severely injured, he was forced to depart for England in October 1609. Soon after, George Percy took charge and sent more colonists to Point Comfort to build a fort, leaving approximately 120 colonists at Jamestown. By May 1610, only sixty survived.

According to Percy in Trewe Relacyon "some" of the colonists robbed the stores and were executed for stealing food. "Many... weare Cutt off and slayne by the Salvages," and in what seems to be ironic under the circumstances, he goes on to state, "Many of our men [during] this starveinge Tyme did Runn away unto the Salvages whome we never heard of after."

Before Smith's departure, the relationship between the Powhatan and colonists had disintegrated, and many of those sent to the Falls and Nansemond were killed during engagements. Yet, the colonists at Point Comfort did not suffer from Powhatan attacks or starvation. So why did the colonists simply not join those who were thirty miles downriver at Point Comfort?

Many of the able-bodied men were already dead. About thirty "unruly youths" had sailed for England, and the same number of colonists were at Point Comfort. The weak, the sick, the old, the young, and the women were left in Jamestown. Many historians overlook this fact. Due to culture and circumstances of the time, women were unlikely to have had any hunting or soldiering skills. All but two would have been new to Virginia's harsh climate and way of life.

At this point in colonial history, Powhatan warriors spared women and children and adopted them into their tribes. There are no records of exactly how many women were at Jamestown, but quite likely they were a large percentage of survivors during the infamous Starving Time.

Kim Murphy

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Witchcraft and Midwifery

The 17th Century Birthing Chamber - by Lawrence Alma Tadema

In the year 1585 in Dillingham, Germany, Anna Hausman, a midwife who cared for countless mothers and newborn children was accused of killing them by witchcraft. She confesses under torture and is condemned to burning at the stake. The Devil has been her lover, she tells them, the babies sacrificed to him. Knowing it would mean her death, she says anything to stop the pain.

During the Renaissance, beauty was increasingly equated with virtue and a woman's beauty corresponded with her fertility. Post menopausal women were not beautiful and therefore the first to be suspected of any evildoing. So a middle-aged woman who delivers a baby that died in the morning and another at sunset who lived, must surely possess supernatural powers.

What Was A Witch?

Medieval Catholic Church misogyny regarded female sexuality the beginning of all mankind’s sin. Malleus Maleficarum* states: "When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil."

The Church taught that in intercourse, the male deposits in the female a homunculus, or "little person," complete with soul, which is simply housed in the womb for nine months, without acquiring any of its mother's attributes. The homunculus is not pure, until a priest baptises it, ensuring the salvation of its immortal soul. It was also believed that upon resurrection, all human beings would be reborn as men.

Witches were accused of murdering and poisoning, sex crimes and conspiracy— and of helping and healing. As the witch hunters Kramer and Sprengler said: "No one does more harm to the Catholic Church than midwives,"

The Medieval Catholic Church’s attitude to illness amongst the poor, was:
'You have sinned, and God is afflicting you. Thank him; you will suffer so much the less torment in the life to come. Endure, suffer, die. Has not the Church its prayers for the dead?' (Jules Michelet, Satanism and Witchcraft)

Kings and nobles had their court physicians who were men, sometimes even priests. Male upper class healing under the auspices of the Church was acceptable, female healing as part of a peasant subculture was not. The Church saw its attack on peasant healers as an attack on magic, not medicine. The devil was believed to have real power on earth, and the use of that power by peasant women—whether for good or evil—was a threat to the Church and State.

The greater their satanic powers to help themselves, the less they were dependent on God and the Church and the more they were potentially able to use their powers against God's order. Magic charms were believed to be as effective as prayer in healing the sick, but prayer was Church-sanctioned and controlled while incantations and charms were not. There was no problem in distinguishing God's cures from the Devil's, for obviously the Lord would work through priests and doctors rather than through peasant women.

Many herbal remedies developed by healers/witches still have their place in modern pharmacology.

• Pain-killers, digestive aids and anti-inflammatory agents
• Ergot for the pain of labor at a time when the Church held that childbirth agony was the Lord's just punishment for Eve's original sin.
• Belladonna—still used today as an anti-spasmodic—was used by the witch-healers to inhibit uterine contractions when miscarriage threatened.
• Digitalis, still an important drug in treating heart ailments, and obtained from the foxglove, is said to have been discovered by an English witch.

The witch-healer relied on her senses rather than on faith or doctrine, she believed in trial and error, cause and effect. She trusted her ability to find ways to deal with disease, pregnancy and childbirth - her magic was the science of her time.
The Church, by contrast, was deeply anti-empirical and believed the senses are the devil's tool to lure men into the conceits of the intellect rather than relying on Faith.

So Why Did Women Become Healers When It Was So Dangerous?

Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General
There were more poor widows than widowers in the 17th Century. People who survived childhood diseases lived well into their old age. Demographically, about ten percent of the population were elderly, there were a high proportion of young people, but comparatively few middle-aged.

Widows with no means to support often fell into the practice of delivering the babies of younger women or ‘curing’ minor illnesses through knowledge of herbs and infusions gained during their life. For this service she was paid in money, food or goods.

However, if a wise woman gave advice on how to deal with tumors, warts, moles etc she must be consorting with the Devil as these were well known to be the Devil’s marks. If she owned a cat to get rid of the mice and rats in her cottage, that too was evidence enough to condemn her.

Perhaps some of these women began to believe in their own powers of healing, and if they made a mistake in diagnosis or treatment, or if a former patient didn’t want to pay his bill, they may be targeted for revenge by the ruthless or deceased relatives. Alone and defenceless, they also became victims of the witch finders, prevalent during the English Civil War who earned an income from denouncing them.

Matthew Hopkins is perhaps the most notorious of these, known as “The Witch-Finder General”. Throughout his reign of terror 1645-1646, he was paid by local authorities to commit perjury. Together with his henchman and fellow ‘Witch-Pricker’ John Sterne, in just 14 months, Hopkins was responsible for the condemnations and executions of some 230 alleged witches. By 1647, people were becoming tired of Hopkins' hunt and some villages refused him entry.

When Did Midwives Become Respectable?

Painting of Women and Newborns circa 1600

In the 17th Century, Schools for Midwives existed at the Hotel de Dieu in Paris in Delft and Nuremburg. Dutch Midwives were especially well thought of and protected by a surgeon’s guild with strict rules of practice. The rich would often pay vast fees for their wives to be attended by a ‘Hollander’

In England, it was acknowledged that midwives should train with experienced members of the profession before they were able to accept responsibility for deliveries. Midwives, of course, had a vested interest in the delivery of healthy babies to bolster her reputation, and she would also receive an additional fee from the godparents at the time of baptism.

Appointed by the Bishop’s Court, as sometimes they would have to baptise infants not expected to survive, midwives guarded their trade secrets jealously. The knife a midwife used to cut the umbilical cord was their badge of office and no one was allowed to touch it, much less use it.

William Sermon, a notorious 17th Century physician, who was put forward as a possible author of the famous manual of Sex, pregnancy and childbirth published in the late 1670’s known as Aristotle’s Masterpiece. Women were considered sexually voracious in a time period when Puritanism condemned sexuality when not directed toward procreation.

According to Aristotle’s masterpiece, a Midwife should be
..............of middle age, neither too old nor too young, not subject to diseases, fears, or sudden frights; nor are the qualifications assigned to a good surgeon improper for a midwife, viz., A lady's hand, a hawk's eye, and a lion's heart; to which it may be added activity of body and a convenient strength, with caution and diligence; not subject to drowsiness, nor apt to be impatient. She ought to be sober and affable, not subject to passion, but bountiful and compassionate and her temper cheerful and pleasant, that she may the better comfort her patients in their sorrow. ............. But above all, she ought to be qualified with the fear of God, which is the principal thing in every state and condition, and will furnish her on all occasions both with knowledge and discretion.

At a time when a bloody surgeon’s apron was a symbol of pride in his skill and experience, the first "lying-in" hospitals in the 1600’s led to the first epidemics of child-birth fever. No one really knew why, being unaware that germs introduced by the doctor’s hands caused perpural fever, but they did know that they and their child was more likely to survive if they were attended by a trusted midwife. Lister would not invent disinfectant until 1867.

Not that midwives knew everything. They would smother a dilating cervix with goose fat to 'aid brth', force open a cervix which didn't seem to want to dilate, and various other gruesome practices modern medicine condemn as dangerous.

As Midwifery became more of a profession, the superstitions connected with them and witchcraft died out, especially in the cities. By the end of the 17th century, midwives had lost their superiority over doctors and by the 18th century male midwives were common. Louis XIV engaged a male midwife to deliver one of his children.

*Malleus Maleficarum - A treatise on witches written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger two inquisitors of the Roman Church to refute arguments claiming witchcraft did not exist.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

This 'n that

What I find generally fascinating about the 17th century is that it is a period in transition from the Middle Ages and Renaissance to the Modern. Everything is happening at once. The French mathematician Decartes, for example, founder of the empirical method, believed that bad dreams were put in his head by demons.

I write about 17th century French history, and I've also found it striking how the experience of the 17th century was so radically different in London and Paris. Paris was in magnificent flower while London was being devastated by plague and fire. Religion was a huge factor in both countries, with the "New Religion" (Protestantism) in England and Catholicism in France. Religious-based paranoia ruled the day on both sides of the Channel, however.

On a more specific level, I'd like to point out an excellent post on The Historical Novel Review blog today by one of our members, Anita Davison. It's a creative interview with Helena Woulfe Palmer, the main character in her 17th century novels: Duking Days: Rebellion and Duking Days: Revolution. I relish details of 17th century daily life, and I particularly liked this one:
" ... have you tried cleaning a house by throwing sand and water on hardboard floor, then scrubbing the stuff away again by hand?"

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Old Demdike: A Firebrand to Remember

A few years ago my friend Bella Stander visited me at my adopted home in Lancashire, England, near the famous Pendle Hill. As I was driving her down quiet back lanes to a riding stable where we planned to go on a country hack, she kept noticing images of witches everywhere we went: on buses, pubs, even road signs pointing out the scenic route to Lancaster. Finally she asked me, “Mary, why are there witches everywhere?”

It’s impossible to live in environs of Pendle Hill and not be caught up in the enduring legend of the Pendle Witches of 1612, the subject of my forthcoming novel, A Light Far-Shining (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).

In 1612, in the most meticulously documented witch trial in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged as witches, based on testimony given by a nine-year-old girl and her brother, who appeared to suffer from learning difficulties. In Thomas Potts’s 1613 account of the proceedings, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witchcraft in the Countie of Lancaster, he pays particular attention to the one alleged witch who escaped justice by dying in prison before she could come to trial. She was Elizabeth Southerns, more commonly known by her nickname, Old Demdike. According to Potts, she was the ringleader, the one who initiated all the others into witchcraft. This is how Potts describes her:

She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had
been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast
place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man
knows. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no
man escaped her, or her Furies.

Not bad for an eighty-year-old lady! In England, the law forbade the use of torture in extracting witchcraft confessions. Thus, the trial transcripts supposedly reveal her voluntary confession, although her confession might have been manipulated or altered by the magistrate and scribe. What’s interesting, if the trial transcripts can be believed, is that she freely confessed to being a witch and a healer. The local farmers trusted her and called on her to cure their cattle. She talked about her familiar who appeared to her at sunset in the form of a beautiful young man and who taught her all she needed to know about magic. Some of her charms and spells were recorded and they reveal no evidence of diabolical beliefs, but use ecclesiastical language of the Catholic Church, the old religion driven underground in Reformation era England.

So it appeared that she was a practitioner of Catholic folk magic that would have been fairly common before the Reformation. The crimes of which she was accused dated back years before the trial. The trial itself might have never happened had it not been for King James I’s obsession with the occult. Until his reign, witch persecutions had been relatively rare in England compared with Scotland and Continental Europe. But James’ book Daemonologie presented the idea of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation. To curry favour with him, his loyal subjects, such as Lancashire magistrate Roger Nowell (who would have been my landlord if I had lived back then), went out of his way to arrest the Pendle Witches and even went to the far fetched extreme of accusing them of conspiring their very own Gunpowder Plot to blow up Lancaster Castle.

I am absolutely in love with this strong woman who was a widowed quite young and raised her children and grandchildren single-handedly in a place called Malkin Tower. The building no longer exists, but the site is listed on the Ordinance Survey Map. While researching this novel, I hiked on the public footpaths to all the locations mentioned in the trial. I found the quarry where Elizabeth Southerns first met her familiar and the site of where her protégé and arch rival Chattox lived. I also attempted to hike to Greenhead Manor, the home of two of Chattox’s alleged upper class victims, but the public footpath was blocked and booby-trapped with broken glass and a wasp’s nest. I even found the Red Lion Pub in Lancaster where the witches were taken for their last drink before being dragged to the gallows.

Demdike is dead but not forgotten. By the mid-17th century, Demdike’s name became a byword for witch in the local dialect and there are legends that she appeared to poor shepherds to help them find water for their flocks in summer droughts. What impressed me when I first moved here, before I knew anything about the Pendle Witches, is what a mark they left behind. Long after their deaths, they became part of the undying spirit of the region and its folklore.

Monday, 8 December 2008

The Real Grinch Who Stole Christmas!

Of all the heinous offences laid at the feet of the puritans during the time of the Interregnum (1649-1660), the banning of Christmas raises the most interest. Oliver Cromwell is generally credited with this decision but the fact is that the abolition of Christmas (or “Christ’s Mass”) as a feast day and holiday predated Cromwell’s rise to power and was the outcome of the puritan domination of Parliament in the 1640s.
Christmas had always been celebrated in England with traditions predating Christianity itself eg the “holly and the ivy” goes well back into pagan times. The traditions of wassailing, carols, feasting, mummers, plays and the resultant general drunkenness, frivolity and idleness were not looked on favourably by the puritans who believed that not only was it pagan but also resounded with Roman Catholic undertones. The puritans believed in a pure (hence the name) form of worship and devotion, based on the scriptures and felt that even the reformation had not gone far enough. ( I am sure we will hear more about the puritans as this blog grows!)
In 1645, a “Directory of Public Worship” was produced in Westminster to replace the prayer book and in 1647 the parliament passed an ordinance abolishing the feasts of Christmas, Whitsun and Easter. In the 1650s this was taken further with a specific ordinance ordering shops and businesses to remain open on 25th December. Despite the ordinances and the threat of penalties (that included fines and being placed in the stocks) many people continued to covertly celebrate Christmas behind closed doors.
For an account of one family’s perilous decision to continue the practice of Christmas, see the diaries of William Winstanley. Winstanley was an Essex farmer who “believed it was the duty of all Christians to celebrate the birth of their Saviour, with joyous festivity and open-handed generosity towards friends, relations and more especially the poor." (Alison Barnes, author of William Winstanley: The Man Who Saved Christmas ).
In 1660 the monarchy was restored and the Christmas ban was lifted, although, not surprisingly, after 18 years it took some time for it to return to the familiar carousing and good cheer.

As we contemplate the “stress” of Christmas, is there, perhaps a pause for consideration that perhaps the puritans were not all that wrong and that a purer form of worship and remembrance of Christ’s nativity should have a place in modern society?
I would love to hear your thoughts…and in the meantime I would like to share a genuine seventeenth century recipe with you.

250g flour
1 tsp nutmeg
250g suet
1 tsp cinnamon
250g dark (Barbados) sugar
250g each of sultanas, raisins, currants and mixed peel
250g grated new carrot
100 slivered blanched almonds
250g grated raw potato
1 large wineglass of brandy or sherry
3 or 4 tsp mixed spice
1. Mix all ingredients thoroughly and put in greased basins, covered with greaseproof paper and a cloth.
2. Steam for 8 hours.
3. Cool and change cloth.
4. Re-steam for 3 hours and serve with brandy butter, custard etc.
Notes: can be made not too long in advance and it can be frozen. It makes one large and one small wonderful, dark, very rich pudding!
A very safe and happy Christmas to our readers!
Alison (who is hoping that Christmas day will not be too hot!)