In the Western tradition, witches were condemned around-and-about the year 560 BC. That’s the date scholars believe Leviticus and Exodus were written, by the same person (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”).
A while later, St. Augustine sniffed at the very idea of witches. Augustine “argued in the early 400s that God alone could suspend the normal laws of the universe. In his view, neither Satan nor witches had supernatural powers or were capable of effectively invoking magic of any sort,” writes the academic Douglas Linder. “It was the ‘error of the pagans’ to believe in ‘some other divine power than the one God.’ Of course, if witches are indeed powerless, the Church need not overly concern itself with their spells or other attempts at mischief.”
Unfortunately Augustine’s ideas were never taken to heart. In the 1400s, witchcraft trials became a big deal in Europe. When tortured, you’d admit to all sorts of crimes. Pope Innocent VIII fed the fear, and hysteria and mass executions – usually of women – continued for two centuries (the last witch to be executed in England died in 1682).
Towns had executioners charged with killing, and the job was often handed down from father to son. Contemporary German author Oliver Potzsch can trace his lineage back to the Kuisl family, and “the Kuisl executioner dynasty had been one of the most famous of such dynasties in Bavaria.” This delightful bit of personal history appears in the postscript to his 2008 novel, The Hangman’s Daughter (published in 2010 in English, and translated by Lee Chadeayne).
“Supposedly more than 60 executions were carried out by my bloodstained ancestor during the Schongau witch trials of 1589 alone.”
And with this, Potzsch mixed medieval fact and fiction in a fun and suspenseful novel.
Unsurprisingly, the Schongau town fathers were none too pleased, some 70 years later, to discover another witch. A dead child is dragged out of the river, stabbed multiple times and sporting a strange mark, in some sort of ink, on his shoulder. What could it be but the mark of a witch?
The year is 1659, and the mob convicts the midwife and healer, her home filled with pots covered in strange symbols and forbidden herbs.
Kuisl the executioner is also the town torturer, and he is ordered to elicit a confession.
But what, asks the moralistic killer, if the woman is not a witch? In response, the town clerk knows the woman’s innocence is irrelevant: “His town was on fire! Johann Lechner could almost see how fear and hatred were eating their way from the outskirts to the very center of Schongau. There had been whispering in the inns last night already…. People were talking about devil worship, witches’ Sabbaths, and ritual murder. After all the plagues, wars and storms, the situation was explosive. The city was a powder keg, and [the midwife] could be the fuse.”
She must be found guilty, and quickly, or a full-scale panic and purge of women would erupt.
Kuisl hopes to somehow avoid a miscarriage of justice. But while he investigates, he still must torture the midwife. It’s his job.
Kuisl is joined in his investigation by a young physician, Simon, an upstart who thinks there might be something to this newfangled idea that blood circulates through the body. (His father, also a physician, thinks the idea ridiculous.) Along the way, Simon is enchanted by Kuisl’s daughter.
Their love is doomed: She is promised to the son of another hangman. Because to be a hangman is to be an outcast, and so it is for the children of the hangman, as well.
In the meantime, another child turns up dead. He too, bears the mark of the witch.
This is a book (and an eventual series!) recommended by the Lennoxville Library’s Donna Berwick. “Fascinating reading,” she promises.
Now let’s skip forward another two centuries, and move northeast. To 1890s Russia, and to Sister Pelagia, whose wimple is always askew, a shock of red hair likely peeking out. She is, frankly, an embarrassment. “She was really not cut out to be a nun: she was too lively, fidgety, curious, and undignified in her movements…. A walking disaster with freckles.”
Russian writer Boris Akunin’s Sister Pelagia And The White Bulldog (2007, translated by Andrew Bromfield, the first in a trilogy) comes recommended by the many, many patrons who’ve signed it out.
The bulldog has been poisoned, although it takes a bit of time to meet the beast’s sad corpse.
Pelagia is a somewhat bucolic novel of suspense, as Akunin meanders about with his characters, offering us personal stories, tales of daily life, history, and a small mystery. And the beginnings of a pogrom.
If you enjoy digression and dry wit, you’ll enjoy Sister Pelagia.
An inquisitor from the Holy Synod needs to make a name for himself. The bishop seeks to protect his people. And Pelagia must discover who’s murdered the pup, the end result of decades of inbreeding. The dog (and its siblings) are the bishop’s great-aunt’s only remaining connection to her beloved late spouse.
As Pelagia wanders over to the great-aunt’s, she comes across two brutally decapitated travellers… but must be off, as she has far more urgent business.
The inquisitor, however, pleased by his good fortune, whips up fear directed at the Zyts people, who are, obviously, pagan murderers.
Akunin manages to bring these diverse plot threads together. But in both books, justice is a slippery concept.
– Eleanor Brown, June 13, 2014