Even in our technically advanced world there are many things that we don't understand. So we question and fear them, especially the paranormal. In the past those things would have been even more terrifying. How might a small community react when one person is seen to have inexplicable powers, powers that may put others at risk?
It was these kind of fears and superstitions that led to the law on witchcraft in the 16th century. It was down to a Scottish king, King James VI – the son of Mary Queen of Scots, who later went on to become James I of England under the union of Scotland and England. (That's him in the hat ;-) Prior to his time witchcraft was a crime, but little action was taken. King James changed that. The story goes that he had a morbid fear of death and an obsessive interest and fear of witchcraft. His wife was from Denmark, where he learned much about witch hunts during his visit in 1589, feeding his beliefs. A huge group of Scottish "witches" were subsqeuently put to trial, accused of attempting to drown James by calling up a storm while he was at sea - an act of treason.
The king's fear of witchcraft later led to his own document on the subject: Daemonologie. This document was published in 1597 and if you have an interest in the subject, you can read it in its entirety online at the Gutenberg project. Despite the ancient language it remains a concise and vivid document and allows us to get our minds into a place where we can imagine the fear that was rife, and also the power that could be subsequently wielded under the king's law if an individual were accused of practising witchcraft.
What particularly interested me was the contrast between the Highlands and the Lowlands, as I mentioned last week. This was mostly because the seat of government is in the Lowlands, in Edinburgh. As well as that, St Andrews was an important religious capital and had been for many centuries. The Christian belief was that anything alluding to witchcraft should be seen as evidence that a soul had been won over by Satan. Between the Kings Law and Christian belief, the culture of fear, superstition, and suspicion, would have been greatly exaggerated and acted upon. In turn, the very same laws had the potential to be abused to gain power or wreak revenge.
It was this kind of cultural atmosphere that I drew upon for the setting and atmosphere of the Taskill witches stories. Whilst the books are primarily erotic romance, the characters and stories are influenced heavily by the history, the laws and the fears of the time and place. In the first two books in the series I concentrated on how a "true witch" might live in fear, whilst balking at the injustice against their kind. In the third book, The Jezebel, I address King James's Daemonologie directly.
After her mother's death, Margaret (Maisie) Taskill was "rescued" and brought up by a man who seeks to control and use her witchcraft to his own ends. Master Cyrus educates her highly about her skills, nurturing them. He also teaches her about the dark side of her gift, the laws against witchcraft, and he does this in order to keep her afraid and needy of his protection. (Never fear, our hero, Captain Roderick Cameron, saves her from this so-called protector ;-) Here's a snippet from the book:
The more Margaret read, the more sickened she felt. She drew back from the book, confused by it.
"Perhaps reading it aloud would be better, so that we might discuss it," Master Cyrus offered, encouraging her to turn another page.
She had hoped that he would set the book aside for another day, for it was too close to her own experience, and the words of the magistrate and the villagers who condemned her mother were reflected in its every page.
"Ask me anything," he said, forcing her on.
Why was he so determined she read it? Margaret stared at the page, faltering, yet afraid to disappoint him. "It says the witches serve one master. Who is this master?"
His eyes narrowed as he studied her. "Read on."
She read aloud, needing to do so to share her confusion with him. "The Devil...it says the devil entices witches in to his service. He lures them to follow him by promising them great riches." She paused, turning to the man who was her only protector, her only master. "The devil? But this is Christian belief. They said this about my mother, but I didn't understand it then and I do not understand it now. We only believe in that which folds in on our lives time and again, bringing life and growth and good things...we believe in nature's way, the seasons and the rebirth of everything that is good."
He nodded. "Your people have often been unjustly accused of being evil, although I expect some turn that way."
He tapped the page, encouraging her to read on.
Reluctantly, she did so. "The author says that the devil bestowed the knowledge to cure illness," she shook her head in disbelief, for that was not her experience, "or to curse and kill via means of wax figures." She felt quite ill. "Wax figures to curse or kill? I have never heard of such a thing." Upset, confused and angered, she wanted to destroy the book and all it represented. "It is lies!"
"People believe this because it is the King's word, and the church and the lawmakers agree and act upon it. Try, if you can, to imagine you knew nothing of witchcraft and how you might feel if you read this and believed it."
It sent a cold shiver through her. "Yes, it would make me afraid, and if there really are people who did such things… people who use magic for their own gain, then I can see why men believed the King's word."
Master Cyrus did not respond to that.
"And the remedy they recommend?" He seemed determined that she finish reading the king's Daemonologie that very night.
She read aloud again, unable to analyse the words on her own. "What form of punishment think ye merits these Magicians and Witches? They ought to be put to death according to the Law of God, the civil and imperial law, and municipal law of all Christian nations." Her voice faltered as she remembered, the tears welling. "But...but what kind of death...I pray you?"
She heard the jeers, the accusations, the stones that made her mother drop and bleed. She did not need to read on, for she knew what their answer was. Fire.
Tears spilled down her cheeks as the wounds reopened and she relived the pain, remembering it all.
"Hush now." Master Cyrus rested back in his chair. "You are safe, and you always will be, with me."
Crying and gulping in distress, her vision misted.
"I do not want to remind you of your mother's fate," he said, after some time had passed, "you know that, but it is important that you understand why it happened."
She lifted her head and looked into his eyes. "Why do they think these things about us?"
"It is ignorance and jealousy that lead people to do such things to a gifted, special one such as you." His eyes flickered thoughtfully. "Fear of the power that you might have over them." His brows lifted.
Maisie stared at him. He seemed pleased with her. Was it because she had been brave enough to read it all?
His eyes gleamed as he contemplated her. "I do not have your powers, my precious, but I respect them in you. You will not be harmed, not while I watch over you. That much I promise you."
And she believed him.
"In time these laws will be revoked," he added. "I have heard it spoken about amongst the important people, and there has been much written about the injustices that have taken place." Cyrus's mouth twitched into a smile. "And many people do not even believe witchcraft exists," he added, "and that suits us rather well, don't you think?"
Margaret nodded, although deep down she wanted to disagree and state that she'd rather her kind were acknowledged. She trusted Master Cyrus to guide and protect her, though. "I hope that you are right, that these laws will be altered." She pushed the book away, resisting the urge to set it alight with a choice Pictish enchantment.
The lessons were hard, but she learned.
Acceptance, knowledge, caution and experience wove together in the fabric of her soul...
Next week I'll share some of the artefacts from the witch trials and also discuss some of the documented cases. Meanwhile, if you're interested in finding out more about the history of witchcraft in Scotland and England, here are some useful links.
The survey of Scottish Witches 1563-1736
Witches in early modern Britain
Time for witches to rest in peace, the Scotttish petition for pardon.