Author: Tracy Borman
Genre: Non-fiction, history
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
In September 1613, the Earl of Rutland’s son fell ill and died. Within weeks his second son also fell ill and died. No one is sure what they died of but their deaths were long and painful. This was a time when people believed in witchcraft, and it was witches that were blamed for the young boys deaths. The witches at whom the finger was pointed were all from one family, the Flowers, a mother and two daughters who had a grudge against the Earl of Rutland and had been heard to curse him.
The Flowers women were eventually tried and found guilty and it is through them and their trial Tracy Borman tells the story of witch hunts and witch trials in the early 17th century. She touches on trials across Europe but focuses on England and how James I’s beliefs played into what was close to hysteria. It looks at how if you were a women and poor, old or ugly, prone to speaking your mind or not very good at getting on with your neighbours you were almost doomed to be called a witch and there was a very good chance you would be burned at the stake.
Borman does a really good job of setting the scene for the growing hysteria. I was amazed by how little it took to be accused of being a witch (one woman was accused because her neighbours pigs had started making a different type of grunt if I remember correctly) and how how hard it was to disprove an accusation. There really was no way out for a woman accused. If she stayed silent it was seen as an admission of her guilt. If she spoke up and proclaimed her guilt she was lying and under the influence of the devil.
Many women did confess, often under torture, and often named others in the hope of gaining leniency. My modern mind doesn’t understand it, but history has taught us more than once that mass hysteria takes hold easier than you think it might and, even the most rationale look for answers elsewhere when the world doesn’t seem to behave how it should (and losing two sons so horribly probably falls into that category).
Witchcraft was blamed for many things people couldn’t control – bad weather, famine, flood – and James I was obsessed with the idea of witches and demons…to the point he wrote a treatise on it. When your king believes, it’s no wonder you do. I found this interesting too and I learnt much about James I that I didn’t know.
Tracy Borman weaves the story of Jame’s obsession, the growing hysteria, and the much more personal tale of the Flowers women together really well and I was drawn along through most of the book. There was a great attention to detail and claims were backed up by fact. My sympathy for the women grew as the book went on and I was grateful I wasn’t alive back then as I would probably have ended up burnt at the stake myself as I find it difficult to not speak my mind.
Where it didn’t work as well was when Borman chose to stray from facts and lay out her belief that the boys were murdered as part of a master plan by the Duke of Buckingham involving the marriage of Rutland’s daughter. There is nothing that seems to substantiate this but some gossip and assumptions. I didn’t see the point of this part. I felt it was in there to “sex” up the book. This wasn’t needed because the subject was interesting enough on it’s own and the murder plot is an unnecessary distraction from an otherwise enjoyable book. Despite this though, I will still recommend it.