It is tempting to dream of being magically transported into the past. Not, of course, to be Anne Boleyn, kneeling on the scaffold awaiting the sword-swipe of that French headsman, but as an ordinary woman in 16th, 17th or 18th century England. To be able to experience the exotic scents and foul stinks; the sounds and sights; the extravagantly dressed nobility; their elaborate wigs, fine horses and splendid carriages.
Yet might such a dream turn into a nightmare?
I read recently that King James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England in 1603) published a book in 1597 entitled Demonology, setting down how to identify and convict witches. Hundreds of suspected women were subsequently imprisoned and tortured until they confessed. A thumbscrew might be tightened until the pain was sufficient to elicit the required admission of guilt. If this failed to work, trial by water involved being placed on a ducking-stool and lowered below the water line of a pond or river. When completely submerged, if an accused woman sank, she was deemed innocent (too bad if she was by then dead from drowning); if she floated, she was guilty and would be dealt with accordingly. For those found guilty, punishments ranged (if she was lucky) from a severe beating, to time spent in the pillory or the stocks, or up to a year in jail being fed only on bread and water. For cases deemed serious, the penalty was a horrendous death.
The initial identification involved a number of damning pointers: being female, being from the lower echelons of society, being no longer young, or behaving occasionally in an eccentric manner. Having a brown patch somewhere on their skin (tough luck if you had age-spots on your hands), or a superfluous nipple, was deemed highly suspicious. As was being childless. Owning a black cat or a besom broom was considered a significant pointer to being in league with the Devil.
Woe betide you if your neighbour disliked you and their well happened to dry up, their chickens died, or their cow failed to produce milk. Evil arts might be suspected and fingers pointed in your direction.
In England, more than 2,500 women were executed for witchcraft and in 1621 a crowd of up to 30,000 watched Elizabeth Sawyer hang for the presumed crime at Tyburn. North of the border, in 1727, Janet Horne became the last so-called witch burned alive in Scotland.
In the light of all this, as a working-class female past the first flush of youth, with stepchildren but no offspring of her own, I no longer fancy travelling back in time. Especially as I frequently read books aloud to my all-black cat. Mutter to myself while editing on my computer. Sing carols loudly while driving my car. In the summer. And – perhaps most damning – own a rather splendid besom broom.