Witches don’t exist, you know.

Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy has been commissioned to write a tribute to ten women who were executed for being witches four hundred years ago. Guardian’s Martin Wainright has some rather…interesting… things to say on the matter.

He sets the scene for his article by using a fictional, fantasy picture of witches (see above) which appears to have been lifted from some movie. The witches in the image are, of course, a joke. The picture is ironic. (Don’t you feminists have a sense of humour?) The murder of women should never be taken seriously. All a bit of a laugh. And it’s downhill from there. He describes Carol Duffy’s tribute as:

“a thoughtful celebration of ten women who were hanged for witchcraft 400 years ago”

From the way the sentence is written, we immediately get the feeling that what happened to these women was a rare, unique anomaly. That these particular ten women happened to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time and, as bad luck would have it, they ended up dead. There is no mention at all of the systematic killing which lasted for centuries: the planned, premeditated, ongoing purge in which millions of women were killed by their paranoid rulers, men. He appears to be searching for reasons why the women were targeted:

“two of the women hanged at Lancaster castle aged over eighty and blind, another probably driven mad by a disfigured face with one eye lower than the other, and all ten convicted largely on the evidence of a nine-year-old child.”

Looking at the figures of the deaths at the time, the real question is not “Why were these women picked?” but “Why were those women spared?” Indeed Wainright would do better to ponder over the characteristics of the women who managed to survive the slaughter, not of the ones who were killed. For example, were they particularly meek? Unusually submissive? I think we’re on the right track.

Rather than honouring their deaths, he mockingly re-writes history:

“Their fate has always been controversial, with even contemporaries divided over whether they were genuine conspirators against the wobbly social order (their deaths in 1612 came seven years after the Gunpowder Plot), or victims of prejudice against ‘wise women’ herbalists whose village medicine sometimes went badly awry. They may alternatively have been a bit too feisty for the masculine establishment or simply the victims of feuds.”

A bit too feisty for the masculine establishment? Two of the women were over eighty years old. Wise women in scare quotes? Eh? And what does the gunpowder plot have to do with the price of fish? (Is he suggesting again that the executions were a rare occurence, a blip in an otherwize orderly and just world? Or is it a (what-about-teh-menz) men-were-sometimes-executed-too allusion?).

Village medicine sometimes went badly awry? Has he read about the botch jobs and butchering of bodies that took place, (and continues to take place), once men took over medicine? Does the author realise that in order to be taken seriously in this field men had to first kill off the women herbalists?

Why would the word of a child (male, I guess?) be taken more seriously than the word of the adults who were being charged with witchcraft?  Are we to believe that it’s insignificant that a woman’s word was worth shit in the eyes of the law? If the child had pointed out a couple of powerful men instead of two old women, would they too have been marched off to be hanged? (And it’s funny how children are rarely believed when it comes to the crimes men commit against them–crimes that actually exist– such as sexual abuse)

Why is it acceptable to depict the executed women in any other light other than innocent victims?  From where I’m standing, there is nothing “controversial” about the Burning Times/ Witch-craze. Any moreso than the killing of the Jews, or slavery.

There’s controversial, and then there’s wrong.

Perhaps he thinks witches did actually exist? Is the notion of “controversy” connected to the possibility (in his mind) that the ten women may have been witches? [Grasping at straws here]

But the more pressing question is:

Would it be appropriate to write an article about the hollocaust headed by a photograph of rats… simply because the propaganda at the time depicted the Jews as sub-human?

I think not.

ETA: Since this post was written, (and following a complaint by a commenter called nihonshu) the original “three witches” photograph used for the article has now been changed.