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Review: Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction / Author: Tracy Borman / Publisher: Jonathan Cape / Release Date: Out Now

Talking about his disquisition on Jack the Ripper, Alan Moore approvingly cited Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, noting that ‘to solve a crime holistically, you’d need to solve the entire period in which it took place’. Thus, From Hell, less a piece of cheap, cheesy Ripperology and more a lengthy autopsy of the 1880s as a whole.

The nineteenth century was a messy time to be solved, the seventeenth even more so. It was a time of heightened political and religious tension, conspiracy and intrigue. James IV of Scotland had acceded to the throne of England (as James I) and had a vicious welcome to his new role in the form of the Gunpowder Plot. James also had a notorious hatred for ‘witchcraft’, which set the tone for the spirit in the country, and the rest of Europe, for the remainder of his reign.

Far from London, but no distance at all from the superstitions that attended the era, is Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. During the seventeenth century, Belvoir was the seat of the Manners family, a modestly aristocratic set who lived in the castle with a large retinue of servants. Among these were the Flowers, a mother and her two daughters, who were the subject of dark accusations of witchcraft. The allegations found purchase and they are, even today, known as the ‘Belvoir Witches’.

The improbable realities of the occult notwithstanding, the case against them was rather flimsy. They appear to have been unfortunate enough to have become inconvenient at a time when an accusation of witchcraft was literally sufficient to prove guilt. Tracy Borman takes up this coldest of cases and submits it to rational assessment. The result is a historical criticism of the era as a whole. If the accusers of the Flower women have any defence at all, it is that they were simply acting in accordance with the prevailing prejudices of the age.

There are multiple sources of blame – the tendency to place faith in potions and spells, the personal animosity of James I, the mistrust of the ritual elements of religion following the reformation and persecution of Catholics in England and the inability to know what to do with unattached women, either spinsters or widows. It reads, with great justification, as a searing indictment of institutionalised misogyny.

Borman marshals an astonishing range of primary sources to present her case. While this is occasionally digressive and distracting (points are laboured with several examples more than are required to convince the reader), it allows the reader to absorb the feel of the age, with its prejudices and preoccupations laid bare.

That said, the digressive elements actually appear as a strength. The book takes the case of the Belvoir Witches as the spine, but presents an analysis of the era as a whole, encompassing everyone from the lowliest pauper to the wannabe witchfinder on the throne. Chapters take an element of the case and tease them out, offering a hint of more information before widening to take in such subjects as cunning folk, the Reformation and Counter-reformation, the huge financial cost associated with maintaining respectable aristocratic status and the contributions of early sceptics.

Borman’s enthusiasm and diligence keeps the history in place, while the central story, and the mysteries, lies and obfuscations that surround it, add a flavour of the detective novel. Much of the truth of the matter is based on speculation; with the gaps in the historical record, it has to be, but Borman admits this where she has to and offers solid reasoning for her suppositions. The result is a solidly readable history that lifts the skin on a dangerous period.

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