TP's Witches 1

Some thoughts on TP’s portrayal of Witches

* The witch/midwife. 

In your presentation on one of the early witch books, you had researched the history of witchcraft and found a major inconsistency between the historical records and TP’s ideas. I didn’t doubt that you were right but it all seemed a bit odd.The historian in this BBC History Extra  podcast says nothing you don’t already know but he confirms what you’d read about witch activity being defined as maleficorum. Only that. ( 

You knew there was a contradiction, but didn’t have the info to put your finger on why. Nor me till I heard this podcast recently.  (note - It seems we’re in good company,  even the entry to the Encyclopaedia Britannica had the wrong info.) 

It seems that our TP may well have bought into the myth, perpetuated by Lovecraft, but invented by 2 very angry feminists. They were rightly angry about witches having been burned and about women excluded by the gynaecological profession. Conflating the 2 was a serious historical error. 

Rather than me trying to re-explain it all clumsily, this “ Dig'' podcast has the details and all the references in the show notes in the link. It’s proper studies not opinion. 

I had a look in my study bible too.  I can’t see any way that even the most zealous, bigoted and misogynistic so called christians could have mixed up the two.

It has a very positive view of midwives in part due to the Egyptian midwives in the story of Moses in Exodus 1, and at the birth of Jacob in Genesis. Absolutely no link made with witchcraft in any way. 

Whereas “witchcraft” has no healing or service connotations. It is clearly linked with idolatry, child sacrifice, divination, omens etc .  “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft,” Deuteronomy 18 : 10, 

Clarified by “How can there be peace,” Jehu replied, “as long as all the idolatry and witchcraft of your mother Jezebel abound?” 1 Kings 9, 

Even in the NT, it’s paired up with “ 20 … idolatry and witchcraft;... ” Galatians 5, also translated as sorcery, or as The Message translation has it as “19-21  … trinket gods; magic-show religion; …” )

The difference is clear and even with the RC disregard for what the Bible actually says I don’t think likely there could have been any serious conflation of the 2 things, neither when there was little literacy, as the stories of Jacob, Moses and Jezebel have always been well known, let alone at a time when the witch trials started and there had already been several translations into English, including the King James Version, seriously, tragically flawed but clear in this area - he had his own axe to grind of course.

* Cottage. 

Sign of patriarchy wanting to tie women to home life? Possibly, but I wonder if it is more likely a sign of autonomy for women.  Tendency to burn down a suspected witch’s cottage so no other woman can think of going independent. Inheritance problems as her relatives might want it and not be pleased she wants to give it to another woman. Controversy. So the cottage could be very valuable symbolically. I wonder if the poor upkeep of the cottages was a sign of poverty and a lack of males willing to perpetuate female autonomy by refusing to mend it, or if they deliberately kept in poor upkeep to avoid covetous looks from others willing to take it by force. When the local landowner is also a dominant part of the local judiciary the law may or may not be impartial… 

Ownership and inheritance of land and property tending to be principally male can be partly (but only partly) justified when it comes to agricultural land. In a nearby village here in France there was a controversy recently. A woman had inherited a part of her father’s grape farm estate equally with her brothers who then farmed it all. She announced she was going to marry a man whose farm was further away, adding her parcel (for free as it were) to his already adequate farm, which becomes a patchy farm with a big gap in it. The brothers are left with ⅔ of a farm, not enough to make a sufficient living. I think the situation was not helped by the fact that the new husband was not just a rival but also part of an old family feud. She’s refusing to sell her part to the brothers too. *sigh* unclear rights and wrongs. (Moses solves the problem by saying that women can inherit but can only then marry within her clan.)

* Spinning 

along with knitting, sewing etc could be seen as symbolic subjugation, tying women to the home but I suspect it was also a pragmatic part of a historic and highly skilled division of labour, necessary in a pre-industrialised economy. In their so-called spare time men would be expected to keep their hands busy too, notably whittling wooden spoons, pegs, maintenance of tools, knives, leather work, weaving, etc. We think of men as the farmers, but without tractors they would struggle to do everything and in practice women and children do a huge amount of weeding, harvesting and minding livestock. TP gets much more detailed and realistic with the Tiffany books. She does milking, churning and cheesemaking. The industrialisation of milk produce removed a lot of women’s ability to earn independently and their opportunity to meet people selling it at market. Ditto needlework, laundry and all the handcrafts. Although the argument that it’s heavy drudgery to have to do all of it yourself and by hand is the counterbalance. Mind you these things have made out of the house employment for women, in the ages before factories, as maids, dairy maids, seamstresses, kitchen maids, parlour maids and all the rest. The debate about what actually consists of women’s empowerment in rural communities is a great deep academic rabbit hole to go down if you’re so inclined, which I suspect you’re probably not. 

As a curious insight on the issue, a friend went to visit a pastor in the heart of the jungle in Nigeria, Africa. His church had a big problem in that if any woman wanted to join his church without the menfolk of the family being a prior member she was liable to be thrown out of her home, but there was no way she could live independently, just no employment for women at all except as a prostitute or a witch - the divination, curses sort. He wanted non-electric powered sewing machines so that the abandoned women who were living in the church premises could make some money for themselves. Healing, midwifery and so on were part of what the village women would routinely do for each other and couldn’t be a source of income. Anything more requires a long trip to the nearest town to find someone with education that isn’t available in remote village communities like Lancre. 

* Clothing. Wearing black. Basically, most effective chemical dyes are pretty recent. Before that black and white were among the harder ones to do so were generally saved for the well off or high status individuals. Bleaching i.e. whitish  is pretty ancient and could be done using the ammonia of old urine, often combined with sunlight (ever sat on the bleachers at cricket ? old word for the planks where fabric was laid out, otherwise it was hung up on tenter-hooks) In the Tiffany books the old baron has a memory of a wool jacket (maybe tweed?) that smells of wee, the fulling process of turning the woven fabric into dense felt meant treading it in urine. 

Black. Using things like walnut husks (those who did the tedious and poorly paid job of harvesting them got stained hands and were known as the nutters) or mixes of blues and reds made what we’d now call faded blacks. However even these grey/browny blacks weren’t cheap. Deep elegant black came much more recently, the 14th C, with the importing of oak galls grown in Poland and the use of different mordants to fix the colour. Extremely expensive it was adopted by royalty etc but that released the poorer black for those who wanted black status but couldn’t afford the new fangled stuff. TP mentions the difference in one of his books when describing the difference between the Assassins who wore fancy black and the duller and very washed look of the witches.  We’ve long had double standards about black, associating it with authority figures but also with evil.

Tiffany’s green dress would have been unlikely in mediaeval times. There were no reliable green dyes till someone discovered you could dye a fabric blue with woad then over the top with a yellow. You could do green with all sorts of plants but it just wouldn’t be serviceable. Maybe his Discworld was more advanced than our globe. 

TP had clearly done some domestic history research. There are mentions of Granny W. having a conical frame in her cottage that she used to make her own hats using willow sticks with canvas stretched over amongst other details.



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