Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Witch's Trinity by Erika Mailman


The year is 1507 and the little German village of Tierkinddorf is beset by famine and fear, it is the second year that there has been no harvest. Thus the stage is set for tragedy when a friar arrives brandishing a book he vows will solve all their problems and restore prosperity. The book is that infamous blood-drenched tome the Malleus Maleficarum "The Witch's Hammer," an instruction manual for hunting down, torturing, and eventually killing women suspected of witchcraft.

Gude Muller is the oldest woman in the village, she has outlived all her contemporaries except her best friend Kunne Himmelman, a wisewoman steeped in herb lore and skilled in healing. Gude, has grown old, frail, and forgetful, and the author does a magnificent job of capturing the confusion and frustration of an elderly person's descent into what we would today call Alzheimer's, powerless to stop their own mind from slipping away from them.

Gude's daughter-in-law, Irmeltrud, sees her as a useless old woman, a burden, one more mouth to feed when food is so scarce, and resents her for it; the meager scraps that are given to Gude could have fed Irmeltrud's children. In a fit of anger, she sends the old woman out to beg on a freezing, snowy night, though she later denies this to make herself look better in her husband's eyes.

While wandering in the woods, Gude sees a vision of witches and the Devil himself with his cloven hooves, coarse, hairy body, and "ice cold prick," and is tempted by a pig roasting on a spit, and cajoled to sign her name in His book. But is this real or just her imagination, hunger and fear and the witchfinder acting on a vulnerable mind?

After Kunne, the wisewoman, is tried and burned as a witch, blamed for stopping a hen from laying eggs, Irmeltrud decides to denounce Gude. Gude undergoes the humiliating ordeal of being stripped stark naked and having her head shaved bald being and searched for marks of witchery, she is interrogated and threatened with a fiendish device called the pear, a metal pear-shaped implement made to be inserted inside a woman's vagina where it splays out at the twist of a pin into a series of blades that shred and pierce her.

But bearing false witness does Irmeltrud no good, and she soon gets what she deserves when a barren woman who covets Irmeltrud's two beautiful children accuses Irmeltrud herself and she ends up sharing Gude's cell.

This is one of the best novels I have read about the persecution of women accused of witchcraft. In an era charged with a potent combination of superstition, fear, and malice these tragedies were all too common. Among the numerous novels about the more famous cases, like the Salem Witch Trials, this book, set in an obscure and tiny village in Germany, about ordinary people and their problems really stands out. The author did a wonderful job and created characters I could really sympathize with and feel for, even the ones I did not like I could still understand. For anyone interested in a tale of witchcraft persecution realistically portrayed I highly recommend Ms. Mailman's novel.

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