Historical fiction advocates ought to devour this series,, THE GRAHAM SAGA, of which REVENGE & RETRIBUTION is number 6. Author Anna Belfrage has a deft touch in.presenting 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony, a locale which commenced with an intent to religious freedom, but is narrowing in scope and tolerance. A multiply-charactered cast keeps readers' attention. For those who are not yet familiar with the series, the heroine, Alexandra (Alex) is a 21st-century Scottish gal who inadvertently time-traveled to.1658.
Sometime around 1620, a boy was born in Suffolk, England to a Puritan clergyman called John Hopkins. The little boy was named Matthew, and whatever childish dreams he made have had regarding what he wanted to be when he grew up we will never know, as essentially nothing is known of Matthew Hopkins until that day in 1644 when out he pops of the woodwork, a self-proclaimed Witchfinder.
To understand his choice of profession, one needs certain context: England at the time was in the throes of Civil War, Puritan factions instilled a rampaging fear of evil, and to further add spice to this particular soup, it wasn’t all that long ago that the previous king, James VI of Scotland and I of England, had presided over the infamous Berwick Witch Trials, emphatically stating that witches did exist and had to be fought with all possible means.
In difference to most of Europe, England had an established judicial process that required there to be proof before anyone was found guilty of anything. This in turn means that England has a relatively low number of convicted witches – estimates land around 500 people all in all. Of these, 300 can be attributed to Matthew Hopkins, who obviously took to the role as Witchfinder as fish take to water.
He extracted confessions through various creative procedures, such as sleep deprivation and “pricking”, whereby the accused was shaved of all body hair and submitted to being pricked with a long, sharp needle. Should Matthew hit upon a point that didn’t bleed – well, obviously the naked terrified woman being inspected was a witch.
Fortunately for the women of England, Hopkins died in 1647 – still a number of years shy of his thirtieth birthday. Unfortunately for several women in the New World, Hopkins was very proud of his methods – so proud he wrote a handbook, called The Discovery of Witches in 1647. This book was taken as the ultimate guide in how to find witches – at least in the Colonies – and indirectly Hopkins would thereby cause a number of further deaths in America – long after he was dead.
This little handbook offered a number of alternatives as to how to reveal a witch. Sleep deprivation and pricking have already been mentioned, but Hopkins was also a warm advocate of the swimming test, whereby the unfortunate woman was tied up and thrown into the water. If she floated, she was a witch, if she sank she was innocent. Most people float – at least initially – when thrown in water. And once they start sinking, chances are they’re already more dead than alive…
Over the coming years, Hopkins’ methods would be applied to a number of unfortunates, staring with poor Margaret Jones, a Boston midwife who was hanged as a witch in 1648. His suggested approach to witch discovery was also used at the notorious Salem Trials of the 1690’s, and the swimming test would be continued to be used for a number of decades after that, as testified by the sad case of Grace Sherwood, who was ducked in 1706, had the misfortune (or not) to float, and accordingly spent the following eight years in prison for witchcraft.
In Revenge and Retribution, my main character, Alex Graham, faces accusations of being a witch. No wonder she is more than unnerved when she hears this. Just the thought of being subjected to one more humiliating inspection after the other – plus the fear that she might be found guilty – must have led to an endless number of sleepless nights!