In The Witching Tide, the Historical Persecution of Women Feels All Too Modern

Books Reviews Margaret Meyer
In The Witching Tide, the Historical Persecution of Women Feels All Too Modern

Although most people are familiar with the Salem witch trials, many may not know that witch hunts in America had nothing on their European counterparts. It’s true that 20 people were executed in late 17th-century Massachusetts for witchcraft in an event that would define our idea of what the phrase “witch hunt” means. But they were never exclusively American horrors—in fact, witch panic didn’t arrive on these shores until its fervor was essentially dying out in Europe, after countless people were accused, and thousands put to death..

The peak of the witch hysteria in Europe raged from the late 1500s to the mid-1600s, in countries ranging from Germany to England. There are over ten thousand confirmed executions, but the true number of those killed is likely much higher. The vast majority of these deaths were women, often those who were poor, marginalized, old, disabled, or otherwise ostracized in some way. Many were convicted and put to death after undergoing extensive and horrifying torture, and most were accused by the very people they would have previously considered neighbors and friends, blamed for everything from bad luck to natural disasters. 

Margaret Meyer’s historical novel The Witching Tide has its roots in real events, a 14-month period of intense witch hunts in East Anglia that took place during the English Civil War. But her debut isn’t compelling simply because it tells a meaningful story about a time period and series of events that far too few people are familiar with. No, The Witching Tide succeeds because it’s all too easy to transpose some of its themes—the mistrust, prejudice, misogyny, and selfishness—onto our own present-day moment, in a time when it often feels as though female autonomy is under constant attack. A captivating tale in its own right, this is also a story that reminds us of the dangerous roads humanity is often all too eager to go down. 

The story follows Martha Hallybread, a healer and midwife in the town of Cleftwater, where she has lived all her life. Unable to speak thanks to an unspecified physical malady she refers to only as the “worm” she carries inside her, Martha uses a rudimentary sign language to speak and deploys her knowledge of herbs and natural remedies to nurse her fellow villagers through illness and birth multiple generations of babies. She also works as a live-in servant to a kind man named Kit, whom she has cared for since he was a boy, and essentially sacrificed her own life and family to remain by his side throughout his.

After she and another household servant named Prissy help deliver a baby with seemingly fatal birth defects, the younger woman is accused of witchcraft, arrested, and dragged off by three of their neighbors to face the witchfinder, a man named Silas Makepeace, who arrives in Cleftwater with a trail of destruction and death behind him. Soon after more women are accused and jailed, as Makepeace and his followers employ a series of increasingly brutal methods to prove they are the witches he claims them to be.

Hoping to shield Martha from the witchfinder’s interest, Kit volunteers her to serve as part of the group of women tasked with searching the accused for bodily signs of witchcraft. (This could be anything from moles and skin flaps to birthmarks or extra nipples, pretty much any aspect of difference that someone could claim came from some sort of interaction with the devil or the devil’s familiars.) Though she tries her best to help the women who come into her care, Martha is largely powerless in the face of the paranoia and anger that seem to be sweeping her village. And her own position becomes increasingly precarious as more and more people with connections to her find themselves accused.  

An anomaly many times over as a single, middle-aged woman with no family to speak of who has an obvious physical handicap and can only speak through a sort of rudimentary sign language most of her neighbors can’t understand, Martha is precisely the sort of woman generally targeted during witch panics such as these. And she occupies a uniquely liminal space within this story: Unable to speak, she cannot confess herself or condemn those around her. She often finds herself torn between the Christianity she believes in and the slightly more pagan-tinged practices she was raised with, evidenced most clearly by her connection to a wax doll left to her by a mother she barely remembers. She is a skilled healer, but the very nature of her business puts her in close contact with nature and with death, and her dual nature seems to make her neighbors uneasy, even as they make use of her skills for their own benefit. And she holds secrets, of the sort that leave both her and the reader experiencing her story at a loss for how she should be judged.

As more and more accusations pile up against Martha and the other women of her village, The Witching Tide’s uncomfortable prescience is clear. Poverty and ignorance breed anger and fear, particularly toward anyone deemed different or other. Misogyny isn’t the sole province of men, and the women of Cleftwater are more than willing to turn on one another. And neither money nor status can save them— Kit’s snobbish new well-to-do wife Lady Agnes finds herself in the same cell as a young woman believed to be selling sexual favors to local fishermen to survive. What can’t a woman be blamed for, in the minds of those who automatically view them as at fault for everything, anyway? 

Meyer’s dense immersive prose can get away from her, particularly in the novel’s third act as the story awkwardly attempts to embrace the power of Martha’s wax poppet without ever confirming one way or another whether its magic is real. Its ending is also weirdly heavy-handed, particularly for a book that has so much nuance in other others. But, on the whole, The Witching Tide success because it does what the best sort of historical fiction exists to do — not only to illuminate a dark, misunderstood, or little-known time period, but to find a way to make its past-set stories speak to our present time period. 

The Witching Tide is available now wherever books are sold. 

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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