One of my favorite reads this time of year is Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Howe's ancestors, Elizabeth Howe and Elizabeth, Proctor, were two of the accused witches in Salem, Massachusetts.
Historians are still trying to explain the Salem witch trials. I've heard reasons from mass hysteria, to "tensions between competing religious populations, or "long-standing envy between family groups," or that the accusing girls ate moldy bread, "which can cause effects similar to those of LSD."
Howe's book addresses an interesting question: What if the accused in Salem really were witches?
The crimes which the Salem witches were accused "usually reveal how narrow the colonial world really was for average people," Howe writes. The witches were accused of "making cows sick, or milk go sour, or for the loss of personal property."
The "tall pointy part derives from a fifteenth century hennin, and the wide brim is a simplified form of an English wimple," Howe wrote. That's what old-school nuns wore. It was "common middle-class women's headgear in the late Middle Ages, basically."
A hennin looked like this:
And the black cats? They're "just a stand-in for a familiar. But they weren't always only cats," Howe wrote.
"A familiar is a devil or spirit in the guise of an animal, that did the witch's bidding . . . a little girl who was accused told the court her mother gave her a snake for a familiar, which she suckled from a wart between her fingers."
Many cat owners, including me, might tell you there are days when I believe my cats are devils in disguise, but a witch riding a broom with a snake coiled on it just doesn't have the visual impact of a black cat.
About those brooms. We've got them backwards, Howe wrote: "The broom stuff is crazy. So a medieval witch on her way to a sabbath would strip off all her clothes. Then smear her naked body with flying ointment, straddle her broom with the straw end up, which is important because that's where the candle goes so that you can see when you're flying in the dark . . . "
How's that an image for your neighborhood Halloween party?
All those witches' brooms are pointing the wrong way. The broom straw should be in front, with a candle on it like a supernatural headlight.
It's bats, right?
Justine is no devil's familiar, but she's one hell of a show cat, and the pricey pedigreed kitten has been kidnapped. Helen and Phil have to find the cat and figure out who killed her owner. Win Catnapped!, my 13th Dead-End Job mystery. Click Contests at www.elaineviets.com