Kit’s Crit: The Wise Woman (Philippa Gregory)

Gregory

The Wise Woman by Philippa Gregory

This historical fiction begins in 1540 and follows the tragic life of seventeen-year-old Alys, a young peasant girl in Tudor England.  Alys grew up on the moor with a harsh foster-mother called Morach, the local wise woman.  But turning her back on superstition and the pagan arts, Alys decides to join a nunnery.  For a time she finds contentment in this orderly sanctuary.  She enjoys the rigid structure, comparative luxury, and the safety afforded to the Holy Sisters.

But Alys happiness is short lived.  One night the monastery burns to the ground, a casualty of King Henry’s Reformation, and the young woman is summoned to the local castle to work as a scribe for the ailing lord of the manor.   Here she falls in love with his married son and heir, Lord Hugo.  She grows intently jealous of the Lady Catherine, and seeks to replace her in Hugo’s bed.  Calling on all the cunning tricks she recalls from living with Morach, Alys devises a difficult, disturbing plot to gain her heart’s desire.  At this point the novel slips into magical realism.

Gregory’s story has many Faustian overtones.  Alys conjures up the powers of darkness to possess the man she fixates on, aware that her actions are prompted by self-promotion rather than genuine love.  By the end of the book the Wise Woman is exposed as self-centered, unlikable, and evil – and therefore she meets with a hellish end.

The Wise Woman can also be read as a morality tale.  Although Alys is a victim of historical circumstance, feudalism, and gender, she serves as a warning against forbidden love and obsession.  She tries to take the rightful place of another woman – a place where she can never truly belong.  Alys discovers she has the power to unleash terrible things on the world, but by the time she realizes she has little control over them, it is too late to go back.  She sinks further and further into witchcraft.

I enjoyed the atmospheric setting of Gregory’s novel, and not expecting to sympathize with the central characters I was pleased to find them portrayed in a refreshingly honest way – warts and all!  The historical research is sound and convincing, and any book set in the medieval era must acknowledge the common superstitious beliefs of that time.

This is not a feel-good story.  It suggests everything in Alys’ world is a sham – magic, life, love, faith, and family.  But one of the great joys of reading is the ability to close the book at any point and find yourself back in the twenty-first century!

Paws For Thought

Black cat         The phrase domestic cat is an oxymoron” (George F. Will)

Ever since hunting communities turned to farming, the advantages of keeping cats around was obvious – they kept down the rodents that ate the precious grain supplies.  As cats became more domesticated people grew fond of these playful balls of mischief and started making them pets.  Cats were revered by the Egyptians, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Romans, and Vikings for hundreds of years.  If a black cat crossed your path you would be lucky, and to dream of this creature was a good omen.  Mummified cats were buried in houses as a spiritual protection against rats and mice.  But something happened in the Middle Ages that changed public opinion so that cats suddenly became demonized and were actively persecuted.  Why did this happen?

Evil Dukie 2

The cat is an ambivalent creature, wild by nature and perhaps never fully tamed.  They are not easily befriended, roam about in the night, and are sexually promiscuous.  Cats are stealthy, sneaky, silent, clever, inquisitive, and almost invisible in the darkness – except for their scary eyes.  All felines are hunters and killers, and their eerie howls and cries can sound quite chilling.  They are said to have nine lives and be difficult to get rid of.  And some old wives’ tales claim cats kill babies – either by sitting on their faces or by sucking the breath from their noses.

The Celts believed cats were the souls of wicked people unfit to be reborn as humans who were changed into animals instead.  Perhaps this notion of evil lived on in the European psyche because when the early medieval witch hunts broke out, common animals became firmly associated with witches – particularly black cats.  Cats were said to be their familiar spirits.   Felines were seen as either shape-shifting witches or devils in disguise, or as the bad souls of former witches reborn.  In 1484, a Papal decree denounced all cats and their owners as devil-worshippers, opening the floodgates for The Burning Times to begin.

Evil Zig

This persecution lasted hundreds of years.  And just as the cunning folk were condemned to terrible deaths, so too were their pets.  Thousands of cats were hunted down during Lent and burned on huge public bonfires.  At the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I (1558) live cats were stuffed inside a wicker effigy of the pope and set ablaze.  It is said that loud songs and music were used to drown out their pitiful howls, but no one spoke out against the atrocity because cats were the most feared and reviled of all common animals.

The Age of Enlightenment gave rise to a more logical and scientific way of thinking that eventually overcame these fears and superstitions.  And when people started questioning the existence of witchcraft they began seeing cats through different eyes too.  They were no longer the public enemy.

As a life-long cat owner I have grown to appreciate the independence and intriguing ambiguities of my kitties, but if yours ever lets you think they are truly domesticated – enjoy the illusion!