Day of the witch-hunt
Morning of the 30th of September, the holy Sabbath, Year of the Lord 1526
Bishop Lock was finishing his breakfast in the office – bread, butter, and eggs boiled with saffron, giving them a yellow muddy colour. After he’d swallowed the last bit of bread, he pushed aside his plate and rewound his clock. He took a moment to contemplate with disgust the brute mentality of his fellow man – their filth, their lack of hygiene and their lack of higher mental faculty. If only Lock had lived in an earlier age, late antiquity perhaps, an age where all men were educated, spoke Greek and Latin, conversed in philosophy and visited the baths daily. History was a kind of backward slide into beastly regression, both moral and aesthetic. He himself, Lock mused, was a stray gem. He turned his attention to the two pieces of paper before him.
The first was a heretical pamphlet, that had been circulating in the markets and alehouses. The pamphlet proclaimed that the Church had become corrupt, debauched even, and that he, Bishop Lock, had been stockpiling grain and that he took joy in the Devil’s succour, summoning demons with which he satisfied his carnal appetites. He had, according to the pamphlet, been seen in the company of a cat and a goat at the full moon, with both animals walking on their hind legs. Lock felt a creeping fear. The pamphlet may seem ridiculous to him, but many of the town’s folk had grown up in villages. They were credulous and if the pamphlets were read aloud and such rumours were not controlled then Lock faced a fate that he did not like to contemplate. He had not taken the heretical preacher seriously enough. Letters from colleagues in Nuremberg, Kassel, and Amsterdam had told him that the Luther heresy was sweeping through Christendom, but he hadn’t expected it to confront him in such a personally way.
The second piece of paper was unusual. It was a kind of proclamation. It declared that, there were most foul and evil witches among us. These women could be ordinary women, the paper explained, they could be our wives, daughters, even our mothers. Signs of witchcraft had been detected in the province. A serpent had been discovered with two heads and a pig had been born with a third open eye on its forehead. The unseasonable rain that had ruined so many crops was the fault of witches. But a professional witch hunter had arrived, William from Munich. Anyone with any information regarding the activity of witches was to report to William at his board at the Golden Antlers, an alehouse close to the North Gate.
Bishop Lock considered the two pieces of paper. They had obviously been printed by the same printer, the matching discrepancies of the letters was clear to see, and clearly not produced by Lock’s own print set that he had commissioned from the iron guild. Somebody was running a heretical print shop. Lock held up the two pieces of paper to the light. Paper sometimes contained the mark of its producer, and there it was, a faint watermark emerging through the glow of the paper – Munich.
Lock took a fresh sheet of paper from his shelf he ran a finger down its edge, sharp as a dagger, and with a faint chemical perfume, Venetian, Lock only used the best. He retuned to his desk and dipped his goose feather quill in his glass of ink.
“Cook,” asked Sonia, “What’s a well-ridden-saddle?”
“It’s what you are, child,” replied the cook as she stuffed prunes into a pheasant.
“Yes, so you keep saying,” said Sonia, “but what does it mean?” Sonia began reaching for the prunes.
Cook, who seemed to be in a grumpy mood, slammed down the wooden spoon, just missing Sonia’s fingers. “Get your hands off those prunes or I’ll redden your arse whether or not the pope himself gets to take you to holy ecstasy.”
“Cook?” asked Sonia
“What is it child?”
“How was the market place today?”
“It’s no place for a you. There’s all manner of no good folk around these days, young men who’ll wave their cod pieces at any girl or woman who walks past. And you can’t trust the peddlers. They’ll sell sheep dropping as cures for wrinkles if they think they can get a groat from you. I’d hate to think what would happen to you out there. You’d be robbed before you could say Holy Mary, and wind up working in a bathhouse.” Cook poured Sonia a cup of broth.
“What’s wrong with working in a bathhouse,” asked Sonia as she blew on the steaming cup.
“Never mind, child. Here, leave that to cool and help me with the bellows. That’s it. You need a hot fire to roast a pheasant.” Cook now lowered her voice as she moved closer to Sonia and began to stuff the prunes into the pheasant. “In truth there are things I’ve heard in the market which worry me greatly. It’s always been a place where you see the more wretched folk, beggars and the like, and some foreign folk too. Now there seems to be a good deal more of both and no good can come of that. Now people are saying that the bishop’s a bad man and the Church doesn’t speak for God. I used to be proud, being cook to his Excellency, now I keep it quiet. Even some folk who used to slip me some copper and ask me to say their prayers in the bishop’s house, now they don’t meet my eye.
“If that weren’t bad enough, I’ve never seen a summer with so much rain. The grain is rotting and it’ll be a hungry winter. The cheese maker’s wife has been saying it’s God’s punishment and the bishop is to blame. But I said to her, ‘that’s foolishness.’ You can stop with the bellows now. We don’t want to char the pheasant. Start chopping that bag of apples… No not like that. Like this. Sweet love of the Savour, Child, did your mother teach you nothing? Everybody should know that the reason we have so much rain is because somebody has offended the oak spirits. They’re very powerful and very old and they have the power over the rain. You can wager your prettiest gown that somebody’s chopped down an old oak tree and that’s the root of trouble.”
“Really?” said Sonia.
“Certainly,” said Cook, “ now careful with that knife. I don’t want to have to explain to his Excellency how your finger ended up in his dinner. The rain is bad, but there is worse to come. There’s a witch hunter in town, and Werner, the turner’s son, loved Anna the broom maker’s daughter, but she didn’t love him even though he was richer than her and she went off with the baker’s boy. Werner got jealous and told the witch hunter that Anna was a witch. Everybody’s terrified that she’ll be burned. Ever seen a woman burn, child?”
“No,” said Sonia.
“Well I haven’t either,” said Cook, “but I seen a plenty a pig roast on a spit.”
The Golden Antlers was a crooked, lopsided wooden frame tavern that leaned out onto the street. Lock watched with satisfaction, as Steffen, his brutish retainer, pushed open the doors. Lock had with him a band of retainers, armed in the Italian fashion with sword and dagger. He stepped into the grimy barroom. Inside a brown haired young woman was hanging naked by her wrists from a ceiling beam. She had been whipped till her back was raw and covered with open wounds. The floor was slick with blood. She was dead.
Lock tried to hold back his stomach but failed. He knelt down on the floor and vomited.
Peals of laughter rang across the room.
“Shall I fetch you a bucket, my good man?”
Lock lifted his gaze from the floor to look at who had spoken.
Standing in a group around a barrel of ale were half a dozen men and in the middle was a man wearing a sausage shaped red hat, yellow hose, a slashed velvet doublet, and an immodestly sized white codpiece. Sword and dagger hung on either side of his waist and he held a loaded matchlock pistol with a smoking wick.
“William von Munich, I presume?” said Lock.
The dandy eyed the bishop’s men with a calculating eye. “Are you here to report a witch or help hunt one?”
Lock’s retainers poured through the door, drawing their weapons. “It looks like you already have your witch,” said Lock as Steffen helped him to his feet.
“She was innocent,” replied William, “A witch would have survived the cutting.”
“You are under arrest,” said Lock after he had wiped his mouth on his handkerchief, “for heresy and murder. Steffen relieve these men of their weapons.”
“Stay, right where you are. I am under the protection of Captain Johann of the City Guard, and I do God’s work. I have a written warrant to hunt witches signed with seal of the countess.” As the witch hunter was talking he moved his finger to the trigger of his pistol and fired. The smoking wick of the pistol connected with the touchhole. The crack of the pistol deafened the men and gunpowder smoke filled the alehouse. One of Lock’s retainers fell, clutching his chest.
Steffen shouted a war cry and bounded forward, grabbing the first man in his way and smashing his dagger hilt into his face.
Lock’s retainers surged forward.
The witch hunter and his men fled.
Lock and his men pursued.
They chased the witch hunter’s men through the steamy kitchen and out into a muddy yard filled with swine, leaping and dodging the squealing pigs their pursuit. The witch hunter’s men pushed open the cart gate. Women watched from the windows of the over hanging houses as men and pigs streamed on to the street. Lock’s retainers tackled the witch hunter’s men to the ground and kicked them into submission. But the colourfully dressed dandy himself escaped into the maze of streets and allies around the square of Flower Sellers.