Book Review: The Witch’s Trinity by Erika Mailman
I read a fair amount of books with witches in them and a good number focus on witch trials. They are inevitably set in some small village fallen on hard times, famine or disease. There is always some reason, something, that drives otherwise logical, fairly decent people into a frenzy. Those who were once friends are now foes. Sometimes it is the outcast accused. Other times it’s a well-to-do woman that the finger is pointed at. Occasionally a man ends up in the hot seat. A religious man or even just a witch hunter is there to goad the people into a passion. But fear, hate, and anger make people do strange things. The tale told in The Witch’s Trinity by Erika Mailman is no exception.
The Witch’s Trinity is set in Tierkinddorf, a small village in Germany. Really, the only things that mark the story as set in Germany are the names and a few pieces of vocabulary. Such as using Mutter for the word Mother. Otherwise this could be any village anywhere in Europe in the early 1500’s. The village and the surrounding area have fallen onto hard times. There is famine and plague (the Black Death). For several years now the grain has not grown in the fields and the mill sits silent. The whispers of witchcraft start and a friar arrives in the little village, promising to stamp out the dark seed of evil. (I have to pause and wonder why the author chose to call the religious man a friar and not simply a priest. There must be some distinction, possibly in the Germanic way the clergy is set up, that I do not understand. There is a priest in the village already but he isn’t important to the story.)
The village of Tierkinddorf is beset with famine and pestilence. The crops have failed for many years and the people are starving. A friar arrives, armed with the Malleus Maleficarum, The Witches Hammer. The villagers hope that the friar can find the source of their misfortune. A witch is among them and God is punishing them all until the wrong doer can be found and dealt with. The friar turns his eye on each of the villagers, meaning to find this witch and put them to death. Now, each person is eyeing their neighbors, their friends, with distrust. How far will this witch hunt go?
The main character in this story is an old woman and bravo to the author for focusing on such an overlooked character. A lot of fiction books with witch trials have the main character as a young woman. All the better for readers to relate to and all the better to throw a little romance into the mix. (Obviously there is no romance in this story.) In reality, many of those accused as witches were the elderly and the poor. The unwanted peoples of society had no protection. Güde Müller is an old woman living with her son, his wife, and their two children. Irmeltrud, the wife, would like nothing more than one less hungry mouth at the table.
The first person is accused and it turns out to be Künne, Güde’s childhood friend and the local healer. Güde knows that Künne cannot be the witch but all her protests and those of her son, only allow suspicion to fall on her own head. Künne, unable to pass a ludicrous test for witchcraft, is burned at the stake. Irmeltrud is then all too willing to tell the friar that her mother-in-law is a witch. After all, the friar brought food and is willing to gift some of it to those brave enough to accuse a beloved family member of being a witch. Güde is arrested under the suspicion of witchcraft while her son, and most of the male members of the village, have left on a long hunting trip, hoping to find food further afield.
(Now for a bit of light historical fact. Being accused as a witch was not the death sentence most fiction books seem to portray it as. A good number of those accused were acquitted; sometimes more than once! Your social standing might never have recovered, but there was a chance you would be freed. Also, the burning of a person found guilty of witchcraft was not as prevalent as popular culture would have us believe. The preferred method was actually hanging (it’s easier), at least on continental Europe. Burning was seen more often in the United Kingdom.)
Witch trial stories are always driven by hate, anger, and greed. The little village of Tierkinddorf has all these in spades. The arrival of the friar (which I have now just realized is never named in the story) and the witch hunt allows people a chance to remove any thorns from their sides. Nobody is safe. At the end, it gets a bit ridiculous with everyone pointing fingers and screaming ‘witch’. Even the friar can see that he has lost control of the situation. Even Irmeltrud is accused by another blackheart seeing a chance to grab what they want. (Irmeltrud does not seem to realize that damning her mother-in-law (already under suspicion because she was friends with Künne) will just open the door for accusations to be leveled on every member of the family, including her children.) Both Güde and Irmeltrud are saved from being burned only by the timely return of the hunting party, who has captured a woman who may or may not be the true witch.
This story can go both ways. It can either be a supernatural story or a realistic tale. Supernatural events happen, involving what might be sex with the devil (only slightly graphic) and dancing in the woods. But the main character, Güde, is not quite sure if these things are really happening to her or if her aged mind is merely tricking her again. We are led to believe that it is possible that all this is happening in Güde’s head. She does display mild symptoms of Alzheimer’s or even dementia during the story. There is either a witch really pledging Tierkinddorf or it’s just bad weather. We are never sure.
In the end, the supposed witch and the friar are burned. (Break out the marshmallows and noise makers! Asshole friar deserved to die.) The villagers, in a frenzy of bloodlust and manic superstition, kill them both. The supposed witch is a surprise. She is not from the village of Tierkinddorf but from the next village over. Güde sees the woman in the woods as a part of the strange witchy visions she appears to have. Our main character remembers seeing the other woman during feast days years ago and Güde can never decide if it is her breaking mind that summons up the image of the woman or if she is really a witch. But at the end of the story prosperity returns to the village and the crops grow again. We are left wondering what really happened in Tierkinddorf.
Best line: “Fuck your Roman protocol!” he snarled. “We are Germans!”
Warning: While torture is not shown, it is described in detail. A torture device is shown to Güde and the process described by the friar in order to get Güde to confess to witchcraft. The description is more than enough. (shudder)