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Karen Maitland Q&A

Karen Maitland Q&A

Karen Maitland answers questions on the inspiration behind The Vanishing Witch, historical locations and what she is looking forward to reading this year.

Posted on 17th March 2015 by Karen Maitland

Was there a particular historical character who inspired The Vanishing Witch?

Some years ago I stumbled across the trial records of a wealthy woman, Alice Kyteler, who in 1324, along with eleven members of her family, was accused of witchcraft and sorcery. It was claimed that Alice was the leader of a group of witches who held nocturnal meetings at which they sacrificed to the devil and used spells to entrap and murder men. 

Alice had had four husbands and the accusations of witchcraft were brought by the sons of the first three husbands who swore she had murdered their fathers for their money and was attempting to kill the fourth. This charge seems to have arisen because the sons of the first three marriages had been disinherited in favour of Alice’s favourite son. Her poor maid was tortured into making a confession, then burned alive, but Alice vanished without trace. 

I always wondered if Alice really was a murderer or was the innocent victim of the malice and greed of her sons, who saw a way of getting their hands on her money by having her executed. Many women were similarly accused though out the Middle Ages, but which were guilty and which were innocent?

The Vanishing Witch is set in Lincoln – which historical sites / locations there would you recommend visiting?

Much of the action of the novel takes place around the inland harbour in Lincoln known as Braytheforde in medieval times, but now called the Brayford Pool. Today there are many restaurants and pubs along the banks, but as you walk around it try to imagine it in medieval times – the bustling warehouses and hammering and sawing from the boat-builders yard, the harbour crowded with river boats carrying French wine, Siberian furs and birds of prey from Norway up the rivers as far as York and down to Boston. 

One of the characters in the novel is arrested and forced to walk up the aptly named Steep Hill in Lincoln to Lincoln Castle at the top where he is imprisoned. This cobbled street is lined with old medieval houses and shops with vaulted undercrofts, which the characters in the book would still recognise today. King Richard II’s uncle, John of Gaunt, was Constable of Lincoln Castle. You can visit the rooms and climb the towers Gaunt of Gaunt would have known and walk round the castle battlements looking down the curious angles of the medieval rooftops and hidden backyards of the town below. 

But there one place you really must not miss in Lincoln – the medieval Greestone Stairs. Built before 1200, these steps are still in daily use in Lincoln. This is where a ghost, who is one the narrators of The Vanishing Witch, hangs out in the evenings with his dead friends. Originally known as The Greesen, this long flight of stone steps, outside the city walls, linked medieval Butwerk at the bottom of the city near the river, to the Cathedral at the top. Today Greestone Stairs is reputed to be the most haunted street in Lincoln. Locals and visitors have reported feeling someone grab their ankle as they ascend the steps, dragging them back down. So it might be safer to walk down these steps, not up!

The Vanishing Witch includes historical superstitions and spells at the beginning of each chapter? How did you research these? Do you have a favourite?

All of the superstitions and spells are taken from local folklore, from medieval herbals and spell books known as grimoires, and from essays written by medieval theologians.  Many Christian clergy were trained in the use of spells used on behalf of the Church and left detailed instructions on how to perform them. Other theologians, such as Bishop Grosseteste, recorded superstitions and magic practised by ordinary people either in order to advise priests on how to counter it, or because they wanted to explain ‘magic’ or the ‘evil eye’ in theological terms. One snippet I used as a chapter heading in the novel reads –

‘The monk, Gregory the Great, tells how a nun, in her greed, ate a lettuce without first making the sign of the cross to protect herself against the evil spirits which hide between its leaves, and so she became possessed by a demon.’  

That always intrigues me as I can’t imagine anyone being that greedy for a lettuce.

I have been collecting these snippets for many years and where ever I go in the country, I search for new ones, raiding local history archives, church records and collections locked away in museum stores. One of my favourites is - 

‘Hay ricks and thatched roofs must be finished with a green branch or straw cock, to prevent witches from landing on them and to ward off fire and storms.’

I like this, because you still see thatched roofs being finished off with straw cocks today by modern craftsmen.

Leonia in The Vanishing Witch and Narigorm in Company of Liars – both fascinating little girls. Was there a particular inspiration for either character?

In Company of Liars there are references to a Celtic goddess and in The Vanishing Witch, to an old local legend of ancient Saxon princess/goddess. The legends which have come down to us about gods and goddesses often depict them behaving like bullying children. They were amoral, could reward or punish, save or kill on mere whim. They might destroy a mortal just because it amused them or they were having a tantrum, and like young children they would pull the wings off flies just to see what the flies would do.

Leonia and Narigorm are in different ways intelligent and talented, but like the goddesses of old they also possess that wild, dark strength many children have, and know that they have, which could bring utter chaos to the lives of adults, if they choose to use it.

The Raven's Head features Lugh, a silver raven’s head and an Alchemical symbol of death. Did you come across something in your research that inspired this feature and the novel in particular?

Some years ago, I visited a museum in Scandinavia on the site of an ancient battle. One room depicted the aftermath of the battle. The room was in darkness except for a blood-red spotlight shining on the model of a raven perched on the hilt of a sword, with fluttering ragged cloak lying below, and as you entered, the space gradually filled with the sound of the wind howling. It was one of the most powerful depictions of death I’ve seen.

Raven’s head, which was long associated with slaughter and death, became the medieval alchemical symbol of Nigredo – black death and putrefaction. In alchemy, the bird’s head is often depicted either floating inside a glass flask or as the stopper to the flask. It symbolises the human terror of death. The first time I saw that symbol in a medieval drawing, I was struck the fact that the glass flask was identical to the kind of flasks you would find in any modern science lab and yet this sinister raven’s head took me back into a dark and ancient world.

The medieval alchemist’s quest was to find ways to prolong life and to resurrect the dead. The modern scientist’s goal is no different, though today they experiment with techniques such as organ transplants and genetic engineering. And the dilemma that faced both the medieval alchemist and modern scientist is also the same – is it ever justified to sacrifice an individual life to achieve knowledge that might help thousands? What choice would the medieval alchemists in my novel make?

 Some years ago, I visited a museum in Scandinavia on the site of an ancient battle. One room depicted the aftermath of the battle. The room was in darkness except for a blood-red spotlight shining on the model of a raven perched on the hilt of a sword, with fluttering ragged cloak lying below, and as you entered, the space gradually filled with the sound of the wind howling. It was one of the most powerful depictions of death I’ve seen. 

Raven’s head, which was long associated with slaughter and death, became the medieval alchemical symbol of Nigredo – black death and putrefaction. In alchemy, the bird’s head is often depicted either floating inside a glass flask or as the stopper to the flask. It symbolises the human terror of death. The first time I saw that symbol in a medieval drawing, I was struck the fact that the glass flask was identical to the kind of flasks you would find in any modern science lab and yet this sinister raven’s head took me back into a dark and ancient world. 

The medieval alchemist’s quest was to find ways to prolong life and to resurrect the dead. The modern scientist’s goal is no different, though today they experiment with techniques such as organ transplants and genetic engineering. And the dilemma that faced both the medieval alchemist and modern scientist is also the same – is it ever justified to sacrifice an individual life to achieve knowledge that might help thousands? What choice would the medieval alchemists in my novel make?

Are there are books you’re particularly looking forward to reading this year? Or any you would particularly recommend for 2015?

Like many readers, I am so excited that Harper Lee is finally to release a new novel – ‘Go set a Watchman’. Her first and only novel ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ was such an important influence on me as a teenager. And now as a writer of medieval novels, it still is, because her book revealed the way society’s attitudes, which were the norm in one era, appear obscene and bizarre in the next. And yet human nature itself never changes. The bigotry and discrimination of the Middle Ages and of twentieth century, as revealed by Harper Lee, have not vanished, we’ve simply found different victims on which to vent the same cruelties.

Another book, I looking forward to reading in 2015 is The Silvered Heart by Katherine Clements who writes about the real historical female characters who lurk in the shadows of English Civil War. I believe the new novel is about a woman highwayman or should that be highwaywoman? That’s going to be my holiday read.

A book I would recommend is John Boyne’s ‘A History of Loneliness’ which will be coming out paperback this year. It really is a novel of our time in which an elderly and well-meaning priest is forced to undergo a painful re-evaluation of the decisions he’s made in the past. It is an incredibly moving novel about the dilemma’s surrounding historic child abuse.