Intermission: The witch Isobel Gowdie

I thank so many of you readers for following the tale of Tollon, the Magician’s Apprentice, for the last thirty days. If you haven’t been reading it, the entire story can be found here. If you have been reading it, know that I’m taking a two-day break. Tollon’s story will resume Tuesday, April 21. Which, rather irrelevantly, is both Queen Elizabeth II’s actual birthday, and the birthday of my deceased mother: they were born one year and 400 miles apart.

I have a history blog as well, Sillyhistory. I’ll be posting articles on the history of witchcraft and witchcraft trials in the coming weeks. This is because I’ll be teaching an online course on that subject at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, starting Wednesday. You could even sign up for it, if you live in the United States. (Given the Internet’s limitations, I don’t advise foreigners to enroll. My apologies. Maybe in a decade . . .)

One of the witches I’ll be taking about is Isobel Gowdie (c. 1622? – 1662?), often described as the only witch who freely confessed to her lurid crimes. How lurid? Well, here’s the cover of a 1977 novel about her:

Grady Hendrick’s “Paperbacks from Hell” featured this cover to illustrate the art of Rowena Morrill. And the author of this novel is Jane Parkhurst.

The truth is less glamorous. Best guess is that Isobel was in her 40s. There’s no evidence, despite the cover’s claim, that she was convent-raised. She was married, probably just a peasant’s wife with a difficult reputation.

But she does tell an interesting story. She offered four confessions, collectively the longest record of what a Scottish witch claimed to have done. And there were a lot of Scottish witches, so this is no small thing! Yes, she claimed to have sex with the devil. She attended sabbats. She used magic to work evils on her enemies and neighbors. Or at least so she said.

“Freely confessed?” That’s what the notary wrote on her confessions. But it’s suspect. Put someone in a small, dark prison cell, question them repeatedly over weeks, and serve them what probably set a new low for institutional food, and a lot of people will succumb and confess what they’re told to confess. Still, Isobel’s confession includes stories of her interacting with fairies, which she probably volunteered, as her questioners were more concerned with her interactions with the devil.

So scanty are the records that we don’t even know Isobel’s fate for certain. Under Scottish law, the punishment for what she confessed was death. Usually that involved strangling the witch, and then burning the corpse. But truly notorious witches were burned alive. So Isobel probably died not long after her fourth confession. Unless more records turn up, we’ll never know for sure.

 

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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3 Responses to Intermission: The witch Isobel Gowdie

  1. An interesting name… for reasons I’ll keep to myself. 🙂

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