Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Dr. emma poltrack shares items she presented on October 7, 2021 as an introduction to Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.
Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch provides a sly, deeply insightful look at a true witchcraft case from the early 17th century. Drawing on historic documents, the novel remains achingly contemporary in its tone and its examination of how communities can sour and turn on each other.
Witches and witchcraft were a hot topic in early modern Europe. Between 1500-1700 at least 50,000 people lost their lives due to witchcraft accusations, with a concentration in the late 16th/early 17th centuries when Shakespeare was writing his plays. John Cotta’s The Trial of Witchcraft explores how difficult it is to identify “true” witches, recommending the task be left to experts such as…well, him. The warrant of Joan Micholson provides a catalogue of some common witch-traits of the time, including an association with “mishaps,” the use of natural elements for unlawful spells, and “being a fearfull prophaine Curser and Swearer.” All of these are reflected in the case of Katharina Kepler, whose outspoken nature and herbalist knowledge are used as evidence against her. Witches were also associated with animal familiars, as is shown in the frontispiece for Matthew Hopkins’s The Discovery of Witches. These animals were thought to serve as a link between witches and Satan, aiding the former in their nefarious doings. Katharina is accused by one neighbor of turning herself into a bird, but is never explicitly linked to a familiar—unless you count her beloved Chamomile.
Katharina’s story is told, in part, through testimonies given by the townspeople in the course of her investigation and trial. One of the testimonies comes from a gravedigger who recalls how Katharina inquired about exhuming a skull so that she could fashion it into a drinking goblet. While seemingly ooky and spooky, the gravedigger explains that it isn’t the most outlandish request that’s been made of him. Human remains could be found as ingredients in early modern medicine without much commentary or concern. This cure for ‘the falling sickness’ (known today as epilepsy) casually calls for “3 ounces of a dead man’s skull which you May have at the Apothecaries,” echoing at least two other recipe books in the Folger collection who likewise require skull powder for their cures.
There is much speculation as to whether Katharina’s accusation was linked to her son, famed astronomer Johannes Kepler, but it is likely that without his support and advocacy on her behalf, her story might have had a different ending. Kepler is known today primarily for his laws of planetary motion, which formed the basis for much of Isaac Newton’s work, but he studied a variety of subjects including optics. His Dioptrice, which specifically studied telescopic lenses, was included alongside work by Galileo in the second edition of Pierre Gassendi’s Institutio astronomica. For those with an extra couple hundred grand lying around, Christies is currently selling a copy of Kepler’s Astronomia nova.
Kepler’s studies occurred at a time of great change, with science and religion undergoing huge shifts in thinking. Adding to the turmoil of the time, 1618 marked the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War, with much of the fighting centered around and within Germany. This prolonged conflict brought horror to the region and contributed to the collective anxiety that helped fuel witchcraft paranoia.
Galchen’s novel provides a wealth of historic detail and references, offering a wonderful treasure hunt through the Folger collection. To view all the items shown as part of our Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch discussion, visit the collection on LUNA.
Registration for our November session, when we will discuss Mark Haddon’s The Porpoise, opens Tuesday, October 12. We hope you make a plan to join us!