J. B. Aspinall’s Sycorax (2006) has been on my list of books to be reviewed for a couple of weeks now. Halloween seemed the right day to finally write and post this.
Though, for many readers, the title will conjure ideas about Caliban’s mother in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the novel is, in fact, about Sukie Dobson. Sukie is a medieval Yorkshire shepherd; she is a social outcast—even her family don’t want her to live with them. They send her to live in a hut with the sheep. As an outcast, Sukie is soon accused of witchcraft and then people start to believe she has become the witch Sycorax.
The novel follows Brother Edmund, a monk who struggles with some of his vows—particularly the one about chastity. He is given the task of investigating and recording the legend of Sycorax for the Church as penance for his transgressions.
As he goes about gathering material for his account, Brother Edmund is caught indulging in the temptations of the flesh (with the wife of a publican). He accuses his partner of bewitching and seducing him—though she’s willing participant in the sexual transgressions, she is innocent of witchcraft. Edmund’s false accusation allows him to preserve his reputation, but has predictably dire consequences for the woman he accuses.
The characters in the novel seem genuinely to believe in witchcraft, though the novel makes clear that the accused witches are victims of superstition and sexism. In medieval Yorkshire, women generally, but especially isolated, impoverished, and eccentric women like Sukie make convenient scapegoats.
This is not to say, however, that Sukie is a helpless victim. She understands the rumours about her give her some power. She leverages this power to obtain what she needs on Market Days and to intimidate most of the men who try to capture and imprison her.
As Sycorax, Sukie becomes known as a wise woman who uses both traditional herbal remedies and sorcery to cure what ails those who come to her for help. The threat she poses to the Church is clear—people come to have more faith in her sorcery than in prayer. The resulting battle of wills between the Church and Sukie is disastrous for all involved.
Overall, the novel is an engaging read. Though it is set in the fourteenth century, it addresses social issues that are still with us today. Also, despite its overt concern with serious topics like religion and the violence with which the Church sought to quell dissent, the novel is witty and often funny.
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