William of Malmesbury and the Witch of Berkeley

Ask any medievalist to name a famous witch and odds are that the Witch of Berkeley will figure high in someone’s list. First appearing as a digression in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum (c.1123), the story of how the witch’s corpse was ripped from its tomb by a mob of angry demons and taken to Hell on the back of a wild, demonic horse certainly resonated with readers. From preachers’ manuals warning of the perils of dying unshriven, to its later-life working as a folk ballad by the Poet Laurate, Robert Southey (c.1798), the Witch of Berkeley enjoyed a long literary lifespan.  To whet the appetite for my forthcoming journal article on the topic (*cough* shameless plug *cough*), I thought it would be a good idea to provide a quick overview of William of Malmesbury’s rationale for writing the exemplum in the first place. Although stories of supernatural encounters were no doubt intended to entertain the reader – something that is true even today – the exact literary function of the Witch of Berkeley within the Gesta regum has been often overlooked by medieval historians. As I mentioned in my article on William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum, ‘wonders’ were often inserted into the wider historical narrative to obliquely comment upon contentious political events. What, then, irked William of Malmesbury?

FIGURE 1 Nuremberg

Witch of Berkeley woodcut, in Hartmann Schedel, Liber chronicarum (Nuremberg: Anton Koberger, for Sebald Schreyer and Sebastian Kammermeister, 1493)

The narrative provides some key clues in this regard. William begins by noting that the mulier in question was a lifelong practitioner of augury (that is, divination through the observation of birds). Having learning through her art  that one of her sons had died in a domestic accident and that she herself had not long to live, she called her remaining children – a monk and a nun – to her bedside. Knowing that damnation was near, she gave instructions for her corpse to be sewn into deer skin and placed in a stone sarcophagus within the local church. The lid was to be fastened with iron and lead and the coffin itself to be bound with three heavy iron chains. Fifty masses were to be said day and night over her body and then, on the fourth day, it was to be removed from the sarcophagus and placed in the ground. These instructions were mostly followed to the letter. However, on the third night, a large and terrifying demon burst through the main entrance of the church, shattering the door to pieces. Striding up to the coffin, the demon cut the chain as if it were not even there, kicked off the lid, and dragged the woman out by the hand. A monstrous stallion stood waiting by the door with iron hooks protruding all the way down its back. The ‘poor wretch’ was set upon the barbs, after which she and the horse vanished along with the rest of the demonic horde. It was said that her cries for help could be heard for up to four miles away

A chilling story, certainly, but what does it all mean? The motif of forced expulsion from holy ground is, I believe, the symbolic weapon that links the Witch of Berkeley to its historical and manuscript context. William was a canny writer, and it is no coincidence that he inserts his witchcraft story (along with myriad other wonder stories) just after 1051. This was a precarious time in English history, when civil war almost erupted between Edward the Confessor and the ambitious noblemen, Godwin of Wessex (father of Harold Godwinson). The depth of Godwin and Edward’s enmity is too great to go into much detail here, but it suffices to say that Godwin was exiled from England as a result of his growing unease about Norman influence in the English court. As an outlaw Godwin took to committing piracy along the English coast and almost engaged Edward in battle. But the political winds are ever-changing. Soon enough Godwin was allowed to return to England, with the Norman contingent, led by Robert of Jumièges, archbishop of Canterbury, being expelled in his stead.

So, we can see quite clearly that the expulsion of disruptive bodies – be it from hallowed ground or the nation state – tied the Witch of Berkeley to the wider historical narrative. William of Malmesbury was no fool, and he leaves it up to the reader to decide who exactly was being criticised. Was it Godwin, for conspiring against the divinely-wrought authority of the king, or Robert of Jumièges, a portent for what was to come in 1066? The Gesta regum doesn’t pull any punches in its denunciations of the contemporary political climate, at one point likening the relationship between Normandy and England to that of a pair of conjoined twins: one twin, dead and rotten (Normandy), yet sustained by the life-force of the other (English taxes). And yet this is not to say that William was completely anti-Noman. He was too sophisticated a historian for such a one-sided viewpoint. The breakdown of the natural order of things seems to have been his primary concern. The Witch of Berkeley was expertly constructed to pass ironic judgement on all kinds of transgression.


Sources Cited:

Stephen Gordon, ‘From Malmesbury to Southey: The Witch of Berkeley in Context’, coming soon!

William of Malmesbury, Gesta regum Anglorum: History of the English Kings, vol. 1 ed. and trans. R. A. B. Mynors; completed by R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (Clarendon: Oxford, 1998)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s