Purple Bett: Neophobia and Witchcraft Trials in 16th Century Cumbria
Barbara Ganoush, Heyford, £25
The circumstances of the trial and execution of 'Purple Bett' for witchcraft in Cumbria in 1583 have long posed a problem for modern students of the witch trials. Mentioned in Culver's 'Trialles of the Witches of Cumbria', the bizarre descriptions of the accused's behaviour and appearance have confused a multitude of scholars and have led to the case being excluded from many analyses with suggestions that the source material has been corrupted so as to be definitively incomprehensible. Barbara Ganoush's study, made possible by painstaking restoration of contemporary woodcuts by Dr. Harecult at the Institutio Stotinkiana, sheds welcome light on the mystery and provides an intriguing insight into the 16th Century mind.
Purple Bett was found 'dwelling in ye tanglie hedge' outside the village of Colston, and was turned over, 'docile and meeke as ye lambe' to the witchfinders. Blamed for the failure of crops and a mild outbreak of 'plagues and mortifications of the bodie', she is described as keeping silent even during the brutal torture to which she was subjected. Described as 'hideous smalle, with her limbes tucked inside her' and 'round and shininge with a darke purple pallor', she put up no struggle when apprehended, although attempts to remove her 'foule and hairie greene bonnet' were thwarted 'by the power of her sorceries.' To prove her allegiance to the devil she was thrown into a lake where 'she bobbed upon the water like ye mallarde.' She was then cut into pieces revealing 'whyte fleshe that would not bleede' whereupon salt was rubbed on her wounds and she was doused in hot flax oil. 'Through the agencie of the Divil, these torments made a sweete smell to issue from her, which smell did make the villagers mouthes to water freely, troubling also sorely their mindes.' The account ends on this ambiguous note.
From damaged woodcuts collected by G. Stotinki in 1903, Dr. Harecult has made high resolution restorations which Ganoush links painstakingly to the village and case in question. The conclusion, elaborated in this exhaustive study, cannot fail to satisfy the most exigent scholar: 'Purple Bett' was, in fact, a fruit of the plant Solanum melongena, the aubergine or egg-plant. Native to tropical Asia, it was introduced to Spain by the Arabs as early as the 8th Century, but its appearance in 16th Century Cumbria is, to say the least, unusual.
Ganoush uses this peculiarity to introduce the reader to other persecuted vegetables and cryptobotanical incidents from the middle ages to the present day, from the 'Tomato of Liepzig' to the infamous 'Buzz Aldrin Turnip'. The author must be congratulated for the open minded yet rigorously academic approach that she takes to her subject.