Chapter One of The Vessel: Plants, Women and Contraception
We are the Granddaughters of the Witches you didn’t burn!
– A protest sign carried during the Woman’s March January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Dear Reader: Elizabeth Francis and Agnus and Joan Waterhouse were tried for witchcraft during the summer of 1566 in Essex County, England. The following is both a factual and imagined account of their lives.
When Elizabeth Francis was twelve years old, her grandmother, Mother Ev, shared with her the medicine plants carry. On the morning of summer solstice, the old woman and the girl plucked St John’s Wort’s flowers, its purple resin staining their fingers. Mother Ev taught her granddaughter that the sunny yellow flowers will chase demons from minds when nights become long. At the end of the day, they hung the fresh bundles of St John’s Wort over the door to their small home. “To keep away witches,” Mother Ev explained and she threw last year’s spent flowers into the solstice bonfire. Elizabeth was more concerned about the purple stains on her white fingers than witches sneaking about her house.
When the moon swelled in June, Mother Ev took Elizabeth to the hedgerow to gather hawthorn flowers and leaves. She showed Elizabeth how to gift the fairies with a few drops of honey and offer a short prayer to the Virgin.
My Queen, My Mother, I offer myself entirely to thee.
And to show my devotion to thee,
I offer thee this day, my eyes, my ears, my mouth, my heart,
My whole being without reserve.
Wherefore, good Mother, as I am thine own,
Keep me, guard me as thy property and possession.
“The flowers make a pleasant tea to calm a troubled heart and bring a good night’s sleep,” Mother Ev taught her granddaughter. Hawthorn’s sharp thorns tore at Elizabeth’s dress. “You must be careful picking Hawthorne’s flowers,” Mother Ev cautioned, “the thorns claim a high price when you are not.”
In August they hurried towards the hedgerow to gather Elderberries. Elizabeth’s skirts were heavy with morning dew. The damp chill clung to her ankles. Elizabeth struggled to keep up with Grandmother. “Hurry,” the old woman urged the girl, “the birds will take them all, if we don’t get there first.”
All day long, Elizabeth stood over the fire stirring the bubbling Elderberry syrup.
“Sing if you are tired,” Mother Ev encouraged her granddaughter. And so Elizabeth sang a song the miller’s boy taught her.
It’s of a shepherd’s daughter keeping sheep all on the hill,
And by there cam’ a king’s fair knight and he would have his will.
He’s ta’en her by the middle smail and by the silken gown
And he has had his will before he rose her up again.
“Now that you’ve had your will o’me please tell to me your name,
So when our bairnie it is born I might call it the same.”
“It’s some they call me Jack he said and some they call me John
But when I’m at the King’s court they call me Wilfu’ Will.”
He mounted on his milk-white steed and then away did ride,
She’s kirted her petticoat round her knee and ran at the horse’s side.
Elizabeth’s song rattled her grandmother. Mother Ev interrupted the song with a story. “When you were a small girl with a fever it was the Holy Mary, Elderberry syrup and Catnip tea that saved you,” and Mother Ev thanked the Virgin one more time for her granddaughter’s life. Elizabeth wiped the sweat from her brow and rolled her eyes and made an irreverent prayer asking Mary to stir the syrup if she wasn’t busy saving girls.
The summer was hot and dry when Elizabeth turned twelve. The ground was hard underfoot, the grasses crisp and cracking. Cicadas sang their song of drought while Mother Ev showed her granddaughter woman’s medicine: Buttons with its yellow button-like flowers, the moon’s whiteness on the underside of Maiden Wort’s leaves and Bishop’s Nest with its reddish-purple spot in the center of a white lace-like flower. “These plants will keep your health,” she told Elizabeth.
Little did Mother Ev know, the knowledge of plants used by women to keep their health would bring her granddaughter death. But let’s not travel too far into Elizabeth’s grim future. Let’s continue with that sunny summer day.
Read more: The Vessel