Today, I’m pleased to welcome author Sam Thomas to talk about his latest “Midwife Mystery,” The Witch Hunter’s Tale, published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in January, 2015. This third installment in Sam’s series about a mystery-solving midwife in seventeenth century York, England, follows The Midwife’s Tale and The Harlot’s Tale but can also be read on its own.
In this thrilling novel, Sam takes us deep into the dark streets of the ancient city, unfolding a tale of the terrible witch hunts that flared into fanaticism during an unstable era in history. By centering on a midwife as his main character, Sam also illuminates the frequently overlooked stories of the brave and compassionate women who struggled to bring healing into the lives of others during this turbulent time, as well as those who would use their position in a more unscrupulous way. With its combination of deep human interest and dynamic real-life events, The Witch Hunter’s Tale is a great read for lovers of historical mysteries, and especially for those who, like me, have a special interest in the history and literary associations of Yorkshire.
Sam Thomas is a former professor of history at the University of Alabama and currently teaches secondary school students at the University School near Cleveland, Ohio. He has received research grants from the National Endowment for the
Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the British Academy, and has
published articles on topics ranging from early modern Britain to
colonial Africa. Sam kindly answered some of my questions about the history behind the mysteries, and I hope you’ll find his perspective as fascinating as I do.
You are a historian and history teacher, dedicated to seeking out the truth about the past. What inspired you to turn history into fiction? What do you hope readers will gain from the experience of reading your books?
The jump into fiction came at the same time I quite college teaching to move to an independent high school. (Long story there!) The problem was that as a historian I’d become fascinated by the history of midwives and could not bear the thought of abandoning them entirely. I knew that no high school would give me a year off to write a history of midwifery, so I thought a novel might take its place. And it seems to have!
My goal when I write fiction is more or less unchanged from my non-fiction days. I want to write about the past in a way that is true and engages the reader’s heart and mind. The past is full of amazing stories, so there is no reason at all for it to be dry.
What do you find most intriguing about your the era and place of your series — northern England in the time of the battles between Royalists and Puritans?
I was originally drawn to this period because of its religious diversity. (My own family is a mix of Quaker, Jewish, and Catholic. Paging Dr. Freud.) You had the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers, all running about at the same time. I wanted to know how these groups related to each other: when did they fight, when did they get along, and why?
Then you throw in the Civil War, the trial and execution of the King on charges of treason…really, what more could you want?
Your central mystery-solving midwife character is based on a real person, Bridget Hodgson. You go into her fascinating historical record in detail on your website, but can you briefly describe who she was and how you found her?
The ‘historical’ Bridget Hodgson was a midwife in York during and after the English Civil War. I stumbled across her will entirely by accident, and immediately fell in love. I had this image of midwives as elderly crones of dubious reputation with their neighbors, but there she was, wealthy, well-born, and proud of her work as a midwife, and the more I learned, the more I loved.
She was from a gentry family, the Baskervilles (she had a coat of arms and perhaps a hound), married the son of the Lord Mayor of York, and – this is the great part – named all her god-daughters after herself.
It is one thing to give your own daughter your name (she did this too), but to name other people’s daughters after you? That takes some confidence.
Why did you choose to make a midwife the focus of a series of mystery novels?
It actually was the other way around. I knew I wanted to write about midwives, and mysteries seemed the way to go.
First, it made it easier to find a plot. You start with one dead body, and you end with another one. Easy as pie!
Second, it made sense. Midwives were a part of the criminal justice system at the time, investigating crimes ranging from infanticide and rape to witchcraft. And if a female prisoner were sentenced to death and claimed to be pregnant, the midwife was the one who checked out her story.
Literally, midwives decided who lived and died!
It seems that there is a fair amount of mystery about midwives themselves — historians don’t really know much about their lives and work in the pre-modern era. What are some of the questions that are being researched?
Man, great question. I think the one key question focuses on the relationship between midwives and mothers. So little is known about this, but it obviously was key to many women’s lives. How did mothers pick midwives and what criteria did they use? What made a midwife good at her job?
The other – even bigger – question was how men took over childbirth. The curious thing about this is that it is unlikely that the male midwives were forced on unwilling mothers. Rather, mothers sought out male practitioners. The question we can’t answer is why? What happened in English society that made this change possible?
In this particular book, the terrible phenomenon of witch hunting, which was at its height at the time, is central to the plot. What do think fueled this hysteria? How do you hope your fictional treatment can help us understand it?
Between 1400 and 1800, approximately five hundred English women were executed as witches. Of these, nearly three hundred were killed in a single decade, the 1640s. So there is no question that the witch panics were a product of a very specific time and place.
The best book on this is Malcom Gaskill’s Witchfinders. I can’t do his thesis justice here, but in short he argues that the chaos of the civil war drove people to violence. Misfortune was a sign of God’s anger, and hunting witches was a way to please Him.
Add to this the collapse of government authority, which ordinarily kept accusations from getting out of hand, and the conditions were just right for this sort of thing.
I think the key idea is that witch hunters thought they were doing God’s work, and often were terrified of the women they put on trial. Obviously I’m not defending them, but it is important to understand the past.
If a reader is so lucky as to have a chance to visit the city of York, what sites do you recommend for getting a sense of the past?
The great thing about York is that it’s small and compact. See the cathedral, and pay for the extras. (You have to pay to get into the Chapter House, walk on the roof, and go down into the crypt, but do it!)
Walk the city wall – it’s amazing – and then get lost. There are old churches everywhere, and each one is a marvel.
And, do you have recommendations for further reading about your novel’s time, place, and subjects, either fiction or nonfiction (not too technical for us non-historians)?
Witchfinders is good, I think, and available in paperback. For fiction, I’d recommend Susanna Calkins’s Murder at Rosamund’s Gate, the first in her series. She’s also a historian, we have the same publisher, and we each have two sons of the same age. Had we not met, I’d think we might be the same person. Except I’m taller.
If you want to go a bit earlier, there’s C.J. Sansom’s series about Matthew Shardlake. One of these (Sovereign?) takes place in York, at least in part. They are quite good!
Thank you, Sam! Your decision to write a “midwife mystery” now makes perfect sense, and I for one am very glad you did. I look forward to reading more about Bridget and her adventures.
This is a stop on the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour for The Witch Hunter’s Tale. Please visit the tour page for more stops with reviews, interviews, and other great content.
5 thoughts on “The Witch Hunter’s Tale: Author interview with Sam Thomas”
Fascinating interview. I love history in general and this period, as well as it's religious issues is of some interest to me. This also sounds like a really good series.
I love the focus on midwives — as Sam says, they were part of the criminal justice system of the time. It's a great angle on the era.
Wonderful interview. I love finding out how books came to be written, and what the author's thoughts and process were. And I haven't read this series, but I'm interested in the time period, enjoy historical mysteries, and find myself intrigued by midwives' involvement in the criminal justice system (such as it was) – something I knew nothing about. So these are headed for my TBR list.
I need to look into the first two books of the series as well — I'm very interested in the history of midwifery and this is such a wonderful way to explore it.