The Sorceress of Berkeley

Even as the pieces fell into place the sorcerer remained a solitary figure in European lore, albeit one associated with demonic forces. One of the earliest stories historians trace the more modern ‘witch’ to is the Sorceress of Berkeley, relayed by William of Malmesbury in 1142. Malmesbury pegs the incident as occurring in England around 1065, and makes a point of insisting to the reader that this was relayed to him by a credible source. [1]

There resided at Berkeley a woman addicted to sorcery, as it afterwards appeared, and skilled in ancient augury: she was excessively gluttonous, perfectly lascivious, setting no bounds to her debaucheries, as she was not old, though fast declining in life. On a certain day, as she was regaling, a jackdaw, which was a very great favorite, chattered a little more loudly than usual.  On hearing which the woman’s knife fell from her hand, her countenance grew pale, and deeply groaning,  “This day,” said she, “my plough has completed its last furrow; today I shall hear of, and suffer, some  dreadful calamity.”…

the woman, sorely afflicted, immediately took to her bed, and perceiving the disorder rapidly approaching the vitals, she summoned her surviving children, a monk, and a nun, by hasty letters; and, when they arrived, with faltering voice, addressed them thus: “Formerly, my children, I constantly administered to my wretched circumstances by demoniacal arts: I have been the sink of every vice, the teacher of every allurement… Now, since I have approached the end of my life, and shall have those eager to punish, who lured me to sin, I entreat you by your mother’s breasts, if you have any regard, any affection, at least to endeavor to alleviate my torments; and, although you cannot revoke  the sentence already passed upon my soul, yet you may, perhaps, rescue my body, by these means: sew up my corpse in the skin of a stag; lay it on its back in a stone coffin; fasten down the lid with lead and iron; on this lay a stone, bound round with three iron chains  of enormous weight; let there be psalms sung for fifty nights, and masses said for an equal number of days, to allay the ferocious attacks of my adversaries. If I lie thus secure for three nights, on the fourth day bury your mother in the ground; although I fear, lest the earth, which has been so often burdened with my crimes, should refuse to receive and cherish me in her bosom.”

They did their utmost to comply with her injunctions: but alas! Vain were pious tears, vows, or entreaties; so great was the woman’s guilt, so great the devil’s violence. For on the first two nights,  while the choir of priests was singing psalms around the body, the devils, one by one, with the utmost  ease bursting open the door of the church, though closed with an immense bolt, broke asunder the two  outer chains; the middle one being more laboriously  wrought, remained entire. On the third night, about cock-crow, the whole monastery seemed to be overthrown from its very foundation, by the clamor of the approaching enemy. One devil, more terrible in appearance than the rest, and of loftier stature, broke the gates to shivers by the violence of his attack. The priests grew motionless with fear; their hair stood on end, and they became speechless. He proceeded, as it appeared, with haughty step towards the coffin, and calling on the woman by name, commanded her to rise. She replying that she could not on account of the  chains: “You shall be loosed,” said he, “and to your cost:” and directly he broke the chain, which had  mocked the ferocity of the others, with as little exertion as though it had been made of flax. He also beat down the cover of the coffin with his foot, and taking her by the hand, before them all, he dragged her out of the church…”[2]

Witch on the back of a nightmare. Another Goya. We’ll be using a lot of him.

While this experiment in a sorcerous nesting egg did not work, the story is illustrative of what Malmesbury’s contemporaries thought of in the late 12th Century. Magic was real, undeniably. And the shifty neighbor up the road, especially if they were financially well off or a little isolated socially, might have made a deal with the devil. In time this magical creation would be folded in with the reality of heresy facing the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages.

[1] Much like the Blair Witch claimed to be “based on true events”. Some things never change.

[2] Malmesbury, W. 1140 The Sorceress of Berkeley. Republished by the University of Oregon. Available at:


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