The Ash Tree’s Relevance towards Witch Craft
In Montague Rhodes James story "The Ash Tree," James makes a connection between an Ash Tree and witchcraft. In "The Ash Tree," the setting takes place in Suffolk, East Anglia in 1690. During this time period, there were many speculations about witchcraft. Throughout "The Ash Tree," James allows the reader to see the circumstances and ideas that caused the "witches" to get condemned. According to Adam Jones, "The standard procedure in most countries was for accused witches to be brought before investigating tribunals and interrogated." (Jones np) In James’ story, "The Ash Tree," the witches are accused of witchcraft through speculation, and then killed because of these speculations. In the stories particular instance, Sir Matthew Fell convicted Ms Mothersole "on three different occasions from his window, at the full moon, gathering sprigs ‘from the ash tree near [his] house’. (James 54). These speculations eventually results into Mrs Mothersole’s execution. At the time of Ms Mothersole’s execution, she announces the phrase "There will be guests at the Hall." (James 55) Ultimately, Sir Matthew Fell eventually dies. After this has happened, speculations of the Ash Tree begin to circulate. Therefore, James uses the Ash Tree to support and develop his story. Ultimately, in "The Ash Tree," Sir Matthew Fell believes the Ash Tree contains some mystical power that is the driving force behind Ms Mothersoles powers. However, although James uses the ash tree as the driving force, Ms. Mothersole was falsely accused by Sir Matthew Fell.
In Europe, the witchcraft craze became popular throughout everywhere in Europe. In Europe, everything began to change as: "Traditional [tolerant] attitudes towards witchcraft began to change in the 14th century, at the very end of the Middle Ages. ... Early 14th century central Europe was seized by a series of rumor-panics." (Jones np) These rumors and panics ultimately resulted in many "witch" executions. During the time period of witch accusations, the black death was just beginning to fade and witches were the primary focus. (Jones np) Therefore, many people felt that the witches were the reason the plague had happened. As time began to move on, the witchcraft accusations began to pile up. According to Jones, "The witch-hunts waxed and waned for nearly three centuries, with great variations in time and space." (Jones) These witch hunts affected many people throughout Europe, in particular women. Women during these three centures, 14th, 15th, and 16th, were the primary focus. Women were at such great risk that, "women who lived during the three centuries of the witch craze were not harmed directly by the police arm of either the state or the church, though both had the power to do so had the elites that controlled them so desired." (Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Vol. I, p. 503.). (Jones) In other words, Women could have been accused of witch craft at anytime if they were doing anything out of the ordinary. In "The Ash Tree," James shows that Sir Matthew Fell’s accusations were a result of Ms Mothersole’s late night adventures. Therefore, Ms Mothersole had been convicted on doing something out of the ordinary. Despite the witch hunts all around Europe, James focuses his attention of the witch hunts in East Anglia in 1690.
In James story, "The Ash Tree," the setting takes place in East Anglia in 1690. In this particular time period, trials dropped sharply after 1650 and disappeared completely by the end of the 18th century. (Gibbons, "Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt".). (Jones). Despite this information, witch trials seemed to be enormous in East Anglia. This was seen in "The Ash Tree" when James was describing Ms Mothersoles execution as: "She was hanged a week after the trial, with five or six more unhappy creatures, at Bury St. Edmunds." (James 54). The particular type of characteristics of witches was different in East Anglia however. For example, "In East Anglia, according to Macfarlane, witches seem to have been poorer than their victims, with the victims of suspected witches falling into the Yeoman class or tradesman class more often than into the class of labourer or husbandman." (Barry) In other words, it was easier to point out possible witch suspects in East Anglia. However, in "The Ash Tree," Ms Mothersole was described as: "she differed from the ordinary run of village witches only in being rather better off and in more influential position." (James 53) Therefore, Ms Mothersole did not appear to be a witch and may have been accused of being a witch by her actions. Despite just physical appearance, the ones who believed that they were witches played a different role. According to Barry, "The fear of witchcraft gave power to those believed to be witches by their fellow villagers, relieving them in some way of their impotence." (Barry) In other words, in Ms. Mothersoles circumstance, those who believed that certain people were witches gave them a certain feeling of strength and power over the other people. This was seen right before she was about to be hanged. In this circumstance, James describes it as: "Her ‘poysonous Rage’, as a reporter of the time puts it, ‘did so work upon the Bystanders- year, even upon the hangman-that it was constantly affirmed of all that saw her that she presented the living aspect of a mad Divell." (James 54) Ultimately, once she was dead, the driving force behind the fear appeared to be the ash tree.
In Europe, the Ash Tree is considered to have majestic powers. The Ash tree comes from "strong pagan association: Yggdrasil was an ash, and three of the Five Magic Trees of pagan Ireland were ash-trees." (Pardoe) The Ash Tree is said to have powers that ward of witchcraft and pertain only to the good. (Kerr) For example, the folk stories describe the ash tree as: "The ash is known as the tree of rebirth and healing. Ash leaves or keys are said to bring good luck and ward off witchcraft." (Kerr) In other words, the ash tree protects humans from witchcraft or evil. Despite the ash tree just bring luck and warding off witches, there is another myth that comes from Irish folk tales. In Ireland, "Tradition has it that the ash is the second most predominant tree as the companion of the holy well and numerous great ash trees or their stumps can still be found at holy wells around the country." (Kerr) Therefore, the ash tree is related more to god than evil. Therefore, in "The Ash Tree," the question of whether Sir Matthew Fell actually saw Ms. Mothersole cutting limbs from the ash tree is put into play.
In "The Ash Tree," the ash tree plays a role of evil towards the whole Fell family. However, the ash tree resembles good instead of bad. (Pardoe). Despite magic often being associated with evil, the ash tree represents the complete opposite. Therefore, the accusations about Ms Mothersole’s presence at the tree are questionable. Sir Matthew Fell’s accusations are a result of the time period that he is involved in. Since this time period that he grew in dealt with witchcraft and witches, he believed that Ms. Mothersole was performing witchcraft. Another reason why Sir Matthew Fell’s accusations are questionable is because the image that he seen could be easily mistaken for something else. The image that Fell saw was described as: "She had climbed into the branches, clad only in her shift, and was cutting off small twigs with a peculiarly curved knife, and as she did so she seemed to be talking to herself." (James 54). According to Pardoe the image could have been easily mistaken as something else. (Pardoe) Therefore Pardoe describes the image as: "The "peculiarly curved knife" may have been inspired by the sickle which Druids used to gather mistletoe. The idea of the hare as a witch in disguise was, of course, widespread and common." (Pardoe) In other words, mistaking a hare and a women had been committed more than once. Another reason why Sir Matthew Fell’s accusations are questionable is when he tries to capture the so called women. James describes this situation as:
"On each occasion Sir Matthew had done his best to capture the woman, but she had always taken alarm at some accidental noise he had made, and all he could see when he got down to the garden was a hare running across the path in the direction of the village." (James 54)
This shows that Sir Matthew could have easily mistaken Ms. Mothersole as a hare. In other words, if Ms. Mothersole was a witch, then she would have no been near the ash tree.
Another instance where the ash tree posses as evil rather than good is when they cut it down. The whole reason why the cut it down was because they felt the ash tree was the reason Sir Richard and Sir Matthew died. This was seen when Sir William said, "There is something more than we know of in that tree, my lord, I am for an instant search." (James 67) This showed that the ash tree was bringing fear to the people in East Anglia. Therefore, the people decided to cut down the tree. In doing so, they accidentally burned down the tree rather than cutting it down. After all the ashes settled, they said they found a skeleton in the din under the tree. In other words, M.R. James posses the question of whether the skeleton was Ms. Mothersole. This was seen when the Bishop of Kilmore said the body "which was pronounced by those that examined it to be undoubtedly the body of a woman, and clearly dead for a period of fifty years." (James 68) However, through previous evidence this is not possible. Again, the ash tree was meant protect against witchcraft rather then inducing it. In other words, M.R. James changes around the folk lore in order to develop his story. He does this by ending "The Ash Tree" with the words "dead for a period of fifty years" to make the reader believe it was Ms. Mothersole. (James 68)
Ultimately, in "The Ash Tree," Ms. Mothersole was falsely accused of performing witchcraft by Sir Matthew Fell. In this circumstance, the ash tree was meant to protect against witchcraft rather then aid it. In other words, M.R. James brings about the question of whether the ash tree actually follows the Irish folk lures. Also, according to Pardoe, "MRJ is giving us a hint that Sir Matthew Fell's evidence was trumped up." (Pardoe) In conclusion, the ash tree brings about a question for reader to solve.
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Kerr, Caroline. "Trees of County Louth." Louth Online. 2 November 2005. <http://www.louthonline.com/html/trees_of_louth.html>
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