In Rivka Galchen’s new novel, a man who might be a pedlar tells a story of a land where people have everything they could possibly want to eat, ‘brandy, bread, dumplings, cream, honey, almonds, chicken, radishes’, but no salt. ‘When mealtime came,’ the maybe-pedlar explains, ‘the parents would abuse one another, or sometimes hit the children, until someone provided the tears. To salt everything up.’ Tears make things palatable. In places with no shortage of salt, tears are needed to mollify rather than to season: to demonstrate genuineness, sympathy or remorse. When, later in the novel, the woman to whom the maybe-pedlar has told his story is on trial for witchcraft, the counsel for the prosecution calls on her to cry. ‘Give us some sign of your true heart. Weep for us.’ But Katharina Kepler, the widowed mother of the astronomer Johannes Kepler, refuses: she won’t cry in public or on demand. The real Katharina Kepler, who endured six years of criminal proceedings for suspected witchcraft between 1615 and 1621, also refused. ‘I have cried so much, that now I cannot cry any more,’ she is recorded as saying. She wasn’t interested in providing the salt.
Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch takes us to the centre of a tiny world, the walled town of Leonberg in the Duchy of Württemberg, at a time of misery and anxiety. The freezing winter of 1614-15 has ushered in a cold and ‘rotten’ spring; crops are failing and prices are high; people are falling ill with what may be the plague. The town’s new governor, Lukas Einhorn (the ‘False Unicorn’) is lazy, cynical and eager to find someone to blame for the woes of his petitioners. When Ursula Reinbold, the wife of a ‘third-rate glazier’, comes to him with a story about devastating pains caused by a ‘witch’s brew’ forced on her by Katharina, Einhorn has his scapegoat. Although Württemberg executed only 197 women and men for witchcraft in the two centuries after 1560 – a small number compared to the figures racked up by other southwestern German regions during the same period – rumours of burnings and confessions extracted by torture travelled fast, aided by lurid pamphlets. On the day Katharina is called into Einhorn’s office to learn that the well-connected Reinbolds are convinced she’s in league with the devil, her daughter-in-law, Gertie, reads aloud from a pamphlet describing the recent execution of three women in nearby Eltingen. Prompted by the executioner to make a final statement, the first witch is unable to remember what she’s been made to confess to. ‘She said she had no acquaintance with the devil. And that she hadn’t been fed, making it difficult to think, and also that her legs had been broken.’
Accusations of witchcraft in early modern Europe usually indicated faultlines in the daily life of the community. The Leonberg of the novel relies, as small towns and villages tended to, on informal relations of duty and charity to help it run smoothly: the baker’s wife, Rosina Zoft, allows Katharina to use her bread oven from time to time; Michael Stahl, who owns a shed, lets her store her grain there; when she needs fresh milk, neighbours supply it. She, in turn, dispenses homemade herbal remedies, lends money and makes gifts of food and wine. Resentments arise when too little or too much is offered – when the baker’s wife is stingy about a jug of milk (‘everyone comes asking day in and day out, even a saint has only one liver to give’), or when Katharina presses her hyssop wine on the timorous schoolmaster, Hans Beitelspacher, and his wife: ‘I said no, thank you. I wasn’t thirsty. She begged me and bullied me.’
Individually, these moments of friction mean very little: they’re the ordinary imbalances that arise when, as one of Katharina’s enemies puts it, ‘you do someone a favour and they hold it against you.’ But Everyone Knows is less about individuals than about what those individuals add up to when their interests converge. Katharina is as ‘decisive as a ship’s captain’, in her neighbour’s words, and most people in Leonberg prefer ship’s captains and elderly widows not to be the same people. They find her meddlesome and difficult: outspoken, independent, too proud by half of her famous, successful son – ‘a braggart’, as Beitelspacher tells the court. She has a habit of showing up unannounced, intruding in private spaces (once apparently passing through a locked door, a sure sign of dark magic), thrusting her untested herbal concoctions on the ill and healthy alike. And she’s always up to something. ‘Widows generally keep to themselves and don’t go here and there all over town like a whirligig,’ Michael Stahl observes at the trial. ‘Frau Kepler has been more like a man in her out-and-aboutness.’
The bulk of the trial story comes from Katharina herself, who sets down – with the help of her literate legal guardian, Simon – what she calls her ‘truest testimony’ as a way of getting the facts straight ahead of her court appearance. Interspersed through her narrative are Simon’s reflections on the case, obsequious letters to the False Unicorn and the Duke of Württemberg from parties on both sides, and formal depositions by witnesses – Stahl, Beitelspacher, Rosina Zoft and the rest. These often run to comedy. A stocky prison guard swears that the septuagenarian Frau Kepler is ‘much more dangerous than you might be guessing based on her appearance’; a pedantic gravedigger provides, Hamlet-style, some light relief in his responses to the prosecutor’s stern theological pronouncements:
‘A skull is a legally recognised tool of sorcery.’
‘We all have skulls, sir.’
But even the comic voices, taken together, have serious consequences. All speech in the novel, including Katharina’s, persuades, justifies, accuses and damns. In the testimony of Wallpurga Heller, a labourer’s wife who claims that Katharina once struck her daughter and left a ‘witch’s mark’, even what the child doesn’t say is spun into positive evidence of evil. ‘They saw the figure of a woman all in black, muttering to herself … She may have been cursing, my daughter wouldn’t have told me that.’ Once the word ‘cursing’ is on the record, it sticks.
To Hans Kepler, the Imperial Mathematician, trying to defend his mother by taking an analytical view of the situation, Leonberg is like a depressing morality play; its population a typical collection of sinners. ‘This one had always been envious; that one had always been willing to lie for personal gain. This one had denied his mother Communion. That one was known to be violent.’ To the people who actually live there – the ‘this ones’ and ‘that ones’ of Kepler’s analysis – there are no such absolutes. According to Katharina, the various disappointments suffered by the unfortunate Beitelspacher, whom she’s known since his school days with her brilliant Hans, can be put down to his ‘weak-minded and envious’ nature. In Beitelspacher’s view, his life has been a series of adversities heroically overcome, not helped by the arrogance and pride of the Keplers. No one acts in isolation. What one character says or does – or neglects to say or do, in the case of Simon, who quietly withdraws from Katharina’s side as the proceedings gather pace – has a direct impact on another. Mutual interest brings even bitter enemies together. When the expense of keeping Katharina locked up starts to eat away at the proceeds from the sale of her assets, the grasping Reinbolds, seeing their compensation slip away, petition the False Unicorn ‘in the interest of sweet justice’ to cut costs. They acknowledge unexpected allies: ‘Even the Kepler family, with whom we continue to have great conflict – they are in agreement with us on these points.’
In the small world of Leonberg, identity is relative. Individuals are known by the family they’re from, the company they keep, the jobs they do. During his second deposition, Beitelspacher tells the court about a possibly incriminating early thesis of Hans’s. He doesn’t own a copy, ‘but ask the barber. Ask the hatter. Ask the rope-maker. It’s widely known.’ Women are identified by what their husbands, fathers or sons do. Ursula Reinbold is the ‘glazier’s wife’; Katharina, to anyone other than a close friend, is ‘the astrologer’s mother’; Rosina Zoft, since there are several bakers in Leonberg, is ‘the wife not of Jerg, the six-fingered baker, but of Martin Zoft, the black-eyed baker’. Thirdhand gossip about Katharina is passed not from person to person but from profession to profession: ‘It wasn’t the seamstress who was saying this now – no one knew where the seamstress was – but the marksman’s wife was saying the seamstress had told her so.’ Characters have a habit of describing one another using metaphors drawn from their environment, as if it’s easier to indicate what a person is like – that is, to say what they’re not – than to try to pin down exactly what they are. Lorenz, the prison guard, turns against Ursula Reinbold when he hears she’s written to Einhorn to ask for a restriction of his wood-burning privileges, though it isn’t exactly her he attacks: ‘That glazier’s wife has the brains of a pigeon, the heart of a prickle bush. She has the greedy eyes of a lame fox. She can’t hunt on her own … She’s a horsefly.’ Subjected to further questioning, Beitelspacher tells the court: ‘I’m not a strong badger.’ Even God, according to Katharina’s son-in-law, Pastor Binder, is best understood as a cluster of animal metaphors.
It isn’t that subjectivity doesn’t matter in this novel: more that it only matters when it becomes a problem, when it rubs up against traditional categories of identity and associated norms of behaviour. Katharina is disliked because she’s not good at being a widow, incapable of acting the part of a humble and vulnerable old woman. As the trial rumbles on, she’s also accused of having neglected her wifely duties to the point of murder: ‘She chased her husband from the home many times … he then died in the war, thus killed by Katharina.’ Other characters who might be in the firing line by association are better at keeping up appearances. Her son Christoph, a successful pewterer, takes up bookkeeping responsibilities for his guild and jumps to answer the call when the town wants men for a new militia. Simon’s loyalty shifts when wary customers start cancelling orders for his leather saddles. When he visits Katharina after the trial to explain himself and apologise, he can’t help thinking of the broken friendship as if it’s a question of public rather than private guilt. ‘I felt that I was walking to my own trial … It had been trying, waiting so long, to be heard out, to be issued a verdict.’ Katharina seems to have no interest in sentencing him either way, or in thinking of their relationship in anything other than personal terms, and it catches him off-guard: ‘I was waiting for the counterpoint of the argument.’
Hans Kepler is relegated to the background during much of the trial narrative. There are glimpses of the energetic case the real Kepler built up to try to save his mother – mentions of letters detailing ‘plans and concerns and strategies’, reports of exchanges with eminent law professors, possible defence witnesses, gravediggers – but, in private, he features as a cautious, somewhat frail presence, less vividly drawn than the ruddy, straight-talking Christoph. The approach he takes to gathering knowledge, making deductions from the observable qualities of things, is challenged repeatedly: influential characters, the False Unicorn among them, insist that they possess knowledge about Katharina’s witchcraft that they can’t attribute to any specific evidential source, but is knowledge nonetheless. ‘We all know she’s a witch. We’ve always known,’ Einhorn declares. ‘The matter of how we came to know is simple – we already knew.’ ‘You can know and also not know something,’ Rosina Zoft tells the court. ‘I didn’t know I knew. But I knew.’ By the end of the novel, Hans’s vision of a universe that is both rational and providential starts to seem, as Katharina puts it, ‘like a peasant girl’s dream of marrying a prince’. People may ‘prefer starry explanations’ for what happens to them, but only because ‘it makes them feel big’. Leonbergers abdicate responsibility for what they do when it suits them to believe in providential design (‘whatever mistakes we make’, God will ‘correct them in the end’, the False Unicorn says); when they really want something, they don’t wait around for a comet to appear.
Given that Everyone Knows is the story of Katharina’s trial, the result seems set to be the climax of the plot. (No spoilers here.) In the event, we learn what happens almost as an afterthought. Simon, the narrator, ‘forget[s]’ for several pages that the reader might want to know ‘the fate of Katharina’; then Hans, who ostensibly comes to bring him the news, seems more interested in talking about his first wife and has to be prompted to spill the beans: ‘I thought you already knew.’ The ‘six-fingered baker’, Jerg, seems excited about some important news when Simon goes to visit him, but it turns out he’s pleased his uncle has died. Historical events and processes dwarf the significance of Katharina’s trial. The plague runs rampant: a gingerbread seller in Frankfurt tells Simon his village has been wiped out. Habsburg soldiers arrive in Protestant Württemberg, destroying and burning as they go. ‘When the papal soldiers came through last fall,’ Simon writes, ‘Greta’s husband, the pastor Binder, was beaten to death, and the soldier who beat him was soon dead of the plague, as was the nurse who cared for that soldier.’ There’s a kind of order to this, or at least an inevitability, but it isn’t Hans’s celestial order. And where is Katharina? At her trial, the prosecution argues that there are evils and evils: complicated, faraway evils, such as war, which no municipal ruling can fix, and local, finite evils, such as the malevolent acts of a witch, that can and should be dealt with. But context, especially in a novel, doesn’t work like that, and Everyone Knows is a superb study of context.