Forres, Scotland a beautiful little town, formerly a “royal burgh” since 1140, is on the coast in the north of Scotland. Sarah Palin could probably see Norway from there. We visited there this last Autumn and would love to be able to go back again. Forres is a really nice town with great pubs, good food, fascinating history, and cute shops. It is also a short trip to the beach where you can almost see Norway. We found this interesting monument while wandering about on the High Street in the center of town. So how does this relate to the absurdity of the SCOTUS majority, especially Samuel Alito, the author of Dobbs…? In that “decision”, he dipped all the way back into medieval English history for the following:
We begin with the common law, under which abortion was a crime at least after “quickening”—i.e., the first felt movement of the fetus in the womb, which usually occurs between the 16th and 18th week of pregnancy.”4 The “eminent common-law authorities (Blackstone, Coke, Hale, and the like),” Kahler v. Kansas, 589 U.S. __, ____ (2020) (slip op., at 7), all describe abortion after quickening as criminal. Henry de Bracton’s 13th-century treatise explained that if a person has “struck a pregnant woman, or has given her poison, whereby he has caused abortion, if the foetus be already formed and animated, and particularly if it be animated, he commits homicide.” 2 De Legibus et Consuetudinibus Angliae 279 (T. Twiss ed. 1879); see also 1 Fleta, c. 23, reprinted in 72 Selden Soc. 60— 61 (H. Richardson & G. Sayles eds. 1955) (13th-century treatise).
Sir Edward Coke’s 17th-century treatise likewise asserted that abortion of a quick child was “murder” if the “childe be born alive” and a “great misprision” if the “childe dieth in her body.” 3 Institutes of the Laws of England 50— 51 (1644). (“Misprision” referred to “some heynous offence under the degree of felony.” Id., at 139.) Two treatises by Sir Matthew Hale likewise described abortion of a quick child who died in the womb as a “great crime” and a “great misprision.” Pleas of the Crown 53 (P. Glazebrook ed. 1972); 1 History of the Pleas of the Crown 433 (1736) (Hale). And writing near the time of the adoption of our Constitution, William Blackstone explained that abortion of a “quick” child was “by the ancient law homicide or manslaughter” (citing Bracton), and at least a very “heinous misdemeanor” (citing Coke). 1 Commentaries on the Laws of England 129-130 (7th ed. 1775) (Blackstone).
English cases dating all the way back to the 13th century corroborate the treatises’ statements that abortion was a crime.
I suppose this would make sense, especially to someone who insists that “conservative” in its current definition is a good thing. So how does Alito’s thinking relate to this charming old town in the far north of Scotland? Well, if you follow the inscription on the plaque, this is where the barrels stopped.
The story goes that Forres was one of the first places in Scotland that caught the fever of witchcraft trials. Every town has a woman (uppity?) who makes men uncomfortable or afraid. These women were often, at the very least, outspoken and rebellious to male “authority” and wield some level of power. Once she was accused and convicted by one of the magistrates Alito cites, the woman was taken to the top of the hill above this site, stuffed into a barrel with spikes driven through the sides and then rolled down the hill to this spot where the barrel and the mangled mess that used to be her was burned. This activity flourished in Scotland during the same time that English jurisprudence decided to both root out witches, often the women of power who were also the healers and midwives of the town, and to condemn “abortion”, often done by these same (wise) women.
What brings me to this connection is a Kos article, The Deep History of Insecure Men’s Quest to Control Women’s Bodies. Some of the assertions in that article may need some more research but the metaphors do line up. The qualification is based on the article’s comments about our hunter-gatherer pre-history which is based on speculation from sparse data. But when a metaphor, actually a common set of metaphors line up, there is something there to note.
The truth often comes in uncomfortable packages. I don’t know anything about the witch or witches who ended up at this stone but we do know something about the witches caught up in our own Salem Witch Trials. They all seem to end in the same way with the “leaders” of the community slinking off in shame after the hysteria flames out. It was true in Forres, true in Salem, and true today.
If you notice carefully, the white car just above the plaque is a police car and the building just visible in the left of the frame is the police headquarters. It could be just a coincidence but having such a monument right outside the door of a police station is, to say the least, interesting… If you look just above the sign there are the words “This witch”. This is handwritten sign, part of an arrangement of flowers and cards/pictures behind the plaque. It says in full, “This witch doesn’t burn”.
There is another lesson for our times and its politics drenched in feverish Evangelical Protestant fervor. Scotland, particularly in the Highlands around Forres, was a hotbed of Protestant upheaval around the same time as this stone. This doesn’t excuse the Catholicism on the other side of the English Channel but the Scots from here were a significant part of the population of the American colonies, particularly in the South, that brought this fever to our shores. Their strain of Calvinism is the direct ancestor of modern day Evangelical Protestantism. The Church of Scotland, what we might identify more with Presbyterianism, was dominant in Scotland since the Reformation. There is a Catholic church in town, by comparison small, that was only founded in the 1920s (or so). There is also a small Scottish Episcopal church which is related to the Church of England and the American Episcopal Church. But the big churches are all Church of Scotland.
During our stay in Forres we lodged close to this church. This image shows up with high contrast and the church being dark but if you look closely (in another tab), yes, those are trees growing out of the gutters and roof. Here it is with some of the vegetation trimmed back in Google Maps. It was built in the 1870s, the glory days of the British Empire and Victorian triumphalism but it has been empty since the 1970s. It’s only occupants now are pigeons, seen roosting on the roof, and bats that go in and out of a hole in the roof. The town has been trying to figure out what to do with the place for over 50 years and more than a few attempted (and failed) schemes to repurpose the building. Its congregation was merged into another congregation in the 1970s when there were too few people to support both churches. This is the church they abandoned.
History repeats itself. This next church, The Church of St Laurence, just down the High Street from the one above, is also closing down. This is a huge, fancier pile built a bit later. It has everything including big stained glass windows and a cemetery. This congregation cannot support itself anymore either. So now, this remnant is merging with the remaining (smaller) Church of Scotland congregation a little further down the road where both earlier merged congregations ended up. These buildings are mostly empty monuments to a past that will never come back. Both were packed back in the day when fire and brimstone dominated the preaching but the world has moved on. This church’s sign and notice board, the blue rectangle on the left edge of the image, is behind a locked gate. The minister’s name and phone number painted over a while ago. There is also a notice on the board of the “Bereavement Service” for the closing dated October 23, 2022. This town is gone from three of these big churches to one. There is a reason, one closely related to the flowers placed around the Witches Stone. This type of Christianity is dying.
What I mean by “type” is the traditional or conservative, AKA Not-Liberal denominations and congregations. These churches are populated mostly by the elderly who from habit and familiarity continue to attend. When there is no next generation, a congregation dies literally of old age.
The majority on the SCOTUS are of that traditional remnant, especially Alito. The five who voted for the whole of Dobbs and Roberts who only voted to uphold the Mississippi anti-abortion law are indeed Catholic but they are “traditional” or as some call them “ultra-catholic”, a minority of those who identify as Catholic but pine for the days before Vatican II when Pope John XXIII “threw open the windows” to let the fresh air into the ossifying “musty” old Church he inherited. So why talk about Protestant churches when the decision was made by Catholics? This is because the link is not denominational but the “traditional” vs “liberal” divide. These churches in Forres, like so many others throughout Europe and North America have been identified as “traditional” and have a history that is now more reviled that revered. They have been abandoned by a population that is no longer accepting the ossified old tradition. There are more people living in Forres now than when these buildings were constructed at great cost to their congregations but times and the culture have changed. And Forres is hardly unique. This pattern is repeated all over Europe and America. The old people and their traditional beliefs and norms are dying out. And the pews are empty.
The Dobbs Justices are part of that diminishing remnant and they know it. Alito had to reach all the way back to the days of witch trials to find what he was looking for. His world is the static, unchanging world of post-Reformation, i.e. pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Even in the Catholic Church, women are in more powerful positions these days. They may not ordained (yet) but they run things because the Church is running out of men willing to live the sterile life that traditional Catholicism has become. This pattern is non-denominational which is why the likes of Alito and Thomas get along just fine with the likes of Falwell and Graham. The relevant category is traditional vs. liberal, or whatever label one wants to attach to people and world views that have evolved beyond the 1800s. Church attendance or affiliation has been in decline for a while but the more traditional or ”conservative” a church/congregation is, the more empty its pews are becoming. Even the “mega-churches” of the Evangelical denomination(s) are in decline.
Fear is what made that ordinary stone into a monument. Fear is what made Dobbs. Alito wants to go back, back to the time in his imagination when he would not have had to fear a woman unwilling to be subservient. That would be the time where he found his “precedents”. Given that he has to work everyday with the likes of Sotomayor, Kagan, and Jackson, it must be uncomfortable around the conference table. “Conservatives” like Alito and friends are all about fear of the future. When their fear drives them to be ‘ultra-”, they are doubling down in hope to slow or stop their slide into oblivion. The trouble for him and his cohort is that the institutions that cater to and support the prominence of mediocre men simply because they happen to be male are in decline. No matter how much he and they bluster and blather, the foundation under their feet is diminishing and crumbling. And he knows it.
To attempt to convince us otherwise is absurd.