Friday, 2 April 2010
Under the Spell of the Pendle Witches
Since I'm embarking on my book tour, this post is dedicated to my favourite 17th century firebrand, Mother Demdike, the heroine of my new novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill.
The wild, brooding landscape of Pendle Hill, my home for the past seven years, gave birth to my new novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, which tells the true story of Elizabeth Southerns, cunning woman, more commonly known by her nickname, Mother Demdike.
In 1612, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged as witches. Yet Mother Demdike, the most notorious of the accused, the ringleader who initiated all the others into witchcraft, cheated the hangman by dying in prison. This is how Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster:
She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had
been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast
place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man
knows. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no
man escaped her, or her Furies.
Not bad for an eighty-year-old lady! Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was amazed at how her strength of character blazed forth in the document written expressly to condemn her. When interrogated by her magistrate, she freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman. Mother Demdike was so frightening to her foes because she was a woman who embraced her powers wholeheartedly.
As I sought to uncover the bones of her story, I was drawn into a new world of mystery and magic. Every stereotype I’d held of historical witches and cunning folk was dashed to pieces. Mother Demdike became a true presence, a shining light in my life. An ancestor of my heart, if not my blood. Her life unfolded almost literally in my backyard.
Once in a place called Malkin Tower, there lived a widow, Bess Southerns, called Demdike. Matriarch of her clan, she lived with her widowed daughter and her three grandchildren, the most promising one being Alizon Device, a young woman who showed every promise of becoming a cunning woman as mighty as her grandmother. What fascinated me was not that Bess was arrested on witchcraft charges but that the authorities only turned on her near the end of her long, productive career. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her.
Cunning craft—the art of using charms to heal both humans and livestock—was Bess’s family trade. Their spells, recorded in the trial documents, were Roman Catholic prayer charms—the kind of folk magic that would have flourished before the Reformation. Yet she also drew on an even older source of power: Tibb, her familiar spirit, who appeared to her in the guise of a beautiful young man.
Other books have been written about the Pendle Witches—both fiction and nonfiction, nuanced and lurid. Mine is the first to tell the tale from Bess’s point of view. I longed to give Bess Southerns what her world denied her—her own voice.
As a writer, I am obsessed with history and place, how the true stories of our ancestors haunt the living landscape. No one in Pendle can remain untouched by the witches’ legacy. As contemporary British storyteller, Hugh Lupton, has said, if you go deep enough into the old tales and can present them in a meaningful way to a modern audience, you become the living voice in an ancient tradition. Mother Demdike’s voice deserves to be heard. I hope you will be as moved by her story as I am.
Take a sneak peak of the novel
Who were the Pendle Witches of 1612?
Read what the critics are saying
Join me on my traditional and virtual book tour
Watch my docudrama of the Pendle Witches, filmed live on location around Pendle Hill
Read Mary Ann Grossmann's interview with me in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press
Learn the charms of the Pendle Witches
Enter the Daughters of the Witching Hill Reader Review Contest
Learn more about Historical Cunning Folk and Wisewomen
Thank you for being a part of this book!
Posted by Mary Sharratt