By: Mary Sharratt
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication Date: April, 2010
Reviewed by: Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.
Review date: April 5, 2010
Daughters of the Witching Hill, which is based on the true account of a witch hunt and trial conducted in 1612 in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, has a large cast of characters, many of whom were real people. As we read this gripping narrative, told first by Bess Southerns, called Mother Demdike, and then by her granddaughter, Alizon, we cannot help but sense the forces of doom approaching the family. These impoverished, unlucky people cannot escape their fate. All it takes is one misstep, one foolish word overheard by the wrong person, and paranoia explodes around them.
Bess, a poor but optimistic widow, lives in Malkin Tower with her daughter, Liza, and Liza’s children, Jamie (who would today probably be diagnosed with Down syndrome) and Alizon. Bess’s best friend is Anne Whittle, called Chattox. Bess has another friend, too, a magical being (or familiar) called Tibb, who teaches her to use her powers of healing. For awhile Bess is successful and highly regarded, but when Chattox’s daughter is nearly raped, Bess reluctantly teaches her friend to make “clay pictures” (which are kind of like voodoo dolls) to punish the rapist. Chattox now turns to dark magic. Next, Jamie fancies that he, too, has a familiar and begins to make clay pictures to punish people who are unkind to him. Bess’s granddaughter, the beautiful Alizon, denies that she has any of her grandmother’s power, but when she meets a peddler in the forest and he refuses to sell her any pins, she loses her temper. She curses him, he has a stroke … and a dozen people are arrested by an ambitious Puritan magistrate who believes every word of James I’s witch hunting book, Daemonologie. (King James, who authorized the 1611 translation of the Bible that so many people still today believe is inerrant, was convinced of the reality of a grand witch conspiracy in the British Isles.) A dozen people, including Bess, Liza, Alizon, Jamie, Chattox, and her daughter, are tricked, arrested, held for several months in an underground jail, and then forced to walk for thirty miles in iron shackles to the site of their trial, where Liza’s nine-year-old bastard daughter becomes the prosecution’s star witness. Nine so-called witches are hanged.
As modern scholarship is proving, however, most of the women (and men) tried in the infamous witch trials of Renaissance Europe weren’t witches at all, at least not in the sense that modern American neopagans call themselves witches and speak of reclaiming the word “witch” as someone who “worships the ground we walk on.” In this novel, as in history, some so-called witches were stubborn Catholics in newly Reformed (Protestant) lands, others were countryfolk who missed the old Catholic festivals and still believed in the land of faery, some were midwives who healed with herbs in a period when the male physicians still used leeches and never washed their hands, others were starving souls who would do anything to get something to eat, and many were cunning men and women. The cunning folk were women and men who blessed (often using the old Latin prayers) and healed (using a combination of herbalism and psychology), usually in exchange for food.
The so-called witches in Mary Sharratt’s awe-full novel—in which the reader is filled with awe at the courage of Mother Demdike and her family and neighbors—are cunning women who have the misfortune to live in the Protestant police state that we know as Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Yes, this was the age of Shakespeare and Marlowe and Donne, but Bess Southerns and those around her never hear even a tiny echo of any Renaissance. As Thomas Hobbes (who also lived during this period) famously said, the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” That’s certainly true of Bess and nearly everyone she knows. While the nobility always have enough to eat and clothes (and shoes) to wear, peasants had to beg and do any work they could find for pay that consisted of a meal and maybe a sack of oats to take home. It was the age when those who held to the Old Religion—the Roman Catholic Church—hid priests in secret rooms in their houses. It was the age when everyone went (on pain of being sought out and whipped) to the New Church and stood for three hours or longer listening to Puritan preachers roaring about sin and hellfire and damnation. It was an age of magic and superstition when blessing and cursing really worked.
Quill says: Heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time, Daughters of the Witching Hill is a book you won’t soon forget. Whether persecution is religious, as in the 16th and 17th centuries, or political, as we hear too often in the news today, witch hunts are shameful.