An Interview with Mary Sharratt
How did you come to write a novel about the Pendle Witches of 1612?
In 2002, I moved to the Pendle region of Lancashire, England—the rugged Pennine landscape that borders the West Yorkshire Dales. My study window looks out on Pendle Hill, famous throughout the world as the place where George Fox received the ecstatic vision that moved him to found the Quaker religion in 1652.
But Pendle Hill is also steeped in its legends of the Lancashire Witches. Everywhere you go in the surrounding countryside, you see images of witches: on buses, pubs signs, road signs, bumperstickers. Visiting American friends found this all quite unnerving. “Mary, why are there witches everywhere?” they’d ask me.
In the beginning, I made the mistake of thinking that these witches belonged to the realm of fairy tale and folklore, but no. They were real people. The stark truth, when I took the time to learn it, would change me forever.
So who were these Pendle Witches?
In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged as witches, condemned on “evidence” provided by a nine-year-old girl and her brother, who appeared to suffer from learning difficulties. The trial itself might never have happened had it not been for King James I’s obsession with the occult. His book Daemonologie—required reading for local magistrates—warned of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation.
Out of the twelve accused Pendle Witches, why did you specifically choose Mother Demdike and her granddaughter Alizon Device as your heroines?
Mother Demdike, called Bess in my novel, had the most infamous reputation. According to the primary sources, she was the ringleader, the one who initiated the others into witchcraft. Demdike was so frightening to her foes because she was a woman who embraced her powers wholeheartedly. This is how Court Clerk Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, his account of the 1612 trials:
“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
knowes. . . . 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! What intrigued me is that although she died in prison before she could come to trial, Potts pays a great deal of attention to her, going out of his way to convince his readers that she was a dangerous witch of long-standing repute. Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was amazed at how Bess’s strength of character blazed forth in the document written expressly to vilify her.
Bess freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman. Her neighbours called on her to cure their children and their cattle. What fascinated me was not that Bess was arrested and imprisoned but that the authorities only turned on her near the end of her long, productive life. She practiced her craft for decades before anybody dared to interfere with her.
In contrast her granddaughter Alizon, who appeared to be a teenager at the time of her trial, seemed to view her own powers with a mixture of bewilderment and terror. Her misadventures in struggling to come to terms with this troubling birthright unleashed the tragedy which led to her arrest and the downfall of her entire family. Although the first to be accused of witchcraft, Alizon was the last to be tried at Lancaster. Her final recorded words on the day before she was hanged were a passionate vindication of her grandmother’s legacy as a healer.
Why was it so important to write this novel in the first person?
Many other books have been written about the Pendle Witches—both fiction and nonfiction, nuanced and lurid. But even some of the better books, such as Robert O’Neill’s delightful novel Mist Over Pendle, tend to portray Mother Demdike and her family as sad, pathetic, ignorant misfits.
The whole purpose of my novel was to retell the Pendle Witch tragedy from the accused witch’s point of view. I yearned to give Bess and Alizon what their world denied them—their own voice.
The landscape plays such a strong role in the novel. Why is that?
It meant a great deal to me to inhabit the same landscape as my characters. Bess and Alizon’s lives unfolded almost literally in my backyard. Researching this book wasn’t a mere exercise of reading books, then typing sentences into my computer. To do justice to the story, I had to go out into the land—literally walk in my characters’ footsteps. Using the Ordinance Survey Map, I located the site of Malkin Tower, once home to Bess and her family. Now only the foundations remain. I board my horse (who makes a cameo appearance in the novel as Alice Nutter’s horse) near Read Hall, once home to Roger Nowell, the witchfinder and prosecuting magistrate responsible for sending the Pendle Witches to their deaths. Every weekend, I walked or rode my chestnut mare down the tracks of Pendle Forest. Quietening myself, I learned to listen, to allow my heroines’ voices to well up from the land. Their passion, their tale enveloped me.
You say Bess was a cunning woman. Who were the historical cunning folk?
Our ancestors believed that magic was real. Not only the poor and ignorant believed in witchcraft and the spirit world—rich and educated people believed in spellcraft just as strongly. Cunning folk were men and women who used charms and herbal cures to heal, foretell the future, and find the location of stolen property. What they did was technically illegal, but most of them didn’t get arrested for it. The need for the services they provided was too great. Doctors were so expensive that only the very rich could afford them and the “physick” of this era involved bleeding patients with lancets and using dangerous medicines such as mercury—your local village healer with her herbal charms was far less likely to kill you.
Those who used their magic for good were called cunning folk or charmers or blessers or wisemen and wisewomen. Those who were perceived by others as using their magic to curse and harm were called witches. But here it gets complicated. A cunning woman who performs a spell to discover the location of stolen goods would say that she is working for good. However, the person who claims to have been falsely accused of harbouring those stolen goods could turn around and accuse her of sorcery and slander. At the end of the day, the difference between cunning folk and witches lay in the eye of the beholder. If your neighbours turned against you and decided you were a witch, you were doomed.
How do your Pendle Witches of 1612 differ from the more familiar Salem Witches of 1692?
While 17th century Salem was a fairly homogenous Puritan society, Lancashire was anything but. Despite Henry VIII’s sacking of Whalley Abbey and the laws of religious conformity passed by his daughter Elizabeth I, the Reformation was slow to take root here. Many influential families of the gentry remained stubbornly Catholic in the face of persecution and death. Moreover, in the viewpoint of many Protestants, witchcraft and Catholicism were conflated. “No part of England hath so many witches,” Edward Fleetwood states in his 1645 pamphlet describing Lancashire, “none fuller of Papists.” Even Reginald Scot, one of the most enlightened men of the English Renaissance, thought the act of transubstantiation, the point in the Catholic mass where it is believed that the host becomes the body and blood of Christ, was an act of sorcery.
Mother Demdike’s family’s charms recorded in the trial transcripts mirror the ecclesiastical language of the pre-Reformation Church. Her incantation to cure a bewitched person, quoted by the prosecution as evidence of diabolical magic, is a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ as witnessed by the Virgin Mary. This text is very similar to the White Pater Noster, an Elizabethan prayer charm Eamon Duffy discusses in his landmark book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England: 1400-1580.
It appears that Mother Demdike, born in Henry VIII’s reign, at the cusp of the Reformation, was a practitioner of the kind of quasi-Catholic folk magic that would have been fairly common in earlier generations. The Old Church embraced many practices that seemed magical and mystical. People believed in miracles. They used holy water and communion bread for healing. Candles blessed at the Feast of Candlemas warded the faithful from demons and disease. People left offerings at holy wells and invoked the saints in their folk charms. Some rituals such as the blessing of wells and fields may have Pagan origins. Indeed, looking at pre-Reformation folk magic, it seems difficult to untangle the strands of Catholicism from the remnants of Pagan belief which had become so tightly interwoven. Keith Thomas’s social history Religion and the Decline of Magic is an excellent study on how the Reformation literally took the magic out of Christianity.
So are you saying that Mother Demdike and her family at Malkin Tower were merely misunderstood practitioners of Catholic folk magic?
Alas, the truth seems more complicated than that. Although her charms drew on the mystical imagery of the pre-Reformation Church, Bess and her sometimes-friend, sometimes-rival Anne Whittle, aka Chattox, accused each other of using clay figures to curse their enemies. Both women freely confessed, even bragged about their familiar spirits who appeared to them in the guise of beautiful young men. Bess’s description of her decades-long partnership with Tibb seems to reveal something much older than Christianity.
So who was Tibb? The devil?
No. The devil, as such, played a very minor role in English witchcraft. Instead the familiar spirit took centre stage: this was the cunning person’s otherworldly spirit helper who could shapeshift between human and animal form. Bess described how Tibb could appear as a golden-haired young man, a hare, or a brown dog. In traditional English folk magic, it seemed that no cunning man or cunning woman could work magic without the aid of their familiar spirit—they needed this otherworldly ally to make things happen.
What’s next? Do you have a new novel in progress?
My current novel-in-progress Know the Ways will reveal the life of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), Benedictine abbess. She was an incredible character, a polymath who composed an entire corpus of music and wrote books on subjects as diverse as natural science, medicine and human sexuality—she’s credited as the first person to describe the female orgasm in depth. A mystic and visionary, her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.
Her story arc is amazing. Born in an age of deep-seated misogyny, her parents offered her as a tithe to the Church at the age of seven, yet she triumphed to become one of the greatest voices of her age. And she’s not so far removed from my historical witches as one might think. She healed with herbs, crystals and gemstones and was guided by visions. I suspect that if she had been born a few centuries later, she might well have been burned as a witch.