Friday, November 30, 2012

Book Review: "Daughters of the Witching Hill"

After I reviewed her book Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, Mary Sharratt, noting my interest in the English Reformation, offered to send me a review copy of an earlier work, Daughters of the Witching Hill for my honest opinion. Except for a couple of moments when I had some trouble suspending my disbelief that the first person narrator would be able to recount certain details (her own execution, at the end of the novel, for example!) I was held enthralled, enchanted, and in suspense by this novel.

As the book's description summarizes the story:

Daughters of theWitching Hill brings history to life in a vivid and wrenching account of a family sustained by love as they try to survive the hysteria of a witch-hunt.

Bess Southerns, an impoverished widow living in Pendle Forest, is haunted by visions and gains a reputation as a cunning woman. Drawing on the Catholic folk magic of her youth, Bess heals the sick and foretells the future. As she ages, she instructs her granddaughter, Alizon, in her craft, as well as her best friend, who ultimately turns to dark magic.

When a peddler suffers a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Alizon, a local magistrate, eager to make his name as a witch finder, plays neighbors and family members against one another until suspicion and paranoia reach frenzied heights.

Sharratt interweaves well-researched historical details of the 1612 Pendle witch-hunt with a beautifully imagined story of strong women, family, and betrayal. Daughters of the Witching Hill is a powerful novel of intrigue and revelation.

The Pendle witch hunt is well documented--Court Clerk Thomas Potts  wrote an account of the 1612 trials,  The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster--and Sharratt has made good use of that source. Her other great source, and the other danger lurking in Lancashire, is the history of Catholic recusancy in the area. One of the victims of the Pendle witch trials was Alice Nutter, a Catholic widow. The novel suggests that she accepted death by hanging as a witch to avoid any involvement of her son and their household--which was a safe house for a Jesuit priest. To the magistrate, Roger Newell, she and her recusancy are just as dangerous and Demdike and her family's cunning witchcraft.

As this site notes:

Among those fatally tainted by little Jennet [the chief accuser in the trial] was Alice Nutter. Jennet would place Alice and several of the other accused at a Good Friday meeting which was described in court as a witches’ Sabbath. Alice never confessed and remained silent to the end. At her execution, writes Thomas Potts, “she died very impenitent, insomuch as her own children were never able to move her to confess any particular offence, or declare any thing, even in Articulo Mortis, which was a fearful thing to all that were present, who knew she was guilty.” Alice was not alone in refusing to confess; but what does make her extraordinary, the enigma of the 1612 trial, was her social background. She was a gentlewoman who owned land and had servants. Furthermore, there is much evidence to suggest that Alice was also a recusant and a prominent one at that; in fact it is likely that the Good Friday gathering at which she was present was more Catholic Mass than witches’ Sabbath. Alice’s faith was another reason why she was framed.

The Nutter family is indeed a famous recusant family in the area, with two beatified martyrs: John Nutter (in 1584) and Robert Nutter (in 1600).

Sharratt depicts much of the healing and the blessing work of the accused witches as Catholic prayers and devotions (and the use of herbs and teas or potions). While many in the community around Pendle Hill had conformed to the Church of England, and Sharratt depicts a very Calvinist minister, they valued the healings and blessings Bess, Liza, and Alizon offer. They may be stunned when they hear the Latin of the Ave Maria or Salve Regina, the Pater Noster, and Credo, but they rejoice when their child or even their animal is restored to health. Without the outward signs of Grace, sanctioned by the Catholic Church in the Sacraments and in devotions, the folk magic of the cunning women, as they are called, seemed to fill the void. One of the young Protestant girls even asks Alizon to pray for her soul after death, hoping for Purgatory and preparation for Heaven and fearing the Calvinist predestination preached in the New Church!

The tension and suspense in the novel comes from the anticipation--when are they going to get caught? The recusant families in the area are in the same situation--how long can they hide the fugitive priest? Both the cunning women and the Catholics know they are in danger from the authorities and both try to hide in plain sight as much as they can--Alice Nutter attends the Church of England services on Sunday (a Church Papist), as do the Southerns family and friends. As I read the novel, I was concerned for all the women and children involved, because I knew they were going to suffer. The scenes in the dungeon at Lancaster Castle clarified the torture of being in irons and held in foul conditions, which I have mentioned in connection with the punishment meted out to priests and laity held in prison.

Mary Sharratt cites two essential sources for her historical research (other than the record of the trial and living next to Pendle Hill): Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars and Keith Thomas' Religion and the Decline of Magic, first published in 1971. Another important work, which I have perused but not read through, is Christopher Haigh's Reformation and Resistance in Tudor Lancashire.

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