Monday, 7 December 2009

Pendle Witch photo album

Some beautiful scenery for inspiration in this cold and dark time of year!

This is the view of Pendle Hill taken from the back of my house, taken in May 2009.

My mare Boushka adorned on Midsummer's Day, 2009. My equine muse makes a cameo appearance in my new novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL, as Alice Nutter's horse.

Stanfield Tower on Blacko Hill. This tower is a Victorian folly not far from the site of Malkin Tower, my heroine Mother Demdike's home. Malkin Tower no longer exists, unfortunately.

Modern outbuilding in West Close, near Fence. Mother Demdike's friend and rival, Mother Chattox, lived in a cottage near this site. Alas, her home no longer exists either.

St. Mary's Church, Newchurch, in Pendle. The village is named after the church, which was built in the mid-16th century.

If you look closely, you can see the image of the eye on the church tower, possibly intended to ward against witchcraft and evil. Some believe that Alice Nutter was buried in this churchyard, although it is unlikely.

Image of a witch on a private home in Roughlee Village, not far from Roughlee Hall, possibly the home of Alice Nutter, although some argue that she lived at Crow Trees Farm, also very close to where this photo was taken.

You see these images of witches everywhere in Pendle. It freaks some visitors out! And sometimes it makes it hard to remember that the Pendle Witches weren't folkloric figures but real women and men who lost their lives on account of ignorance and hysteria.

Closing on a more uplifting note:

A blooming hawthorn tree in a wild meadow.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Author spotlight: Erika Mailman

Erika Mailman's novel, The Witch's Trinity, is set in a remote German village in 1507. Guede Mueller's world falls apart when her daughter-in-law accuses her of witchcraft. Guede plunges into a world of frightening visions, not knowing what to believe.

Mary Sharratt: What inspired you write about historical witches?

Erika Mailman: I have long been fascinated by the witchcraft persecutions of the past, both in the U.S. and Europe. I'm not sure why the topic so compelled me, but as a child I read everything I could get my hands on and can still remember a few library books that completely unnerved me. When it came time to write my novel, I withheld my research until I had written the bare bones of the story, and found that what I'd read as a child had stuck with me somehow even though I didn't consciously realize it--oftentimes, I'd come across a nonfiction witchcraft source that completely mirrored something I thought I'd been inventing.

The most uncanny thing was learning, while in the midst of writing, that I was in fact a descendant of an accused witch, Mary Bliss Parsons of Massachusetts. My family is very proud of its lineage but somehow none of us had known about her, although we knew much about her husband.

Mary Sharratt: What light can historical novelists such as yourself shed on this lost world of superstition and magical beliefs?

Erika Mailman: My hope is that The Witch's Trinity shows how absurd--and dangerous-- the belief in witchcraft is. I'm not talking about modern people who have reclaimed the word "witch" and practice a benign sort of nature worship, but rather the belief in people who have made a pact with the devil to wreak havoc on others. Distressingly, there are still places in the world today where people attack and kill others for being witches, or abandon their young children for the same "crime." I've been horrified and brought to tears by recent news accounts from India, Africa and Papua New Guinea. I've blogged about many of these events at, while my website focuses on my fiction. While I had thought my book looked at an outdated belief mode while casting light on modern-day scapegoatism, it turns out I was really writing about something current. The same sorts of accusations ring out today as they did centuries ago, hitting the themes of hunger, infertility, and the mundane occurrence of random bad luck.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Most Haunted's Pendle Witch Hunt: A Sceptic's Guide

Halloween, 2004

Living TV's Most Haunted investigated several farmhouses around Newchurch in Pendle in search of the ghosts of the Pendle Witches of 1612. Their team of ghost hunters not only claimed to have had a direct encounter with the Pendle Witch "coven" in an old house on Lower Well Head Farm, but that the spirit of Old Demdike attempted to strangle TV psychic Derek Acorah, who has since been outed as a fake.

While I realise that the people most likely to read this blog take TV psychics with a healthy dose of scepticism in the first place, Halloween seems to drag out all kinds of ghoulish speculation about historical witches and cunning folk in a way that is not only historically inaccurate but disrespectful. The Pendle Witches were not ghouls. They were real living people who were held for months in a lightless dungeon in Lancaster Castle, chained to a ring in the stone floor, before being tried without any barrister and then hanged.

It doesn't help matters that reference sites such as Wikipedia mention the Most Haunted series in the same paragraph as William Ainsworth's delightfully gothic novel, The Lancashire Witches, first published in 1849, that revived the Pendle Witch story after it had lain dormant for two centuries.

Derek Acorah's bad acting notwithstanding, Most Haunted's Pendle Witch programme was full of inaccuracies.

1. The programme, investigating paranormal activity at a number of sites around Newchurch, can't even get the name of the village right. They refer to it as "Newham," just as Derek Acorah claims to channel "Elizabeth Southworth"--Mother Demdike's real name was Elizabeth Southerns. The Lancaster Witch Trials of 1612, under the reign of James I, are referred to as a "Tudor witch trial." I could go on and on. Each viewing reveals more bloopers.

2. Yvette Fielding makes a big deal about the noise of barking dogs as an indicator of paranormal activity and lurking evil. The real reason for the dog noise is quite banal. Lower Well Head Farm is situated next door to Meadow Top Boarding Kennel where one may hear barking dogs at any hour of the day or night.

3. Derek Acorah claims to psychically sense Demdike and Chattox gathering at Lower Well Head Farm in 1610 to work magic with the rest of their "coven." There are two major errors here.

English cunning folk appeared to work alone or in small family groups but there is no evidence that they worked in covens, which appeared to be a Contintental European concept first popularised in Britain by King James I in his book, Daemonologie, a witch-hunter's handbook and required reading for local magistrates. Shakespeare's play Macbeth, originally performed for James I and his court in 1605, presents the first depiction of a witches coven in English literature.

The second major error is that all recorded confessions in the Pendle Witch trials seem to indicate that Demdike and Chattox were bitter enemies in 1610 and unlikely to meet up to collaborate on any kind of magical working.

During the live "investigation," Most Haunted's viewers were invited to text their answer to the either-or-question: Where the Pendle Witches innocent victims or were they real witches with real powers? The superficiality of this question is an insult to the historical realities of cunning folk who lived in an era when everyone, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, believed that magic was real.

Cunning craft was the family trade for both Demdike (Elizabeth Southerns) and Chattox (Anne Whittle). Of course, they believed they had powers. Their very livelihood depended on it. Of course, they owned up to Roger Nowell, the prosecuting magistrate, about their familiar spirits. Without their familiars, they would have no powers and they would be revealed to be bigger fakes than Derek Acorah! How could a cunning woman bless and heal without the aid of her spirit--her otherworldly ally?

Were they innocent victims? How does one define innocence in the complex world of Jacobean witch-hunts? Anne Whittle, aka Chattox, confessed to bewitching to death her landlord's son, her motive being that he attempted to rape her daughter, Anne Redfearn, and to drive her entire family out of their cottage. In a time and place where there was a different law for the rich than for the poor and where the wealthy knew they could get away with rape, a fierce reputation as a cunning woman may have been the only power an impoverished woman could hope to wield. Was Chattox an evil witch for wanting to protect her daughter? Family love seemed to guide her every action. In the 1612 trial, she broke down and confessed her crime, then tearfully pleaded her daughter's innocence and begged the gentlemen of the court to let Anne Redfearn go free. But Anne was hanged alongside her mother.

As for Elizabeth Southerns, aka Old Demdike, the trial transcripts reveal that local farmers called on her to heal their children and their cattle. She was a cunning woman of long standing before she finally died in Lancaster Prison, aged "foure-score yeares," ie eighty years old, according to Court Clerk Thomas Potts. What is amazing is not that the magistrate finally arrested her but that she practised her craft for decades and none in her community spoke against her until the very end.

It is my belief that the Elizabeth Southerns, Anne Whittle, and the other accused witches live on in Pendle as part of the undying spirit of the landscape. They are the strong cunning folk who will never be banished. But you won't find them channeled by bad TV psychics. Walk the land instead, listen to the language the land speaks, the wind and rain, the dance of the seasons. That is where the real magic begins.

For a more nuanced view on the Pendle Witches than what you will find in Most Haunted, I recommend the following books:

Primary Source:

The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster by Thomas Potts

Daemonologie by James I

Secondary Sources:

The Lancashire Witch-Craze by Jonathan Lumby

The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories, edited by Robert Poole

The Trials of the Lancashire Witches by Edgar Peel and Pat Southern

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Margaret Fell & George Fox

Pendle Hill will forever be associated to the Pendle Witches who live on in the undying soul of the landscape and its folklore. Pendle Hill also gave birth to the Quaker movement.

In 1652, George Fox, a weaver’s son and cobbler’s apprentice turned dissenting preacher, wandered across England on a spiritual quest. When he climbed Pendle Hill, his revelation came to him—an event that would change both Fox and the world forever. He envisioned a “great multitude waiting to be gathered.”

As we travelled, we came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it; which I did with difficulty, it was so very steep and high. When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered.

George Fox: An Autobiography, Chapter 6

Later when he walked on to Firbank Fell and met with the Westmoreland Seekers, he found his “great multitude” and the movement had its genesis.

Wandering still further, Fox came to Swarthmoor Hall in Cumbria where he hoped to discuss his new religion with the lord of the manor, Thomas Fell. Mr. Fell being absent, Fox met Margaret, the mistress of the house, a woman who had been searching for spiritual direction for the past twenty years.

From the first time Margaret Fell heard Fox preach, his vision became her own. In the following three weeks, Margaret, her children, servants, estate workers, and many inhabitants of Furness became a part of burgeoning Quaker movement. When the lord of the manor finally returned, he found himself in a Quaker stronghold.

A skilled mediator, Margaret managed to reconcile her husband to the lowborn preacher who had taken such outrageous liberties. Though Thomas Fell never converted, he allowed Margaret to use Swarthmoor Hall as a meeting house for worship. Through the 1650s, Swarthmoor Hall became the powerhouse of the early Quakers. Thomas Fell died in 1658, leaving the estate to Margaret.

Regarded by many as the co-founder of the Society of Friends, Margaret devoted her life to her religion. One of the few early Quakers who was a member of the gentry, she interceded on behalf of her co-religionists who were arrested for illegal preaching or refusing to take oaths. In 1660 and 1662 she traveled to London to convince King Charles II and his parliament for freedom of conscience. In 1664, Margaret herself was arrested for failing to take an oath and for allowing Quaker meetings to be held in her home. She was sentenced for life imprisonment in Lancaster Gaol and forfeiture of her property. While in prison she wrote religious pamphlets and epistles, including her most famous work, Women’s Speaking Justified, a scripture-based argument for women’s ministry. From its very inception, the Quaker religion insisted on gender equality, women’s right to preach, the abolition of slavery and the fundamental injustice of war. One can imagine that Margaret played a leading role in the Quaker commitment to equality and social progress.

In 1668 Margaret was released from prison by order of the king. The following year she married George Fox. Returning to Lancashire, she was arrested again, and shortly after her release, Fox departed on his mission to America, only to be imprisoned upon his return to England.

Surviving both her husbands, Margaret remained a religious activist into her eighties and finally died in 1702 at the age of 88. Her last words were, “I am in Peace.”

Bernard Picard's 18th century engraving shows a woman preaching at a Quaker meeting in London.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Research trip to Bingen, Germany

I just returned from Rhinehessen where I was tracing the path of medieval powerfrau Hildegard von Bingen, the subject of my current novel-in-progress.

Here are some pictures.

Hildegard was born of a noble family in the village of Bermersheim near Alzey. Nothing remains of her family home, but here is the view of the village church:

At the age of eight, according to most sources, her parents offered her, their tenth child, as a tithe to the Church. Hildegard was sent to the remote monastery of Disibodenberg where she was enclosed in an anchorage with Jutta von Sponheim, a noblewoman only seven years older than herself. Here are pictures of what they think are the ruins of the Frauenklause, or the women's anchorage:

Following Jutta's premature death, thought to be caused in part by her extreme aceticism, Hildegard was elected Magistra of her small community of nuns. In sharp contrast to Jutta, Hildegard advocated a lifestyle based on healthy moderation as opposed to constant fasting and mortification of the flesh. She began work on her magnum opus, Scivias, before taking the radical step to break free of the monks of Disibodenberg and establish her own abbey at Rupertsberg on the Rhine. Nothing remains of Rupertsberg Abbey today but it stood just off to the left side of this picture:

After initial hardships, Hildegard's abbey at Rupertsberg flourished and here she wrote on subjects as diverse as medicine, natural science, and human sexuality; healed with herbs and gemstones; corresponded with religious and secular leaders who sought her advice; and composed an entire body of sacred music. Her visions were immortalized in brilliant illuminations.

She eventually founded a daughter abbey at Eibingen, across the Rhine, just above Ruedesheim. Though the original abbey no longer remains, the new Abbey of St. Hildegard, built in 1904, is home to a community of Benedictine nuns who continue Hildegard's work. They also grow and sell excellent wine which you can taste in their giftshop. Hildegard believed that wine was very wholesome!

Here is a panoramic view of the abbey taken from the opposite bank of the Rhine:

What Hildegard achieved in her lifetime was unprecedented for a 12th century woman. Although Saint Paul forbade women to preach, Hildegard went on several preaching tours and was not afraid of locking horns with emperors or popes. She had to pay a steep price for her independence of mind. She and her nuns were the subject of an interdict, or collective excommunication, which was lifted only shortly before her death. She died, as she had lived, seeing visions of the world beyond this one.

Friday, 19 June 2009

2009 Historical Novel Society Conference

Your jet-lagged Hoyden just stepped off the plane, her head a-buzz from the 2009 Historical Novel Society Conference in Schaumburg, Illinois, which was held last weekend, June 12-14.

There were some superb fan girl moments when I got to gush all over honoured guests Margaret George, Sharon Kay Penman, and Margaret Frazer, a fellow Minnesotan who writes engaging novels about sleuthing medieval nuns. Diana Gabaldon was as stunning as ever in her turquoise shawls and was the star of the Late Night Sex Reading. Unfortunately, being such a meek jet-lagged soul, I had gone to bed before her reading. For the next conference they need to have an *earlier* sex reading for those of us who need our eight hours of sleep.

I was lucky enough to meet up with my fantastic fellow Hoyden and Firebrand, Kim Murphy, who took part on the pertinent panel, Is Sex Necessary? Spicing Up Your Historical Novel (or Not) I hope the next Late Night Sex reading showcases our fabulous Kim!

Surviving as a writer in hard times seemed the dominant theme of the conference this year. Touchstone editor Trish Todd gave a great talk on the state of the market. What's selling now generally involves well known historical figures. An English setting is a plus. Paperback is a much easier sell than hardcover. Ms. Todd said that as an editor, it's important for her discover what her author's brand is and find out how she can help establish that brand. May every writer have an editor as market-savvy as Ms. Todd!

Barbara Peters, the powerhouse behind Poisoned Pen Bookstore and Poisoned Pen Press, told us that, contrary to popular opinion, the author tour is not dead. Indy bookstores can do a lot for authors and generally offer more support in terms of hand-selling and event-hosting than the big chains who demand coop money for book placement. Midlist authors need to get public face time, however they can, so get out there and meet the lovely people who work at your local indies. Sometimes it's better to set up your own tour than to rely on a publicist with no local knowledge, Peters pointed out.

Michelle Moran, Karen Essex, and CW Gortner gave a fantastic panel on what authors can do to promote their books in a dire econony. Moran stressed the importance of getting a good author website with a dedicated bloggers' and book group page. In terms of advertising, she pointed out that online ads get you more bang for your buck--blog ads are the way to go but just be sure to be creative in finding out what blogs your audience reads. Moran reported much success advertising her novels of Ancient Egypt on the LOL Cat website, I Can Has Cheezburger, which leads me to wonder whether there is a Crazy Horse Lady-centric site that would be great for advertising my novels!

Karen Essex talked about the importance of writing for the market--ie producing an excellent book that people want to read. Choose well known characters that intrigue people or, if you write about invented characters, find a wonderfully arresting setting.

C.W. Gortner discussed the importance of perserverance and investing in your career. It can't hurt and might help a lot to spend up to half your advance on publicity and marketing. If you blog, as he does wonderfully on his site Historical Boys, have something to say. It shouldn't be all about self-promotion. He felt that virtual blog tours are more successful in terms of sales and publicity than the traditional author tour.

Getting back on topic, namely Hoydens and Firebrands of the 17th Century, the freebies in our conference bag included galleys of Katherine Howe's magnificent debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, a meticulously researched book which dares to ask the question: what if historical witches were *really* witches rather than misunderstood eccentrics? Although I haven't yet finished reading the book, so far I'm impressed with her fictional depiction of historical magic and cunning folk and am intrigued that we've drawn on many of the same sources, such as Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic. It's very affirming to see that nonsensationalist fiction about historical witches and cunning folk is getting the critical and commercial success it deserves. Hopefully this will help dispell any number of inaccurate stereotypes.

Meanwhile my own forthcoming novel about historical cunning folk has undergone a name change. The original title was A Light Far-Shining: A Novel of the Pendle Witches, but my publisher felt that was a bit too wordy and hard to remember. My excellent editor helped me brainstorm a new, catchier title: Daughters of the Witching Hill. I like that very, very much. My witchy novel will be out in April or May of 2010. Watch this space!

The Witching Hill, aka Pendle, in May 2009. This is actually the view from my backyard!

Thursday, 14 May 2009


Welcome to my new blog, which is designed as any easy way to let visitors to my website know about my latest news and upcoming events.

I'm eagerly looking forward to the Historical Novel Society 2009 Conference in Schaumberg, Illinois, June 12-14. I'll be joining Peg Herring's panel, Talking the Talk: Historical Fiction Dialogue.

I'll also be participating in the costume parade, which should be fun. Look forward to seeing old friends and making new ones.

Also please check out Hoydens and Firebrands, a lively new blog featuring me and five of my friends who are stellar writers of historical fiction set in the 17th century.

Spirited women in that period were often called Roaring Girls. Hence the name of this blog.

So let your hair down and saddle your horse for a rip-roaring ride.