Monday, 10 May 2010

The English woodland in May

This weekend, I went walking in Marles Wood near Ribchester to see the bluebells.

We also saw some very interactive cows.

And here is the view of Pendle Hill.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Happy Mother's Day

DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL is a novel that celebrates strong mothers and daughters.

Mother Demdike, the most notorious of the Pendle Witches of 1612, had the most infamous reputation. Before her arrest on witchcraft charges at the age of eighty, she had worked as a cunning woman and healer for decades, training both her daughter, Elizabeth Device, and her granddaughter, Alizon Device, in her craft.

This is what court clerk Thomas Potts had to say about Mother Demdike 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 knowes. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies.

Not bad for an eigty-year-old lady! I believe that Mother Demdike was so frightening to her foes because she was a woman who embraced her powers wholeheartedly. Strong women are scary.

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 untold powers. 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.

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.

What wisdom would Mother Demdike pass on to mothers and daughters of our time? Seize your power while you can, for the tide can turn so quickly, especially when shifting political currents encourage those who monger any kind of witch hunt. Treasure your power. Use it wisely. There’s much blessing to be found there. Don’t turn away or deny it or flee from it. The refusal of the call only leads to tragedy. Embrace your power and be true to yourself.

Eldritch Goings On: Saint Mark's Eve

Saint Mary's Church in Newchurch in Pendle, as spooky a place as any to hold the Vigil of the Eve of Saint Mark.

One of the most intriguing English superstitions was the Vigil of the Eve of Saint Mark. Those of gothic sensibilities take note.

On April 24, the night before the feast day of Saint Mark the Evangelist, the morbidly curious gathered on the church porch between the hours of 11:00 pm and 1:00 am, in hope of seeing the ghosts of all who would die and be buried in the churchyard that coming year. It was believed that those who would die earlier in that year appeared first, following by those who would die later in the year.

Robert Chambers (1802-1871), prolific writer of reference books, recorded this lore in his massive encyclopaedia, Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, now accessible online.

Chambers cites an account written by Gervase Hollis, colonel to Charles I. Hollis professed to have heard the tale from a minister, Liveman Rampaine, the household chaplain to Sir Thomas Munson, of Burton in Lincoln.

In the year 1631, two men (inhabitants of Burton) agreed betwixt themselves upon St. Mark's eve at night to watch in the churchyard at Burton, to try whether or no (according to the ordinary belief amongst the common people) they should see the Spectra, or Phantasma of those persons which should die in that parish the year following. To this intent, having first performed the usual ceremonies and superstitions, late in the night, the moon shining then very bright, they repaired to the church porch, and there seated themselves, continuing there till near twelve of the clock. About which time (growing weary with expectation and partly with fear) they resolved to depart, but were held fast by a kind of insensible violence, not being able to move a foot.

About midnight, upon a sudden (as if the moon had been eclipsed), they were environed with a black darkness; immediately after, a kind of light, as if it had been a resultancy from torches. Then appears, coming towards the church porch, the minister of the place, with a book in his hand, and after him one in a winding-sheet, whom they both knew to resemble one of their neighbours. The church doors immediately fly open, and through pass the apparitions, and then the doors clap to again. Then they seem to hear a muttering, as if it were the burial service, with a rattling of bones and noise of earth, as in the filling up of a grave. Suddenly a still silence, and immediately after the apparition of the curate again, with another of their neighbours following in a winding-sheet, and so a third, fourth, and fifth, every one attended with the same circumstances as the first.
These all having passed away, there ensued a serenity of the sky, the moon shining bright, as at the first; they themselves being restored to their former liberty to walk away, which they did sufficiently affrighted. The next day they kept within doors, and met not together, being both of them exceedingly ill, by reason of the affrightment which had terrified them the night before.

The manuscript goes on to explain how the men did indeed claim to witness the deaths occurring in their community, including that of an infant newly born. These traditions were most prevalent in the North and West of England, and it was believed that, before the vigil, watchers should fast and circle around the church before taking up position.

John Keats’s poem, The Eve of Saint Mark, delves into this folklore.