Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Hildegard comes home

Hildegard's vision of Sapienta, Divine Wisdom

My final revision of my new novel, ILLUMINATIONS: A NOVEL OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN, are complete. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish the novel in November 2012, just in time for the next US presidential election. HILDEGARD FOR PRESIDENT, PLZ!!!

I've been working on this novel since 2008 and it feels wonderful to finally bring my homage to this very complex and inspiring woman to fruition.

Here's a report about my 2009 pilgrimage to Bingen and Disibodenberg in Germany.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Benedictine abbess and polymath, composed an entire corpus of sacred music and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, natural science, medicine, and human sexuality—a prodigious intellectual outpouring that put many of her male contemporaries to shame. A mystic and visionary, her prophecies earned her the title Sibyl of the Rhine. An outspoken critic of political and ecclesiastical corruption, she courted controversy and nearly died an excommunicant. Her courage and originality of thought continue to inspire people today.

My novel ILLUMINATIONS reveals the unforgettable story of how Hildegard triumphed against impossible odds to become the greatest woman of her age.

In 1106, eight-year-old Hildegard is offered as a tithe to the Church and bricked into an anchorage with the disturbed Jutta von Sponheim, only fourteen herself. Rejecting Jutta’s masochistic piety, Hildegard’s secret visions comfort her with a far more nurturing face of the divine. She finds an ally in the young monk Volmar who smuggles her books that feed her bottomless hunger for learning.

Jutta’s saintly reputation attracts a following of child dedicants, but her extreme asceticism leads to her premature death. Now thirty-eight, Hildegard must find a way to liberate her sisters from the soul-destroying anchorage. Meanwhile her visions threaten to overwhelm her. Seized by a violent awakening, she must shatter the silence and speak of her revelations of the Living Light. Her abbot, determined to suppress this rebel nun, charges her with heresy.

Hildegard must make the gamble of a lifetime, putting her very life on the line to blaze the trail that will lead her sisters to a free and dignified existence. But she will pay the highest price for her independence of mind. Combining fiction, history, and Hildegardian philosophy, ILLUMINATIONS is my ecstatic homage to a woman of faith and power—a visionary in every sense of the word.

Here are some of the early blurbs we received. My unending gratitude goes out to these wonderful authors for their support and enthusiasm:

“I love Mary Sharratt. The grace of her writing and the grace of her subject combine seamlessly in this wonderful novel about the amazing, too-little-known saint, Hildegard of Bingen, a mystic and visionary. Sharratt captures both the pain and the beauty such gifts bring, as well as bringing to life a time of vast sins and vast redemptions.”

Karleen Koen, author of Before Versailles and the best-selling Through a Glass Darkly

“I loved Mary Sharratt’s Daughters of the Witching Hill, but she has outdone herself with Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen. She brings one of the most famous and enigmatic women of the Middle Ages to vibrant life in this tour de force, which will captivate the reader from the very first page.”

Sharon Kay Penman, New York Times bestselling author of Time and Chance

“There is ecstasy in the writing of this redemptive novel of a 12th century woman who found a world of cruelty and filled it with beauty, a powerless woman who discovered her own power and led other women to find their own. Illuminations is a radiantly beautiful book. Readers will long remember Hildegard and the gifts she left us.”

Stephanie Cowell, author of Marrying Mozart, Claude & Camille: a >novel of Monet and The Physician of London (American Book Award)

“With elegance and sensitivity, Mary Sharratt rescues Hildegard Von Bingen from the obscurity of legend, bringing to life the flesh-and-blood woman in all her conflict, faith, and unwavering tenacity. Illuminations is an astonishing revelation of a visionary leader willing to sacrifice everything to defend her beliefs in a dangerous time of oppression.”

C.W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

“An enchanting beginning to the story of the perennially fascinating 12th century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. It is easy to paint a picture of a saint from the outside but much more difficult to show them from the inside. Mary Sharratt has undertaken this with sensitivity and grace.”

Margaret George, author of Elizabeth I and Mary Called Magdalene

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Pendle Witches and Their Magic, Part Two

Blacko Tower, a Victorian folly (ca 1890) near Malkin Tower Farm, Lancashire

The crimes of which Mother Demdike and her fellow witches were accused dated back years before the 1612 trial. The trial itself might have never happened had it not been for King James I’s obsession with the occult. Until his reign, witch persecutions had been relatively rare in England compared with Scotland and Continental Europe. But James’s book Daemonologie presented the idea of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation. Shakespeare wrote his play Macbeth, which presents the first depiction of a witches’ coven in English drama, in James I’s honour.

To curry favour with his monarch, Lancashire magistrate Roger Nowell of Read Hall arrested and prosecuted no fewer than twelve individuals from the Pendle region and even went to the far fetched extreme of accusing them of conspiring their very own Gunpowder Plot to blow up Lancaster Castle. Two decades before the more famous Matthew Hopkins began his witch-hunting career in East Anglia, Roger Nowell had set himself up as witchfinder general of Lancashire.

What do we actually know about Mother Demdike? At the time of her trial she appears as a widow and matriarch, living in a place called Malkin Tower with her widowed daughter Elizabeth Device, and her three grandchildren, James, Alizon, and Jennet. Her clan was very poor and supported themselves by a combination of begging and by the family business of cunning craft. The trial transcripts mention that local farmer John Nutter of Bull Hole Farm near Newchurch hired Demdike to bless his sick cattle. Interestingly John Nutter chose not to testify against her family in the trial.

Demdike’s family at Malkin Tower had a powerful rival in the form of Chattox, another widow and charmer, who lived a few miles away at West Close near Fence. Chattox allegedly bewitched to death her landlord’s son, Robert Nutter of Greenhead, for attempting to rape her daughter, Anne Redfearne. For social historians it’s interesting to see how having a fearsome reputation as a cunning woman could be the only true power a poor woman could hope to wield.

Unfortunately this could also backfire as it did with Demdike’s granddaughter, Alizon Device, who exchanged angry words with a pedlar outside Colne in March, 1612. Moments later the pedlar collapsed and suddenly went stiff and lame on one half of his body and lost the power of speech. Today we would clearly recognise this as a stroke. But the pedlar and several witnesses were convinced that Alizon had lamed her victim with witchcraft. Even she seemed to believe this herself, immediately falling to her knees and begging his forgiveness. This unfortunate event triggered the arrest of Alizon and her grandmother. Alizon wasted no time in implicating Chattox, her grandmother’s rival, and Chattox’s daughter, Anne Redfearne.

The four accused witches were interrogated by Roger Nowell, and then force-marched to Lancaster Castle, walking over fells and moorland. Both Demdike and Chattox, whose real name was Anne Whittle, were frail and elderly. It was amazing they survived the journey. In Lancaster they were handed over to the sadistic Thomas Covell, the gaoler who reputedly slashed the ears off Edward Kelly, friend of John Dee, when he was arrested on the charge of forgery. The women were chained to a ring in the floor in the bottom of the Well Tower. Although torture was officially forbidden in England, gaolers were allowed to starve and beat their prisoners at will. Being chained to a ring in the floor and kept in constant darkness would certainly feel like torture for those who had to endure it.

On Good Friday following the arrests, worried family and friends met at Malkin Tower to discuss what they would do in regard to this tragic situation. Constable John Hargreaves came to write down the names of everyone present and later Roger Nowell made further arrests, accusing these people of convening at Malkin Tower on Good Friday for a witches’ sabbat, something he would have read about in Daemonologie. The arrests didn’t stop until he had the mythical thirteen to make up the alleged coven. Twelve were kept at Lancaster and one, Jennet Preston who lived over the county line in Gisburn, Yorkshire, was sent to York. Apart from Chattox and Demdike and their immediate families, none of these newly arrested people had previous reputations as cunning folk. It seemed they were just concerned friends and neighbours who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Kept in such horrible conditions, Demdike died in prison before she came to trial, thus cheating the hangman. The others experienced a different fate.

The first to be arrested, Alizon was the last to be tried at Lancaster in August, 1612. Her final recorded words on the day before she was hanged for witchcraft are a moving tribute to her grandmother’s power as a healer. Roger Nowell, the prosecutor, brought John Law, the pedlar she had allegedly lamed, before her. Again Alizon begged the man’s forgiveness for her perceived crime against him. John Law, in return, said that if she had the power to lame him, she must also have the power to heal him. Alizon regrettably told him that she wasn’t able to, but if her grandmother, Old Demdike had lived, she could and would have healed him.

Mother Demdike is dead but not forgotten. By the mid-17th century, Demdike’s name became a local byword for witch, according to John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson’s Lancashire Folklore. In 1627, only fifteen years after the Pendle Witch Trial, a woman named Dorothy Shaw of Skippool, Lancashire, was accused by her neighbour of being a “witch and a Demdyke.”

History is a fluid thing that continually shapes the present. Long after her demise, Mother Demdike and her fellow Pendle Witches endure, their story and spirit woven into the living landscape, its weft and warp, like the stones and the streams that cut across the moors. Enthralled by their true history, I wrote my novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, dedicated to their memory. Other books have been written about the Pendle Witches, but mine turns the tables, telling the story from Demdike and Alizon Device’s point of view. I longed to give these women what their world denied them—their own voice. Their voices deserve to finally be heard.


Owen Davies, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History (Hambledon Continuum)
Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (Yale)
Malcolm Gaskill, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy (John Murray)
John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson, Lancashire Folklore (Kessinger Publishing)
King James I, Daemonologie, available online
Jonathan Lumby, The Lancashire Witch-Craze (Carnegie)
Margaret Murray, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, available online
Edgar Peel and Pat Southern, The Trials of the Lancashire Witches (Nelson)
Robert Poole, ed., The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (Manchester University Press)
Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, available online
Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin)
John Webster, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (Ams Pr Inc)
Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits (Sussex Academic Press)
Benjamin Woolley, The Queen’s Conjuror: The Life and Magic of Dr. Dee (Flamingo)

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Pendle Witches and Their Magic, Part 1

In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest in Lancashire, Northern England were executed. In court clerk Thomas Potts’s account of the proceedings, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, published in 1613, he pays particular attention to the one alleged witch who escaped justice by dying in prison before she could come to trial. She was Elizabeth Southerns, more commonly known by her nickname, Old Demdike. According to Potts, she was the ringleader, the one who initiated all the others into witchcraft. This is how Potts describes her:

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 knows. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies.

Quite impressive for an eighty-year-old lady! In England, unlike Scotland and Continental Europe, the law forbade the use of torture to extract witchcraft confessions. Thus the trial transcripts supposedly reveal Elizabeth Southerns’s voluntary confession, although her words might have been manipulated or altered by the magistrate and scribe. What’s interesting, if the trial transcripts can be believed, is that she freely confessed to being a healer and magical practitioner. Local farmers called on her to cure their children and their cattle. She described in rich detail how she first met her familiar spirit, Tibb, at the stone quarry near Newchurch in Pendle. He appeared to her at daylight gate—twilight in the local dialect—in the form of beautiful young man, his coat half black and half brown, and he promised to teach her all she needed to know about magic.

Tibb was not the “devil in disguise.” The devil, as such, appeared to be a minor figure in British witchcraft. It was the familiar spirit who took centre stage: this was the cunning person’s otherworldly spirit helper who could shapeshift between human and animal form, as Emma Wilby explains in her excellent scholarly study, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. Mother Demdike describes Tibb appearing to her at different times in human form or in animal form. He could take the shape of a hare, a black cat, or a brown dog. It appeared that in traditional English folk magic, no cunning man or cunning woman could work magic without the aid of their spirit familiar—they needed this otherworldly ally to make things happen.

Belief in magic and the spirit world was absolutely mainstream in the 16th and 17th centuries. Not only the poor and ignorant believed in spells and witchcraft—rich and educated people believed in magic just as strongly. Dr. John Dee, conjuror to Elizabeth I, was a brilliant mathematician and cartographer and also an alchemist and ceremonial magician. In Dee’s England, more people relied on cunning folk for healing than on physicians. As Owen Davies explains in his book, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History, cunning men and women used charms to heal, foretell the future, and find the location of stolen property. What they did was technically illegal—sorcery was a hanging offence—but few were arrested for it as the demand for their services was so 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 herbs and charms was far less likely to kill you.

In this period there were magical practitioners in every community. 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 can turn around and accuse her of sorcery and slander. This is what happened to 16th century Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop of Edinburgh, cited by Emma Wilby in Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. Dunlop was burned as a witch in 1576 after her “white magic” offended the wrong person. Ultimately 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.

Although King James I, author of the witch-hunting handbook Daemonologie, believed that witches had made a pact with the devil, there’s no actual evidence to suggest that witches or cunning folk took part in any diabolical cult. Anthropologist Margaret Murray, in her book, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, published in 1921, tried to prove that alleged witches were part of a Pagan religion that somehow survived for centuries after the Christian conversion. Most modern academics have rejected Murray’s hypothesis as unlikely. Indeed, lingering belief in an organised Pagan religion is very difficult to substantiate. So what did cunning folk like Old Demdike believe in?

Some of her family’s charms and spells were recorded in the trial transcripts and they reveal absolutely no evidence of devil worship, but instead use the ecclesiastical language of the Catholic Church, the old religion driven underground by the English Reformation. Her charm to cure a bewitched person, cited by the prosecution as evidence of diabolical sorcery, is, in fact, a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ, as witnessed by the Virgin Mary. The text, in places, is very similar to the White Pater Noster, an Elizabethan prayer charm which Eamon Duffy discusses in his landmark book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580.

It appears that Mother Demdike was a practitioner of the kind of quasi-Catholic folk magic that would have been commonplace before the Reformation. The pre-Reformation Church embraced many practises that seemed magical and mystical. People used holy water and communion bread for healing. They went on pilgrimages, left offerings at holy wells, and prayed to the saints for intercession. Some practises, such as the blessing of the wells and fields, may indeed have Pagan origins. Indeed, looking at pre-Reformation folk magic, it is very hard to untangle the strands of Catholicism from the remnants of Pagan belief, which had become so tightly interwoven.

Unfortunately Mother Demdike had the misfortune to live in a place and time when Catholicism was conflated with witchcraft. Even Reginald Scot, one of the most enlightened men of his age, believed 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. In a 1645 pamphlet by Edward Fleetwood entitled A Declaration of a Strange and Wonderfull Monster, describing how a royalist woman in Lancashire supposedly gave birth to a headless baby, Lancashire is described thusly: "No part of England hath so many witches, none fuller of Papists." 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.

However, it would be an oversimplification to state that Mother Demdike was merely a misunderstood practitioner of Catholic folk magic. Her description of her decades-long partnership with her spirit Tibb seems to draw on something outside the boundaries of Christianity.

Although it is difficult to prove that witches and cunning folk in early modern Britain worshipped Pagan deities, the so-called fairy faith, the enduring belief in fairies and elves, is well documented. In his 1677 book The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, Lancashire author John Webster mentions a local cunning man who claimed that his familiar spirit was none other than the Queen of Elfhame herself. The Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop mentioned earlier, while being tried for witchcraft and sorcery at the Edinburgh Assizes, stated that her familiar spirit was a fairy man sent to her by the Queen of Elfhame.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

All Hallows Eve in Old Lancashire

Come Halloween, the popular imagination turns to witches. Especially in Pendle Witch Country, the rugged Pennine landscape surrounding Pendle Hill, once home to twelve individuals arrested for witchcraft in 1612. The most notorious was Elizabeth Southerns, alias Old Demdike, cunning woman of long-standing repute and the heroine of my novel Daughters of the Witching Hill.

How did these historical cunning folk celebrate All Hallows Eve?

All Hallows has its roots in the ancient feast of Samhain, which marked the end of the pastoral year and was considered particularly numinous, a time when the faery folk and the spirits of the dead roved abroad. Many of these beliefs were preserved in the Christian feast of All Hallows, which had developed into a spectacular affair by the late Middle Ages, with church bells ringing all night to comfort the souls thought to be in purgatory. Did this custom have its origin in much older rites of ancestor veneration? This threshold feast opening the season of cold and darkness allowed people to confront their deepest fears—that of death and what lay beyond. And their deepest longings—reunion with their cherished departed.

After the Reformation, these old Catholic rites were outlawed, resulting in one of the longest struggles waged by Protestant reformers against any of the traditional ecclesiastical rituals. Lay people stubbornly continued to hold vigils for their dead—a rite that could be performed without a priest and in cover of darkness. Until the early 19th century in the Lancashire parish of Whalley, some families still gathered at midnight upon All Hallows Eve. One person held a large bunch of burning straw on a pitchfork while the others knelt in a circle and prayed for their beloved dead until the flames burned out.

Long after the Reformation, people persisted in giving round oatcakes, called Soul-Mass Cakes to soulers, the poor who went door to door singing Souling Songs as they begged for alms on the Feast of All Souls, November 2. Each cake eaten represented a soul released from purgatory, a mystical communion with the dead.

In Glossographia, published in 1674, Thomas Blount writes:

All Souls Day, November 2d: the custom of Soul Mass cakes, which are a kind of oat cakes, that some of the richer sorts in Lancashire and Herefordshire (among the Papists there) use still to give the poor upon this day; and they, in retribution of their charity, hold themselves obliged to say this old couplet:

God have your soul,
Bones and all.

Other All Hallows folk rituals invoked the power of fire to purify and ward. In the Fylde district of Lancashire, farmers circled their fields with burning straw on the point of a fork to protect the coming crop from noxious weeds.

Fire was used to protect people from perceived evil spirits active on this night. At Longridge Fell in Lancashire, very close to Pendle Hill, the custom of ‘lating’ or hindering witches endured until the early 19th century. On All Hallows Eve, people walked up hillsides between 11 pm and midnight. Each person carried a lighted candle and if the flame went out, it was taken as a sign that an attack by a witch was impending and that the appropriate charms must be employed to protect oneself.

What do these old traditions mean to us today?

All Hallows is not just a date on the calendar, but the entire tide, or season, in which we celebrate ancestral memory and commemorate our dead. This is also the season of storytelling, of re-membering the past. The veil between the seen and unseen grows thin and we may dream true.

Wishing a blessed All Hallows Tide to all!

Source: Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain


Soul Cake Recipes

Souling Songs

Excerpt from Daughters of the Witching Hill

At Hallowtide, Liza insisted on walking up Blacko Hill, as we’d always done, for our midnight vigil on the Eve of All Saints. Under cover of darkness we crept forth with me carrying the lantern to light our way and John following with a pitchfork crowned in a great bundle of straw.

Once we reached the hilltop, after a furtive look round to make sure no one else was about, John lit the straw with the lantern flame so that the straw atop the pitchfork blazed like a torch. With him to hold the fork upright and keep an eye out for intruders, Liza and I knelt to pray for our dead. In the old days, we’d held this vigil in the church, the whole parish praying together, the darkened chapel bright as day with the many candles glowing on the saints’ altars. Now we were left to do this in secret, stealing away like criminals in the night, as though it were something shameful to hail our deceased. I prayed for my mam and grand-dad, calling out to their souls till I felt them both step through the veil to bring me comfort.

In my heart of hearts, I did not believe my loved ones were in purgatory waiting, by and by, to be let into heaven. There was no air of suffering or torment about them, only the joy of reunion. My mam, young and pretty, worked in her herb garden. She hummed a lilting tune whilst her earth-stained fingers pointed out to me the plants I must use to ease Liza’s birth pangs. Grand-Dad whispered his old charms to bless me and Liza and John.

A long spell I knelt there, held in the embrace of my beloved dead, till the straw on the pitchfork burned itself out, falling in embers and ash to the ground. Our John helped my pregnant daughter to her feet, then we made our way home through the night that no longer seemed so dark.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Witch Persecutions, Women, and Social Change--Germany: 1560 - 1660

Burning witches, 1555.


(Read Part One and Part Two.)

Major witch hunting panics arose in the 1560s throughout Europe and were especially severe in the German Southwest. Who were the victims of this mass hysteria? Even though witches were believed to come from all social classes, the trials focused on poor, middle-aged or older women (Merchant 138). Throughout Europe, midwives and healers were particularly suspect. These "wise women" who healed with herbs were held especially suspect, as they were often older women who had astonishing empirical knowlege, which their accusers traced back to the devil (Rauer 121). Many other women were targeted, as well. Outsiders and women on the fringe of society were especially vulnerable. Fifty-five of the seventy-one accused witches executed in Rottenweil, Germany, after 1600 came from outside the community, and their execution reflected both xenophobia and "a hatred of the unusual and rootless" (Midelfort 95-96). The blatant persecution of the poor prompted one accused witch in Wiesenstieg to ask her inquisitor why rich women were never arrested (Ibid. 169). Thus, though the witch panics took different forms at different times and places, they never lost their essential character--that of a campaign of terror against lower class women in search of substinence.

The question we must ask when presented with this information is why poor women and why this period in history? To invoke such massive hunts, trials, and executions, these women must have been perceived as a major threat. Whose interests did their annihalation serve? Here, I must agree with Carolyn Merchant that the control and maintenance of the social order and women's place within it was one major underlying motivation for the witch trials (Merchant 138).

The women most likely to be accused and executed were those most visibly discontent with their socio-economic condition. They were the strident women who complained about their situations and would not conform to the increasingly restrictive sphere of femininity of 16th and 17th century Europe. Sharp-tongued mothers-in-law were accused of witchcraft by their own families. Feisty spinsters or widows who refused to remarry were frequent targets of witchcraft allegations. Midelfort cites an example of a widow accused of witchcraft being released on the condition that she live with her son-in-law and remain under his control (Midelfort 184). Another common trait found among accused witches in Southwest Germany was a melancholic dissatisfaction with marriage and conventional religion (Ibid. 92) Begging and complaining about poverty were behaviors that led very frequently to accusations (Rauer 121). In 1505, Heinrich Deichsler reports in his famous Nuernberger Chronik that Barbara, a woman from Schwabach near Nuremburg, was burned as a witch after she had borrowed money from several neighbors and failed to pay them back (Schneider 18-19). The primary personality traits of witches outlined by Kramer and Sprenger in their witch-hunting manual Malleus Maleficarum were infidelity, ambition, and lust--traits that may not have been so noteworthy a few centuries before (Malleus 47). All in all, witch persecutions appeared to focus specifically on headstrong and insubordinate women.

Once a woman was labeled a witch, almost anyone could do anything to her without fear or punishment. Legally she was damned and without rights. Even before she was arrested and taken to trial, her neighbors were allowed to take justice in their own hands. Indeed, neighbors took the lead in making witchcraft accusations--it was quite common to simply call someone one disliked a witch (Midelfort 115).

Once a witch was brought to trial, she was doomed. In Germany, torture was part of the established trial procedure and could legally last for days on end. German prison guards sometimes admitted to committing rape, extortion, and blackmail on prisoners, as well (Midelfort 107). Suspects were tortured until they confessed their participation in evil magic and sex with the devil, and named the other women they had seen at the supposed witches' sabbat. Many trial officials had lists of questions to elicit responses which would conform to established beliefs about witchcraft. Dr. Carl Ellwangen began his inquisitions by asking the accused to recite the Lord's Prayer. Then he immediately asked them who seduced them into witchcraft, how the seduction occured, why they gave in, what it was like to have sex with the devil, and so on (Ibid. 105). Torture could extract almost any confession from anyone. "When suspects proved stubborn, they were often tortured to death" (Ibid. 149). Another common trial procedure reveals the inquisitors' obsession with sexuality. Women were stripped, shaved, and pricked with bodkins all over their bodies in search of supposed witch marks, or searched for signs of intercourse with the devil. In Germany, it was not uncommon for an accused witch's property to be confiscated, with Church and secular authorities receiving their share (Ibid. 178). Because accused witches were tortured until they gave the names of others they had allegedly seen at the sabbat, the more intensely witchcraft was persecuted, and the more numerous the alleged witches became. Thus, the trials and accusations escalated (Trevor-Roper 97).

On a social level, witch persecutions could not only be used to weed out the most troublesome of the undeserving poor, but they also produced a general atmosphere of paranoia and disunity among the population. Even those who consulted accused witches for healing or other services risked becomong suspect (Larner 9). The accused witch served as an example to other women as to how they would be treated if they did as she did. This, of course, helped enforce new moral and religious codes (Ibid 102). For this reason, witch hunting can be viewed as one of the most public and effective forms of social control to evolve in Early Modern Europe (Ibid 64). Witches made convenient community scapegoats for communal misfortunes such as plagues and famines (Midelfort 121). The peasant population focused their anger and resentment at members of their own peer group rather than the ruling classes who exploited them. Thus, the witch persecutions undermined solidarity and cooperation among peasants and were instrumental in curbing rebellion. In Southwest Germany, the great witch trials began not long after the Peasant Wars.

Why were such extreme measures of social control necessary? What was taking place in society at large that caused poor and elderly women to be viewed as such an enormous threat?

The period of 1560 to 1660 was one of drastic economic, religious, and social change. This period witnessed the dissolution of the last remnants of a feudal agrarian and domestic economy in favor of a capitalist market economy (Hobsbawn 5). But for this new order to succeed, the old feudal tradition, in which peasants controlled production and were guaranteed subsistence, had to die. This transition was particularly hard on women. Formerly, in the domestic economy, the workplace was the home and women were active in cottage industries. However, the transition to working in outside the home made participation in this economy more and more difficult for women. Over this period, women were forced out of the guilds and the professions in which they could maintain economic independence. Increasingly they were forced into a narrowly domestic role. By the 16th century, the only opportunities for women to earn a living were in menial servant and labor occupations (Hoher 17). Often this sort of work was so low paid that women wandered penniless and homeless in search of better conditions (Ibid. 18).

Furthermore, by this time, even such traditionally feminine occupations such as healing and midwifery were being taken over by men. In the Renaissance, the trend among the wealthy was to have a university-educated physician at their disposal. After the advent of Paracelsus, the famous medical doctor, only men were officially allowed to practice medicine. Paracelsus himself explained that God granted the educated physician all the arts and faculties most beneficial to serve others and that the doctor must be a true man and not some ignorant old woman (Rauer 109, paraphrasing "So spricht Paracelsus"). Male medical practitioners went so far as to push women out of midwifery. Eucharius Rosslin, author of the foremost "midwife" book, Der Schwangererfrawen und Hebammen rossgarten complained that midwives' supposed incompetence, laziness, and lack of education resulted in high infant mortality. He even denounces them as murderers:

Ich meyn die Hebammen alle sampt
Die also gar kein Wissen handt.
Dazu durch yr Hynlessigkeit
Kind verderben weit und breit.
Und handt so schlechten Fleiss gethon
Dass sie mit Ampt eyn Mort begon. (Ibid 123)

Women in the Renaissance not only faced an economic crisis. Their sexual and social freedom was being severely restricted, as well. Unlike the Middle Ages, the Early Modern Period offered practically no alternative to the wife-mother role. By the 16th century, the beguinages were gone. Women hermits and vagabonds risked being accused of witchcraft. Due to the Reformation and Counter Reformation, even convents had grown smaller in number and the nuns who lived there experienced increasing restrictions on their mobility and contact to the outside world. At the same time, both Catholic and Protestant Churches were tightening moral strictures to produce a puritanism unheard of in the agrarian society of the medieval period. Church officials on both sides of the faultline of the Reformation wanted to have iron control over the moral behavior of the populace. Traditional seasonal festivals, hedonism, and sexual licentiousness all smacked of ungodliness and were no longer to be tolerated. Control over female sexuality was especially emphasized. Religious offences were now punished in secular courts and in public shaming rituals. For this was a period of great religious insecurity. The cut-throat competition between Catholics and Protestants resulted in sectarian and ideological warfare, with each side trying to terrorize the local population into submitting to their orthodoxies (Reuther 104). The witch trials' obsession with female sexuality reflects this puritanical attempt to control women's lives. Tightening religious strictures and the new economic system complemented each other--they both attempted to bring the rebellious, hedonistic peasant population under control of Church and secular authorities. The witch persecutions were symptomatic of a new totalitarianism (Rauer 123).

The ideal housewife, circa 1525, by Anton Woensam.


Hobsbawn, E.J., "The Crisis in the Seventeenth Century," Crisis in Europe 1560-1660, Trevor Aston, ed., Routledge, London, 1983.

Hoher, Frederike, "Hexe, Maria, und Hausmutter--zur Geschichte der Weiblichkeit im Spaetmittelalter," Frauen in der Geschichte, Vol. III, Kuhn/Rusen, eds, Paedagogischer Verlag Schwann-Bagel, Duesseldorf, 1983.

Institorus, Henricus, Malleus Maleficarum, Benjamin Blom, Inc., New York, 1970.

Larner, Christine, Enemies of God, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1981.

Merchant, Carolyn, The Death of Nature: Women Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, Haeprer & Row, San Francisco, 1979.

Midelfort, Erik, H.C., Witch Hunting in Southwest Germany 1562-1684: The Social Foundations, Stanford, 1972.

Rauer, Brigitte, "Hexenwahn--Frauenverfolgung zu Beginn der Neuzeit," Frauen in der Geschichte, Vol. II, Kuhn/Rusen, eds., Paedagogischer Verlag Schwann-Bagel, 1982.

Schneider, Joachim, Heinrich Deichsler und die Nuernberger Chronik des 15. Jahrhunderts, Wissenliteratur im Mittelalter, Vol. 5, Reichert Verlag, Wiesbaden, 1991.

Trevor-Roper, H.R., The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Harper & Row, New York, 1969.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Women & the Crusades: guest post by Nan Hawthorne

Today's guest post is by Nan Hawthorne, whose new novel Beloved Pilgrim explores the Crusade of 1101 from the perspective of a woman who went off to fight.

During my own research of Hildegard von Bingen, I uncovered this short description of female crusaders from the Disibodenberg Chronicles, written by the monks of the abbey of Disibodenberg where Hildegard lived from the age of eight as a child anchorite:

Not only men and boys, but many women also took part in this journey. Indeed females went forth on this venture dressed as men and marched in armour . . .

--From the Disibodenberg Chronicles, as cited by Fiona Maddocks in her book, Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age.

Although the fiction might be romantic and compelling, we can't neglect certain historical realities. Muslims and Jews regarded these "Holy Wars" as genocide. Indeed, in Rhineland German cities and towns such as Mainz and Bacharach, many Jewish people met their deaths in the tumult of the crusading fervour.

The Crusade of 1101 and Beloved Pilgrim by Nan Hawthorne

The initial research I did to write, Beloved Pilgrim, had everything to do with my choice of the dates and events portrayed. Though many of us are familiar with battles and figures from the Crusades, the Crusade of 1101, though obscure by comparison, proved to be tailor-made for a novel. The actual event took place over only a few months and in itself was classic plotting, with a dramatic beginning, several setbacks, conflict not only between the crusaders and Turks but also between the Christian leaders who made such a mess of things, and the devastating conclusion. Reading more about the crusade, usually considered an extension of the First Crusade, I found that the context was ideal for character development and thematic requirements I already had in mind.

The chroniclers of this crusade did not experience it themselves, but scholar Steven Runciman was able to put together what is as close to a definitive history as possible. His work, A History of the Crusades: Volumes 1-3, was my and the rest of the world’s primary source, along with the able help of Jack Graham, a medieval warfare enthusiast who helped me choreograph battle scenes and fixed some apparent inconsistencies in Runciman’s account. That Graham had lived in Turkey was also very helpful.

Some may question whether a woman like Elisabeth could have fought as a knight. I was not able to find evidence of women who fought thus in the Crusades, but knowing about Joan of Arc, Boudica and Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, so I feel justified in portraying her as such. Her lesbianism is pure speculation.

One of the mysteries that came out of the Crusade of 1101 was what happened to Ida, Margravine of Austria, who disappeared and was never found again. The only theory extant, that she was captured and became the mother of a great Saracen leader, is easily dismissed as the man was already born when she arrived in Byzantium. This mystery provided me the opportunity as an author to suggest what may have happened to her and make it part of the story and my protagonist’s journey.

I firmly believe that as an author of historical fiction I have a responsibility to make the setting, characters and events as authentic as possible, but I also believe that nothing can substitute for good storytelling. Fiction and history texts are not the same. It is the function and beauty of historical fiction to bring the reader into a historical context in such a way that he or she can experience it as close to first hand as possible. I therefore feel free to insert myself, my ability to speculate and extrapolate, making, as far as I see it something even more authentic than a straight retelling of historical record. The latter cannot even come close to telling the true story, if only because the historian focuses on primarily the people and places at the core of the events. A historical novelist can move the focus off these and onto the rest of the world and suggest how people at the time may have seen, reacted to and drawn their own conclusions.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Beyond the Marquee: Toward a Common History

This article of mine was originally published in the February 2011 issue of Historical Novels Review.

Come and visit our panel "Are Marquee Names Really Necessary" with star authors Margaret George, C.W. Gortner, Susanne Dunlap, and Vanitha Sankaran at the 2011 Historical Novel Society North American Conference in San Diego, on Saturday, June 18.

Recorded history is wrong. It’s wrong because the voiceless have no voice in it.
These are the words of the late, great Mary Lee Settle, author of the classic Beulah Land Quintet, published in the 1950’s when both academic history and most historical fiction were narrowly focused on the elite. So many people have been written out of history: not only the vast majority of women, but also people of the peasant and labouring classes, and most people of non-European ancestry. In Settle’s day, a more inclusive history seemed a far off dream.

“There’s a revolution going on out there!”

Sarah Dunant, acclaimed author of The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, remembers this time. Speaking at the Bluecoat School in Liverpool in May 2010, Dunant described how she first fell in love with historical fiction when she was a twelve-year-old in postwar Britain, which she remembers as “a grey, colourless, bleak place” where nobody wanted to talk about the war. On the brink of adolescence, she found a wonderful escape in Jean Plaidy’s novels of the crowned heads of Europe. These books not only opened up another world that was colourful and glamorous but they inspired Dunant’s lifelong love affair with history. She went on to study history at Cambridge. “The history I learned,” she recalls, “was the history of great battles, great empires, great men.”

But what inspired Dunant to become a historical novelist were the sweeping developments in academic history that occurred after she left Cambridge in 1972. This new history embraced people who did not belong to the elite. She cites Joan Kelly-Gadol’s 1977 essay, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” as one of the turning points in the development of how we look at history.

Sarah Dunant is not only a champion of a more inclusive, non-elitist historical fiction—she also became an international bestseller by writing about people on the margins of history. Her most recent novel, Sacred Hearts, explores the secret world of Benedictine nuns in 1570 Ferrara, Italy—a cloistered “republic of women” where each choir sister had a voice and a vote in the daily chapter house meeting.

“Modern historians,” Dunant explains, “know that there is a multiplicity of history—there is more than one history, one fact. The history I’m using has been hard won over the past twenty to thirty years.” And this history allowed her to write novels about a past that simply wasn’t regarded as history even thirty years ago. For Sacred Hearts, she has drawn on two generations of young historians who examined court records of nuns who got into trouble.

Similarly, I could not have written my most recent novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, which is based on the true story of the Pendle Witches of 1612, without the drawing on groundbreaking social histories, such as Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic; landmark works on Reformation Studies, like Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars and Ronald Hutton’s The Rise and Fall of Merry England; as well as recent studies on historical cunning folk.

Is the tide, then, changing? Will this new history open the door to a Renaissance in the historical novel? Will more and more authors draw on this wider window into ordinary people’s lives instead of rehashing the same old tired tales of Tudor royalty? Dunant believes that historical novelists possess every potential to be on the cutting edge of bringing this new history in an accessible form to a modern audience. “Wake up, there’s a revolution going on out there in historical fiction!” Dunant told Lucinda Byatt in their May 2010 Solander interview.

Marquee names only, please

Although the world of academic history has moved on light years since the 1950s, historical fiction often appears to be stuck in a rut. In these recessionary times, an increasingly conservative publishing market urges new and established authors alike to play it safe by writing about famous historical figures, such as Tudor royalty, instead of drawing on a social history of the less privileged.

Speaking at the 2007 Historical Novel Society Conference in Albany, New York, agent Irene Goodman stressed the importance of “marquee names” in finding an audience for one’s historical fiction. In the May 2010 issue of Solander, Goodman cited author Leslie Carroll’s leap from midlist obscurity to major success with the sale of her trilogy of novels about Marie Antoinette. Goodman is not alone in stressing the importance of marquee names.

“The trend simply cannot be denied,” Bethany Latham, Managing Editor of Historical Novels Review, observes. “For better or worse, publishers seem to prefer marquee names right now. They’re the path of least resistance—easier to market since, in the mind of many publishers, celebrity protagonist equals ready-made audience. There’s even a tendency for successful authors who began differently to evolve into something that better fits the prevailing mold—witness Philippa Gregory, who started out with the Wideacre Trilogy but has ended up with the familiar big-name Tudors and Plantagenets, and will be sticking with them for the foreseeable future.”

Popular fascination with historical It Girls like Anne Boleyn helped launch the incredible resurgence in historical fiction within the past decade, most notably through Gregory’s blockbuster, The Other Boleyn Girl. Literary agent Marcy Posner, speaking at the 2010 Historical Novel Society Conference in Manchester, UK, pointed out how Gregory’s glittering evocation of the Tudor Court inspired a large group of female readers to make the leap from historical romance to mainstream historicals. It seems only natural for agents and editors to look for work that contains the same kind of hook that proved so successful for Gregory.

“My experience was that when I sent some of my work to an agent,” says Elizabeth Ashworth, author of The de Lacy Inheritance, “she thought it was an engaging story and she liked my style of writing but she didn’t think she could sell my work to a publisher because it wasn’t about a well known king or queen. When I mentioned that I was working on another novel set in the reign of Edward III, she replied that if I wrote about Edward and Piers Gaveston, she might be interested. But that story has been written many times before and it was another story I wanted to tell – one about Lady Mabel Bradshaw who lived at that time but is relatively unknown.”

“The marquee name, especially female, has become almost a requirement in historical fiction,” says C.W. Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. “My novel, The Last Queen, languished unpublished for years, with several of my rejection letters pointing out that Juana [of Spain] was not a ‘known personage’. I persisted and eventually found success, but how many other writers give up?”

The insistence on marquee names was why author Jeri Westerson says she switched to writing historical mysteries. “I preferred to write about the everyman in an historical setting, but year after year, I was told by editors that my medieval stories needed to be about royalty or other noble personages. The kind of historical I wanted to write translated much better to the mystery genre. So now I write medieval mysteries (after some eleven years of peddling historical manuscripts and not selling them).” Her fourth Crispin Guest Medieval Noir, Troubled Bones, will be released in Fall 2011. However, other historical mystery writers embrace the marquee name trend by choosing a well known figure such as Elizabeth I or Oscar Wilde as their sleuth.

Susanne Dunlap, author of Liszt’s Kiss and The Musician’s Daughter, adds that in Young Adult Fiction, the pressure is to write “something that fits into the high school curriculum,” which may well involve including famous personalities.

The bias can sometimes be found among HNS members themselves. Historical Novels Review Book Review Editor Sarah Johnson has noticed that reviewers tend to clamour for books about big names while novels about less familiar characters and settings can be harder to place.

Not even the most elite literary circles are immune to this trend. Hilary Mantel’s Booker Award winning masterpiece Wolf Hall is set in Henry VIII’s court.

A lack of diversity in the genre?

So does this push to write about marquee names help or hinder historical fiction?

“This is the backwash of celebrity culture,” Dunant states, “and our greed for sensation and scandal. People read about Anne Boleyn when they tire of reading about Paris Hilton. We’ve gone back to kings and queens, a celebrity history, because we’ve squeezed Paris Hilton dry.”

Must we all write like latter day Jean Plaidys and Georgette Heyers in order to meet our publishers’ sales expectations? Bethany Latham laments to think that in today’s climate, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, the bestselling historical novel of all time, might not be published because Scarlet O’Hara is a nobody.

Alison Weir, speaking at the 2010 HNS Conference in Manchester, presents a different viewpoint, arguing that her novels on figures such as Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Aquitaine are a legitimate way of reclaiming women’s history, even though they are focused on elite women. As Keynote Speaker at the conference, Weir explained how she pitched a nonfiction biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine some years ago only to be told that not enough material existed on her to make her a worthy subject.

“I think many readers gravitate toward the familiar,” Sarah Johnson observes, “and historical fiction readers in particular often choose novels that help them gain insight into a real-life character’s mindset or behavior. In that sense, I can see why marquee names are so popular, and why authors are being encouraged to choose them as subjects. It’s an automatic ‘hook.’”

Johnson added that the industry’s insistence on marquee names has the unfortunate drawback of creating a “lack of diversity of the genre.”

“The push for ‘big names’ is primarily about name recognition,” state N. Gemini Sasson, author of The Crown in the Heather. “The casual historical fiction reader scanning the shelves at the local Target store is more likely to linger over a name she recognizes, pick up the book and buy it, than an unknown. I do wonder though when a saturation point for some of these historical persons will be reached and the scales tip the other way.”

“If I see another book on the Tudors, I’ll scream!”

Which begs the question: are historical fiction readers beginning to reach their saturation point with historical celebrities? Eager to ape Philippa Gregory’s success, many authors have tried to follow her formula, with mixed results. How many more novels about Tudor royalty can the public bear?

“Frankly, if I see another book on the Tudors, I’ll scream,” HNS member Monica Spence admits.

“When I’m book-buying, the Not Anne Boleyn Again Syndrome periodically strikes,” Bethany Latham confesses.

Anne Gilbert says that she tends to shy away from fictional biographies. “No matter how well-written they may be,” says Gilbert, “they tend to concentrate on pretty much the same well-known historical people.”

“There are only so many ‘ultra famous’ women we can write about, whom publishers find commercial enough,” C.W. Gortner observes. “Take, for example, Eleanor of Aquitaine; as fascinating as she is, how much more can be said about her without it becoming repetitious or whimsical in novelized form?”

A 2009 market research poll conducted by blogger Julianne Douglas on Writing the Renaissance indicates that only 11% of the people she surveyed buy historical fiction based on the appeal of marquee names alone. Readers want so much more out of their fiction: fascinating characters and storylines, arresting and richly realised settings.

Finding an audience

Following the Publisher's Weekly listings of best-selling historical fiction on her blog, Reading the Past, Sarah Johnson mentions Edward Rutherfurd, Lisa See, and Sandra Dallas as just a few commercially successful authors who have bucked the big name trend. Their novels reached a wide audience because they have additional hooks that attract readers, Johnson points out, such as strong book club potential, and they also appeal to many readers outside the core historical fiction audience. Bethany Latham praises Maggie O’Farrell as a successful author with a fresh, original voice, who is utterly unaffected by the celebrity trend, not to mention Kenneth Follett, whose blockbuster Fall of Giants saga depicts ordinary people against extraordinary historical backdrops.

However, HNS member Matt Phillips, who is writing a novel based on his ancestors on the Pennsylvania frontier, still feels that not enough historical fiction based on the lives of “real people” is reaching the reading public. “There are so many stories that can shed light on how the ‘average person’ lived, or might have lived, while also entertaining the reader, engaging his or her imagination and emotions authentically with the thrills and fears and hopes and challenges of living in another time. Yet relatively few such stories find their way to the shelves of our bookstores because publishers continue to emphasize the marquee names.”

What happens when new or midlist authors embrace the lives of people on the margins of history? Gabriella West’s novel Time of Grace (Wolfhound Press, 2002) is a daring work—a woman-centered look at a very male period in history, Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising, and also a romance between two young women. “It was successfully published but I’m not sure it was published successfully,” West says. “It never really found its audience.”

Joyce Elson Moore’s has had a happier experience with her new novel, The Tapestry Shop, based on the life of Adam de la Halle, an obscure 13th-century musician. “His secular plays and music are still being performed,” Moore explains, “and he was one of the last and greatest of the trouveres (like troubadours in southern France). He penned the first version of the Robin Hood legend, and I felt like his story had to be told. The book is getting a lot of attention, and I think one reason is that it is different.”

Elizabeth Ashworth reports good sales on her own first novel, The de Lacy Inheritance. “I was lucky that my publisher Myrmidon Books was willing to take my novel, although the main character is a leper. It’s selling well and I think that proves the publishers wrong who maintain that readers only want to read about kings and queens.”

“Just give us variety.”

“To be honest, I’m not sure I’d be able to work with the constraints of a documented marquee name,” says Vanitha Sankaran, whose debut novel Watermark explores the life of a woman papermaker in late medieval France. “As a writer, I like the freedom of being able to create my own characters and stories while staying accurate to the era. As a reader, however, I’m interested in reading about all different t ypes of people, from the poor man trying to feed his pregnant wife to the merchant seeing his profits swallowed up by war. I wish publishers would take more risks across the whole genre and not focus on any time, place, or biographical person, but just give us variety.”

Sarah Johnson agrees that “those who stick narrowly to celebrity characters are missing out on some wonderful stories! In particular, the Editors’ Choice selections in Historical Novels Review demonstrate that historical fiction readers’ most highly recommended books don’t follow trends or fit into neat categories.”

N. Gemini Sasson sums it up beautifully: “There are less well known historical figures that have stories worth telling, every bit as compelling and dramatic as those whose stories have been told a hundred ways already. Sharing their lives would do nothing but enrich our view of the past.”

Perhaps we are indeed ready for a revolution in historical fiction.

“Time to Change the Marquee” by Julianne Douglas

“Bestselling Historical Novels of 2009” by Sarah Johnson

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Mary Frith: the Original Roaring Girl

Behind Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s sparkling stage comedy, The Roaring Girl, (ca 1607-1610), was a real woman, the notorious Mary Frith, aka Moll Cutpurse—a cross-dressing, hard-drinking pickpocket, fence, and Queen of Misrule.

The vintner bet Moll £20 that she would not ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch astraddle on horseback, in breeches and doublet, boots and spurs. The hoyden took him up in a moment, and added of her own devilry a trumpet and banner. She set out from Charing Cross bravely enough, and a trumpeter being an unwonted spectacle, the eyes of all the town were clapped upon her. Yet none knew her until she reached Bishopsgate, where an orange-wench set up the cry, `Moll Cutpurse on horseback!' Instantly the cavalier was surrounded by a noisy mob. Some would have torn her from the saddle for an imagined insult upon womanhood, others, more wisely minded, laughed at the prank with good-humoured merriment. Every minute the throng grew denser, and it had fared hardly with roystering Moll, had not a wedding and the arrest of a debtor presently distracted the gaping idlers. As the mob turned to gaze at the fresh wonder, she spurred her horse until she gained Newington by an unfrequented lane. There she waited until night should cover her progress to Shoreditch, and thus peacefully she returned home to lighten the vintner's pocket of twenty pounds.

-One of the many merry pranks attributed to Firth in Charles Whibley's A Book of Scoundrels.

Born in London in 1584 to a shoemaker and a housewife, Frith was an uncompromising tomboy who disdained feminine clothing. Instead she sported a doublet and men’s breeches. She smoked a pipe and swore like a sailor. The original Jacobean Roaring Girl, she ran with a rough crowd, aping the lifestyle of the traditional Roaring Boys, young men who caroused in taverns before going on the streets to brawl and engage in petty crime. In 1600, at the age of sixteen, she was first indicted for thievery, stealing 2s, 11d.

By 1610, her reputation had inspired not only Middleton and Dekker’s famous play but many other works, including John Day’s 1610 drama, The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside. These works sensationalised her scandalous behaviour. Men regarded women who habitually cross-dressed as sexually riotous and out of control. Yet Frith herself claimed to be uninterested in sex.

She did, however, revel in her notoriety. In 1611 she performed at the Fortune Theatre in an age where women on the stage were unheard of and female parts in plays were performed by boys in women’s clothing. Frith, as always, appeared in breeches and regaled her audience by singing bawdy songs while playing the lute. Later in that same year, she was arrested for indecent dress and accused of prostitution.

In February 1612, Frith was made to do penance for her evil living at Saint Paul’s Cross, an open air preaching cross on the grounds of the old Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. Before the crowd she wept copiously and appeared very penitent indeed, although John Chamberlain later observed in a letter that he thought she only wept on account of being “maudlin drunk, being discovered to have tippled three-quarters of sack.”

In 1614, Frith wed Lewknor Markham in what appeared to a marriage of convenience, but she gave no signs of settling down. By the 1620s, she was working as a fence and a pimp, procuring both young women for her male clients and strapping young men to service middle class wives.

In 1644, records show that she was released from Bethlem Hospital after being cured of insanity.

An apocryphal tale goes so far as to claim that during the English Civil War, she robbed and shot General Fairfax, then escaped the gallows by way of a 2000 pound bribe.

However, her actual recorded death seems the least exciting episode in her long and colourful life. In July 1659, she died of dropsy in Fleet Street, London.

Read her fabulously embroidered biography in Charles Whibley’s A Book of Scoundrels.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

A Short History of Saint Valentine's Day

The origins of Saint Valentine's Day lie shrouded in obscurity. Saint Valentine himself, a third century Roman martyr, seems to have nothing to do with the romantic traditions that became associated with his feast.

Dr. Douce, in his Illustrations of Shakespeare, cited in The Book of Days, writes:

It was the practice in ancient Rome, during a great part of the month of February, to celebrate the Lupercalia, which were feasts in honour of Pan and Juno. whence the latter deity was named Februata, Februalis, and Februlla. On this occasion, amidst a variety of ceremonies, the names of young women were put into a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed. The pastors of the early Christian church, who, by every possible means, endeavoured to eradicate the vestiges of pagan superstitions, and chiefly by some commutations of their forms, substituted, in the present instance, the names of particular saints instead of those of the women: and as the festival of the Lupercalia had commenced about the middle of February, they appear to have chosen St. Valentine's Day for celebrating the new feast, because it occurred nearly at the same time.

The first mention of Valentine's Day traditions in England originate from the 14th century writers Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower who both allude to the folk belief that birds choose their mates on the feast of Saint Valentine, their patron.

In Britain, the mating flights of crows, rooks, and ravens can generally be observed by February 14. Here in Lancashire, I notice more and more birdsong each day as February advances and the birds repair their nests, preparing for a new cycle of birth and life.

Around 1440, John Lydgate's poem in honour of Queen Katherine, widow of Henry V, is the first to mention romantic traditions among humans associated with this date:

To look and search Cupid's calendar,
And choose their choice, the great affection.

People of both sexes sent tokens of admiration. You could either send a token to the romantic interest of your choice, or draw lots as to who would receive your Valentine. In 1470s Norfolk, the Paston family seems to have perferred drawing lots rather than sending tokens to a chosen person.

Actual Valentines could be quite costly. In 1523, Sir Henry Willoughby, gentleman of Warwickshire, paid 2S, 3d for his. Unfortunately no description of this costly item remains for us today.

After the Reformation, the feast of Saint Valentine was abolished, and yet the amorous traditions flourished.

By 1641, the system of casting lots for Valentines was so well known in Edinburgh that a wag waggishly proposed their new Lord Chancellor be chosen by the same method.

A Dutch visitor to London in 1663 observed:

it is customary, alike for married and unmarried people, that the first person one meets in the morning, that is, if one if a man, the first woman or girl, becomes one's Valentine. He asks her name which he takes down and carries on a long strip of paper in his hat band, and in the same way the woman or girl wears his name on her bodice; but it is the practice that they meet on the evening before and choose each other for their Valentine, and, come Easter, they send each other gloves, silk stockings, or sometimes a miniature portrait, which the ladies wear to foster the friendship.

In his diaries of the same decade, Samuel Pepys reveals how he would call by a colleague's house early in the day in order to make the man's daughter his Valentine. Pepys would also arrange for a young man to call to pay the same homage to Mrs. Pepys and bring her presents, which Pepys then paid for. One year when Pepys was short of cash, alas, no young man with presents appeared and Mrs. Pepys was quite irate. Eventually they settled on a yearly ritual, whereby Pepys's cousin paid a visit to honour Mrs. Pepys and bring her presents which Pepys knew she desired.


The Book of Days

Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain

Short self-promotional addendum: DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL is now available in paperback and is a BookBrowse Recommended Book Club Read AND is the perfect Valentine's Day Gift for that special person who likes to read about real historical firebrands and 17th century enchantments.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Hard hitting fiction

Tired of chick lit and looking for contemporary fiction with a bit more bite to it?

Randy Susan Meyers's hard hitting novel, THE MURDERER'S DAUGHTERS, has just been released in paperback. This book has been getting so much acclaim, it would be a pity to miss.

Randy Susan Meyers lives in Boston with her husband. She teaches at the Grub Street Writers Center and is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. The Los Angeles Times called her debut novel, The Murderer’s Daughters “a knock-out debut . . .all too believable and heartbreaking.”

Be sure to check out her website.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

New Year, New Book

DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL, my novel exploring the true story of the Pendle Witches of 1612, is now out in paperback.

The wild, brooding landscape of Pendle Hill in Lancashire, Northern England, my home for the past nine years, gave birth to my novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL, which tells the true story of the Pendle Witches.

In 1612, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged for witchcraft, but the most notorious of the accused, Bess Southerns, aka Mother Demdike, cheated the hangman by dying in prison. This is how Thomas Potts, describes her 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. She dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man knowes. . . . No man escaped her or her Furies.

Other books have been written about the Pendle Witches--both nuanced and lurid. Mine is the first to tell the tale from Bess Southerns's point of view. I longed to give her what her world denied her--her own voice.

History is a fluid thing that continually shapes the present. Set in an era of religious intolerance, political strife, suspicion, and social inequality, Bess and her family's struggle feels more relevant than ever, especially as we approach the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch trials in 2012.

I hope you will be as moved by their story as I am.

Here is a short video docodrama I shot with Outsider TV about a year ago:

Read an excerpt.

Read what the critics are saying about the book.

Where to buy:

Barnes & Noble




The book is also available in e-book in both Kindle and Nook formats.