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)