Thursday, 16 December 2010

Bringing Light to Dark Places

Warmest Midwinter Blessings to all my readers

It's all too easy to feel frazzled and stressed during this time of year when the ancient sacred significance of the season has been overshadowed by the commercialism of "Giftmas."

Midwinter is the darkest time of year, the time of the Winter Solstice, when the sun appears to stand still in the sky. Here, in the North of England, the darkness feels overwhelming. The sun does not rise until after 8:00 and sets by 3:30. By 5:00, it's pitch dark. Now imagine experiencing this before the era of electric lights and central heating.

This silent tide of year has been marked by sacred ritual from time out of mind. Modern Christmas has roots that reach back before the dawn of Christianity.

The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, the Festival of Saturn, with much merry-making, gift-giving, and "misrule," as the masters waited upon their slaves. People decorated their homes with greenery. Rich and poor alike joined in the feasting. In Northern Europe, Yuletide festivities marked the Solstice and the return of the light. In De temporum ratione, the Venerable Bede (673-735) wrote that the Pagan Anglo-Saxons began their year on December 25, on a feast they called Modranecht, or Mother's Night, marked by ceremonies that lasted the entire night. Mostly likely this feast was connected with the cult of the Matronae, the female ancestors.

Although there is no scriptural evidence to suggest that Jesus was born on 25 December, the early Church embraced this Solstice tide as fitting for the celebration of the birth of the Son of Light. Traditionally Christmas lasted for Twelve Nights, from December 25 to January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, once the old date of Christmas. During the medieval period, no villeins worked their lord's land during this time. In fact, their lord was obliged to provide a feast for them. As in the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia, medieval Britons enjoyed a reversal of the social order by crowning a Lord of Misrule, a common born man who lorded it over the gentry to guarantee hilarity for all.

This was a time of carol singing, games, and "guizing" - wild processions in animal masks that draw on the lore of the Wild Hunt that swept down from the sky across Northern and Middle Europe during the Twelve Nights. This kind of guizing still takes place every Christmas in the town of Kirschseeon near Munich, Germany. Mummers wear elaborately carved wooden masks and run through the woods in the Perchtenlauf, in eldritch celebration of the Rauhnaechte, the twelve nights of Yule, a time of much superstition, when it was believed that old Gods roared through the sky and the dead spirits walked the earth. The Perchtenlauf takes its name from Frau Percht, a figure that is closely associated with Frau Holle, who may have her roots in an old Goddess.

Traditionally the time for telling ghost stories was not Halloween, but the Twelve Nights, time out of time when all kinds of uncanny things could come to pass. Animals spoke in human speech. Water turned to wine. The future could be foretold. All spinning stopped and no wheel could turn. Time stood still. The world held its breath, awaiting the return of the light. In Glastonbury, the Holy Thorn Tree on Wearyall Hill bloomed on Christmas day.

This beautiful short film invites viewers to devote 12 minutes on each of the Twelve Nights to silent contemplation of the mysteries of this season. Anyone, of any spiritual tradition, can reclaim the numinous grace of this time out of time.

A dear friend of mine has reclaimed the beauty and power of Hanukkah. She read about how Hanukkah didn't really start with the Maccabees, how it was a much older holiday than that - and originally about bringing light to dark places. "So in every way I can," she says, "I use this season to bring light to dark places. Literally, figuratively, whatever. Sometimes it's just about watching the sun go down, turning on the light in the dining room, and saying out loud, 'Thank you for this miracle of light in my home after the sun has gone.'"

May all of us bring light into dark places.

Wishing you all a joyous Midwinter and a New Year filled with happiness and peace,


The newly released paperback edition of Daughters of the Witching Hill is now shipping! You can order it here.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

All Hallows Tide in Pendle

When Halloween comes around, the popular imagination turns to ghosts and hauntings. And to witches.

Especially in my neck of the woods. I live in Pendle Witch Country, the rugged Pennine landscape surrounding Pendle Hill, once home to twelve individuals arrested for witchcraft in 1612.

Unfortunately 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 to the dead. The Pendle Witches were not ghouls, but real 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 a barrister, condemned on the testimony of a nine-year-old girl, and then hanged. The historical truth is far more chilling than any fabricated horror story.

So let this All Hallows Tide be not an excuse for macabre speculation but let us light a candle in the memory of those men and women from Pendle Forest who died unjustly:

Elizabeth Southerns, Alizon Device, Elizabeth Device, James Device, Anne Whittle, Anne Redfearn, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, Jane Bulcock, John Bulcock, and Jennet Preston.

The artist Alanna Marohnic created this illustration for my article "Mother Demdike: Ancestor of My Heart" in the new "Grandmother Gaia" issue of SageWoman Magazine. However, the magazine felt the image was perhaps too disturbing. Alanna nonetheless wanted to share her artwork with me because she felt so moved by the Pendle Witches' story, she felt it in order for someone to witness what happened to them at the gallows. It is with her kind permission that I reprint the image here.

From my novel Daughters of the Witching Hill:

You’ll not find our graves anywhere. God-fearing folk do not bury witches on consecrated ground, or even in the unhallowed plot beyond the churchyard walls where the suicides and unchristened go. After I died in gaol, they burned my corpse, then buried my charred bones on the wild heath overlooking Lancaster Castle. Three months on, they did the same to Alizon, Liza, Jamie, and the rest of them hanged upon that dazzling August day. No crosses mark our resting place, just heather and nesting lapwing. Only our names lingered on and the lies they told about us.

Away in Pendle Forest, Nowell ordered his men to bring down Malkin Tower stone by stone till only the foundation remained. Yet he could never banish me and mine from these parts. This is our home. Ours. We will endure, woven into the land itself, its weft and warp, like the very stones and the streams that cut across the moors.

What is yonder that casts a light so far-shining?
My own dear children hanging from the gallows tree.
Hanging sore by twisted neck,
How they gasp and how they thrash.

Stay shut, hell door.
Let my children arise and come home to me.
Neither stick nor stake has the power to keep thee.

Open the gate wide. Step through the gate. Come, my children. Come home.

May justice be served. May ancestral memory be served. May we dream true and have a blessed All Hallows.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

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

"The Evil Wife" by Israhel van Meckenem, 1440/1445-1503
A woman, encouraged by a demon, beats her husband with her distaff.


By the latter half of the 15th century, the feudal agrarian economy was beginning to crumble, while the capitalist market economy was growing more and more powerful, as did economic competition between men and women. Men active in the market economy tried to further their interests by simultaneously excluding women from many professions and trying to marginalize the domestic economy by claiming that home-produced goods were inferior to shop-produced goods. The guilds also began excluding women. Feeling their livelihood threatened by the competition with wealthy burghers, who set up their own industries and arranged for peasants to manufacture goods for them, male guild members struggled to initiate restrictions for women in the guilds. In 1494 in Cologne, for example, women were driven out of the harness-making guild for the first time. (Rauer 108).

In addition, traditionally "female" professions such as medicine were being taken over by men; male doctors had grown popular among the wealthy classes and were now also making inroads on medical care for the lower classes, and even encroaching on the very traditionally feminine occupation of midwifery (Ehrenreich and English 15-16--please note that the scholarship of this particular text has been called into question). Now we see the beginning of the sexual division of labor: women were beginning to be pushed into the ever-shrinking domestic economy, while men attempted to make the market economy their exclusive domain. This trend not only effected women on a purely economic level, but it also had a profound effect on women's social and sexual status. "The contraction and redefinition of women's productive and domestic roles was consistent with changes in the ideology of sexuality" (Merchant 150).

The Renaissance also ushered in a new ideal of bourgeois womanhood. The domestic sphere of the housewife and mother was idealized by Protestant intellectuals such as Martin Luther. "Gott hat Mann und Frau geschaffen, das Weib zum Mehren mit Kinder tragen; den Mann zum Naehren und Wehren," the Father of the Reformation wrote, advocating strict gender roles. "Im weltlichen politischen Regiment und Handeln antugen sie [Frauen] nichts, dazu sind Maenner geschaffen und geordnet von Gott, nicht die Weiber" (Rauer 112-113). (God created man and woman so that the woman would bear children and that the man would provide and defend. In worldly politics and trade, women should have no part--God created and ordained men for this, not women.) It must, however, be pointed out that Luther's own wife, the ex-nun Katharina von Bora was a very strong woman, beloved by her husband, who addressed her as "Herrin," or "my boss." She took charge of their household finances, farmed, raised and slaughtered livestock, and brewed vast quantities of beer to support Luther and his theology students and keep their household fed. She was the sole woman to take part in Luther's otherwise exclusively male "table talk" discussions.

Despite the positive recognition of woman as wife and mother that took place in the early Reformation, the misogynist ideology of the Catholic Church, such as Thomas Aquinas's contention that women are by nature morally weaker than men, remained in both Catholic and Protestant Churches. Also, Renaissance humanism pushed upper class women into the narrow role of being well-educated but submissive helpmates to their scholarly husbands. In 1499, Konrad Reutinger extolled his wife as the perfect Renaissance woman:

habe ich als Gattin ein Maedchen heimgefuehrt . . . schamhaft, bescheiden, schoen, etwas erfahren in den lateinischen Wissenschaften, die nie von ihren Hausgenossen streit- order schmaehsuechtig gesehen worden ist . . . . Daher weiss ich dem besten und groessten Gott jetzt und in Zukunft Dank, der meinem Studium eine Gefaehrtin und Anhaengerin gegeben hat, die mir aufs innigste vertraut ist. (Ibid 133)

(I've taken a girl home to be my wife [who is] modest, docile, beautiful, with some knowledge of Latin that those in her household have never come to view as overly ambitious or aggressive . . . . For this I thank the best and greatest God now and always, that he has given me for my studies a companion and follower in whom I trust absolutely.)

The Renaissance also saw the birth of a brand new bourgeois motherhood ideal. In the Middle Ages, mothers were expected to take care of their young children, but the mother-child bond was not as glorified to an almost sacred institution and be-all and end-all of a woman's existence as it would become in later centuries. Also, childhood, as we now view it, did not exist then; children were treated as small adults. Children of the lower classes who survived infant hunger and childhood diseases were sent away from their parents as soon as they were old enough to find work as servants in the wealthier estates (Hoher 20).

In the second half of the 15th century, the Catholic Church was losing its authority, under threat by serious challenges and dissent that would soon take the shape of the Reformation. During this divisive time, the Catholic Church expressed a new kind of religious aggression in enforcing morality and a new fascination with the devil. The hedonism that had reigned in medieval plebeian culture was no longer to be benignly overlooked. Wifely obedience in marriage began to be emphasized more and more. During this period, a new genre of literature originated: the Devil Book, which concentrated on explaining how certain activities, such as dancing and drinking, were sinful. The general effect of these publications was to imply that the devil was everywhere (Midelfort 69). The Catholic Church's attitude towards witchcraft also changed quite significantly--the ancient code saying it was sinful to believe in witches was reversed; now Church officials declared it sinful not to believe in them. They argued that a new sect had developed, which even the Fathers of the Church had been unable to foresee (Chamberlin 137). In 1484, Pope Innocent and two German Dominican friars, Kramer and Sprenger, issued a bull against witchcraft in response to rumors of widespread witch activity in Germany. This bull granted the use of inquisitorial techniques in witch hunting. Although the late 15th century was noted for religious intolerance, it was also characterized by a "new carelessness in law" (Ibid 69). The use of torture was revived with the re-establishment of Roman Law. This resulted in a considerable escalation in witch persecutions: "Torture allowed accusations to proliferate to epidemic proportions, because once a witch confessed under torture, she would be tortured again to divulge the names of her neighbors seen at the Sabbat" (Ruether 102). In 1486, Kramer and Sprenger's Malleus Maleficarum was published. This highly misogynistic witch-hunting manual established the belief that women are by nature more prone to witchcraft than men: "Femina comes from Fe [faith] and Minus, since she is ever weaker to hold the faith . . . . Therefore, a wicked woman is by her nature quicker to waver in her faith, and consequently quicker to abjure the faith, which is the root of witchcraft" (Malleus 44). The authors of the book were also obsessed with the idea that the unquenchable carnal lust of women drove them to the devil: "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which in women is insatiable . . . . Wherefore for the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort with devils . . . it is sufficiently clear that it is no matter for wonder that there are more women than men infected with the heresy of witchcraft (Ibid 43).

As we have seen, women were beginning to be perceived as a threat to the new economic and religious developments. One cannot imagine that they were at all cooperative with the new infringements on the relative economic and sexual freedom they had enjoyed in the past. They would not submit easily to these changes--they would resist--and their resistance would make them a threat to the interests of the new order. In the arts and media of this period, women were constantly portrayed as domineering, threatening, lustful, violent, and powerful: a force that must be quelled. Village festivals of this period often had floats featuring wives beating their husbands, hurling refuse and rocks at them, and verbally abusing them. Numerous art works of this era, especially the works of Hans Baldung Grien and Albrecht Duerer, depicted the supposed disorder wrought by lusty women. Popular illustrations portrayed women beating their husbands with distaffs. Spinning was one of the occupations with which a woman could still make a decent living. The distaff symbolized her earning power and economic independence from her husband. These male artists interpreted woman's breadwinning power as something threatening, something she abused: her pride of being able to earn undermined her husband's authority. These women were not conforming to the new mold of wifely obedience that Church officials were stressing more and more. Thus, not only were women a threat to their husband's authority, they were also a threat to society in general.

One 1521 engraving by Urs Graf (unfortunately I could not find a jpeg of it to post here) depicts two young women savagely beating a monk who has probably molested them. In the Renaissance, women were portrayed as capable of violence, revenge, and self-defense. Urs Graf's women respect neither male nor religious authority; they assume the right to punish any man who tries to molest them. Hans Baldung Grien's engraving, "Aristotle and Phyllis," below, shows the legendary Phyllis literally making an ass of Aristotle. In all these pictures, women are portrayed as violent, crafty, and insubordinate. Their male victims are portrayed as pathetic, weak-willed fools for allowing themselves to be dominated by women. The message that I read into these art works is that women are trying to hold the upper hand. They will not allow themselves to be forced into the new "proper" feminine sphere. In order for women to be put in their place, men must assert their dominance. Thus, these male artists perceive women as a powerful, chaotic force that needed to be violently subdued. This violence against women would not be long in coming.

"Hercules among the maids of Queen Omphale" by Lucus Cranach the Elder: these women are emasculating the mighty Hercules by dressing him in a women's coif and pressing a distaff into his hand.

"Aristotle and Phyllis" by Hans Baldung Grien, 1513.
Aristotle who proclaimed that the male is superior to the female is shown subjected to Phyllis who literally makes an ass of him.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Witch Persecutions, Women, and Social Change

I recently revisited my Senior Paper, written in 1988 at the University of Minnesota. Although some of my sources are *very* dated, most of the actual historical information seems to have stood up to the test of time and, though my focus in this paper was Germany, much of this material seems prescient for what I would later write in DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL.

Especially important in my research was the realization that women in the Middle Ages actually had more economic power and independence than they did in the Renaissance and Early Modern Period. I highly recommend Joan Kelly's iconic essay, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?", reprinted in Women, History & Theory: the Essays of Joan Kelly, University of Chicago Press, 1984.

So as an All Hallows offering, I thought I would repost my paper here, in digestible chapters. Keep in mind that I was a college senior when I wrote it, not a PhD candidate, and that I majored in German, so some of my sources are German language. Please note that in the twenty years after I wrote this papar, a lot more scholarship has been done on historical witchcraft studies, and if you are interested in reading more, please refer to the more recent books. I'll try to post a more updated reading list later.

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

Part One

The 16th and 17th centuries were one of the bleakest periods for European women. From roughly 1560 to 1660, the witch hysteria claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, around 75% of whom were women, many of them older women of the lower classes (Ruether 111). One of the worst areas of persecution at this time was Southwest Germany. The question I shall try to answer in this essay is why the witch persecutions often seemed to focus on poor, elderly women. Were these women viewed as a threat to the social order to be violently subdued? What is the historical context for this? How do the persecutions relate to the rise of capitalism, the decline of the domestic economy, the male takeover of tradtionally female professions, the tightening moral and religious strictures, and the peasant rebellions? I will begin to try to answer these questions by tracing the development of the witch burnings over history and the status of women in these different historical periods: from the Middle Ages, when there were very few witch persecutions and women enjoyed relative economic and sexual freedom; to the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, when men and women began to compete in the market economy and women were beginning to be perceived as a threat, and the number of witch persecutions significantly increased; to the last half of the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century, when the mass persecutions took place and women were forced into a far more restricted sphere, ecnomonically and morally, than they had experienced during the medieval period.

Very little witch persecution took place in the medieval period. Although, by the early Middle Ages, most of Europe had been at least nominally Christianized, many old pagan folk ways survived. Such tradtional seasonal festivities such as Walpurgis (May Eve), Fastnacht (the wild festivities that preceded the solemn fast of Lent), harvest homes, and the like often featured much feasting, drinking, and sexual licentiousness. Church officials did not necessarily condone these activities, but the Church, at this point in history, was content to erect a superstructure of Christianity over this rural plebian culture (Ibid 93). To a great extent, the Church looked the other way in cases of lapses in sexual morality, and men and women often did as they pleased. Thus, the customs and behaviors which would later be connected with witchcraft were tolerated and often ignored by the early medieval Church (Ibid 99).

During the Middle Ages, beliefs about what constituted magic and witchcraft slowly evolved. During the early medieval period, the Church viewed witchcraft and magic merely as pagan superstition. In the 8th century, for example, Boniface, the English apostle of Germany, declared that believing in witches was unchristian. In the same century, Emperor Charlesmagne denounced witch burnings as foul remnants of paganism and initiated the death penalty in newly converted Saxony for anyone who committed this sinful act (Trevor-Roper 92). Having firmly established witch persecutions as pagan superstition, the Church maintained a healthy skepticism in regard to the idea of witchcraft (Midelfort 14). In fact, up until the late 15th century, the Church declared it a sin to even believe in witches (Chamberlin 137). Thus, the medieval period until this point was far more "enlightened" in regard to the subject of witchcraft than the next few generations would be. As we shall see, the witch craze was a phenomenon of the Renaissance, Reformation, and early modern period.

The econominc structure of the medieval period until about 1450 was based on the feudal agrarian system, peasant control of production, and a dominant domestic economy. The peasants worked the lord's land and this guaranteed them their livelihood: from the harvest, they took what they needed for survival, while the lord took the surplus. Feudalism necessitated cooperation and interdependence on the part of peasants. For example, the introduction of the heavy plow during Carolingian times made it necessary for the serfs to work together to get a plow and a team of horses or oxen for it. They also decided communally what to plant, where they would plant, which fields to leave fallow, how crops should be rotated, and how the harvest should be divided. Although the landlord benefitted the most from this system, the peasants made the major decisions and controlled production. This subsistence ecnonomy was a domestic economy: almost all the goods necessary for survival were produced by peasant family units in the household (Ketsch 83).

The domestic agrarian economy and culture allowed women relative economic freedom. Work among the lower classes did not have any rigid gender division at the time. Male and female peasants worked alongside each other in the fields. Male and female servants of the same class often did identical work. The only female-specific work was housework, child-rearing, midwifery, and prostitution. In addition, herbal medicine and the crafts of brewing, spinning, and weaving were thought to be more "female" than "male" professions. Among the lower classes, however there was no specifically "male" work. Rigidly defined gender spheres existed only among the feudal nobility: women were responsible for reproduction and household management, while men took over martial responsibilities (Hoher 14).

No rigid gender division was evident in the market economy at this time, however. Men and women participated on a relatively equal basis in the flourishing craft guilds in the imperial cities. In the 13th through 15th centuries, women were admitted to all guilds. Although, in the early Middle Ages, there had been restrictions regarding independent female masters--that is women masters not married or related to male masters--this situation improved in the 13th century. Women began founding their own guilds and taking part on a more equal basis in the mixed guilds (Hoher 15). A document from a yarn making guild in Cologne in the last 14th century, for example, gives detailed regulations specifically regarding female apprentices and female masters: "Welches Maedchen das Garnhandwerk in Koeln lernen will, das soll vier Jahre dienen and nicht weniger . . . . Und sie soll in den vier Jahren nicht mehr als zwei Frauen dienen." (If a girl wants to learn the yarn making craft in Cologne, she must apprentice at least four years . . . . and in these four years, she should serve no more than two women.) This document also outlines the special provisions made for husbands of deceased female masters. Another guild document gives evidence for both male and female masters working in a bath house: "Kein Meister and keine Meisterin soll eines anderen Badegaeste zu sich bitten, bei einer Strafe von halben Pfund." (Rauer 104). (No male master or female master should solicit someone else's bath guest client, on pain of a fine of half a pound.) Women were also quite acrive in selling and trading, especially in materials commonly used in both medicine and folk magic. (Hoher 16).

From the 12th to the mid 15th century, Europe was underpopulated and the workforce needed women. At this time, there was little economic competition between the sexes and the split between the domestic and the market economy had not yet been fully established (Ketsch 117). So, as we have seen, women were relatively economically independent during this period.

There were also viable alternatives to the domestic sphere of marriage and motherhood during the Middle Ages. Convents attracted noblewomen who wished to free themselves from a life of child-rearing and to devote themselves to religion and learning. Beguinages--urban and secular all female communes--motivated women of the lower classes to leave the country for the city. Some women even became vagabond musicians and mercenary soldiers. There were also a few female hermits: single women who lived on the outskirts of towns and forests, and often practiced herbal medicine. These solitary women would later become victims of the witch hysteria in the Renaissance (Boulding 210-211).

The feudal agrarian system was not to last forever. The landlords' tendency to extract from unfree peasants any handy income above subsistence meant that these peansant were unable to give back what they took from the land. Thus, a combination of bad farming techniques leading to soil depletion, steady population growth, and the overtaxation of peasants by land owners all contributed to the gradual breakdown of the feudal agrarian economy and ecosystem (Marchant 47). As the feudal agrarian and domestic economy wanted, the capitalist market economy grew stronger. This had a profound effect on the socio-economic status of women.

During the years 1450 to 1550, very dramatic economic, social, and religious changes took place that would threaten the status and freedom that medieval women had enjoyed. Up until 1450, both sexes were needed in the economy, but afterwards, competition began to take place between the sexes in the market economy. It is during this period that the sexual division of labor, and the separation between the market and the domestic economy began to develop. As men struggled to gain supremacy in the market economy and to push women, their competitors, out of the guilds and into the domestic economy, which was becoming more and more marginalized, women resisted. Women were beginning to be viewed by men as a threat to the order of society. At the same time, a tightening in the moral and religious strictures in both the Catholic and the newly developing Protestant Churches began. The sexual licentiousness, dancing, and drinking that had been commonplace in the medieval period was increasingly frowned upon. Religious authorities grew more obsessed with morality, and the concepts of the devil and witchcraft than they had been before. During this period, the number of witch persecutions rose significantly. The events that took place between 1450 and 1550, thus, were decisive in laying down the foundation for the later witch crazes of 1560 to 1660.

Boulding, Elise. "Familial Constraints on Women's Working Roles," Women and the Politics of Culture, Zak & Moots, eds., Longman Inc., New York, 1983.

Chamberlin, E.R., Everyday Life in Renaissance Times, Pedigree, London, 1965.

Hoher, Friederike. "Hexe, Maria und Hausmutter--zur Geschichte der Weiblichkeit im Spaetmittelalter," Frauen in der Geschichte (Vol. III), Kuhn & Rusen, eds., Paedagogischer Verlag Schwann-Bagel, Dusseldorf, 1983.

Ketsch, Peter. Frauen im Mittelalter (Vol. I) Kuhn (ed.), Paedagogischer Verlag Schwann-Bagel, Dusseldorf, 1983.

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

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

Rauer, Brigitte. "Hexenwahn--Frauenverfolgung zur Beginn der Neuzeit," Frauen in der Geschichte (Vol. II), Kuhn & Rusen, (eds.), Paedagogischer Verlag Schwann-Bagel, Dusseldorf, 1982.

Reuther, Rosemary. New Woman/New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation, Seabury Press, New York, 1975.

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

Friday, 22 October 2010

Writing Women Back into History

This illustration, from Wikipedia Media Commons, depicts medieval women hunting.

This article of mine was originally published in the May 2008 issue of Solander Magazine, published by the Historical Novel Society.

We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust.

This is not your fault or mine. The chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed into the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing. That is why I became a footnote, my story a brief detour between the well-known history of my father and the celebrated chronicle of my brother.

Anita Diamant, The Red Tent

To a large extent, women have been written out of history. Their lives and deeds have become lost to us. To uncover the buried histories of women, we historical novelists must act as detectives, studying the sparse clues that have been handed down to us. To create engaging and nuanced portraits of women in history, we must learn to read between the lines and fill in the blanks.

At its best, historical fiction can indeed play a crucial role in writing women back into history and challenging our misperceptions about women in the past. In her stunning novel The Red Tent, Anita Diamant turns our image of women in the Old Testament on its head by allowing the Biblical Dinah to tell her own story in her own voice. Donna Cross’s novel Pope Joan explores the tantalizing possibility that a 9th century woman might have once sat on the papal throne. In The Thrall’s Tale, Judith Lindbergh paints an unforgettable portrait of Thorbjorg, the 10th century Norse seidkona, or seeress, straight off the pages of the Saga of Erik the Red. Paul Anderson’s 1376 page epic Hunger’s Brides illuminates the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a 17th century Mexican nun who became the greatest New World poet of her age. Sor Juana fans will also want to read Alicia Gaspar de Alba’s novel Sor Juana’s Second Dream.

While many authors have focused on documented historical figures, others have embraced the ellipses in history as an invitation to speculate on women’s secret lives and untold stories. “Where history and biography are about the public world, fiction is about the private world,” says Jude Morgan, author of Passion and Indiscretion. “And that [private world] was perforce the women’s world, too: the private, often including the hidden and the unspoken. That’s where historical fiction can be revealing.” In her novels Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith, Sarah Waters imagines the smoldering passions that might have passed between women behind the façade of prim Victorian decorum. Jean Rhys, in her masterpiece Wide Sargasso Sea, resurrects the silenced Mrs. Rochester, the madwoman in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and brings her to life as a tragically misunderstood Creole heiress. Louise Erdrich has written an entire body of work portraying the women (and men) of her mother’s line, the Anishinaabe Nation.

Not surprisingly, many of these novels that capture the hidden truths of women’s histories have been runaway bestsellers. Diamant’s Red Tent, first published in 1997 with no advertising budget, became a word of mouth blockbuster and went on to sell to 25 foreign markets, while Cross’s Pope Joan is now in its 18th printing and inspired a major motion picture starring German-born actress Franka Potente. Louise Erdrich’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning first novel Love Medicine has never been out of print.

At the end of the day, it’s a question of knowing your market. Although it’s hard to pin-point precise figures, the majority of buyers and readers of historical fiction appear to be women and they seem to crave books that present compelling portraits of strong female protagonists.

Most interesting is the possibility that historical fiction’s rewriting of women’s history has wider repercussions in the world of nonfiction.

“Historical fiction has a way of bringing figures neglected (or subordinated) by the history books back into the foreground,” says Bethany Latham, Managing Editor of HNR. “Historical fiction can do this where history tomes fail because it is fiction –it’s not bound strictly by documented fact. For instance, an historical fiction author can write an engrossing novel centering around a ‘minor’ female courtier, where a truly enlightening biography of the woman is problematic due to the dearth of historical information about her (think Philippa Gregory's Boleyn Inheritance versus Julia Fox’s exceedingly speculative biography of Viscountess Rochford).

“Historical fiction treatments thrust historical female figures, whether they be aristocrats or serving maids, into the public eye,” Latham continues. “Nonfiction authors cannot help but be influenced by the rampant popularity of a particular historical period or person promulgated by historical fiction and the screen adaptations the novels spawn; it causes them to look for their own ‘angle’ – for what hasn’t been done, what’s been overlooked – in order to focus their research on it. . . . Historical fiction can grab [women] by the farthingale and drag them into the limelight, leading to greater interest in them, more research into their lives, and subsequently a greater understanding of the part women have played in history.”

jay Dixon, author of The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon: 1909-1990s, speculates that historical novelists may have been pioneers in the women’s history movement. “Ever since the publication of Sheila Rowbotham’s Hidden from History in 1973, feminists have been trying to rescue women from their invisibility in male discourses of history,” says Dixon. “But prior to that, women authors, in their historical novels, fore-fronted women – the wealthy, the poor, the powerful and the downtrodden – from all periods and all locales. Using imagination alongside research, they told the stories that could have happened, and maybe did. And in doing so not only gave voices to the voiceless, but also changed our perception of the past.”

HNR Editor Sarah Johnson cites Anya Seton’s classic novel The Winthrop Woman, first published in 1958, which tells the story of 17th century Elizabeth Winthrop, wife of Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The novel reveals how she defied her husband and community in order to befriend Anne Hutchinson, the famous heretic who later went on to found the colony of Rhode Island.

Exploding myths

Unfortunately writers can run into problems when they present a view of historical women that challenges our common misperceptions. On the one hand, readers and critics are justifiably skeptical about novelists who present plucky historical heroines with attitudes that feel too contemporary and thus anachronistic to their time and place. On the other hand, if you sit down and do the research, you will discover that every epoch had its radical voices, movers and shakers, extraordinary women who rocked the establishment. Think of Sappho, Hypatia, Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth I of England, Aphra Benn, Anne Bonny the Pirate Queen, Emma Goldman, and Rosa Parks, to name a few. Too often readers and, unfortunately some reviewers, appear to have a distorted and uninformed view of women in history and seem too quick to label any strong heroine anachronistic, even if the author has backed up the fiction with considerable research. Too often we base our picture of women in the past on the lazy assumption that all women throughout all of history were completely downtrodden and disempowered.

In preparation for the Rewriting Women’s History panel at the 2007 HNS North American Conference in Albany, New York, I conducted an informal survey with members of the HNS email discussion list, asking what they thought were the most annoying historical clichés about women. Here are some of the responses:

Women’s lives were completely limited to the domestic sphere.

Before Betty Friedan came along, all women were housewives and mothers and nothing else.

Women in the Victorian era led lives of leisure. (In fact, very few did.)

Women in the past did not enjoy sex.

Dr. Irene Burgess, Provost and Dean of Eureka College, Illinois, reminds us that what we know – or think we know – about women in history is mediated and changes over time. “Representing historical women in twenty-first century fiction can be difficult,” Burgess points out, “because of the automatic lenses that a current audience places on the behavior of women from an older period. Because mores and language were so different, it’s frequently difficult for current-day readers to believe that women of the past had autonomy, capability, and choice.

“A lower class woman of the 14th century in England,” Burgess continues, “probably had greater degrees of freedom than an aristocratic woman of the 18th century in Italy. Although readers may perceive it as anachronistic to have a female weaver going to the tavern with some of her friends and telling her husband to take a hike if he protests, that probably did happen.”

Dr. Samantha Riches, Director of Studies for History and Archaeology at Lancaster University, UK, agrees that the reality of medieval women’s lives defy our popular conceptions. “The idea that women sat around creating tapestries and looking wistful is still quite widespread, largely due to Hollywood films perpetuating the same stereotyped ideas. Sources about women’s personal experiences are few and far between, but we do have a few gems like the Paston letters (accessible via the Internet Medieval Sourcebook), which can give us a real insight into the lives of late medieval women. In 1448 Margaret Paston wrote to her husband John with a shopping list including almonds, sugar and crossbows: he was away in London and she was aware that she would need to organize defense of their property in East Anglia against a neighbor with whom they were involved in a dispute.”

Although there are even fewer sources regarding the lives of common women, Riches believes that the visual evidence tends to indicate that women were employed in a wide range of occupations. Erika Uitz’s scholarly study Women in the Medieval Town reveals that women worked as merchants, money-lenders, brewers, and even miners. One of the book’s illustrations shows a detail of Hans Hesse’s early 16th century “Miners’ Altar” panel painting, which depicts a woman washing the heavy iron ore—a job that was even more backbreaking than mining.

The colorful lives of medieval women have inspired Paul Doherty’s most recent mystery series, centered on 14th century physician Mathilde of Westminster, who is based on a historical figure. “We tend to think of women’s rights developing over the centuries; this is simply not true,” Doherty said when I interviewed him in the May 2006 Historical Novels Review. “I think it was Dorothy Mary Stenton, the famous Anglo-Saxon historian, who pointed out that women had more rights in 1100 then they did in 1800!”

Indeed, the 1800s would appear a big stumbling block in our perceptions of the past. “The early 19th century marked the nadir of European women’s options and possibilities,” Bonnie S. Anderson and Judith P. Zinsser write in A History of Their Own, Volume 2. “The creation of ‘women’s movements’ in the 19th century was in part a response to this.”

The Victorian era in particular has made a lasting imprint on the modern psyche. Suzanne Adair, author of Paper Woman and panelist at the Albany conference, notes that too often people look at women in the past through the lens of Victorian culture and base their view of women in completely disparate epochs on this stilted stereotype of the tightly corseted, sexually repressed Angel of the Home. “We like to think of ourselves as much more progressive than earlier generations,” Irene Burgess adds, “but when it comes to issues such as sexuality and the body, we actually are more repressed – a product of our Victorian ancestry. One only has to think of the Wife of Bath or the poems of Sappho to realize that that is the case.”

But even 19th century women’s lives were more complex than many realize: the Industrial Revolution drove countless women and girls out of the kitchens and into factories and mills, inspiring the line in the popular early 19th century folksong, The Weaver and the Factory Maid:

Where are the girls? I will tell you plain:
The girls have gone to weave by steam,
And to find them you must rise at dawn,
And trudge to the mill in the early morn.

As astute historians will point out, women throughout history have always worked. One of the experiences that inspired my third novel, The Vanishing Point, set in Colonial America, was a visit to a tiny Philadelphia row house where two 18th century seamstresses once lived and plied their trade. I felt immediately drawn into their world. It was exciting for me to see the proof that even in this era, when nearly every factor of the dominant religion and economy herded women into marriage and domesticity, some women still succeeded in carving out independent, masterless lives, ruled by neither father nor husband.

In Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich reveals that wives in Colonial America frequently acted as their spouse’s business partners, running shops and farms in tandem with their men, and sometimes taking over the role of “deputy husband,” which meant shouldering male duties, sometimes acting as surrogate if the husband were away. She cites one Edith Creford of Salem, Massachusetts, who acted as an attorney for her husband and signed a promissory note for £33, a considerable sum at that time. While researching my article Portals to Hidden Histories (Solander, November 2006), which showcased the living history sites at Historic St. Mary’s City, Jamestown Settlement and Colonial Williamsburg, I learned of 18th century businesswomen and entrepreneurs, such as Jane Vobe, who ran the King’s Arms Tavern in Williamsburg and Ann Wager, who founded the Bray School for African American children in 1760.

But the details of how women contributed to the economy tend to get buried under the perceived restrictions on these women’s lives and their subordinate place in their culture. When examining the rules women are expected to follow, Irene Burgess reminds us that “that rules and injunctions are only put in place when people actually do the behavior that is being controlled. So, ‘thou shalt not kill’ wouldn’t have been necessary if human beings weren’t so fond of slaughter. Similarly, telling women they had to be ‘chaste, silent, and obedient’ meant that probably, for the most part, women were not any of those things.”

Practical Writing Advice

So how can historical novelists create strong, authentic, and convincing female characters without resorting to either anachronism or lazy stereotypes?

Pick Your Heroine

Perhaps the most straightforward method is to choose an arresting historical figure, either famous or obscure, and delve deep into the research in order to bring her to life. Ask yourself what historical personae appeal to you and why.

“When I chose Juana la Loca as the subject for my second novel, I knew I’d set myself up for a challenge.” says CW Gortner, whose novel The Last Queen is published by Ballantine. “I’ve been obsessed by her since my childhood in Spain and I found the lurid myth of her life hard to believe. History is rarely kind to women, particularly women in power, so I set out to discover if the story of the ‘mad queen of Spain’ was true. It took six years of delving, but slowly the web of misinformation and calumny began to unravel. For nearly five hundred years, Juana of Castile’s story has been distorted because she posed a threat.”

Internationally best-selling author Sandra Gulland followed up her wildly popular Josephine Bonaparte Trilogy with a new novel focused on a much more elusive character: Louise de la Vallière, the first mistress of the Sun King, Louis XIV. “She is described as timid, something of a wallflower,” says Gulland of her heroine. “She was a daring horsewoman, a mistress to the Sun King, a Carmelite nun. The combination of these qualities intrigued me.”

Michelle Moran, whose debut novel Nefertiti was a national bestseller, finds herself drawn to the stories of infamous women whose lives have previously only been narrated through the words of men. “I’ve never been able to believe that women throughout history fit neatly into the simple categories that ancient writers created for them: that of the loyal virgin or the scheming harlot,” Moran states. “From Jezebel to Nefertiti, I find that rewriting women’s history is not just a career, it’s a calling.”

Zoom in on a specific historical event

The Pendle Witch Trial of 1612 provided the foundation for my most recent novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Seven women and two men were hanged as witches, based on the “evidence” given by a nine-year-old girl, who betrayed and condemned her own family. The most notorious of all the witches was the girl’s grandmother, Elizabeth Southerns, aka Old Demdike, who died in Lancaster Gaol before she came to trial. Researching the trial, I was deeply drawn into this family tragedy, especially the tale of Southerns herself, a cunning woman and healer of long standing, whose “charms” were Catholic prayers and whose reputation was so fearsome that court clerk Thomas Potts wrote that “no man escaped her, or her Furies.”

Katharine Weber’s acclaimed novel Triangle centers on the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911. “It was striking to me how little the fire had been written about in books from then until the mid 1960s when a flourishing industry of books about the Triangle fire, most of them written for young girls, suddenly appeared, and have continued to appear every year. Why? It has to be the women’s movement. This helped me focus on one of the crucial themes of my novel, the way we don’t just tell our stories with agendas, we listen with agendas as well. . . . Triangle, like the fire itself, is a story about courageous women whose bravery was mostly obscured by the agendas of the moment.”

Focus on a particular subculture

One way to come up with a unique angle on history is to select your favorite historical period and then delve into a corner of that society that fascinates you.

Susanne Dunlap’s novels Emilie’s Voice and Liszt’s Kiss revolve around the world of music in 18th and 19th century Europe. Dunlap, who has a doctorate in music history from Yale, says that music was one way that talented women could distinguish themselves. “Women as performers were placed in the public eye and often then considered damaged goods – like prostitutes,” says Dunlap. “But many were able to support themselves and lead fulfilling artistic lives as singers, pianists, actresses. They achieved independence, and that was considered dangerous by men. Women as true creative artists – composers, painters, authors – were even more dangerous. Those are the stories that intrigue me, and give me the opportunity to rewrite women’s history.”

Keep it real for the reader

Author Melinda Hammond (A Rational Romance), who also writes as Sarah Mallory, reminds us that it’s essential to get the details right to keep your fiction convincing. “The trick is to create characters that are true to the period, yet have a resonance for a modern reader,” says Hammond. “It is important that we make readers aware of the prevailing customs and culture of a particular period or they will not understand why our characters act in a particular way. It is up to the writer to ‘set the stage,’ capture the spirit of the period and create the right background for the characters.”

Hammond believes that this is especially pertinent for romantic fiction. “In historical terms, romance is a relatively modern concept,” she explains. “It’s only in the last couple of centuries that people have come to expect to fall in love and marry.”

The future of women’s history

Samantha Riches believes that academic historians are moving away from the concept of “woman as other” to a more complex, multilayered view of the past. “For the last twenty to thirty years women’s history has been ‘recovered’ by academic historians, led by feminist commentators, not to the fullest extent possible for sure, but nevertheless I would argue that women are now featuring strongly in many studies of the past,” Riches states. “The extent to which this change has filtered through into popular perceptions is another matter, but I’d like to think that there is a gradual shift towards seeing the history of women as something that is integral to the study and understanding of the past, rather than as something separate and different.”

Sandra Gulland describes history as a continually moving target. “Our story of the past, how we understand it, is constantly in flux. New discoveries, new perspectives: all these help us to revise – reVISION – the past, or rather: the story of our past.”

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

A Brief History of Enchantment: Witchy October Reads

This article of mine was originally published in the February 2010 Issue of Historical Novels Review.

A Brief History of Enchantment: Magic Goes Mainstream

Paranormal fiction is hot. Think of the huge popularity of the Harry Potter and Twilight series; of adult fantasy/historical fiction crossovers such as Susanne Clarke’s eccentric doorstopper, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell; not to mention Seth Grahame-Smith’s quirky genre-bender, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

“The publishing world has seen an explosion in fiction featuring a wide array of paranormal elements,” says literary agent Wendy Sherman. “Vampires, zombies, werewolves, and witches. Readers seem to have an unquenchable thirst that publishers, television, and film makers have been quick to respond to. Supernatural themes may once, not that long ago, have been seen as a side line, but today’s urban fantasy is a hugely popular genre all its own. When the rich detail of historical fiction is paired with fantastical elements we can reach an even broader audience of serious readers.”

Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore, speculates that the paranormal is so popular because it “both taps into ancient tropes offered in folklore and is a way of escaping the terrifying and uncertain world we live in.”

Witches, Wisefolk, and Kabbalists

Witches and wizards have long been a fixture in fantasy fiction. Until recently any adult fiction that embraced these themes was regarded as fantasy or horror by default. But a new wave of literary novels, revealing magic and witchcraft through the lens of well-researched history, is blurring the lines of genre and shedding fresh light on how our ancestors’ belief in the otherworldly permeated every aspect of their lives. These novelists take their readers into that lost enchanted world.

Our forbears believed that magic was real. Dr. John Dee, conjurer to Elizabeth I, was a brilliant mathematician, cartographer, and also an alchemist and a necromancer. In Dee’s England, more people relied on traditional cunning folk for healing than on physicians, who were so expensive that only the elite could afford them. Across world cultures, folk healers and other magical practitioners played a key role in their communities. Sometimes they were honored as wise folk, other times condemned as witches.

During the European witch persecutions from 1480 to 1700, an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 people were executed. These witch hunts were not a phenomenon of the Middle Ages, as popularly believed, but of the Renaissance and Reformation, stretching up to the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. Some of those hanged or burned were actual cunning folk while others, likely the vast majority, were simply maligned victims of the witch-hunting frenzy. Recent titles illuminating the European witch hunts include Erika Mailman’s The Witch’s Trinity, set in 16th century Germany, and my own novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, which tells the true story of cunning woman Elizabeth Southerns, aka Mother Demdike, and her family’s struggle to survive the Pendle witch hunt of 1612.

By 1692, European witch mania had crossed the Atlantic and manifested itself in the infamous Salem Witch Trials which sentenced thirteen women and six men to death. The Salem tragedy provides the backdrop for two recent bestsellers. Kathleen Kent’s critically acclaimed novel, The Heretic’s Daughter, draws on the story of her ancestor, condemned witch Martha Carrier. Katherine Howe, the descendent of two accused witches, offers a more overtly supernatural slant in her novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which explores the possibility that at least some of the Salem witches may have been cunning folk with real powers. Suzy Witten’s small press debut, The Afflicted Girls, focuses not on the presumed witches but on their perceived victims and tries to solve the mystery underlying their hysteria.

“In writing The Heretic’s Daughter,” author Kathleen Kent states, “I worked to combine fact and fiction to illustrate the courage and fortitude of Martha Carrier, perhaps the only person who not only denied being a confederate of the Devil, but who very vocally confronted her judges, calling them to task for listening to a group of malicious, accusing girls.”

Reader Anne Gilbert describes her fascination with The Heretic’s Daughter. “Oddly, people of that time and place were both ‘superstitious’ in the modern sense, and, at the same time, and often in the same communities, there were others who were a bit more skeptical and ‘dared’ to disagree. As long as there wasn’t a whole lot of tension in these communities, you could just shrug your shoulders at them. But if there were tensions for any reason, such ‘skeptics’ often came under suspicion. The Heretic’s Daughter shows the process beautifully.”

Accused witches were not the only ones to face persecution. Richard Zimler’s stunning novel, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, set in 16th century Portugal, evokes the rich world of Jewish mysticism under fire in an age of inquisition and forced conversion.

Magic, Superstition, and Popular Culture

Beyond the witch trials, the very real belief in the supernatural shared by rich and poor, educated and illiterate in the Early Modern Period shaped a worldview vastly different from our own.

“Throughout the centuries, magic and the supernatural were considered by the majority of people to be the norm,” says Kim Murphy, author of Whispers from the Grave. “In my upcoming, as of yet untitled timeslip, not only have I shown that Salem wasn’t the only place on the North American continent that had witch trials, but that the 17th-century English were very similar to the Powhatan Indians in their supernatural beliefs. Today, these subjects are often regarded as New Age. In reality, they’re very, very old. I interweave them in my work because it helps me explore what the traditional cultures have been trying to tell us all along.”

Author Sandra Gulland, whose most recent novel, Mistress of the Sun, delves into the world of bone magic and horse whispering, agrees that it would be “historically inaccurate to write about the 17th century (or earlier, for that matter) and not include the mystical or paranormal — at the very least in the minds of your characters. Even the great mathematical genius Descartes believed that bad dreams were put into his head by demons.” Gulland cites Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel of Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, as an excellent example of how subtly layered beliefs in the supernatural can be woven into a narrative that is not explicitly about magic or witchcraft.

“When writing about people from the past, magic, superstition and the supernatural are important elements that we cannot ignore,” says C.W. Gortner, whose upcoming novel, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, explores Catherine’s relationship with the seer, Nostradamus. “Whether it is the occult menace implicit in Karen Maitland’s superb medieval novels or the struggles of my own Catherine de Medici against the savage fanaticism of her age, belief in the supernatural enriches and informs our work, and the consciousness of the characters we inhabit. It is crucial to the very world we attempt to conjure to life for our reader.”

Moving forward in time, some writers have used the occult as a vehicle for addressing the cynicism and horrors of the modern age. In Jake Arnott’s novel, The Devil’s Paintbrush, set in Paris at the dawning of the 20th century, the notorious Aleister Crowley takes the reader on a tour through a stygian underworld of black masses, hallucinogens, and apocalyptic visions. The devil’s paintbrush of the title refers to the newly invented automatic machine gun, which heralds a violent and godless new epoch.

Priestesses and Seers

Some novels draw on a magical history inspired by the polytheistic religions that flourished before the Christian conversions. Judith Lindbergh’s lyrical debut, The Thrall’s Tale, takes us to Viking-age Greenland and presents an arresting portrait of the seidkona, or seeress, Thorbjorg from the Saga of Eirik the Red. Lindbergh says she never really perceived Thorbjorg’s practice as “magic” anymore than she believes Thorbjorg herself did. “To my understanding, magic’s derogatory connotations are mostly the persistent and powerful effects of Christianity’s condemnation of the practices and practitioners of pre-Christian faiths,” the author observes. “I decided to portray the seidkona Thorbjorg in my novel as a priestess deeply committed to her faith.”

Similarly Kathleen Cunningham Guler’s novel, A Land Beyond Ravens, explores the indigenous Celtic religion that still held strong in 5th century Britain when Christianity was struggling to gain a foothold. Guler says her book gives a sense of how spirituality may have been interpreted as magic. “Two of the characters have what I’ve named ‘fire in the head,’ which is a kind of catch-all term for anything from visions and prophecy to the muse a bard or poet draws on for inspiration. One of those characters is Myrddin, aka Merlin. Of course he’s fictional, but it’s my conjecture that his ‘magic’ was his intelligent use of the knowledge gained from ‘fire in the head.’”

Beyond the shores of Europe, Louise Erdrich’s novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, shows how the trickster Nanapush “converts” missionary priest Damien Modeste, who is actually a woman in disguise, by introducing her to the Ojibwe spirit world.

Vampires and zombies

Other writers have taken a completely different route, wedding “straight” historical fiction to the fantastic and bizarre. In 1819 Lord Byron’s physician, John Polidori published his story “The Vampyre,” initiating the canon of English vampire fiction. The story was a hit, probably because the public assumed that the undead protagonist was modeled after bad boy Byron himself. Soon enough the vampire became a fixture in gothic literature. The late 20th century brought forth a literary vampire renaissance, beginning with Anne Rice’s series of novels, The Vampire Chronicles, first published in the 1970s, which attained cult status. The trend continues. Elizabeth Kostova’s 2005 novel, The Historian, reveals the 15th century prince Vlad Tepes, aka the Impaler of Wallachia, aka the Real Dracula.

Folktales of the zombie, a corpse reanimated by a powerful sorcerer, arise from the Vodou belief system of the West African diaspora. WB Seabrook’s 1929 novel, The Magic Island, and Victor Halperin’s 1932 film, White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi, lifted the zombie from its original cultural context and made it a stock figure of the horror genre.

Vampires and zombies now rival each other for popularity in the current spate of Jane Austen-themed paranormals. Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies weds the Regency classic with zombie mayhem and armies of ninja zombie-slayers, while the title of Amanda Grange’s Mr. Darcy, Vampyre says it all.

Light years away from the Jane Austen industry, fantasy author Emma Bull has crafted the most unique of twists – a paranormal Western. Set in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881, Bull’s novel, Territory, recasts the famous story of the shoot out at OK Corral as a supernatural battle ground: Wyatt Earp appears as a dark magician fighting over land rights in the mining boomtown.

Has genre-bending gone too far? Barbara Peters, no fan of the vampire-oeuvre, seems to think so. “I expect that like all hot genres it will play out and cycle down and something new will replace it.”

HNR editor Bethany Latham offers a different viewpoint. “Historical fiction provides a way to escape from reality, first and foremost into the past, and what’s more escapist than the supernatural, than fantasy? There will always be purists when it comes to any genre – those who don’t wish to see adventure taint their literary novels or the paranormal intrude on a prescribed historical setting. But many readers are finding that seamlessly combining the two into a single, well-written novel can make for some fascinating, transportive reading. I’m a perfect example; I'm not a fan of ‘fantasy’ per se, and my first reaction if asked would be to say I don’t read it. But then I’d remember how I greatly enjoyed both Kostova’s The Historian and Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, both of which fall into this category, and have to admit myself to be a liar. Works like this have encouraged me to broaden not only the horizons of what I put on my never-ending ‘to read’ list, but also what I consider to be good ‘historical fiction.’”

How to Make it Work

As Latham points out, any author hoping to weave supernatural elements into their historical fiction must find a way to make it appear seamless. The magic must arise organically from the historical setting and worldview. It must feel authentic rather than forced or anachronistic. A solid background in research is essential. Familiarize yourself with the literature of your era, be it folk tales, ballads, written sermons, or skaldic poetry. If you write a paranormal send up on a classic novel, know the original text inside out. Paranormal mash-ups such as Seth Grahame-Smith’s actually pay great homage to the integrity of Jane Austen’s writing, allowing Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy’s wit to shine through as they battle the zombie hordes.

“The best historical fiction,” Kathleen Kent believes, “is anchored firmly in fact, and so I researched The Heretic’s Daughter for several years, studying maps, court records and contemporary accounts, to give the story and the characters greater authenticity.”

Primary sources such as witch trial transcripts are a great source for discovering stories and characters. My own inspiration to write a novel about Elizabeth Southerns was inspired by the following quote from Thomas Potts’s A 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.

Reading against the grain, I was amazed at how Mother Demdike’s strength of character blazed forth in the document written to vilify her.

My research into the Pendle Witches also benefited from new scholarly research on historical cunning folk. Excellent secondary sources include Owen Davies’s Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History and Emma Wilby’s Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, both of which correct many misconceptions about historical magic practitioners. Keith Thomas’s classic, Religion and the Decline of Magic, is perhaps the best introduction to superstition and popular belief in Early Modern Britain.

Don’t chain yourself to your books and computer either. Being on location in places like Salem or the site of Greenland’s Viking settlements or Lisbon’s old Jewish quarter can add a whole other level of depth and authenticity to your writing.

Let the magic begin.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Birth Machine by Elizabeth Baines

Elizabeth Baines's controversial book, THE BIRTH MACHINE, has just been re-issued. Be sure to check out this title, as well as Elizabeth's fabulous short fiction in the anthology, BITCH LIT, published by Crocus Books and co-edited by Maya Chowdhry and yours truly!


In ELIZABETH BAINES’S acclaimed novel, THE BIRTH MACHINE, Zelda lies on a hospital bed about to undergo hi-tech childbirth. But things don’t go to plan, and as her labour goes wrong and the drugs take over, the past blends with the present and fairytale and myth, and long-buried secrets and present-day betrayals are exposed…

On its first publication The Birth Machine was seized on by readers as giving voice to a female experience absent from fiction until then. It was acclaimed as a significant event in women’s publishing, also receiving critical praise, and quickly became a classic text. It was dramatized by Elizabeth and broadcast as an acclaimed play for Radio 4. In spite of this, and in part due to the fact that the author was at the centre of a women’s movement controversy, The Birth Machine fell out of print. It is now reissued with the author’s original structure (changed by the Women’s Press for political feminist reasons) reinstated and including an Author’s Note discussing the implications of the changes.

Still very relevant today to modern Obstetrics and Medicine, The Birth Machine is however more than that: it is also a gripping story involving a long-ago murder. Above all, it is a powerful novel about the ways we can wield power through logic and language, and about the battle over who owns the right to knowledge and the power to tell the stories of who we are.

'A gripping story, a pithy book' - Katy Campbell.
'An increasingly powerful narrative' - Time Literary Supplement.

The history of the publication of The Birth Machine can be read here.

The Author's Note can be read on Salt’s website

The book can be purchased from Amazon here.

ELIZABETH BAINES is also the author of the novel Too Many Magpies and a collection of stories Balancing on the Edge of the World, both published by Salt.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

In the witch trials that raged across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, legal authorities strove to uncover evidence of a pact between the accused witch and the devil. But did this alleged pact ever exist except in the imaginations of the witchfinders?

The legend of Doctor Faustus captivated the public because it purported to reveal the story of real-life German magician, alchemist, and astronomer, Johann Georg Faust, who died in 1540. Rumour had it that his powers were given to him by the devil. His legend first appeared in print in a 1587 chapbook, Das Faustbuch, a cautionary tale of how the unbridled pursuit of knowledge can undermine religious salvation.

Inspired by this pamphlet, Christopher Marlowe (1554-1593) penned his masterpiece, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, the first surviving published copy of which is dated 1604. No simple moral tale, Marlowe's tragedy works on a number of levels.

Set in Wittenberg, Germany, the great humanistic centre of learning and the cradle of the Reformation, Marlowe's Faustus is a low born man who has become a respected Doctor of Philosophy at the university. But this is not enough. He would have absolute knowledge, absolute power. And so he turns to the dark arts. Casting a circle, he abjures the name of God and summons a demon, Mephistopheles. Under Mephistopheles's direction, Faustus then makes his pact with the devil, signing it in his own blood. He strikes a hard bargain. For twenty-four years, Faustus will do whatever he wants, with Mephistopheles as his obedient servant. When his time is up, Lucifer will summon Faustus to hell.

While the party lasts, Faustus lives it up. The middle of the play is full of schoolboy pranks. His horse is an enchanted hay bale which he sells to a hapless tavern keeper for fifty thalers. Mephistopheles spirits Faustus to the Vatican so that he can mock the pope and cardinals. When the pontiff and his men try to exorcise Faustus and his host of demons with bell, book, and candle, they find they cannot. In Marlowe's play, the pope is depicted as powerless to expel evil because he himself is corrupted and damned. Marlowe's own anti-Catholicism is well documented. While a student at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, he served as a government spy, infilitrating Catholic circles to uncover plots against Queen Elizabeth I.

At the Emperor's court, Faustus conjures Alexander the Great and his paramour. He even manages to conjure up the spirit of Helen of Troy.

Yet when all these merry japes are over, Faustus finds himself utterly alone and bereft, forced to face the full weight of his pact. Though he desperately seeks redemption, he never achieves it and so quietly resigns himself to his coffin where he awaits his damnation.

Moral interpretations of the play are complicated by the Protestant teachings of Marlowe's era that insisted it was impossible for the individual to save his or her own soul. Calvin preached the doctrine of predestination, namely that God had already determined who was damned and who was saved, without any reference to the person's virtue or deeds. Seen through this lens, Faustus is not damned because he sold his soul to the devil. No, he is a clever Renaissance man who strikes this bargain because he has already been damned by his own God; our hero wants to at least enjoy some pleasure and self-determination in this earthly life before his inevitable eternity in hell. In witnessing Faustus's yearning and failure to achieve redemption are we seeing the devastating implications of Calvinist dogma?

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus was a sensation when it was first performed, scandalizing its audience by featuring forbidden acts of conjuration and blasphemy on stage.

Marlowe himself is a shadowy figure. In London, he kept the company of mathematicians, poets, and scientists, who gathered in a secret School of Night. Did Marlowe himself indulge in the dark arts? We will never know.

On May 30, 1593, the playwright, previously arrested on charges of brawling and duelling, became embroiled in a dispute with a tavern keeper over his bill. This escalated into a full blown knife fight, resulting in the playwright's death. He was twenty-nine years old.

Around this time, a note delivered to the authorities stated that Marlowe was an atheist who believed "that the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe." But it is impossible to judge the veracity of this claim. Marlowe the man remains as shrouded in mystery as the legendary Faustus himself.

It's interesting to contrast Marlowe's Faustus to the version by Goethe, the great German Romantic. Goethe, who studied philosophy, alchemy, mysticism, and natural magic, appeared to have felt a great deal of sympathy with Faustus. Instead of demonising him, he invites us to identify with his protagonist's tireless quest to understand the mysteries of existence. Significantly, Goethe's Faustus receives redemption. Angels carry him off to heaven before Mephistopheles can drag him down to hell.

Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre's production of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus was absolutely magical, making maximum use of the circular stage to create the magic circle around which the audience hovers, as though we are spectral witnesses to Faustus's damnation.

This is no dry production but an enchanting pageant meant to capture the Elizabethan sense of awe at the magic taking place before us.

Lucifer (actor Gwendoline Christie) appears as a woman in glittering chainmail, who flies down from the ceiling on a trapeze. The actor appears to have great fun with her role, cackling and lounging on Faustus's desk while he mourns his doom and the impossibility of redemption.

A host of twenty four extras play the part of spirits, demons, and courtiers, mingling with the audience before descending on ladders onto the stage. Huge puppets appear as the host of Seven Deadly Sins. Faustus even engages in actual stage conjuring. But at the centre of it all is the powerful chemistry between Patrick O'Kane, who plays the volatile Faustus, and the quiet understatement of Ian Redford's Mephistopheles, who appears as an unassuming old man in a vicar's suit.

Ultimately the play is a powerful meditation on free will and the soul, and how willing people are to sacrifice their soul for fleeting ambition.

My husband, who saw the play with me, observed that in the modern corporate world, people sell their souls for a lot less than Doctor Faustus, who had least had some fun while the party lasted.

Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre's production of Doctor Faustus runs until October 9.

Dr. Naomi Baker's essay on Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Lammas-tide and Harvest Home

August 1 marks the beginning of the grain harvest in Britain, a period of intense labour and also celebration. In our age of convenience foods perhaps it's hard to imagine how important the harvest was in centuries past. The harvest could be poor, or fail entirely. If a community suffered two bad harvests in a row, entire families would starve.

The word "Lammas" derives from the Anglo-Saxon "hlaef-mass" or loaf mass. The first grain of the year would be reaped and then baked into a bread, which was consecrated in the church upon the first Sunday of August. A number of researchers have speculated that the origins of Lammas may be connected to the pre-Christian Irish celebration of Lughnasad. I highly recommend Waverly Fitzgerald's fascinating essay on the subject.

17th century poet, Robert Herrick offers us a window into how the Harvest Home was celebrated in his day.


by Robert Herrick

COME, sons of summer, by whose toil
We are the lords of wine and oil :
By whose tough labours, and rough hands,
We rip up first, then reap our lands.
Crowned with the ears of corn, now come,
And to the pipe sing harvest home.
Come forth, my lord, and see the cart
Dressed up with all the country art :
See here a maukin, there a sheet,
As spotless pure as it is sweet :
The horses, mares, and frisking fillies,
Clad all in linen white as lilies.
The harvest swains and wenches bound
For joy, to see the hock-cart crowned.
About the cart, hear how the rout
Of rural younglings raise the shout ;
Pressing before, some coming after,
Those with a shout, and these with laughter.
Some bless the cart, some kiss the sheaves,
Some prank them up with oaken leaves :
Some cross the fill-horse, some with great
Devotion stroke the home-borne wheat :
While other rustics, less attent
To prayers than to merriment,
Run after with their breeches rent.
Well, on, brave boys, to your lord's hearth,
Glitt'ring with fire, where, for your mirth,
Ye shall see first the large and chief
Foundation of your feast, fat beef :
With upper stories, mutton, veal
And bacon (which makes full the meal),
With sev'ral dishes standing by,
As here a custard, there a pie,
And here all-tempting frumenty.
And for to make the merry cheer,
If smirking wine be wanting here,
There's that which drowns all care, stout beer ;
Which freely drink to your lord's health,
Then to the plough, the commonwealth,
Next to your flails, your fans, your fats,
Then to the maids with wheaten hats ;
To the rough sickle, and crook'd scythe,
Drink, frolic, boys, till all be blithe.
Feed, and grow fat ; and as ye eat
Be mindful that the lab'ring neat,
As you, may have their fill of meat.
And know, besides, ye must revoke
The patient ox unto the yoke,
And all go back unto the plough
And harrow, though they're hanged up now.
And, you must know, your lord's word's true,
Feed him ye must, whose food fills you ;
And that this pleasure is like rain,
Not sent ye for to drown your pain,
But for to make it spring again.

Maukin, a cloth.
Fill-horse, shaft-horse.
Frumenty, wheat boiled in milk.
Fats, vats.

Herrick's portrayal of Harvest Home reveals no religious feast centered around the church, but a feudal tradtion in which peasants toil to harvest their overlord's grain. A decorated cart carries the last load of grain from the fields, forming the front of a secular procession followed by reapers crowned in grain and a piper playing a harvest song. The lord rewards his workers with a feast featuring plenty of meat (a rare treat for the labouring classes) and beer. After first toasting the landowner, the merry company toasts the "maids with wheaten hats." Just who were these maidens?

In his book, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Robert Hutton wonders if Herrick's maids with wheaten hats were young women crowned in chaplets of wheat and flowers as Harvest Queens, or if they were decorated Corn Dollies--sheaves of wheat decorated to look like maidens.

In 1598, the German traveller Paul Hentzer observed the following scene in Windsor:

We happened to meet some country people celebrating their Harvest home; their last load of corn they crown with flowers, having besides an image richly dressed, by which perhaps they would signify Ceres; this they keep moving about, while men and women, men and maidservants, riding through the streets in a cart, shout as loud as they can till they arrive at the barn.

Although Herrick's poems contains an admonition against excess merriment, lewdness, and drunkenness, some landlords went out of their way to make the harvest celebratory for their reapers. Ronald Hutton mentions Sir Patricius Curwen of Workington in Cumberland, a landlord of such largess that, in each year between 1628 and 1643, he not only paid his harvesters with food and wages but provided a piper to play in the fields for the nine to seventeen days that the grain harvest required.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Guest Post: History's Black Widow

This week I'd like to present a guest post by C W Gortner, author of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. Many of you already know Gortner from his previous novel, The Last Queen, which presents a sensitive portrait of the tragically misunderstood Juana "La Loca" of Castile. Gortner has passionately rewritten the histories of these maligned women, giving them voice and allowing them to tell their stories and set the record straight. And you never know . . . he might eventually write about a 17th century Firebrand.
-Mary Sharratt

History’s Black Widow: The Legend of Catherine de Medici

Catherine de Medici is known as the evil queen who masterminded a massacre. Or so the legend says. In truth, Catherine has been the target of a smear campaign that began in her lifetime and culminated with Alexander Dumas’s famous depiction of her in his novel La Reine Margot. Dumas exalted the queen we love to hate and enshrined her as history’s black widow.

Of Italian birth, Catherine came to France as a teenager to wed Henri II. To this day, she is not considered French; her background as a Medici made her a parvenu and prejudice against her because of her nationality haunted her throughout her life. Italians were despised as experts in the black arts; Catherine’s natural inclination toward her fellow countrymen was thus often used against her.

One of the greatest misconceptions is that Catherine nurtured a “passion for power”—another Italian trait. Though not raised to rule, she became regent for her sons in a kingdom torn apart by war. Her alleged ambition was in fact an effort to defend her adopted realm. While she made serious errors, she was usually motivated by the urgency to salvage a crisis than any cold-blooded urge to her foes.

In the end, she is best revealed by her own words: “It is great suffering to be always fearful.”

Thank you so much for spending this time with me. To find out more about The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, please visit:

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Corpus Christi Carol

This haunting medieval carol seemed appropriate for today. There is definitely a mystery hidden in this song.

Corpus Christi Carol

Lulley, lully, lulley, lully,
The faucon hath born my mak away.

He bare hym up, he bare hym down,
He bare hym into an orchard brown.

In that orchard ther was an hall,
That was hanged with purpill and pall.

And in that hall ther was a bede,
Hit was hangid with gold so rede.

And yn that bede ther lythe a knyght,
His wowndes bledyng day and nyght.

By that bedes side ther kneleth a may,
And she wepeth both nyght and day.

And by that bedes side ther stondith a ston,
"Corpus Christi" wretyn theron.

faucon: falcon
mak: mate, love
bare: bore, carried
purpill: purple (the royal color)
pall: a funeral pall, a cloth spread over a coffin
bede: bed
rede: red
lythe: lieth, lies
wowndes: wounds
bledyng: bleeding
kneleth: kneeleth, kneels
may: maid, maiden
wepeth: weepeth, weeps
stondith: standeth, stands
ston: stone
Corpus Christi: body of Christ (Latin)
wretyn: written

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Interview with Katherine Howe!

This interview is published on

Katherine Howe is the bestselling author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and a descendant of both Elizabeth Proctor, who survived the Salem witch trials, and Elizabeth Howe, who did not. Read her interview with Mary Sharratt, author of Daughters of the Witching Hill:

Katherine Howe: I am so looking forward to learning more about Daughters of the Witching Hill. As I started the book, I was curious about something. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane covers some well-worn territory in American history: the Salem witch trials, which we all learn about in school so early that it's hard to really know when they appear for the first time in our culture. Can the same be said for the Pendle witches in British history? If so, how did you feel about revisiting something already so well known? And if not, how did you first learn about them?

Mary Sharratt: It's so wonderful to be doing this interview with you. I'm such a fan of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane!

Unlike the Salem Trials which are so well known that they've become almost a part of the American psyche, I wouldn't say that the Pendle Witches are that well known outside the Pendle region. I think many people in other parts of England might find them as unfamiliar as Americans would. The most famous English witch trials would be those associated with Matthew Hopkins’s career as a witchfinder during the anarchy that ensued during the English Civil War.

So, although the Pendle Witch Trials were meticulously documented by court clerk Thomas Potts in his book, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, I'd say that they are not so well known. Novels and academic studies have been written about them, of course, but not so many that I felt like I was treading on over-familiar ground.

KH: I am not surprised to hear that the Pendle witches are a bit more obscure than Matthew Hopkins' witches. How did you first stumble upon this mysterious history in your area?

MS: When I first moved to the Pendle region in 2002, I hadn't heard anything about the Pendle Witches, but once you are in the region, it's impossible to ignore this history. There are images of witches everywhere: on private houses, pubs, bumper stickers, walking trail signs, realtors' logos, a whole fleet of commuter buses going into Manchester.

At first I thought these witches belonged to the realm of fairy tale and folklore, but once I learned the actual history, I was so moved by their story. Seven women and two men from this region were hanged for witchcraft at Lancaster in 1612, but the most notorious among them, Elizabeth Southerns, aka Old Demdike, the heroine of my book, died in prison before she came to trial. She was a cunning woman and healer of long-standing repute who had practiced her craft for decades before anyone dared to interfere with her or stand in her way. Another accused witch, Mother Chattox, was also a renowned cunning woman--Mother Demdike's rival. Alizon Device, Demdike's granddaughter, was first to be arrested and last to be tried at Lancaster. Her last recorded words before she was hanged were a passionate vindication of her grandmother's legacy as a healer.

What moved me was not only the family loyalty but the fact that these women believed in their own powers and made no attempt to hide who they were when interrogated by their magistrate. They seemed very proud of their perceived powers.

KH: I was particularly intrigued by your representation of the relationship between the cunning folk tradition in late Medieval and early modern England with the loss of the Catholic faith and its mysteries. In effect it seems as though Demdike and her family are merely adherents of what the book calls the "old religion," though the story is often agnostic on whether that term refers to Catholicism or to something pre-Christian. I gather that some of that representation draws on the work of Keith Thomas, a historian whose work I relied on for research as well, though I was trying to uncover ways in which the cunning folk tradition might have persisted even for adherents of Puritanism. Can you tell me about some of the other research that you did to really root the story in historical truth?

MS: I based all the major events and details on the primary source material, Thomas Potts's The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster. Here you can see the accused witches' charms quoted by the prosecution and cited as damning evidence of satanic witchcraft. However, the charms contain not a shred of diabolical imagery. They are Catholic prayer charms. The charm to heal a person who is bewitched, attributed to Mother Demdike's family, is a moving description of the passion of Christ as witnessed by the charm contains language very similar to the White Pater Noster, an Elizabethan prayer charm discussed in Eamon Duffy's landmark work, Stripping the Altars: Traditional Religion in England: 1400-1580. So the Catholic connection is based on fact and this was one of the things that surprised me most in my research, because I hadn't even considered such a connection.

Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic was hugely influential to my writing, but my research also draws on a course I did at Lancaster University on Late Medieval Belief and Superstition. There was much mysticism and mystery associated the pre-Reformation Catholicism and indeed the yearly round of village holidays took place under the blessing of the old Church, even festivals we associate as pagan, such as May Day, were adopted or appropriated, depending on one's viewpoint. So, pre-Reformation, one could be a mainstream Christian and still embrace a worldview that made room for positive folk magic. It was believed that certain prayers could aid healing. Mother Chattox's charm to heal a bewitched person, for example, involves saying five Pater Nosters, five Ave Marias, and the Creed, while picturing the five wounds of Christ. You could pray to a certain saint or visit a holy well, and so on. Puritanism stripped all these blessings away, yet people still faced the same harsh fears of the evil supernatural, but no longer had the "good" charms to protect them. So it's no wonder that older people like Mother Demdike, who would have remembered the old Church, clung on to these prayers and healing charms.

On the other hand, the belief in familiar spirits, which was the foundation of English folk magic, seemed to draw on a faith quite different from Christianity. It's difficult to substantiate that historical witches and cunning folk believed in anything like modern Wicca, but the lingering belief in fairies and elves in this period is well established, and I followed the theory advanced by people like Emma Wilby, author of the scholarly study Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits, that the belief in familiar spirits was intimately connected with this lingering fairy faith, something that co-existed for centuries with Christianity. In his 1677 book, The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, Lancashire author John Webster talks about a local cunning man who claimed that his familiar spirit was none other than the Queen of Elfhame herself.

KH: Just a quick last question: One of the most common questions that readers ask me is whether or not writing about witches has made me more superstitious. So now I would like to ask you the same thing: has writing about witches made you see the world differently? And do you think lungwort will grow well in a New England garden, as you have now inspired me to try?

MS: Katherine, writing this book was such a magical experience for me. I identified with my heroines, Mother Demdike and Alizon, to the point where I "heard" their voices as I was writing their story--or letting them tell their own stories through me. I felt a powerful connection with the land and with these women whose spirit lives on in the land. I can't just walk down a country lane or footpath again without feeling that connection to every herb and tree and animal that crosses my path. And I find myself counting magpies.

You could always try planting lungwort and let me know how it grows!

(Photo © Laura Dandaneau)