Catholicism and Perceived Witchcraft in Reformation-Era England – Guest Post by Mary Sharratt, Author of “Daughters of the Witching Hill”

Please read through to the bottom of this post for giveaway details.

In 1612, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest in Lancashire, Northern England were hanged as witches, accused of committing murderous acts of diabolical sorcery. My novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, is based on this tragic history.

The prosecution, wishing to provide evidence of this alleged satanic magic, cited the charms and spells of accused witch Mother Demdike’s family. (Mother Demdike, whose real name was Elizabeth Southerns, died in prison before she could come to trial, but she was the most notorious of the accused, the supposed ringleader who had initiated all the others.) Her charms, recorded in the trial transcripts, reveal absolutely no evidence of devil worship, but instead use the ecclesiastical language of the Catholic Church, the old religion outlawed and literally demonized in Reformation era England. Mother Demdike’s incantation to cure a bewitched person—quoted by her granddaughter Jennet Device, one of the main witnesses for the prosecution, and considered damning evidence of diabolical sorcery—is, in fact, a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ, as witnessed by the Virgin Mary.

What is yonder that casts a light so farrandly,
Mine owne deare Sonne that’s naild to the Tree . . . .

In places, the text of this charm is very similar to the White Pater Noster, an Elizabethan prayer charm which Eamon Duffy discusses in his landmark book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580.

Her charm to get drink is in ecclesiastical Latin:

Crucifixus hoc signum vitam Eternam. Amen.

(Literal translation: the crucifix is the sign of eternal life.)

Mother Chattox, Demdike’s sometimes friend, sometimes rival, also employed charms full of this same Catholic imagery. The following is Chattox’s incantation to cure a bewitched person:

Three Biters hast thou bitten,
The Hart, ill Eye, ill Tonge:
Three bitter shall be thy Boote,
Father, Sonne, and Holy Ghost
a Gods name,
Fiue Pater-nosters, fiue Auies,
and a Creede,
In worship of fiue wounds
of our Lord.

In modern language the last part would read: five Pater Nosters, five Ave Marias, and a Creed, in the worship of the five wounds of our Lord—the cunning woman would then say these prayers while contemplating the five wounds of Christ.

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

Unfortunately these cunning folk of Pendle Forest had the misfortune to live in a place and time when Catholicism was conflated with witchcraft. Even Reginald Scot, one of the most enlightened men of the English Renaissance and a great skeptic regarding witchcraft accusations, believed the act of transubstantiation, the point in the Catholic mass where it is believed that the host becomes the body and blood of Christ, was an act of sorcery. In 1645, in a pamphlet by Edward Fleetwood entitled A Declaration of a Strange and Wonderfull Monster, describing how a royalist woman in Lancashire supposedly gave birth to a headless baby, Lancashire is described thusly: ‘No part of England hath so many witches, none fuller of Papists.’ Keith Thomas’s social history Religion and the Decline of Magic is an excellent study on how the Reformation literally took the magic out of Christianity.

Mary Sharratt’s acclaimed new novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL (my review), is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To learn more about her and the history of the Pendle Witches, visit her website:

Digiprove sealCopyright protected by Digiprove © 2010

8 comments to Catholicism and Perceived Witchcraft in Reformation-Era England – Guest Post by Mary Sharratt, Author of “Daughters of the Witching Hill”

  • Amy

    Woohoo! I keep seeing reviews of this book and am really looking forward to reading it. I have to say a huge thank you for including Canada in this one :)

    I’ve read a few books based on witchcraft trials in New England but this is one I hadn’t heard of. Interesting how they equated catholicism with witchcraft. Nothing like religion to drive people apart it seems.

  • I was very grateful while I was reading this to know that I enjoy a certain level of religious freedom. I shudder to think at some of the things that I say which could easily be misinterpreted.

  • Now I really want to get my hands on this one. Although the last thing I need is another book to read.

  • I have this book sitting on the short stack and I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Being a Catholic, I am horrified at our practices that were perceived as witchcraft! I wouldn’t have lasted long I fear. Nice post!

  • I’ve been following this tour and “devouring” the posts. I find the subject so fascinating. It’s amazing that what is acceptable and even encouraged one day is condemned the next. We truly are lucky to be able to enjoy the freedoms that we do.
    Thanks for the great post and for the chance to win this book – I’m really looking forward to reading it!

  • I cannot wait for this book!! I remember reading Witches’ Children by Patricia Clapp, which lead to on a journey of non-fiction reading about the Salem Witch Trials. I love, love, love the subject, and if the Hubs wasn’t allergic to cold weather I’d make him move to Salem.

  • I’ve been following this book around, too – I’d love to read it!