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:

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Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt – Book Review

Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

In a time when the old ways of Catholicism were banned in England, Bess Southerns wants nothing to do with the dour new Puritan ways. The things that comfort her heart are the Catholic rites and rituals. When a spirit named Tibbs comes to her and promises her a future as a cunning woman, it is the old Latin prayers of Catholicism that Bess mutters to bring healing to those hurting around her.

Bess’s daughter, Liza, also has a spirit, but she denounces him before long; she is not, though, above living off of the payments from Bess’s healing work. The women know that what Bess is doing could be dangerous, both for the aspects of magic and those of Catholicism, but everyone in their village seems to accept Bess as a force of good. Besides, as poor as they are, they have little other choice. However, the religious and political climate is growing ever more precarious with the ascension to the throne of James I, a man who is obsessed with the occult.

“Daughters of the Witching Hill” is a fantastic read. I was thoroughly immersed in the world of rural 16th century England. The pattern of dialogue was somewhat archaic and at times a bit difficult, but once I got into the story, it only added to the sense of time and place. I bought in so completely to the world that Sharratt was showing me, that I could help stopping and comparing the lives of these women in Pendle Forest to that of the men and women of London and Queen Elizabeth’s court in the same general time period. I was astounded by the differences time and time again, and yet it all rang true.

One of the most interesting things about “Daughters of the Witching Hill” is that Sharratt does not assume that all who were accused of practicing witchcraft and magic were innocent. Whether or not the modern reader wants to believe in the efficacy of Bess’s potions and murmurings, she certainly believes that she is doing a form of magic, as do the people around her. I appreciated that Sharratt wrote this story in, what seemed to me, ambiguous enough of a way that it wasn’t really clear whether Bess’s mutterings worked any change on her patients, or whether there were other less supernatural forces at work. I could still accept the outcomes without having to suspend my disbelief and was still able to keep this novel squarely in the realm of historical fiction without having to venture into fantasy.

For a book about  accused witches, there was so much more here! Politics, religion, history, power struggles, the lives of everyday people – and women in particular. I highly recommend this book.

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