The Pendle Witches
As a spiritual person, I am fascinated with women’s experience of the sacred. We women, for the past five-thousand years of patriarchy, have been side-lined and marginalized by every established religion in the world. But in every age, there have been women who have heroically rebelled against this patriarchal stranglehold to claim their authentic spiritual experience. Often it has involved looking within rather than without for spiritual guidance.
Thus far in my essay series, A Visionary History of Women, I’ve discussed Hildegard of Bingen and Margery Kempe who carved out their own woman-centered paths as mystics.
But what about women whose mystical experiences fell outside of the parameters of any organized religion?
One of the most important texts I have ever read was J. Kelly Gadol’s essay, “Did Women Have a Renaissance?” She points out that while elite European men were experiencing a Renaissance, women’s rights and lifestyle choices were becoming increasingly constricted during this period. The Renaissance was a very dangerous time to be female–women were the primary targets of the mass witch-hunting hysteria sweeping across Europe. Witchcraft persecutions were not a phenomenon of medieval superstition, as is commonly believed, but of the Renaissance and the Reformation, stretching up to the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment.
The pre-Reformation Catholic Church, for all its problems and abuses, at least offered a space for female mystical and visionary experience. However, the hard-line Protestantism that followed the Reformation offered no space at all. If you saw visions or whispered prayer charms or left offerings at a holy well or lit a fire on midsummer eve to protect your cattle, you were suddenly seen as a witch, in league with the devil.
In winter 2002, I moved to Lancashire, in northern England. The back of my house looked out on Pendle Hill, famous for its legends of the Pendle Witches of 1612, the amazing real women at the heart of my novel Daughters of the Witching Hill.
In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged as witches, based on testimony given by a nine-year-old girl.
The most notorious of the accused was Elizabeth Southerns, alias Old Demdike. Allow me to introduce you to a woman of power who changed my life forever.
This is how Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, the official trial transcripts.
She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had
been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast
place, fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time, no man
knows. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no
man escaped her, or her Furies.
Bess Southerns was a wisewoman of longstanding repute. What fascinated me was not that she had been arrested on witchcraft charges, but that she practiced her craft for decades before anyone dared to interfere with her or stand in her way. Cunning craft, the art of using charms to heal both humans and livestock was her family trade. When interrogated by her magistrate, she freely admitted to being a wisewoman and healer, even bragged about her familiar spirit Tibb, who appeared to her in the likeness of a beautiful young man.
At the time of her arrest, she lived in a place called Malkin Tower. Widow and matriarch of her clan, she lived with her widowed daughter and her three grandchildren, the most promising one being Alizon, a teenager who showed every promise of becoming a wisewoman as mighty of her grandmother.
In England, as opposed to Scotland and Continental Europe, witchcraft persecutions had been rare. Bess had been able to practice her craft in peace. This all changed when the Scottish King James I ascended to the English throne. King James was obsessed with the occult and had even written a book called Daemonologie—a witchhunter’s handbook—that his magistrates were expected to read.
The tide was turning for Bess and her family.
When a pedlar suffered a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Bess’s granddaughter Alizon, the local magistrate, eager to make his name as a witchfinder, played neighbors and family members against each other until suspicion and paranoia reached frenzied heights.
Alizon, first to be arrested, was the last to be tried at Lancaster in August, 1612. Her final recorded words on the day before she was hanged for witchcraft are a passionate tribute to her grandmother’s power as a healer. John Law, the pedlar Alizon had supposedly lamed, appeared before her. John Law, perhaps pitying the condemned young woman, said that if she had the power to lame him, she must also have the power to cure him. Alizon sadly told him that she lacked the powers to do so, but that if her grandmother, Old Mother Demdike, had lived, she could and would have healed him and restored him to full health.
Other novels have been written about the Pendle Witches, but mine is the only one to tell the story from Bess and Alizon’s point of view. I longed to give these women what their own world denied them—their own voice, their own story.
May the voices and visions of our motherline guide us to claim our own voice, our own story, our own vision, our own power. May we all be wisewomen walking forward.
Mary Sharratt is committed to telling women’s stories. If you enjoyed this article, you might want to check out her novel Daughters of the Witching Hill and visit her website.