Q and A with Mary Sharratt

Please welcome Mary to Serendipitous Readings, and my sincere apologies for posting this late, Laptop since Sunday has had a mind of its own.

In Daughters of the Witching Hill you tackle a pretty gruesome historical event that actually occurred.  What was it that interested you in the Pendle Witch Trials that made you want to write about it? – In 2002, I moved to the Pendle region of Lancashire, England—the rugged Pennine landscape that borders the West Yorkshire Dales. Pendle Hill is steeped in its legends of the Lancashire Witches. Everywhere you go in the surrounding countryside, you see images of witches: on buses, pubs signs, road signs, bumperstickers. Visiting American friends found this all quite unnerving. “Mary, why are there witches everywhere?” they’d ask me.
In the beginning, I made the mistake of thinking that these witches belonged to the realm of fairy tale and folklore, but no. They were real people.

In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged as witches, condemned on “evidence” provided by a nine-year-old girl and her brother, who appeared to suffer from learning difficulties.

What really hooked me on this particular witch trial is that two of the accused, Mother Demdike and Mother Chattox, had established reputations as cunning women. During the interrogations they made no attempt to deny their perceived powers. They gave every indication of being proud of their craft.

Was there something about the strong women that you found in your research that made you want to be back in that time to experience what they were going through and how they accomplished what they did? – Yes, most definitely.

Mother Demdike, called Bess in my novel, had the most infamous reputation. According to the primary sources, she was the ringleader, the one who initiated the others into witchcraft. Demdike was so frightening to her foes because she was a woman who embraced her powers wholeheartedly. This is how Court Clerk Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, his account of the 1612 trials: – “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. ”

Not bad for an eighty-year-old lady! Reading the trial transcripts against the grain, I was amazed at how her strength of character blazed forth in the document written expressly to vilify her.

Mother Demdike freely admitted to being a healer and a cunning woman. Her neighbours called on her to cure their children and their cattle. What fascinated me was not that she was arrested and imprisoned but that the authorities only turned on her near the end of her long, productive life.

So much has been written about her and the other accused witches. In writing this book, I wanted to travel back in time with Mother Demdike and give the story back to her. I wanted to let her tell her story in her own words.

It was certainly a difficult time in the 17th century when all of these witch hunts were going on in Europe and North America as well.  Was there an actual consensus that there actually were witches in the midst or was it just something that got carried away with? – During the times of active, ongoing persecution, the authorities indeed appeared convinced that witches were real agents of evil in their community and that they had to be stopped. Yet even in the times of persecution there were skeptics, such as Reginald Scot, whose book, The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), argued that most accused witches were just harmless old women and persecuting them was unchristian.

Scot was pitted against alarmists such as King James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, whose book Daemonologie (1597), argued that a vast conspiracy of satanic witches was threatening to undermine the nation. In 1590 James personally oversaw the trials by torture for around seventy individuals implicated in the North Berwick Witch Trials, the biggest Scotland had known. The witches’ alleged crime? Raising a storm which nearly sank James’ ship when he sailed home from Norway with his new bride, Anne of Denmark. Possibly dozens were executed by burning at the stake, although the precise number is unknown.

When James ascended to the English throne in 1603, he ordered all copies of Reginald Scot’s book to be destroyed.

What is it you most dislike?
– There are so many misperceptions about historical witchcraft. For example, there’s the cliché that witchcraft persecutions were a phenomenon of medieval superstition and that is simply not true. The European witch hunts, spanning from around 1450 and tapering off around 1700, were a phenomenon of the Renaissance and the Reformation.

What talent besides writing would you like to do and why? – I’m a passionate horsewoman. I only started taking riding lessons in my late thirties, then I bought my own horse, a beautiful Welsh mare, about two years ago. When I’m not writing, I’m usually riding.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? – I wish I could be taller and have really long legs like a top equestrian!

What do you consider your greatest achievement? – What I hope to achieve in my writing is to give voice to the voiceless. To give the people in history who were silenced and disempowered their voices back so that they can tell their stories. If readers are as touched by Mother Demdike’s story as I am, I’d consider that a huge achievement.

What is your idea of perfect Happiness? – Riding my horse up Pendle Hill on a beautiful spring day.

Who are your favourite authors? Why? – I love how Louise Erdrich evokes an entire landscape and community of interrelated people, book after book. And I love the way Sarah Dunant pours her considerable research skills into her historical fiction, completely challenging our (mis)perceptions of the time and place she is writing about.

Who are your heroes in real life?
– The story-tellers, writers, and historians who keep the old ways alive and who serve the memory of those long silenced.

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