This vivid and wrenching novel is based on a real-life witch hunt, during which seven women and two men from Pendle Forest were hanged for witchcraft.
The most notorious of the accused, Elizabeth Southerns, or Mother Demdike, cheated the hangman by dying in prison. This is how Thomas Potts describes her in his book The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, the official transcript of the 1612 Pendle Witch Trial:
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.
1. Does the book’s portrayal of magic and cunning folk in early modern Britain feel authentic to you? Did the book change any of your views on historical witchcraft?
2. Compare the Pendle Witch Trials to the more familiar Salem Witch Trials of
1692. What were the primary differences in the social forces driving the two witch hunts?
3. A cunning woman of longstanding repute, Bess Southerns earned her living by using her folk charms to heal humans and livestock. She practiced her craft for decades before anyone dared to interfere with her. Only at the age of eighty, near the end of her long and productive career, was she arrested on witchcraft charges. Why do you think this was?
4. Unlike many other accused witches, Bess freely admitted to being a cunning woman, and she even bragged to the magistrate about her familiar spirit, Tibb, who appeared to her in the guise of a beautiful young man. Why didn’t Bess try to save herself by denying the accusations?
5. Who, or what, is Tibb, Bess’s familiar spirit? Do you see him as good, evil, or neither? Does he ultimately benefit Bess or lead her into tragedy?
6. The cunning craft Bess practiced reveals a sincere faith in the power of Catholic prayers combined with folk beliefs in familiar spirits, sympathetic magic, and the fairy folk. Would you describe her worldview as ultimately Christian or pagan? How does Bess’s spiritual vision differ from that of fellow accused witch Alice Nutter, a recusant Catholic, who concealed outlawed priests in her manor house?
7. Bess’s family’s charms were recorded in the trial documents and presented as evidence that her family practiced diabolical witchcraft. Yet these charms were Catholic prayers: one was a moving depiction of the Virgin Mary watching her son die on the cross. Why were the Protestant authorities so eager to conflate Catholicism and witchcraft?
8. Why do you think so many people in Lancashire, England, clung to the outlawed Catholic faith in the face of persecution and death?
9. Is Chattox justified in her actions to protect her daughter, Anne Redfearn, when she knows the authorities will do nothing to help her? What would you have done in Chattox’s situation?
10. How does Jamie’s affliction—as well as his community’s ignorance and bigotry—shape his fate?
11. What do you think is the origin of the “green sickness” that kills Alizon’s best friend, Nancy? How did people’s view of illness in this period mirror their beliefs in witchcraft and the supernatural?
12. Why is magistrate Roger Nowell so obsessed with witch-hunting? After having known about Bess and her magical activities for several decades, why does he finally make his move in 1612?
13. Why is it so important for Roger Nowell to convince the authorities that a vast conspiracy of satanic witches is threatening to undermine the social order? After arresting so many of Bess’s friends and relatives, why does Nowell spare Bess’s son Kit and his family?
14. What do you think of nine-year-old Jennet Device and her betrayal of her family? What do you think happened to her after the trial?
15. What enduring message does the Pendle witch tragedy have for people of our time?
A Conversation with Mary Sharratt
How did you come to write a novel about the Pendle Witches of 1612?
Pendle Hill is steeped in legends of the Pendle Witches, who left their indelible mark on the region. In the surrounding countryside, you see images of witches: on buses, pub signs, road signs, bumper stickers. I made the mistake of thinking that these witches belonged to the realm of fairy tale and folklore, but no. They were real people. The stark truth, when I took the time to learn it, would change me forever.
Besides Mother Demdike, why did you choose her granddaughter Alizon Device as one or your heroines?
In contrast to her grandmother, Alizon seemed to view her own powers with a mixture of bewilderment and terror. Although the first to be accused of witchcraft, Alizon was the last to be tried at Lancaster. Her final recorded words on the day before she was hanged were a passionate vindication of her grandmother’s legacy as a healer.
You say Bess was a cunning woman. Who were the historical cunning folk?
Cunning folk were men and women who used charms and herbal cures to heal, foretell the future, and discover the location of stolen property. The need for the services they provided was too great. Doctors were so expensive that only the very rich could afford them, and the “physick” of this era involved bleeding patients with lancets and using dangerous medicines such as mercury— your local village healer with her herbal charms was far less likely to kill you.
How do your Pendle Witches of 1612 differ from the more familiar Salem Witches of 1692?
While 17th-century Salem was a fairly homogeneous Puritan society, Lancashire was anything but. Despite Henry VIII’s sacking of Whalley Abbey and the laws of religious conformity passed by his daughter Elizabeth I, the Reformation was slow to take root here, and many people remained stubbornly Catholic in the face of persecution and death. Mother Demdike’s spells, cited in the trial as evidence of diabolical sorcery, were Catholic prayer-charms.
So are you saying that Mother Demdike and her family at Malkin Tower were merely misunderstood practitioners of Catholic folk magic?
The truth seems more complicated than that. Although her charms drew on the mystical imagery of the pre-Reformation Church, Bess and her sometimes-friend, sometimes rival Anne Whittle accused each other of using clay figures to curse their enemies. Both women freely confessed, even bragged about their familiar spirits. Bess’s description of her decades-long partnership with her spirit Tibb seems to reveal something much older than Christianity.
So who was Tibb? The devil?
No. The devil, as such, played a very minor role in English witchcraft. Instead, the familiar spirit took center stage: this was the cunning person’s otherworldly spirit helper, who could shapeshift between human and animal form. In traditional English folk magic, it seemed that no cunning man or cunning woman could work magic without the aid of their familiar—they needed this otherworldly ally to make things happen.
Copyright © 2010 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Discussion questions written by Mary Sharratt.