Historical Fiction: Daughters of the Witching Hill, by Mary Sharratt

Cunning folk

Set in an age when your religious beliefs could kill you and it was difficult to differentiate between superstition and reality, Daughters of the Witching Hill tells the story of the infamous “Pendle Witches” from the fictionalized point of view of the “witches” themselves. Unmarried women were always at risk in 17th century England, and elderly Mother Demdike, the bastard sister of local gentry, heads a family steeped in poverty and hunger, and dismayed and confused by the religious law of the land. Mother Demdike is a skilled healer and “blesser” of people and animals, and that gives her a certain status in her rural community, as well as providing a marginal income. Her immediate descendants seem to have inherited some of her abilities. But the power to heal is the power to harm, and when the regional magistrate decides to make an impression on King James, that devout believer in witchcraft, his malicious eye alights upon this family.

What Daughters of the Witching Hill does best is convey a vivid impression of life among the poor during this tumultuous era. Are Mother Demdike and her family really witches? Well, they hold some beliefs and have some experiences that suggest that they were. But the “blessings” (charms?) that they used were simply old Catholic prayers. Did they actually have powerful familiars? Perhaps, or perhaps because of their condition, chronically bordering upon starvation, perhaps they merely had hallucinatory visions. They were not, however, able to use their “powers” to rescue themselves once they were imprisoned. It is questions such as these that lend an aura of mysticism to this otherwise desolate story.

Review based upon an advance reader copy provided by Amazon.com.

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