My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"The said Elizabeth Southerns [alias Demdike] confesseth, and sayth; that about twenty years past, as she was coming homeward from begging, there met her near unto a stonepit in Gouldshey, in the said Forrest of Pendle, a spirit or devil in the shape of a boy, the one half of his coat black, and the other brown, who bade her stay, saying to her, that if she would give him her soul, she should have any thing that she would request." - Thomas Pott's in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, 1613
Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt is an historical novel based around events as recorded at the Pendle Witch Trials in Lancashire, England, in the year 1612. England at this time was under the rule of King James I and Catholicism was outlawed. As such, Papists were forced to practice their faith in secret and anyone caught doing so was tried by the local magistrate. James I also had a particular dislike of witches and declared that anyone suspected of practicing witchcraft should be prosecuted.
Daughters of the Witching Hill tells the story of these witches - some herbalists, others Papists - from the point of view of Elizabeth Southerns (Demdike) and her grand-daughter, Alizon Device. However, it is not a book on the trials per se, but rather a fictional account of the lives of the women at the forefront of the 1612 trials.
The story begins with Demdike as the narrator, who tells how she came to be in possession of the knowledge, skills and power to heal the sick through her relationship with a familiar spirit. She is able to provide a living for herself and her family through the provision of these services and goes on to teach her grandchildren in the way of her craft. However, her grand-daughter, Alizon, yearns to be normal and resents her magics for the fear they instill in other people. Yet when she is offended by a travelling pedler, her harsh words become a curse and from there begins the infamous Lancashire witchtrials of 1612.
Daughters of the Witching Hill provides an interesting insight into what life may have been like for those herbalists, midwives, cunning men and women, and even Papists who were accused of witchcraft during the 15th and 16th centuries, and of how even a seemingly small and innocent occurance can leave a permanent mark on the pages of history. Daughters of the Witching Hill gives voice to those women who are often regarded as some of the most feared and ruthless witches of all time.
I liked that the author decided to write this novel in first-person narrative from the points of view of two of the accused, however I think the story would have provided an even greater insight had Anne Whittle (Chattox) also been given a voice. Having lived her entire life on the fringes of society and being feared for a witch long before Demdike and Alizon Device, I cannot help but feel somewhat disappointed that her perspective is missing from this novel. However, for someone with a keen interest in the Pendle Witches (they are my favourite witches in history, afterall), I found Daughters of the Witching Hill to be a passionate re-telling of one of history's darkest and most intriguing moments.