Category Archives: History

Awesome Authors of the Womankind

Today is International Women’s Day, a day which commemorates the women’s rights movement around the globe. It is also known as the United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace – two very big and very pertinent topics in these turbulent, unpredictable and sadly occasionally regressive times. The 2018 International Women’s Day campaign theme is #PressforProgress, a timely reminder that there is still much to do in terms of achieving gender parity across the globe. It is important, I think, to celebrate our considerable successes, and 2018 marks one of the biggest achievements of women in 20th Century Britain with the centenary of some women gaining the right to vote. But it is equally important to be reminded that there is more work to be done – the recent #MeToo, #TimesUp and gender pay gap campaigns can attest to that.

While we are talking about reminders, it feels like a good time to mention that I’m still accepting submissions for the Women’s Suffrage Anthology I plan to put together this year. The deadline for submissions is April 30th, so don’t delay! Find out more here.

It also feels like an appropriate day to talk about influential, inspiring women! There has been a great deal of discussion about this in recent weeks, with media and news outlets running features and polls and creating lists of female greats from the arts, politics, history and other cultural icons. In keeping with this spirit I thought I’d put together my own list, specifically focused on some of the female writers, past and present, who have inspired me on my own journey:

Philippa Gregory

The Queen of Historical Fiction is one of my all-time favourite authors. Without a doubt Philippa Gregory was the writer who inspired me to embark on my own journey into writing historical fiction. Her keen eye for historical detail and deep understanding of the characters she portrays sets an extremely high standard for literature and, in my opinion, has helped to raise the reputation of a genre which was often dismissed as whimsical.

Virginia Woolf

I remember reading Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own, and not being able to get her words out of my head. As a female writer in the 21st century context, this idea of the value and importance of literal and figurative space is one that I return to frequently as both a source of reflection and creative inspiration. So who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not me.

Susie Orbach

I read Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue at university as part of my first year undergraduate Women’s Studies course. It was a book which really resonated with me and got me thinking seriously for the first time about body image, about the way we see ourselves and the social moulding of women and girls which begins at such a young age. I remember being struck by the notion that losing weight could really be about losing space – in the literal sense women striving to diminish themselves and take up less room in the world. Powerful stuff which has stuck with me all these years later.

Naomi Wolf

Another favourite from my time as a Women’s Studies undergrad, Wolf’s sharp look at beauty and physical perfection as a means of social control is the sort of book which will change the way you look at beauty ads! I loved this book – it was a real eye-opener and the first time I had read anything which challenged me to look, REALLY look at the images that I, as a young woman, was being bombarded with on a daily basis.

Christina Rossetti

If I’m in the mood for reading classic poetry, it’ll probably be something by Christina Rossetti. Her work is beautiful and stunning, and In the Bleak Midwinter is still my favourite Christmas carol.

Charlotte Bronte

It’s quite hard to choose between the Bronte sisters but for me Charlotte is my favourite, largely because I absolutely adore Jane Eyre. Writing at a time when female writers were subject to considerable prejudice (a fact which Bronte herself observed when choosing her masculine-sounding nom de plume Currer Bell), Charlotte and her sisters’ works stood out and are celebrated as classics to this day.

Elizabeth Gaskell

Another celebrated writer of the Victorian era, Gaskell wrote novels, short stories and biographies during her career, including the first biography of Charlotte Bronte. My favourite of her books is without doubt North and South – for me this novel is the epitome of the Gaskell’s sharp and capable social commentary framed within a wonderful story of romance across the class divide.

Mary Wollstonecraft 

A writer and a woman who needs no introduction. I read Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a student of history. I am still in awe of that book.

Tracy Chevalier

Best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, for me Chevalier is one of the best historical writers of modern times. Like Philippa Gregory, her work has inspired me on a personal level. Her stories are captivating; literary and yet wholly accessible. Falling Angels is my favourite of her books; I found its exploration of the late Victorian cult of death utterly fascinating.

MJ Rose 

Rose is the author I credit with introducing me to historical fantasy. In recent years I have read a lot of her books but without doubt my favourites are her Daughters of La Lune series. The stories are (quite literally) magical while the settings, from Belle Epoque Paris to New York in the roaring twenties, are rich and evocative. As a writer her books have given me a new perspective on writing about magic and weaving a touch of the fantastical into stories.

So, that’s my list! Which female writers do you find influential or inspirational? Please feel free to comment below. 

Book Tours, The Witch Child & Women’s Suffrage – A Wee Update

Happy Tuesday folks! Today I’m bringing you a wee update post – it’s been a busy time here with lots of things on the go. So, here’s a quick run down of what I’ve been up to over the past few weeks, along with a few reminders about what’s coming up:

I’ve been out and about telling everyone about Ethersay… and the response has been wonderful. Thank you to those groups in my home county of West Lothian who have invited me along to talk about and read from my latest novel. For a writer there is nothing better than getting the opportunity to share your work. It’s also great to get to tackle the huge range of  different questions your book prompts from readers – so far there has certainly been no such thing as…

I’ve been working on the third Witches of Pendle installment… more about this soon, but hopefully I’ve found my pace with this book now and hope to have it drafted by the end of the Spring. I won’t lie – it’s been a slow start. After finishing Ethersay I had such a ‘book hangover’ and really struggled to focus my mind on a new project. I’m pleased to report that I’ve finally got into a good rhythm with this piece of work and it’s going really well. This book will be a short novel and will take us back to 1612 and the childhood of Jennet Device/Sellers, the child star witness during the first Pendle Witch Trials. And…that’s all I’m telling you for now! Watch this space.

I’m still inviting submissions for an anthology about Women’s Suffrage… more about this here. A timely reminder about this project perhaps as today marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act (1918) was passed in the United Kingdom, granting the vote to women aged over 30 who met certain property qualifications. I plan to release an anthology of work on this subject in December 2018, to coincide with the first parliamentary election in which women were able to vote. I am seeking short stories from writers which address the theme of women and the vote. These stories don’t have to be historical, or indeed focused on the suffrage movement in the UK. I am looking for stories from across the globe and across the genres – tell me a contemporary story, a historical one, or indeed a futuristic one. Tell me a dystopian story, write me some sci-fi, or a comedy, a mystery or even a horror. Write me something which crosses the genres – I don’t mind, as long as it relates to the theme of women and the vote. The deadline is 30th April, so if you’d like to submit a piece of work check out the Anthology Submissions page for all the details.

Phew! That doesn’t seem so much, does it?! More updates from me coming very soon.

 

Submissions Invited for Women’s Suffrage Anthology

I’m excited to announce that I am now inviting submissions for a new anthology entitled Words and Deeds: Stories of a Woman’s Right to Vote.

As a writer, creating an anthology of work will be a new experience for me, and I am really looking forward to putting this together. The idea of producing an anthology is a recent one, and basically sprang from a short story I was putting together for submission to a literary magazine. I was writing a story about women’s suffrage, a subject which had been on my mind a lot recently as 2018 marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which granted suffrage in Britain to women over 30 who met certain property qualifications. Whilst it was another ten years until all women got the vote on the same terms as men, 1918 was undoubtedly a watershed moment in British history following half a century of campaigning by suffragists and suffragettes across these isles. Whilst I was writing it occurred to me that I wanted to do something more than write my own story in recognition of this and so the idea of an anthology was born.

All the information you need to submit is available here on my website. If you have a story you would like to tell which relates to women and voting, I’d love to hear from you! The deadline for submissions is 30th April 2018.

Book Review: The Words in my Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

The Words in My Hand is the re-imagined true story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid in 17th-century Amsterdam, who works for Mr. Sergeant, the English bookseller. When a mysterious and reclusive lodger arrives – the Monsieur – Mr Sergeant insists everything must be just so. It transpires that the Monsieur is René Descartes.

This is Helena’s story: the woman in front of Descartes, a young woman who yearns for knowledge, who wants to write so badly she makes ink from beetroot and writes in secret on her skin – only to be held back by her position in society.

Weaving together the story of Descartes’ quest for reason with Helena’s struggle for literacy, their worlds overlap as their feelings deepen; yet remain sharply divided. For all Descartes’ learning, it is Helena he seeks out as she reveals the surprise in the everyday world that surrounds him.

When reputation is everything and with so much to lose, some truths must remain hidden. Helena and Descartes face a terrible tragedy and ultimately have to decide if their love is possible at all.

This was one of those books which took me a while to get into. The story begins slowly, the focus almost entirely upon maid Helena and her mundane (although not uninteresting) routine, to the point where the reader begins to wonder if they will ever enjoy more than a fleeting glimpse of Monsieur Descartes. In those early chapters, we do see plenty of mid-seventeenth century Amsterdam, with Glasfurd’s rich descriptions leaving the reader feeling as though they are in the midst of it all. Nonetheless by a third of the way through the book, I was beginning to wonder when the story would begin.

Patience, however, proved to have its rewards and as the story between Helena and Descartes took off, the value in those earlier chapters becomes clear. We learn, for example, of Helena’s thirst for knowledge, her eagerness to learn to write and, implicitly, her determination to improve her lot. Glasfurd’s fluent and engaging prose paints a clear picture of Helena’s character and by the end of the novel I was heavily invested in her, sharing her triumphs, her tribulations and her disappointments.

By contrast, Glasfurd keeps Descartes at arms’ length. There is always an air of mystery about him; a sort of unknown quantity. I suspect that this was intentional but at times it could be frustrating – for reader and Helena alike! Nonetheless, the relationship which develops between Helena and Descartes is as heart-warming as it is unconventional, albeit still constrained by the social norms of their time, a fact which was always going to be to Helena’s great disadvantage. The ending is quite a punch in the gut for even the most stoic bookworm and, reader beware, don’t look up either Descartes or Helena on Wikipedia until you have reached the end, otherwise you will spoil the ending!

Overall, an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, slow to start but well-written and vividly drawn. Four stars.

Witches of Pendle Sale – The Final 24 Hours!

Background of this banner is based upon a section of https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pendle_Hill_01.JPG by Immanuel Giel Licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International License / CC-BY-SA-4.0Background Photo by Immanuel Giel / CC-BY-SA-4.0

A final reminder that my Witches of Pendle e-books are half price until the end of October – in other words, for another twenty four hours. So, don’t delay – grab your copies now!

Both novels are available from Amazon  and most other ebook retailers.

Halloween Chills and Magic Circles

At the beginning of October, I announced that my Witches of Pendle series is half price on ebook for the whole month of Halloween!

To continue the Halloween celebrations, today I’m pleased to bring you an extract from the first book in the series, The Gisburn Witch. In this chapter, Jennet and her new friends Elizabeth Device and Old Demdike go in search of a magic circle, said to have been used by a powerful cunning man. The women find themselves in woodland as the evening draws in and darkness and strange spirits abound…


Southern Pendle Forest, Near Huntroyde Hall

April 1597

“Are you sure we should be looking for this?” Jennet asked. Her earlier excitement had been replaced by nerves, and she kept glancing over her shoulder anxiously. The evening seemed unusually dark for the time of year, even by the standards of the Pendle countryside where day could often become night with remarkable rapidity. The weather was also beginning to turn, and Jennet noted the force with which the wind was toying with the tall trees overhead, teasing apart the delicate branches so that they appeared to swirl against the backdrop of the fading light. Although much of what was known as Pendle Forest had long ceased to be covered with the thick foliage to which it owed its name, this particular area did contain some small areas of woodland, and it was one of these little woods that Jennet and her two companions now sought.

“Mother is determined to find his circle,” replied Elizabeth. “Anyway, we’ve come too far to turn back now. Look, over there you can see the light from Huntroyde. We must be close.”

Jennet nodded. Elizabeth was right: ever since Edmund Hartley’s execution a month ago, the talk of the forest had been filled with tales of the bewitching and the magical, and through these tales Elizabeth’s mother had heard about a magical circle used by Edmund to ward off those who would do the devil’s work. Old Demdike had not been able to curb her curiosity and according to Elizabeth she had talked of little else these past weeks. With good reason, Jennet had thought, when Demdike had enthusiastically recounted the full tale to her during their journey. The recent events at Huntroyde Hall were nothing short of fascinating.

Two years earlier, a cunning man of high repute, Edmund Hartley, had been brought to Huntroyde to cure the two Starkie children, John and Anne, of the bewitchment which had taken hold of them in the form of seizures. After administering certain charms and remedies, Edmund appeared to have been successful, and the children were cured until about six months ago when their symptoms returned. In making more strenuous attempts to cure the children permanently, Edmund had created a circle so powerful that he could use it to command spirits to help him identify and defeat the witch who was cursing the children. The circle had ultimately proved to be his undoing, as he involved his employer, Master Nicholas Starkie, in the ritual and in the end, when Starkie decided that it was Edmund who was bewitching his children, he brought the story of the circle as evidence against him. Invocation of the spirits was, of course, punishable by death and Edmund was sent to the gallows. However, none of this had seemed to deter Old Demdike’s enthusiasm and she was determined to find the circle. Jennet was not certain of the exact purpose of her quest, although she suspected that the aged cunning woman hoped that, through mere contact with this magical artefact, she might emulate a practice which had previously been beyond her powers.

“Ah!” exclaimed a voice. “Here it is!”

Jennet peered in front of her, forcing her eyes to focus in the dim light. In the dusk she could just see a circle carved in the dirt and not much more. She could see Demdike slowly and deliberately bend down and trace her fingers over the ground. The old lady’s eyesight really was poor and Jennet reflected that it was nothing short of miraculous that she had managed to locate the circle this evening, which really showed her determination to find it.

“A circle made up of four parts, just as I thought.” Demdike spoke affirmatively.

“Should you touch the circle, Mother?” asked Elizabeth. Jennet could sense her growing reservations about their expedition.

“Perhaps not lass, but its magic is spent, I am sure of that.”

The conversation was interrupted by the sudden and fierce howling of the wind and the three women shivered with the realisation of the growing cold.

“Let’s return home,” said Elizabeth. “I feel a chill in the air, and we don’t want to get ill. Besides, I left John with the children and he will be wondering where I am by now. Have you seen all you need to see, Mother?”

In the dark Jennet sensed the old lady nod in agreement and the women turned to follow their path back home. As they did so, they heard the sharp and urgent sound of twigs breaking underfoot. Fearing their discovery on Starkie land, Jennet tried to stifle a gasp as she turned to see who was there. To her surprise, she could not decipher any human shadows in front of her. Instead, in front of the circle, where they had been standing moments earlier, were two eyes, glowing green and staring intently at her. By now the light had almost faded from existence, but Jennet could just about make out four legs and a creature which was just about the size of a dog. She breathed a sigh of relief.

“It’s just a dog,” Jennet informed the others. “It’s nothing to worry about.”

“A black dog,” replied Demdike.

 

The three women returned to Malkin Tower late that evening, much later than Jennet had anticipated; in her ignorance of Pendle’s exact geography she had not realised just how far away Huntroyde Hall would be from her new friends’ home. At this late hour, it was impossible to return to Gisburn tonight, in the dark and unaccompanied. Her companions realised this and upon arriving back at Malkin, they offered her some blankets so that she might stay the night. The three children and John, Elizabeth’s husband, were sleeping and for the first time Jennet was able to appreciate the peace and calm of this house, alone and isolated as it was on the Blacko hillside.

Jennet was tired and weary from another long walk, yet also elated, fuelled by the adrenaline of their venture. Her two companions had talked of nothing but the strange black dog they encountered at Edmund Hartley’s circle all the way home. It had just looked like an ordinary dog to Jennet, but Old Demdike seemed quite fixated upon it, as though it held some significance to the remains of the ritual she had examined, as though it had held the key to what had happened to Edmund Hartley. The more Jennet thought about it, the more it unnerved her, and the less inclined she felt to ask about it, even now in the safety of Malkin Tower.

“Won’t your husband worry?” asked Elizabeth, interrupting Jennet’s thoughts and clearly concerned for her new friend.

“Probably,” replied Jennet. “But he would be more concerned if he discovered I walked home alone, in the dark. If you don’t mind the best thing for me to do is to stay here for tonight.”

“Of course we don’t mind,” replied Elizabeth, kindly.

Both women glanced at Old Demdike, who was muttering to herself about the evening’s events.

“What is it, Mother?” asked Elizabeth.

The old woman appeared to be wild with her ideas. Jennet was momentarily concerned by her incessant mumbling, as though she was suffering a sort of madness. Hearing her daughter address her, Old Demdike looked up and remembering they had company, she composed herself.

“The sight of that black dog is troubling my mind,” she replied, with a hint of weariness. Clearly the afternoon’s events were beginning to tell on her physical and mental state.

“But surely, it was just a black dog? An animal from the nearby estate perhaps and it had simply lost its way and found itself in the woods?” asked Jennet.

Demdike looked at Jennet and released a sharp intake of breath, appearing to physically deflate as she did so.

“It’ll be difficult for you to understand, Jennet, I know. But you have to believe me when I tell you that it was not a mere black dog that startled us all tonight.” Old Demdike lowered her voice to a whisper. “Some say that the Starkie children are troubled still, even now that Edmund Hartley lies cold in the ground and despite the efforts of the two preachers who have been brought to Huntroyde to cast out their demons. I have heard that they are menaced by animal spirits and mainly by a black dog.”

Jennet gasped. “So it is true, then? Edmund Hartley was a witch? He brought the devil to Huntroyde to torment the children after being employed to help them?”

“Many folk around these parts think so, no doubt the Starkies do too,” replied Demdike. “I have my own theory: the black dog is one of the animal spirits that Edmund Hartley invoked to counter the magic of the witch who was attacking the Starkie children. However, because this spirit was attached to Edmund Hartley, because Hartley was his master and Hartley is now dead, the spirit remains here still, haunting the lives of those responsible for his master’s death.”

Jennet was incredulous. “And we saw it tonight?”

Demdike laughed. “Fear not, Jennet. The spirit has no business with us, you can sleep soundly.” The old woman yawned. “Speaking of which, I am exhausted and you must be too. We should all get some rest.”

Demdike turned to head towards her bed then quickly turned back to Jennet as though she had forgotten something.

“Oh, Jennet?” she said.

“Yes?” replied Jennet, half-yawning herself.

“I have something to help you with your troubles,” said Demdike, giving Jennet a meaningful stare.

The old woman handed Jennet a piece of cloth, inside which something was wrapped. Jennet gasped as she opened the piece of cloth, for inside was a small object, modelled in clay and shaped like a man’s penis.

“What am I to do with this?” Jennet asked, barely able to whisper.

“Place it under your pillow and sleep with it there every night. Once you are with child, leave it under your pillow until after the child is born. I gathered from your words to my daughter earlier that you have suffered the loss of many children. This will help you, as long as you don’t remove it until after you are safely delivered from child-bed,” Demdike advised in a very matter-of-fact manner, as though she might be a physician offering a remedy to a patient.

Jennet nodded in response. It was the strangest-looking item and indeed the strangest idea that she had ever heard. She could only imagine what William would say when he saw it. She couldn’t imagine what he would say if it actually worked.

“Thank you, this is very kind of you,” she replied, with genuine gratitude.

“It’s no trouble, Jennet,” Demdike said kindly. “You came with us tonight, hardly knowing either of us, and facing considerable danger, yet you came nonetheless. I doubt my daughter would ever have agreed to come with me if it hadn’t been for you. This is my way of thanking you.”

Demdike glanced at Elizabeth, who had been listening quietly and who smiled in agreement. Jennet nodded again. Without a further word between them, the three women retired to their beds, exhausted by the day’s events. That night, Jennet dreamt of the child she wanted, the child she had dreamt of many times before, the daughter with the brown curls in her hair, the freckles on her nose, a nose which wrinkled when she laughed. This time, however, the dream seemed different: they were running through the grounds of Westby Hall, laughing, and the girl was so vivid that Jennet could almost touch her. When she awoke, instead of sobbing as she normally did, Jennet smiled. This time she felt sure that the girl would be born, and that she would live.

The Gisburn Witch and A Woman Named Sellers are available from Amazon  and most other ebook retailers and are £1.99 until the end of October.

The art of poetry, and the musings of a teenage goth

For some time now, my husband and I have been having a debate. Unlike most of the debates we have (of which there are many – we are naturally argumentative souls), we have not yet managed to find a middle ground on this one.

The debate concerns the discovery of a teeny, innocent-looking book around eighteen months ago. Let me give you the scene: I’m sorting through my considerable book collection when I stumble upon a notebook, hard cover and adorned with the artwork of Paul Cezanne. Instantly, I remember it and it is one of those moments where the heart leaps when you realise that, contrary to what you thought, this little memento of your youth has survived. I open it and peruse the contents. In amongst Cezanne’s fine paintings of fruit and trees are my words, written between 1999 and 2001. This little book contains some of my teenage poetry.

Immediately I show the book to my husband. Looking back on that action alone, I realise now how incredible it was, and how teenage me would have cringed at showing her words to ANYONE. Mind you, teenage me cringed at a lot of things. My husband reads with interest, and afterwards he says something which still astounds – and terrifies – me. “Sarah,” he says, “you should publish this.” Straight away, I protest. “No,” I say, “who would want to read the angst-ridden ramblings of a teenager?” He laughs. “You should do it anyway,” he says, “and you could call it ‘the musings of a teenage goth’.”

Hmm. That was a lot of months ago, and no such poetry collection has been forthcoming from me as yet. I will admit that I like the proposed title, but I still find the idea of putting my poetry out there a bit excruciating. It’s weird; after writing a couple of books I am reasonably comfortable with my stories being scrutinised. My poetry, however, is another matter, perhaps because it’s so personal, such a window on my soul. And my teenage soul at that.

Tonight I re-read some of the works in my little collection and an idea occurred to me. I don’t think I’m ready to put it all out there but I might test the water a little and put a few of my favourites on my blog, one per post for a series of posts, and see what my lovely readers think.

Now, I will admit that with this first offering I am cheating a little; the following poem is one of the few to ever make it into the public domain, as it was published in the schools’ poetry collection, ‘2001: A Poetry Odyssey.’ At the time I was sixteen and studying war poetry in English literature. I had also not long returned from a visit to Ypres in Belgium as part of my history studies and my poetry at the time was greatly influenced by what I saw there.  So, without any further ado, this is “Ypres”:

Ypres

The flat green landscape once scarred by shells,

Was the setting for where the last man fell.

Corrupted by war, by murder and hate,

His name is now on a wall of the Menin Gate.

 

The soldier’s body was never found,

And buried by war, it remained on the ground.

But his friend John, he would have like what he got,

“Known unto God” in the cemetery of Tyne Cot.

 

Those two young soldiers, they’d had some fun,

In the back trenches, away from the Hun.

But when the wood became the front line,

The boys couldn’t escape the enemy in time.

 

It was he who fell first, and John soon after,

In the face of despair, all tears and no laughter.

Their souls were devoured by the appetite of war,

Just like all the brave soldiers who had gone before.

 

You can visit the memorials to those who fell,

Unable to comprehend their time in hell.

Please remember today those who met their fate,

And understand their warning; no good comes of hate.

Dangerous Women

I am delighted that today my article on the Pendle witches has been published by the Dangerous Women Project on their site.

The Dangerous Women Project is an initiative of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. A month ago, I saw the project’s call for submissions online, asking for articles which addressed the question ‘What does it mean to be a dangerous woman?’

Immediately, I knew I had to write something about the Pendle witches. As most of you who read my blog, my social media feeds and indeed my novels will know, the past couple of years for me have been occupied with researching and writing about the Pendle witches. The witches were also the subject of my undergraduate dissertation about a decade ago. I suppose you could say I am a little obsessed! During all this time, I have often been struck by how their communities came to genuinely regard them as so fundamentally malevolent and dangerous, and in my fictional recreation of their stories, I have strived to address why this was. My article today focusses on one aspect of this, their sexuality and sexual conduct as a form of undesirable behaviour.

You can find my article here. I hope you enjoy it.

‘Whores and Witches’

Cover Reveal: A Woman Named Sellers

I am very excited and proud to finally reveal the cover for A Woman Named Sellers. The cover image is from SelfPubBookCovers.com/diversepixel.

It is a beautiful image which suits the story so well. I cannot wait to see it on the front of the first paper copy!

A Woman Named Sellers

Why a Witch?

As many of you might have guessed, one of my favourite historical subjects of choice is the history of witchcraft – or, to be more specific, the history of the early modern witch trial. I first found a passion for this subject at university and I wrote my dissertation on the relationship between witchcraft accusations and religion, using the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials as a case study. Needless to say, years later when the idea of writing a historical novel struck me, writing about witchcraft in Pendle just seemed like a natural leap.

The historiographical field of witchcraft study is, like many academic fields, vast, filled with a range of views and theories. At the centre of all these learned opinions, however, is one important question: why were people accused of being witches? The purpose of today’s post is to summarise some of the main theories offered by historians as to why early modern men and women were accused of being witches, accused each other of being witches, and why the authorities pursued witches through the judicial system, a process which ultimately cost so many people their lives.

The Authoritarian View

Some historians have tended to view the history of witchcraft ‘from above’, that is to say, from the perspective of those in power, in order to speculate as to what might have motivated them to pursue witches in the law courts of Europe. Historians such as Christina Larner have asserted that the witchcraft phenomenon itself was a result of the concerns of rulers, lawyers and the clergy, who found that by creating deviants in society they could more effectively enforce conformity. Other historians, whilst taking the authoritarian view, have taken a less centrist approach. Brian Levack, for example, emphasises the role of local elites in pursuing witchcraft prosecutions.

I tend to think that the true merit of these views is somewhere in the middle. When I consider the 1612 trials in Pendle, for example, and the role that the local gentleman and Justice of the Peace Roger Nowell had in driving them forward, I think of a man who was motivated by both his own authoritarian and religious zeal and by the desire to impress those above him, most notably the King who was himself an author on the subject of witches, having published his own Daemonologie in 1597.

The Sociological View

Broadly speaking, this is the category into which most historians who consider the witchcraft phenomenon ‘from below’ would fit. Historians in this school of thought have often focussed on the social status of the accused in order to consider what this might indicate about why they were accused. MacFarlane and Thomas, for example, have placed accusations of witchcraft firmly within the context of village disputes and tensions between neighbours, advancing the view that the typical English witch was of low social status and that a witchcraft accusation was a result of the person’s tendency to curse when refused charity.

Of course, other historians have readily disputed this view since, of course, not all witches were poor. Yeoman and Karlsen, for example, have advanced the view that wealthy women were often targets for witchcraft accusations if they owned property or were the sole heiresses of  property, because their possessions would be coveted by men. Some historians have looked more specifically at family dynamics when considering witchcraft accusations, notably Arthur Douglas, who has speculated that family feuds often led to the spiralling of accusations as the suspects incriminated each other.

Many of these sociological views have a deal of merit when measured against the trials in Pendle. Consider, for example, the abject poverty of many of the accused, and the accusations and counter-accusations of the Demdike/Device and the Chattox/Whittle/Redfearne clans as the war between two families spiralled out of control. Consider also the strange case of Alice Nutter, a widow, wealthier than her counterparts (although probably not wealthy, as such); it has been argued that her son Myles was indebted and colluded in her accusation to speed up receipt of his inheritance.

What the sociological arguments underline, more than anything, is that in the early modern world there was not one type of witch, nor one single reason why someone might be singled out for accusation. Instead, there was a changing, complex society in which tension boiled and sometimes bouts of hysteria broke out. For me, these views are inextricably linked with economic considerations. The decades of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were a time of economic instability and as C. Patterson has acknowledged, this undoubtedly forms a causal link with social anxieties. For example, as J.T Swain has rather neatly argued, poor women often played upon a reputation of witchcraft in order to facilitate begging. Again, this is seen in the Pendle case; indeed, the catalyst for the entire episode was Alizon Device’s curse on the pedlar after he refused to give her some pins.

The Importance of Religious Tension

In the early modern period, theologically-based theories about witchcraft were prevalent across Europe, most notably the Malleus Maleficarum (or The Hammer of Witches) written by two Dominican monks. A whole host of historians, including Dillinger, Normand, Roberts and Sharpe, have done a considerably body of work on the role of the church in witch persecutions in their fight to eradicate evil, making a strong case for a link between witchcraft and religion which was both socially and intellectually engrained. Some historians, such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, have taken this argument further, making a particular study of the relationship between witchcraft accusations and Protestant and Catholic tensions, and concluding that witch trials in the early modern period were often to be found where there was discord between rival Christian doctrines.

For me, this is undoubted, and when you consider the 1612 case in Pendle, you can see the religious tensions as they filtered through society. The north of England at this time was filled with religious rivalries, first between gentry families, who lined up opposite each other along Protestant and Catholic lines, and secondly among the plethora of impoverished villagers, some ignorant of or indifferent to religious belief, some clinging to the old ways. For Roger Nowell, the zealous Protestant gentleman, the quasi-Catholic, semi-irreligious folk practices of the likes of Demdike and Chattox must have seemed a far greater threat than the unexplained deaths of a few neighbours and a handful of cattle. I imagine he winced when he heard pre-Reformation pater-nosters being recited as healing charms. For a man filled with the assurance of the new faith, the conflation of the word ‘witch’ and the word ‘papist’ probably wasn’t ideologically too tricky.

The Importance of Gender

Without a doubt, history has shown that many victims of the witchcraft trials were women. Despite this, historians have struggled to come to a universal view about why this was the case. Nonetheless, some interesting views have been put forward: for example, Diane Purkiss’ assertions that the frequent constructions of accused women as anti-housewife and anti-mother were expressions of social concern, and Ehrenreich & English’s view that those persecuted were midwives and healers in their community who were deliberately removed by the advancing male medical elite. James Sharpe, meanwhile, has preferred to look at the tensions between women, arguing that witchcraft accusations manifested in an environment where women rivalled each other for control of female social space.

I do think there is some merit in the argument that so-called ‘cunning women’ were vulnerable to being characterised as witches, not necessarily because of their gender but because of the easy link made between their herbal remedies and the witch’s malign potions by the early modern unscientific mind. I also find Sharpe’s argument about female rivalry to be quite irresistible in the context of the 1612 case in Pendle and the visceral hatred between Demdike and Chattox.

Overall, I find the gender dynamic interesting but not wholly convincing as I don’t think it is helpful to see witchcraft phenomenon solely through the lens of female victims and male oppressors. As we have seen already, the manifestation of the witchcraft accusation was often the result of a wealth of social and religious tensions, underscored by the concerns and interests of society’s upper echelons. Gender undoubtedly plays a part in this, but the individual circumstances of each trial and its participants would probably indicate whether it was a starring role, or merely a supporting act. I tend to agree with Christina Larner when she wrote that “witchcraft was not sex-specific but it was sex-related”.

Selected Further Reading

Dillinger, Johannes, “Terrorists and Witches: Popular Ideas of Evil in the Early Modern Period”, in History of European Ideas, Vol. 30, No. 2, (2004)

Douglas, Arthur, The Fate of the Lancashire Witches, (Chorley: Countryside Publications, 1978)

Ehrenreich, B and English, D, Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (Writers & Readers, 1976)

Karlsen, C, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman (New York: Norton, 1987)

Larner, C, Enemies of God: The Witch Hunt in Scotland, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1981)

Levack, B, “State-Building and Witch Hunting in Early Modern Europe”, in Oldridge, Darren (ed.), The Witchcraft Reader, (London: Routledge, 2002)

Macfarlane, A, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, (London: Routledge, 1970)

Normand and Roberts, cited in Newton, J, “Witches and Fairies in Early Modern Scotland”, in Seventeenth Century, Vol. 17, No. 2, (2002)

Patterson, C, “Conflict Resolution and Patronage in Provincial Towns, 1590-1640”, in The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, (1998)

Purkiss, D, reviewed in Rowlands, A, “Telling Witchcraft Stories: New Perspectives on Witchcraft and Witches in the Early Modern Period”, in Gender and History, Vol. 10, No. 2, (1998)

Sharpe, James, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550-1750, (London: Penguin, 1997

Swain, J.T, “The Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612 and the Economics ofWitchcraft”, in Northern History, Vol. 30, (1994)

Thomas, K, Religion and the Decline of Magic, (London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1971)

Trevor-Roper, H, The European Witch Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (London: Penguin, 1969)

Yeoman, L, “Hunting the rich Witch in Scotland: High Status Witchcraft Suspects and their Persecutors, 1590-1650”, in Goodare, J (ed.), The Scottish Witch Hunt in Context, (Manchester University Press, 2002)