The ‘Old Religion’ of Pendle Hill

In the early 17th century, a condemned witch goes to the gallows, saying under her breath an incantation of the Old Religion.

Only the incantation invokes the Virgin Mary, Ave, Regina Caelorum, and the old religion is Roman Catholicism, made virtually synonymous with treason during the reigns of Edward VI, Elizabeth I, and James I of England.

Considerations of treason would go over the heads of the Pendle witches, however, a group of mostly poor rural women in northern England caught up in an atmosphere of religious turmoil and fear of invasion from Catholic Spain.

Based on court trial records, Mary Sharratt’s Daughters of the Witching Hill tells a generational family story of “cunning women,” folk healers in a popular Catholic tradition (like Mexican curanderas) whose conduct becomes criminalized after the “stripping of the altars” and the destruction of popular Catholicism in the mid-1500s.

In a way that reminds me a bit of some of Mary Stewart’s work, Sharratt follows three generations of women struggling with poverty and seeking the doubled-edged respect and fear of being capable of healing—and thus also of cursing.

To be honest [says Bess Southerns, the grandmother] I didn’t give a toss about the Pope in Rome or any plots in faraway lands, but I yearned for the sense of sanctity and protection that hung over us then [before the Protestant Reformation], the talk of miracles and wonders, a prayer and a saint to ward us from every ill and the solace of the Blessed Mother. Now we’d been left to stand stark and unshielded, to bear whatever cruel lot Providence cast our way.

When Bess, also known as Mother Demdike, risks teaching the making of clay images to a friend’s daughter, Annie, the girl responds, “Are you saying that anyone who moulds clay might work witchcraft, Mother Demdike? Then there’d scarely be a landlord left alive.”

Whatever we might say about the talk of familiar spirits appearing as dogs and boys that the accused witches revealed at their trial, Sharratt treats these as real elements of the plot, giving the story a Gothic edge that moves it beyond the Christian world and suggests why today’s English Witches might still look back four hundred years and wonder just what was happening in Lancashire.

This publisher’s video “trailer” lets you see the novel’s physical setting.

One thought on “The ‘Old Religion’ of Pendle Hill

  1. There might be more than one might initially suspect in saying that rural folk-healers who happened to be good Catholics were followers of “the Old Religion.” Especially when we find these practitioners of the Old Religion being sent to the gallows by Protestants.

    Catholicism has a significantly higher tolerance for genuine syncretism with non-Christian religions than Protestantism does. (“Genuine” syncretism is not be confused with “Borg-style” syncretism in which two religions go into a room together but only one comes out — possibly wearing random bits and pieces of the other religion’s clothes.)

    In fact, over the last five centuries successive forms of Christianity have appeared with ever increasing hostility to any genuine syncretism (and not even much tolerance for the Borg variety). Modern day Pentecostalists (followers of a genuinely “new” religious movement born in Los Angeles in 1906) in Latin American and Africa pride themselves on their “zero tolerance” policy towards all remnants of indigenous religiosity, which they see as just so much devil worship and demon possession.

    Part of the mission of Protestantism appears to be, in essence, a spiritual warfare mopping up operation necessitated by the incompleteness of the Christianization process overseen by the Papists.

    The reference to Mexican curanderas is especially apt. These are often people who have, indeed, kept alive their indigenous (Nahua, Maya, Huichol, etc) religious traditions while still being good Catholics. From the perspective of primary/Pagan religions there is no problem with such spiritual dual-citizenship. It in no way implies that the person is no longer a genuine practitioner of their “Old Religion”, because The Old Religion does not view religious identity as a zero-sum game.

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