Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Back to Pendle Hill

Who's up on Pendle Hill?
Photo by BasiliskSam

One of my Christmas presents (a rather unseasonal choice, as it turned out) was Jeanette Winterson’s latest foray into historical fiction, The Daylight Gate, a novel about the Pendle witch trials of 1612.  The Pendle trials saw 10 individuals executed for witchcraft, most famously the two elderly matrons Chattox and Demdike, but also the wealthy yeoman’s widow Alice Nutter, Winterson’s chief protagonist.

The Daylight Gate seems at first to be a realist and rational take on the Pendle material – the prosecutions presented as a cynical conspiracy against local pauper families by paranoid, misogynist local elites. In Winterson’s 17C Lancashire, people are routinely raped, tortured, starved, beaten and imprisoned in squalor, events here described with a reportage-style detachment.

However, The Daylight Gate slowly becomes something stranger, and engages at a pleasingly sophisticated level with research on early modern witchcraft trials. It’s been argued for some time now that the great witch-hunts of the 16C and 17C were made possible by a temporary fusion between the long-standing beliefs about witches found in rural traditional culture, and new intellectual, elite beliefs about the devil. Winterson weaves these two strands of early modern culture neatly together, plausibly linking up the spirit-conjuring of the gentleman magician John Dee in Elizabethan London, with Lancashire women boiling corpse heads in pots to injure their neighbours.

Historians are paying ever more attention to the claims of some early modern individuals that they were indeed witches able to wield dark powers – there are psychological explanations for this phenomenon, and even religious ones, as Michael Ostling has recently argued in his study of Polish witchcraft trials, Between the Devil and the Host. Winterson navigates these possibilities skilfully, giving us the Pendle witch scandal as its participants, with their 17C cosmologies, might have seen it. Pendle Hill itself is splendidly evoked, as a liminal place where boundaries between worlds might be crossed. If Hilary Mantel tries to make early modern England comprehensible to 21C readers by rendering it as a political and psychological thriller, Winterson presents a far stranger, more alien, and probably more authentic vision of that society.

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