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Article ID: 15207

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Of Witches and Saints

Author: Mary Sharratt
Posted: October 7th. 2012
Times Viewed: 2,212

This summer marked the 400th Anniversary of the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials. In August 1612, seven women and two men from the Pendle region in Lancashire, England were hanged for witchcraft based on evidence given by a nine-year-old girl. The most notorious of the accused, Elizabeth Southerns alias Old Demdike, escaped the hangman by dying in prison before she could even come to trial. She is the heroine of my novel, Daughters Of The Witching Hill.

Throughout the Pendle Region, people commemorated this solemn anniversary. A record number of “Witches” in fancy dress climbed Pendle Hill. A statue of accused Witch Alice Nutter has been unveiled in her native village of Roughlee. I was a speaker at Capturing Witches, a multidisciplinary conference at the University of Lancaster where academics and speakers from all over the world met to discuss everything from historical witchcraft, to Neopagan practice, to the shocking persecution of the so-called child “Witches” in modern day Nigeria.

It is my sincere hope that these events have restored honour to the Pendle Witches, that Mother Demdike and her fellow accused will be remembered not as some ghoulish sideshow ala Most Haunted, but as real people who unjustly suffered and died on account of other people's ignorance and religious intolerance.

This summer has also marked the much belated canonization of 12th century powerfrau, Hildegard von Bingen, 873 years after her death. The great visionary Hildegard is the heroine of my new novel, Illuminations.

Some readers might wonder how I could make the leap from writing about historical Witch, Mother Demdike, to Hildegard, a Benedictine abbess. In fact, Hildegard and Demdike had a lot in common. Demdike earned her bread as a healer with her charms and herbal remedies. She was known as a cunning woman, a woman of wisdom. Hildegard, a brilliant polymath and composer, healed with herbs and gemstones. She believed in viriditas, the green and animating life force manifest in the natural world, infusing all creation with moisture and vitality. She also celebrated the Feminine Divine and called God Mother. Her vision of the universe was an egg inside the womb of God.

Demdike was guided by visions of Tibb, her familiar spirit, while Hildegard was called "Sibyl of the Rhine" and revered for her visions and prophecies. Demdike's charms, recorded in the official trial documents, drew on the mystical imagery of the old Catholic Church, outlawed by the Reformation. Hildegard's gemstone remedies seem to draw on sympathetic magic, as seen in her "Sapphire Charm" listed below.

Both women seemed to inhabit a worldview where the boundaries between religion, magic, and visionary experience were fluid. Demdike, a practitioner of Catholic folk magic who also appeared to believe in the so-called Faery Faith that coexisted alongside Christianity for centuries, fell foul of her Puritan magistrate and was condemned as a Witch. She died, most likely of hunger and typhoid, while imprisoned in a lightless dungeon, chained to a ring in the floor with the eleven other accused Pendle Witches.

The founder of two monasteries, Hildegard would seem to be a pillar of the religious orthodoxy of her day. Yet even she earned the enmity of her archbishop when she refused to disinter a supposed apostate buried in her churchyard. As punishment for her disobedience to male authority, she and her nuns suffered an interdict—or collective excommunication—lifted only a few months before her death. Hildegard might well have died an outcast, a fate hauntingly similar to that of the contemporary sisters and nuns of the Leadership Council of Women Religious who currently face a Vatican crackdown and stand accused of radical feminism. I believe that if Hildegard lived today, she would be under fire with her modern day sisters. And if she had lived in Demdike's Puritan England with its abhorrence of mystical experience, she might also have been accused of witchcraft.

For centuries Hildegard remained all but forgotten. After her death, her theological writings were deemed too dense and difficult for subsequent generations to understand and soon fell into obscurity, as did her music. According to Barbara Newman, Hildegard was remembered mainly as an apocalyptic prophet. But in the age of Enlightenment, prophets and mystics went out of fashion. Hildegard was dismissed as a hysteric. Even the authorship of her own work was disputed as pundits began to suggest a man had written her books.

Newman states that Hildegard’s contemporary rehabilitation and resurgence was due mainly to the tireless efforts of the nuns at Saint Hildegard Abbey. In 1956, Marianna Schrader and Adelgundis Führkötter, OSB, published a carefully documented study that proved the authenticity of Hildegard’s authorship. Their research provides the foundation of all subsequent Hildegard scholarship.

In the 1980s, in the wake of a wider women’s spirituality movement, Hildegard’s star rose as seekers from diverse faith backgrounds embraced her as a foremother and role model. The artist Judy Chicago showcased Hildegard at her iconic feminist Dinner Party installation. Medievalists and theologians rediscovered Hildegard’s writings. New recordings of her sacred music hit the popular charts. The radical theologian Matthew Fox adopted Hildegard as the figurehead of his creation-centred spirituality. Fox’s book Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen remains one of the most accessible and popular books on the 12th-century visionary. In 2009, German director Margarethe von Trotta made Hildegard the subject of her luminous film, Vision. And all the while, the sisters at Saint Hildegard Abbey were exerting their quiet pressure on Rome to get Hildegard the official endorsement they believed she deserved.

Pope John Paul II, who had canonized more saints than any previous pontiff, steadfastly ignored Hildegard’s burgeoning cult, possibly because he was repelled by her status as a feminist and New Age icon. Ironically it is his successor, Benedict XVI, one of the most conservative popes in recent history—who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, expelled Matthew Fox from the Dominican Order where Fox had served for thirty-four years—is finally giving Hildegard her due. Reportedly Joseph Ratzinger, a German, has long admired Hildegard. He not only canonized her but also in October will elevate her to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title given to theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine. Currently there are only thirty-three Doctors of the Church and only three are women.

While such a lofty title will likely never be attached to Mother Demdike, let's hope that she and the other Pendle Witches might be remembered with respect and sad reflection for what they were forced to endure.

The Pendle Witch tragedy is as relevant in 2012 as it was in 1612. Witch-hunts are still ongoing. Children in West Africa and even the United Kingdom are being tortured and killed.

May we work together to end this injustice. May mystics and visionaries of all faith backgrounds receive recognition and honour. May all Witch-hunts end forever.


Hildegard's Sapphire Charm to dispel undesired attraction

Sapphire is hot and develops after noontime, when the sun burns ardently and the air is a bit obstructed by its heat. The splendor is not as full as it is when the air is a bit cool. Sapphire is turbid, indeed fierier than airy or watery. It symbolizes a complete love of wisdom . . ..

If the devil should incite a man to love a woman so that, without magic or the invocation of demons, he begins to be insane with love, and if this is an annoyance to the woman, she should pour a bit of wine over a sapphire three times and each time say, "I pour this wine, in its ardent powers, over you; just as God drew off your splendor, wayward angel, so may you draw away from me the lust of this ardent man."

From Hildegard von Bingen's Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing, translated from the Latin by Priscilla Throop, and published by Healing Arts Press.


Mary Sharratt

Location: Great Harwood, England


Bio: Mary Sharratt's acclaimed novel of the Pendle Witches, DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL, is available in paperback and ebook. Her new novel ILLUMINATIONS: A NOVEL OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN is published October 9 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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