The early 15th century brought with it massive upheaval: England  converted its people by law from Catholic to Protestant, priests hid in the homes of the wealthy and thousands wrestled with desperate poverty made worse by attitudes lingering from the feudal system. When accusations of witchcraft began to overwhelm the equally serious accusations of papacy at all economic levels of society, the poor were the first to suffer.

Daughters of the Witching Hill tells the story of two families of women caught in the social and political crossfire of religious change and desperate circumstances. When Mother Demdike, the matriarch of her clan, finds herself directed to witchcraft in order to heal the villagers around her, she improves the prosperity and social condition of her desperately poor family. Over time, however, her social status turns on her and her family as her daughter and grandchildren follow suit and then fall off the folk-magic path. Despite careful first steps in the business of the Old Ways, the powerful people surrounding Mother Demdike’s family still threaten their lives. As one tragedy follows another, and as relationships break down over the years, Demdike’s clan loses the protection she built for them.

Mary Sharratt weaves historical circumstance with the daily concerns of poverty and security into a tale that reads like truth. Both depressing and uplifting, Daughters of the Witching Hill offers sharp detail on old folk practices in England. Sharratt creates a beautiful context for the pagan traditions still held dear by the churchgoing characters. This book shows outstanding attention to what a historical person might experience, from seeing a mirror for the first time to handling family members with developmental disabilities.

Whether read for historical interest or for a compelling tale about women and power, this book educates and entertains by bringing 15th century England to life.

~review by Diana Rajchel


Author: Mary Sharratt

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010

pp. 333 $24.00