The Queen of My Self

Last month I took a much-needed vacation in a small cabin on the Maine Coast where I did very little besides sleep, dream, read and eat for an entire week.

I read four books in six days from my overgrown cache of to-be-read books by and about midlife women. What bliss! My idea of paradise.

First was Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt. I had been looking forward to diving into this novel ever since I attended a reading that she gave some months ago at Kris Waldherr’s Art and Words Gallery here in Exotic Brooklyn.

This fascinating book is a fictionalized imagining of the infamous Pendle Witch hunt, actual events that took place In Pendle Forest, Lancashire, England in 1612. It opens a window through which we can glimpse the religious turmoil and hardscrabble life in 17th century rural England.

The story focuses on Bess Southerns, an impoverished 50-year old widow, who is suddenly struck with visions and healing ability, which she embraces in good spirit and uses to benefit her neighbors. As she ages, Mother Demdike, as she becomes known, gains a reputation as a talented cunning woman who can cure livestock and people.

She practices her craft for several decades with impunity and much gratitude from the many folks who have experienced or witnessed her many successful healings. She was a practitioner of the quasi-Catholic folk magic and pagan herbal charms that were popular in earlier generations. But she had the misfortune of living at the cusp of the Reformation, when Catholics were persecuted.

When she approaches her 80s, Demdike apprentices her teenage granddaughter Alizon, with whom she shares her extensive wise woman knowledge. Alizon, though, is conflicted and has trouble accepting that she, too, is gifted in the old ways of healing.

When a peddler suffers a stroke after exchanging harsh words with Alizon, a local magistrate who fancies himself as witch finder, unleashes a wave of terror that ends in the arrest of seven women and two men. Our good stalwart Bess is accused of being the evil ringleader.

This is how Court Clerk Thomas Potts describes her in The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster in his account of the trials:

“She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score yeares, and had been a witch for fiftie yeares. Shee dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place fitte for her profession: What shee committed in her time no man knows… Shee was a general agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies.”

Whoa! And all she did was make the sick better. What terrified him was that she was in no way repentant. She was secure in knowing what she knew. And she knew she had the ability to heal and to help. The Queen of her Self, she was proud of her Self and clearly owned her own power.

Demdike dies in jail before the trial, and all the others are hung. Alizon was last to be tried. Devastated by guilt, her final recorded words on the day before she goes to the gallows are an impassioned vindication of her grandmother’s legacy as a well-meaning and talented healer.

This true tale is spellbinding. And also maddening to know that Demdike and countless thousands — millions — of women though time have been slaughtered because they are wise. And just because they are.

The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.
–  Gloria Steinem

The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to

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