Jeanette Winterson's new novel, The Daylight Gate, is a retelling of the story of the Pendle Witch Trials. It is full of magic, alchemy, abuse, poverty, suspicion, love and brooding atmosphere. She captures well the tragedy of the plight of women trapped in extreme poverty, whose lives are always on the edge and whose survival can never be taken for granted. They become easy targets in a society undergoing massive cultural change and still recovering from the failed attempt to blow up king and parliament a decade before. The zeal of the law enforcers is driven by a mixture of fear, suspicion of the 'old ways', whether that be Catholicism or witchcraft, and desire to prove loyalty to a king who has taken a particular interest in 'daemonologie'. Winterson never allows the story to be depersonalised, with the relationships of Alice Nutter holding the narrative together. It is a story of power and weakness but also of love and knowledge. The magic is presented without apology or commentary and the lines between magical practice, witchcraft, technology, science and superstition are very fuzzy.
17th Century England was an extraordinary place, experiencing the massive disruptions of rapid political, religious and intellectual change. The same century that produced Guy Fawkes and the witch trials later produced the Civil War, a new line of monarchy, Isaac Newton and John Locke. It also produced another event on Pendle Hill which contrasts powerfully with the witch trials of 1612. In May 1652, George Fox climbed the hill and experienced a vision that was to lead to a new direction for his band of religious seekers. He saw 'in what places [the Lord] had a great people to be gathered'. The society that was to become known as the Quakers formed, to some extent, around that gently apocalyptic vision. It is remarkable to me that, in a century of such utter turmoil, a religious movement should find a way based on the 'inward light', renouncing violence and power, seeking a path of simplicity and silence.
They were not, however, alone. At the same time in France, a movement known as the Quietists were similarly stressing the inner life at a time of great social agitation. Madame Guyon and her followers were strongly condemned by the church hierarchy at the time, although what was condemned was probably an extreme interpretation of her teaching. Unhelpfully, the erudite and eirenic Francois Fenelon's careful defence of Madame Guyon's position also came under attack and this resulted in a significant setback for the place of the mystical strand of Christian faith and practice for generations.
To me, these expressions of an inward faith at a time of politico-religious strife were powerfully prophetic stands against a compromised church, stands which did not come cheaply to their protagonists. It is wrong to see either the Quakers or the Quiestists as in retreat from the 'real world'. To my mind, they were doing nothing more than reminding their feverishly belligerent contemporaries of a gospel founded on love.