From the Guardian:
Pendle: a place synonymous with witches and Britain's most notorious diabolism trials. The candle-passing parlour game says, if it dies in your hand, you've a forfeit to give. If you're going to write a book about famous witches, it had better fly.
Winterson's novella is set in 1612, during the feverishly paranoid reign of James I. It describes the plight of a group of paupers, mostly women, accused of evil practices and tried at the August assizes. In the previous decade, the gunpowder plot almost did away with the king. Heresy is his obsession. Author of the instructive Daemonologi, he is, as Pendle's local magistrate puts it, "a meddler". In this fraught climate disfigured elderly ladies aren't safe, alchemists can be arrested for creating mechanical beetles, and Catholics are thumb-screwed. "It suits the times to degrade the hoc est corpus of the Catholic mass into satanic hocus pocus," notes William Shakespeare, who features briefly, and not preposterously, in Winterson's book.