Philip C Almond. The Lancashire Witches: A Chronicle of Sorcery and Death on Pendle Hill. I. B. Tauris, 2012.
The story of the Pendle witches, with its sinister central characters Elizabeth ‘Demdike’ Sowtherns and Anne ‘Chattox’ Whittle has become probably the best known case of English witchcraft. This has largely been thanks to its contemporaneous report in Thomas Potts’ The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the County of Lancaster (1613), and that pamphlet’s re-publication by the Manchester lawyer and historian James Crossley (1800-1883), one of the founders of the Chetham Society, which published Crossley’s edition; and its subsequent novelisation by Crossley’s friend the novelist Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) as The Lancashire Witches. As a result of this the story of the Pendle witches has entered modern folklore, boosting the local tourist trade and creating a supernatural reputation for the Pendle area that persists to this day, the area having a reputation as a ufological flap area.
Almond revisits the original story as published by Potts, placing it in its cultural, religious and political context, one which featured the two great folk devils of the period, witches and Roman Catholics. Almond reminds us that this was a period in which there was almost universal belief in witchcraft and argues that Demdike and Chattox at least were local cunning women, who probably actually believed that they could practice witchcraft. In this he follows the tradition of Emma Wilby, though he distances himself from her speculations linking cunning folk to a surviving shamanistic tradition.
He notes the role of anomalous personal experiences in the development of the belief system, seeing these as part of the folk traditions rather than being imposed from above. These encounters with strange people and animals probably represent traditions of encounters with petty supernaturals, literally demonised by the Christian church. These experiences include aware sleep paralysis which then was interpreted as witchcraft rather than, as today, hostile aliens.
If there is a caveat about this book it is perhaps the almost total reliance on Potts’ work, rather than a search for other documentation such as court reports. This is no doubt due to the fact that Almond was writing the book in Australia rather than Lancashire. Otherwise an excellent little study. -- Peter Rogerson