18 March 2011


Andrew and David Pickering. Witch-Hunting in England. Amberley, 2010.

Marq English. Paranormal Surrey; True Ghost Stories. Amberley, 2011.

These two titles might well be used as examples on how to, and how not to compile gazetteer-style guides to paranormal phenomena on a regional basis. The Pickerings' book looks at records of witchcraft trials and witch-hunts across England from the mid-16th Century when the effects of the first anti-witchcraft laws of the reign of Henry VIII were were felt. Prior to this witchcraft in England was seen as a civil action and anyone accused of practising sorcery to harm a neighbour's health or their property was generally treated in the same way as someone accused of physically damaging crops or attempting poisoning.
Henry VIII's act produced few prosecutions and soon fell into disuse. The more serious phase of witch-hunting began after the passing of an Act in 1563, under Elizabeth I. This was largely a response to presumed plots against the Queen's own life, as well as the influence of witch-hunts in several European states. It also involved changes in the way witchcraft was regarded by the authorities, following the Reformation, from being simply malevolent acts by one person against another to being 'conjurations' against God's law

Even then the punishment for witchcraft, even it was considered to have involved attempting to cause death, was imprisonment rather than execution, and it was not until the reign of James I/VI that the death penalty was introduced. Prosecutions and hangings (very seldom burnings) continued through the 17th century, and the panic was intensified through the years of the Civil War and the activities of self-styled 'Witchfinder General' Mathew Hopkins. However following the Restoration the practice began to die out. More and more frequently accused witches brought before magistrates were found not guilty, often to the fury of local people. The Pickerings describe a few cases in the early 1700s which lay claim to being the last witch trial in England. Eventually the popular panic faded away, until its surprising revival with the 'Satanic Abuse' allegations of the 1980s and 1990s. [For a curious late revival, see HERE]

The book lists the trials, county by county, and chronologically within each county. Reading the accounts one after the other, there are a number of clear impressions. One is the large proportion of trials which resulted in a not guilty verdict, or even the complete dismissal of the charge before it reached court. This seemed to happen more often if the case was referred to higher authorities than if it was determined at a local level. Another clear impression is the complete banality of the issues which triggered accusations - mostly in the nature of what would now be termed "giving someone a funny look

The descriptions of the trials also confound any claim that the witchcraft panic was an elite persecution of the peasant classes. In most cases socially there was little if any distinction between accused an accuser. Many cases were prompted by "charity refused". The supposed witch would have asked for some small item - food, a scarf or other piece of clothing and, for some reason in quite a few cases, a pin - and would then be accused of maleficia against the person who had denied them

The Introduction gives a good brief history of the whole episode, and the bulk of the book is a gazetteer of individual cases. Most of the descriptions are quite short, just a few lines of a court record, but there are many longer pieces on the more significant cases such as the Lancashire witches, Hopkins's rampage in the East of England and the Witches of Warboys.

Not the least interesting feature is the large number of reproductions of the title-pages of the various pamphlets and books which were published describing the alleged activities of the witches and their fates at trial. These clearly helped to whip up hysteria and create the atmosphere which allowed the hunts to continue

The clear and logical geographical and chronological arrangement of summaries is complemented by bibliographies of primary and secondary sources, and a comprehensive geographical index. For anyone wanting a good, straightforward account of the English witchcraft panic, this book is an excellent introduction

Paranormal Surrey continues Amberley's series of county-by-county guides of paranormal phenomena. Unlike some others, this title concentrates almost entirely on ghosts and hauntings. Most of the entries are very short, just a few lines with brief reports of shadowy figures or odd noises. It is difficult to make anything of these, as few if any references or witness accounts are given.

Many of the longer pieces describe investigations by the author's own investigation group, Spiral Paranormal. These seem to rely to a great extent on 'feelings' and mental images picked up by members of the team claiming mediumistic talents, with little evidence of serious attempts at scientific investigation using methods such as are well described in Amberley's Beginner's Guide to Paranormal Investigation, although there is reference to instrumentation in an appendix.

However my main gripe with this book is the unhelpful way in which it is arranged, just an alphabetical listing under random words. One entry is simply 'High Street'. Now my A-Z reveals that there are twelve High Streets in Surrey, but it's only when you read the entry you find that the one referred to is in Ewell. (The fact that this is fitted in the alphabetical sequence between 'Epsom House' and 'Fairlawns' doesn't help, either). There is no index to help the reader around this confusion

I imagine the first thing anyone buying this book would want to do would be to check on the spooky locations in their own area, but this is impossible. There are for instance seven entries for the suburb of Cheam, all scattered through the book, as are other nearby locations in the same borough. Would it really have been so difficult to have arranged these entries in a logical alphabetical manner under the names of the towns and boroughs concerned

Or am I just a crusty old librarian? -- John Rimmer.


Anonymous said...

crusty old librarian

Marq English said...

I don't mind you being a crusty old librarian, thanks for honest review of my book (Paranormal Surrey Author).

Magonia said...

Thank you Marq, I'm glad you appreciate the comments were meant constructively.

Marq English said...

Its no problem, its my first book and how else do you learn. Being a rational chap when it comes to the paranormal, my column in 'Ghost Voices Magazine'is proerbly more how I view the (alleged) unexplained.

Anonymous said...

Dear Marq, It's good to know you take criticism well. Few of your claims are referenced. The English is a bit dodgy (people aren't locked in the 'town Goal') and, for goodness' sake, why can't the A22 ghost just be a girl in a short skirt? You don't seem to know the difference between Burpham and Burnham, and... the book's a bit... thin, isn't it, and so I feel bad for the person who bought it for me. Sorry to be so brutally negative, but paranormal studies need to be better than this to convince most people. Good luck with a followup, but this one just didn't convince. Sorry!