24 March 2013


Jennie Lee Cobban. The Lure of the Lancashire Witches. Palatine Books, 2011.

Joyce Froome Wicked Enchantments: A History of the Pendle Witches and Their Magic. Palatine Books, 2010.

Last year marked the four hundredth anniversary of the trial of the Pendle Witches, one of England’s most famous witch trials. Details can be found HERE. It was part of the run up to this event that these two books were produced by Palatine Books, an imprint of Carnegie Books dealing with Lancashire history.
Joyce Froome is a member of the staff of the Museum of Witchcraft in Cornwall, and in her study she places the story of the Pendle witches within the context of the folk magic of the period. Following the example of Emma Wilby, she sees the “witches” as representatives of the tradition of local magical specialists, and their ambiguous relationship with the community. Elements of the narrative are used to illustrate various magical beliefs and techniques of the period. This “witchcraft” might be an “old religion” but it was definitely not that of some supposed prehistoric survival worshiping the “Great Goddess” and other such fantasies. It was rather Folk Catholicism, and there is little doubt that all involved would have regarded themselves as Christians, and much of this magic involved appeals to God, Christ, the Virgin Mary and various saints. It was the magic of day to day life, healing illness among people and livestock, gaining love and money, doing down rivals and such. Such magical practices made life appear controllable and most resorted to them, but the church condemned them and regarded them as being every bit as evil as “black witchcraft”.

The story began in the most everyday fashion: a pedlar is approached by a teenage girl, she asks to buy some of his pins, he refuses, she gets mouthy, yells something like “I’ll lame yer!”. He walks away, trips on a pothole and hobbles away to the pub. The girl, now rather concerned he might have hurt him, follows, he gets more agitated, and some point has a stroke. His son comes to visit, and decides that daddy has been got at by the witch. Though Joyce Froome does not explore this possibility, I wonder if the pedlar had suggested that he would give pins in exchange for “services in kind”, which led to the outburst. Because the teenage girl, Alison or Alizon Device was the granddaughter of an old woman, Elizabeth “Demdike” Sothernes (sic, that name cannot be found in Lancashire), and this led to the spiralling witch hunt.

The value of Froome’s book lies in its detailed close reading of the accounts, and its reconstruction of a magical world of wise women and cunning men. She takes into various byways the folklore of black dogs, the use of scrying to gain altered states of consciousness, the relationship between elite and folk magic, the role of grimoires, and the spelling out of various spells, many of the don’t do this at home kids variety, especially, she notes the one involving taking a tooth from a live wolf.

This is the magical world described by Emma Wilby, and Froome follows her thesis closely, with, I suspect, the same willingness to consider everyone accused of being a witch as being a Wise Woman. The truth is that while some were, others weren’t, and we should not assume that folk magic and spells were the exclusive preserve of some kind of specialist. Nor does it seem reasonable to me to think that the folk healers had any kind of special mystical or occult interpretation of Christianity or would have been devotees of such elite works as The Sworn Book of Honorius. These would have been people who at best could read broadside ballads. The magical tradition would have been largely an oral one. The truth is, I suspect, that we don’t know whether these were local wise women, or people who traded on their neighbours fears to gain advantage over them, or local nuisances of the sort who today are awarded ASBOs, or just poor people who embarrassed the rich, people who had got out of favour with the sort of people it is not wise to get on the wrong side of, Catholic recusants or something of the lot.

The result is an intriguing intellectual tour de force with lots of fascinating insights, but one where the digressions often breakup the narrative.

Jennie Cobban’s book is a more slender work, which gives some of the background, but also concentrates on the ‘remains’ of the event, both artefacts and literary. She gives numerous examples of materials related to the archaeology of witchcraft, the gargoyles, poppets, charms and spells found in old properties around the area, some of which clearly inspire disquiet in this modern secular age.

Of more interest perhaps to Magonia readers are the artistic and cultural survivals. What is surprising is how soon the witches became the subject of comedy, even while the second great Pendle witch trial, that of 1634, was going on, it was the subject of a comedy on the London stage. Perhaps we always laugh at that which most frightens us. Over the succeeding centuries the witches became subject of humour, satire, romance and finally the tourist industry. They were the subjects of novels, films and plays, though even in the 20th century they were vilified by Christian fundamentalists.

Cobban warns us that witch hunts are not over, As examples we can bring out little over twenty years ago there was the massive Satanic abuse panic, covered in the pages of Magonia; the roots of which lay within Britain, rather than is often claimed, American fundamentalism, and there disturbing cases of the murder of 'child witches' in a number of African communities, and here in Britain. -- Peter Rogerson.

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