What No Man Knew

I have just got a copy of ‘The Wonderfvll Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster’, a copy of Thomas Potts’ original book of the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612.

This is one book I couldn’t not buy – who doesn’t like a good witch story? And this is one of the most famous, when 20 people, largely from 3 families, were put on trial. I even love the old font they use, and how they are so inconsistent in the use of u and v.

The woman who seems to have been the main leader was Elizabeth Sowtherns, aka Old Demdike, described as:

..”‘their damnabel and malicious Witch, of so long continuance.. of whom our whole businesse hath such dependence, that without the particular Declaration and Record of her Euidence, with the circumstaunces, wee shall neuer bring any thing to good perfection; for from this Sincke of vilainie and mischeife, haue all the rest prodeeded…

She was a very old woman, about the age of Fourescore yeares, and had been a Witch for fiftie yeares. Shee  dwelt in the Forrest of Pendle, a vast place, fitte for her profession; what shee commited in her time, no man knows.

Thus liued shee securely for many yeares, brought vp her owne Children, instructed her Graund-children, and tooke great care and paines to bring them to be Witches. Shee was a generall agent for the Deuill in all these partes; no man escaped her, or her Furies, that euer gaue them any occasion of offence, or denyed them any thing they stood need of: and certain it is, no man neere them, was secure of free from danger.

But God, who had in his diuine prouidence prouided to cut them off, and tooke them out of the Commonwealth, so diposed aboue, that the Iustices of those partes, vnderstanding by a generall charme and muttering, the great and vniuersal resotr to Maulking Tower, ” the common opinion, wiht the report of these suspected people, the complaint of the Kinges subiectes for the losse of their Children, Friendes, Goodes, and Cattle, (as there could not be so great Fire without some Smoake,) sent for some of the Countrey, and took great paynes to enquire after their proceedinges, and courses of life.”

All this sounds robust enough, and much echoes reports of other witch trials, but there are two points that shed genuinely new light  on witch trials for me.

The incidents happened at an interesting time. Early that year the last trial for heresy had been held. James I was on the throne, one of the 17th century’s experts on witchcraft, and struggling to establish Protestantism on a still largely Catholic nation.

In the Preface, it is further noted that “many Protestants regarded the Catholic mass and the doctrine of transubstantiation as being examples of witchcraft.”

As far as I know, all witch trials were by Protestants, acting in part out of nervousness from their new status as a religious group, but also many of the terms and accusations do sound very like Catholic rituals, or perversions of them.

In the preface to his book it is also mentioned: “the Date of Good Friday may well be significant. Was Alice Nutter on her way to a secret mass rather than a Witches’ Sabbat? To have revealed that would not only have put her own life in peril, but those of her Catholic friends as well. Far better to keep silent and face the consequences alone as a secret (and as yet unrecognised) Catholic martyr. ”

This is an intriguing suggestion, especially as many of the witches were convicted on their own confessions, which seems an odd thing to do given that they faced certain death, but is likely if they were covering up.

But as in many other  cases, can we actually believe that the confessions were made voluntarily? That is something we will never find out.

Unless they really were witches and can get in touch to clarify what really happened.

8 thoughts on “What No Man Knew

    • I don’t know the figures but a lot fo the accusations sound like scrambled versions of catholic rites by people who really don’t know what they are talking about, so the accusations have never made a lot of sense to me, nor the apparent willingness by them to confess


  1. Barb, dear, you do a hell of a job!
    Congrats! And I’m referring to this and other posts! Oh my!

    In fact this “witch” subject has always been rather intriguing… We seem to have had a lot of them around here during the Inquisition time (1536-1821). (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portuguese_Inquisition)
    This was the time for blood cleansing, book censorship, of “spying on” New Christians” (those recently converted to Catholicism) in order to prove whether they did not keep on with their old religious practices…
    Jews were the main target, but cases of divination, witchcraft and bigamy were also undertaken.
    All these people surely represented a threat to the Church.
    Why Jews? The answer is quite obvious. Being “New Christians”, recently converted, they were still the enemy. The Church needed and wanted Believers from “the birth” and “blood cleansing” would make a bit more sense for them. It would be less risky, too.
    Why witches? An institution is always afraid of someone it can’t control. And witches were not always witches and we know that. Sometimes they were simply wise, sensitive and compassionate women. However I don’t think the Church knew about that! For the better and for the worse.
    Why bigamy? Oh, who knows one is not sleeping with a “persona non grata”? And surely because it would be quite easy to put people against each other and make them talk. Then “I accuse you, before you do that to me.” Obviously.
    Inquisition controlled everyone’s single step and move!!!
    Once decided the punishment, an “auto-de fé” (act of faith) took place.
    It was the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics and apostates, followed by the execution by the civil authorities of the sentences imposed.
    As execution by burning was more memorable than the penance which preceded it, in popular use the term came to mean the burning rather than the penance.
    The auto-da-fé was thoroughly orchestrated. Preparations began a month in advance and only occurred when the inquisition authorities believed there were enough prisoners in a given community or city. Bordering the city’s plaza, an all-night vigil would be held with prayers, ending in Mass at daybreak and a breakfast feast prepared for all who joined in.
    And I believe what we see in films is not exaggerated. The crowd had a day free to watch to all this, dance, laugh, and… rejoiced… and praised the Lord and the Holy Church!

    What can be done with people’s minds!!!

    Unfortunately this isn’t over, yet!




    • Phew! What a huge response. The history of the time is not just about the horrors that were carried out, often on single vulnerable often old women, but the fear and anger that was so widespread at the time, that caused it all. since Christianity began as a sort of jewish light, they have alwasys been insecure in their beliefs.


  2. Pingback: 1612 – 2012 400 years since Lancashire witch trials and Lancashire hot pot. | clinicalalimentary

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