I'm currently reviewing a new book on the Pendle witches for the next issue of The Magical Times, and I enjoyed reading it so much I thought I'd also write a bit about it on A Bad Witch's Blog.
It isn’t often I would describe a history book as “a real page-turner” – particularly when it is over 300 pages long - but I certainly found A History of the Pendle Witches and Their Magic: Wicked Enchantmentsby Joyce Froome hard to put down.
The book is about the events surrounding one of the most famous witch trials in English history, when a dozen people who lived around Pendle Forest were charged with murder by witchcraft in 1612.
It all began when a 17-year-old girl, Alizon Device, had a row with a peddler over the purchase of some pins. The man then collapsed. He had probably had a stroke, but he accused the teenager – who was known to come from a family of cunning folk - of cursing him.
The peddler's son brought this to the attention of Roger Nowell, Justice of the Peace for the Pendle area, who had a particular grudge against witches, at a time when witch trials were at their peak. Nowell built up a case against Alizon, her family and other cunning folk in the area that lead to the deaths of 11 people.
The Pendle Witch Trials are among the best documented cases from the days of the witch hunts in England, partly because of a pamphlet published shortly afterwards, called The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, giving the official version of what happened.
Much has been written on the subject since then – historical analysis and fictionalised accounts. What Joyce Froome tries to do is set the events against the background of the world view of cunning folk and magicians of the era.
To do that, she draws on information in the collection and library of the Museum of Witchcraft, as well as looking at books of magic that were around at the time. She depicts cunning folk as often following a tradition of folk magic passed down through their family or being taught ritual spells by educated individuals who owned grimoires.
Cunning folk were often called upon to heal people and livestock at a time when few poor people could afford doctors. They would also help detect thieves and meted out natural justice by cursing wrongdoers.
Rather than thinking of themselves as witches – a term for those who used magic for evil purposes – they considered themselves to be witch-hunters with their powers of divination. But, from the 16th to 17th centuries, there was a growing belief that all magic was the work of the Devil. Laws were changing to reflect that - and many a Justice of the Peace would be willing to bend the law to bring a suspected witch to trial.
In the following centuries, this attitude again changed. Joyce Froome states: “Magic was demoted from supernatural evil to fraud, and magicians and cunning folk from servants of the Devil to charlatans. The witch-hunts were deplored, but viewed as grotesque superstition, which conveniently meant that the victims could be blamed along with their persecutors.”
A History of the Pendle Witches and Their Magic tries to redress this balance by showing the importance of cunning folk in communities with a strong history of folk magic and belief in its power.
It also brings to life the characters at the heart of the Pendle witch trials – the accused, the accusers and the agents of the law who were putting together the case against them. It shows conflict of belief, but also personal drama and tragedy.
The wealth of information available makes this possible, but with those involved all dead and buried for centuries this still involves a good amount of guesswork and supposition. Nevertheless, this is an account I want to believe – even if it isn’t the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
And, despite Roger Nowell - or maybe because of him - Pendle’s rich legacy of witchcraft is certainly not over.
A work colleague of mine – a white-haired man close to retirement – noticed my copy of A History of the Pendle Witches and Their Magic: Wicked Enchantmentsin my bag. He asked if it was good, saying he had read lots of books on the subject, but not seen this one.
I told him it was and asked why he was so interested in the Pendle witches.
“I come from Pendle,” he said. “My family has lived there for generations.”
“Are there still any witches in the area?” asked the girl who sits next to me.
“Oh, yes,” he said, with a very knowing smile. “There are lots of witches in Pendle.”
A History of the Pendle Witches and Their Magic: Wicked Enchantments is available through Amazon.
The Magical Times, a magazine on magic, nature, faeries and folklore, is available to order through http://themagicaltimes.com/
A History of the Pendle Witches and Their Magic: Wicked Enchantments
Daughters of the Witching Hill
The Pendle Witches