There was a rather interesting documentary about the Pendle witch trials on BBC 4 last night. I rather like BBC4 so it’s hardly surprising that the BBC is considering axing it to support BBC3 which is a crap-fest from start to finish. But that’s another story. Back to the witches…
Elizabeth Device was charged with the murders of James Robinson, John Robinson and, together with Alice Nutter and Demdike, the murder of Henry Mitton. Potts records that “this odious witch” suffered from a facial deformity resulting in her left eye being set lower than her right. The main witness against Device was her daughter, Jennet, who was about nine years old. When Jennet was asked to stand up and give evidence against her mother, Elizabeth began to scream and curse her daughter, forcing the judges to have her removed from the courtroom before the evidence could be heard. Jennet was placed on a table and stated that she believed her mother had been a witch for three or four years. She also said her mother had a familiar called Ball, who appeared in the shape of a brown dog. Jennet claimed to have witnessed conversations between Ball and her mother, in which Ball had been asked to help with various murders. James Device also gave evidence against his mother, saying he had seen her making a clay figure of one of her victims, John Robinson. Elizabeth Device was found guilty. James Device pleaded not guilty to the murders by witchcraft of Anne Townley and John Duckworth. However he, like Chattox, had earlier made a confession to Nowell, which was read out in court. That, and the evidence presented against him by his sister Jennet, who said that she had seen her brother asking a black dog he had conjured up to help him kill Townley, was sufficient to persuade the jury to find him guilty.
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Jennet Device may eventually have found herself accused of witchcraft. A woman with that name was listed in a group of 20 tried at Lancaster Assizes on 24 March 1634, although it cannot be certain that it was the same Jennet Device. The charge against her was the murder of Isabel Nutter, William Nutter’s wife. In that series of trials the chief prosecution witness was a ten-year-old boy, Edmund Robinson. All but one of the accused were found guilty, but the judges refused to pass death sentences, deciding instead to refer the case to the king, Charles I. Under cross-examination in London, Robinson admitted that he had fabricated his evidence, but even though four of the accused were eventually pardoned, they all remained incarcerated in Lancaster Gaol, where it is likely that they died. An official record dated 22 August 1636 lists Jennet Device as one of those still held in the prison. [Under English law at the time the imprisoned hat to pay for their bed and board and it seems likely that not being able to foot the bill was the reason for the continued detention].
Now according to the BBC 4 documentary one of the fundamental changes over those years was a realization that children did lie about such things. And certainly could if put in the “right circumstances”.
So you’d think we’d learned our lessons? Maybe but then we forgot them again. We certainly forgotten by the 1990s. And note the Pendle witches case was not obscure. It was the witch trial in England wit a resonance equivalent to the Salem trials in America. For example I’ll see one or two of these every time I’m in Manchester:
One might naively have thought such things might be required reading for folks working in such a field.
In the above list of cases of Satanic child abuse the parallels are striking. A witch-hunt (both literal and figurative) by authorities following a bizarre moral panic. In this case the Peadofinder General was a social worker…
What continued, however, were the twice weekly meetings with a social worker called Liz McLean, who features as a monstrous figure in Karen’s stories, always referred to by her full name. She would be left alone in the room with this woman – the same social worker who had taken her from her school – for up to two hours, she says.
“I was terrified of her. She was very intimidating, very controlling. I was always small when I was a child but she would lean over me. She got very angry. She would want me to agree with what she was saying.” Which was? “They were mentioning about private parts, things like that. Asking me, did one of the grown-ups touch you and touch your brothers and sisters in your private parts? They would want me to agree with it. And when Liz McLean couldn’t get me to agree with it, she would ask me to draw a picture. So I drew a picture of my pony. That wasn’t right. Then I drew a picture of us playing football. That wasn’t right. Eventually, she pulled this piece of paper out which had a circle on it, and she said, ‘Copy that.’ So I drew a circle and she said, ‘Draw little stick men round it,’ and that’s what I did. And she said, ‘You’re being very good.’ And that was the meetings.”
Nearly 400 years separates that happening from the Pendle witches being tried. I think that says something vastly more damning about human nature and society than any amount Satanic jiggery pokery. Society and civilization and plain common sense are not, and never have been, on a continual upward-swing. A court of law (and indeed the King – Charles II was the only Stuart I had much any time for – generally a good egg and a patron of the arts, sciences and citrus fruit retail) in the 1730s being vastly more civilized than the apparatus for child protection a mere 20 years ago, which if you follow through the links, appear to be a collection of GROLIES who act like the Gestapo.
Civilization (in the small print of countless investment adverts) is something that “can go down as well as up”. It is a constant and real battle and not some pre-set Hegelian progression into the bright sunlight uplands.
God forgive me for mixing Hegel and Churchill in that last sentence!