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Witch hunts past and (almost) present.

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.

* * *

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!


  1. Ian B says:

    Indeed, Nick. What is far too underappreciated is that the SRA panic is still with us, just toned down somewhwat and rebranded as a general “paedophile panic”. To use a catchphrase of mine, “I’ve been planning a post about this”, but like most of the things I want to post it has got to be fucking huge and I never get around to it.

    *I just got half way through a massive comment, realised it just wasn’t doing the subject justice, as usual, and deleted the rest after this here sentence*.

  2. NickM says:

    “I’ve been planning a post about this”

    Anyway to split it Ian? I’d love to read it.

  3. Ian B says:

    The problem is, there’s a kind of snookering where any attempt to drive down a middle ground ends up sounding like an apologetic for kiddie fiddlers, and I am really loathe to drop either myself or Counting Cats into that firing line for obvious reasons.

    Thing is, I’ve been following this since before the internets, when the SRA panic got started; I originally got interested via the Fortean Times and the like, strange as it may sound. I just feel it’s an incredibly important issue; we’re watching society and family life bent out of all rational shape by it, and it needs addressing. A while ago, they released the first series of Sesame Street on DVD, and it had a “not suitable for children” warning on it(!) because the first episode showed a little girl being befriended by an old man.

    And, it’s not just paedogeddon. There’s a whole sex panic underway. The new White SLavery Panic- “Trafficking” is a major part of that. I spotted something interesting and pertinent to this post regarding that a few months ago; there was a report issued by Plod on “Trafficking” that was trailed in all the press, so I downloaded it and started picking through the data; but there was one chilling casual statement in it (chilling to me anyway). It was that “girls often do not admit to being trafficked until they have had weeks or months of counselling”. The methodology of SRA is still with us, but in these less batshit sounding narratives, like “trafficking”; and pressure cooker therapy is a major component of that. You keep “counselling” some poor foreign prostitute until she gives the answers you want to hear. We have restrictions on police questioning. Not on “counselling”.

    ^^^Readng all that back, it illustrates the problem I’ve had trying to write about this. I find it hard to get it into coherent form. I wish I had the blogging ability of my fellow Kounters, or Mr Puddlecote :)

  4. JuliaM says:

    I commend to you ‘No Crueller Tyrannies’ by Dorothy Rabinowitz, detailing some of the more egregious cases from across the pond.

    Frightening book, because you can see the same things happening over here.

  5. Stonyground says:

    I recall that parallels were drawn between the witch hunts and the paranoid behaviour of the US authorities about communists in the fifties.

    We have to remember that we are nothing more than intelligent primates. It is easy to be kind and benevolent when you are safe and secure and have all the essentials for living a good life. We all become a lot less benign when we and our loved ones are threatened by danger, whether real or imagined, and our natural instinct is to identify that threat and stamp it out using whatever means neccessary.

  6. Pedantic Boggart says:

    Semi-irrelevantly but following on from your previous piece on BBC-wankiness, the BBC webpage puff-piece on the Pendle witch trials refers to the village of Pendle.

    Two minutes on Google (or an ounce of knowledge about England beyond White City) would reveal there is no such place as Pendle village* but there are a number of villages on Pendle hill. There are even many villages in the the Borough of Pendle