What The Pendle Witch Trials Teach Us About Asking Better Questions

pendle witches

In the Salem Witch Trials, the accused were innocent. In the Pendle Witch Trials, the accused parties confessed because they believed they were witches. Big difference.

Once upon a time, dear reader, there was a pregnant woman who was selfish, her husband who was cowardly, and a witch who was the most reasonable person in the fairytale…

The modern image of the witch is threefold:

  • Possibly green-faced hags with ratty grey hair, ragged cloaks and pointy hats
  • Button-nosed, sexy little temptresses in slinky black dresses
  • Desperate, frightened peasant women, falsely accused and likely to die for being a widow, a beggar, religious dissident or just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And in fairy tales? It’s always the first one. Good witches are generally referred to as enchantresses, fairies… anything but the horrible nasty word witch.

The Pendle Witch Trials, and why asking ‘were they witches?’ is the wrong question to ask.

When it comes to the Pendle Witch Trials, shoving the accused parties into any of the three slots above doesn’t work. This is why.

In the village of Pendle, in the north of England, there were women who were none of those things. Historians will try and force them all into the third category, and there were those amongst the accused ‘Pendle Witches’ who were unfortunate and were killed for circumstances beyond their control.

But, unlike the famous American Salem Witch Trials at the other end of the 17th century, some of the accused confessed not through torture or a belief that it might save their lives but because they considered themselves to be witches.

I shall begin the story again. Are you sitting comfortably?

Once upon a time, there was a beggar girl called Alison Device. As she walked along a road near the forests of Pendle, and her family home of Malkin Tower, she met a peddler. History disagrees precisely what happened next; either Alison begged the peddler to give her some pins or she asked to buy a few, and he was unwilling to stop and open his pack for such a small transaction. Either way, he refused and continued along the road.

Alison, granddaughter of feared local witch Demdike (Elizabeth Southern), uttered a curse she had been taught and went on her way.

Except this time, the curse worked.

The Peddler, John Law, fell down. He, though seriously ill, managed to make his way to a nearby inn where the modern reader realises he had clearly suffered a stroke, but the 17th century mind saw only maleficia… witchcraft.

Alison, now utterly convinced of her own power, begged forgiveness of the law. Initially the man himself did not want to press charges. History doesn’t record if that is because he was being charitable to a young beggar who would likely be killed for something she didn’t intend to do, or if it was because he was afraid she might curse him further.

Later, in the ensuing witch trials, when accusations had flown around, old scores had been dragged up, some Catholic recusants had somehow got involved and a sheep was stolen, a judge asked Alison if she might be able to use her power to restore Law to health. Alison wept bitterly and claimed that it wasn’t in her power to do so. She said that her grandmother Demdike would have had the power… but by that time the old woman had sadly died in jail.

History judges those killed in the Salem witch trials fairly: Everyone understands that the accused were all innocent of the fantastical charges laid against them. In Pendle, deep in the dark forests where families survived by begging, stealing and selling charms in direct competition with each other, and in Lancaster, in the foreboding castle where the court proceedings were heard, history has a lot to contend with.

The question should not be ‘were Alison Device, her family and the others accused with them, witches?’ but ‘what was a witch?’

Ignoring the pacts with the devil, causing death or disease through the making and breaking of images, or the other things that were held up in courts as ‘evidence’ of witchcraft… what did those who believe they were witches do?

Centuries earlier, before Henry VIII of England had to mess up the entire country’s religious beliefs to get his own way, the witch – known also as a cunning woman – was everything in village life. She did not have a particularly important role in politics, wasn’t frequently named in documents that have survived to this date, and wasn’t even acknowledged as important by the men in the village unless they needed her.

But think of everything we need to make society function today. If it wasn’t work you could be glorified for, it was the cunning woman’s work.

The unsung work of a witch

Midwives, and midwifery.

These were women who, with generations of experience passed down (usually orally and committed to memory), could help the women of the village give birth as safely as possible.

Exact data from the period is very hard to find, but in later centuries one can compare the traditional midwife with her clean hands, knowledge of herbs and understanding of a woman’s body with the bloodstained surgeon, generally educated in the ‘default’ male anatomy with the perceived knowledge naturally they would do a better job than women, since women’s brains were so inferior. Statistically, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that their cunning women ancestors would have had similar duties and skills to typical midwives.

General health care.

Your friendly neighbourhood witch was there for you when it came to health. Some of their suggestions were a bit odd, some were based on sound medical evidence, and some outright wouldn’t work, but if your friendly local witch was the only option, you took it with both hands.

Social worker.

Cunning women were sometimes called upon to settle family disputes. Sometimes, as in the Pendle Witches case, they were the centre of these disputes, but no-one is perfect.

Though distorted, doesn’t Rapunzel show an early example of someone thinking it would be a good idea to take babies away from families who’d commit crimes for luxury gains and sell their child for a head of lettuce?

Dating apps.

No, seriously. The cunning woman’s use of love potions, fortune telling methods and generally knowing most people in the nearby villages meant that if you were looking for love, she would probably be able to make a suggestion.

Emergency get-into-heaven Cards.

Alright, not quite the same as the indulgences and absolution you could buy from the Catholic church. But cunning women were frequently the person called to births or early childhood illness, and Catholicism allowed anyone to baptise dying babies and administer the sacraments. This was particularly important when plague or other forms of epidemic sickness made priests difficult to get hold of.

Fair access to services.

Where cunning women, or their equivalent cunning men, do appear in records, it seems to suggest that they charged the peasants and farmers much less than the aristocracy when their services were sought.

So, after all that.. what is a witch?