In 1612, in one of the most meticulously documented witch trials in English history, seven women and two men from Pendle Forest in Lancashire, Northern England were executed at Lancaster Castle.
In court clerk Thomas Potts’s account of the proceedings, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, published in 1613, he pays particular attention to the one alleged witch who escaped justice by dying in prison before she could come to trial. She was Elizabeth Southerns, more commonly known by her nickname, Old Demdike. According to Potts, she was the ringleader, the one who initiated all the others into witchcraft. This is how Potts describes her:
She was a very old woman, about the age of Foure-score 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 committed in her time, no man knows. . . . Shee was a generall agent for the Devill in all these partes: no man escaped her, or her Furies.
Quite impressive for an eighty-year-old lady!
In England, unlike Scotland and Continental Europe, the law forbade the use of torture to extract witchcraft confessions. Thus the trial transcripts supposedly reveal Elizabeth Southerns’s voluntary confession, although her words might have been manipulated or altered by the magistrate and scribe. What’s interesting, if the trial transcripts can be believed, is that she freely confessed to being a healer and magical practitioner. Local farmers called on her to cure their children and their cattle. She described in rich detail how she first met her familiar spirit, Tibb, at the stone quarry near Newchurch in Pendle. He appeared to her at daylight gate—twilight in the local dialect—in the form of beautiful young man, his coat half black and half brown, and he promised to teach her all she needed to know about magic.
Tibb was not the “devil in disguise.” The devil, as such, appeared to be a minor figure in British witchcraft. It was the familiar spirit who took centre stage: this was the cunning person’s otherworldly spirit helper who could shapeshift between human and animal form, as Emma Wilby explains in her excellent scholarly study, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. Mother Demdike describes Tibb appearing to her at different times in human form or in animal form. He could take the shape of a hare, a black cat, or a brown dog. It appeared that in traditional English folk magic, no cunning man or cunning woman could work magic without the aid of their spirit familiar—they needed this otherworldly ally to make things happen.
Belief in magic and the spirit world was absolutely mainstream in the 16th and 17th centuries. Not only the poor and ignorant believed in spells and witchcraft—rich and educated people believed in magic just as strongly. Dr. John Dee, conjuror to Elizabeth I, was a brilliant mathematician and cartographer as well as an alchemist and ceremonial magician. In Dee’s England, more people relied on cunning folk for healing than on physicians.
As Owen Davies explains in his book, Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History, cunning men and women used charms to heal, foretell the future, and find the location of stolen property. What they did was technically illegal—sorcery was a hanging crime—but few were arrested for it as the demand for their services was so great. Doctors were so expensive that only the very rich could afford them and the “physick” of this era involved bleeding patients with lancets and using dangerous medicines such as mercury—your local village healer with her herbs and charms was far less likely to kill you.
In this period there were magical practitioners in every community. Those who used their magic for good were called cunning folk or charmers or blessers or wisemen and wisewomen. Those who were perceived by others as using their magic to curse and harm were called witches.
But here it gets complicated. A cunning woman who performs a spell to discover the location of stolen goods would say that she is working for good. However, the person who claims to have been falsely accused of harbouring those stolen goods can turn around and accuse her of sorcery and slander. This is what happened to 16th century Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop of Edinburgh, cited by Emma Wilby in Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits. Dunlop was burned as a witch in 1576 after her “white magic” offended the wrong person.
Ultimately the difference between cunning folk and witches lay in the eye of the beholder. If your neighbours turned against you and decided you were a witch, you were doomed.
Although King James I, author of the witch-hunting handbook Daemonologie, believed that witches had made a pact with the devil, there’s no actual evidence to suggest that witches or cunning folk took part in any diabolical cult. Anthropologist Margaret Murray, in her book, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, published in 1921, tried to prove that alleged witches were part of a Pagan religion that somehow survived for centuries after the Christian conversion. Most modern academics have rejected Murray’s hypothesis as unlikely. Indeed, lingering belief in an organised Pagan religion is very difficult to substantiate. So what did cunning folk like Old Demdike believe in?
Some of her family’s charms and spells were recorded in the trial transcripts and they reveal absolutely no evidence of devil worship, but instead use the ecclesiastical language of the Catholic Church, the old religion driven underground by the English Reformation. Her charm to cure a bewitched person, cited by the prosecution as evidence of diabolical sorcery, is, in fact, a moving and poetic depiction of the passion of Christ, as witnessed by the Virgin Mary. The text, in places, is very similar to the White Pater Noster, an Elizabethan prayer charm which Eamon Duffy discusses in his landmark book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580.
It appears that Mother Demdike was a practitioner of the kind of quasi-Catholic folk magic that would have been commonplace before the Reformation. The pre-Reformation Church embraced many practises that seemed magical and mystical. People used holy water and communion bread for healing. They went on pilgrimages, left offerings at holy wells, and prayed to the saints for intercession. Some practises, such as the blessing of the wells and fields, may indeed have Pagan origins. Indeed, looking at pre-Reformation folk magic, it is very hard to untangle the strands of Catholicism from the remnants of Pagan belief, which had become so tightly interwoven.
Unfortunately Mother Demdike had the misfortune to live in a place and time when Catholicism was conflated with witchcraft. Even Reginald Scot, one of the most enlightened men of his age, believed the act of transubstantiation, the point in the Catholic Mass where it is believed that the host becomes the body and blood of Christ, was an act of sorcery. In a 1645 pamphlet by Edward Fleetwood entitled A Declaration of a Strange and Wonderfull Monster, describing how a royalist woman in Lancashire supposedly gave birth to a headless baby, Lancashire is described thusly: “No part of England hath so many witches, none fuller of Papists.” Keith Thomas’s social history Religion and the Decline of Magic is an excellent study on how the Reformation literally took the magic out of Christianity.
However, it would be an oversimplification to state that Mother Demdike was merely a misunderstood practitioner of Catholic folk magic. Her description of her decades-long partnership with her spirit Tibb seems to draw on something outside the boundaries of Christianity.
Although it is difficult to prove that witches and cunning folk in early modern Britain worshipped Pagan deities, the so-called fairy faith, the enduring belief in fairies and elves, is well documented. In his 1677 book The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, Lancashire author John Webster mentions a local cunning man who claimed that his familiar spirit was none other than the Queen of Elfhame herself. The Scottish cunning woman Bessie Dunlop mentioned earlier, while being tried for witchcraft and sorcery at the Edinburgh Assizes, stated that her familiar spirit was a fairy man sent to her by the Queen of Elfhame.
A 17th century woodcut depicting a petitioner approaching the fairies in their hollow hill.
Mary Sharratt is an American author living in Pendle Witch country in northern England, the dramatic setting for her novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, based on the true story of the folk healer and wisewoman, Elizabeth Southerns and her family. Mary is also the author of Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen. Visit her website.
18 thoughts on “The Pendle Witches and Their Magic by Mary Sharratt”
So interesting that you focus on a single case. Illuminating.
Christians are the ones who want to make a distinction between Christianity and so-called paganism and witchcraft. I suspect that the cunning women and men you describe had a more pragmatic approach, as in whatever works. If praying in the name of the Virgin Mary or a saint worked, so much the better, but that would not rule out other powers of healing and information. I don’t think these people would say they were “not” Christian, though they might well have said they didn’t like priests or the papacy, especially when the church came to persecute them.
I agree with you that there probably were no organized secret societies preserving organized paganism in the rural areas of Europe. What was being preserved may not ever have been organized under hierarchical control. On the other hand, much of what Margaret Murray had to say about the details of folk practice is valid. Her theories were once revered, but now are rejected and even mocked, as part of the general academic backlash against the revival of paganism and the rebirth of the Goddess. And of course, like Gimbutas, she was a woman and therefore only an honorary member of the academic brotherhood in the first place.
Thanks so much for your comments, Carol.
The history of European witchcraft persecutions is a very complex one. In the medieval period, witchcraft persecutions were rare. The Church actually forbade the belief in witches and therefore didn’t persecute suspected witches–it was a sin to believe that witches existed. This only began to change as the late middle ages merged into the Renaissance and the Church was losing its hegemony. That’s when the Catholic Church changed its policy and actually did begin to persecute suspected witches. Malleus Malificarum was the official text of the Catholic witchhunters. The worst outbreaks of witchcraft persecutions took place on the fault lines of the Reformation, where Catholics and Protestants were attacking each other. In England specifically, Catholicism and witchcraft were conflated in the viewpoint of Protestant witch hunters.
The belief in familiar spirits does indeed seem to point to something outside the boundaries of Christian belief–possibly drawing on the Fairy Faith which did seem to exist parallel to Christian belief.
There has been great, in-depth scholarship into tracing how Christian folk magic and more earth-based belief systems, such as the lingering belief in fairies and elves, merged in Renaissance and Early Modern Europe. I highly recommend the works of Emma Wilby and Carlo Ginzburg. You have mentioned Margaret Murray–I believe these scholars take up where she left off.
As for Gimbutas, her theories on prehistory are a completely different topic than folk magic and perceived witchcraft in Early Modern Europe. I personally am a huge fan of Gimbutas and treasure her scholarship.
I didn’t mention the middle ages did I?
Regarding Gimbutas and Murray, I was not so much comparing their work and methods as the reactions to it. Both were quoted by feminist Wiccans and by Goddess feminists and this seems to me to be the “source” of their almost total dismissal in academic circles. Neither one was right about everything, but there is a double standard operating. Men can be wrong about lots of things and still respected. Women who threaten the patriarchal consensus cannot be wrong about anything.
Carol, I would love to read a post by you on the backlash against feminist scholarship.
Quite a lot has been written about the backlash against Gimbutas. Here is one piece.
Click to access JoA_article_by_CS_on_MG.pdf
Yes, I’ve read this. Quite sobering. Thank you for the link.
Thank you for this link, Carol. I’ve wondered for a long time what happened to cause Gimbutas’ work to be denigrated. This explains a lot.
Thank you for this well-researched post and the contextual world view of Europeans in the 1600s i.e. witchcraft then was how we view science today.
The familiar spirit sounds very similar to many other cultures (totems, jinn, origshas). Is this a common feature in ancient religions? Does Wilby talk about this in her book, or does she just focus on the United Kingdom?
In her book “Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,” Wilby compares Early Modern British cunning folk’s visionary experience to that of shamanic practitioners of various non-European cultures.
This sounds like a great book! Thank you!
Mary, I own and have read both of your books. I like them a lot. Thanks for this interesting blog, too. Male “physicians” killed a lot of people, whereas the cunning folk saved a lot of lives. But privileged people get really jealous if anyone else has any success. It is a fact that cunning folk were using herbs to heal centuries before medical doctors learned to wash their hands.
Carol’s right, I think, in saying there’s a double standard where academic research into history and feminist scholarship are concerned. The Spretnak book is especially scary!
Thank you so much, Barbara. Yes, there’s backlash everywhere, also in the Pagan community itself, against any form of spirituality that appears too feminist.
Hi Mary, I’m a huge fan of your Hildegard meditations at FAR, so this is a surprise and an intriguing departure. Also it opened my eyes literally and figuratively, where you say — “The Church actually forbade the belief in witches and therefore didn’t persecute suspected witches.” But certainly we don’t think of bewitchment any more as something negative either. What comes to mind is that song where someone happily in love sings of themselves as entirely “bewitched — bothered — and bewildered.”
Thank you so much for comment, Sarah! In this historical context, witchcraft was considered to be malevolent magic whereas cunning craft or “white” magic or “blessing” was considered beneficent. A prayer could also be a charm. Also Hildegard’s healing remedies involved charm-like prayers and even crystals or gemstones. I’m convinced that if she lived a few centuries later, she would have been burned as a witch.
Fascinating! I am inspired to work on a charm for my
internet connection. My ancestresses were daleswomen, so
I am sure I am born to the skill.
My internet connection would benefit from a charm, too, at times! How wonderful to discover that your ancestor was a wisewoman!
Mary, I read your book on Hildegard and loved it. I agree that she would have probably been burned as a witch had she lived a few centuries later. This post is an interesting look into the persecution of witches in Europe – so complex and so disturbing. Thanks for all your great research.
Thank you so much, Judith!