Monday, 19 October 2009

Most Haunted's Pendle Witch Hunt: A Sceptic's Guide

Halloween, 2004

Living TV's Most Haunted investigated several farmhouses around Newchurch in Pendle in search of the ghosts of the Pendle Witches of 1612. Their team of ghost hunters not only claimed to have had a direct encounter with the Pendle Witch "coven" in an old house on Lower Well Head Farm, but that the spirit of Old Demdike attempted to strangle TV psychic Derek Acorah, who has since been outed as a fake.

While I realise that the people most likely to read this blog take TV psychics with a healthy dose of scepticism in the first place, Halloween seems to drag out all kinds of ghoulish speculation about historical witches and cunning folk in a way that is not only historically inaccurate but disrespectful. The Pendle Witches were not ghouls. They were real living people who were held for months in a lightless dungeon in Lancaster Castle, chained to a ring in the stone floor, before being tried without any barrister and then hanged.

It doesn't help matters that reference sites such as Wikipedia mention the Most Haunted series in the same paragraph as William Ainsworth's delightfully gothic novel, The Lancashire Witches, first published in 1849, that revived the Pendle Witch story after it had lain dormant for two centuries.

Derek Acorah's bad acting notwithstanding, Most Haunted's Pendle Witch programme was full of inaccuracies.

1. The programme, investigating paranormal activity at a number of sites around Newchurch, can't even get the name of the village right. They refer to it as "Newham," just as Derek Acorah claims to channel "Elizabeth Southworth"--Mother Demdike's real name was Elizabeth Southerns. The Lancaster Witch Trials of 1612, under the reign of James I, are referred to as a "Tudor witch trial." I could go on and on. Each viewing reveals more bloopers.

2. Yvette Fielding makes a big deal about the noise of barking dogs as an indicator of paranormal activity and lurking evil. The real reason for the dog noise is quite banal. Lower Well Head Farm is situated next door to Meadow Top Boarding Kennel where one may hear barking dogs at any hour of the day or night.

3. Derek Acorah claims to psychically sense Demdike and Chattox gathering at Lower Well Head Farm in 1610 to work magic with the rest of their "coven." There are two major errors here.

English cunning folk appeared to work alone or in small family groups but there is no evidence that they worked in covens, which appeared to be a Contintental European concept first popularised in Britain by King James I in his book, Daemonologie, a witch-hunter's handbook and required reading for local magistrates. Shakespeare's play Macbeth, originally performed for James I and his court in 1605, presents the first depiction of a witches coven in English literature.

The second major error is that all recorded confessions in the Pendle Witch trials seem to indicate that Demdike and Chattox were bitter enemies in 1610 and unlikely to meet up to collaborate on any kind of magical working.

During the live "investigation," Most Haunted's viewers were invited to text their answer to the either-or-question: Where the Pendle Witches innocent victims or were they real witches with real powers? The superficiality of this question is an insult to the historical realities of cunning folk who lived in an era when everyone, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, believed that magic was real.

Cunning craft was the family trade for both Demdike (Elizabeth Southerns) and Chattox (Anne Whittle). Of course, they believed they had powers. Their very livelihood depended on it. Of course, they owned up to Roger Nowell, the prosecuting magistrate, about their familiar spirits. Without their familiars, they would have no powers and they would be revealed to be bigger fakes than Derek Acorah! How could a cunning woman bless and heal without the aid of her spirit--her otherworldly ally?

Were they innocent victims? How does one define innocence in the complex world of Jacobean witch-hunts? Anne Whittle, aka Chattox, confessed to bewitching to death her landlord's son, her motive being that he attempted to rape her daughter, Anne Redfearn, and to drive her entire family out of their cottage. In a time and place where there was a different law for the rich than for the poor and where the wealthy knew they could get away with rape, a fierce reputation as a cunning woman may have been the only power an impoverished woman could hope to wield. Was Chattox an evil witch for wanting to protect her daughter? Family love seemed to guide her every action. In the 1612 trial, she broke down and confessed her crime, then tearfully pleaded her daughter's innocence and begged the gentlemen of the court to let Anne Redfearn go free. But Anne was hanged alongside her mother.

As for Elizabeth Southerns, aka Old Demdike, the trial transcripts reveal that local farmers called on her to heal their children and their cattle. She was a cunning woman of long standing before she finally died in Lancaster Prison, aged "foure-score yeares," ie eighty years old, according to Court Clerk Thomas Potts. What is amazing is not that the magistrate finally arrested her but that she practised her craft for decades and none in her community spoke against her until the very end.

It is my belief that the Elizabeth Southerns, Anne Whittle, and the other accused witches live on in Pendle as part of the undying spirit of the landscape. They are the strong cunning folk who will never be banished. But you won't find them channeled by bad TV psychics. Walk the land instead, listen to the language the land speaks, the wind and rain, the dance of the seasons. That is where the real magic begins.

For a more nuanced view on the Pendle Witches than what you will find in Most Haunted, I recommend the following books:

Primary Source:

The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster by Thomas Potts

Daemonologie by James I

Secondary Sources:

The Lancashire Witch-Craze by Jonathan Lumby

The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories, edited by Robert Poole

The Trials of the Lancashire Witches by Edgar Peel and Pat Southern