It is nearly Halloween and the time when witches are abroad casting spells and causing mayhem. Witches hold a powerful hold on the imagination as the interest in the Pendle case in Lancashire of the 17th century testifies. The fear of witches and their persecution resulted in a discussion I had in 1991 with a friend when visiting the Museum of Witchcraft in the delightful Cornish village of Boscastle. I had read a book on European witchcraft in the 17th century and remarked that the increase in witch hunts was linked to times of social distress and political upheaval. It was particularly marked in Germany when the number of cases increased greatly during the period of the 17th century 30 Years War. Over 30,000 people were convicted and executed during this period in a time when Germany was divided by strife. In Britain the number of witches executed was around 1,200. The majority, about 70% , were women
. It is a fallacy to think that British witches were burned: burning was practised on the Continent. The favoured method in England was hanging and the peak of witch trials was in a 50 year period from 1590 to 1640. In England this was a time when the country suffered with famine, growing poverty, religious intolerance and ultimately civil war. In short my contention was that the times called for scapegoats when people were looking to fix their fears on some poor unfortunate usually a woman.
The counter argument put by my woman friend is a feminist one that the persecution of witches is a frightened response to the power of women. Women have always been healers. They were the unlicensed doctors and healers in rural societies carrying out a variety of roles. They were abortionists, nurses and counsellors. They were midwives, travelling from home to home and village to village. “For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, and passing on experience from neighbour to neighbour and mother to daughter. They were called “wise women” by the people, witches by the authorities”.
Irrespective of the reasons stories about witches abounded in the community. Locally one of the better known stories concerns the Witch of Getliffe’s Yard who had the ability to change shape into a cat. Another Leek witch in an interesting clash between the old world and the new caused a factory to stop production when she put a spell on machinery until bought off with drink. The Moorlands does not feature in any major witch trial in the period, but elsewhere in the county investigations did take place. In 1596 a 13 year old boy Thomas Darling claimed that he came across a little old woman wearing a grey gown, black fringe cape, broad hat, and who had three warts on her face. Darling angered the woman, causing her to curse him to go to hell. Darling believes this was the Witch of Stapenhill named as Alice Goodridge and her mother were interrogated at Burton. Under pressure, they confessed.
By the 18th century a more rational view of the existence of witchcraft came to the fore and the last witch trial that resulted in an execution was in 1716. By the Victorian Age a belief in witches was thought absurd. In 1857 the Times reported mockingly of an allegation of witchcraft in a case of obtaining money under false pretences when a “cunning man” named Tunnicliffe convinced a Rugeley farmer called Charlesworth that his cattle herd was bewitched.