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Blake Morrison: under the witches' spell


Four hundred years ago 10 women were hanged in Lancashire for witchcraft. Now Jeanette Winterson, Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, all inspired by the notorious Pendle trials, join a long line of writers in thrall to witches

It began ordinarily enough. On a road near Colne, in Lancashire, a woman called Alizon Device met a pedlar called John Law and asked if he would give her some pins. Perhaps she was offering to buy them; more likely, being poor, she was begging. Whichever, the pedlar refused to undo his pack for her and she cursed him. The two parted company and continued on their way.

Immediately afterwards, though, just a few hundred yards down the road, the pedlar collapsed with a stroke that paralysed him down the left side and left him unable to speak. He was taken to an ale house, from where a letter was dispatched to his son. By the time the son arrived, the pedlar's speech had recovered sufficiently for him to describe how he'd been bewitched. The son tracked Alizon down and brought her to his father, from whom she begged forgiveness. Unappeased, the son reported her to a local magistrate, Roger Nowell, "a very religious honest gentleman", who set about interrogating her.

At this point the story became stranger. Alizon not only admitted having bewitched the pedlar with the help of a black dog (which had offered to lame him), she also recalled how her grandmother – known as Demdike – had initiated her in the malefic art. As Nowell pressed, increasingly lurid tales came out: of how the black dog had first appeared to Alizon and "did with his mouth suck at her breast, a little below the paps, which did remain blue half a year"; of milk turned sour and cows falling sick and children bewitched to death; of the enmity between Demdike and her deformed daughter Elizabeth and a neighbour called Anne Whittle (Chattox) and her daughter, all of whom were witches living in Pendle Forest. After further interviews, Nowell sent four of these women to await trial in Lancaster, leaving Elizabeth behind at her home, Malkin Tower.

Malkin Tower seems not to have been a tower, just a simple cottage. But there, on Good Friday, emboldened by drink and a feast of roast lamb (the sheep having been stolen from a local farmer), Elizabeth and her friends and neighbours conceived a plan of travelling the 40-odd miles to Lancaster, blowing up the jail, and freeing the Pendle Four. It's improbable they'd ever have acted on the plan, but Nowell – hearing word of it – was taking no chances, and 15 more men and women were charged and sent for trial.

The trials took place over two days, Tuesday 18 August and Wednesday 19 August 1612, with the jury asked to consider a variety of offences, including murder and cannibalism. Crucial to the proceedings was the testimony of nine-year-old Jennet Device, whose mother Elizabeth, "outrageously cursing … against the child in such a fearefull manner", had to be taken away before the evidence could be heard. Standing on a table in front of the court, Jennet testified against her mother, brother and grandmother, along with others who had gathered at Malkin Tower. Whereas the judge discounted the evidence of an older child witness against three other alleged witches, Jennet's modesty and innocence were taken to guarantee her reliability. The court was impressed.

As a result, 10 of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to death; they were hanged next day on the moor above Lancaster. Demdike had already died during her four months in prison. "Although it pleased God out of his Mercie to spare you at this time," Justice Bromley told those acquitted, "yet without question there are those amongst you that are as deep in this Action as any of them that are condemned to die."

Many similar witch trials took place throughout Europe and America both before and after 1612, including a second case in Pendle in 1634, when the adult Jennet Device was herself accused of being a witch on the say-so of a child. (She and her companions were eventually acquitted.) Many more witches were put to death before the law against witchcraft in England was finally repealed in 1736. The Lancaster case remains the most notorious, however, in part because of the number of those involved (it was rare for so many witches to be tried at once), and partly because the clerk of the court, Thomas Potts, published a detailed account of the proceedings, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster, which gives a fascinating insight into the legal processes and socio-religious attitudes of the day.

The Pendle witches don't conform to modern stereotypes. Spells are cast, clay images pricked with pins, and supernumerary nipples or warts (the mark of the devil) diligently searched for. But there are no broomsticks, no steaming cauldrons, no pointed hats, no witches' sabbaths, no black masses. Satan has a role to play but he appears in the guise of a dog or hare, not as a devil with horns. And there's nothing especially spine-chilling about the motives for witchcraft. It happens when someone behaves meanly or intemperately and has a curse put on them in return. Grudges, superstition, a belief in charms and otherworldly spirits: all this seems perfectly familiar. The witches may look ugly but they're also homely – the dysfunctional neighbours across the way.

The events of 1612 are now an established part of English folklore, and a large tourist industry flourishes around them. When I was growing up on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border, with Pendle Hill visible in the distance, talk of witches was commonplace; every local village seemed to have one – or rather, every village had an old woman whose behaviour and appearance struck fear into the hearts of children. Even the methods of punishment seemed close in time. Our village still had a wooden stocks, and it was easy to imagine witches being placed in them. Sorcery and spookiness weren't reserved for Halloween.

Potts's account of the Pendle witches may have been the first book on the subject, but other less legalistic treatments soon followed, including plays, novels and revisionist histories. The Late Lancashire Witches, by Thomas Heywood and Richard Brome, was performed in 1634 (at the time of the second Pendle witch-craze), and later adapted by Thomas Shadwell. William Ainsworth Harrison's novel The Lancashire Witches was a huge success in its day (1848) and prompted comparisons with Dickens and Walter Scott. Robert Neill's Mist Over Pendle (1951) is the best known of the author's many historical novels.

Now the 400th anniversary has brought a spate of new work about the Pendle witches. Simon Armitage got in first, with a television documentary that included animation as well as scholarly interviews. And in both Pendle and Lancaster there's a year-long festival, with art installations, exhibitions, lectures, guided walks, two plays – Sabbat by Richard Shannon and Devilish Practices by Richard MacSween – a sculpture trail, a folklore camp and a specially commissioned poem by Carol Ann Duffy carved into stones by the textual artist Stephen Raw and placed along the 48-mile route from Pendle to Lancaster. There's even a witch-themed flower show.

There are also two new novellas on the subject, by Jeanette Winterson and Livi Michael. Winterson's, The Daylight Gate, takes its title from the dialect term for dusk: it's when night-time horror begins, and that's appropriate given Winterson's publishers, Hammer, which in partnership with Arrow Books is tapping the genre made famous by its film studio. Livi Michael's Malkin Child, narrated by nine-year-old Jennet Device, is aimed at younger readers looking for a witch story that isn't Harry Potter fantasy but grounded in fact. Her Jennet is slangy, unsensational and determined, above all, to set the record straight. "Everyone's got a story, and if they don't tell it, then other people'll tell it for them," she says. "That's why I'm telling it now."

Stories about witches have been told since the beginning of time. In classical literature, they're either wily seductresses (such as Circe in the Odyssey) or malicious hags (such as Dipsas, who deprives Ovid of his lover in the Amores). On the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage – with John Lyly's Endymion, Ben Jonson's The Masque of Queens, Thomas Middleton's The Witch, and Dekker, Ford and Rowley's The Witch of Edmonton – they became more bloodthirsty ("I had a dagger; what did I with that? / Killed an infant to have his fat"). The three weird sisters in Macbeth are Shakespeare's most celebrated contribution to the genre ("What are these / So withered and so wild in their attire / That look not like the inhabitants of earth / And yet are on't?"), but with her "mischiefs manifold, and sorceries terrible", Sycorax in The Tempest runs them close (though dead, her spirit lives on in the "hag-seed" Caliban). Othello is also charged with witchcraft: how else could a black man have successfully wooed Desdemona?

Dr Johnson defended Shakespeare's use of the supernatural from the charge of implausibility on the grounds that, "The reality of witchcraft … has in all ages and countries been credited by the common people, and in most by the learned." In the age of Enlightenment, superstition was waning, though Joseph Addison confessed himself divided on the subject: "I believe, in general, that there is such a thing as witchcraft, but can give no credit to any particular instance of it." Romanticism and the Gothic allowed a resurgence of witches, along with elves, fairies, goblins and ghosts. Stories about them might defy reason but, said Scott, made better reading when left mysterious: "The professed explanation of a tale, where appearances or incidents of a supernatural character are referred to natural causes, has often, in the winding up of a story, a degree of improbability almost equal to an absolute goblin narrative."

Witches might have been expected to die out in a secular, scientific age. But ever since Dorothy took on the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, they've multiplied. From Roald Dahl and Mary Norton to Celia Rees, children's books abound in them – and exult in their destruction ("And through the town the joyous news went running / The joyous news that the wicked old witch was finally done in"). In films and television series, from the 1960s sitcom Bewitched to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the aim is laughter rather than shivers down the spine. In the Harry Potter books and the Vampire Diaries series, the supernatural is the norm.

Two major 20th-century authors found the witch-craze in Salem in 1692 – which had parallels with that in Pendle 80 years earlier – indispensable when making sense of America in the 1950s and 60s. To Arthur Miller, the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Salem witch trials served the same ritualistic purpose, requiring "that the accused make public confession, damn his confederates as well as his Devil master, and guarantee his new allegiance by breaking disgusting old vows". When The Crucible opened in 1952, during the heyday of McCarthyism, the response of the New York audience was predictably hostile: there never were witches but there are communists, was the common objection. Two years on, with paranoia abating, the play was better received.

From 60s anti-war protesters to the Manson murders, recent history was also on John Updike's mind when he wrote The Witches of Eastwick. His coven of divorcees – Alexandra, Sukie and Jane – wreak havoc in the local community, making feathers, dead wasps and bits of eggshell appear from the mouths of victims, and (thanks to the spells they cast and the pins they stick in Alexandra's dolls or "bubbies") subjecting their worst enemies to grisly ends. "Wickedness was like food," they found, "once you got started it was hard to stop." The main power the trio revel in is sexual, and Updike has his usual fun with that. But he put in some serious research for the book, drawing on works of history (Michelet, Norman Cohn, Margaret Murray) and novels including Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes.

The latter – her first novel, published in 1926 – is also a novel for its time. Written in the wake of the suffragette movement and the enfranchisement of women, it reinterprets witches as proto-feminists whose only cult is a benign one, that of self-discovery. Suffocated by middle-class life in London, the spinster heroine takes off to the countryside and there, in a village called Great Mop, finds herself becoming a witch – not, as she explains to Satan (who appears as a gamekeeper and gardener), in order to plague people or do harm, but "to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others … That's why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life's a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure."

The last witch-hanging in England was in 1685 but witchcraft goes on living, it seems. Certainly the issues surrounding the trial of the Pendle witches resonate to this day. The use of child witnesses is as contentious now as it was then. Rushed proceedings resulting in harsh sentences were a feature of last August's riots as well as of August 1612. And confessions continue to be extracted from innocent parties. "Loath they are to confess without torture, which witnessed their guiltiness," wrote King James in Daemonologie, and many security forces around the world today operate by the same principle. Once witches were ducked in ponds and rivers; now there's waterboarding.

The Pendle witch story also appeals to writers because it lends itself to different readings. Take young Jennet Device. Livi Michael shows her being conned into betraying those she loves. "Wouldn't you like to save your family?" Nowell asks her, and she submits to his coaxing and coaching, not realising what he's up to until it's too late. By contrast, the nine-year-old in The Daylight Gate – Winterson's Jennet – fully understands the consequences of her actions:

Jennet looked at them. Her brother who had sold her. Her mother who had neglected her. Her sisters who had ignored her. Chattox who frightened her. Mouldheels who stank.

She named them one by one and condemned them one by one.

Much of Winterson's book focuses on a protagonist even more intriguing than Jennet: Alice Nutter, one of those hanged. "She was a rich woman; had a great estate, and children of good hope," Potts's account of the trial records, making a distinction between witches who live "in great miserie and povertie" and those like Alice who, "though rich, yet burne in a desperate desire of Revenge". Why would a woman of means associate with beggars? Was she the victim of a plot? Winterson's story builds a new life for Alice that involves an earlier career in London, friendship with the famous magician John Dee and a passionate love affair with Elizabeth Southern, aka (in later life) Demdike. There's even a walk-on part for Shakespeare, who sits with Alice watching a performance of The Tempest at Hoghton Tower, near Preston.

Winterson tackles the issue of Catholicism, too, as anyone telling this story must. Anti-Catholicism was rife at the time, all the more so after the gunpowder plot of 1605, and Lancashire was regarded as a hotbed of the "old" religion. To those of a Calvinist persuasion there was little to choose between Catholic prayers and magic spells or incantations. "Witchery popery popery witchery. What is the difference?" as Winterson's novel has it. Or to put it another way, Catholics = witches = deviants = enemies of the state. The wild talk of blowing up Lancaster jail sealed the fate of those on trial in 1612. A group of impoverished labourers and elderly widows were presented as dangerous conspirators in the tradition of Guy Fawkes.

The previous year had seen the publication of the King James Bible, in which the religious justification for executing witches was clearly stated: "Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft" (I Samuel 15:23) and "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18). James himself had helped induce anti-witch hysteria while king of Scotland: convinced that a group of witches in North Berwick had plotted to murder him and his new queen, he ordered an investigation and mass arrests. His ideas were set out in his book Daemonologie, and enshrined in the 1604 Witchcraft Act, one of the first pieces of legislation passed under his reign in England. Later James became more sceptical about the prevalence of witches but his thinking influenced magistrates. Severe sentences had the king's blessing. They also did right by God: "The giving up witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible," John Wesley said.

The persecution of witches also offers insights into misogyny, as Caryl Churchill showed in her 1970s play Vinegar Tom. "More women in a far different proportion prove witches than men, by a hundred to one," ran a treatise of 1616, and explained why:

First, women are by nature credulous, wanting experience, and therefore more easily deceived.

Secondly, they harbour in their breast a curious and inquisitive desire to know such things as be not fitting and convenient …

Thirdly, their complexion is softer, and from hence more easily receive the impressions offered by the Devil …

Fourthly, in them is a greater facility to fall, and therefore the Devil at the first took that advantage, and set upon Eve in Adam's absence …

Fifthly, this sex, when it conceiveth wrath or hatred against any, is unplacable, possessed with insatiable desire of revenge, and transported with appetite to right (as they think) the wrongs offered unto them...

Sixthly, they are of a slippery tongue, and full of words: and therefore if they know any such wicked practices, are not able to hold them, but communicate the same with their husbands, children, consorts, and inward acquaintance.

Some women writers have retaliated against such prejudice by laying claim to sorcery as a form of empowerment – witches and proud of it. "I have gone out, a possessed witch / haunting the black air," Anne Sexton wrote, and Sylvia Plath imagined herself as a witch exulting when burnt at the stake: "My ankles brighten. Brightness ascends my thighs. / I am lost, I am lost, in the robes of all this light." This kind of hag-ography exists not only in Wicca circles but in academe (Mary Daly: "Our foresisters were the Great Hags whom the institutionally powerful but privately impotent patriarchs found too threatening for coexistence"), with the female body seen as a site of atrocity and with witch-burnings equated to the Holocaust. The complication is that men were also hanged for witchcraft (two of the 1612 victims were male), and that many of the accusations against women were made by members of their own sex.

One popular new age myth is that witches were beneficent healers and midwives persecuted by the establishment – white witches not black. It's certainly tempting to recruit witches as symbols of paganism, nature worship, herbal remedies, earth-wisdom and ecological right-mindedness, if only to confound those who see them as purveyors of madness or Satanic child abuse. There have even been petitions for those convicted under anti-witchcraft legislation to be retrospectively pardoned. But no evidence exists to suggest that the Pendle witches were healers and midwives. On the contrary, they convinced themselves that they possessed malign powers. Demdike described how she and her followers used clay images to afflict their enemies:

When they would have them to be ill in any one place more than another, then take a thorn or pin and prick it in that part of the picture you would so have to be ill; and when you would have any part of the body to consume away, then take that part of the picture, and burn it. And when they would have the whole body to consume away, then take the remnant of the said picture and burn it: and so thereupon by that means, the body shall die.

It's sad and desperate stuff: that a marginalised group could delude itself it possessed such powers is a sign, more than anything, of powerlessness. But even the best minds of the age were unforgiving. "Witches think sometimes that they kill when they do not," wrote John Donne in his sermons, "and are therefore as culpable as if they did." Hobbes said the same: "I think not that their witchcraft is any real power; but yet that they are justly punished, for the false belief they have that they can do such mischief."

In many parts of the world, people still believe in witchcraft and its mischief. Evangelical churches in Africa offer exorcisms: "Are you in bondage, affliction, oppressed or tormented by witches? Come to us for deliverance." The cure comes at a price, of course, but anyone who has experienced "strange dreams, delay in marriage, miscarriage and barrenness, stagnancy in business, financial struggles, premature death in the family, sickness resisting medication and strange occurrences" is said to be in need of deliverance – ie most of us. Even more insidious is the belief in child witches. In 2010 a 15-year-old French Congolese boy, Kristy Bamu, was tortured and murdered in London by his elder sister and her fiancé because they believed him to be a witch. The Lancaster-based charity Stepping Stones Nigeria, which campaigns on behalf of children in the Niger delta, recently had a case on its own doorstep of a child being accused of witchcraft.

Hannah Arendt's phrase "the banality of evil" sums up the events of 1612, which began as a feud between two families but escalated into a panic about maleficium. When misfortunes occur, it always helps to have someone to blame. It's only the names of the scapegoats that change. A few years ago, when the British National Party was making gains in the Pendle area, I interviewed one of their candidates. His grudge was against immigrants and their "otherness". But I couldn't help noticing he had books about witchcraft on his shelves.

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