Hey everyone go check out https://www.podbean.com/eu/pb-3dtwh-bf85d9 for the First of our Podcasts! The internet tells me people like choice, so I am posting the transcript on here for the readers out there. It’s long so I’m posting in two parts.
Hi folks and welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, my name is Simone. Today’s tale is about a woman named Alizon Device, and her untimely death on 20th August 1612. This is a tale of witchcraft, allegations of murder and of 10 executions. On the teaser for this podcast I quoted the philosopher Bertrand Russell…
“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom”
Irrational fear definitely helps explain this story, but it really is only one element. Political opportunism and scapegoating are factors, not to mention the lengths a young outsider will go to just to fit in with the crowd. I should also point out, while witch hunts took a massive number of lives in Europe – the figure I was told when younger of 600,000 dead is now thought an exaggeration, the ballpark is still in hundreds of thousands- In England only around 500 people were executed for witchcraft. That a single case lead to 2% of the countries’ total executions makes the story of the Pendle Witches significant.
We’ll get to the case but first today I’m going to spend a little time looking at how we got to the witch trials in England – and while I want to mention a few European milestones, I’m not jumping into the witch trials at Navarre, and Wurtzburg and such.. it is too deep a rabbit hole. I should also say up front – do I believe in witches? Well, I believe many witches were folk healers with pagan beliefs. And, yes I believe some witches wished people misfortune- but that leaves you a long long way from proving anything supernatural. I do believe the witch hunts were an atrocity.. so, without further ado. Welcome to episode 1, Something Wicked This Way Comes.
[Theme music plays, an excerpt from Ishtar’s ‘The Enemy Within’]
Witches in Antiquity.
So, by way of background.. Tales of Witchcraft go all the way back to antiquity. The old testament of the bible mentions witches. In 1 Samuel, written possibly as early as the 10th century BC, King Saul calls on the witch of Endor to summon the ghost Samuel to help the Israelites defeat the Philistines. The witch instead prophesied the deaths of Saul and his sons, which is what the bible says happened. It should not surprise anyone the writers of the bible didn’t love witches… in Exodus, just after dealing with the 10 commandments, the book states “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. If you were to sum up early responses to witches, early people viewed them as frightening, mysterious, but at times useful.
Stories of persecution and execution of witches go way back in antiquity in a number of civilizations – as do stories of turning to witches for assistance. In Ancient Greece for example anyone who was anyone would travel to the Oracle of Delphi for advice on matters of importance. On the flipside you get stories such as the public execution of Theoris of Lemnos and her family in Athens for practicing witchcraft in the 4th century BC. What she did exactly was not recorded by the statesman Demosthenes, but she was believed to practice folk healing, and may, possibly have poisoned someone. Nearly 200 years later Plato would write in his ‘Symposium’ that he saw practitioners of magic as maleficent beings, but tied their powers to the God Eros.
Some earlier philosophers actually courted public belief in their magical powers. Pythagoras had some believing he could be in two places at once, could make predictions, and could bite poisonous snakes before the snakes could bite him. Thales of Miletus surely was risking life and limb a little when he predicted a solar eclipse, and used this knowledge to bring about a truce with the warring Medes in 585 BC. The Medes, thinking it was an open from the gods to cool it stopped. Empedocles was so intent on proving himself supernatural to the locals he jumped into the volcano at Mt Etna, thinking when he disappeared the people would think he flew into the heavens and was a God. When his sandal got thrown back out somehow the people just realized he’d jumped into a volcano, and burned to death… but, we are getting off track a little… so.
In Ancient Rome it was a capital offense to use witchcraft to blight crops, or destroy one’s flocks or herds, but a great many Patricians would privately consult witches for political or military advice. The writer Plutarch is one example of a guy who believed in omens, even if he was suspicious of witches and magicians. Some apparent folk healers and the like of course pitched themselves as miracle workers and messianic types in the Roman empire. One gets the sense Jesus was one of many, presuming his reality, plying a trade in healing the sick, casting out demons, and flashy shows of magic.
The Middle Ages
The rise of Christianity brought changes to the view of witches especially as the religion extended out into Europe and met with pagan religions. While Christianity may have started from “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” – seen practitioners of any opposing set of beliefs as a threat, but in the 5th Century AD, St Augustine robbed witches of any perceived power by stating belief in witchcraft was primitive superstition, and witchcraft a bit of a nonsense. At a number of church synods, notably at Elvira Spain in 306 and Ankara Turkey in 314 witchcraft had been proclaimed a sin you could take a penance for, rather than something to be executed for. It became the greater heresy to believe in witchcraft than to practice anything resembling witchcraft for much of late antiquity and the early middle ages.
This is not to say there weren’t incidents. Witch hunts clearly occurred during this era, otherwise why make laws banning witch hunts? Charlemagne – the de-facto first Holy Roman emperor, crowned in 800 AD– shocked at news of a spate of recent witch hunts, proclaimed
“If anyone, deceived by the devil, shall believe, as is customary among Pagans that any man or woman is a night- witch and eats men, and on that account burn that person to death… he shall be executed”
In 1100 King Kalman of Hungary banned witch hunts stating “witches do not exist”. The Lombards, of which Charlemagne had once been king, made it clear killing witches would bring dire consequences… A number of other medieval rulers, however did come to see witchcraft as a danger. In 1080 Pope Gregory VII wrote a strongly worded letter to Harald III of Denmark demanding he stop the widespread murder of witches. King Harald had gotten it into his head witches had caused a spate of storms and crop failures. Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious called for all witches and sorcerers to be killed. In Scotland Kenneth MacAlpin – the Pictish king often thought the first king of Scotland called for sorcerers and witches to be burned to death, if they attempt to invoke spirits.
In 900AD, the Canon Episcopi, a church document dealing with Pagan beliefs re-iterated St Augustine’s views, witches don’t exist. It stated definitively the bigger crime is the heresy in believing in such things. From here on for the next few centuries though, in an effort to be consistent – the church began to prosecute witches as heretics – mostly imposing fines.
The Road to Malleus Maleficarum
From around 1300 a belief began to grow that witches were engaged in malicious behaviour; meeting in secret covens to have mass orgies, and eat babies. A Christian cult known as the Cathars had become very popular in Southern France and Northern Italy their brand of religion probably having arrived from Armenia, Persia or the Byzantine Empire via Bulgaria. Threatened, the church became less forgiving of anything considered heretical, the Cathars themselves eventually all but annihilated. From the 15th Century stories began circulating that witches made pacts with the devil and were obliged to carry out wicked deeds and spread misfortune. By this time the crusades in the Near East had opened up access to classical texts lost to the west but preserved by Islam, while some of these texts fed a rise in Renaissance occultism among the upper classes of Europe, it also reinforced negative views towards witchcraft among the scholastic movement.
Now, on occasion accusations of witchcraft were political – Pope Boniface VIII, who died in 1303 not long after being kidnapped and released by the King of France – was posthumously tried for witchcraft, among a raft of other, more serious charges. When the Knights Templar became a little too wealthy and powerful, as the first multi-national corporation to speak of and a money lender to kings – King Philip the Fair, the same pope kidnapping king of France arrested and executed them for heresy and witchcraft, on Friday the 13th October 1307. It is clear Philip 4th liked to excuse his own bad behaviour by claiming his enemies were witches.
In 1486 a Dominican monk and inquisitor named Heinrich Kramer wrote an important book called Malleus Maleficarum, “the hammer against the Witches”. It was a huge best seller, second only to the Bible throughout Europe. It laid out an argument for future, and ongoing inquisitions against witches – covens, human sacrifice, deals with the devil.
All that said, in England concerns over witchcraft were not great…. up till the era of the Stuarts. The Tudor king Henry 8th, possibly more driven by a need to enforce loyalty since making himself head of the Church of England, passed a witchcraft act in 1542 which allowed him to confiscate a witches land, and even put them to death. His daughter, Elizabeth 1st changed the law only allowing the death penalty if someone used witchcraft to murder another. These laws appear largely unused.
Daemonologie… and how to drown a cat….
King James I of England, presided over a time of a great number of witch trials, and this is the time our tale is set in. In 1589 James, then just king of Scotland, was betrothed to Anne of Denmark. In Anne’s first attempt to cross the North Sea she was almost scuttled by a violent storm. James then sailed to her with a fleet of ships. The two of them then almost drowned on the way back – with one of James’ ships was sunk on the return voyage.
The Danish admiral who had attempted the first crossing was sure the bad weather was being caused by witchcraft – he had insulted the wife of a Danish official back in Copenhagen and was sure she had hexed them. This was added to by an official investigation, which pointed the finger at Danish minister of finance, Christopher Valkendorff, for having cheaped out on the ships, but he had managed to defend himself by claiming the incident must be down to witchcraft instead. Several prominent women were tortured, eventually owning up to the attempt on Anne’s life, and twelve women were burnt on the stake as a result.
On his return to Scotland, King James called for his own tribunal, and, unsurprising when you use torture to force confession, found a number of witches. Under torture James’ alleged conspirators confessed to tying a dead man’s genitals to a cat, calling on the devil to kill the royal couple, then throwing the cat into the ocean, among other things.
The North Berwick witch trials themselves deserve an episode, especially the tale of Gellis Duncan, a maid working for one David Seaton whose accusation and torture of Gellis seems more driven out of jealousy and a need to control Gellis – who had of late taken to sneaking out of the house at night, and if you can’t openly punish her for meeting up with a paramour then why not punish her for attempted regicide instead right?
James I wrote a treatise against witchcraft, daemonology, in 1591, which though more nuanced than many of the witch trials were, did state witchcraft had been going on for as long as we have existed and advocated for witch trials. When James claimed the English throne he enacted a witchcraft act in England. But did magistrates believe witches were evil? Some yes, some were no doubt company men, willing to do what the boss asked of them. In 1605 William Shakespeare wrote one of the greatest witch hating, propaganda pieces ever in Macbeth – In the a play the virtuous Macbeth is lead astray by three witches to kill the king and take the crown. Misled by the 3 weird sisters and fuelled by ambition Macbeth sinks Scotland into a repressive tyranny, until the forces of good. children of his slain former friend Banquo, helped by a cast Scottish Thanes and English soldiers defeat him and make all well in the world again – Banquo was an ancestor of James by the way.
Now, Lancaster in the North East of England was a lawless borderland, where theft and violence was common. It was a stronghold of a number of underground Catholic churches, churches who came out of hiding briefly in the reign of Elizabeth’s sister Mary, then went underground in Elizabeth’s reign. There were a number of wise women, the types of folk healers often accused of witchcraft. There were two local judges in the area, Sir James Altham- a virulent witch hater, and Sir Edward Bromley, who was desperate to win James I’s favour and be promoted to a better position closer to London.
By 1612 James was king, and concerned Catholics particularly meant to do him harm, sent out orders to the Justices of the peace to make lists of recusants – those who refused to take part in the protestant church proceedings. In Pendle, Lancaster, this order fell on Roger Nowell.
Now this seems a good place to split this script up…
Sorry folks this is a long one… the podcasts ARE wordy. I’ll post part two next week. In the meantime please go take a listen at https://Talesofhistoryandimagination.podbean.com
This Tale is part one of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.