Tag Archives: Medieval History

Something Wicked This Way Comes – Part One

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.

On “Villains” and true villainy – The Harrying of The North

Hi folks I wrote this post, originally to the Facebook page a few days before Waitangi day, some time back. To my overseas readers, Waitangi day is New Zealand’s national day. 6th February is the anniversary of the 1840 signing of an agreement between most of the Maori tribes of New Zealand (no Tuhoe ever signed it), and the British crown. In the following decades, in spite of the treaty, Maori got screwed. Land wars and confiscations, the systematic destruction of their culture, systemic racism. The undermining of their lifestyle combined with new, European illnesses – Let’s just say European colonization did not go well for Maori. In recent decades, government have made some amends via Waitangi treaty settlements. Being a little worried certain social media ‘friends’ may say “well there you go, we paid them billions – the whole thing is a big old gravy train” I did point out the loss of one’s sovreignty, of 96.5% of your land, of invasions and confiscations, being barred from public facilities – being forced to speak in another language and forget your old ways… seeing your population dwindle; decades of being treated as second class citizens.
All for payments totalling an equivalent of 3 months government spending on superannuation – well, to me it hardly seems a gravy train really. Fearing a lose-lose at the time if I ran a New Zealand story I ran with a tale of one group of white folk colonizing another, and invited folk to draw the parallels themselves… much to my shame I must say. All the same, the tale of the Harrying of the North is history worth remembering, parallels (and there definitely are some) or not. Simone (2020 edit).

“They built castles widely throughout this nation, and oppressed the wretched people. And afterwards it continually grew very much worse. When God wills, may the end be good” – Translated from the Anglo-Saxon chronicles.

On 14th October 1066, two armies clashed in a field in one of the most decisive battles in English history. On one side William, Duke of Normandy – a man who claimed lineage from the Viking warrior Rollo; reared as French aristocracy, and like many Frankish adventurers without his own direct line to a throne -on the lookout out for opportunities (by the end of the 11th century 12 of the 15 nations which made up medieval European Christendom would be ruled by Frankish aristocrats). He had around 8,000 troops backing him up. On the other side, King Harold Godwinson, still catching his breath having defeated Harald Hardrada hundreds of miles north at the battle of Stanford Bridge. The ensuing battle was bloody by the standards of the day, with approximately 6,000 casualties. In the end William, henceforth William the conqueror won, owing to having cavalry and archers on his side, where Harold did not.

Initially life for most of England’s population, around 2 million at the time, would not seem too different; however soon after William’s coronation, his thousands of followers, bolstered by several thousand newly arrived Normans, began to demand their own piece of the pie. The Normans began building castles across the country and taking what they saw fit to take from the local population. By 1068 revolutionary movements, tired of being oppressed, arose in Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia and Wessex. When York was sacked by angry locals William, now with a political excuse to let his people pillage to their hearts’ content, ordered a counter attack; a scorched earth massacre known as The Harrying of the North, 1069 – 70. Modern historians increasingly class the Harrying as a genocide, though even close to his own time chroniclers saw it as a remarkably vicious act. Orderic Vitalis writing 50 years later… translated to modern English…

“The king stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent, with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes. More than 100,000 people perished of starvation.”

Using the sacking of York as justification, the Normans seized most of the land, and wealth in the country. Whole villages perished, still desolate generations later. There had been several thousand major English landowners prior to the Harrying; months after only four large native land owners remained. Approximately 5,000 nobles were stripped of their titles. Many English widows were forced to marry Norman invaders.
Within a generation a landowning nation, built largely on consensus had become an oligarchy ruled by 250 Normans, with William’s own family retaining control of 20 percent of the land.

What happened to English culture? Though a Christian nation their churches were razed, and replaced by large, Romanesque buildings. For hundreds of years their saints banned, and reliquaries destroyed. Their clergy replaced by French and Italian prelates. Their written language all but disappeared, replaced in official works by Latin. French became the official spoken language of those in power.
Some may have heard the term the Golem effect. In short we too often become that which others define us as, and if a people are systemicly treated as an underclass… well, some of thoe people will oblige their oppressors. The word “Villain” has always seemed a little case in point for me. In 2020 a villian is the antagonist in a tale, a moustache twirling bad guy. This owes much to the dehumanizing of those the Harrying of the North dispossessed. The word Villain originally described what we now call villagers. Post the Harrying of the North, the villages overfilled with fugitives, renting whatever accommodation was available to them- according to the numbers recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 (England’s first comprehensive census) England had 109,000 Villains – to the Norman conquerers an underclass of 109,000 scum; rebellious, coarse in manners – the kind of criminals who would trash a town like York given half a chance. A sizable underclass, who a generation ago were the respectable landowners.

But things got better right? We speak English now. Well yes, to a degree. Like many European countries, the bubonic plague of the 1340s made native Labour more costly. The peasants revolt of 1381 did not end serfdom, but it was one of a number of tipping points which led to a gradual English renaissance. A class system, however, favouring those of Norman lineage has largely survived. Thomas Paine commented on it, Karl Marx wrote of it. Even the 19th Century Tory Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli commented on England being two nations, “one of the rich and one of the poor”. A 2011 survey, according to Historian (and, yes, smug Brexiteer) Robert Tombs showed a noticable disparity of wealth exists to this day between those with Norman surnames like Lacey and Glanville, over the English Smiths and Shepherds. These things leave deep wounds when two groups start the race on different starting lines. We tend to carry the stamp of our ancestors heavy disadvantages.

Yes I did dodge Waitangi day when I wrote this, please take this post as intended – I’m not claiming we all have faced oppression so one group should get over it… quite the opposite. My goal was to state oppression is multi-generational, and leaves one group heavily disadvantaged. As I did when originally writing this post in 2019, I invite all readers to delve into the works of our legit historians, be that Keith Sinclair, Claudia Orange, James Belich, Michael King or a host of other writers. It can be downright dystopian, but you will be better off for knowing what happened.

Thomas Gore Brown, New Zealand’s former Governor.

Originally posted Waitangi day 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Edited in 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T Whitlow.