Skip to content

Response to Review no. 348

It is of course pleasing to be the subject of critical attention, particularly when so distinctive a writer as Diane Purkiss finds that the book ‘sets a demanding standard’, and is so complementary about so many of the essays. I enjoyed her insight that some of the evidence presented ‘represents a moment when religion . becomes magic.’ I am particularly pleased that she liked Jonathan Lumby’s essay, because as she says it shows that even (or perhaps especially) in these days of historiographical overload, professional academics do not have a monopoly on exciting discoveries. It might be wise to leave it at that, but in her disappointment at the absence of what she calls ‘the wilder side of witchcraft studies’, Purkiss does, I think, misreport the content of the book in significant ways, and I would like to set the record straight on three points: Potts, evidence, and T-shirts.

Firstly, Potts. Purkiss points out that that the core evidence for the Lancashire trial of 1612 comes from the book by Thomas Potts, the clerk of the court, and that the assize records have vanished. True. But this does not mean that ‘accounts must rest shakily on Potts’. The essays by Marion Gibson and Stephen Pumfrey (ignored by Purkiss) address this issue in depth, demonstrating how his account was constructed and what this construction has to tell us. They fully answer Purkiss’s rhetorical question: ‘If the Potts pamphlet is not evidence, then what exactly is the book about?’ They also show that, carefully read, Potts does contain a great deal of ‘evidence’, albeit defined more broadly than Purkiss seems to envisage it.

Secondly, evidence. I am perplexed by Purkiss’s complaint that the contributors have not used ‘other texts that we do not have’, such as chapbooks and mystery plays, and ‘other pamphlets by Potts on similar subjects’ – which don’t exist either. I suppose I can reply that the commentary on ‘texts that we do not have’ was in a chapter that was not written and which no-one has read. I can also reply that the book has in fact made very extensive use of the other evidence that we do have: Stephen Pumfrey and Jonathan Lumby hunt down the witch-hunters themselves, John Swain (also ignored by Purkiss) anatomises the communities of Pendle’s ‘cattle and cloth country’, Michael Mullett describes the local religious climate, and Kirsteen Macpherson Bardell presents Sessions evidence about other contemporary Lancashire witches. This is hardly ‘top-down history’. The extensive use of a great variety of evidence by a range of different specialists is, I believe, a feature of the book, and in her disappointment at the absence of her preferred kind of sources, Purkiss seems to have missed this.

Thirdly, the T-shirt issue. Another central feature of the book is also at first overlooked by Purkiss – namely, the extensive attention paid to the afterlife and development of stories of the Lancashire witches. Purkiss asserts that ‘the problem with this volume is. [that] no-one assays the question of why and how this trial got itself a T-shirt.’ No fewer than four chapters are devoted to this, as afterwards noticed by Purkiss and as flagged in the subtitle: ‘histories and stories’. Richard Wilson looks at the immediate context of discourses about popery and witchcraft, Alison Findlay at the second mass trial of 1633-4 and the play, Jeffrey Richards at Harrison Ainsworth’s Victorian reworking of the myth, and Joanne Pearson at present-day arguments and the attitudes of local pagans and Christians.

(On this last, Purkiss may not welcome Pearson’s negative conclusions about the role of present-day pagans in keeping the Lancashire witches alive, but in view of the extensive treatment given in her own work to pagan perspectives on witchcraft studies, it seems odd that she should query the place of Pearson’s Lancashire-focussed treatment here).

Finally, I can concur to an extent with Purkiss’s critical observation that the book is relatively light on discussion of recent academic work on European witchcraft, and of ‘the wilder side of witchcraft studies’. I am not sure though that critical comparison with works on the anthropology of twentieth-century Greece would have been more relevant than the explorations of historical context that the book does contain. I like to think that these explorations are as revealing of mentalit├ęs as historiographical discussions would be, and that readers will find that the book has the virtues of any limitations it may have.

I agree too that it would have been interesting to have something on the present-day development of the Lancashire witches as a tourist attraction. Jim Sharpe’s introduction does in fact address the issue, but I can also offer an update. The Lancashire witches trail website is at www.uktouristinfo.com/counties/lancashire/guided.htm. Recently, the Pagan Federation’s Lancashire Witch Project Group has co-operated with Lancashire Museums Service in a touring exhibition on witchcraft, promoted with the words: ‘Did witchcraft really exist? Does it exist today?’ and including (among much ahistorical material) a reasonably well-informed account of the 1612 trial. It re-opens at Kendal on 6 October 2003 (running until 20 December 2003).