In late March, 1612, Alizon Device strolled through a lane in the woods. She passed by a peddler named John Law and asked him for some pins. He refused to open his bag and walked on. Enraged by his slight, Alizon turned around and cursed the peddler. Law collapsed — his arms went limp, his speech faltered, and his face drooped.
A few days later she visited Law at an inn where he was recovering. Perhaps convinced of her own powers, or overcome by emotion, she confessed to her supposed powers and asked Law for forgiveness. The ill man held little sympathy, however. He, along with his son, took her to court on charges of witchcraft.
Alizon’s curse brought on one of history’s most famous witchcraft trials. Known as the “Trials of the Pendle Witches,” 12 people ultimately stood accused of witchcraft in English courts. The trials were unusual for England, though. Witch trials occurred from the early 14th to early 18th centuries, but the 10 people who died in the Pendle Trials account for more than 2% of all executions during that period.
The reasons why shed as much light on the world of the Pendle trial as it does on “witch hunts” today. As much as many folks try to distance themselves from the past, we share many common themes with it. Feelings of paranoia, divisiveness, and persecution, fueled by institutional and media-driven conspiracies, continue to influence how many of us view our own world. If we’re not careful to learn how or why, we might continue to give fuel to the fire.
Trial of the Witches
The story mostly takes place around Pendle Hill in Lancashire, a county in the North West of England. Many came from two families: the Demdikes and the Chattox. Old, poor widows headed each family, Elizabeth Southerns (aka “Old Demdike”) and Anne Whittle (“Old Chattox”). Both families dabbled in witchcraft to some extent before the trials. Villagers accepted using magic for healing or changing the weather — Old Demdike especially built a living off such crafts for around 50 years. Using magic to cause harm (known as maleficium), however, was criminal.
Members of the trial also lived during the reign of King James I, who contributed to increased panics over witchcraft. He believed he was the personal target of witches, and even wrote a treatise…