Festival of the Accused: from historic witches to witchlit

Festival of the Accused: from historic witches to witchlit

A panel of writers discuss the legacy of the witch trials in the 21st century

by Suswati Basu
1 comment

The English Witch Trials, a dark chapter in the history of England that spanned three centuries, left an indelible mark on the lives of thousands of ordinary people, with five hundred victims executed. The national witch paranoia took root in the medieval period, reached its peak during the reign of Elizabeth I, and was only formally outlawed by Parliament in 1735. The majority of those accused were older women, often living alone or as widows, frequently impoverished and disabled.

A recent event at the British Library sought to shed light on this grim history of mistrust, incrimination, and public violence, which all too often led to the gallows. It also pondered why the witch trials eventually ceased in England and reflected on the fact that contemporary society is spared from such experiences.

Read: HistFest 2023: historians remind us that our past is more important than ever

The Festival of the Accused” brought together a panel of esteemed historians and writers to explore the legacy of trials against so-called witches, both in the past and their resonance in today’s world. The event provided insights into the stories of those accused of witchcraft and examined their impact on modern sensibilities.

The panellists offered valuable insights into the historical context, stereotypes of witches, and the geographical spread of English witch hunts.

Festival of the Accused includes Malcolm Gaskill and Marion Gibson discussing the brutal reality of the trials against witches.

Understanding stereotypes of witches in early modern England

Historian Marion Gibson explained that witches were often seen as heretical, politically subversive, sexually unconventional, or socially deviant. Some practiced magic, but many were ordinary people who faced accusations based on various characteristics. The Exeter University Renaissance and Magical Literatures professor highlighted the “subversive” nature of witches in historical context and their relevance today, and how it has become a device to showcase elements we find troubling with society.

“I think that’s one of the ways people see the witch as a subversive figure, who undercuts the kind of structures of society that actually today we find problematic [like] patriarchy, certain kinds of organised religion and so on. And certainly that’s the way that the witch was seen in the period of the witch trial. So somebody who was probably heretical in terms of religion, who was probably politically subversive in some way.”

Marion Gibson, “Witchcraft: A History in Thirteen Trials” Author

Malcolm Gaskill, who is one of Britain’s leading experts in the history of witchcraft, discussed the prevailing stereotypes of witches in the early modern period. He highlighted the enduring image of the “old woman bent, physically disfigured, leaning on a crutch, with animals around,” which was a fixed stereotype in the minds of 17th-century people. As the University of East Anglia’s Early Modern History emeritus professor, he emphasised that witchcraft was often seen as a source of power for the powerless and that the tension between theological, demonological ideas, and folk knowledge contributed to the complexity of witch trials.

“So the stereotype of the witch in the early modern period is something that 17th century people have in their own minds. They would recognize the modern stereotype of the old woman bent, perhaps physically disfigured in some way, leaning on a crutch with the animals around […] And, that witchcraft is a much more deeply felt thing. But those two things are going on at the same time as Mariam says, that witches are fundamentally powerless.”

Malcolm Gaskill, “The Ruin of All Witches” Author

Geographical spread of English witch hunts

Gaskill, who wrote “The Ruin of All Witches,” also discussed the geographical spread of English witch hunts, noting that they varied over time. East Anglia, particularly in the middle of the 17th century, witnessed a significant concentration of witch trials, accounting for a substantial portion of all known executions in early modern England. However, he highlighted that witch hunts were not constant, with spikes and declines occurring for various reasons. Gaskill underscored that most English parishes did not produce convicted witches, emphasising the relative rarity of witch hunts.

“There’s sometimes a sort of a myth or an assumption that people are constantly accusing people of witchcraft and having witch trials all the time, as if they’re witch trials in every place.”

Malcolm Gaskill, “The Ruin of All Witches” Author

Witch hunts in the context of empire

The “Witchcraft: A History in Thirteen Trials” author discussed the connection between witch hunts and colonialism, highlighting how indigenous and non-Christian communities were often demonised by Christian colonisers in both Europe and America. She underscored the tragic history of indigenous communities being accused of witchcraft due to misunderstandings of their spiritual practices.

Gibson also pointed out that colonial administrators struggled with indigenous beliefs and sometimes initiated their own witch hunts against magical practitioners in these communities. She said: “These people have gone halfway across the world in order to found new communities which they believe will be based on truth and justice […] And the first thing they do is turn on each other.”

Exploring the last witch trials in England

John Callow talks about the last trials against witches at the Festival of the Accused.

John Callow, author of “The Last Witches of England,” provided insights into the tragic tale of the last group of women executed for witchcraft in England. He recounted the story of three women from Bideford who were accused of witchcraft in 1682 after a magpie tapped at a merchant’s window.

“Why did they die so late? I think there are a number of things, sheer bad luck, that’s one thing you can’t take away from them at every stage.”

John Callow, “The Last Witches of England” Author

Callow’s examination of these women’s unfortunate circumstances sheds light on the complex and often arbitrary nature of witch trials, offering a glimpse into the historical injustices faced by those accused of witchcraft. But he said there was an added dimension to this trial – one of poverty and ageism. The Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Sussex said that Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards, and Mary Trembles ended up in the gallows due to “misfortune,” and the fact that they sought charity to make their living, which raised the hackles of some local residents.

The book delves into the changing attitudes towards these women, from revulsion to regret, and even celebration in modern times.

Contemporary resonance through ‘witchlit’

The festival also featured a discussion on contemporary literature related to witches. Authors Kirsty Logan, Juno Dawson, A.K. Blakemore, and Stacey Thomas shared their perspectives on the resurgence of witch-themed literature. They explored how witches have served as potent symbols of subversion, power, and queerness throughout history and continue to captivate readers in different forms of storytelling.

A. K. Blakemore, Juno Dawson, Kirsty Logan, and Stacey Thomas talk to historian, broadcaster and founder of HistFest Rebecca Rideal.
Read: Queen’s Park Book Festival 2023: Zadie Smith, class and conflict

Logan, who penned “Now She is Witch,” showcased that witches and their stories have always held a timeless attraction for storytelling. They represent sex, danger, and societal nonconformity, making them eternally fascinating figures. This was true for “The Revels” author Thomas, who pointed out that the allure of witches in literature continues to transcend time, with a rich cultural legacy that has always captivated audiences.

“What I love is that never two are the same. And I think that’s because we all needed the witch to be slightly different things as well.”

Juno Dawson, “Her Majesty’s Royal Coven” Author

Sunday Times best-selling novelist and the writer behind the adult fantasy trilogy “Her Majesty’s Royal Coven,” Dawson, added that societal changes and events, such as the #MeToo movement, has influenced the way witches are portrayed in literature. As a result, witches can be seen as symbols of resistance and empowerment. While historically, Blakemore mentioned that witches have been powerful figures, often linked to change. However, “The Manningtree Witches” writer was also quick to point out that the recent boom in witch literature might be more about publishing trends and risk-averse decisions than a deep intellectual interest in witches.

Hence, “The Festival of the Accused” offered a comprehensive exploration of horrific trials against reported witches in England, shedding light on the historical context, stereotypes, geographical variations, colonial connections, and contemporary literary fascination with this topic. It underscored the enduring relevance of this dark chapter in shaping our understanding of society, power, and justice.

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[…] Read: Festival of the Accused: from historic witches to witchlit […]


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