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The Lancashire Witches 1612-2012

Four hundred years ago in northwest England, twenty people were arrested on witchcraft charges.

We know so much about the Lancashire Witches because the trial was recorded in unique detail by the clerk of the court, Thomas Potts, who published his account soon afterwards as The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster. I have recently published a modern-English edition of this book, together with an essay piecing together what we know of the events of 1612. It has been a fascinating exercise, revealing how Potts carefully edited the evidence, and also how the case against the ‘witches’ was constructed and manipulated to bring about a spectacular show trial. It all began in mid-March when a pedlar from Halifax named John Law had a frightening encounter with a poor young woman, Alizon Device, in a field near Colne. He refused her request for pins and there was a brief argument during which he was seized by a fit that left him with ‘his head … drawn awry, his eyes and face deformed, his speech not well to be understood; his thighs and legs stark lame.’ We can now recognize this as a stroke, perhaps triggered by the stressful encounter. Alizon Device was sent for and surprised all by confessing to the bewitching of John Law and then begged for forgiveness.

Much like the later witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts, the hysteria surrounding the accusations spread as those accused started naming names, while others took advantage of the proceedings for their own ends. Read an account of the trial itself and the commemoration of it 400 years later at The Public Domain Review. Link -via @LettersOfNote

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