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THE LANCASHIRE WITCHES: Histories and Stories

By Robert Poole, published by Manchester University Press at £15.99. 256pp. ISBN: 0-7190-6240-7

Everybody's heard of the Pendle Witches and all the contemporary myths about them and Pendle Hill but there hasn't been a huge amount of fresh research on the subject for quite a while until now. This book comprises published papers from a conference held on the subject in 1999. There are three parts to the book called 'The Trials of 1612', 'Contexts: Society, Economy, Religion and Magic', and 'Rewriting the Lancashire Witches'.

Including the introduction there are eleven papers in this book covering all the aspects of the Lancashire witches that you would wish to see covered. In the first part there are some excellent papers analysing Thomas Potts' 1613 account of the trials and execution of the individuals concerned. His book The Wonderful Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster has long been the standard account of the events at this time and the authors here demonstrate how he was commissioned to write it by the judges who were essentially seeking to impress King James and his Court. Many other influences were at work in the writing of this book and the papers here reveal much about the judiciary and the system of patronage at work at the time and how this shaped the telling of the events in the book.

In the second part of the book there is a fascinating paper on the nature of the Reformation in the area around Pendle which explores the shift in power from Catholic clergy to Protestant gentry which occurred over the period. Another paper in this section attempts to draw attention to the nature and work of cunning-folk in Lancashire at this time as a counter-balance to the dominance of historical papers which focus on the evidence from the witch-trials and pamphlets alone. This paper explores some of the beliefs and practices of the cunning-folk at this time.

The final section of the book examines many issues ranging from the imagery of witchcraft in Macbeth, sexual politics in the period and the interaction between modern pagans and the history of the Pendle witches. A truly diverse but fascinating final section here explores areas not normally covered in specific case-studies like this one.

One of the things I liked most about this book was that you do actually learn an awful lot about the individuals concerned and their lives. It is nice to see, for example, that it is known that at least two of the women concerned were cunning-women and to learn a little of their art. It is also intriguing to see that one of the women appears to have had 'special favour' with the father of one of those involved in the prosecution and that revenge of a sort seems to have been the motive in her trial. All of this is juxtaposed with the kind of background research into the Reformation, economy and politics that you would expect from a quality history title and this all combines to give a very rich and full picture of the Pendle witches.

The quality of the papers in this book is high and, in the main, the writing style of the authors has remained pretty accessible. Anyone interested in the Lancashire witches should buy this and regard it as their bible and anyone with a broad interest in the history of witchcraft should buy this as a uniquely well studied case of a witchcraft trial. Highly recommended.