16 February 2017
Melissa Parker graduated from the Law School in July 2016, and is currently undertaking a PhD in the Law School.

My dissertation was entitled “Witchcraft and the construction of criminality in Early Modern England. A sociological, legal and historical study of the Pendle witch trials.”  In considering whether the social construction of crime in general influenced the construction of witchcraft as a crime, my piece considered a number of elements. It would be difficult to suggest that only one factor influenced the belief that witchcraft was a crime. However, it is the firm belief of this dissertation that the main catalyst for the perception of witchcraft as a crime in England and Scotland was King James I and VI.  He firmly believed that those who, as Kramer and Sprenger put it “excite themselves with the devil for the sake of quenching their lust”, deserved to be punished in the most heinous of ways. It was also his influence in writing the book, the Daemonologie, that would ultimately allow others to pursue suspects in courts of law. James I believed himself to be the only individual who possessed the knowledge and power of God and this influence cannot be underestimated, when one considers the intellectual framework of the period.  James I believed that he possessed an innate sense of logic and reason which others could not attain he wrote of his position within the Courts thus: "you are no makers of law, but interpreters of Law," and "this is a thing regall and proper to a king, to keep every Court within his owne bounds.”

However, it is also important to note that it is not suggested in this dissertation that Pendle witches were irreproachable in this situation. One can, of course, feel sympathy for their socio-economic position; however, this cannot expunge their guilty and immorality. The Pendle witches believed that they were guilty of the crime of murder they also believed that they did possess magical and unnatural powers. In using these powers, they were acknowledging that they were going against the laws of the time, and they were also promoting the use of fear as a method of extorting money. The main purpose of this dissertation has been to consider the construction of criminality around witchcraft and this means delving into the period. In doing so one begins to understand that although we may not agree with the sentiments of the period, nor understand them fully, we cannot claim moral superiority. If we are to understand the Pendle witches plight, then we must also consider the plight of the victims.  In chronicling the Pendle witch trials, and their European counterparts, one simply must not forget that the individuals involved all believed in magical powers. This can be traced back to the monarchy and the influence of James I and VI. However, what is less often acknowledged is that the Pendle witches used that belief, which seemed perfectly rational to people of the time period which we are discussing, to their advantage.

In researching and writing this dissertation I was able to reflect on three main themes in considering the social construction of witchcraft as a crime. The first is that witch-hunting was an activity fostered by the ruling classes; it was not a spontaneous movement on the part of the peasantry to which the ruling classes were obliged to respond. The second is that witchcraft is an idea which has transcended cultures and evolved throughout history. It is of considerable social flexibility and range beyond the basic elements by which we acknowledge it across the different cultures. The third theme is the notion that the witch-hunts were instigated as a method of further instilling patriarchal values. Through various justifications, modern scholars tend to either disregard or discount Early Modern belief in male witches. It is worth remembering that two of the Pendle witches who were hanged were men. Therefore, the argument is erroneous because it presents only one side of the gender equation, which therefore presents a distorted view of the roles of gender in the witch-hunts.

This dissertation acknowledges that there were problems with prejudice and chauvinism during the period; however this does not mean that the fact that there were also witch-hunts should be considered a symptom of the sexism of the period as a consequence of the fact that it negates the importance of those males who were also sent to the gallows for this crime. All of these influences ensured that witchcraft and the construction of criminality in Early Modern England allowed for the Pendle witch trials to occur. Europe’s concern during this period was over the nature, activities, and numbers of witches and how they became a major intellectual and judicial problem. This preoccupation would ultimately lead to the trials we have considered. Before this period there had been no extensive, knowledgeable public which had been so subjected to widespread social strains and able to mutually reinforce the terror which was felt by all the sections of society. It was also a time when this fear could be exacerbated by the shift in focus from God to the actions of Satan; it was believed that the Devil’s capacity to harm mankind had greatly increased.  Perhaps, this shift in focus is most obvious when we consider the transformation of the inoffensive wise-woman to the devil’s wicked servant. As Burr notes as is true of our own time, individual criminal cases could excite the public interest and contribute to popular conceptions as much as any considerations of the crime and nature of the criminal. It is certainly true that the Pendle witch trials have excited the public interest and in so doing they have contributed to both public conceptions and an insightful consideration of how the construction of criminality occurs.

My purpose, in writing this dissertation was to consider whether we are guilty of an intolerable complacency and incompetency, as we are judging the Pendle witches from our own moral pedestal. I would contend that we are guilty of romanticising and sentimentalising the Pendle witches and, to an extent; we are guilty of caricaturing them. I had intended before submitting my dissertation to remove a rather flippant remark I made comparing the way in which people watched the witch trials and the way in which people watch programmes such as Jeremy Kyle. However I fundamentally believe that one can make important parallels between the way audiences, modern and early modern, consumed and continue to consume such material.