Q: So, Willow, tell us a little bit about your book; not just the blurb, but about what the book really is to you.
A: To me, it began as an exploration of a set of women who, through their stories, had really captured my interest in my research and reading. As I continued to work on it however it became more than that. There is always the problem with history that people in the ‘past’ are so often considered as ‘other’ and ‘different’ and utterly removed from our own experiences and situations. This is even more the case with a topic like witches and witchcraft as it is all too easy to say ‘Well, they were all superstitious and believed anything back then, didn’t they?’ What really struck me as I looked more closely at the cases, the people and their actions, was that, really, humans don’t change.
The particular fears and the worries and the prejudices might shift focus over time, but the responses to the witch figure in the 16th and 17th centuries is disturbingly similar to the response towards immigrants and refugees today. The focus of the fear might be different, but the behaviours and the actions and the desire to root out the ‘different’ is still just as strong as it was back then. In that way, although the book is an exploration of times that have come before, it is equally a call to examine our own responses to the current day situations we face.
The particular fears and the worries and the prejudices might shift focus over time, but the responses to the witch figure in the 16th and 17th centuries is disturbingly similar to the response towards immigrants and refugees today.
Q: What drew you to witches in the first place, and how did you begin your journey as a witchcraft historian?
A: I’d studied the period of the witch trials at university and a lot of the research and reading I did that followed that overlapped with witchcraft related elements; it wasn’t until I found myself writing a ‘witch’ as part of a fiction project I was working on however that I started getting into the subject in a big way. The advice out there is ‘blog about something related to your fiction’ to give potential readers content that is relevant and entertaining – I found increasingly however that I was researching and writing the blog for it’s own sake rather than as a means to a marketing end, and the more I read and wrote, the more I realised that witch-history was where my real passion lay. Everything kind of snowballed from there!
Q: Who is your favourite witch from the book? Can you tell us a little more about her?
A: Now that really is a tough one, but I think it would have to be Jane Wenham of Walkern. There is such a large wealth of material on the case; numerous pamphlets were written about her and the goings-on in Walkern, and they amount to perhaps one of the greatest volumes of contemporary detail available on a single witch trial. Lots to sink your teeth into! Because of the relatively later date of her case in 1712, there is the advantage of there also being comprehensive parish registers available to trace the individuals named – though I am still drawing a blank on the ultimate fate of Anne Thorn, the young woman who accused Jane and caused so much trouble! Wenham is often given the distinction of being the last woman condemned to death for witchcraft, but there is an unexpected outcome to the case that I won’t spoil here!
Our own ‘local’ witch, Anne Wagg, from here in Ilkeston also needs a mention; it has been utterly fascinating researching the life of a woman who lived and walked on our doorstep, and to learn more about our area and the social and cultural experiences that have shaped this town. It also brought up the fact that we have apparently always had a disproportionately large ratio of pubs to residents!
We need to love more and fear less – something that is equally true today as it was at the time of the earliest cases.
Q: Obviously much of witchcraft history centres around the persecutions. Did you feel personally affected by this after researching such a tragic topic at a level where you looked at individual women and their stories?
A: It’s essential but also really difficult at times to remain objective when looking at such harrowing material. Obviously it is impossible to remain completely detached and unaffected by the material, sometimes it has the opposite impact and I found myself almost switching off because it was too horrible to look at. That was when I’d take a break from the hard stuff and spend time trawling through parish records etc for the basic details before coming back to look at things afresh. It’s been really important to strike the balance of objectivity but also to remain at the heart of each case and the experience of the women involved. It’s also on the other hand remarkably easy to slip just a little into the mindset of the people you are writing about – on several occasions I’ve found myself referring to people turning into cats and the like as being perfectly normal …
Q: As a witchcraft historian, and someone who has seen so many of these personal stories, what do you think our society can, and should, learn from them?
A: As I touched on before, I think the big message that comes from the history of witches and witchcraft accusations over the centuries is that our big curse as humans is fear. Fear of the unknown, the different, the undesirable – almost everything that occurs through the accounts in Accused and the tragedies that are described stem from that source. We need to love more and fear less – something that is equally true today as it was at the time of the earliest cases. People think and say ‘it could never happen again’, but if you pick things apart, the same fear and prejudices that we see today against refugees and immigrants isn’t such a far cry from what people were saying then – the group of “outsiders” has just changed, that’s all.
People think and say ‘it could never happen again’, but … the same fear and prejudices that we see today against refugees and immigrants isn’t such a far cry from what people were saying then – the group of “outsiders” has just changed, that’s all.
Q: On a lighter note, what’s your favourite witch-related anecdote that you came across in your research?
A: The story I always end up relating when people ask about my work is that of Agnes Waterhouse, the first woman to be executed for witchcraft in England in 1566. In court, the girl who had accused Agnes and her daughter Joan of witchcraft said that Joan had sent her mother’s familiar in the form of a black dog to torment her and to threaten her with a knife. When asked what sort of knife it had been, the girl said it was a dagger, to which Agnes and Joan triumphantly replied that she must be lying as there was no such knife that belonged to their family. There was no quibbling the existence of the demonic dog itself from anyone involved, but there was huge outrage over the lie regarding the knife! It really brings home the fact that magic was an integral part of the belief systems of the time, and once you realise that, nothing appears too fantastical!
Q: And finally, if you had to give just one interesting witch-related fact to leave the #FolkloreThursday readers with, what would it be?
A: Due to the vast numbers of executions for witchcraft carried out on the Continent during the most intense period of the witch trials, people often assume that it was the same for England, and quote highly inflated figures as a result. In actual fact, the numbers were relatively low: the current estimate is that less than 300 executions took place across the whole period, compared with 60-70,000 across Europe as a whole. That of course doesn’t in any way negate or lessen the horrific nature of what went on: but many are often surprised at the lower rates for the homeland of the ‘Witchfinder General’!
Thanks Willow Winsham!
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
With the echo of that chilling injunction hundreds were accused and tried for witchcraft across England throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. With fear and suspicion rife, neighbour could turn against neighbour, friend against friend, with women, men and children alike caught up in the deadly fervour that swept through both village and town. From the feared covens of Pendle Forest to the victims of the unswerving fanaticism of The Witch Finder General, so-called witches were suspected, accused, and dragged into the spotlight to await judgement and their final fate.
And don’t forget to pick up your copy of Willow Winsham‘s book Accused: British Witches Throughout History!
The image of the witch – crook-nosed, unpleasant of disposition and with a penchant for harming her neighbours – is well established in the popular imagination. For hundreds of years the accusation of witchcraft has been levelled against women throughout the British Isles: such women were feared, persecuted, revered and reviled, with many ending their journeys at the stake or noose. Far from a mass of pitiable, faceless victims however, each case tells its own story, with a distinct woman at its heart, spanning the centuries down to the present. What did it really mean to be accused as a witch? Why, and by whom, were such accusations made? Was it possible to survive, and what awaited those who did? Meticulously researched and skilfully and painstakingly woven, this book will be indispensable to anyone with an interest in the popular topic of the history of witchcraft and a love of fascinating and diverse individuals. Setting each of the accused in their social and historical context, Willow Winsham delivers a fresh and revealing look at her subjects, bringing her unique style and passion for detail to this captivating read.