2018-05-09 07.47.44Well, the academic one at least. Over the last couple of weeks, on my various commutes, I have watched the countryside grow gradually greener, which is very cheering.  On Tuesday evening, I had my final session with my Liverpool Hope University students at Holy Cross College, one of whom kindly made me this card and the attached badge, which I will wear proudly!  We brought ourselves some treats for tea and settled down to get our teeth into them, and early modern witchcraft.  As well as our usual primary source analysis and discussion of the secondary reading, we role played the differences between Scottish and English witch trials and read the witches’ scene from Macbeth.

Finally, we sang a seventeenth century ballad about a case of witchcraft in Lincolnshire in 1619: Damnable Practises of Three Lincolnshire Witches Joane Flower and Her Two Daughters.  According to the ballad, the three accused women, Joan, Margaret and Phillipa Flower, were taken into the employ of the earl and countess of Rutland when they fell on hard times, even though there had long been suspicions that they were cunning women.  Margaret soon began to steal from the household and was dismissed from her post.  Thereafter, the earl and countess heard rumours that Margaret’s disorderly mother, Joan, was not only a woman ‘full of wrath’ who swore, blasphemed and prophesied death, but also a witch who ‘dealt with spirits’. Moreover, Margaret’s sister, Phillipa, had apparently bewitched a young man.  The earl and countess were suitably worried by these rumours and commanded the trio to leave the house, never to return. In revenge, the three women vowed revenge.  The devil spotted his opportunity and provided the women with familiars in return for their souls, the covenant sealed with drops of blood.   Matters went from bad to worse.  Not content with killing cattle and local children, the witches turned their attention to the earl’s family.  First, the earl and countess themselves suffered ‘fits of sickness’, then their eldest son, Henry, Lord Ross, sickened and died.  He was followed to his grave by his brother, Lord Francis, and his sister, Lady Katherine, also fell ill.

When Phillipa was taken before the magistrate, she confessed that she, along with her mother and sister, had taken revenge upon the nobles who had turned them out of doors.  She explained that Margaret had taken Henry’s glove, pricked it full of holes and ‘layd it deepe in ground’ that he, like the glove, might rot away to nothing.  Margaret confirmed her sister’s account, adding that they had all three conspired to ensure that the earl and countess should have no surviving children.  Once implicated by her two daughters, Joan Flower also confessed to her crimes, and the three were transported to Lincoln jail to await the assizes.  Joan, however, then recanted her confession and claimed that she had had ‘no hand at all’ in Henry’s death.  She offered to take a test of her guilt, by attempting to eat a piece of bread and butter: ‘God let this same (quoth she) / If I be guilty of his death / pass never thorough me’.  She immediately choked and died.  Her daughters were tried, found guilty of witchcraft, and hanged for their crimes.

It’s an excellent ballad, not least because it includes so many aspects of early modern witchcraft.  They were  women on the edge of a community, with no male head of the household to keep them in order.  They long had a reputation for cunning, which might be useful to the community at times, but also posed a threat, especially when they fell on hard times and were able to use their skills to harm instead of heal.  The incident which led to their trial was borne out of a grudge against their former employers, who had not, in their eyes, acted charitably towards them.  Furthermore, there was clear evidence of maleficium (actual harm caused by witchcraft) as well as diabolism – they confessed to a pact with the devil, sealed by their blood, which gave them access to spirits which would do their bidding.  All this, in a piece of cheap, popular and ephemeral print.  I am very grateful to my students for allowing me to record a couple of minutes of their performance and share it here.

This will be my last blog post for a couple of weeks.  My daughter will be undergoing major surgery and I’m going to be taking some time off to be with her.