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History Reading Room: Witches and Richard II

In Halloween history news, the ghost of Jennette Device has been apparently seen roaming around a church in Pendle recently.  She was the 9 year old girl who testified against her own mother and sister in the famous Pendle Witch Trials which saw

Picture of a woman's face on a gravestone.  copyright Christine Hamlett

Picture of a woman’s face on a gravestone. copyright Christine Hamlett

ten people convicted and killed for witchcraft (8 women and 2 men).  Jennette was a key witness for the prosecution, and it was her testimony that basically clinched it for everyone.  I’m fascinated by the psychology behind young people testifying against their own relatives in witch trials.  Though Jennette wasn’t the one who started the Pendle Witch trials (it was all started by a girl trying to buy pins from a peddler who didn’t want to sell them to her, and then he had a small stroke) it reminds me of the way the trials in Salem started, with young girls exhibiting bizarre and unexplainable behavior and then accusing their neighbors of being witches.

I have to wonder whether there’s a lack of comprehension about what is happening, and the inability to tell fantasy from reality.  I also wonder what the constant talk of Satan and the Devil, and all of the constant hammering of Biblical themes would have done to their brains, and whether they really understood what it was they were doing.  If someone wants to write some kind of psychological theory about young girls who testify against their own mothers in cases like this, I’d definitely read it.

In other news, because I’ve been researching witches, I came across this interesting liturgical tidbit from Edward Peters of the University of Pennsylvania in this scholarly paper.  “Until the fifteenth century witchcraft was not clearly distinguished from general sorcery or magic. Linguistically, this is still the case in French. In German Hexerei (witchcraft) was differentiated from Zauberei (magic, sorcery) in the early fifteenth century, and in Spanish this distinction was reflected in the terms hechicería (sorcery) and brujería (witchcraft). In English witchcraft–from the Old English wiccecraeft, which once meant divining, foretelling the future–was distinguished from magic/sorcery somewhat earlier.”  So in French, the same word that means witchcraft also means general magic, and it’s only in the 15th century that the other countries start making the distinctions.  Which coincides with the rise of witch hunts and the fear of witches.

Here’s a great little article on Richard II, who was deposed by Henry IV.  I have to admit that this period in English history is a bit of a blur to me.  Edward III died, and then there was this sort of black hole until Agincourt.  Like 40 years of history, just a blur to me.   Richard II became King after his grandfather, Edward III died.  He was only 10 years old, and ruled with a council looking over him for a long time.  There is a great story of how he appeased the Peasants Revolt when he rode out to meet the rebels near Mile End and talked with them, calming everyone down.  He was only 14, but showed amazing leadership potential when he allowed the leaders to walk off with him, and courageously agreed to some of their reforms.  His council would later backtrack on everything he said, and had all of the leaders hanged.  He eventually gained control of the government, and then, after almost a decade of peace, he finally took revenge on all the councillors who had ruled in his name for so long.  He possibly had some kind of mental disorder, but for whatever reason, the next two years are considered the period of Richard’s Tyrrany.  Henry of Bolingbroke, the son of John of Gaunt (the King’s uncle) invaded and deposed the king, crowning himself Henry IV.  He was later most likely murdered.  This deposition and murder of a King would set the stage for the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century.  The story is picked up in The History of England podcast, which I highly recommend.  Here is a 45 minute segment on youtube about Richard II as well – the fascinating history of how the relationship between the ‘King and his people has been defined’ through history.