Live at the Witch Trials

Posted by Gary Farnell on September 03, 2012 in Dr Gary Farnell, Guest Blog tagged with

Live at the Witch Trials

The Fall’s debut album in 1979 – Live at the Witch Trials – is neither live, nor is it ‘at the witch trials’. Given their staunch, not to say curmudgeonly regionalist northernism we can be sure that it is the famous 1612 Lancashire witch trials that is the reference here. What is implied is that the Fall’s music – ‘unpleasant’, scabrous and repetitive, proletarian, ragged and black-humoured – is alive with the drives emanating from that truly dark past. Their sonic world often has the ring to it of a type of haunted-house Gothicism. The witch motif recurs as well in their musical vocabulary: after Live at the Witch Trials, see their 1982 masterpiece Hex Enduction Hour.

There is a further sense in which we are ‘live at the witch trials’ now in August 2012. This is the case if, for example, one is able to visit the Pendle Hill area of Lancashire, England, the home-ground of the witches who were tried – and then executed (by hanging) – exactly 400 years ago to the day on 18 – 20 August. The centrepiece of a year-long Witches Festival appeared over the weekend of 18 – 19 August. A new land-art installation was created by Phillipe Handford on the side of Pendle Hill – the Hill’s famous dark, brooding nature proved a perfect ‘canvas’ on which to work. What appeared were simply the numerals, 1612, in a seventeenth-century-style script, and made out of bio-degradable material. The iconic numerals, at times shrouded in mist, lasted a couple of days or so and then disappeared. The Lancashire elements, not just mist, but heavy rain (in August!), were fully a part of the whole art-process.

Jeanette Winterson, brought up under the brow of Pendle Hill in Accrington (whereas I grew up in nearby Nelson), is another artist who has wanted to mark the significance of ‘1612 and all that’. Published on 16 August, she has produced a Gothic re-telling of the Lancashire witch trials with her new novella The Daylight Gate. Among other things, The Daylight Gate is appropriately ‘Gothic’ in that it is published by Hammer: Winterson duly brings a ‘Hammer horror’-type treatment to the 1612 narrative. The strategic and, indeed, undoubted rightness of this we will consider in a few moments. But first, what is it about the Lancashire witches of 1612 that should make them so famously interesting, not least from the standpoint of the Gothic?

‘Popery witchery, witchery popery’

Arguably the best way of answering the above question is with reference to the notion of conjuncture (taken from the Althusserian toolbox of theory). For a complex knot of contradictions surrounds the witches who, therefore, remain fundamentally enigmatic both despite and because of the evidence of the official record of the witch trials (held at the August Assizes, 1612, in Lancaster Castle). The figure of the ‘witch’, like the episode of the ‘witch trials’ enacts – as well as encodes – the ‘ruptural fusion’ of the leading contradictions of the day, thereby articulating the distinctiveness of the whole historical moment. To adapt a formulation of Jacqueline Rose’s from her writing on feminine sexuality: The description of a ‘witch’ was an exposure of the terms of its definition.

Under the late-feudalist rule of James I, King of England, this same James I who wrote against democracy in his political writings, and whose Daemonologie of 1597 set the tone for an insanely paranoid and superstitious seventeenth century, an age of anxiety came into being, the contours of which were deeply inimical to those who were on the margins of society, to those who were ‘other’. It was not a good time to be a Catholic (James was a fervent Protestant). By the same token, it was not a good time to be a witch (James sought to persecute anyone ‘enslaved’ by the Devil).

Indeed, it was no accident that those would-be regicides behind the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 able to escape arrest should have fled to Lancashire, a Catholic stronghold. This dark, wild corner of the land became the place of that fatal continuum ‘Popery witchery, witchery popery’, as described by Thomas Potts, the London-based clerk of the court at Lancaster Castle, ordered by the King to make a record of the Lancashire witch trials, serving as such as a deterrent in relation to further acts of witchcraft in his country.

The witches’ jouissance

That Potts should have been operating with an agenda in his court record, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster (written in the autumn of 1612, published the following year), ensures that its unity is always of a complex (not to say contradictory) nature. This is the first document of its kind; and, indeed, the Lancashire witch trials are among the best-documented ever. But every detail here carries the potential for obscurity with regard to our understanding of the historical phenomenon of witchcraft, due to the mediated nature of that understanding. So, for example, there have been plenty of attempts to rationalize the strange occurrences we are told about, via Potts, in the story of the so-called witches and those whom they bewitched.

The whole story begins with the pedlar John Law suddenly becoming paralyzed down the left side of his body after being cursed by a witch, Alizon Device, who came to him begging for pins. The modern editor of Potts, the historian Robert Poole says that what Law suffered ‘was obviously a stroke’. In a similar vein, further aspects of witchery are explained away, thus with the suggestion that, if not witchcraft and the casting of spells, what the witches practised was, in Poole’s words, ‘the subtle art of begging with menaces’. Or, as is often suggested, it is no surprise that those such as Alizon Device should sell their souls to the Devil when, literally, all they had to sell in life was their souls.

All in all, however, for the reasons outlined above, this is not a sufficient means of making sense of the true strangeness of the Lancashire witches: the Devil comes to the witches in a bewildering diversity of forms (a black dog, a brown dog, a man named Fancy, a boy named Tibb), and not all the sufferings of the witches’ victims (often caused by sticking pins in clay images and similar stratagems) easily resemble the symptoms of a stroke. So we have to turn everything around.

It is, of course, everything that is in excess of understanding that remains the source of our continuing fascination with the witches’ strangeness. This is to speak of the witches’ jouissance as strictly enjoyment-in-excess. That the social conditions, not to mention the eventual execution, of the witches are difficult is clear. But over and above that, what remains strange regarding the witches is what materializes a strictly excessive mode of enjoyment; enjoyment in the fact that the various forms of limit imposed on the witches’ condition (not just historical understanding, but also juridical discourse and ideology, for instance) are transgressed. No wonder the subject of the Lancashire witches should appeal to a writer like Jeanette Winterson at work in the early twenty-first century.

The ‘day-light gate’

Charmed by the ‘country expressions’ of the Lancashire villagers in their testimonies at the August Assizes, Thomas Potts incorporates their language into the account he writes of the Lancaster Castle trial. Thus Elizabeth Sowtherns, alias Demdike, in her witches’ confession speaks of her acquaintance with the Devil (in the shape of the boy Tibb): ‘the spirit or devil appeared at sundry times unto her about day-light gate’. The point is that the expression ‘day-light gate’ (or ‘day-gate’), meaning ‘dusk’, appears several times in Potts’ account, to mark the moment of the Devil’s entry on the scene and, more generally, to mark off a zone of strangeness that is peculiarly the witches’ own.

For two important reasons, therefore, Winterson makes use of this expression as well, both in the title and the text of her novella. First, it is a way of remembering, through the poetic nature of their speech, amongst others ten witches (eight women, two men) tried and executed as a result of the 1612 witch-hunt in Lancashire. Second, it is a means of bringing forward what is, in effect, that idea of ‘enjoyment-in-excess’ outlined above: the day-light gate is what marks that limit which we move beyond in Winterson’s narrative into the witches’ world in all its strangeness. Though the j-word is not used by Winterson, The Daylight Gate, as a Gothic-poetic tale, is everywhere a celebration of what we have referred to as the witches’ jouissance.

Which is to say, picking up a thread left hanging from earlier on, the ‘Hammer horror’ treatment of the 1612 narrative in this work is indeed right. It betokens the sort of poetic licence Winterson needs to address that which is ‘in excess’ concerning the general witchery she describes. The trademark campness of ‘Hammer horror’ is, as perhaps we might expect in Winterson’s fiction, much in evidence as well. (Not only that, it is likely The Daylight Gate will be adapted for the film screen: the role herein of Roger Nowell as Justice of the Peace could not have been better scripted for Peter Cushing in his prime . . . as the dreaded witch-finder in Twins of Evil (1971).)

So if a properly historical romance about the Lancashire witch trials is what had been wanted from Winterson in this case, then The Daylight Gate is bound to disappoint. Precisely the dialectical (im)possibility of that kind of fiction is what was here laid out in practical terms a moment or two ago. In the properly excessive strangeness of The Daylight Gate there is a speaking spider, as well as a severed head that speaks when witches sew a severed tongue back into it. Winterson especially takes huge liberties when writing about the execution of her main protagonist, Alice Nutter. But to say more about that would be to give away the ending . . .

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