Channel Islands Witchcraft: A Critical Survey


Beginning in 1562, in the reign of Elizabeth I, and continuing until 1736 Jersey saw trials for witchcraft; The Guernsey trials ran from 1550 until 1649. How are we to understand this today? Over the past fifty years, there has been a quiet revolution in historians understanding and examination of these periods, and it is time for a local reassessment.

The original work on the Witchcraft trials was done by G.R. Balleine in Jersey (1939) and S. Carey Curtis in Guernsey (1938). It was placed very much within the interpretative framework of Margaret Murray’s theories about cultic practices. In academic circles, but not unfortunately in populist writing, Murray has been completely discredited. Historians such as Norman Cohn, Keith Thomas and Ronald Hutton have shown how her ideas were imposed upon the data, and the texts were read as supportive material for her ideas, and discounted or ignored when they contradicted them. By using the framework of Murray’s ideas, I believe that Balleine and Carey Curtis did much the same, presenting a framework, then using texts simply as illustrative material to support that framework. It is high time the texts, and their use of them, were re-assessed.

In fairness, it should be mentioned that Balleine and Carey Curtis were drawing upon the most popular writer on witchcraft at the time, and were probably not aware of the arguements against her treatment of the evidence which were circulating in academic circles. Murray based her studies on a few cases alone, but modern historians have researched extensively thousands of records; the emerging picture is that the "society of witches" was non-existent, a fabrication produced by confessions, and the reality is much more complex. Bad weather and poor harvests may have contributed to the need for a scapegoat to blame, much as Hitler used the depression to stir up popular feeling against the Jews. Another factor seems to have been that the trials were most common at fracture points in society, at the borderlands of lands under Reformed church, and those under the Catholic church, in which antagonism, hostility, fear and suspicion was correspondingly greater than elsewhere. An important factor was also the breakdown of national systems of law, resulting in local tribunals acting almost autonomously, without appeal to higher legal authorities, and this seems to be linked to the savage intensity of trials. It is noteworthy that Jersey and Guernsey, under a fairly autonomous regime, saw a much severer period of witch trials and sentences than in England, until law broke down in the Civil War, and it intensifies for a time. This is a summary of modern historians, and is incomplete, but will I hope give an idea how the study has advanced considerably in our understanding of witch trials.

In this brief article, I will attempt to reconsider the evidence and interpretation given to witchcraft, and the witchcraft trials in the Channel Islands. In doing so, I will endeavour to consider how much of the interpretation given by Balleine and Carey Curtis can actually be borne by the evidence. I will then look at the treatment of witchcraft in more modern popular publications, and then consider the materials and interpretation of the folklore in the Islands. Finally, I will look at the laws relating to witchcraft and sorcery, and how they were applied, and how valid they are today. During this analysis, I will also offer alternative readings of the historical materials which might provide a better picture, and I will conclude with a revised picture of how to understand the witchcraft trials.

Witch Trials in Jersey

The 1939 Societe Jersiaise Bulletin provides an analysis of "Witch Trials in Jersey" by G.R. Balleine. In this, Balleine begins by drawing a picture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries where the "Governments of Western Europe, Catholic and Protestant alike, were fighting a fanatical secret society." He describes how the trials involved both men and woman, and often young women, and that there were boasts in confessions which built up a clear picture of the coven of thirteen in each district, meeting for midnight Sabbats to worship the Devil as their god. He argues that it was organised, because "in no other way can we account for the fact that everywhere its discipline, ritual and methods were the same" .

Balleine is clearly drawing upon Margaret Murray’s "Witch-cult in Western Europe", which he also cites as an authority on witchcraft practices; he is, however, ambivalent about her central thesis that witchcraft was "a survival of the Paganism of Prechristian Europe, never entirely conquered but only driven underground", and notes as an alternate theory that this was a specific mediaeval Heresy like the Cathars. However, he is convinced of one aspect of her book, that it demonstrates that witchcraft was a coherent and consistent anti-Christian organisation, whose followers were incited to do evil.

Murray’s book has been discredited by academic historians because of her highly selective use of evidence, and her tendency to not quote documents or parts of documents which did not agree with her thesis (1). So we may reasonably discount her as a reliable authority.

Moreover, a strong feature of cultic groups, or heretic groups, is their tendency to fragment, and form breakaway groups, and diversify in beliefs and practices. The Gnostics are a clear early example of that; the Reformation provides yet another easily visible example, with all kinds of breakaway and sometimes quite bizarre Christian movements, the Golden Dawn revival another, and the recent rise of Wicca, with its eclectic practices, provides a recent example. There is, to some extent, an a priori improbability of such a unified organisation.

Balleine cites the Cathars as a model of witchcraft as heresy, commenting upon its spread in the South of France as being so rapid that "in the thirteenth century, they outnumbered the Catholics". While it was true that the Cathars did just that, they were not teaching that "the God of the Bible was a Devil", with its implication of black magic, as Balleine tells us, but instead were a perfectionist movement, aiming to "substitute a perfect elite for the corrupt clergy", and "were well-organised and orderly people. They elected bishops, collected funds and distributed them, led admirable lives"(2). In many respects, this was a movement more akin to Puritanism; the conflict with the Cathars was more a conflict between a church becoming rife with corruption and moral laxity, and a reform movement. A more modern example of the same pattern emerging comes with Methodism, which was at first a reform movement within the Church of England, and only later broke away. The Cathars seemed to have been more dualistic, but they were a purity movement, with millennial and charismatic tendencies.

The historical problem which Balleine also does not really come to terms with is why the Witch Trials suddenly broke out at this time. Was there no organised witch movement before? If so, why did the persecutions not occur before, rather than erupting so abruptly? Balleine suggests that it was underground, but "by the sixteenth century was recognised as a public danger".

In support of an organised movement, Balleine considers the witchcraft trial records, and comments that "witchcraft ran in families", with five Alixandres, five Grandins, three Tourgis, others husband and wife, and so on. This Balleine considers "obvious", and while it certainly corroborates his model of witchcraft, he does not consider alternative explanations. But in fact, the evidence he cites does not prove an organisation at all; all it shows is that where accusations took place, they were often directed at family groups rather than lone individuals, which could equally be accounted for by vendettas against those families by disgruntled accusers. His position is, however, heavily reinforced by his language; he later mentions "the Guernsey Becquets, who formed a famous witch dynasty". This gives an clear conclusion, whereas the evidence may simply be that the Becquet family were all unfortunate enough to be subject to witchcraft accusations.

Balleine considers 66 cases, and I will try to briefly reconsider some of these both from his model of witchcraft, and seeing what they tell us if we discount that theory.

His first two are simply noted as "witches" who are burnt; the records give no further details. The third reveals even less evidence, except that there was an acquittal, and the fourth only mentions a lawsuit about inheritance rights.

The fifth, however, is cited in detail about "Jeanne Le Vesconte.. constantly using spells and wicked devices, sometimes against people, sometimes against their goods, making some ill, and curing others". It is instructive that this first formal sentence of the Court mentions no coven, no sabbats, and no devil worship; rather the women falls very firmly into the category of "wise woman" or "cunning woman", for which there is a considerable amount of documentary evidence (3). The wise woman was very much a "sole practitioner", making a living by giving forth advice, charms, potions, and sometimes curses (usually threatened as a form of blackmail)

Michielle Bellee (6th) was condemned by the jury "because of what they had heard from her own mouth"; there is no details of this, however, and she could as easily have been a "wise woman".

Paquette Le Vesconte (7th) had previously been arrested for witchcraft and banished from the island, and returned still using "diabolical devices and spells", was rearrested and "confessed that she had entered into partnership with the Devil, and by his help perpetrated innumerable crimes and homicides"; Balleine takes the "innumerable" as an exaggeration by the Greffier, because applied to crimes and homicides. I would be more inclined to take the Greffier as accurate in reporting, but the exaggeration showing up the way in which the "confession" had been prompted, and lead on.

There is a notable omission here; as with so many witch trials, we are not shown the questions asked which prompted the "confession", or the manner of interrogation (4). Balleine’s account of the legal procedures tells us a good deal about the jury procedure, but is singularly lacking in detail on the way the interrogations were conducted. Balleine later comments that "confessions were not extorted by torture, nor made with any hope of escaping the gallows", a remark which is singularly naïve, but which enables him to say, again loading the evidence, that the accused "boldly testified to the faith that was in them". This is pure supposition, and a highly imaginative reconstruction, not well supported by the psychology of the situation.

Modern miscarriages of justice show how formal interrogations can instil fear, and use bullying tactics to elicit confessions, even if the evidence does not exist. The case which Balleine cites of Guillemete du Vaistain (61st) is most instructive in this regard. The legal procedure for all cases was as follows. The accused was first indicted before the Cour de Cattel and asked to submit his case "of his own free will" to the "Grand Enquete du Pays" which had the ability to condemn them to death. Du Vaistain refused again and again to submit his case, so that the Court de Cattel tried and sentenced her on a lesser charge of immorality, to be "flogged from the door of the Court to the March high-tide mark, till blood ran, and banished forever from the Island". Clearly the persistence of the Court de Cattel in trying to get du Vaistain to change her mind suggests considerable duress being brought upon suspects. The intervals between being called again before the Cour de Cattel would also involve a stay imprisoned at Mont Orgueil Castle "on dry bread and water", which while not active torture, would certainly count as a passive form torture by today’s legal standards!

Keith Thomas in his "Religion and the Decline of Magic" notes how while explicit torture may not have taken place, there were many cases in England where "victims were kept awake for days, starved, beaten or otherwise ill-treated"; Matthew Hopkins regular practice was "to deny the accused any sleep" - until a confession was obtained (5). So the statement that torture was not involved in Jersey actually counts for very little.

Again, another Jean Morant (8th) confessed to "a contract with the Devil.. by mark and pact.. by means of which he had committed infinite mischiefs, crimes and homicides". The pattern emerging here suggests that leading questions, possibly with duress or simply a threat of torture, were used to elicit a confession. The preponderance of "crimes and homicides" as a set form of wording certainly suggests that; the alternative would be an island as rife with criminal activity as the fictional series "Bergerac"; certainly the historical record gives no credence to that!

Symon Vaudin (10th) confessed that he "had at divers times help familiar intercourse and talks with the Devil, who appeared as a cat and then as a crow". If we reconstruct possible questions: "Did you speak with the Devil? What form did he take?", we can see how this form of confession could come about. Whether the cat was taken as a witch’s familiar, or a kind of mask worn by a devil worshipper is not said, but Balleine uses a Guernsey trial’s confession of guilt (with no documented source) to load the evidence in favour of the latter. In fact, there is no suggestion in the text that the devil is a masked man, this is a rationalisation to make the text acceptable to Balleine. If we accept that like many other texts from witchcraft trials, than the fantastic, shape changing devil was present - certainly believed by people of that time - then we are forced to question the veracity of this kind of evidence, a point well made by Norman Cohn: "stories which have manifestly impossible features are not to be trusted in any particular, as evidence of what physically happened"(6).

Marie Tougis (45th) confessed "that she had caused the death of a child and bewitched a woman". This again is as much evidence of a "wise woman" as of organised witchcraft; note again the preponderance of death emerging as a result of witchcraft.

Turning now to the Grandin family, one of Balleine’s family of witches, what is apparent is that they appear as much criminals as witches. Philippe Grandin was hanged for theft. Barthelmy Grandin was hanged for larceny. Elizabeth Grandin was arrested for witchcraft but released with a warning "not to gad about the island"; later, she was rearrested for "living a lewd, wicked and scandalous life"; her illegitimate daughter Marie was also arrested for the same offence." When we look at the Grandin’s accused of witchcraft, it is not too easy to discern this as a viable way of dealing with a family engaged in criminal activity and prostitution; where evidence was insufficient for crime, witchcraft provided the perfect mechanism for the law to act.

When another Marie Grandin was arrested, she denied her guilt to the end, but "seventy or eighty witnesses appeared against her", and in prison her head was shaven and a witches mark found, which led to her being found guilty. This is noteworthy, because it shows that the legal process noted by Balleine was in fact capable of being circumvented if the need arose.

Balleine notes that in the trial records, the witches "did not disclose the names of their associates, not reveal their meeting places". Lacking the form of interrogation, we cannot know if questions about these were asked. However, the seeming lack of curiosity about these suggests that the authorities in Jersey may have had a different perspective upon witchcraft and perhaps this accounts for the discrepancy between Balleine’s supposed organised witch cult, and the beliefs of the Jerseymen of that time. The most plausible hypothesis is that witchcraft was not regarded as an organised movement in Jersey, but as singular individuals ("cunning folk") or generally linked to "bad families" (who could be sure to use curses and foul language).

Balleine does mention the tradition that one meeting place was "the Witches Rock at St. Clement". I find this highly unlikely. How did the tradition become public? If it became common knowledge as a special meeting place, then one would expect the authorities to keep a watch on it, and apprehend the witches "in the act", especially at particular times of year, such as Midsummer’s Eve.

Lastly, I would just like to comment on the comparison between Jersey and Guernsey. Balleine notes that the Guernsey records mention the use of torture, but the Jersey ones do not, and takes this as proof that Jersey was "more humane". In fact, all this shows is that the Jersey documents do not record the use of torture, and may be incomplete in this respect.

Balleine also cites Jersey as sentencing to be "hanged and strangled .. till death ensues, and after that, her body to be burned and entirely consumed", while Guernsey often ordered witches "to be tied to a stake and burnt". Leaving aside the assumption that witches were always female, actually contradicted by himself, I would note the following. The Guernsey quotation may well be just be shorthand, omitting - in this case - hanging, and when we come to the Guernsey records, there is ample evidence for that, as we shall see. In short, I believe Balleine may be weighting the evidence by selection, and the lack of a source for the Guernsey procedure means we must treat this with caution.

Balleine draws a vivid picture of Jersey witches stealing away in the dead of night to perform dark rituals, of worship of the devil, and the black mass, of dynastic families of witches. It is a very appealing, dramatic version of events, full of excitement and menace. But I would suggest that the reality is more mundane.

There are singular individuals practising their art as "cunning folk", and there are criminal families for whom the charge of witchcraft was all to easy to believe. Balleine conflates these two groups into one, and prejudges the confessions as all supporting his picture. In fact, there is no evidence of organisations in many cases, and where there are organised groups, these are criminals anyway; moreover, the idea of devil worshippers making bold confessions with no application of duress, boasting about their beliefs, shows a singular neglect of the conditions at Mont Orguiel.

In our own time, the captivity of the Lebanese hostages such as Terry Waite and John McCarthy shows just how much duress can be exerted just by confinement in very basic conditions, with a fear of uncertainty about release, or what the outcome will be.

Witch Trials in Guernsey

In the Report and Transactions of 1937 for the Societe Guernesiaise, S. Carey Curtis gives a detailed analysis of the trials for witchcraft in Guernsey. He begins by placing in a setting of general "cults of the supernatural", and places the Guernsey cases against a background of "an undercurrent of heathenism comprising the outlines of the supernatural, mysterious and inexplicable, which Christianity in vain sought to root out". He comments that "there is no doubt that Witchcraft as practised in the Middle Ages was the machination of a wide-spread secret society, with ramifications in practically all Western Europe. Its organisation was complete. It had its Masters, its Officers, its Familiars, its Covens or cells of 13 members, its rites and ceremonies carried out in a prescribed fashion". Finally, he aims to show that in "a back-water such as Guernsey", "the nucleus of a secret society will be found, modified to the smaller community".

What is one to make of this preamble? Unlike Balleine, he does not make his dependence upon Margaret Murray for this picture, although later on, he does cite this work in detail, so he had the same familiarity with it. It seems that the Witchcraft trials posed a problems for the historians. Murray’s initial work was published in 1921 with "The Witch Cult in Western Europe", and the sequel, "The God of the Witches" in 1933. These provided an interpretative framework for understanding the trial material, and the preamble is directly in agreement with Murray’s thesis. I will not consider again how well the material actually fits, and what else it may tell us.

The 1622 record which is cited in details is interesting. It is given as an example of an official record of a witchcraft trial in Guernsey, and mentions Thomas Tougis, Jouane Tougis, his daughter, and Michelle Chivret wife of Pierre Osmont. The accusation is that they had "long practised the horrible and heinous crime of sorcery"; they were kept as prisoners at the Castle (Cornet). They were "examined on various particulars" which obviously means interrogation. They were also "confronted with their witnesses" which suggests those people who told about curses and bewitchments placed upon them. The actions they had taken with witchcraft were as follows, they had "committed various murders, smitten with debility several persons, made die many animals, and perpetrated a number of injuries". They were sentenced to be executed by being tied to a post on a scaffold, then burnt to death. Incidentally, I would note that the use of the phrase "tied to a scaffold", and the word "scaffold" itself, rather than "stake" must give a presumption that they were hanged before death. They were also to be tortured before this to reveal the name of accomplices. Note that this official record is reportage, this is not verbatim reporting, and this separates us from the proceedings. There is also no mention of covens, or witchcraft as such, mostly of the kind of activity for which, if other proofs were forthcoming, would have been regarded as criminal.

Carey Curtis breaks down the records into four categories: charges, evidence, confessions, if any, sentence.

With regards to the charges, he notes that "these all appear to have been of a formal type and vary little throughout the hundred years of the trials"; the general form was the accusation "of having practised for a long time the horrible and enormous crime of sorcery". More specific details usually included strange illnesses, foodstuffs full of worms, and sometimes the death of people and livestock brought about my sorcery.

The so-called evidence, Carey Curtis notes is vast, but "mostly irrelevant and of the flimsiest description"; it is hearsay and supposition. A child or a cow being taken ill, or milk curdling was taken as "evidence". There was also an interesting belief that a key placed in the fire until red hot, then placed in the front door, was a charm against witchcraft, although not always effective.

Spells were also alleged to have been found in the bed of the accused, but while the narratives recount how people found these spells, none ever seem to have found their way to be presented as evidence; some were written on paper, some made like cushions, some like apples, of hempen thread twisted with feathers. This sounds in part like "sympathetic magic", akin to voodoo dolls, until we read of "forty-four witches spell’s in her child’s pillow". What are we to make of this? Did these items exist? The unusual nature of these as evidence, and the fact that they occur prior to "confessions" suggest that they may well have done. But if these items did exist, then the only way for them to get to the places where they were found - in sick people’s beds - was for someone to be allowed access to place them there. This means we must infer that the so-called witch placed them there with the co-operation of the principal accuser! We can make sense of this only if we assume that they were in fact supposed to be healing charms, sought from someone seen as a healer; when they failed, out of any number of reasons - rage, fear, malice - the accusation was brought. It is documented that wise women, after the time of witchcraft trials, both were known for healing and cursing; some even used the threat of curses as a kind of "protection racket"; so the shift from acceptance of the woman to rejection by the accuser makes sense; also Balleine mentions in Jersey the Royal Court "striking at the witch’s clients", which also fits this picture.

When we come to the confessions, we have the standard - and suspect - story of a meeting together with the devil. We have the devil appearing in the form of a cat, a dog, a hare, a rat, a weasel, or a goat. However, sometimes he appears in the form of a man. The appearances are also often "in broad daylight". The devil appears, and then offers help these women to avenge themselves on others. The idea of a masked man going around in broad daylight seems less than likely! The import of the text, the context of the appearances ("in daylight", "near her house") suggests a real disguise as an animal.

Collette du Mont stated that "the Devil gave her an ointment, with which she anointed herself, and was immediately transported to the place of assembly, which was sometimes near the Churchyard of St Saviour’s, and sometimes on the shore near Rocquaine Castle". It has been suggested that by Murray that the ointment was a hallucinatory drug to make the person think they were flying; but the text speaks of being in one place, then applying the ointment, then being at the assembly. Are we to take it the user walked there in a daze? Or are we to see this instead as a forced confession, which sought to effectively get the accused to tell a particular type of story? It is also amazing, as with Jersey, that there was no watch placed upon these celebrated sites for covens to meet!

The confession of Isabel Becquet is especially interesting because she stated that at the Sabbat, the devil used to call their names. She lists herself among six, then there is "a woman she did not know", then "six others whom she also did not know". Why is there not simply "seven whom she did not know"? I think here we can see from the phrasing of the confession that the interrogation was seeking to produce a coven of 13 names. Probably prompted, she lists or agrees to five and herself. Then she cannot think of who else to accuse of being a fellow witch, so she lists the unknown woman. At this point, she is pressed to see if she knows any of the remaining six, and she does not. This is a conjecture, but it does explain the oddity of this confession. Part of the problem, of course, is that we only have the confession, and not the details of the torture, and the questions asked of the accused, all of which determined the shape of the confession.

Becquet and Dumont were both tried as members of the same coven, and their confessions are very similar. Although Carey Curtis presents them as corroborating events, because they are both describing the same practices, the fact that they were tried at the same time means that we cannot rely on their evidence as independent witnesses, and, in fact, the marked similarity of their confessions would equally fit with the interrogation shaping the confession into the desired form.

Martin Tulouf’s confession is interesting, because it mentions a "genest" which may have been a broom, or a bush, or a pony - the meaning of the word is unclear. However, he speaks of the "head witch" mounting a "genest", saying "go in the name of the Devil and Lucifer over rocks and stones"; he was unable to do so, but saw "his mother get on nine or ten times and get on at the chimney". The interrogators saw nothing odd in the idea of flying, but the fantastic aspect of it again means that this kind of evidence is highly suspect, and hence should also be distrusted when it speaks of meetings of witches. We cannot take those pieces of the narrative which we might believe could happen, and disregard the fantastic element because it suits us; the evidence given is only as strong as its weakest link, and if some is suspect, all must be, especially considering the means by which it was obtained.

Lastly, the execution is worth examining, because the case of the Becquet family gives this in detail, whereas elsewhere it is given as a brief summary. The Becquets "were condemned to be taken with halters round their necks to the place of execution, there tied by the executioner to a post, and strangled and then burnt until their flesh and bones are reduced to ashes and the ashes scattered". What is significant here is the wording "strangled and then burnt" which completely contradicts the myth that Balleine had created, which is still told in Jersey, about the Guernsey executions involving burning alive!

What are we to make of the Guernsey witch trials? Carey Curtis presents the texts well, but against the interpretative background of the supposed "witch cult"; if we remove that from the equation, we have a superstitious society, in which "wise women" were clearly sought out for charms, and in which illness, bad luck and death were often attributed to the workings of malevolent forces. After accusations which highlighted these aspects of practice, the confessions revealed a quite different picture; significantly, and unlike a modern court of law, there does not appear to have been any follow up to the initial accusation in the confessions; it seems that the interrogators and court did not in fact want to hear confessions about charms and love potions, but instead pursued their own agenda of black mass, devil, witches mark, and all the paraphernalia of confessions which we find in suspiciously identical forms elsewhere.

An Aside on Confessions

In this section, I will examine the psychological aspects of torture and confession. This has been touched on briefly before, but here is a more detailed analysis.

Balleine makes a good deal of the fact that there was no torture given to witches in Jersey. He uses this to suggest that the confessions were not forced. But, in fact, torture was theoretically forbidden in England as well, and as already noted, the infamous Matthew Hopkins, self-styled "witchfinder-general" used simply sleep deprivation - watching, fasting, and just pinching when falling asleep. He then used leading questions to elicit the responses he required.

In his book, "Landscapes of the Mind"(7), the psychologist Christopher Evans noted that prolonged sleep deprivation has long been known as an instrument of non-physical torture. The Spanish Inquisition used the "tortura insomnia", as they called it, allegedly to death. But how did this work? The experimental work of Kleitman on students and himself noted that prolonged sleep deprivation led to a tendency to hallucinate, or dream while awake. Later, in 1935, the work of Katz and Landis showed that after four sleepless days, hallucinations were very frequent, and by the fifth day, delusional states emerged. The desire to sleep is also so strong that the subject is very receptive to any suggestions in interrogation in order to be allowed to sleep.

But extreme sleep deprivation is not, in fact, required in order to force confessions. Lawrence Hinkle and Harold Wolff studied the effects of what was termed "brainwashing", and noted that the KGB’s favourite tools were "solitary confinement in a small, featureless cell, sleep deprivation, squalid living conditions, keeping the victim ignorant of where they were, and repetitive questioning"(8). Torture may be employed, but often is not necessary. Psychological pressures and physical discomfort are enough. The psychologist in the defence team regarding the Guilford Four noted how false confessions came about even in more congenial imprisonment. He comments that Carol Richardson, who made a false confession found that "what bothered her was not so much the interrogators’ questions as their attitude and apparent confidence that she was guilty. Once it appeared the police were in full control, and there was no point in resisting, she confessed to ease the pressure. After several days in custody, she even began to believe that she had planted the bomb and was blocking it out from her memory"(9).

When one considers that those accused of witchcraft were kept on a starvation diet in dungeons at Gorey castle, and often returned if they did not confess, and finally made an apparently voluntary confession, it is clear that the same kind of pattern is being played out, and any confessions elicited are just as valueless.

When we turn to the case of Guernsey, the confessions elicited are even more obviously of no worth at all. What is interesting is that the Guernsey confessions fall far more readily into the pattern of covens, black masses and devil worship, and these were the ones in which torture was freely used.

Two Modern Writers

"These Haunted Islands" is largely descriptive accounts of the Witchcraft Trials, supplemented by various degrees of "padding". It begins with the historically and mathematically discredited theories about Ley Lines (10), and produces a map which purports to show these across the Channel Islands. Chris Lake then ties in the Dolmens and the Gran’mere in Guernsey to the idea of "witchcraft before Christ", and we are clearly, as can be seen from his sources, back in Margaret Murray’s fantasies again. Linked to this are anecdotal tales of exorcisms of the dolmens, and the statement that they are used by witches today - a clear example of the confusion over the mediaeval idea of the witch and the modern invention of Wicca (11).

The next sections of the book look at witch trials in general, and Channel Island cases in particular, but there is nothing distinctively new that is not in Balleine or Carey Curtis. The death of Perotine Massey is included, although really it was a heresy trial at the time of Mary, and has nothing to do with witchcraft at all (12). Then there is a lengthy section upon the Salem Witch Trials, which has only the most tenuous links with the Channel Islands. Finally, the book finishes with the decline of the witch trials, which Lake puts down to a rise in scepticism brought about by education. In fact, the historical record shows that the old superstitions about the evil eye etc., did not die out at all during the period in question; however, the quality of evidence and procedures for obtaining evidence became much more stringent, and it was this change in legal practice that meant that witch trials declined and eventually ceased (13).

"Jersey: Witches, Ghosts and Traditions" is, as the title suggests, a fairly eclectic collection. There is a chapter or two which focuses strongly upon the witchcraft trials, then there is a romp around the Parishes, giving most folklore tales and legends in a lively manner, and finally there are some traditional charms and cures.

The section of witchcraft is placed in a setting of "the war with the devil"; this begins with the idea that the early Christian evangelists to the Islands were at war against the forces of Paganism. This Sonia Hillsdon sees in the continued veneration of pagan menhirs, dolmens and tumuli almost to this day. In fact, with the exception of the Gran’mere in Guernsey, there is little to support this thesis, and much to the contrary. Across Britain, the evidence is that more often than not, dolmens and menhirs were pillaged for building material, from quite an early time; the same practice certainly seems to have taken place over in Jersey. Mont Ube dolmen was used for a time as a pig sty. The Domen of Geonnais was pillaged for building material. There is certainly little of veneration visible in the historical record. Rather it is the modern rise of antiquarians in the 19th century, and the Romantic movement, combined with the invention of Druidic and Wiccan practices, that has led to a very modern veneration and respect for these monuments. The peoples of past ages were far more mercenary. Tombs were raided for valuables as far ago as the Viking era, stones taken for building material.

Jersey Folk Lore

This book has an entire section in which L’Amy looks at Witchcraft. According to L’Amy, the medieval belief in witchcraft "was absolute", and "to disbelieve in its existence was tantamount to a confession of heresy". This is in fact nonsense - until the 13th century, the Church held that a belief in witchcraft was heretical. It was only later in the Middle Ages, that sorcery and heresy were conflated. The Canon Episcopi, incorporated into the Corpus Juris Canonici (Canon Law) in the 12th century by Gratian of Bologna expressly forbade a belief in witchcraft. Moreover, throughout the Middle Ages, and to the end of the Witch Hunts, there was a firm sceptical tradition found in such diverse people as Johann Weyer (1563), Reginald Scot (1584), the Inquisitor Alonso de Salazar Frias (1612), the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1651).(14)

On witchcraft trials, L’Amy notes 59 cases in Guernsey, but only 8 in Jersey; in this respect, we see that Balleine has been far more thorough. He quotes from J.L Pitt’s "Witchcraft and Devil Lore" the case of Perotine Massey, not mentioned by name, in which he quotes Pitt as saying "A young woman was burnt at the stake for the crime of sorcery". In fact, Pitt mentions the case as one of Heresy, nor Sorcery, making the distinction and occasion very clear indeed, and the quotation given does not exist in Pitt at all (15)

L’Amy takes the view that witchcraft did exist, and the model of Murray (covens, devil worship etc) is presented without any evidence. His précis is slim, and hugely inaccurate. He mentions "hundreds of thousands of persons, mostly old women" being executed; in fact, the figure was around 50,000 to 100,000 by modern estimates. 25% were male, and the range of ages was variable.

Several local cases are cited, and two (Marie Esnouf, Marie Grandin) are noted for having heads shaven, and witches marks found, a third was shaved, but no mark found.; none of the confessions cited mention covens, black masses or any other such.

The rest of the section is a series of tales from oral tradition. The titles illustrate the kind of subject matter, that of spells cast and broken: "The Wizard’s Revenge", "The Wizard and the Cows", "Occult Coercion", "The Cream that Would not Turn", "The Boy who could not eat bread", "Magic Detection". These are mostly tales related by L’Amy’s mother to himself, and are supposedly "true stories". What they tell us is that Jersey in the 19th and early 20th century had a lively culture of what would now be termed "urban legends"; they are anecdotal, about charms, spells, shape-changing, but no mention of witchcraft in the classic sense. Two tales are different in style and content. "The Witches of Rocqueberg" is a more literary creation, and akin to a Victorian "penny dreadful". "The Thirteenth Fish" is still a good literary creation, but would seem to draw upon fishermen’s superstitions; it is interesting in that the witches are an unseen menace, lurking at Rocqueberg out of sight (16).

There is also a mention of books of magic, such as the Grand Albert, but no details given as to the contents of these. These Grimoires as they were also known dealt with ritual magic, and spells for divining rods (akin to dowsing), winning at lottery, enchanting firearms, speaking with spirits on the Eve of St John the Baptist, love spells, and making oneself invisible. They were detailed by A.E. Waite in his "Book of Black Magic and Pacts", and do not date much earlier than the early 1800s; this explains why they enter the Jersey and Guernsey records, but do not appear in the witch trials (17).

The last item of note are the chapters on "Charms and spells" and "Magic and Incantations"; here is a definite tradition of "cunning folk" surviving until recently, with borrowings from other cultures, including England and Brittany. What is interesting is that it shows the existence of this kind of tradition in Jersey up to the present day; moreover, a number of the anecdotes are by sceptical people, who tell of these "wise people" as charlatans practising quackery, which suggests that their authenticity is very good.

1) Hutton, R, "The Triumph of the Moon", 1999, pp.194-201, also, Hutton, R.,1993, "The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles", pp.301-6, 331-4

2) Johnson, P. "A History of Christianity", 1980. See also Lansing, C., "Power and Purity: Cathar Heresy in Medieval Italy", 1998, which demonstrates that demonising of the Cathars as heresy was a means by which the Roman Church could reclaim political, religious, social and economic power. In "Heresies of the High Middle Ages" (A.P. Evans, 1991), it is also clear that, rather like the Reformers, the Cathars tended to regard the nominalism and corruption of the Roman church as being under the rule of Satan. Unlike the Reformers, this was a movement of "most rigorous asceticism" which observed moral laws against "the luxury and laxity of the Catholic clergy", p.46. This book devotes whole sections to translations of original Cathar documents, and I can find nothing in these to support Balleine’s contentions; he seems to have been misled by Catholic propaganda against the Cathars of sexual orgies and the like - also noted as unsubstantiated propaganda by C.A. Hoyt, in "Witchcraft" (1981), p.47ff.

3) Hutton, R, "The Triumph of the Moon", pp.84-111, chapter on "Finding a Low Magic", see also Keith Thomas, "Religion and the Decline of Magic", pp.252-300, a chapter on "Cunning men and popular magic".

4) Gibson, R, "Reading Witchcraft", 1999, in which Gibson notes how the confessions were shaped by the form of the questions, which can be seen from the few cases where the form of interrogation is preserved; questions assumed guilt, such as asking the accused "How did you become a witch" (p.14) or a variant thereof. The idea that confessions were given at once, and then transcribed, like the modern police statement, is a fallacy; there were numerous questions, and the replies were shaped into a confession (sometimes in several stages) by scribes removing the questions to make a seamless whole; this can be seen from cases where enough documentation exists to show the redactional process at work (cf. Ch. 2, "Witchcraft Trials and a Methodology for reading them", pp.50-77). See also Thomas, "Religion and the Decline of Magic", p 618.

5) Keith Thomas, "Religion and the Decline of Magic", pp.617-620. One contemporary eyewitness he quotes as observing that "witches, long-tortured with watching and fasting, and pinched when ready to nod, are contented causelessly to accuse themselves, to be eased of present pain"(p.617).

6) Norman Cohn, "Europe’s Inner Demons" (1976), p.115. Indeed, this whole chapter pp.99-125 demonstrates from original texts how Margaret Murray used the same techniques, and also highly selective omissions, to rationalise her position, and create a "non-existence society of witches".

7) Christopher Evans, "Landscapes of the Mind" (1983), pp108-116, chapter on "Sleep Deprivation"

8) New Scientist, 20 Nov 2004, pp.43-51, special feature on science of interrogation.

9) New Scientist, 20 Nov 2004, pp 52-53, article by Gisli Gudjonsson, professor of forensic psychology at Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, author of "The Psychology of Interrogations and Confessions: A Handbook"(2003)

10) Hutton, R, "Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles", pp 121-3, 126-30, for a thorough history of the idea of Ley lines, and its statistical weaknesses.

11) The dolmens are certainly used by modern day Wiccans, but Wiccans follow ritual practice based upon the setting sun and rising moon. On Midsummer, for example, local Wiccans would be at some dolmens in Jersey, as I know from personal contacts. But they would celebrate the festival at night, where the dolmen builders clearly had rituals based about the rising sun, as noted locally in the case of Hougue Bie by Mark Patton, see also Hutton for general details.

12) Except that it does illustrate the way in which there was little appeal outside the Island to higher courts for justice, which is a known indicator of the intensity of witch trials and executions.

13) The definitive study is Keith Thomas, Op. Cit, p 681-698. The case of Thomas in 1954, Royal Court of Jersey was brought for divination, and it was then still argued that the practice was an offence in itself, rather than one of fraud.

14) The definitive book is "The Witchcraft Sourcebook", edited by Brian Levack, which contains history and original source documents. Alonso de Salazar Frias is particularly notable for being sent in by the Spanish Inquisition in 1612 to investigate a mass outbreak of witchcraft from confessions in the Basque region, and almost single handedly dismissing the validity of those confessions, and releasing those imprisoned.

15) I have read Pitt’s "Witchcraft and Devil Lore", and he places the case firmly as a heresy trial. The record quoted by L’Amy that the child was thrown back "that it may be baptised by the fire which will be its portion in the hereafter" simply does not exist in Pitt’s who has a much more sober and less dramatic source; the closest is Pitt’s quotation from Tennyson’s poem about the event. I can only suppose that L’Amy was writing from memory, and thus the lapse.

16) On stylistic differences and artificiality in literary composition, see Erich Auerbach’s "Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature"

17) "Book of Black Magic and Pacts", A.E. Waite, 1898.