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THE LANCASHIRE WITCH TRIALS OF 1612 AND 1634 AND THE ECONOMICS OF WITCHCRAFT*

AN IMPORTANT THEORY was put forward hy Alan Macfarlane and Keith Thomas to help explain the incidence of witchcraft accusations at a local level in early modern England. 1 They noted the fact that the witches were often poor old women who were usually accused by more prosperous younger neighbours, following a refusal of charity. Thomas and Macfarlane saw the economic changes of the sixteenth century, with rapid population growth putting pressure on limited resources and with enclosure increasing the number of the landless poor, as factors which accelerated the trend towards a cash economy. The medieval idea of voluntary charity towards the poor as a necessary Christian obligation was rendered obsolete by the advent of the Elizabethan Poor Law which discouraged begging. Thus the move away from a neighbourly, communal ethic to one based more on private property and commercial values led to increasing social tension, as the poor felt the full force of unfavourable market forces and the sanctions of the state. A rejected beggar would often curse his uncharitable neigh hour , and, should something then go wrong, the neighbour might attribute his misfortune to witchcraft. Also present is the notion that the victim, aware that he had failed in his social obligations, sought to exonerate himself hy transferring the guilt he felt to the beggar.