Sunday, April 23, 2017

Moral panic


Ostracizing people who don’t fit the public mold thing is nothing new. Though as a whole we get better and better about accepting our differences, history repeatedly reminds us that a slippery slope can make a panicking public turn exclusion into something totally horrendous.

At a recent gallery talk at Ann Street Gallery in Newburgh, artist Alisa Read talked about the inspiration behind her current installation. Read’s Victim or Target series is part of the gallery’s Mythology exhibit and she drew her story from the infamous trials of the Pendle witches in England.

According to gallery materials Read is a “contemporary artist whose present work focuses on the dominance of male hierarchies in religious, political and social culture and its connection with the persecution and sacrifice of women in 17th century England.”


For Victim or Target Read scortched sheets of cotton cloth and draped them to form ghostly figures, representing eight of the executed women. Because no photograhs of the women were available, Read incorporated images of her own face into each piece.

The women were forced to walk 51 miles between Barrowford and Lancaster, England to reach the destination where they were tried, hung and burned at the gallows. As part of her project Read actually carried her figures along the same path, now known as the Lancashire Witches Walk, which was opened to the public in 2012 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the trials. Read gave gallery’s audience a look at the book she created as a symbol of the 91 days the women spent in prison as well.

Between the 15th and 18th centuries, over 400 men and women were accused of witchcraft and executed in England. The group Read focused on lived in the rural cotton-manufacturing Pendle Hill region of Lancashire. What makes this particular trial unique is the thoroughness of documentation that exists thanks to proceedings recorded by clerk Thomas Potts.  


Cultural changes and religious superstitions contributed to the social climate that led to the executions. When King James I took the English throne in the early 1600s he brought with him an intense interest in Protestant theology. His book Daemonologie encouraged followers to denounce witchcraft and its followers.  In 1612 every Justice of the Peace in Lancashire was instructed to report people who refused to attend the English Church and take communion, known as recusants. The King James Bible actually has passages encouraging violence against witches:
  • Exodus 22:18 - Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
  • Leviticus 20:27 - A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood [shall be] upon them.

Read talked about other factors that contributed to moral panic and persecution. Doctors, usually male, were not fond of witches' roles in the emergence of herbal medicine and midwifery in rural communities. Most victims were poor and mundane women who were simply trying to help their isolated communities, but were turned into scapegoats for what was wrong with society.

Americans are familiar with our own society’s role in the witch trials in Salem, Massachussets. In G. Adams book The Specter of Salem: Remembering the Witch Trials in Nineteenth-Century America she described the narrative as a “vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and lapses in due process.”

Witches have been pardoned by government in Sweden and the U.S. but England still has not done so for the women who inspired Read’s project.  



Read is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Huddersfield and focuses on the religious persecution of women in 17th Century England. She explained to her audience her current research on Pagan altars and her upcoming trip to Salem Massachussets to study the region’s witch trials.

Read’s research brought her to meet practicing witches who she described as normal people, one about 35 years old and living as an average member of the community in a normal home with children. Read’s objective with Victim or Target is to give a face to the persecuted and she encouraged us to imagine witches outside of popular “Disneyfied” evil characters with black hats and broomsticks.

No comments:

Post a Comment