Supernaturalism And Class Power

[Blogger’s note: The Pendle Witch documentary can be found here as the video link below is broken.]

There are lots of points of interest in the video below. It gives us a view into the lives of the displaced peasantry at just the moment capitalism was devouring its first country. It also demonstrates how religion in particular and supernaturalism generally can be used for political purposes, and just how malleable public opinion really is. Many of those who denounced Catholics as witches and accused them of sorcery were the children and grandchildren of pious Catholics, a state-managed transition from advocacy to anathema in a few short years.

But of more importance is what this documentary omits, or rather the context it fails to provide. It does reveal that James I was interested in witchcraft and wrote a seminal work on the subject, and it readily accepts that the chief prosecutor in the Pendle Witch Trial was motivated by ambition. No doubt these are true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Economic historians debate exactly when feudalism surrendered to capitalism, but few if any deny that the latter gained a foothold in the reign of Henry VIII. Henry was an ardent supporter of the Papacy, and wrote an impassioned defense of the sacraments. No Protestant he, that is until, driven by political interests, he sought a divorce and was refused by the Pope. Thereafter, with the aid of the large land-owners in parliament, he condemned the Pontiff and had himself proclaimed head of the newly liberated church in England. He then commenced confiscating church land. This cleavage of the two most important institutions upholding the feudal order opened the space in which capitalism would emerge, but this too is not the whole story.

For centuries theretofore enclosure of the commons had been occurring, but quite slowly and sporadically. Common lands, the fields upon which peasant villagers depended for their survival, were being parceled out and thrown upon the market. In many cases these lands were just stolen, in others peasants would be asked to provide proof of ownership of the fields they tilled, which of course they could not do, and would be driven off and their land enclosed. These dispossessed peasants would form the nucleus of the nascent working class while the new possessors of these enclosed holdings became capitalist landlords, a very new kind of gentry, the same people whose help Henry needed to break with Rome without losing his crown.

Up to and into Henry’s reign, England’s monarchs had resisted enclosure. Henry opposed it because he feared the loss of tax revenue, a dearth of prospective conscripts for his military adventures, and most of all because it was destabilizing to his regime. His splitting from the church had helped him to extend and consolidate his power, enclosure was causing riots here and there throughout his realm. Henry instituted oversight and controls.

However, enclosure continued apace even gaining momentum with the confiscation of Catholic holdings. Henry resolved to reverse the process by forcing enclosers to give the confiscated lands back, and to hand over to the Crown half of the profits they had gleaned.

Henry’s rambunctious militarism was costing lots of money, and the proceeds from these enclosures were providing more revenue than the old feudal tax system which enclosure was undermining. Soon enough enforcement of land return became lax while the Crown continued to take its half of the proceeds. Whether Henry was really trying to prevent enclosure, or just profiting from it, the result was the same–more and more land was enclosed (privatized). Capitalist methods of production and exchange were replacing the feudal order.

Whether Henry was a reluctant encloser, or just pretended to be, one of his successors, Elizabeth I, would aggressively transition to capitalism. She destroyed the only extant form of organized labor, the guilds, with the Statute of Artificers; granted several trade monopolies to loyalists; empowered justices of the peace to fix wages at subsistence levels; and reinstated the Poor Laws but with important capital-friendly revisions. The processes she set in motion, inevitably, caused tensions between the incipient bourgeoisie and the entrenched feudal class. These would come to a head in the English Civil War which began in 1640. It would depose and, eventually, decapitate King Charles I. By its end the bourgeoisie would be triumphant and the runway was now clear for British imperialism. The monarchy was reinstated but only after power had shifted from the aristocracy never to return. The new monarchs would be administrators, or more commonly figureheads, of a capitalist empire, often partnered in the trade monopolies whose expansion and protection were the aim of imperial policy.

The Pendle Witch Trial took place in 1612, in the reign of James I, Elizabeth’s immediate successor, and it affords us a glimpse into what life was like for these declassed peasants. The incident which gave rise to the trial involved a young, desperately poor beggar and an overstressed peddler. Life at “Slut Tower” was hardscrabble and elemental, and the wretches whose misfortune it was to live in it, perhaps predictably, believed in all manner of spectral nonsense. But is such supernaturalism normal? Endemic to human existence? Inescapable? Maybe so, but in this case, clearly, the enfeebling hokum was nurtured by the state.

The documentary portrays James as a sincere believer in the supernatural, and this he may have been. But James produced a few works during his reign, two of which he authored, which were of political benefit to him. Demonologies was a study in witchcraft published at a time when his political enemies, the recusant Catholics, were widely associated with sorcery. It should also be noted that Catholics were strongest in the north (particularly in Lancashire where the Devis family lived) and had been largely excluded from Elizabeth’s capitalist reforms. Most of the important Catholics were large feudal land-owners, the class enemies of the fast-rising capitalists. The promotion of a belief in witchcraft was politically expedient for James.

James also produced the bible which still bares his name. The details need not concern us here, but its revisions of the Catholic bible also were beneficial for James. And as the documentary points out, it too promotes the belief in witchcraft.

James also produced a pamphlet which presented the “Divine Right of Kings,” a theological defense of monarchy, which was supported ever so conveniently by his new bible.

Coincidences? Methinks not. Was James so inflamed by these topics that he produced these discourses heedless of their political consequences?

Preposterous. No head of state, certainly no embattled monarch, can afford to be so indifferent to the potential effects of his/her actions. James was fostering not only a belief in the supernatural but deliberately inciting the hysteria as it served his purposes and those of the emerging, largely Protestant, middle class. His writings, Nowles’ ostentatious prosecution, and Thomas Potts’ “best-selling” account of the trial were propaganda, a psy-op, political theater.

Although the documentary does not approach Potts or the king in this light, it does acknowledge the political ambition of the chief prosecutor. Who trained little Jennette to lie so effectively, with such brio? And Why? In whose interests was this obscene farce undertaken? Mysticism has been a weapon in the reactionary’s armory for a long time, perhaps longer than we imagine.

The one great flaw in the documentary revolves around the infamous Gunpowder Plot. The narrator and guests insist that James was duly wary of intrigues because of it. I’m quite convinced that the alleged plot was a false flag operation engineered by Sir Robert Cecil, formerly Elizabeth’s lover. Whether James had foreknowledge or not, he must have come to know that the plot was not genuine, and thus justifying his subsequent clampdown of his enemies on this basis is not warranted. The documentary assumes as fact what I regard as thoroughly debunked.

In any case, may Jennette, her sister Allison, Mrs Devis, Granny Demdyke, and the other accused rest in peace, their lives so hard, and their deaths so unjustly ignominious. Some day it will be the perpetrators of judicial violence who will stand before the bar. May it come soon.


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