He’s unearthed less a tale of the supernatural, and more a very modern case of bullying and fake news.
Working to shed new light on old history for Heritage Doncaster’s Changing the Record project, Nick was researching the story of Joan Jurdie, a well-known 17th century witch in Doncaster, accused by neighbours of causing the deaths of their children by witchcraft. Historians had always assumed that she’d been a tragic victim of the witch-hunts, executed despite her claims of innocence. Instead, Nick found by studying local records that she’d survived the trials, living to a ripe old age – and in uncovering her lost years, he found so much more.
“In the popular stereotype of a witch trial, the witch is doomed from the beginning, sucked into a maelstrom of accusation, confession under torture and trial by ordeal, ultimately to be executed,” explains Nick. “This wasn’t the case with Joan, even though fear of witchcraft was apparently at its zenith in the 17th century. Why was her story so different from the one we read in the history books?
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“The answer is: it isn’t! When I looked into 17th-century trial records more closely, I was surprised to find that of 37 documented cases of Yorkshire women formally accused of witchcraft in the 17th century at least 22 were acquitted or pardoned. Only four were recorded as being executed – not quite the picture that’s been passed down to us. By investigating Joan’s survival, however, a darker thread did come to light. Up to two thirds of accused women had something in common: they were widows.”
Life in the 17th century was hard for poor widows. Often forced to beg for a living, they were objects of pity, derision and suspicion – accusations of witchcraft often went hand in hand with allegations of theft. Widows lacked agency and without husbands, fathers or sons were extremely vulnerable. Joan Jurdie, like other Yorkshire witches who were acquitted such as Mary Hickington, had social standing; her ‘good character’ was supported by the word of men.
In a very modern parallel, Joan Jurdie’s case underlines the stark reality of how vulnerable single women could be to bullying, and the insidious impact of ‘fake news’; many of the gossipy accusations in the trial records have uncomfortable echoes of social media trolling. It’s part of a long and painful history: even after the witchcraft trials of the 17th century, came the ‘spinster trials’ of the 18th and 19th centuries, where poor, single women continued to be pilloried, rather than protected by society. Today, 69% of cyber-bullying victims are young – and probably single - women.
Victoria Ryves, project manager for Heritage Doncaster’s Changing the Record project, says: “It’s very rare to find anything meaningful about the lives of lower-class women in the history books – at times, it’s as if they never existed, their lives passing unnoticed. That’s why witch trial records are such a precious resource, as they delve into such intimate, colourful detail about real women who are not privileged and elite, women who are severely under-represented and under-valued in our historical record.”
She adds: “By looking at witchcraft only through the lens of morbid fascination, we’re doing a huge disservice to the many women who’ve endured a very real, centuries-old struggle against misogyny and bullying. Witchcraft is not a story of the supernatural; it’s a chronicle about the lives of real women, struggling with very modern dilemmas – and it has much to tell us about the way society has developed, and also clues to navigating issues that often seem bewildering.”
Joan Jurdie’s case also illustrates how easily what we think of as ‘history’ can be corrupted over time by assumption, exaggeration and myth-making. Why was it assumed that Joan was executed, a victim of frenzied witch-hunts that swept the nation? According to Nick, it is inevitable that popular history and its attendant fiction – like Arthur Harwood Brierley’s best-selling 19thcentury short story ‘The Witcheries of Joan Jurdie’ - has tended to focus on the sensational but atypical – the Pendle Witch Trials, the Salem Witch Trials, Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder General, sadistic prosecutors, merciless torturers, hysterical witnesses and sinister child accusers. Cynical Yorkshire magistrates, unimpressed by the malicious gossip of the lower classes, were more concerned with keeping the peace than sniffing out witches, which doesn’t quite catch the imagination in the same way.
“Changing the Record is such an important project for Heritage Doncaster, because it gives us an opportunity to take a fresh look at our history and set the record straight,” says Victoria. “Without the ‘facts of the case’, history can all too easily become ‘fake news’, mis-representing and misdirecting our perspective on communities past and present.”
It’s not only witchcraft having a makeover through Heritage Doncaster’s Changing the Record, as volunteers are busy re-appraising a range of overlooked and under-represented parts of history, including the first ever working-class women’s movement, Women Against Pit Closures; and black history in Doncaster, 300 years before Windrush.
Victoria adds: “Volunteers like Nick are making a permanent and timely contribution to the understanding of histories – and people – who are little-understood, which will influence the way history is ‘told’ in the future.”
Joan Jurdie’s trial has been dramatised in a new, bite-size ‘5 Minute History’ radio play, that can be downloaded for free – along with other podcasts in the series – at www.heritagedoncaster.org.uk/happyhistory.