Monday, 24 January 2011

Jersey Misinformation on Donkipedia

I've been looking at the Donkipedia page on witch trials in the Channel Islands and there is a lot of misinformation. Heaven help anyone using this page as a serious historical reference!

For instance;


"Witchcraft was widespread in Jersey in the 16th and 17th centuries, as it was elsewhere in Europe."

That should read "belief in witchcraft". There is no evidence that witchcraft was actually present in the "classic" form which we find in Margaret Murray of groups meeting in covens of 13, celebrating "black masses". No one ever came across any witches participating in any such event, outside of later folk tales such as those relating to Rocqueberg. If the authorities had known that such as place was a known haunt of witches, as is supposed to be the case, they would almost have certainly gathered evidence or caught miscreants in the act.

Pagan Gods

"Pagan gods, who formed no part of the Christian faith, were worshipped as devils. There was such a fear of these devil worshipers that for the well-being of the community it was considered important to seek out and destroy them. "

There is no documentary evidence that there was a belief in devil worship in Jersey; there is no evidence at all - despite Balleine's speculation (largely based on Margaret Murray) - of any worship of pagan gods in Jersey around the time of the witch trials.

The nearest to any pagan worship would be the placing of votive offerings for good luck, such as at the Gran Mere in Guernsey. There is no evidence that this was more than folk belief and custom rather than any organised pagan cult, much as people "touch wood" or see omens in numbers of magpies seen even nowadays. Does everyone who counts magpies, or touches wood, or doesn't walk under ladders count as a pagan worshipper? I think not. Even if there were survivals - like votive offerings at sites - this doesn't mean that it was pagan worship. Traditions of folk magic, divination and, herbalism persist today, but are not part of cohesive belief systems such as we find in the ancient world.

A modern example would be bonfire night - very popular, and the tales of Guy Fawkes are still told, but it is nowadays hardly a hate-fest of Protestants against Catholics; it is just an excuse to have a fire festival and fun. Most of those attending probably do not have any strong religious beliefs of any sort.

The late Issac Bonewits comments (with wry humour):

Sure the medieval peasants went out into the woods and held orgies, sure they built need-fires at certain times of the year, sure they followed the agricultural customs of their ancestors --- anyone who's read Frazer's Golden Bough knows that. None of this activity necessarily proves that they had any idea, magically or religiously, of what they were doing. This is why outside observers must always be making stupid remarks like "the peasants really did this because..." or "they didn't know it, but they were actually worshipping an old Pagan god named Irving, who was..."

You do not need a religious or magical reason to perform customary or enjoyable acts. The mere fact that "this is the way my Grandfather did it" or that, "actually, I've always rather enjoyed orgies," is more than sufficient to assure that some form or other of that act will be perpetuated in the future. After all, in magic and religion, as in many other fields, one does not always have to consciously understand what one is doing in order to get results (though it helps). Just because a group of peasants is performing a ritual of possible magical efficacy, does not mean that they have had someone train them in the art of magic, or that they have the slightest idea of what they are doing.


Donkipedia notes that:

In Jersey, disputes were settled by 'The Judgement of God' and trials were by Cross, Water and Fire. In the first, the litigants were made to stand in a position resembling the cross, with their arms outstretched. Whoever stayed in this position the longest must have right on their side because, as we all know, God looks after his own. The second trial - by water - really does fall into the category of cruel and devious. A heavy weight was placed at the bottom of a cauldron of water, which was then brought to boiling point. The accused was made to plunge their hand in the cauldron to retrieve the weight and then carry it for a distance of nine feet. Their hand was then wrapped and sealed and had to remain like this for 3 nights. If, after this time, the hand was healthy, he would be judged to be innocent. If it showed signs of scalding, then it proved his guilt. The trial by fire was the same, except that here the accused had to carry a red hot iron for nine feet before having his hand bandaged.

The source for this appears to be verbatim from

No source is given on that site. None of the legal material which I have studied (the Mirror of Justice etc) gives any evidence for this kind of trial, nor do any of the cases (as reported in Balleine or Pitts). The actual trials involved imprisonment in Gorey Castle, and repeated interrogation before the lesser court. 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 to the "Grand Enquete du Pays" which had the ability to condemn them to death. Incidentally, the Cour de Cattel was abolished in 1862, and with it, the extant procedural rules for witch trials.

Physical torture as such is not evidenced - Guernsey had thumbscrews but the Jersey records don't mention this, although shaving for witches marks would have been humiliating and degrading - look at treatment of prisoners in Iraq by Americans - and months in the cold damp dungeons on a starvation diet of bread and water, without any idea what would happen next, would have also applied considerable duress. It would be considered torture by today's standards.

The only trial by ordeal mentioned in the earliest legal records for sorcery (not witchcraft as such) is by casting the victim from a high cliff, which suggests a possible basis for the Geoffrey's leap story, which is possibly a garbled account based on such a trial.

I sincerely hope the Donkipedia site is adjusted to provide better documented information, rather than speculative "facts". Elsewhere the site is very good - it's just here that it falls down badly.


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