A lot of people have asked what my dissertation is on. I’ve decided I might as well give an idea here. Rather than procrastinating, the more I talk about my dissertation, the more it actually helps me to sort through a minefield of research and concepts to create a clearer outline. I reckon in that sense, this post is actually a bit selfish!
The idea came to me several months ago after I realised that I wouldn’t be able to do my original idea: collective memory and the National Football Museum located here in Manchester. The museum opened in early July, much too late for me to conduct any fieldwork or research onsite. Even though master’s dissertations in my program are not expected to have a strong fieldwork element (due to the time limitation), in choosing a specific site such as a museum, it’s usually pretty essential to do some original fieldwork so that the dissertation isn’t strictly literature-based.
I was disappointed and a bit dejected that my original idea didn’t pan out, so I began searching for museums nearby that I could form a dissertation around. I was pretty stuck on the idea of using a museum as the site of my research. Then I noticed there were several witch-themed exhibitions planned around the county of Lancashire throughout 2012. Being a Halloween baby, I think this naturally piqued my interest. After doing a bit of Googling, I discovered that 2012 is the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch trials, which originated in the Pendle Hill area of Lancashire.
A dissertation idea was born!
All my life, I’ve been interested in rather abstract concepts that I am now able to explain with the help of anthropology, and that in turn have helped me to understand so much about myself. And I do truly believe that in some ways, our dissertations are extensions of ourselves. Maybe it’s because we are tasked with creating something original, and that leads us to look within ourselves and wonder what we could possibly have to contribute.
It’s no secret that I love the UK, but I’ve always suspected that the root of this is so much deeper than liking British literature, history, pop culture or that I have family there. There’s a kind of inherent nostalgia the way I think about the UK or Ireland. It’s the same kind of nostalgia that leads people to genealogy. Where do we come from? What does this interest say about ourselves? I’ve always wanted to know why I’ve felt the need to know that my family came from England, Ireland, Scotland, or Wales. I was born and raised in the United States, after all. A lot of white Americans have this obsession with their ancestry. Maybe it’s because many of us know at some point our ancestors uprooted their lives and moved to another country in search of something or to escape something. Of course, that is a simplification. The United States grew from a colony to an imperialist power itself, expanding and conquering and committing genocide against native populations. As for myself, I know the majority of my family emigrated from the British Isles, and that’s shaped a lot of my present-day identity.
During my first semester in the MA Social Anthropology program here at the University of Manchester, we had to read an ethnographic account for one of my classes called Highland Heritage: Scottish Americans in the American South by anthropologist Celeste Ray. Some people only had to read the introduction, but I was doing a group presentation on it, so I read the entire monograph. It was a major inspiration for my dissertation. It examines the history of the Highland Games in the United States, particularly the Grandfather Mountain Games in North Carolina, and what they mean to present-day Scottish Americans. Ray looks at the historical “accuracy” of Scottish traditions and asks us to examine our ideas of the authentic. Her conclusion is that these traditions are meaningful for the simple reason that the people who participate in the games find them meaningful. People perform heritage and perform culture by attending Scottish-related events. They feel nostalgia for a place many of them have never even been to. The people who attend these events authenticate certain traditions and practices by virtue of these cultural heritage performances. It’s not the only study of its kind in anthropology, but it was the first that I read, and it has affected me profoundly. Finally, someone expressed what I had always felt about myself and my quest to know more about my English/Irish/Scottish/Welsh ancestry. I think that was the moment I knew anthropology was the right course for me. And when it came time to begin my dissertation, I kept returning to this idea.
Back to the Pendle Witches: the actual story is interesting and worth telling, but I was curious as to why these events had been planned for trials that happened 400 years ago. Why do people find them important? Or do they? Who is behind the commemoration events and who are the intended audiences? I’m not writing a history paper in which I go into detail about what happened to the Pendle Witches. I’m writing a present-day anthropological study that uses these 400th anniversary events as a case study.
The Pendle Witches are famous in around Lancashire and much of England because they have captured the public imagination and entered (public) collective memory. A simple explanation for this collective memory is that the events were well-documented at the time by Thomas Potts, a clerk for the magistrate of the court. Potts’ account includes the trials of other Lancashire witches at the time, but it is the Pendle Witches who are mostly remembered now. The sheer number of them tried and executed far exceeded any other witchcraft trial in English history, and many novels sprung up based on their stories. The actual facts of the case are either unknown or forgotten by many of the people who would claim to “know” about them, especially in Lancashire itself. The story of the Pendle Witches has become something akin to folklore for people who grow up there. It’s also become a vehicle for the local tourism industry. For example, a popular bus route, the X43, that runs from Manchester to Burnley/Nelson and back is called The Witch Way. The exterior buses display the silhouette of a witch on a broomstick (the symbol used throughout the region to signal something Pendle Witch-related), and buses have names of some of the people who were hanged on the side. It’s not a tourist coach line, but rather an actual commuter bus route that many people use to get to work each day, and it’s now also linked in the public imagination with the witch trials.
I’ve done some interviews with some of the people behind the various exhibitions and events this year (many of them featured on Lancashire Witches 400) and a lot of the responses are similar: the goal is to explore the history of the trials in conjunction with present-day accusations of witchcraft around the world and scapegoating. In addition, there are exhibitions featuring local artwork. There are workshops for children to draw and create witch-related imagery. There are county-sponsored improved walking tours that trace the route of the witches from Pendle to Lancaster, where they were held and tried. There are new plays, new publications of classic novels related to the story, and lectures to teach people about the witches and what happened to them. The story encompasses so many issues that are still important to us today: gender, religion, embodiment, empowerment, corruption, childhood, poverty. Just as our images of witches have changed throughout time, so too have the understandings of what happened to a group of mostly poor, illiterate women in Lancashire in 1612.
I don’t have the space or ability at this point in my studies to study all of these areas, so I’m focusing on something that is rather popular in anthropology today and something that I think is at the heart of these heritage events: place and placelessness. The narratives of the Pendle Witches are rooted in the county of Lancashire. They are rooted in the countryside, in physical places. And people’s experiences of inhabiting these places are something that may be “exploited” by the tourism and heritage industries. But what I’m trying to show is that it’s not just commodification or commercialisation. These stories mean something. They are a way to feel placed, or rooted, in a world that is increasingly global and mobile.
The phenomenon of modernity has brought with it a certain openness and lack of boundaries that make us feel like we belong everywhere and nowhere all at once. The anxiety of this modern condition causes us to carve out identities from an infinite number of possibilities. In the case of the Pendle Witches, these stories become more than just stories. History is never just history; it’s someone’s history. And the narrative is, likewise, someone’s interpretation. The Pendle Witches have become a conduit for self-expression. They are deemed worthy to celebrate and commemorate, to invest money and time in. It’s an industry based on nostalgia. But this industry doesn’t exist in a void, and that is what I want to demonstrate with my dissertation.
A lot of it is abstract and completely uninteresting to most people, but this need to put down roots and feel a part of some “place” is something I’ve experienced myself. It’s one reason why I have to find the motivation again to write a strong dissertation, because those 15,000 words are going to be a piece of me put out there for others to judge and validate or invalidate. And as is usually the case with academia, the effort is immense, but the emotional and mental outcome can be so rewarding.