Educator's summary

Hello everyone, and thank you for the broad range of comment and discussion this week! I know that Dr Steve Pumfrey was sorry to have to miss engaging with you, but he will be really interested to read through your contributions when he is back with us, especially your responses to the exercises on maps and the Lancashire Witches.

A few of themes have stood out for me this week in the learners’ comments and questions.

The reliability of evidence

One thread which really spoke to the challenges and frustrations of History as a discipline included these phrases:

‘The information from Potts is not a transcript, and it would have helped if we had the actual words’;

‘I’m not sure how reliable Potts information is considered to be. Is it suspected he may have altered or omitted evidence that did not suit his own bias?’

Yes, it absolutely would help to have the actual words, and Potts’ version may well exhibit bias! It is only very rarely that historians have the luxury of feeling that they are dealing with evidence that is completely reliable (and even then their feeling may be misplaced).

The harsh reality is that virtually none of the evidence we use as historians was created for the purpose of enabling future generations to understand the past as it actually was. Historians use a wide range of sources of information, from court cases, wills and census returns to personal letters, diaries, photographs and paintings: yet we know that they all came into being for reasons that are completely unrelated to the practice of History.

Even where a source was created with an eye to posterity it is likely that an underlying agenda would be at work. An example of this type of source is Polydore Vergil’s Anglica Historia (History of England), published in 1534, available online at

This work was written for the first of the Tudor kings, Henry VII, and it is likely that the author will have wished to please his patron – certainly any earlier kings that Henry disapproved of (such as Richard III, whom he defeated in order to claim the throne for himself) is unlikely to appear in a positive light in this book. Vergil’s words must not be taken at face value. The ongoing debates about whether or not Richard was responsible for the death of his nephews Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury (the ‘Princes in the Tower’) are partly rooted in the negative way that Vergil wrote about Richard; you can read more about this at

Returning to Potts’ account of the Lancashire Witches, it is important to treat his words with caution, and to think about the kinds of forces that may have influenced what he actually recorded, as well as the forces that influenced the words of the people who testified at the trial. This is a many-layered problem, and there is no simple answer to the question of how reliable this source is. Yet if we ignore it, what else can we use as evidence?

This topic leads on very naturally from questions around the reliability of historical evidence, as it is increasingly realised that it is virtually impossible to be completely objective when assessing evidence. Our own personal experiences and unconscious biases will shape the topics we choose to study and will also influence the ways that we respond to the evidence we find.

One comment thread which struck me was about feminist interpretations of accusations of witchcraft

It is true that there was quite a vogue in the 1950s to the 1970s to treat the historical phenomenon of ‘witchcraft’ as a clear example of misogynistic assaults on women, but historians and other commentators now tend to recognise a clearer tradition of what might be termed the scapegoating of the poor and vulnerable (albeit not everyone accused of witchcraft was poor!)

If you are interested in reading more about the changing understandings of witchcraft within the discipline of History you might find this review of Diane Purkiss’ The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Representations (London, 1996), by Professor Ronald Hutton, a good place to start.

Even those of us who may not wish to delve into the historiography of witchcraft (by which I mean the ways that writing about this topic has changed over time), we can surely agree that the portrayal of witches on film, in books, in television programmes and even in Halloween costumes, has had a remarkable effect on the expectations that people bring to this topic. I hope you found the ‘Myth or Reality?’ quiz interesting – I certainly learned a lot from testing it out with Steve. The idea that some witches were thought to fly around on wardrobes as well as broomsticks is quite remarkable!

The purposes of maps

Some really interesting comments were offered in relation to the discussion of John Speed’s map of Lancashire. One which struck me was when a learner said

‘I was…impressed by the skill of John Speed’s map

This is an astute observation – the map is a really remarkable achievement on a number of levels. One element of it which – as far as I have noticed – no one has yet remarked on is the plan of Lancaster in the top right corner. The inclusion of detailed plans of the county towns in maps was a really significant development which can be attributed to Speed himself.

He is known to have visited Lancaster in August 1607 and he seems to have personally surveyed the streets (and, perhaps, the castle, which is clearly visible and numbered as ‘5’). He includes a distance scale, indicating that he expected some of his readers to want to be able to work out the relative distances between the landmarks he features, just as Steve asked us to work out which of the places associated with the Lancashire Witches were within five miles of each other.

Speed was a little less precise when it came to the relative sizes of the hills – Pendle Hill would be several miles high if the depiction he gives is accurate! Then as now, people with the financial means will have purchased hand-drawn maps for the sheer joy of owning a beautiful object, but it was entirely possible to use it to plan a route as well (though people navigating round Lancashire would have been well advised to make detailed notes from the map rather than risking it in our often inclement weather!)

Thanks again for your enthusiastic participation – we really enjoy seeing the conversations developing. Coming up next week we will see Lancaster Castle through the eyes of writers and artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and we’ll learn more about its role as a prison.

[Note added on 15/11/18 - please note that the available places for the ‘end of course event’ have now been filled. Thank you for your enthusiasm for this event!]

Dr Sam Riches

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This article is from the free online course:

Lancaster Castle and Northern English History: The View from the Stronghold

Lancaster University