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Witchcraft (maleficium) was the infliction of harm with diabolic help. In Europe, witchcraft was usually blamed on women, though there were some male witches.
Belief in witchcraft was ancient and was found
in the Bible, classical law and literature, and popular folklore.
Saint Augustine argued that supernatural arts were
effective only because demons helped the sorcerer or astrologer. This
concept was developed during the later Middle Ages into the notion
that witches made a pact or covenant with the devil.
Sixteenth and seventeenth century discussions of witchcraft by educated commentators (both on the European Continent and in England) always insisted that a pact with the the devil lay behind witchcraft, — although they admitted that this pact was sometimes only tacit or implied.
Popular beliefs laid less stress on a pact with the
devil but the earliest English accounts mention a "familiar" or "imp"
who carried out the witches' commands.
English witches, in contrast, were generally solitary,
or occasionally associated with a few other family members or
neighbors. English witches' daughters often followed in their mothers'
Demonologists often discussed the possibility of witches having sexual relations with demons, who would assume corporal form for the purpose - in female shape as a succubus if the witch were male, and or as a male incubus if the witch were female.
In English witch trials, however, sexual contact with demons was virtually never mentioned. The closest and most personal activity for English witches was the imp's habit of "sucking" a teat which was somewhere on the witch. The meal of blood or milk was provided regularly to the imp; suspected witches were therefore sometimes isolated and guarded to see if the teat filled, and the imp came looking for her.
Dogs and cats were the most common familiars, but
mice, stoats, toads and many other small animals could take the part.
Toads were useful for supplying venom, and vermin in general were
associated with dirt, disease and evil.
The witch's teat was an unnatural protuberance (usually in the armpit or crotch) that was insensitive when pricked. A suspected witch was often subjected to a strip-search by local women - often by midwives who could be trusted to recognize normal growths such as warts and scars, and who were familiar enough with local women to know who had birthmarks.
Nor did English witches fly (on broomsticks or otherwise) or think they had done so. This was a purely Continetal experience. Matthew Hopkins the "witchfinder general" stated that one of the kinds of confessions he would not accept was when "she confesseth any improbability, impossibility, as flying in the air, riding on a broom &c." which may suggest that such confessions were made, but Hopkins may well simply have read the discussions of Continental demonologists on this point.
The English did not believe in werewolves (probably
because the last wolves in England were exterminated by the sixteenth
century, and even in Scotland very few survived and there only in the
remotest areas). However, popular belief did hold that the witch could
transform herself into a hare or cat.
|A distinctively English belief about witches was that
bewitchment could be countered by "scratching" the witch
deeply enough to draw blood. The
practice of "scratching" was never supported or endorsed by educated
discussions, but it was deeply rooted in English popular culture.
|Scratching was practiced throughout England for the entire
In 1604, Joan Guppy complained to Star Chamber that she was defamed as a witch by Margaret Abington. Margaret, her husband Andrew, and some others lay in wait for Joan and then set on her and scratched her face with overgrown brambles, saying that Guppy "was a witch and they came for the blood … and they would have it and her life also before they left her."
The last witch convicted of witchcraft was Jane Wenham in 1712 (though the jury found her guilty, she was pardoned). Wenham's victim "flew upon her to scratch her, saying, I must have your blood, or I shall never be well."
|This belief in scratching was very persistent, even though
ministers and books only mentioned it in order to reject it.
The swimming of Mary Sutton
|Another belief held widely in England was that a witch would not sink in water. It was also held in some other European countries. Like scratching, the idea was almost universally condemned by the clergy (Protestant and Catholic), An isolated exception was the German Wilhelm Adolph Scribonius who defended the Westphalian authorities for allowing "purgation by cold water." However, James VI and I wrote approvingly of swimming in his Daemonologie (1597) and this may have helped to popularize the practice in England.|
|"Swimming" or "floating" a witch involved throwing the suspect
into water, with her left hand or thumb tied to her right foot,
and her right hand tied to her left foot. The guilty would
float, the innocent sink (perhaps because water would reject corrupt agents of
the Devil.) A rope was tied around the suspect’s
middle, to prevent the innocent drowning.
|Both the Church and common law courts condemned swimming, but its grip on the
popular imagination was strong, and elite condemnation made little
impact on grass roots transmission
In 1613, Mother Mary Sutton and her daughter were accused in Bedford of bewitching a seven year old boy to death. The child's father, Master Enger, did not know what to do. "As he was thus wrapped in a sea of woes, there came a gentleman, a friend of his, forth of the North," who hearing of the Sutton women "advised him to take them, or any one of them to his mill dam, having first shut up the mill gates that the water might be highest, and them binding their arms cross, stripping them into their smocks, and leaving their legs at liberty, throw them into the water; yet lest they should not be witches, and that their lives might not be in danger of drowning, let there be a rope tied about their middles..." If either suspect did not sink, local women should examine her for marks; if found, she should be thrown in water again with "her right thumb bound to her left toe, and her left thumb bound to her right toe, ... when if she swim, you may build upon it, that she is a witch. I have seen it often tried in the North country."
|Another widespread belief about witches was that they could not
weep real tears. (Occasionally bewitchment was also said to stop the
victim weeping). A suspect who did not cry when accused was regarded
with still greater suspicion. It was considered damning evidence at
a late seventeenth-century trial that the two accused "seemed both to
weep and howl, though not one tear could be discovered to fall from
The inability of witches to weep was widely accepted by the people at large, but disapproved of by most of the clergy as mere superstition.
|Witches sometimes formed models of their intended victims from wax or clay. When pins were stuck into these, or when the models were thrown on the fire, the victim fell ill and sometimes even wasted away and died. Wax and clay images seem to have been especially popular with Scottish witches, but they were also used in England.|
|In 1566 in Dorset, John Walsh confessed that pricking a wax
image through the heart caused death. In
1676 in Paisley, Scotland, Sir George Maxwell’s
illness was explained when a wax image was found with pins stuck in
it. His condition improved when the pins were removed and the image
|Educated commentators denied that the images had any efficacy and insisted that any illness was caused by the devil. Nonetheless, it was popularly believed that if the clay image could be found, the bewitchment could be undone.|
| Action against witches was generally taken by the local
community when it became convinced that the witch had caused injury or death.
The motivation was not the enforcement of religious
uniformity. [The religious establishment condemned all witches -
white and black - for apostasy; ordinary people flocked to
good witches, cunning men
and wise women for help. Only those who
caused harm were
|All the evidence suggests that most of those who suffered as witches in England were antisocial, foul-mouthed and extremely unpopular. Respectable, decent, law-abiding citizens were not the target of witchcraft accusations. Even their defenders portrayed accused witches in the most unflattering terms.|
|Legal action against witches typically started at grass-roots community level; magistrates and central government almost always acted to check - rather than encourage - local prosecutions. It was when the local community was free of central control, as for example in the Civil War, that witchcraft trials became more common.|
|In Scotland and the rest of Europe, witchcraft
trials that were appealed to the capital (Edinburgh, Paris) were much
less likely to end in guilty verdicts. Similarly, in Catholic Europe,
very few witches were executed when the Inquisition was in charge of
the proceedings. The Inquisition insisted that proper judicial
procedures be followed and so in Spain and Italy, very few witches
were executed. In the later 17th century it was the judges who stopped
imposing sentences, not the juries who stopped finding accused witches guilty.
The law on witchcraft
|Three statutes were passed against witchcraft: 1542 (repealed in 1547), 1563 (repealed in 1604) and that of 1604 (repealed in 1736). Only the last of these mentioned covenanting with the devil, and it did not emphasize this.|
|The number of witches who were tried and executed was very low by Continental standards. In Britain between around 1550 and 1685, there were probably fewer than 5,000 witchcraft trials (more than half of them in Scotland); in England, rather fewer than 500 witches were executed (in Scotland the figure was more like 1,000-1,500). (These figures can be contrasted with approximately 50,000 trials of German witches during the same period, or with the 300 Protestants executed during the five and a half years of Mary Tudor's reign).|
|Many of those accused of witchcraft were not found guilty, and many of those found guilty were not executed. Repeat offenders and those found guilty of causing a person's death by witchcraft were the most likely to suffer capital punishment. (On the European Continent the worst outbreaks of witch-hunting resulted in very high rates of conviction and execution because the use of judicial torture tended to initiate a chain-reaction of accusations and confessions).|
|Nineteen witches were executed at Chelmsford in 1645 - this was
England's largest mass execution of witches.
Roughly 1,000-1,500 Scottish witches were executed between 1563 and 1736 (from a far smaller population), most of them in a number of "panics" - i.e. the multiple trials of 1629-30, the 1640s and 1661-62.
(In Bamberg, Würzburg, Mainz and Cologne, between 1625 and 1635, approximately 6,000 witches were burnt).
|The last execution of an English witch was in 1685, and the last trial for witchcraft was in 1717.|
|In 1751 in Tring in Hertfordshire, Ruth Osborne died from her injuries after a particularly rough episode of "swimming." The ringleader of the mob, Thomas Colley (who seems to have been blind drunk when he incited the swimming) was sentenced to be hanged. A troop of soldiers had to be brought in to make sure the locals (who believed Osborne was a witch) did not take mob action to stop the hanging.|
Possession and exorcism
|Ill-informed commentators often condemn witch-hunting as "medieval" and blame the "Inquisition". (Reginald Scot was one of the first to imply that the Inquisition unjustly attacked witches). In fact, there were very few trials of witches during the Middle Ages, and the Inquisition was often the accused witch's greatest friend and defender. Witch trials were overwhelmingly an early-modern phenomenon and Protestants were just as likely as Catholics to try, and to execute witches.|
|Indeed, Protestant Reformers stressed the
of the devil in the world whilst rejecting the weapons (exorcism,
sacraments, holy water &c.) that the medieval clergy had used to
counter diabolic attacks.|
|Zealous puritans continued to believe (on good
Scriptural authority) in diabolic possession -
but John Darrell and others who tried to employ
religious means (such as prayer and fasting) of
censured and punished by the Church of England's authorities.|
Roman Catholics in England also organized exorcisms - the most famous case being that of a Jesuit priest called William Weston at Denham in 1585-6. Indeed, some Roman Catholic propagandists tried to make capital from the assertion that only Catholic priests (not Protestant impostors) could dispossess the afflicted.
|Despite official Anglican condemnation, crowds flocked to view the possessed, and attempts to expel the devil. All the evidence suggests that ordinary people believed in bewitchment and possession, and also believed that there must be some ways of countering the devil's activities. The clergy continually complained that ordinary people would readily resort to a "wise woman" or "cunning man" for help when bewitched.|
|Despite popular feeling, the official stance of the Church of England was hostile to exorcism, and increasingly denied that diabolic possession any longer occurred.|
|A few Protestants (such as Reginald Scot, Samuel Harsnett, Sir
Robert Filmer and Thomas Hobbes) were deeply skeptical about the
existence of witches, as were a few Catholics (most notably Johan Weyer.)
Skepticism gathered support during the later seventeenth century, but
even in the eighteenth century Samuel Johnson thought witchcraft
possible. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote that "the
giving up of witchcraft is, in effect, giving up the Bible."|