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Hieronymous Bosch, Two witches


Beliefs about witches


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.


"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"

(Exodus 22:18)

"Anyone who, by means of incantations and magic arts, prevents grain or crops of any kind belonging to another from growing, shall be sacrificed to Ceres"

(The ancient Roman Laws of the Twelve Tables VII.3)



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.


The first and most important systematic book on witchcraft was the Malleus maleficarum  [Hammer of witches]. It was written by Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer (or Institor), two Dominican friars, in 1486, and was reprinted repeatedly over the next two centuries.



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.


Hans Baldung Grien, Witches Sabbath

There were some differences between witchcraft beliefs on the Continent and those in England. Continental witches were far more sociable than their English counterparts - often meeting in covens on the Sabbath to celebrate Black Masses or flying to communal celebrations on Walpurgis Night.



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' footsteps.


"This mis-shapen knave,
His mother was a witch"

(Tempest 5.1)


Imps and teats



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.



"…another witch … was thereupon apprehended, and searched by women, who had for many years known the devil's marks, and found to have three teats about her, which honest women have not: so upon command from the Justice, they were to keep her from sleep two or three nights, expecting in that time to see her familiars, which the fourth night she called in by their several names, and told them what shapes, a quarter of an hour before they came in, there being ten of us in the room,"
[They assumed the shapes of a white kitten, a fat spaniel, a long-legged greyhound, a black rabbit, and a polecat].

(Hopkins, Discovery of witches, 1647).



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.


"Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble"

(Macbeth 4.1)



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.

"Also the changing of witches into hares, cats, and the like shapes, is so common as late testimonies and confessions approve unto us, that none but the stupidly incredulous can wrong the credit of the reporters, or doubt of the certainty"

(Fairfax .Daemonologia 1621)



bulletA 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.


"Some of the standers-by persuaded the boy to scratch her: which he did upon the face, and the back of her  hands, so that the blood came apace: she stroked the back of her hand upon the child, saying: take blood enough child, God help thee. To whom the boy answered: Pray for thyself, thy prayer can do me no good.
Here by the way, touching this use of scratching the witch: though it be commonly received as an approved means to descry the witch, and procure ease to the bewitched; yet seeing that neither by any natural cause, or supernatural warrant of God’s word it hath any such virtue given unto it; it is to be received among the witchcrafts, whereof there be great store used in our land, to the great dishonour of God".

(Darrell, The most wonderfull and true storie, 1597)


bulletScratching was practiced throughout England for the entire seventeenth century.
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."

"Devil or devil's dam, I'll conjure thee:
Blood will I draw on thee, thou art a witch,
And straightway give thy soul to him thou servest."

(Henry VI i 1.5)


bulletThis belief in scratching was very persistent, even though ministers and books only mentioned it in order to reject it.

"So may we judge of scratching of the witch, unto which if the devil seem to stoop, that the body is eased, it is to seize more deeply on the soul, by withdrawing from the right means, and resting it securely in these devilish charms."

(Cooper The mystery of witch-craft 1617)



The swimming of Mary Sutton


bulletAnother 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.
bullet"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.

"This old woman was had to a great river near the town, to see whether she could sink under water; her legs being tied, she was put in, and though she did endeavour to the uttermost (by her hands) to get herself under, yet she could not, but would lie upon her back, and did swim like a piece of cork: There were present above twenty persons to attest the truth of this, yet could not gain credit in the minds of people: Therefore, she was had to the water a second time, and being put in, she swam as at first; and though there were present above two hundred people to see this sight, yet it could not be believed by many. At the same time also, there was put into the water, a lusty young woman, who sunk immediately, and had been drowned, had it not been for the help that was at hand".

(Great news from the West of England, 1689)


bulletBoth 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."
bulletAnother 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 their eyes."
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.


"The not shedding of tears hath been used as a mark and presumption of witchcraft, Sprenger Mal. Malefic. p.3. q.15. because it is a mark of impenitence; And because several witches have confessed they could not weep: But the being accused of so horrid a crime may occasion a deep melancholy; and melancholy being cold and dry, hinders the shedding of tears: and great griefs do rather astonish than make one weep."

(Mackenzie, Laws and customs of Scotland, 1678)


Wax images

bulletWitches 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.
bulletIn 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 destroyed.

"They confessed they had bewitched a child, that had been languishing a long time; this child died about the time of their trials, whose portraiture in wax was found where they had laid it, under the threshold of a door"

(Prodigious and tragicall history, 1652)


bulletEducated 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.


Local outrage

bullet 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 attacked].

"… he cannot abide the old woman of Brentford; he swears she's a witch; forbade her my house and hath threatened to beat her."

(Merry Wives 4.2)


bulletAll 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.
bulletLegal 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.
bulletIn 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 original impetus for prosecution came from the localities rather than from the centre and … the central authorities of the state had more to do with the restriction of witch-hunting than with its spread"

(Levack, The witch-hunt in early modern Europe, 1995)


The law on witchcraft


bulletThree 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.
bulletThe 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).
bulletMany 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).
bulletNineteen 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).


Matthew Hopkins

The two peaks of English witchcraft prosecutions were from 1563 to 1603; and especially 1645-47 when Matthew Hopkins instituted a witch-hunt in Essex and East Anglia that resulted in the execution of roughly 100-200 witches.


bulletThe last execution of an English witch was in 1685, and the last trial for witchcraft was in 1717.
bulletIn 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


bulletIll-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.
bulletIndeed, Protestant Reformers stressed the reality and activity 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.


"[Galatians 3:] plainly testifieth that such witchcraft and sorcery there is, and that it may be done. Moreover, it cannot be denied that the devil liveth, yea and reigneth throughout the whole world. Witchcraft and sorcery therefore are the works of the devil: whereby he doth not only hurt men, but also, by the permission of God, he sometimes destroyeth them. Furthermore, we are all subject to the Devil both in body and goods: and we be strangers in this world, whereof he is the prince and God."

(Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians)


bulletZealous 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 dispossession were 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.
bulletDespite 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.
bulletDespite popular feeling, the official stance of the Church of England  was hostile to exorcism, and increasingly denied that diabolic possession any longer occurred.
bulletA 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."
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