J.P.SOMMERVILLE

 

The dynamics of the witch hunt, and its eventual decline


Anne Bodenham

367 - 11 (2)

 

 

 

The typical witch

bullet

The power of curses was taken extremely seriously in ancient, medieval and early-modern Britain. There was a widespread belief that a parent's curse (or blessing) would have real effects.
 

"O thou well skill'd in curses, stay awhile,
And teach me how to curse mine enemies!"

(Richard III 4.4)

 

bullet

The curses of the poor and ill-treated were thought particularly effective - a refusal to give charity to beggars, for example, was risky because of the strength of their curses.

 

"And people are now so infected with this damnable heresy of ascribing to the power of witches, that seldom hath a man the hand of God against him in his estate, or health of body, or any way, but presently he crieth out of some poor innocent neighbour, that he, or she hath bewitched him; for saith he, such an old man or woman came lately to my door, and desired some relief, and I denied it, and God forgive me she looked like a witch, and presently my child, my wife, myself, my horse, my cow, my sheep, my sow, my hog, my dog, my cat, or somewhat was thus and thus handled, in such a strange manner, as I dare swear she is a witch, or else how should those things be, or come to pass?"

(Ady A candle in the dark, 1655)

 

bullet

Many accusations of witchcraft began with beggars cursing those who had refused to assist them.

 

Cursing


Three witches (Anne Baker, Joan Willimot and Ellen Greene)

 

bullet

Cursing provoked the devil to action just as prayer prompted God.

bullet

Many of those accused of witchcraft apparently cursed habitually. Joan Flower accused with her daughter, Margaret, in 1619,  "was a monstrous malicious woman, full of oaths, curses, and imprecations irreligious" who "terrified them all with curses and threatening of revenge, if there were never so little cause of displeasure and unkindness."

bullet

When a person's curses were regularly effective, they soon earned a reputation for witchcraft. One witchcraft accusation in Somerset in 1689 started when two adolescents who had angered an old woman began to have fits and vomit bent pins. A case in Bury Saint Edmunds started from Amy Duny's angry retort: "You need not be so angry, for your child will not live long: and this was on a Saturday, and the child died on the Monday following."

 


Gerard Seghers, Patient Job

The Book of Job detailed the many miseries inflicted on him by the devil - lost livestock, burnt house, sickness - all the same kind of afflictions that were attributed to witchcraft. The Book of Job was frequently cited by those writing on witchcraft to prove the devil's power.


 

bullet

Poor widows tended to be dependent on the local community for support, and the few who expressed their resentment against the stingy were often the object of witchcraft accusations.
In the case of the Lancashire witches (1613) Elizabeth Demdike, the main witch, said she had first met and sold her soul to the devil when she was coming home from begging, and admitted that later she and another woman were at the house of Richard Baldwyn, who said "get out of my ground whores and witches, I will burn the one of you and hang the other." She then asked the spirit to take revenge "on him or his." She cursed Baldwyn all around the village and so was the obvious suspect when his young daughter suddenly fell sick and died.
 In 1674 Anne Foster had tried to buy mutton at below the market price and went away "murmuring and grumbling," and threatening the farmer when he refused; a few days later when thirty of his sheep were found suddenly and inexplicably dead, his neighbors said it was witchcraft, and that he should burn one of the sheep and the witch would appear. As soon as he did, Anne Foster arrived.
 

"Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich"

(King John 2.1)

 

Children and witchcraft.


Pieter Bruegel, Children playing

Many witchcraft accusations revolved around children.
A high proportion of accused witches had histories of petty crime and they were often unmarried mothers. Since the villagers had to pay a "Poor Rate" to support these illegitimate children it tended to make them and the mothers objects of resentment.
Children also often lodged accusations.

 

bullet

In the 1613 case of Mother Sutton, charges erupted after a villager had given her illegitimate son a clip around the ear.
In the trial of the Lancashire witches, one witch confessed to making and destroying a wax doll of John Robinson so that he died "for that the said Robinson had chidden and becalled this Examinate, for having a bastard-child."

bullet

Child-care led to some accusations. In the Amy Duny case, a row erupted with "many high expressions and threatening speeches" from the suspected witch, who had suckled the mother’s child although the mother had told her not to. The child fell into fits that night, and Duny (already rumored to be a witch) was at once suspected.

 

Good and bad witches

bullet

Although some witchcraft accusations were wholly without foundation, some of the accused did think they were witches; Cunning men and cunning women who made money by curing sicknesses, finding lost goods, and so on, were common and popular. They often used charms as well as herbs to effect cures - one charm for toothache, another for warts, etc. It was often not a big move from finding out who had bewitched someone, to turning the spell against them, and then to bewitching on their own account.
Joan Peterson, for example, cured a woman's cow by showing her in boiling water the face of the woman who had bewitched it. However, she got into trouble when she cured one man, but he would not pay her: "whereupon she burst out into these speeches; you had been better you had given me my money for you shall be ten times worse than ever you were; and very suddenly after he fell into very strange fits." Soon he was languishing away "and rots as he lies." Peterson was hanged in April 1652.
Anne Bodenham not only helped find lost and stolen goods, she "would often tell those, that had converse with her of lucky and unlucky days, which she would have them observe in their employments; she was likewise addicted much to gossiping (as the vulgar call it) to tell strange unheard-of tales and stories of transactions, and things that have been, and might be done, by cunning and wise people; she was one that would undertake to cure almost any diseases, which she did for the most part by charms and spells, but sometimes used physical ingredients, to cover her abominable practices."

bullet

Many local people were genuinely frightened of such women and feared to deny them charity. The terror that witches inspired made some intellectuals who doubted the reality of witchcraft nonetheless think that it should be punished on some occasions.
 

"If one should profess that by turning his hat thrice and crying 'Buz' he could take away a man's life, though in truth he could do no such thing, yet this were a just law made by the state, that whosoever should turn his hat thrice and cry 'Buz', with an intention to take a man's life, shall be put to death"

(Selden Table Talk)

 

The social functions of witchcraft.

bullet

Fear of witchcraft does seem to have helped unpopular old women extract charity from their neighbors. It also helped people explain their own failures - if the butter failed to churn properly, or livestock died, the witch was to blame - not the farmer or his wife.

bullet

Physicians could explain their failure by pointing to (supernatural) bewitchment as the cause. Thomas Ady dismissed witchcraft as "a cloak for a physician's ignorance when he cannot find the reason and the nature of the disease, he saith, the party is bewitched"

 

Frances Howard, Countess of Essex

In the case of Frances Howard, and Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, it was rather convenient to blame the Earl's affliction (she accused him of impotence) on witchcraft

 

bullet

Small personal mishaps were blamed on witchcraft far more often than major disasters. Many accusations of witchcraft were made against those lower down the social scale who had some grievance against their accuser. Witches frequently mentioned revenge as their chief motive.

bullet

Those accused of witchcraft were often members of the underclass - landless laborers, unmarried mothers, widows, and others who lived on the margins of society. The first peak of witchcraft accusations was in the late sixteenth century when poor harvests and growing poverty led to a decline in charity towards the poor. In particular, the gap was widening between those who were frugal and industrious (whose economic position was gradually improving) and those who had no land or skills.

bullet

The introduction of the Poor Laws had the same effect:  it led to increasing resentment between the poor and those obliged to support them. When the poor expressed their resentment in cursing and threats, conflict erupted.

 

"Let him have time to live a loathed slave,
Let him have time a beggar's orts to crave,
And time to see one that by alms doth live
Disdain to him disdained scraps to give."

(The Rape of Lucrece. Orts are leftover food; crumbs)

 

The decline of witchcraft


Johan Weyer

 

bullet

During the later seventeenth century the educated classes became increasingly skeptical about the reality of witchcraft. This was connected with the spread of Deism and scientific ideas that made it increasingly difficult to regard the Bible as literally true.

bullet

Only attacks and condemnation had greeted the first Continental attempt to undermine ideas of witchcraft - Johan Weyer's De praestigiis daemonum (1563). Weyer argued that the Devil himself was responsible for evil in the world, not the melancholic old women that Satan deceived into assuming responsibility for such crimes.

bullet

The earliest English opponent of belief in witchcraft was Reginald Scot. His Discovery of Witchcraft was published first in 1584, when almost all the comment it excited was hostile - not least because Scot rejected virtually all spiritual phenomena and played fast and loose with biblical texts in a way exceptional for his period. However, when his Discovery was republished in 1651 and again in 1665, it found a far more sympathetic audience.

bullet

By the later seventeenth century, people increasingly thought that the devil (like God) does not intervene in the world. Educated opinion increasingly held that the universe is governed by fixed, mechanistic laws. The most the devil ever does, it was claimed, is to encourage sinners to behave badly. He was certainly unable to overturn the natural order to help a few foolish old women seeking to wreak vengeance.

bullet

During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, England was in a state of religious fervor - Protestants and Catholics, conformists and puritans, competed over the correct interpretation of the Bible. At Charles II's court, wits jested about religion and Trimmers tried to exclude religion from politics.
Earlier Kings touched for the king’s evil, but William III when asked by one nobleman to do so responded - "May God give you better health and more sense." From the reign of George I (1714-27) onwards, monarchs abandoned the practice altogether.

bullet

There were still many very pious believers in late 17th century England, but it became increasingly fashionable, and a sign of upper-class status, to despise "enthusiasm" and "zeal." Belief in the intervention of the Holy Spirit was associated with tub preachers and half-mad Quakers.

 


Richard Baxter (1615-91)

Defenders of belief in witchcraft, spirits, ghosts, and demonic possession, like Richard Baxter and Joseph Glanville were rowing against the stream: the mood of the educated classes was to treat all psychic phenomena as the delusions of superstitious fools.

 

bullet

Physicians grew increasingly disinclined to see any illness as caused by bewitchment. They looked for physical causes of disease and dismissed both witches and the bewitched as foolish and insane. (An argument first suggested by Weyer and Scot).

 

The "humors" theory of the body was centered on "vital spirits" moving from the heart; they regulated the balance of the four humors and could be disturbed by the spiritual intervention of the devil. Once Harvey’s notion that the heart was just a muscular pump moving blood around the body became prevalent, explanations in terms of demonic spirits no longer convinced.


Rembrandt, Anatomy lecture


 

bullet

Social reasons may also help explain the decline in witchcraft prosecutions. By the later seventeenth century, old patterns of communal charity had begun to decline and with them the attitudes that led to local conflict disappeared.

bullet

A far more direct curb on witchcraft prosecutions was the change in the attitudes of the judiciary to witchcraft. Although the law against witchcraft remained on the statue book until 1736, judges were increasingly disinclined to punish witches and increasingly overturned the verdicts of juries who found them guilty.

bullet

The judiciary was increasingly drawn from a centrally-trained elite of lawyers without knowledge of, or sympathy for, local complaints. Men of this class dismissed accusers and victims as "vapoured and brainsick wenches" and "crack-brained creatures." It even became risky to bring accusations of witchcraft, for judges were willing to punish defamers.
 

"I am glad so judicious and penetrating a Judge went the Circuit, who could not be imposed upon by the stale artifices of exorcisms, ... His rational distrust of so many improbabilities, I hope will be a lasting precedent to others in that venerable station; so that hereafter we may not have that waste of human blood in every village, upon the wild testimonies of a parcel of brain-sick people"

(A full confutation of witchcraft 1712 on the Jane Wenham case}


 

 

 

Witchcraft: the European perspective


A male witch

 

bullet

Estimates of the numbers of witches executed in Europe between 1400 and 1750 vary from thirty thousand to nine million (!). The best estimates suggest between 50,000 and 100,000 ( Levack, and Kors and Peters, suggest about 60,000).

bullet

Two popular but implausible reasons for the witch hunt are clerical zealotry and male "gynocide."
In fact, the vast majority of executions of witches were ordered by secular authorities on the basis of charges brought by the laity.

bullet

Most witches were women. However, about 15% of European witches were men.
Witches were tried, convicted and executed by men (since juries and the judiciary were exclusively male); however, women played a key role in accusing witches, and were the chief actors in many direct acts of investigation and retaliation, such as scratching, and searching for the witch's mark.
The most important impetus for witchcraft accusations in England was illness and injury following cursing - and arguably women were more likely than men to curse. Men tended to resort to violence, women to insults and threats (far more men than women were convicted of crimes of violence).

bullet

The intensity of the witch hunt varied enormously in different parts of Europe. French and German-speaking areas bordering the Rhine accounted for a very high proportion of all witchcraft trials and executions; England and the Netherlands for very few. In Spain and Portugal the Inquisition's insistence on legal propriety protected most of those accused of witchcraft. Many witches were prosecuted in Scotland and Switzerland.

bullet

Witchcraft accusations were essentially a local, rural phenomenon. Urbanized areas produced very few accusations, and cases taken away from local control generally ended in acquittal.

 

 

Previous section