Medieval Freakonomics: “A Witch Killed My Cow”

Matthew Hopkins[Note: the figures are approximate here, but it’s an interesting thought exercise.]

In the late 16th century, a London woman called Elizabeth Sawyer was hanged as a witch after a series of events set in motion by the death of her neighbour’s pig.

I, as much as anyone else, find there’s something quite Monty Python about someone saying that a witch killed their cow. I grew up near an agricultural community where I used to go horse riding working farms. Still, there’s something I can’t quite take seriously, something strangely quaint.

I’m probably not the only one. For modern people, unless you are someone who relies on smallholding to make a living, the value of a cow as an immediate thing is hard for us to grasp.

This is a time when around 70% of the population are grindingly poor: illiterate and relying on waged work which paid only 60-80% of their household bills.

They’d make that up by gleaning (i.e. scavenging) edible plants from the land, growing crops on common land, and raising tiny numbers of animals to get the eggs, milk and cheese they needed to not die for another year.

For this person, the average income is about £8-10 a year, at a time when there are twelve pennies (p) to the shilling, and twenty shillings (s) to the pound.

In the late 16th century cow was worth, according to a trial document from 1594, 40s.

For a waged worker that’s pretty much four months’ wages (bearing in mind that work is irregular, so we’re basing our calculations on a three day working week).

Not only that, but it’s four months wages based on them saving their whole income, which isn’t going to happen. In reality, it could take years for someone pay that off. About the same amount of time we’d take to pay off a £6000 loan (almost $10,000).

Another thing to bear in mind is that a cow is about all they could expect. One magistrate for Sheffield in the 17th century wrote of the poor in his community, “not one of which can keep a team on his own land, and not above ten who have grounds of their own that will keep a cow.”

In proportion to the modern day, we’re talking about the price of a really good laptop, or a low-average used car. How would you feel if your top-of-the-line-gaming-pc blew up because you annoyed the mad women down the road?

Even worse, how would you feel if you lived in a rural area and suddenly had to replace your car?

Even less valuable animals could still be expensive. A pig could cost 8s. That’s two to three weeks’ wages, if you were a labourer.

Again, we’re talking about the equivalent of almost a month’s wages. According to the British average, that would be £600-800 for a single person. In the US we’re talking about around $1500.

And bear in mind, when a witch came to trial she could be accused of much more damage: when Alice Alberte of Felstead died in prison, she was accused of doing £7 16s in damage to the local community. That’s almost a year’s wages for someone in 17th century.

So don’t think of a witch as someone who has killed a pig, think of her as someone who scrapped a car, burned some laptops, and then ransacked a convenience store, doing $30,000 (around £18,000) damage.

That’s a lot of money.

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