How and Why?
What makes a witch? It’s been a long time since you’d find anyone who argued it was the talent for magical power. Of the factors that come together to make someone a witch, alleged magical power was only one of many.
Witch stories have a strange mirror in the very myths made up society and religion for much society until the advent of the Reformation.
Part of this was how history was written. Almost until the Enlightenment, history was seen as an expression of the art of rhetoric. Historical events mines for morally pleasing stories, which could be adapted without troubling the historian’s conscience.
Adding to that, pre-Reformation law in Britain (which continued unmodified during the witch trials in many other places) involved torture as a mainstay of the trial process. Judges could only find a defendant guilty if they were able to secure two witness statements that agreed perfectly, or if the defendant could be persuaded to confess. The regulations for assessing the two statements were surprisingly strict, leaving many Judges little option other than to secure a confession.
Circumstantial evidence was enough to secure the Judge’s suspicion, which was grounds for torture. Suspected witches would be coerced into spinning a narrative that their interrogators could take into court. Motivated by the pain of torture, and the knowledge that their torturers could only stop when they’d reached a mutually agreeable narrative, witches would draw on the stories of their everyday lives.
Finally, many accusers would fall back on the stories they’d been culturally primed with in order to understand what they believed to be terrifying magical attacks.
Violent Retribution: St Remigius and Alizon Devize.
One of Britain’s most famous witchcraft outbreaks involved a series of trials taking place around a district of Lancashire hunting land called Pendle Forest.
On March 18th 1612 when Alizon Device met John Law in the Trawden Forest. Device had been supposedly travelling alone when she met the pedlar, and asked him for some pins. The packman was reluctant to spill out his wares at the roadside and walked on.
According to Thomas Potts, Device’s supernatural rage then lashed out at Law, “And when he was past her, he fell down lame in great extremity; and afterwards by means got into an Ale-house in Colne… he lay there in great paine, not able to stirre either hand or foot…”
In the life of St. Remigius, the Bishop of Rheims in the 6th century, we can see a parallel. According to the official version of his life a landowner of Rheims had stolen a field that had belonged to Remigius’ church. On his way from the city, “He fell to the ground covered in blood; his tongue, which had commanded the field to be taken away, was paralysed; the eyes that had desired were closed up; the hands that grasped were now seized up.”
Night Time Visitations: St. Benedict and Joan Petersen
It was well known that witches could change shape in order to gain entry to places they shouldn’t, or travel to places that would otherwise be impossible, but supernatural visitations weren’t the sole purview of the Devil’s Minions.
Here’s an extract from Peter the Deacon’s Historica Relate de Corpora Sancta Benedicti. It involves a miracle here the future Pope Leo had been wounded and poisoned by some toads that had bitten him in the neck. Tearful, his nurse had invoked St. Benedict, at which point:
“The frightened child, roused from sleep, saw the most blessed father Benedict coming to him through the window, who came and cured the boy visibly. For such great benefit, he sang the seven canonical hours in honour of that father Benedict.”
Contrast this with another nighttime visitation to a child: in the trial of Joan Petersen, the Witch of Wapping Woods, who had quarrelled with neighbours over the price of a magical cure for their illnesses.
In the 1652 pamphlet, The Witch of Wapping Woods, the anonymous author describes how a huge black cat repeatedly made its way into the house of a local woman and rocked her baby’s cradle. In a contrast to St. Benedict’s visitation, which cures ills, when the unnamed local woman kicks the cat her leg becomes painfully swollen.
Another powerful indicator of both witchcraft and Sainthood is a physical mark. In the case of a saint, the mark is known as Stigmata. A far cry from the diabolical witch’s mark.
In the case of St. Francis, he bore multiple marks. Francis was the very first saint to bare Stigmata, after seeing a vision of Christ which told him, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house, which is falling into ruins.”
According to Hagiography, Francis left his life as a Merchant and went to a mountain hermitage in La Verna. There, he saw a vision of a six-winged Seraph fixed to a cross. Immediately his hands and feet broke out in the wounds where Christ had been nailed to the cross. He suffered a gash to his side that was visible as a scar for the rest of his life.
Later, when he disrobed to the Pope, it was certainly these marks that gained him favour. Francis was described as being physically repugnant but his act of self-humiliation, and his revealing marks, gave him kinship with a medieval church that was deeply interested in portents.
The trial of the unfortunate Elizabeth Sawyer of Edmonton contains a less joyous revealing of marks. Sawyer was a soap maker, described as being pale and bent with a hook nose. Sawyer argued with her neighbour, Agnes Radcliffe, over a pig that died after eating her soap. When Radcliffe took sick and died, she went to the grave claiming that Sawyer had cursed her.
After resisting interrogation after interrogation in court, three women-jailers were called from the Clerkenwell Sessions House and commanded to search Sawyer head to foot.
They found something, reporting, “…that they a little above the fundament of Elizabeth Sawyer the prisoner, there indicted before the Bench for a witch, found a thing like a teat the bigness of the little finger and the length of half a finger, which was branched at the top like a teat, and seemed as though one had sucked it, and that the bottom thereof was blue and the top of it was red.”
St. Francis’ marks gained him Papal favour and eventually his own order of friars; Elizabeth Sawyers got her hanged.
And yet what difference is there between a scar and a strange, red-and-blue mark? What’s the difference between a saintly night visitation and a shape-shifting witch?
Not much, according to many Reformation thinkers. John Bale, a ‘historian’ and polemicist rebranded saints as nothing but demon-addled sorcerers, and christened heretics as proto-Protestants worthy of praise.
Perhaps even Francis wouldn’t have been so warmly received if not for some coincidences of time and place. Elizabeth Barton, an entirely Christian visionary, was executed on Thomas Cromwell’s orders in 1533 despite huge popularity with people of her community. The line between saint and witch was a delicate, porous membrane indeed.