Ebenezer and the Witches: Charity Refused in the Witch Trials

6Welcome to this week’s instalment of Jon and the Magic Shoehorn, where I try and make this blog post in some way Christmassy.

So, in a gesture designed to produce the highest quotient of relevance per minute of effort, let’s talk about Ebenezer Scrooge. While Dickens’ story makes clear that he is a genuinely money-hungry, greedy man with little or no empathy, there is another to Scrooge’s character that is very relevant to one of the driving forces behind the witch trials: the idea of Charity Refused.

Charity is one of the critical ways in which we can see Scrooge is a bad person, and his conversion at the end of the book is demonstrated by his feely spending money on those who are less fortunate than himself.

That idea that giving charity is the action of good people, and refusing it was the action of the bad, also held sway in the Middle Ages. Of course, while the 19th century was fairly difficult – with orphans starving and winters blighted by heavy snow – the Middle Ages were arguably worse. From the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period, many factors weighed upon each other to make charitable giving more and more of a strain on communities.

This pressure vented itself in an example of psychological transference that we refer to as ‘Charity Refused.’

Here, a citizen would refuse to grant charity for one reason or another. The refusal itself would go against the best ideals of the community, leaving the refuser with the burden of guilt. Since it was no rare thing for witchcraft defendants to be fairly difficult people, it was also fairly common for an ugly scene to play out between accuser and defendant.

As bouts of sickness and misfortune weighed upon the resentful and guilt-ridden party’s shoulders, transference would occur. They had done nothing wrong: the misfortune must surely be the doing of the underserving pauper who had pushed their luck in begging for alms…

Hard Times

Naturally, reasons for refusing charity were often more than simple selfishness. From 1290 until the Mid-19th century, Europe was gripped by a phenomenon known as ‘The Little Ice Age’. Temperatures plummeted, prompting a catastrophic famine in the years 1315-22, followed up by the now well-known plague of 1348.

Particularly during the great famine, scenes were nothing short of apocalyptic: the Baltic froze, trapping vessels. Torrents of rain came down, forcing farmers to expend time and fuel baking grain before it could be milled into flour; widespread flooding turned valleys into lakes.

Writing in 1316, one Chronicler wrote, “In one year there could not be found seven days of good weather.” Another described how it rained from June 24th until harvest time, leaving granaries empty as winter came around.

While this was at its worst in the 14th century (with another dip in temperature around 1430), we can see evidence of weather anxiety during the most intense era of English witch persecution: the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

From 1590 to 1740, it came be seen that extreme winters regularly killed rye and wheat crops, artificially inflating the cost of more resilient crops like barley and oats, with supplementary crops like chestnuts being either sacrificed or destroyed in the process. Almanacs reached a peak of popularity by 1550, with the slightest weather anomaly causing panic: according to the Liverpool Town Books of the 16th century, ‘certain people, dowbtyng of the goodness of Almightie God, were much afraid of Domesdaye to be at hand’ during a ten-week drought.

In 1596 George Abbot, one day to become Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote about the chain of bad weather and famine: ‘Behold what a famine [God] hath brought to our land… one year there has been hunger; the second year there was a dearth, and a third which is this year, there is a great cleaness of teeth… our years are turned upside-down; our summers are no summers; our harvests are no harvests; our seed-times are no seed-times.’

Added to this was the impact of the dissolution of the monasteries. The place of monasteries in a community was not simply spiritual: however holy and withdrawn brothers of the cloth might seem, the place of the monastery in the community was considerable. Butley Priory in Suffolk only had twelve brothers, but employed 72 workers within the local community.

Furthermore, the loss of alms granted by monastic orders to the poorest in the community created a welfare vacuum that civil alms houses were not able to even begin servicing until more than forty years after the dissolution.

The Malefic Affects of Poverty

No proven link exists between famine and plague, however malnutrition would certainly increase the incidence of childhood illness, opportunistic disease, and miscarriage – all things that witches would see themselves blamed for. From weaning until the age of nine years, children were incredibly vulnerable, with a significant portion of all deaths taking place in the 13th month of a child’s life.

Another casualty of poverty and famine were animals. While livestock would have been critical to livelihood, if offered the choice between starving their animals or dying themselves, few families would have sacrificed their own lives.

During the famine years of the 13th and 14th centuries, English sheep flocks were increasingly affected by scab, wiping out wool income at a time when it was most needed (a phenomenon that might have contributed to the highly unstable cloth markets of the 16th century). Cattle murrains decimated other sorts of livestock, too, and made animals increasingly likely to die – seemingly without explanation.

Cattle murrain, probably rinderpest, ravaged Ireland and Scotland, with one contemporary writing about cattle death in England:

‘another sore that sprayed over all the land;
A thursent winter there figure come never none so strong
to bind all over the [meme?] men in mourning and care
[the cattled died straight away]
And made the ponds all bare so fast
Come never, a wrech, into England that made men more shrink’

Whole communities even died from the mixture of poor harvest and cattle disease: the medieval villages of Radcot and Grafton in Oxfordshire were assessed as being worth £4 between them in the 14th century, due to the fields being infertile and ‘the mortality of sheep.’

This is especially important to note, since my study of trials in Sussex for the 1590s showed a predisposition towards witchcraft cases coming to court in the wake of animal deaths, with the material cost of the livestock being a significant part of the case. As I’ve written before, the death of a cow or pig might strike us as amusing, but for a 16th century farmer it would represent a valuable agricultural asset.

Charity Refusal in Action: Witches in the Communities

A 1579 witch trial from Windsor presents us with a good example of the charity refused model. Here we have a core group of four women accused of witchcraft: Elizabeth Style (also known as Elizabeth Rockgham, suggestive of being remarried after the death of a first husband), Mother Dutton, Mother Devell, and Mother Margaret.

We see fairly quickly that these women are the poorest of the poor. Mother Margaret is described as living in the Windsor Alms House. Later in Elizabeth’s confession another woman, Mother Seidre, is mentioned as having taught her witchcraft while also being resident at the Windsor Alms House.

Little is known about Mother Dutton and Mother Devell (although the text hints that Mother Dutton was living with a man who is not her husband). Elizabeth, though, seems to be largely dependent on begging. One of her first ‘kills’ is a man called Saddocke, who promised her an old cloak she could adapt into a petticoat, but changed his mind; her familiar even gives her succour after she fails to secure milk from a local bed maker because his maid was still out tending to the cows.

Another example of Charity refused can be seen in a 1566 case from Essex. Here, we see the testimony of a child named Agnes Brown. She describes the daughter of one of the women accused of being witches – Joan Waterhouse – begging her for milk and cheese, which she refused (saying that she did not have access to the milk house keys).

Not only does the refusal result in a demon spoiling the family’s milk, but the petty ills of the whole town are suddenly blamed on the witches: a widow good loses a cow to drowning after arguing with Mother Waterhouse; another neighbour sees the waters claim three geese. When the town’s brewers keep Mother Waterhouse awake, she uses her magic to spoil their work, making it impossible. Finally, when she falls out more seriously with one of her neighbours she visits him with an episode of ‘bloody flux’ (probably cholera or typhoid) that carries him off.

Charity and obligations refused could even rear their head in the unfortunate and emotive matter of the death of a child. In the case of the St. Osyth witches, Grace Thurlowe argued with Ursuly Kemp over her decision to keep working immediately after the birth of her child. When the child subsequently fell out of its crib and died, Kemp was heard remarking that such a thing would not have happened if she had been retained to care for it.

While this now seems like a fairly clear case of displaced grief, the dynamic between Ursuly and her neighbour was both fraught and claustrophobic. Early Modern women lived in a small world constrained by transport and the restrictive nature of their work. Even men, far-ranging by comparison, barely seem to do business more than 10 miles from their homes. After Grace has finished lying-in she once more attracts Ursuly’s wrath by not asking the old woman to look after her, and Grace began to feel ill.

In another twist of Charity Refused, we see the further trope of retribution for the refusal of legitimate payment. In a similar situation to Joan Peterson, the Witch of Wapping Woods, Grace fell sick and Ursuly offered to cure her for 12p (two days wages for a labourer in London), which Grace agreed to, but then refused to honour once she felt better.

When the two women argued once more, Grace became so sick that she could barely move in bed. A similarly horrible illness awaited the daughter of Annis Letherdall, who obfuscated when Ursuly asked for some scouring sand. When Ursuly saw Annis’ daughter taking the sand to a different neighbour, the child overheard her muttering disparagingly, and later fell terribly ill.

Guilt and a Burden on the Community

The three cases I have chosen here are characteristic in having taken place during the welfare vacuum (they happened in 1579, 1566 and 1582 respectively). Communities were suddenly taking the burden of supporting members whose welfare would have previously been the domain of the monasteries.

Likewise, these elderly, begging women were likely difficult people in their own rights. Elizabeth Style, from the 1579 case in Windsor, was described as being a ‘quarrelsome and naughty woman’. They offer favours – possibly unasked and/or unwanted – to their neighbours, but beyond that, they conceivably don’t offer much to the community itself. Ursuly Kemp was keen to look after Grace Thurlowe’s child, but we have little unbiased information on whether she would have been suitable for the job.

We can see the contrast with Joane Dean of Pluckly, who seems to have been not only popular, but mourned when she died. Like Mother Margaret, she was living on the charity of the parish, but upon her death one of her fellow villagers wrote: ‘A poore olde maid that lyved partly by the parrish… but she wrought much for her living, as longe as she was able, spinning and carding wooles diligently.’


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