I’m in the latest issue of The Skeptic at the moment, writing about standards of proof when looking at medieval and Early Modern sources (largely medieval in that article) who present the supernatural as fact. For me, critical thinking is an indispensably important part of what I do – although I wouldn’t say I identify as ‘a S(c/k)eptic’ in the sense that it’s arisen as a social group. There are sceptic pub nights, there are sceptic podcasts and magazines. That’s not me.
I’m not an anti-sceptic either. My personal beliefs are my own, and they’re not part of my historical work. If I’m honest with myself, perhaps the reason my work is about social history instead of being more phenomenological is because it’s a debate that I’d rather keep out of, in part because even if we can say (and we often can) that a certain thing didn’t happen, we can’t actually say what did. Continue reading “Sceptics in the Witch Trials”
For this blog, spring is probably going to have a lot of articles about either cursing and diaries. I’ve got a paper coming up at a very exciting conference just as (hopefully) the weather is picking up (and by that, I mean ‘the temperature should be above 10°C’.) Therefore, the lion’s share of my writing will be taken up with research on cursing from the medieval era to the Early Modern.
Today’s will be the first of the cursing posts: curses and execrations were all around for the medieval and Early Modern citizen. It’s little wonder that, with the growing belief in providentialism that accompanied the Reformation, the English more and more believed that witches could lay lethally effective curses. Even the grave of William Shakespeare, a resolutely mainstream figure, is decorated with the words, “Good Friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”
A significant part of the draw of the curse, as it existed in a licit context, was the idea of appeal to a higher power. Even in a modern society, with supposedly reliable access to the machinery of justice, a significant gap exists between law and practise. In medieval and Early Modern England, with courts convened cyclically, laws poorly understood, and where justice could be put on hiatus by anything from heavy rains to plague, an extra supernatural deterrent would have been reassuring. Continue reading “Biblical Curses During the Era of the Witch Trials”
Welcome 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. Continue reading “Ebenezer and the Witches: Charity Refused in the Witch Trials”
This post comes with apologies for my not having posted anything last week. I was giving a rather fun lecture on Prospero at the Rose Playhouse, Bankside: a fantastic archaeological trust that also manages to be a working theatre (despite not being allowed to have toilets, and having very strict rules against heating). I gave the talk with a skilled and patient actor friend, Suzanne Marie, and pending permissions I hope to make the whole thing available on Sound Cloud.
With that out of the way, it won’t surprise any of you to know that my thoughts have turned to Christmas. The decorations are up, I’ve started working my way through my gin-themed advent calendar, and the Christmas telly beckons…
Which brings me around to the main point of this post: Ghosts.
I’ve yet to see a culture with no traditions of ghost stories, but the dark nights of Medieval Britain gave birth to an enchanting culture of ghost stories and monstrous tales rivalled only by the great Sagas of the Northern Tradition.
In writing the social history of the supernatural, it’s all too easy for to create a pantheon of heroes and villains. For heroes we have educated doctors and humanists fighting fanatical magistrates, bringing modern wisdom to backward country farmers. As villains, we would have a field of straw men: Puritan preachers, ‘Witchfinder Generals’, ignorant yokels, conniving magnates, and corrupt search-women.
Cards on the table: I haven’t had time to write a fresh blog post for this week, since I’m giving a lecture at the Rose Playhouse in London tomorrow (Monday 21st November 2016, to be exact), but things are gearing up towards Christmas, which puts me in mind of my favourite Christmassy Shakespeare play (that I’ve also given a lecture about at the Rose, and have extensive notes for).
What’s the title of that play? Well, just in case you didn’t have time to read the title of this blog post: it’s Twelfth Night.
In the second of our articles about the Witch trials of King James VI (see the note at the bottom of my previous article to explain why I’m not calling him ‘James VI & I’) we shall take up James’ witch hunting career as he officially accepted the English throne in 1603.
The Act of 1604
Popular perception has it that James’ zeal for witch hunting resulted in a tougher witchcraft act, emulating the much tougher law in Scotland.
From the year 1563 to 1736 Scotland saw almost four thousand witch trials, with as many as 67% of the accused being executed by fire.
Two of the greatest concentrated periods of witch trials occurred under the stewardship of King James VI, son of Mary Queen of Scots, who would come to succeed the English Queen Elizabeth in 1603. That year, lawmakers in London would also draft a new witchcraft act that created a two-tier system of trials, dramatically increasing the number of death sentences for the most serious categories of witchcraft.
For anyone studying the history of Witchcraft, this title is the question that you can’t quite believe nobody asked.
In the pamphlet, The Severall Facets of Witch-crafte (1585), we can observe the horrible retribution a nameless thirty-year-old metes out on a neighbour in Stanmore:
“I have not done with thee yet: so hee went about his businesse and beeinge come home, he complained of his backe and belley, saying… that he thought she had bewitched him: so his paine increased more and more, and hee began to growe into a consumption, and wasted away like the Childe before mentioned, like a parched or wethered leafe, hanged up in the smoke of a Chimney, and dyed three monthes after, and before he dyed his side did burst, and his guttes and backe bone was rotted in sunder, so that his guttes and bowels being rotten did issue foorth on his belley: and dyed hereof in most pitifull and grievous manner, the sayd partie taking it upon his death that her witch-craft and sorcery was the cause…”
With that sort of power – to kill swiftly, painfully, and with almost guaranteed success – you might think her apprehension would have caused a considerable number of casualties. Yet in the 1585 case our demonstrably dangerous sorceress is captured by simply arresting her when she comes begging at a gentleman’s door.