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”
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.
In the parliament of 1541/2, Henry VIII passed a witchcraft act entitled ‘An Act against Conjurations, Witchcraft, Sorcery and Enchantments.’
The act had a very different focus to what we might expect for an act punishing witchcraft: killing by magic is only mentioned in passing, and the idea of the witch as being in league with Satan was given a backhanded reference:
“Where dyvers and sundrie persones unlawfully have devised and practised invocacons and conjuracons of Sprites, p’tendyng by such meanes to understand and get Knowledge for their own lucre in what place treasure of golde and Silver shoulde or mought be founde or had in the earthe or other secret places, and also have used and occupied witchcrafts inchauntment and sorceries to the distruccon of their neigbours persones and goodes, And for execucon of their said falce devyses and practises have made or caused to be made dyvers Images and pictures of men women children Angells or devells beastes or fowles, and have also made Crownes Septures Swordes rynges glasses and other thinges, and giving faithe & credit to suche fantasticall practises have dyged up and pulled downe and infinite nombre of Crosses within this Realme, and teaken upon them to declare and tell where things lost or stolen shulde become; wiche things cannot be used and exercised but to the great offence of Godes lawe, hurt and damage of the Kinges Subjects, and losse of the sowles of such Offenders, to the greate dishonour of God, Infany and disquyetnes of the Realme…”
Were men the victims of a crusade against learned magic in the era before the witch trials? Listen to find out…
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The contents of this blog are entirely free and always will be. I have a couple of books out, but the vast majority of the work I do, especially my historical work, is a labour of love. With that said, creating this content costs me money: I pay for access to academic journals, to a professional quality research library, for trips to specialised collections and archives, and for courses in Latin, Archive Skills and Paleography.
If you’ve read this material and found it useful, please consider donating a small amount of money towards my work. If one in a hundred of the people who see my blog this week bought me a coffee via Ko-fi, it would make a huge difference to my ability to deliver. If one in fifty did, I’d be able to significantly increase my output.
Being entirely honest, I have a lot of books. I doubt any of my readers will be surprised to find that many of them are about the supernatural in the Middle Ages and Early Modern.
One thing that crops up again and again is the idea that bells have power over the supernatural. In as many as a quarter of my books, there are references to the idea that bells have the power to drive away demons and abate storms.
The historian Philip Almond describes 1550-1700 as ‘the golden age of the demoniac’. There are a lot of reasons, one of the biggest being the Reformation. Demoniacs had been important in the days of the early church, when church fathers were trying to build a new religion in an environment of borderline (and sometimes outright) hostility. On the other hand, as D P Walker tells us in his book Unclean Spirits, by the middle ages there were no more pervasive threats to subvert. Christianity was the ruling religion of Europe, and those heretics who did exist could be hunted directly by fire and the sword.
As the movie The Exorcist will show you, demons are a problem to this day. Modern clerics in both the Church of England and the Catholic Church still treat people who believe they’re possessed by demons (for the purposes of this blog I should state that I don’t care whether they really are possessed or not, I write about history not the paranormal).
However, demons could be a real problem if you were living in Medieval Europe. In fact, the idea that demons can get you killed is absolutely incontrovertible – in London of 1725 a drunk died of exposure in a well because neighbours ignored his cries for help, believing he was a demon. Not only that, but in 1597 Alice Goodridge, accused of sending a demon to possess Thomas Darling, died in prison awaiting trial for witchcraft.
Interestingly, though, those possessed by demons (demoniacs) occupy a more ambiguous status in the bible. Although John 8.44 describes The Devil as “a liar and the father of lies”, demoniacs in the Gospel were among the first witnesses to Christ, and often showed a clearer understanding of divine truth than the apostles. In fact, Christ himself was accused of being a demon, and of “casting out demons by the prince of demons.”