This is very much a work in progress and all input is gratefully received. I have deliberately steered away from making any analogy with modern society simply because I don’t have the expertise to do it in an informed way. If any reader has greater knowledge or capacity than me, they’re very welcome to use my work as they see fit.
In 1612, as a part of the infamous trial of the Pendle and Samlesbury witches, a young girl named Grace Sowerbutts gave evidence of her seduction to witchcraft:
“This Examinate did go with the said Jennet Bierly her grandmother, and Ellen Bierley, her aunt, to the house of Walshman, in the night time, to murder a child in a strange manner… after they had eaten [the child] the said three women and this Examinate danced every one of them with the black things: and after, the black things abused the said women. She describes four black things to go upright, but not like men in the face.”
Blog readers have my apologies for the lateness of this, the first post of my monthly blogging — February has seen me contract Vestibular Neuronitis, a condition affecting my balance. As such February 2017 has been both surreal and hugely unpleasant, and I’m not fully on my feet yet.
Anyway, as some of my readers might know, one case that I often return to is the North Berwick trials of 1590-91. My personal judgement is that the North Berwick trials are interesting to study from a number of perspectives, but that ultimately, I don’t believe for a moment that the events of the North Berwick Sabbats occurred. That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that there wasn’t a magical conspiracy to kill of control James VI.
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.
This blog post comes from a conversation I had with someone in a pub. I can’t remember how the conversation had come around to witches – it was somewhere between one of them having a go at me for not owning a telly, but before when they had a go at me for using too many long words.
The thing that stuck with me was the outrage I got when I mentioned that the English didn’t torture witches. I was offered the famous quote that Medieval people were nasty, brutish and short, and that their lives were shaped correspondingly.
Because of this, I’d like to make it clear that this article isn’t meant to account for every abusive blow struck in the cellar of every parish goal. It isn’t meant to say that no abuse took place, or that the conditions of Early Modern confinement were in any way pleasant.
This is the story of a middle class woman from 1607. Her name was Anna Taylor. She was the wife of a brewer called George; she could read (as could her mother) and she might well have been a doctor. Not a ‘wise woman’ or local healer – a doctor. She made chemical medicines and astrologically charged distilled potions. She tested people’s urine to find out why they were sick, and she could tell you the progression of an illness. She also might have had magical books and attempted spells that would summon the fairies. Continue reading “Mrs. Anna Taylor — Chemical Physician, Ritual Magician and Seventeenth Century Woman”
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.
This blog post comes after a Twitter conversation with the awesome writer and publisher Theo Paijmans. One of the biggest motivations behind the history title I’m writing at the moment is to look at the people and legal developments behind the witch trials. To us, as citizens of the 21st century, the barbarism of the witchcraft accusation – flimsy evidence, torture, intimidation, false promises of leniency and finally burning at the stake – is palpable.
But nothing is ever so simple. Even the way we imagine the witch trials – a single monolithic persecution spanning hundreds of years – is far from what the evidence shows to be the case. Even the term ‘witch hunter’ is a misuse. Those who brought the witches to their deaths came from a variety of backgrounds, and most were never full time persecutors of witches.
In his book Grimoires, A History of Magical Books Owen Davies writes of how Thomas Tryon, the English mystic, learned to read while working as a Shepherd. In Tryon’s writings, he leaves the passage, ‘[The] Sherpherd and Husbandman understand something of Nature, putting out their own Eyes, and boasting what Wonders they can see with other Mens.’ Likewise, Davies records that John Cannon, while a child, met a shepherd who introduced him to the magical arts contained in a copy of Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy. Continue reading “The Shepherd Witches of Normandy”
My first ever D&D character was a thief. My brother’s group was playing the Dragonlance setting (in fact, they were playing through the actual modules of Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Saga) when I started playing with their group (they were in their 20s, I was someone’s annoying kid brother). He was a ginger Kender thief called Arthur, and I went on to play a lot more much beloved thieves (my favourite was the my cowardly thief Villa who backstabbed a dragon to death with his shortsword).
There are a huge number of mythological tricksters, but they weren’t right for this article. Most of them have hugely unfair advantages (e.g. they can change shape, or they’re very often Gods, or the children of Gods). Also, they don’t steal things in the right way. Yes, it’s important that Prometheus stole fire. I’m very grateful for fire, but it isn’t the same as stealing cold, hard cash.
However, I have managed to come up with a couple of thieves from the history of folklore who were exactly that: thieves.
The Master Thief
Pharaoh Rhampsinit is a fictitious Egyptian king from the works of the Greek historian Heroditus. In addition to talking about giant ants who mined gold, Heroditus wrote down the Egyptian tradition of stories featuring the mythical king.