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 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.
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.
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.
While the witch’s familiar can be found in other countries (I found some in some French cases), it represents one of the features that most separates the English witch from her continental counterpart.
The era of the witch trials in England came before the creation of the idea of ‘Britain’, from the traumas of the Reformation in 1538, gradually losing judicial support from the mid-17th century onwards.
A part of the reason for familiars is an extension of the idea birthed in Continental witchcraft that the witch herself was powerless: witches did not truly wield magical power, but instead they made bargains with Satan, who would send demons to invisibly watch over them and reproduce magical effects when they performed certain ritual actions.
In the classic Continental trial this is expressed in the image of the Sabbat, where witches meet and worship Satan in a series of increasingly degrading and humiliating rituals, culminating with the ‘foul kiss’ where witches would kiss Satan on or under the anus.
English witch trials feature the Sabbat less often. Scottish trials tend to be far more traditionally continental in character, with the North Berwick Witch Trials hinging on a lurid Sabbat at the North Berwick Kirk that could have come directly from the pen of Conrad of Marburg. By contrast, without searching my notes, I can only think of a single trial with a strong Sabbatic image: the Windsor trial of Elizabeth Style, where the witches involved confessed to meetings where they would agree their nefarious activities.
With the Sabbat being a less common image, the familiar seems to take a similar disempowering role. It also gave the searchers the hope of finding physical evidence. Even if an animal designated as a familiar could not be found, which they usually could not, the ‘teat’ the animal suckled from could usually be located on the body. Since the teat was a magical thing, not a natural part of the anatomy, it could be found anywhere… although it is of interest that the most common locations and description of witches’ marks conform to those of sebaceous cysts.
A final, especially sad feature of the English witch trials was the use of children as witnesses. While the influence of King James Stuart led to the discrediting of child witnesses in the early to mid 17th century, we see a significant use of child witnesses in the earlier part of the witch trials. In the 1582 trial of the St. Osyth witches Ursula Kemp’s eight year old son Thomas Rabbet gives us the names of four familiars whose names have clearly come from the mind of a child: Tiffy, Jack Pigin and Tyffin. We see similar image from the interrogation of James Device during the witch trials at Pendle, with a second era of the familiar during the brief activities of Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne in the South East of England in the 1640s.
Donations Keep This Blog Running
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.
One thing that really winds me up is a statement that you often hear from Neo-Pagan wishful thinkers: ‘The Christian demons are just the gods of pagan religions.’ I don’t like to speak in absolutes, but very, very often the demons of Christianity were the demons of whatever religion dominated before Christianity. There were times when Christians said other people’s gods were demons (lots of rather hot words were exchanged during the persecutions and counter-persecutions of the Roman Empire, but those were difficult times). Generally though, Christianity preferred to spread by adopting and adapting. That’s why we have Irish Gaelic deities as Saints, and Halloween on October 31st.