I lecture on Early Modern England and one of the most interesting topics I teach (and the most popular with the students) is witchcraft and in particular, the Early Modern Witch Craze.
Between the years 1450 and 1750 it is estimated that around 110,000 people were accused and tried for witchcraft throughout Europe and the then newly formed American colonies. Of these 110,000 somewhere in the region on 60,000 were sentenced to death. Many of my students have the perception that priests, inquisitors and witch hunters systematically threw anyone they suspected of witchcraft to the stake. The image of the burning witch is one that is immediately conjured whenever I approach the topic. However, things were not so straightforward.
A Brief History of Witchcraft
Throughout the medieval period, there was an acceptance of witches and witchcraft. They were an integral part of medieval society. There was an understanding of good witches who practised good, white magic. These people were part of the fabric of society.
Their neighbours would go to them for help with a variety of issues. For instance, Witches or cunning folk as they were sometimes called made use of herbs to heal the sick. They could help in finding a lost or stolen item. One method they used would be to write a list of suspects names onto small pieces of paper which were then wrapped in clay. These would then be placed into water and whichever name unwrapped first was the guilty person. Indeed this was a method that could be used by anyone. However, witches also used other instruments and more elaborate ways of finding out the truth, such as crystal balls.
In the later 15th century, witches start to become suspected as heretics or deviants. This was because witches began to be associated with the devil and black magic. So there was a shift in opinion, at least amongst the elite in society. They decided that witches had a negative influence on society. That they were dangerous and were in league with the devil. The increase of interest in witches which ultimately led to the witch craze must be understood in the context of the time.
From Cunning Folk to Deviants
The 16th century ushered in a time of religious turbulence. The Reformation occurred not just in England, but saw countries all over Europe question Catholicism and many individuals converting to the new Protestant religions. There was a sense that the world had been turned upside down. There was a real belief in the actual presence of the devil in the world. That the devil was ins some way responsible for this turbulence, or alternatively, that the devil had been exposed to be in league with the Catholic Church.
King James I of England (and King James VI of Scotland) had a keen interest in witches and witchcraft. He authored a book entitled The Demonologie which condemned all those who worked with magic (even cunning folk) as guilty of crimes against God. James’ fascination with witches may have stemmed from his own alleged experience with witches. He attended the North Berwick Witch Trials of 1590 and personally witnessed the torture of witches. It was during this trial that a witch supposedly whispered the words spoken between James and his Queen on their wedding night.
No doubt for most ordinary people, witches were still perceived as useful, helpful neighbours. However as we enter the early modern period, the perception of the witch begins to change.
The Early Modern Shift
The weird old woman in the village, usually a widow and thus without a husband’s protection is somewhat of an outcast. She is with little money and often finds herself doing ‘dangerous’ jobs, such as taking care of young children. With mortality rates so high in this period, children might die in the care of these childminders. Who to blame for such a tragedy but the strange old woman charged with their care.
Or perhaps the same old woman knocks on her neighbour’s door and begs for food or money. She is turned away at the door and mutters something like a curse under her breath. In the coming weeks, a tragedy such as an illness or a death strikes the family. The mind is then recalled to the begging woman at the door who surely must have put a curse of the innocent family.
Women who wanted to remove other women from their communities, be the cause jealousy or competition, might have used witchcraft accusations as a tool to meet this end also.
Vulnerable women such as these could find themselves accused of witchcraft during the period 1450-1750 at the height of the witch craze.
Were There Any Male Witches?
The above are all relatively common stories in the source materials. But were there any male witches? Did neighbours accuse their male neighbours of witchcraft or was this an accusation levelled primarily at women?
Before I begin to answer this question, I should note that those accused of witchcraft likely did not consider themselves as witches. These people were accused of consorting with the devil and causing untold harm and misery to their neighbours and sometimes to the nation at large. In the records, we do have some people who would describe themselves as white witches or cunning folk, as discussed above. However we must assume that the victims of the witch craze were innocent of the crimes they were convicted of.
80% of individuals accused and tried of witchcraft during the ‘witch craze’ were female. Women were perceived to be the weaker sex and thus more susceptible to the temptations of the devil. Puritanism was on the rise in the 17th century and this coincides with some of the most notorious witch trials in history, for instance, the Salem witch trials of the 1690s. Indeed the Puritans ran these trials. Puritans believed that God saw men and women’s soul as equal. But they also believed that the devil perceived women’s souls as weaker and easier to take.
However, it is intriguing that 20% of those on trial were men. Indeed in some regions, most of those accused of witchcraft were men. It appears that these men were often associated with women accused of witchcraft. For instance, James Devize of the Pendle Witch Trials was the brother of Alizon Devize and the son of Elizabeth Devize who were both accused of witchcraft. James even testified against his sister claiming she had bewitched a local child. However, he was hanged for the crime of witchcraft along with his mother and sister.
Why Burn Witches?
Witchcraft was associated with heresy (meaning a deviation from a generally accepted belief system, in this case, Christianity). Those committed of treason were also to undergo death by burning. It is obviously an excruciating death. It would serve as a warning to others, not to follow the same path as the victim by rejecting generally accepted norms and values.
Although burning was used, many witches were hung. This is true for not only the victims of the Pendle Witch trials but also of those found guilty at the Salem Witch Trials.
And contrary to popular belief, death was not inevitable for those who found themselves accused of witchcraft. Those accused of witchcraft were put on trial and sentenced. The law was applied to each of these cases and justice was said to be done. As we move into the later part of the witch craze, into the 18th century, acquittal was increasingly common.
I hope you enjoyed my little post on the Early Modern Witch Craze. This is a subject I find incredibly fascinating and I hope you have found it informative!
For a similar post, see The Alice of the Pendle Witch Trials