Introduction to English Witches in the Early Modern Period

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Between 1450 and 1750 ecclesiastical and secular courts tried and executed tens of thousand of people throughout Europe for the crime of witchcraft. Witchcraft may be defined as supernatural activity, believed to be the result of power given by the Devil to cause harm to something or someone~ for instance death~ via non-physical means.

In recent decades the study of witchcraft during the early modern period has received a considerable amount of academic attention. Historians and anthropologists have provided a multitude of interpretations of this historical phenomenon. The proposed processes that led to the development and prominence of such beliefs in European society are numerous, complex and disputed. Of course, during the period under consideration no-one conceived of witchcraft as being caused by economic and demographic change, the increasing need of a mechanism by which local communities could legitimately divest themselves of time honoured bonds of altruism or the reification of society. In the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witches were simply considered wicked individuals who were (oftentimes) in league with the devil, in the possession of magical powers and therefore a potential danger to others.wbr-woodcut-witches-with-devil

There were essentially two separate but related connotations referring to witchcraft activity during early modern society: the practice of maleficium and diabolism. Diabolism applied to those people who were accused of witchcraft upon the conviction that they met with the Devil and other members of the chosen sect at a secret assembly referred to as the Sabbat. Maleficium, on the other hand, referred to individuals who were believed to have performed harmful magic without having attended the collective ceremony. Accusations concerning maleficium usually occurred in areas of Europe where the charges arose from a local level impetus rather than from higher authorities. Under English law, a statute passed in 1563 clearly defines the crime of ‘witchcraft’ as the practice of maleficium. Which would suggest that villagers and neighbours accusing one another of harmful rather than diabolical magic instigated the majority of the English prosecutions. Ordinary people were typically more concerned with the personal misfortune that befell them as a result of the witch.

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The first English witchcraft Act was passed in 1542, this was repealed in 1547 and replaced in 1563. The statute issued the death penalty for ‘using witchcraft, charm or sorcery, whereby any persons should be killed.’ Injury to person or property was punished by corporeal measures if it was the accused’s first offence (by death if the second). In 1604 the law was extended to include punishment by death for first offences involving injury to person or property. The Act remained in force until 1736 when it was retracted from English criminal law. However, prosecutions in England had died away long before the statute was repealed. Throughout the two centuries, the number of witchcraft trials to take place in England probably did not exceed 2,500 and executions are estimated at around 500.

These estimations appear relatively low in comparison to other regions of Europe. One explanation for the less ferocious hunting of witches in England was the relatively late arrival of the notion of the Sabbat and a tendency for the concept of mass gatherings of witches to never really firmly take hold over the cultural imagination. Also the infrequent use of torture in England led to fewer of the extensive and detailed confessions that shored up belief in witches on the Continent.

One of the most important features of recent research into English witchcraft is that it provides a unique insight into the mentalities of people who lived in ‘ordinary’ communities centuries ago. It is also a reminder to us how precarious life would have been for the majority of people: the state of health was always precarious and economically standards of living were rarely above subsistence level.

Throughout the early modern period, England underwent major religious upheavals as well as large-scale economic and political transformations. The receding importance of traditional crafts led to a breakdown in lifestyle patterns causing major demographic shifts and a rapid increase in numbers of those experiencing poverty.

matthewhopkinsLocal authorities were faced with newcomers from districts that had been badly affected by the process of structural economic change, and social tensions predicated upon competition for increasingly scarce resources rose.

Although open begging was prohibited, the indigenous poor had the freedom to ask for support within their own parishes on an informal door-to-door basis. These people were a regular burden upon neighbours hardly better off than themselves, who were not always able or willing to help. Within this cultural framework the practice of witchcraft and the existence of ‘the witch’ became a major concern.

For the majority of the early modern population in England, witchcraft performed a social function in a predictable way within a specific social context of a local community. In a society characterized by poverty, mutual aid within communities provided a safety net for poorer members perceived worthy of help. Although largely undocumented, personal charity consisting of an exchange of small goods and services between neighbours probably served as the primary mechanism of support for many people undergoing temporary crisis. In a society where religion featured predominantly, Christianity at a local level served to reinforce notions of community and ideas of good and bad and right and wrong in everyday interpersonal exchanges.

Judicial records in England reveal two primary facts concerned those accused of witchcraft: the majority were poor, or usually from a lower economic level than their accusers and the majority were women~ often the elderly who are easily conceived of as being burdensome economically. The evidence suggests a common pattern, mainly involving a quarrel followed by a misfortune. The initial dispute is usually regarding a loan or gift of some description, whereby one individual refuses to help another. Upon refusing a person aid someone may hear the person who had been denied mutter something under their breath, typically a threat or curse. The person who failed to assist is aware that by refusing another they have violated their neighbourly duties. If some misfortune shortly followed, then suspicion would naturally fall on the person that had uttered the malign gesture. This view of witchcraft beliefs is termed the ‘refusal-guilt syndrome’ and was originally described by Reginald Scot in 1584 when English witch trials were at there peak.swimming

In this context, witchcraft beliefs must have provided a creditable explanation for a whole miscellany of misfortune. In a period when medicine was inextricably link with theology, a whole range of physical conditions could be associated with the witch countering medicinal efficacy. However, it has be been argued that witchcraft accusations only arose when medical knowledge fell short, when no natural cause could be found. Witches were frequently charged with causing the sudden death of a person or a strange event occurring such as a clean woman becoming suddenly infested with lice but very rarely accused of large-scale disaster such as plague epidemics.

The general consensus shared by a large proportion of modern researchers is that the witchcraft prosecutions which took place throughout England during the sixteenth and seventeenth century were different from what was occurring at the same time in other areas of Europe. The main reason for this view is the highly persuasive ‘refusal-guilt syndrome’ which suggests that the traditional custom of charity within local communities became a difficult issue for ordinary people. This coupled with the economic and religious changes that were taking place gave way to a rise in witchcraft accusations.


Further Reading

Briggs, R. 2002. Witches and Neighbours. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

Levack, P. B. 1995.  The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe. London: Longman.

MacFarlane, D.J. 1977.  ‘Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart Essex’ in: Cockburn, J. S. (ed.) Crime in England 1550-1800. London: Methuen & Co Ltd.

Sharp, James. 1996. Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England.Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press.

Thomas, K. 1973. Religion and the Decline of Magic. London: Penguin Books LTD.


To cite this post : Julie Mathias, “Introduction to English Witches in the Early Modern Period”, Curious Histories (blog on oldoperatingtheatre.com), August 30th, 2016. [On line] http://oldoperatingtheatre.com/introduction-to-english-witches-in-the-early-modern-period/


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 Julie Mathias is the Head of Learning at the Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret. Her role includes convening the schools programs for students studying the “Medicine Through Time” series and related subjects. As a social historian Julie is interested in the history of ‘ordinary’ peoples’ experiences of health, illness, and death, and how investigating this fascinating phenomena enriches our present day understanding of our own bodies.