14. Witchcraft and Magic

Well, in 1921 a group of
workmen working on the highway near the village of St.
Osyth, which is here in Essex,
in East Anglia, discovered a skeleton.
And at first they thought
they’d uncovered a modern crime, but it was soon established
that it was very old. And subsequently,
on the basis of both documentary evidence and
forensic evidence, they identified it as being
probably the remains of a woman named Ursula Kemp who had been
executed at St. Osyth and buried in the
highway, rather than in consecrated ground,
in the year 1582. And Ursula Kemp’s crime was the
alleged causing of death by witchcraft.
Now today, obviously,
I’m going to talk about witchcraft and perhaps explain
how it was that people like Ursula Kemp came to such an end.
First of all we need to start
with a little context by discussing the larger place of
not simply witchcraft, a specific crime,
but magic within the popular culture of early modern England.
We could perhaps define that
world of magic as being essentially a body of beliefs,
a large body of beliefs, and practices regarding
supernatural power which stood outside the world of formal
religion and yet were widely known and helped people to cope
with their anxieties and their insecurities.
It helped them to cope above
all because it involved various ritual means of manipulating
supernatural powers so as to ward off misfortune or else to
alleviate it. This world of magic,
then, was essentially a world of trying to propitiate or to
manipulate unidentified supernatural powers,
largely for the purposes of protection and relief.
It wasn’t–and it’s important
to stress this–it wasn’t an alternative religion.
It was a whole mess of
supplementary beliefs and practices,
being described by one historian as “the debris of
many different systems of thought.”
It was regarded with some
suspicion by the church, but it was not regarded as a
threat as such, at least not initially.
One historian writing about
popular beliefs has put it splendidly.
I’m quoting from him.
The name’s James Obelkevich.
“It was a large,
loose, pluralistic affair without any clear unifying
principle. It encompassed superhuman
beings and forces, witches and wise men and a mass
of low-grade magical and superstitious practices.
The whole was less than the sum
of its parts”– the whole was less than the sum
of its parts — “for it was not a cosmos
to be contemplated or worshipped but a treasury of separate and
specific resources to be used or applied in concrete
situations.” That puts it extremely well.
These means of tapping into
supernatural power were very widely known.
You could say they were part of
the lore which was acquired by every child as part of their
education for life, like learning to cross the road
as it were. But the world of magic also had
its specialists and they were those who were known as the
‘cunning folk’, ‘cunning men’,
or ‘wise women’. These individuals were those
who were known to have special knowledge over and above the
average knowledge of magical practices and who often believed
to have a special inherent power,
often inherited. It was thought to pass in the
blood. The cunning folk who were
pretty numerous– one survey of known cunning
folk in East Anglia suggests that there was a known cunning
man or wise woman within ten miles of any village–
these people were appealed to for a variety of specific
purposes. In the first place,
they often were appealed to for medical reasons.
Very often they had specialist
knowledge of herbs which they would administer often
accompanied by spells to increase their effectiveness–
the psychological effect of the incantation going along with
what may well have been the practical effect of the herbs
they used. Ursula Kemp for example was
such a person. She was known as a healer in
her village. She was good at curing
arthritis apparently. Again, they were appealed to
for the diagnosis of witchcraft. If a person suspected that they
might have been bewitched, they might go to the cunning
folk for the provision of counter-magic.
They might help the victim to
identify who might have attacked them in this occult manner and
advise on counteraction. One of my favorite cunning men
came from a town in the north of England,
Stokesley, and he was called John Wrightson,
and he was known as Old Wrightson the Wise Man of
Stokesley, and people went to him for help
with their horses. He was a horse leech.
He was very good at telling
whether your horse had been bewitched and knowing how to
take the appropriate countermeasures.
People went to the cunning folk
also for the recovery of lost or stolen goods and they went for
advice and the telling of fortunes,
and to this extent the wise women and the cunning men were
the popular equivalent of the astrologers who had a more elite
clientele in this period. So, the cunning folk provided a
variety of real services and the best of them may well have been
quite skilled therapists in their way.
One historian of medical
practice in this period says we ought to count them amongst the
medical practitioners of the time.
They were cheap,
they were available and in many ways quite knowledgeable.
However, the church was pretty
unhappy about this kind of activity.
It didn’t like popular magic.
The official teaching of the
church was that if a person suffered any misfortune it must
be the result of divine providence.
It was either a test of your
faith or, on the other hand, it was a judgment on your sin.
The only proper response to
misfortune was to search one’s own heart for the possible
causes of such divine intervention:
to pray, to repent, to trust in God’s
providential purposes. The church rejected magical
means of relief. It accepted the possibility,
but it rejected the means. God could not be commanded by
spells and incantations, therefore, if there was any
supernatural response to such practices it must be from evil
spirits. And so, given these beliefs,
we find the deeply pious of the period searching their hearts
for the sins which had brought misfortune upon them and
sometimes finding quite extraordinary answers.
You find it in their diaries
for example. For example,
the diary of the Reverend Ralph Josselin,
a minister in the late seventeenth century,
who, having lost a dearly loved daughter,
searched his heart as to why God should have done this,
why he should have taken her away, and came to the conclusion
that it was because he had neglected his clerical duties
because of his enthusiasm for playing chess.
He had played chess too much;
God had taken his daughter. That’s the conclusion he came
to and he gave up playing chess. This is a seventeenth-century
God, not a nice, modern, user-friendly,
Little wonder then,
if these were the official teachings of the church,
that the greater part of the population preferred to explain
their misfortunes in terms of just bad luck,
or their neglect of protective magic,
or perhaps the malevolence of evil spirits and malicious
neighbors. Well, this world of popular
magic had long existed and it was long to endure.
You can find much of it still
alive and well deep into the nineteenth century.
And it endured because in
various ways it helped. But the problem of witchcraft
is altogether more distinctive. That involved a specific kind
of magic: the causing of injury or death by the malevolent and
malicious use of supernatural powers against another or their
property. And that was the practice which
was known as maleficium. That’s the Latin legal term
which was used for this maleficent magic.
And concern with witchcraft in
this way had a quite distinct chronology.
The possibility of malevolent
magic had always been there, of course, but concern with it
was undoubtedly at an unusual height in the late sixteenth and
earlier seventeenth centuries. And the key to why that was so
is perhaps to be found in what the historian of the Spanish
Inquisition, Henry Kamen,
has described as a peculiarly horrible conjunction in European
history, a conjunction he says between
“popular superstition” on the one hand and
“ecclesiastical fantasy”
on the other, the fantasies of churchmen.
The popular superstitious
element doesn’t need any further elaboration of course.
It had always been the case
that some individuals were regarded as having this special
access to occult power. The element of ecclesiastical
fantasy, however, that was something that was
peculiar to western Christendom. We don’t find it in the
Orthodox tradition and it was peculiar to the early modern
period, emerging at the end of the
fifteenth century and growing in strength in the sixteenth.
it involved the belief that all witchcraft in fact involved
worship of the devil, and as a result the elaboration
of a stereotype of the witch which portrayed witches not
merely as dabblers in magic, or perpetrators of
malefice against neighbors,
but as something much more serious,
members of an organized diabolical and malevolent cult:
not just village wise women or cunning men but enemies of God.
Throughout continental Europe,
and indeed in Scotland also, the result of these beliefs was
that the main driving force behind the spasmodic witch hunts
which can be found in the period was probably religious zeal,
and the great witch hunts which would be found scattered across
Europe died back only when the judges came to doubt the reality
of that stereotype of the witch and came to doubt the notion
that witchcraft was an organized cult threatening to Christian
society. One of the first legal
jurisdictions to make that decision, that the whole thing
was just a terrible error, was in fact the Spanish
Inquisition. One doesn’t usually associate
the Spanish Inquisition with progressive movements,
but in 1610 they were the first to abandon,
to refuse to deal with, cases of this kind.
The French Parlement again did
so in 1640 some years later. So it gradually died away.
But throughout both Catholic
and Protestant Europe for some time there was a unity in the
war against witches as enemies of God.
Well, how far was that pattern
true of England? The usual answer is that it
wasn’t true of England and that was for several reasons.
First of all,
the authorities in England never actually embraced the full
ecclesiastical stereotype of witchcraft as evidence of
membership of a diabolical cult. Continental European ideas
about the nature of witchcraft were certainly known in England.
Books from Europe were read by
the educated and these ideas were disseminated by a number of
English writers, usually clergymen,
particularly from the 1580s or thereabouts.
Gradually, such notions did
seep into popular beliefs and you begin to find them at the
popular level by the mid- to late seventeenth century.
But nevertheless that notion of
the nature of witchcraft didn’t have much influence on English
law. Witchcraft was never prosecuted
as a heresy in England. The first act which was passed
against it in 1542 made it a felony–
any crime that was a felony carried the death penalty–
made it a felony to practice witchcraft for unlawful
purposes. But that act was only on the
statute book for five years; then it was repealed.
After that there was actually
no law against witchcraft for nearly twenty years.
Then in 1563 there was a new
act. It was made a felony to invoke
evil spirits and to–if they were invoked to cause the death
of another, then execution was the punishment.
Otherwise witches were to be
imprisoned or put in the pillory and face death only for a second
offense. Then finally in 1604 came a
third act. It elaborated on the 1563 act.
It made it a felony to bewitch
anyone to either their death or their injury.
For lesser forms of sorcery
people faced imprisonment and death for a second offense.
But some elements of
continental European ideas were beginning to creep in at last in
to this third act. For example,
it was made a felony to dig up dead bodies for the purposes of
practicing witchcraft. Exactly why they were concerned
with that they don’t explain, but that was one of the clauses
of the act. It was also made a felony to
consult with or to feed an evil spirit for any purpose.
So, some elements of the notion
of diabolical pacts and the like were beginning to creep in but
not all of the kind of stereotype of witchcraft which
was well known north of the border in Scotland,
or in continental Europe. Witchcraft remained seen as not
specifically diabolical but rather,
as Keith Thomas puts it, an “antisocial
crime,” a very unusual one but an antisocial crime rather
than a form of heresy. And that characteristic,
that it’s treated as a specific kind of crime,
comes out in the trial evidence.
For example,
in English witchcraft trials it’s very rare to find any
reference to making pacts with the devil.
You get the odd one in the
seventeenth century but they are few;
so no diabolical pacts really. No witches’ sabbats at which
witches met and feasted and danced with the devil and so
forth. Very little sex with devils in
English witchcraft trials, though that was a prominent
feature in continental trials. English witches didn’t fly.
They didn’t have much fun at
all really.>
English witches did,
however, have pets. They had imps and
“familiars” as they were known,
usually small animals, and they seem to have been part
of popular beliefs in England, that a witch would have a
familiar which could act on her behalf.
Ursula Kemp,
for example, was alleged to have had four
familiars: two cats, a toad which was called Pygin,
and a lamb which was called Tyffin.
What the English trials focused
on first and foremost was simple maleficent acts.
Other elements usually entered
only in a handful of notorious causes celebres.
Witches were always condemned
for maleficium and they were hanged rather than burned;
it was a crime, not a heresy. Secondly, particular witchcraft
prosecutions were rarely instigated from above in
England. That’s another important
difference. There’s no evidence that the
authorities actually wanted a witch hunt.
One outstanding exception to
this generalization was the activities in 1645 to ’47 of a
witch finder called Matthew Hopkins who operated in East
Anglia and to all intents and purposes hired himself out as a
consultant for the discovery of witches.
That was an organized witch
hunt from which Matthew Hopkins personally profited,
but it’s the only really outstanding example of such an
outbreak in the history of witchcraft in England.
It was the subject of a
wonderful Vincent Price movie thirty years or so ago,
“Witchfinder General,”
which I do recommend. It’s got nothing to do with the
history, but it’s a great movie. Okay.
So witchcraft prosecutions in
England tended not to come in these witch hunts that would
bring hundreds of cases. They didn’t come in great waves
with the major exception of Matthew Hopkins’ activities.
They were sporadic.
They were occasional.
They came up one or two at a
time and so forth. In addition,
in English law torture was not used except in state–certain
state trials when it was specially authorized by the
privy council. In day-to-day trials torture
was not used whereas it was routinely used in many
jurisdictions in continental Europe and indeed in Scotland.
As a result,
people were not tortured into confessing.
As a result,
large numbers of people were not implicated by people under
torture who named names. What you get in the witchcraft
statistics from the English courts is really a lot of
individual prosecutions brought from below by the alleged
victims of witchcraft seeking redress in the courts just like
any other crime. So there are some important
differences in the way all of this was handled in the law.
England did share in the general European preoccupation
with witchcraft even though to a lesser extent.
Just how far it shared is not
fully known. That’s because the relevant
legal records don’t survive for every area of the country.
They survive pretty fully for
the whole of the southeast and for the county of Cheshire but
for other parts of the country they tend to survive only from
the seventeenth century point, which is relatively late in the
history of this crime. But where we do have the
evidence, one of the striking features is that the trials
appear to have been relatively rare except for the home
circuit, the counties around London.
If you look at the handout,
if you look at the two graphs, graph A gives you the trials
which took place in different assize circuits and the line at
the top showing the real spike is the home circuit.
You can see how there are
vastly more cases being heard in the whole home circuit than in
any other jurisdiction for which we have the records.
The second spike is Matthew
Hopkins operating in 1645, but the first spike,
as you’ll see, was in the later years of
Elizabeth. And even within the home
circuit, this area, the cases came predominantly
from one part of it, the county of Essex to the east
of London. If you look at the second
graph, graph B, there you have the different
counties of the home circuit broken down and it’s clear
enough that Essex is absolutely outstanding in terms of the
numbers of cases which came from that county.
To give you some actual
figures, in the whole of the reign of Elizabeth the county of
Hertfordshire, which is just to the north of
London, quite a populous county,
produced only twenty-four witchcraft cases.
The county of Sussex,
a large county to the south of London, produced only fourteen.
The county of Essex produced
172. In fact, between 1560 and
1680,270 individuals were prosecuted for witchcraft in
Essex, whereas in comparison,
taking a county of similar size and similar population,
in the period between 1580 and 1709 only thirty-four were
prosecuted in the county of Cheshire for which we have good
evidence. So Cheshire,
thirty-four: Essex, 270.
In general, most of the trials
for which we have evidence took place in the last quarter of the
sixteenth century. In the home circuit and in
Essex in particular, they were at their peak between
the 1570s and the early 1590s. Looking at the country as a
whole, trials become very rare everywhere after about 1620.
The numbers are falling away
after about 1620 with again the notable exception of the
activities of Matthew Hopkins in the mid- to late 1640s,
which caused a new peak of concern within a downward trend.
Well, that downward trend,
the decline of witchcraft cases, after around 1620 is
something which historians have found relatively easy to
explain. The decline can be explained in
a number of ways. First of all,
from at least the 1580s some of the justices of the peace and
the assize judges who had to handle these cases were very
worried about the difficulties of proving witchcraft.
They weren’t necessarily
skeptical. They frequently believed that
witchcraft was possible, but how could you prove in law
that a particular individual was actually responsible unless they
confessed? How could you prove that
something was caused by witchcraft rather than by
natural causes, if for example someone died of
a lingering illness? And even if it was witchcraft,
who did it? So they were worried about the
problem of proof and they talked about it.
In witchcraft cases normal
rules of evidence could not apply and this bothered them.
Increasingly in the seventeenth
century, lawyers who were worried about all of this became
very unwilling to entertain cases.
They tried to talk people into
not prosecuting, or they were–or they insisted
upon additional evidence if a case was to go forward.
In addition,
from the early seventeenth century onwards there seems to
have been an actual decline amongst educated people in
belief in the very possibility of witchcraft.
The conviction grew that it was
a fantasy which had been projected onto wretched people
by hysterical neighbors. The conviction grew that the
accused did not have the occult powers that were claimed,
even if they thought they did so;
they were frauds. And in the later seventeenth
century there was the growth of awareness of the mechanical
philosophy of Sir Isaac Newton, who regarded the universe as
having been created by God and subjected to laws which were
immutable; you could not tamper with God’s
natural laws through using spells and the like.
Well, all of this probably had
its influence in the course of the decline of witchcraft
prosecutions. Though initially it’s most
likely that it was the legal concern,
the unwillingness of some lawyers and judges to handle
these cases, which was the main cause of the
falling off noticeable by the early seventeenth century.
So in these various ways one
can perhaps satisfactorily explain the decline of concern
with witchcraft, but we still have to explain
the sixteenth-century rise of concern and that turns out to be
much more difficult. Much more difficult because
this seems to have been a genuine popular concern,
with cases coming up from below.
One can’t simply explain it in
terms of the activities of a number of bishops or judges.
The dominant explanation was
put forward some years ago by Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane
in two of the pioneering works on this subject,
and they explained the rise of witchcraft prosecutions in terms
of a detailed examination of the circumstances of surviving
cases. Witches were usually women and
they were frequently elderly women.
Witches were usually accused of
bewitching neighbors within their own village;
not strangers, always neighbors,
people they knew. Witches were often poorer than
their alleged victims. This suggested that the
accusations were therefore arising from tensions between
relatively marginal women in the village community and better-off
neighbors, who might be men or women.
Then they looked at the known
circumstances of cases, and the classic circumstances
were more or less as follows: a quarrel would occur between
neighbors, ending in one of them,
the supposed witch, going away cursing or muttering.
The victim would then suffer
some form of personal misfortune.
The victim would then begin to
entertain suspicion that they’d been bewitched.
They would talk to other
neighbors some of whom might have similar suspicions about
the person they suspected. A person would then be
identified as a possible witch, as a malevolent person in the
eyes of the village. It’s possible that some of
those who were so accused did practice magic and did believe
themselves to have the power to harm,
and to some extent they may even have used it as a form of
begging with menace. The quarrels between neighbors
which initiated cases very often began when someone was turned
away having been begging or asking for a favor of some kind.
It’s possible that some of
these marginal women responded to being gradually identified as
witches by playing the part, by scaring their neighbors,
as it were, into meeting their needs.
That could go on for years and
often did, but eventually some incident serious enough to
trigger off an actual court prosecution would occur;
perhaps a death, something of unusual
seriousness. When that happened someone
would bring an accusation; other neighbors would chime in.
There were lots of such
accusations. Alan Macfarlane found that in
Essex there was an average of four accusers for each accused
witch, so other people would chime in
with their suspicions. Supplementary proofs might be
looked for, for example the witch’s
mark–the existence on the witch’s body of a wart or mole
or other mark which seemed to be insensitive to pain and which
was thought to be the place at which the witch’s familiar would
feed on her blood. If they found such a thing it
was considered additional proof and the witch might be found
guilty. Fine.
Well, those do indeed seem to
have been what one can think of as the classic circumstances
though they were by no means unusual.
Witchcraft accusations could
arise in other contexts. They could arise for example as
a result of personal rivalries in local politics.
An accusation of witchcraft was
something which was easy to throw at another person in order
to discredit them, so there are other
circumstances. Not all witches were women,
some were men, though most were women and so
on. But these do appear to have
been the classic circumstances. Why then should the late
sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries have seen a peak of
such accusations because surely one could find such
circumstances earlier and one could find them later?
Why was that the peak period of
anxiety? Thomas and Macfarlane suggest,
first of all, it was partly because of the
loss of the protective magic which had been supplied by the
medieval church. The Church of England allowed
the belief in witchcraft to continue,
but it wouldn’t offer ecclesiastical means of
counter-magic and it forbade people to resort to them.
If that was the case,
then bringing a legal accusation, a trial,
and eventually seeking an execution would be the only way
out of the impasse. A second part of their
explanation is that the reason for so many late sixteenth- and
early seventeenth-century trials was that because that period was
one of unusual tensions within village society,
within neighborhoods. It was a period,
as we know, of economic distress,
one which saw a declining position for the poor,
especially perhaps the elderly and marginal poor,
the widowed and so forth. The Poor Laws had not yet been
fully put into effect to provide for such people.
Neighbors who themselves were
feeling the pinch might be less willing to show charity,
less willing to help. They might feel uncomfortable
about that. They might feel rather guilty
about that. That might prey on their minds
and make them sensitive to misfortunes which they saw as
the revenge of people to whom they had refused charity,
people who had perhaps cursed them.
Accusing such a person of
witchcraft was a way of severing their responsibility,
assuaging their feeling of guilt, transferring it to the
accused witch. Well, all of this is an
ingenious explanation, which may well hold a great
deal of truth and it’s indeed widely accepted as an account of
the sociology and psychology of accusations.
Recently, that explanation of
Thomas and Macfarlane has been elaborated by more focus upon
the fact that most of those accused of witchcraft were of
course women. The tensions within
neighborhoods seemed to have come to focus upon punitive
action against women above all. Why was that?
Thomas and Macfarlane suggest
that it was simply a product of the fact that most of the
economically marginal and most of the aged in particular were
indeed poor women. Some feminist writers see it as
more sinister, as constituting an attack upon
women who, by their social situation,
or perhaps their aggressive personalities,
stood outside the normal controls of the patriarchal
household. It’s an important issue,
but one has to pause, I think, before jumping to the
conclusion that witch hunting was in effect a form of
repression of women. Certainly, it was the case that
the association of witchcraft with women specifically,
which was universal, derived in large part from
fundamentally misogynistic attitudes.
Women were seen as being
morally weaker, as more prone to temptation,
as more likely to use occult means to revenge themselves upon
their neighbors; spells were the weapons of the
weak. However, witchcraft
prosecutions were not simply a patriarchal drive against
marginal, aggressive, or troublesome women.
The magistrates who heard the
cases were men but the accusers themselves were very often other
women. The work of James Sharpe
reveals how many of the suspicions that led to
accusations actually arose in the female spheres of village
life; they were often initiated by
other women. Women themselves felt
threatened by witchcraft and were deeply involved in
identifying and accusing witches.
And on the other hand many of
the juries, universally male, who heard these cases,
failed to believe them. Many accused witches were
acquitted by male juries. The gender element then is
clearly there, but it’s complex;
it’s paradoxical. These issues remain far from
resolved, but they add further complexity to any discussion of
the sociology of witchcraft accusation.
There were a number of other
problems also to which I need to draw your attention,
problems relating not so much to the sociology of specific
witchcraft accusations, but to the history of
witchcraft as a crime, and two questions in particular
arise in the English case. First of all,
why were the witchcraft statutes passed in the first
place? And, secondly,
once they were passed why did such an utterly disproportionate
number of the cases arise in the county of Essex?
Essex seems to be wholly
unusual so far as one can tell. If there were neighborhood
tensions which were acute in the county of Essex leading to such
accusations, why were there not such
neighborhood tensions in the counties of Kent or Sussex or
Hertfordshire, all of which were places which
had a great deal in common with Essex in terms of social
structure or local economy and so forth.
Why Essex?
Well, some brief suggestions.
First of all,
as regards the laws, I think it’s worth considering
that these laws were passed when they were,
perhaps because of a convergence of two things.
First of all,
both of the major witchcraft statutes in England were passed
at the beginning of new regimes, one in Elizabeth’s second
Parliament, one in the first Parliament of
King James VI and I. It makes one wonder whether
there was an element in this legislation of symbolism;
that acts on this subject were passed perhaps as part of the
propaganda of a new regime, that passing statutes of this
nature in a sense conferred legitimacy on new regimes by
showing their firm stance against a particularly
symbolically charged form of deviance.
To be opposed to witchcraft was
in a sense a declaration of legitimacy.
The acts may have had then a
certain symbolic function when they were passed through
Parliament, without opposition so far as we can tell.
Secondly, another element of
the timing of the acts is the fact that there may have been an
element of political contingency,
specifically in the form of suspected threats to the person
of the monarch. In 1561, two years before the
1563 act was brought forward, a plot had been discovered in
which sorcery was allegedly being used against Elizabeth.
William Cecil was horrified to
find, when the plot was uncovered, that there was
actually nothing on the statute book forbidding it.
This may have been a contingent
political reason for moving ahead with a witchcraft statute.
It may have persuaded him to go
along with one or two of the bishops who were themselves
interested in having legislation on this issue.
That’s an interpretation,
then, which might be particularly relevant to the
passage of the 1563 act though the full details of its passage
through Parliament remain unknown;
the documentation is too poor. The act of 1604 is a lot
clearer. Following the accession of
James VI of Scotland as James I of England,
he was a man with a profound interest in witchcraft,
he’d written a book about it on the subject in–
he’d written a book about the subject in Scotland–
following his accession and the union of crowns,
the witchcraft statutes of both England and Scotland were
overhauled and revised by a committee of judges and bishops.
This again may have been a
symbolic act. They decided to do it then.
Why then?
It’s a new regime and a new act
was passed in Scotland at the same time.
It may have been helped along
again by the fact that in 1604 there was a particularly
notorious witchcraft case in London itself,
which may have drawn attention to the problem once again.
So what I’m suggesting is that
these acts of Parliament were essentially introduced as
legitimizing symbols: good and godly laws introduced
by good and godly regimes. Yet there’s no evidence that
the authorities that put them on the statute book actually wanted
a witch hunt. If they’d wanted one,
they could have had one. But they didn’t.
What they did was to make
witchcraft prosecutions possible in the royal courts–
and to that extent the political and ecclesiastical
elite had a bigger role in making possible the prosecutions
which took place than is often recognized.
So one can perhaps explain why
the acts were put on the statute book in that kind of way,
but that still leaves the problem of Essex.
Why Essex?
Is it possible that Essex as a
local society was peculiarly conscious of the threat of
witchcraft? But why should that be so?
It’s quite clear that people
might feel threatened by maleficium in any part of
England. Why should they act against it
so much more in the county of Essex?
And the only suggestion I can
make on that issue is that the use of the criminal law against
witches had had terrible publicity in Essex.
Essex was unusual in the sense
that it saw three causes celebres,
three group trials. They took place in 1566,
only three years after the passage of Elizabeth’s statute;
in 1582; and in 1589.
In each of these cases an
initial accusation was vigorously pursued by local
justices of the peace who happened to have a particular
personal concern about witchcraft.
That meant that instead of just
one person going on trial small groups of women went on trial
and these trials were well publicized in pamphlets which
were written about them and which survive to this day.
You can read them on Early
English Books Online. All of this,
then, may have given peculiar publicity to witchcraft as a
threat and what could be done about it.
One wonders,
then, whether a number of particularly scandalous local
cases occurring in this county had the effect of heightening
anxiety about witchcraft within Essex,
enhancing the sense of threat which people felt,
making it more intense than elsewhere,
and of course providing an object lesson in how to deal
with it. So are we dealing then with a
moral panic breaking out within a particular local society,
which subsequently died down in the seventeenth century until it
was artificially revived again by the activities of Matthew
Hopkins, the Witchfinder General,
in 1645? Ursula Kemp incidentally was
one of the women tried in one of those group trials,
the one of 1582. So to conclude:
the whole issue of the history of witchcraft,
why people were so concerned with it at a particular point in
time, is clearly enormously complex.
But what I’m suggesting is that
first, the case of England was different to a degree from what
was going on elsewhere in Europe at the time.
There were no mass witch hunts
to marry popular superstition and ecclesiastical fantasy in
the way one found in various parts of Europe and in Scotland,
Matthew Hopkins excepted. Secondly, in England witchcraft
prosecutions did come up spontaneously from below and
they probably usually arose in pretty much the way Thomas and
Macfarlane and James Sharpe have suggested,
as far as individual cases were concerned,
though it was an accusation which could also be used for
malicious prosecution and was so used.
But thirdly,
these cases could only arise because of the existence of laws
which were perhaps essentially symbolic and contingent in their
origins. And that once those laws
existed, fourthly, the cases arose only
sporadically. The sense we have of a definite
chronological pattern in witchcraft prosecutions is very
heavily influenced as you’ve seen by the case of Essex alone.
Essex does seem to have been
unique for very special reasons which we may never be able to do
more than to guess at. Elsewhere in the country cases
arose sporadically, occasionally,
no clear pattern beyond the fact that they were more common
in the late sixteenth century than later.
And finally,
there was no English witch hunt because at the end of the day
the authorities in both church and state didn’t want one.
They never felt sufficiently
threatened to instigate one against those they deemed their
enemies. The potential for a witch hunt
was there and it long continued. Village tensions hadn’t faded.
The difference of the
seventeenth century from the later sixteenth century was
above all that the judicial authorities not only failed to
seek a witch hunt, but actually became active in
suppressing the accusations which were brought before them.
So then, I suspect that overall
both the rise and the fall of witchcraft prosecution is best
explained by the way in which the law first of all gave
people, and then later took away from
them, the opportunity to settle a
particular kind of personal conflict through the use of the
law and the prosecution of people to their deaths.
The beliefs behind all of that
were very ancient and they long continued,
but the history of witchcraft is very much to do with the use
of the criminal law in the way I’ve described.
The crucial issue was perhaps
that for a short while, for two generations,
there was indeed a conjunction of long-standing patterns of
popular belief with a shorter-term enhancement of the
anxieties and the credulousness of the elite.
It was they who passed the laws
that made witchcraft trials possible.
They later repented of their
folly. They avoided the enforcement of
those laws and eventually, in 1736, they repealed them.
But that, of course,
was about 150 years too late for Ursula Kemp.

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