Nostalgia: Time of religious uncertainty

William Perkins identified several kinds of witches, good and bad.
William Perkins identified several kinds of witches, good and bad.

The word “witch” is probably derived from the Old English “wicca” which means sorcerer, though the two have different meanings. Witchcraft was thought to be an innate power, inherited from or conferred by the Devil, whereas sorcery is the use of spells or charms which may be damaging or beneficial. Anyone can become a sorcerer by learning and practice: you have to be born a witch or a wizard.

There was also a crucial difference between a white or good witch and a black or wicked witch. White witches were also known as “cunning folk” or “wise men”, who might cure the sick, find lost articles, or protect the house and its occupants against evil spirits.

On the other hand, black witches used their devilish powers to do harm to people or animals, taking revenge on those they thought had ill-treated or insulted them.

Writing in 1608, in his pamphlet “A Disclosure of the Damned Art of Witchcraft”, William Perkins identified several kinds of witches, good and bad: those who dealt only with charms and relics; necromancers, who exhumed corpses and used them to foretell the future; ventriloquists, “hollow voices”, who conversed with spirits of the dead; and the malicious ones who used poison to kill their victims.

However, in 1621, in his widely-read “Anatomy of Melancholy”, Robert Burton gave his own “scientific” explanation of the practice and belief in witchcraft:

“Sorcerers are too common; cunning men, wizards and white witches, as they call them, are in every village; which, if they be sought unto, will help all infirmities of body and mind.”

As for witches, old age, infirmity and depression played tricks with the minds of credulous women:

“All those extraordinary powers which old witches were supposed to exercise and pretend to possess; such as bewitching cattle to death, riding in the air upon a coulstaffe [broomstick], flying out of the chimney top, transforming themselves into various forms of cats and other animals; transporting their bodies from place to place...and other “supernatural solicitings” of the like kind, are all ascribed to the corrupted fancy, which is engendered by that morbid melancholy matter, attendant upon moping misery and rheumed age.”

The truth is that in a time of religious uncertainty and extremism, ordinary folk were unable to see the difference between religious belief, “science”, magic, pagan superstition and customary tradition.

For instance, on the eve of St Helen’s Day, it was the habit to gather branches of the mountain or ash or rowan tree and place them over house door lintels, barns and even bed heads to ward off bad luck or evil spirits; but by the seventeenth century the association between the mother of the Emperor Constantine who was believed to have rescued the true cross from Jerusalem and the tree had been forgotten.

Similarly, “witch stones”, made from the rowan and marked with St Andrew’s cross saltire, X, were commonly found in the thresholds or fireplaces of cruck-framed houses occupied by illiterate Protestants.

Belief in the malign power of witches was centuries old. The Old Testament contained several condemnations of sorcerers and witches.

Catholic Papal bulls were issued as early as 1258 declaring witchcraft, which rejected God in favour of Satan, to be a heresy; and the Protestant reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, argued that witches must be killed. However, the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation gave new impetus to witch-hunting. In England, a series of acts of Parliament, quoting Exodus, “Thou shall not suffer a witch to live”, were passed in 1542, 1563 and 1604.

These first made witchcraft a statutory offence, punishable in extreme cases by death by hanging. Only if a victim had been killed by poisoning was death by burning permitted. Ninety per cent of all alleged witches in England were women and in all about a quarter of them were executed.

The Scots under King James VI had no compunction about burning witches. In 1597 he became the only reigning monarch in history to write a pamphlet “Daemonologie” (The Science of Demons) which declared his belief in witches, “the instruments of Satan”. He was convinced that they caused storms, sickness, madness, deformity and death. In every Scottish church there was a box in which anyone could post an accusation of witchcraft.

As a result, when James became king of England, the new statute of 1604 made hanging a mandatory punishment for the first offence of witchcraft. No proof of malicious intent was necessary: a Devil’s mark was sufficient. From now on the state rather than the church dealt with witchcraft. In the same year, Marlowe’s Faust intensified hatred and fear of witches; but it was Shakespeare’s Macbeth, first performed before the royal court in 1606, which implied that witches could cause sea storms and contribute to the murder of a lawful monarch.

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 had strengthened the conviction of many Protestants like King James that there was a close link between Catholic practices and witchcraft. Witches were traitors as well as heretics. In 1612, the Pendle witch trials at York and Lancaster led to the deaths of ten. A nine-year old denounced her sister, elder brother, mother, grandmother and several neighbours. They were all hanged the next day.

However, by 1619, King James seems to have lost interest in witches: his published “Meditation on the Lord’s Prayer” never mentioned them. During the next two decades, the 1620s and 1630s, witch hunting appeared to have died out. But the Civil Wars of the 1640s and 1650s stimulated the final wave in England of the barbarous persecution of alleged witches. Charles I had always assumed, unlike his father, that witch hunts were associated with Puritan fanaticism and the events in East Anglia between 1645 and 1647 support his view. During those two years, 184 women were tried and at least a hundred executed, most of them totally innocent.

The last conviction for witchcraft, later overturned, was in 1712. When the magistrate was told that the accused had flown through the air, he remarked, “There is no law in England against flying.” Finally, in 1736, Parliament repealed the English and Scottish witchcraft statutes. [to be continued]