Why did witch hunting become so intensive in late sixteenth century England? Essay

During the late sixteenth century much was blamed on magic, and those accused of it. In a biblically aware society thy believed evil had to be rooted out.

“Do not allow a sorceress to live”1

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Bad weather, the death of live-stock, a bad harvest or spoiled butter were many problems blamed on witches, and “cunning folk” or “wise women” were called upon to counter act such curses. There were two types of magic in these times: high magic (black magic) and low magic (white magic). Low magic was generally accepted, as it was used by the cunning folk; while high magic was a capital offence. Why then did the numbers of accused witches increase?

Lotherington suggests that witch-hunts were due to the fear of women. He says witches tended to be women past childbearing2, so were of no benefit for their community, and around eighty-percent of those accused of witchcraft were women3. Paul Thomas4 agrees with Lotherington that it was mainly women who were persecuted; large numbers of women were hanged after being accused of maleficium (doing of harm to people or property) by their neighbours. Thomas says that the witch-craze was a “broyle against old women”5. Contemporary evidence supports this, for example George Gifford6, a Protestant priest from Essex, who wrote two books on witchcraft, in 1587 “Discourse of the Subtle Practises of Devils by witches and Sorcerers” and in 1593, noted:

“I was in a Jury not many years past, when there was an old woman arraigned for a witch…”

Lotherington3 suggest that women had the power over life and death, and they were also sexually stereotyped as having little control over ravenous lust, hence they were accused of witchcraft. The Dominican monk who wrote “Malleus Maleficium”4 in 1486 derived femina from “Fe” and “Minus” because according to them women were “deceitful” and “imperfect” (made from the “bent” rib of Adam), and the Dominican monks said women were “ever weaker to hold and preserve the faith” than men were.

The contemporary Eliphas L�vi, who had been a celibate priest but had left the priesthood, said women were better at sorcery because “they are more easily transported by excess of passion.” However, this may not be reliable evidence as these sources came from monks who were very biased and because of their celibacy feared the temptation women might have for them, and therefore were all too eager to blame women for their own fear of sin. Dominicans were more orthodox than most religious orders and very fervent in persecution. Therefore these explanations may be exaggerated by those who blamed women for witchcraft.

Witch-hunts may have existed because it was a way of controlling those who did not openly conform, for example, the vagrant and “able-bodied” poor, unmarried mothers5, and Catholic plotters (at this time the Protestant government used witchcraft as an excuse to have their Catholic enemies killed). According to Lotherington6 village communities in the late sixteenth century were tightly knit, people had precise roles and conformity was insisted upon. Those who did not conform were targeted as witches. Historian Alison Plowden7 suggests that “poor old women” with eccentric habits or a gnarled appearance my be an object of fear and disgust due to their lack of conformity, so Exodus 22:18 may have been used against them. Paul Thomas8 agrees with Plowden and states that people who did not conform outwardly were more likely to be accused of witchcraft and face “brutal opposition” from the authorities.

However not only women but also certain men, were targeted, Walter Ralegh, Dr John Dee (an Astrologer), Christopher Marlowe (an atheist, homosexual playwright and spy) and Thomas Kydd (a playwright and torture victim). Thomas 9suggests that Dee and Ralegh were lucky to escaped serious condemnation because they attracted the attention of Elizabeth’s secret service, headed by the Puritan Lord Walsingham. The authorities naturally were suspicious of unusual behaviour, fearing possible violence, riots or rebellions. Scarre and Callow 10argue that in England most of the wizards were artisans, farmers, merchants, or clerics, thus supporting Thomas in that not all witches were women. However this evidence also contradicts Thomas because farmers, merchants, and clerics were more likely to conform openly. However, those who were educated, such as Dee, who practised alchemy and crystal gazing, were often respected, protected by their education and status in society.

Witch hunting became more intense in areas which posed a greater risk for the ruling class. There is evidence for this in Essex. Lotherington notes that most of the English witchcraft cases were in Essex; over half of the villages in Essex had at least two witchcraft cases in the Tudor and Stuart period. Asa Briggs 11observed that between 1563 and Elizabeth’s death in 1603 that there were one hundred and seventy-four people convicted for “black witchcraft” in the county of Essex, though only half that number were actually executed. Because Essex was near London, nonconformity must have been perceived by the Government as a great threat, possibly a cause of rebellion, and endangering the life of the monarch.

In the late sixteenth century a contemporary German physician Johan Weyer12 (1515 -1588) put forward the argument that cases of witchcraft were in fact the product of torture and psychological delusion. Lotherington informs us that in cases where torture was used the conviction rate as ninety-five percent. Lotherington and other historians identifies a full range of torture instruments used on witches and believe that the confessions of witchcraft during the witch hunts was the result of the torture inflicted upon those accused. These include the thumbscrews, racks, “Scold’s bridle”; the witches collar; and “The Black Virgin of Nuremberg” (a bronze box in the shape of a person – the victim would be shut in the box and impaled by spikes attached inside. One of the other effective forms of torture was called tormentum insomniae – sleep deprivation.

The use of the printing press may have been another explanation as to why witch-hunts grew in number in the late sixteenth century. In 1610 Inquisitor Salazar visited the Basque country to investigate an outbreak of the witch craze. He was reported to have said:

“There were neither witches nor bewitched until they were talked and written about.”

Books were published from the late fifteenth to the early sixteenth century dictating how witchcraft trials should be held: The Papal Bull of 1484, “Malleus Maleficium” published in 1486, and Paulus Grillandus’s book of 152414. Because the Inquisition and judges could run a trial by “text book” the realities or facts of the crimes mattered less and were less likely to be investigated.

Woodcuts, books and posters depicted the execution of witches. In 1589 a poster15 showed the hanging of the Chelmsford Witches and their animal familiars. There were also woodcuts16 published promoting the idea that women were in alliance with the Devil: for example there was a woodcut displayed a vain woman who saw the Devil’s “behind” in her mirror. However how useful are these woodcuts as evidence? They show contemporary propaganda showing witches as satanic, opposed to godly citizens. The same can be said for the woodcut of the vain woman, for it was considered sinful to be vain, so were these forms of control, reminding people to follow a godly life? However, how widely distributed were these forms of propaganda? The posters would have had a wider audience that the books, but the woodcuts may not have been seen by many.

Accusing a neighbour of witchcraft may have been a means of easing guilt. For example, in pre-sixteenth century English villages it was often customary for old women to borrow from more fortunate neighbours a small amount of money or some herbs etc. However Lotherington said that in the Tudor period “tradition hospitality” and other forms of charity were declining, so many people would refuse to offer charity to their neighbour, hence the guilt. However this evidence can not be based on written evidence of those involved so I am puzzled as to how Lotherington came to his conclusion.

The approved attitude to witchcraft and sorcery from those in authority may have also been both a protection and a cause for witch-hunts. Historian Robert Masello17 reports how those in high power believed certain types of sorcery to be of benefit. Dr John Dee was an astrologer whose interests were also crystal gazing, alchemy, and necromancy was reported to have spent much time conversing with angels (according to Marsello and Dee’s18 detailed documents of these encounters). Dr Dee wrote his book “Monas Hieroglyphica” which William Cecil1, Secretary and Lord Chancellor of Queen Elizabeth I, is alleged to have supported, stating the book was:

“of the utmost value for the secretary of the Realm.”1

However evidence such as this quotation from William Cecil may not be reliable, for we do not know when he was supposed to have said it or who wrote it down. Why did the Queen support Dee? The Queen herself came to Dee’s aid when he became impoverished and rescued him with a small appointment. It seems that Dr John Dee was seen as a respectable Renaissance man and that his interest in alchemy was actually early chemistry, as illustrated in the 1652 image of “Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum”2. This showed the combination of sophisticated chemical apparatus and symbols of alchemy. However, in 1603 James I (of Presbyterian upbringing) loathed those associated with witchcraft, and did not continue to support Dee. Dee died, impoverished and surrounded by evidence of his trade, in 1608. Therefore the attitude of those in authority was all-important.

Not all historians agree about the extent of witch hunting in England at this time. Lotherington19 suggests that there was no witch-craze in England, as for example, only one statue in Elizabeth’s forty-four years of reign was passed against witches. This suggests witch hunting was not intensive in late sixteenth century England. Historian Paul Thomas20 argues against Lotherington, suggesting there was a witch craze, and therefore witch-hunting was intensive. His evidence is that there were several statutes passed in England relating to witch-hunting; statues were passed in 1542, 1547,1563 and 1604.

Thomas says that Elizabeth I’s government introduced the 1563 statute to help cope with an increase in witches. Asa Briggs21 suggests witch-hunts began in England round 1550, while the Reformation of the English church was still in process, and he argue it continued for another century. Historian Alan MacForland22 has discovered that there was a remarkable increase in witchcraft accusations during the 1580’s and the 1640’s. The numbers of witchcraft allegations are known because witch-hunters kept records of witches. As his evidence is factual it suggests that there was an intensive period of witch-hunting towards the end of the sixteenth century England.

It is debatable as to what caused the witch-hunts: was it social and economic or religious reasons? Lotherington suggests many reasons why witch-hunting might have become more intensive. He says that in the late sixteenth century politics changed, as well as the politicians. We know that during Elizabeth’s reign the four hundred gentry and lower nobility who sat in the House of Commons became four hundred and sixty two MP’s in the House of Commons. These extra Members of Parliament were not gentry or lower nobility, but were well educated, competitive lawyers and administrators who due to their education were much more confident in their decisions. Lotherington23 suggests that it was these new Protestant politicians with their new Protestant politics sought to:

“exercise an increasingly moral authority.”

This was a part of the growing Puritan outlook. Witchcraft was, according to Lotherington, part of a widespread “moral panic”. This “moral panic” included such fears as infanticide, incest, adultery and sodomy. These new politicians made efforts to control the lives of the peasantry and the urban populations. Lotherington1 goes on to say that he believes the witch craze was in a way;

“A feature of the emerging godly state, tasking on the moral authority formerly exercised by the Church.”

However, I would question whether sixty-two “new” politicians could have had such a significant effects on the opinion of the House of Commons.

The argument that religious change was the cause of the witch craze is also a very debated one. Trevor-Roper1 argued that witch hunting was part of the hysteria the between the Catholics and Protestants and was therefore due to religious conflict. However, he sees little correlation between cases of witchcraft persecutions and periods of religious conflict. I disagree with him because of MacForland’s evidence that the worst time of witchcraft persecution was during the 1580’s and the 1640’s.

The 1580’s was the time when the Catholics were most of a threat to Elizabeth. The 1640’s were a time of civil war. Also the acts that were passed corresponded with times of religious upheaval. For example the 1563 act was passed by Elizabeth only a five years after her accession when Puritans were still calling for religious reforms (the 1561 Vestarian Controversy for example); and the 1604 act passed by James I just after his accession in 1603. He faced religious conflict for he chose, after much debate, for England to remain Anglican; having raised false hopes among the Catholics and the Protestants. So therefore it appears to me that the worst times of witchcraft persecutions did actually correspond with religious and political upheaval.

It may also be that there are more recorded cases of witchcraft towards the end of the sixteenth century because it became more common for people to turn to the law for advice and justice against those they perceived as witches. This was because the Reformation dissolved much of the Catholic “counter magic” (e.g. exorcisms and holy water), so the “victims” had little choice but to turn to the law. Historian Keith Thomas supports this by saying the laws “filled a gap after the Reformation.” Paul Thomas agrees with Keith Thomas by stating how he believes the religious change did intensify the witch-hunts, and that Catholicism was seen, up to a point, as a type of sorcery. Keith Thomas 24says how the fear of Catholic “Latin Tags” and Catholic forms, such as “hoc est corpus” becoming “hocus pocus”, contributed to the persecution of “witches”, by mainly those of Puritan belief.

Paul Thomas shares some of Lotherington’s beliefs that the witch-hunts were a social and economic based phenomenon. He says that the witch persecutions were actually forced on the elite by popular appeal; the hierarchy only heeded them to “soothe” the anxieties of the parish in times when there was much religious change. The result the elite wanted was to control the people, therefore witch-hunting was a method used by the hierarchy to control the populace. Historian J A Sharpe25 agrees with Paul Thomas by suggesting that the witch craze in England did not affect the activities of the intelligent, but rather it affected the activities of the peasants.

From the evidence I have gathered it seems that witch-hunts were more intensive in late sixteenth century England due to both religious and socio-economic reasons. Contributory factors were: contemporary attitudes towards women and non-conformists, close proximity to London, the methods of torture involved and the publication of propaganda against witches. It does appear that the witch-hunts were actually a form of control the ruling classes inflicted upon society. This would explain why witches were not tolerated at a time of increased political danger, such as the 1580’s, and in a period of religious change.