Witchcraft Beliefs in Early Modern England

  Category: Early Modern Era

Belief in European witchcraft has been described as an ‘elaborate fantasy that has no foundation in reality.’ Questions have been raised over whether witchcraft just produced large numbers of criminals, innocent victims of a ‘deluded judiciary system and an oppressive legal system,’# or whether witches actually performed the misdeeds for which they had been prosecuted. For Reginald Scot, witchcraft was “false and fabulous,”# yet Richard Bovet concluded that the superstitious are likely to be drawn towards, and into, the ‘fatal snare’ of witchcraft, where if the Devil ‘finds an invitation, he ever after haunts.’# Nevertheless, whether the practice was in fact real or fantasy, the popular and educated belief in early modern England was that a form of magical power used for both good and evil did exist, and was practiced by those on the fringes of urban and village community life. James Sharpe (1996) has noted that there is substantial evidence that people accepted the reality of ‘ghosts, fairies, poltergeists, the power of prophecy and sprits’ and therefore “the presence of witches is hardly surprising.”# Although it remains difficult to judge accurately the extent of actual witchcraft practice, it is possible to understand part of the process that helped develop the notion that supernatural powers were indeed a reality, and therefore explain why folk in early modern England assented to witchcraft beliefs.

1542 to 1735 was a period of English history when witchcraft remained a statutory crime punishable by death; moreover, these years marked a significant increase in the number of witch-hunts and prosecutions. However, this does not necessarily mean that there was a comparative rise in witchcraft beliefs. The period reflects a populace that were ingratiated in the art of social intercourse, gossip and social interaction that meant if witchcraft was suspected, then it was talked about and opinions were formed. The secular and ecclesiastical courts merely allowed existing beliefs to be given the forum to express grievances against supposed witches, and subsequently extract some form of punitive action. Belief in witchcraft, it seems, had in some form always existed, manifested by a timeless belief in magical powers whether for good or bad. Many historians have identified three areas of witchcraft belief and have categorised them according to their sociological and theological context. For the purposes of establishing differing witchcraft beliefs, it appears necessary to distinguish between actual practices, the educated elite’s perceptions of the rejection of the Christian Church, and the popular tradition that feared witches that could do harm in the community; but despite contextual differences, there remained a degree of commonality between the popular and learned tradition.# European continental belief mainly centred on the nature of the ‘diabolical pact’ between the witch and the Devil, and related to the condition of the witch. This belief was shared by some of the educated elites in England; however, the English popular tradition was chiefly concerned with ‘maleficium’ and the ‘ability to do harm through ‘black magic,’ as opposed to the beneficial aspects of ‘white magic.’ This conviction in ‘local malice’# reflected the popular beliefs of the common people, ingrained over generations by ancient folklore and ‘superstitious sentiment,’ and was less about learned theory than explaining the harsh realities of day-to-day life. Although the writers of the Malleus Maleficarum suggested “all the superstitious arts had their origin in a pestilent association of men with devils,”# it was Reginald Scot’s contemporary view that “witchcraft and inchantment is the cloke of ignorance.”#

One explanation for witchcraft beliefs could indeed be a lack of education among the simple folk. However, witchcraft belief was prevalent among the more ‘elite’ classes. Learned opinion constructed the idea of a ‘black mass,’ but it has been argued that there is no foundation in the claim that witches ‘worshipped the Devil collectively,’ and that such notions were formulated in the minds of the persecutors and the accused themselves.# Nevertheless, genuine fears were aroused by the idea of collective Devil worship, and indeed may have been based on the evidence that secret groups did gather for purposes of religious worship, thus cultivating witchcraft beliefs. Nevertheless, the belief in the demon remained and the association with witchcraft strengthened the belief that a witch’s power came directly from an entity whose quest it was to cause harm. England produced a wealth of witchcraft literature that covered the ‘religious, legal, medical and sociological aspects of witchcraft.’# Moreover, it could be concluded that such an array of literature must have promoted and stimulated beliefs in witchcraft, although mainly among the literate and elite classes. In Brian Levack’s (1987) opinion, the innovation of printing “made it possible for learned beliefs to be spread more broadly and more rapidly than in the manuscript age.”# The Christian Church recognised the theological threat of witchcraft and produced manuals and tracts condemning the practice. The Church saw the act of witchcraft as fundamentally a reversal of Christian doctrine, and therefore a threat to the stability of maintaining a ‘godly’ and well-ordered society. For Christian political ideology, “witches represented the most extreme form of deviance.”# The Devil and his associates, according to the Malleus Maleficarum, were not just agents of deception, but actively deluded “those… who are not in a state of grace.”# Indeed, it has been argued that the Malleus Maleficarum “transmitted an entire set of learned beliefs to a larger audience,” and by declaring that those who denied the reality of witchcraft were heretics, the book encouraged a belief in witchcraft activity.# If it was not Christianity, then it was heretical and part of the black arts of witchcraft, commanded by the enemy of God, the Devil. In Reginald Scot’s view, Catholic law and investigation towards witchcraft in England resulted in extending the beliefs of a large number of the populace, noting that “these inquisitors added manie fables” to justify the persecution of English witches.# In addition, it has also been claimed that witchcraft was in fact a complete fiction conceived by Christian theologians and had no foundation in popular belief or practice.# However, theological constructions of faith and what it means to be a ‘good Christian’ provoked ideas on what defined the contrary, and on a popular level, this served to strengthen notions of community and reinforce ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ In a sense, witchcraft beliefs could be explained by a ‘cause and effect’ pattern instigated by Christian constructions of demonology and magical practice. It appears then that one explanation for witchcraft belief could be found in Christianity’s attempts to eradicate magical practice and the diabolical pact. By doing so, Christian theory ‘heavily reinforced’ the belief that a witch’s magical power was ‘real’ and to be feared.#

Early modern England was a country experiencing the religious upheaval brought about by Reformation ideas and the inconsistency of toleration and adherence during the reign of the Tudor’s. The development of personal religion among the common people emphasised differing belief systems in which opposing sides were established, Protestant or Catholic, and Christianity or witchcraft and black magic.# The Protestant Reformation provided a reference to witchcraft taken from God’s book, and therefore subject to literal interpretation; Exodus 22:18 stated that ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.’# Both Luther and Calvin believed in the power of magic, and their views were widely disseminated among both the popular and elitist culture; to be a follower of the new gospel was to hold a belief in witchcraft. Afterall, Martin Luther had asked, “who hath bewitched you, that you should not believe the truth?”# Luther had also suggested that all heretical biblical interpretation was witchcraft,# confirming the belief that all those who were non-conformist were agents of the Devil. In addition, the gospel identified the Devil as the source of a witch’s abilities and this probably intensified popular fear and awareness of the Devil’s powers. By condemning the power of magic, Reformation dogma perhaps inadvertently (or deliberately) induced a more frightening level of witchcraft belief among the pious laity. Christian theology had speculated upon the ‘diabolic pact’ in an attempt to make sense of witchcraft, however, such theory was not founded in contemporary popular tradition.# Nevertheless, the methods used to extract confessions of diabolism produced ‘evidence’ from which it has been suggested actually “created witchcraft, or at least created diabolical witchcraft.”# Popular belief in the diabolical activities of a witch could be deduced from the information read out at the time of the executions,# and therefore, it created a belief in the nature of diabolical witchcraft, a horrific and fearful entity that understandably may have produced widespread fear in a profoundly spiritual and religious society. Ann Laurence (1995) has also explained that diabolism depends on believing in a ‘dualist’ universe whereby the Devil is counterbalanced by God.# However, the Devil was not necessarily incorporated into the popular tradition of the maleficent abilities of the witch.

Christina Larner (1984) has argued that maleficium cannot be committed in ‘social vacuum,’ stressing that “to be effective, it must be generally believed to be effective.”# This idea is not so much that supernatural powers did exist in reality, but more that these abilities were believed to exist by those who needed an intuitive explanation of their universe and everyday life. Those folk most conspicuous by a belief in witchcraft were those people concerned with the day-to-day realities of agriculture, raising children, running households, the very essence of maintaining life and a livelihood. Witchcraft belief was a way to explain everyday fears and anxiety in a life that was intimately connected to the natural cycles of life. Anne Laurence (1995) has suggested that a central component of popular culture was derived from ‘pre-Christian ceremonies and customs,’ that had more to do with the ‘annual rhythms of nature than with the Christian calendar,’ and argues that English popular witchcraft beliefs in the sixteenth century were generally related to local circumstances. # At all social levels, the importance of fertility was an annual concern. Motherhood, breeding livestock, and a fruitful ground to produce foodstuffs were all necessary for the continuation of life itself. If this life was affected by illness, crop failure or sudden death, the result could be tragic and ruinous. The harrowing emotional experience of ‘real deaths, real illnesses, and real losses’ meant people looked for reason and believed that harm had been done to their families and livelihoods.# Witchcraft would often be suspected and blame was put upon those who were deemed to hold ‘magical powers.’ James Sharpe (1996) considers that such popular accusations should not be underestimated and the “fact that theirs was an insecure world in which diseases or accidents that today would be diagnosed or accounted for in other terms, or misfortunes that might simply be attributed to bad luck, were explained by witchcraft.”# Reginald Scot argued that the cause of such ‘credulous belief’ was “in the imagination of the melancholike,” but he did recognise that some folk believed that witches “can doo such things as are beyond the abilitie of humane nature.”# The seventeenth-century squire, Richard Bovet was well acquainted with country beliefs and noted more sympathetically that the “power of imagination…may have strange effects, especially upon tender and irrational bodies.”# Nevertheless, in early modern English communities, melancholic behaviour must have been ever present in the harsh life endured by the poor, and a belief in witchcraft could help provide answers to immediate misfortune.

There were those in popular society that believed that witchcraft was not just traditional beliefs, but actual practices that invoked ‘real’ acts of magic. It has been noted that some may have been practicing forms of white magic which their neighbours may have ‘misinterpreted or perhaps deliberately misinterpreted’ as being maleficent witchcraft.# ‘Unofficial’ forms of folk medicine, although sometimes deemed beneficial, were identified as witchcraft, and consequently it was believed that illness and tragedy was caused by a witch’s ability to perform maleficium. It has been suggested that a society subject to the plague, and a belief that it was caused by poisoned water, must have increased people’s anxieties concerning lethal potions. As Kieckhefer (1976) points out, “it must have difficult for contemporaries to decide whether the harmful effects of a given food or drink was natural or magical.”# However, by admitting forms of healing powers and therefore ‘special powers,’ these cunning folk would be subject to scrutiny by the authorities as well as the local populace. If those powers were believed to have been deliberately withheld, or if the person was persuaded to use such powers to cause harm, the accusation of witchcraft would generally follow. Although Richard Bovet would later reflect that many witches might have been unjustly accused “by an ignorance of causes merely natural,”# the idea of the popular healer displays a fundamental belief in how such ideas interacted with the everyday concerns of the popular culture.

One explanation why witchcraft beliefs were ingrained in the village communities in early modern England can be found in the contemporary opinions and beliefs concerning the female witch. The period saw the criminalisation of women, and the attacks on females using accusations of witchcraft was perhaps a veiled attempt to control the ‘improper’ behaviour of women, a deliberate strategy that actively propagated witchcraft beliefs, and although witchcraft accusations was not gender specific, women would account for the majority of the persecutions. Early modern England was a patriarchal society in which it was believed by both men and women that the female was the weaker of the sexes. However, it has been suggested that an enforced patriarchal society divided women. Those women that are dependent on men to provide a livelihood could in turn attack the non-conformity of those women who threaten this security.# Women perhaps internalised this theory and men actively promulgated such ideas. “The witch therefore threatened male hegemony and was a danger to conforming females and their children.”# The women was said to be ‘overly curious or cunning,’ weak willed, and susceptible to devilish advances. A stereotypical witch became a woman who did “not conform to the male idea of proper female behaviour.”# The witch may have been ‘pre-selected’ by a reputation that could have been built up over a lengthy period, often from early in life by being related to, or an associate of a ‘known’ witch.# For Reginald Scot, the contemporary stereotypical witches were those said to be women “commonly old, lame, blearie-eied, pale, fowle, and full of wrinkles, poore, sullen, and superstitious.”# The female connection with motherhood and fertility aroused suspicions over the nature of women’s sexuality. The Malleus Maleficarum records that “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust,”# and such an opinion may have formed the contemporary male belief that recognised a certain form of ‘glamour’ that was used by women to procure their needs. A prevalent belief among popular and the educated communities was the idea of a women who lacking physical prowess or substantial social influence, would resort to bewitchment to attain her needs. In the absence of physical and intellectual strength, the female would resort to the ‘power of words,’ to defend and curse and be labelled a ‘scold’. As Christina Larner (1984) explains, “the women who went to the stake during the witch-hunt went cursing, often for the crime of cursing.”# The Malleus Maleficarum suggests that since women are weak and have “slippery tongues…they find an easy and secret manner of vindicating themselves by witchcraft.”# For many, this would help explain sudden misfortune and bodily harm in the absence of a genuine physical assault. It would also provide reason for sudden ‘illness, certain accidents, lingering illnesses, strokes, unexpected deaths, failure of crops, drying up of milk, strange behaviour in animals, and disasters at sea.’# Lacking a scientific knowledge to provide a rationale and a persistent belief in pagan ‘natural’ entities, people would look for explanations to such occurrences and find an answer in the malevolent behaviour of a witch. Even more so if those who had suffered misfortune believed that in some way they had offended the individual that fitted the stereotype of the local witch. Keith Thomas (1980) has argued that much of the witchcraft accusations arose from a breakdown in community relations, caused by the foundation of early modern capitalist society where the emphasis was placed on possession and property instead of the more traditional virtues of mutual charitable obligation and ideas of ‘neighbourliness.’# The poor and needy were believed to be a threat to the acquisition of material wealth and charity diminished as a social concern; the village community was gradually replaced by the impact of more urban values. This socio-economic explanation saw the increase in tensions in society, whereby accusations of witchcraft were made against those who were apparently discontented with the refusal of alms. Although not directly an explanation for witchcraft belief, the argument does show how readily households were to blame any misfortune on the magical powers of witches. If a poor individual was unfortunate enough to knock upon the door of an uncharitable household that later suffered misfortune, an accusation of witchcraft upon that individual was often a way to alleviate guilt, but it was provoked by a genuine belief in the ability of a witch to do harm through magical powers. As Reginald Scot has explained, witches were so “odious unto all their neighbors, and so feared, as few dare offend them, or denie them anie thing they aske.”# Whether fantasy or reality, for the elite and popular tradition, witchcraft was a genuine belief in the ability of individuals to extract revenge and cause harm through supernatural powers.

As James Sharpe (1996) suggests, “witchcraft was quite simply, part of the everyday popular culture of the period,”# a belief that was intensified in the early modern period, perhaps by the onset of a religious reformation and an outlook that desired the establishment of a uniformed and godly world. Subsequent failings were to be blamed on those who were deemed social outcasts or heretical, or somehow detrimental to the well being of an ordered community. For many, the witch was the easiest target for extracting revenge, and a viable explanation for the ills that were a common feature of early modern life in England. Female witches became a focus of supernatural belief and it appears that the contemporary stereotypical view of such a woman actively intensified popular convictions in witchcraft. There were people that believed that there were those in the community who could ‘exercise unseen power over people, animals and things,’ but as Ann Laurence (1995) points out, “we do not know how far people believed that they possessed this power themselves.”# Christian and secular prosecution of witches helped develop the common tradition of witchcraft by popularising a belief in the demonic aspects of witchcraft. It has been suggested that “witchcraft may well be seen as the ultimate constructed crime,”# but perhaps this statement is limited to the educated classes, where rationale and theories of an ‘anti-society’ was deemed necessary in order to establish a righteous doctrine in the social fabric of urban and village communities. The widespread conviction in witchcraft was also part of a popular culture that endorsed the belief in superstitious activities that would often be employed to provide reasoning in a harsh and unpredictable life. The uncertain nature of sixteenth and seventeenth century life may therefore provide a possible explanation for the popular belief in ‘maleficium.’ Many would rely on ‘external observances, relics, pilgrimages, and rituals,’ and being “neither specifically pagan nor distinctively Christian,”# these ‘cunning folk’ were often seen as beneficial in the community and their services compatible with Christian beliefs. If indeed superstition was a viable component of the early modern English mindset, then it belies its more derogative connotations, and therefore ‘power of belief and suggestion’ should not be underestimated as crucial aspects of early modern life in England, and as an explanation for the belief in witchcraft. Most of the information relating to popular witchcraft belief comes from biased material in the form of court records and the analytical observations of educated observers, often, clerical writers of demonological treatises,# and therefore it is difficult to understand the ‘mindset’ of an individual in early modern England given that their views were often transcribed by outsiders. Witchcraft was most likely centred on a ‘superstitious’ folklore belief that profoundly recognised both good and bad magic as ‘real’ and ‘physical’ in its manifestations. The witch may have been a physical reality, but ‘witchcraft beliefs are in ourselves,’# and perhaps more so in the educated and popular minds of early modern England.