An Assembly of Witches, by Frans Franken II, 1607 / Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Remains of Ursula Kemp, Excavation near St. Osyth, Essex / Wikimedia Commons
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.”1 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.2
A model of a 19th-century cunning woman in her house, at the Museum of Witchcraft, Boscastle in England. / Wikimedia Commons
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.
Portrait of Reverend Ralph Josselin / Wikimedia Commons
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, God. [Laughter]
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.
Differences between Witchcraft in England and in Europe
Title page of the seventh Cologne edition of the Malleus Maleficarum, 1520. The Latin title is “MALLEUS MALEFICARUM, Maleficas, & earum hæresim, ut phramea potentissima conterens.” (Generally translated into English as The Hammer of Witches which destroyeth Witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword). / University of Sydney Library
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. Essentially, 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.
Frontispiece from Matthew Hopkins’ The Discovery of Witches (1647), showing witches identifying their familiar spirits / British Library
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 [correction: forty] 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.
Trials in England
1600 map of Essex by John Norden and William Kip / Wikimedia Commons
So there are some important differences in the way all of this was handled in the law. Nevertheless, 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. 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.
The ducking stool was a common method of interrogation and punishment during witch trials / Wikimedia Commons
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.
Well, those do indeed seem to have been what one can think of as the classic circumstances though they were by no means universal. 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.
Witchcraft Statutes in Essex
A detection of damnable driftes, practized by three witches arraigned at Chelmifforde in Essex / Wikimedia Commons
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.
The most well known prisoner to be held in the cage was Ursula Kemp. / Wikimedia Commons
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.
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.
1. Keith Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971).
2. J. Obelkevich in Religion and Rural Society. South Lindsey 1825-1875 (1976). As the title indicates, he was describing the persisting magical beliefs of the rural poor in the early nineteenth century.