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Enrique Requero

In what ways did witchcraft prosecutions reflect social tensions?

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the number of witchcraft prosecutions dramatically increased both in England and on the Continent. In England, witch-hunting reached its highest level of intensity in the years around the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603). It was mainly concentrated in the southeast and resulted in the execution of around 500 witches and the prosecution of 2,500 suspected of witchcraft. Behind this sudden increase of prosecutions stood a well-developed body of witchcraft beliefs, held mainly within the mass of society but to some extent, also shared by the educated elite of the country. Thus, there was a reciprocal vertical flow of theories among the different social levels.1 For example, with the case of John Parker in1623, The Royal College of Physicians of London was ready to accept some theories based on witchcraft beliefs as an explanation for the strange symptoms of the patient.2 Many nobles, like the Earl of Derby, the Countess of Bridgwater, or Lord Windsor, suffered misfortunes which were believed to have been caused by the workings of witches.3 Most significantly, Parliament passed several witchcraft statutes which made felony to consult covenant with... feede or rewarde any evill and wicked spirit to or for any intent or purpose.4 Although there were some minor regional variations, this body of witchcraft beliefs spread throughout the European landscape, while maintaining many common elements.
1

By vertical flow of witchcraft beliefs I am not referring to Larners socio-control explanation, in which social tensions behind witchcraft prosecutions raised when elites attempted to take control over unchristian popular beliefs (see C. Larner, Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland (Oxford, 1983), p.5. Here, I rather refer to the fact that there were more similarities than differences between the popular and the official/elites beliefs, and that it was a result of reciprocal influences between the two polarities (M. Gaskill, The Devil in the Shape of a Man: Witchcraft, Conflict and Belief in Jacobean England, Historical Research, vol. 71, 175 (June 1998), p. 169). 2 C. Goodall, The Royal College of Physicians of London (1684), pp. 403-4; in K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1988), p. 640. 3 C. Ewen, Witchcraft in the Star Chamber (1938), pp. 174-5, 202-3, 231-7, 239-44; T. Longuevillc, The Curious Case of Lady Purbeck (1909), p.98; Ashm. 1730, f. 251; W. Notestein, A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718 (1911), p.185. In Thomas, Religion and Magic, p. 641. 4 Witchcraft stature of 1604. Quoted in A. Gregory, Witchcraft, Politics and Good Neighbourhood in Early Seventeenth-Century Rye, Past and Present, 133 (Nov. 1991), p. 37.

In what ways did witchcraft prosecutions reflect social tensions?

Enrique Requero

People believed that witches acquired their powers from a relationship with the Devil, by inheritance or through a process of learning.5 Witches were believed to exercise their powers using the evil eye, a gift (usually food or a drink), image magic, the spoken word or a formal cursing.6 There was also conformity in the conventional ways of fighting witchcraft. These might be with a formal accusation before a court of law. Other methods were also thought to be effective in undoing bewitchments. These included prayer and fasting or the use of counter-magic, through the assistance of cunning men or women (known as white witches) or the burning of a bewitched object or of an object belonging to the witch, among other techniques. In some cases, even violence was used, resulting in the beating of the witch or the drawing of blood from him/her.7 The rise of witchcraft beliefs in this period has become a fascinating subject for study, both for its distinctiveness form other European historical themes and for it not being a phenomenon from the dark middle ages but from the very eve of the Enlightenment. It has, therefore, given for room to historians to formulate multiple theories, despite the difficulty of studying it in a quantitative way.8 Nevertheless, in this essay I will look at witchcraft in England and focus on something that many historians have seen to be the pattern behind all the prosecutions that took place in the period. This is that witch-hunting in England appeared because of the, in different ways, increase of social tensions within communities. Social tensions could result in witchcraft prosecutions mainly in four ways. They could appear as a consequence of conflicts between individuals for the breaking of expected neighbourliness standards. Prosecutions could also arise from conflicts between factions within a community. Thirdly, tensions could grow from the omnipresent gender relationships. Lastly, these social

5 6

J. Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness, Witchcraft in England 1550-1750 (1996), p. 151. Ibid pp. 152-4. 7 Ibid pp. 155-62. 8 Ibid p. 149.

In what ways did witchcraft prosecutions reflect social tensions?

Enrique Requero

tensions might also have developed from the at that time recent process of religious Reformation. Thomas and Macfarlane are at the head of those who see witchcraft prosecutions as a consequence of conflicts which arose between individuals over traditional values of charity and neighbourliness. They see these conflicts as the direct effect of the eventual confluence of two parallel developing processes. On one hand, there was the progressive deterioration of the position of the weakest in society. It had been prompted mainly by the decline of the old manorial system and the increase of land enclosures, which resulted in the pushing of the socially weak to a more dependent position. On the other hand, there was a rise of individualism among the lesser poor within the lower social levels. This was a consequence of the economic changes of the period, but also of the introduction of the Elizabethan Poor Laws. These new laws implied that householders pay a series of poor rates for the relief of the neediest.9 Poor rates, by making new beggars to be seen as an increasing economic burden and by making poor relief more impersonal (previously it was done within the parish community where everyone knew each other, and at monasteries10), resulted in resentment against the poor within the community. These two parallel processes thus clashed when escalating the general antipathy towards the neediest derived in the breaking up of the most basic neighbourliness norms which gave mutual support. As a result, the poor started being ruthlessly dismissed when they knocked on peoples doors seeking aid. The remorse for these uncharitable actions provoked some internal anxieties that led many to see inexplicable misfortunes that they suffered afterwards as a revenge taken by the poor, whom they then accused of witchcraft. Thomas Ady accused an old woman of bewitching him when she went to his house asking for some help, he dismissed her and presently my child, my wife myself, my horse, my cow, my
9

10

Thomas, Religion and Magic, pp. 671-673. P. Marshall, Reformation in England, 1480-1642 (2003), p. 13.

In what ways did witchcraft prosecutions reflect social tensions?

Enrique Requero

sheep, my sow, my hog, my dog, my cat, or somewhat, was thus handled in such a strange manner.11 This particular case is an example of a model that was common to many of the prosecutions, and is that of old women being accused of sorcery. The Thomas-Macfarlane theory provides us with a satisfying explanation for this phenomenon. Witches were predominantly old women, generally widows, because they were the ones in the most desperate economic situation after the socio-economic changes that took place in the period. People started treating old widows ungenerously when they sought relief from them. This meant the infringement of expected duties of charity and, therefore, some old widows took their revenge in the only way they could: using magic. Nevertheless, this way of explaining social tensions behind witchcraft trials as drifting from the violation of community duties, does not explain all the cases we know from evidence of prosecutions. Legal actions were also taken against people with a standard of living higher than the old widows. An example of this is William Godfrey, whose case M. Gaskill studies in detail.12 Godfrey was forty-seven when first denounced. He lived in a twostorey house, was married and had two children. Godfrey also had a servant for at least two years and worked as a husbandman. Moreover, he also owned a house which he rented and was wealthy enough to pay the poor rate.13 Godfrey was, therefore, far from the poor old widow pattern. He neither suffered the breaking of any neighbourly norm, but now bewitched without any apparent previous provocation. The evidence of a number of legal actions taken against members of higher social levels has encouraged witchcraft historians to deepen in the study of witch-hunting as a consequence on social tensions arising from the breaking of neighbourly standards. A. Gregory has gone further by pointing to factionalism as the origin of some of the tensions
11

T. Ady, in R. Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, etc. (London, 1651), p. 114; in Thomas, Religion and Magic, p. 661. 12 Gaskill, Devil inShape Man, pp. 142-171. 13 Centre of Kentish Studies, New Romney and liberty records, borough quarter sessions, NR/JQ (1614-17); in Gaskill, Devil in Shape of Man, p. 151.

In what ways did witchcraft prosecutions reflect social tensions?

Enrique Requero

which witchcraft prosecutions proved to be present in some localities. Gregory builds up her argument on the study of the indictments against Susan Swapper and Anne Taylor in 1607, on the border between Sussex and Kent, in Rye.14 Susan acknowledged that fairies had appeared to her on several occasions. Anne, publicly known in the town as a cunning woman, helped Susan to dialogue with those fairies. Susans revelations caused alarm in Rye and both women were accused on the basis of the 1604 witchcraft statute mentioned above. Nevertheless, as the indictments moved forward, jurists and magistrates showed themselves especially interested in accusing Anne.15 Gregory has discovered behind this case a complex struggle between the two major political factions in Rye, which she simplifies by referring to them as the brewers and the butchers. For several generations, the two factions had fought each other to gain political control in Rye. The brewers, in power in 1607 but tottering in their position because of a general economic decline, had suspected Anne, a significant member of the butchers, of bewitching to death their leader, Thomas Hamon, a few months earlier. They saw now in the case of Susan Swapper the perfect opportunity to get rid of Anne.16 Nevertheless, the accusation did eventually fail and the two women were released. Ryes case illustrates that concepts of good neighbourliness were in early modern Britain an amalgamation of aspects of community, but also of political issues. Thus, neighbourliness included charitable actions with those in need, but it also implied the minimisation of dissent within the community, in order to create an appropriate social atmosphere to foster mutual support and solidarity. Failure to maintain adequate levels of neighbourliness (for unequal economic development between different groups, major disagreements in political matters, etc.) led to the formation of different factions and to

14 15

Gregory, Witchcraft and Good Neighbourhood, pp. 31-66. East Sussex Record Office, Lewes, Rye Corporation MSS, 13/1-10; 1/8, fos. 73-4; 47/75. In Gregory, Witchcraft and Good Neighbourhood, pp. 37-38. 16 Gregory, Witchcraft and Good Neighbourhood, pp. 38-50.

In what ways did witchcraft prosecutions reflect social tensions?

Enrique Requero

conflicts between them. In this context, witchcraft prosecutions appear as just one among many means of expressing and acting upon such conflicts.17 Another branch of historians has managed to display the witchcraft prosecutions of the period as a clear example of social tensions arising from conflicts in the level of gender relationships. They are quick to admit that it is simplistic to regard witchcraft indictments as mere impositions of man over woman due to the huge evidence of women accusing women but they still doubt the accuracy of the evidence, due to the influence of men in the process of recording the prosecutions.18 The latest movement of feminist historians, nevertheless, has made use of psychoanalysis for the study of the topic. This has resulted in the explanation of women accusers involved in witchcraft prosecutions as coming from social tensions which threatened their position in society. Thus, womens accusations were fantasies which enabled females to negotiate their fears of housekeeping and motherhood.19 Feminist historians explain today how women accused witches because they saw them as antimothers and

antihousewives.20 Tensions arose when witches tried to break into the boundaries of the household, creating disorder, as opposed to the order that housewives were expected to maintain. These disorders generally affected the production of dairy foodstuffs, becoming a major problem for being an essential element of the basic diet of a family, and even more in the context of general economic decline of the period. Bennet Lane, for example, accused Agnes Heard in St Osyth of being responsible for the difficulties she started having when trying to make thread and skim milk, after being in contact with the witch.21 In contrast with

17 18

Ibid p. 34. D. Purkiss, The Witch in History (London, 1996), pp. 92-3. 19 Ibid. 20 Ibid pp. 97, 100. 21 B. Darcy, St Osyth Pamphlet (1582), printed in B. Rosen, Witchcraft in England 1558-1618 (Massachusetts, 1991), pp. 147-8; in Purkiss, Witch in History, pp. 94-5.

In what ways did witchcraft prosecutions reflect social tensions?

Enrique Requero

the Thomas-Macfarlane theory mentioned above, witches here appear not as victims of a breaking of neighbourliness obligations but rather as violating these norms themselves. However, many other cases had their origin in the rejection of women as gossips to accompany a mother during the childbed and the lying-in period. These could have been considered as major offences and thus as a justification for the witch to act. Alternatively, at least, this is what the mother might see, motivated by the anxiety of the pregnancy. This explains why when a misfortune affected either the mother or her child during this period the most likely to be blamed was the one who had been denied the honour of accompanying the mother.22 Ellen Greene, when accused of killing Mistress Patchett and her baby using sorcery, declared that Joan Willimot, who had not been invited to the childbirth ceremony, had commanded her to touch the mother and the child, bewitching them with some evil spirits.23 Witches appear in these cases taking their revenge for an offence inflicted against them by women in childbirth, the form of this revenge being to do all they could to attack the position of the new mother in the community and in the household. The model of witches as antihousewives or antimothers seems to explain the gendered dimensions of witchcraft prosecutions satisfactorily. Nonetheless, this explanation moves one to wonder to what extent it is more a fantasy of the feminists authors than that of the women accusers, as Purkiss regards the reasons behind their involvement in the indictments. At the end, it is unclear the degree of detachment from the reality of the facts to which these historians go when theorising about witchcraft.24 During the month from her bewitchment to her death, Mistress Patchett probably saw Joan just as a threat to the lives of herself and of her baby. There was neither point nor motivation for her to go further, fancying as some do about her psycho-sociological status being endangered by the contact with the witch. She
22 23

Purkiss, Witch in History, pp. 101-10. The Wonderful discoverie of the witchcrafts of Margaret and Philippa Flower, pamphlet 1619, print. in Rosen, Witchcraft, p. 239. Quoted in Purkiss, Witch in History, pp. 101-2. 24 Several clever but at the same time historically dubious symbolisms derived from the theory of the witch as an antimother and an antiwife are made in Purkiss, Witch in History, pp. 101, 103, 106 and 109.

In what ways did witchcraft prosecutions reflect social tensions?

Enrique Requero

probably did not even know the meaning to the sophisticated and anachronistic concept of gender relationships. What I am trying to say here is that it was fear to maleficium what was primarily behind the accusations.25 Moreover, it seems that there is no room for gender theories when talking about witchcraft. Seeing as both [sexes] are subject to the State of damnation, so both are liable to Satans snares.26 People at the time thought men and women equally likely to be witches.27 It is true that mostly women suffered prosecution but, at the same time, more women were beneficiaries of witchcraft legislation than were its victims.28 Furthermore, witchcraft, while sex-related, was not sex-specific29 because the relative insignificance of male witches is proportional to the relative insignificance of witchcraft as a whole. Prosecution evidence tells us that only one in every 500,000 adults was hanged in England for witchcraft and, therefore, indictments were so extraordinary that those prosecuted had more in common with each other, regardless of their sex, than with the vast majority of the population.30 It still might be possible to argue that gender theories are valid for at least a particular group of cases. Nevertheless, if we pin down the dynamics of witchcraft more precisely we risk creating an explanatory framework unable to accommodate awkward variations which emerge from the archives.31 Gender interpretations may work for some particular cases, but they consequently become useless for the historian. A historian ought to aim for the understanding of the dynamics moving a historical process as a whole, and not just make a pragmatic use of some of its fragments, leaving the rest aside, in order to justify some preconceived personal opinions or views.
25 26

Gaskill, Devil in Shape of Man, p. 161. T. Cooper, The Mystery of Witch-Craft (1617), pp. 180-1. 27 A.D.J. Macfarlane, Witchcraft Prosecutions in Essex, 1560-1680 (Oxford, D. Phil. thesis, 1967), p.213. 28 Gaskill, Devil in Shape of Man, p. 144. 29 C. Larner, Witchcraft and Religion: the Politics of Popular Belief (Oxford, 1984), p. 87. In Gaskill, Devil in Shape of Man, p. 145. 30 Ewen, Star Chamber, p. 112 and Thomas, Religion and Magic, pp. 535-7. In Gaskill, Devil in Shape of Man, p. 146. 31 Gaskill, Devil in Shape of Man, pp. 170-1.

In what ways did witchcraft prosecutions reflect social tensions?

Enrique Requero

Finally, witchcraft prosecutions also reflected social tensions as developing from the Reformation. Revisionist historians of the Reformation have shown how it did not become a successful movement in England, with visible permanent effects, until the late sixteenthcentury.32 It, therefore, coincided in time with the rise of witchcraft beliefs and witchcraft historians usually mention the former as a major motivation for the later. The Reformation prompted the increase of witchcraft beliefs because, on the one hand, it resulted in the abolition of sacred celebrations33 and, on the other, it made of Christianity a more intellectual religion, thus becoming reserved to the educated elite34. After the Reformation, the common people found themselves with a religion that they did not fully understand and that did not offer the spiritual protection of the sacraments any more. Consequently, they moved to seek spiritual protection and answers for their religious anxieties from the traditional national folklore. Although witchcraft historians have mainly referred to the Reformation to explain the increase of witchcraft beliefs in the period, the Reformation can also dig up the roots from which many of the social tensions inciting witchcraft prosecutions grew. Regarding problems with the poor that led to the breaching of neighbourly standards as described above, the consideration of the abolition of the monasteries during the Reformation can enlighten our understanding of why the state had to become directly responsible for poor relief via the Elizabethan Poor Laws. The massive nationalization of church lands could also have been one of the major factors prompting enclosures and a general decline of the manorial system.

32

C. Haigh, English Reformations (1993); Marshall, Reformation England; G. Redworth, 'Whatever happened to the English Reformation?', History Today 37 (October, 1987); G. W. Bernard, 'The Church of England, c.1529-c.1642', History, 75 (1990); E. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (Yale, 1992), ch. 16. 33 Gregory, Witchcraft and Good Neighbourhood, p. 66. 34 C. Haigh, The recent historiography of the English Reformation, Historical Journal XXV (1982), 995-1007, repr. in his The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge, 1987), p. 24; R. Rex, Did England Need a Reformation? Priests & People, (October 1993), p406; Marshall, Reformation England, p. 10.

In what ways did witchcraft prosecutions reflect social tensions?

Enrique Requero

Gregorys conflicts between factions could also have being originated by the Reformation. In pre-Reformation communities, reconciliation with enemies was required before receiving communion, at least once every year at Easter.35 Once the mass was abolished, there was no major reason left for social reconciliation. Moreover, after the Reformation, tensions developed between Protestant groups of different persuasions. This eventually affected social harmony, first with the separation of the more radical groups from the parish,36 thus breaking the social cohesion that community life within the parish granted. Different religious tendencies also mingled with politics, becoming part of the divisive elements between factions and, therefore, an occasion for social tensions. The case of the brewers and the butchers in Rye illustrates this. There, for instance, on one occasion one of the factions regarded the other as a proof of the saying a puritane is such a one as loves God with all his soule, but hates his neighbour with all his heart.37 The Reformation can also be supportive of Larnes socio-control model, although it has only been briefly mentioned in this essay.38 Social tensions prompting witchcraft prosecutions could be seen with this model as a consequence of the attempts by the elite and authorities to impose new religious doctrines upon the popular traditional beliefs and folklore. In conclusion, the increase in social unrest might have been one of the major causes which resulted in the multiplication of witchcraft prosecutions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in England. Prosecutions, by reflecting social tensions, can be seen in many different ways, such as a result of the increase of poverty and its consequent violation of social values, as of conflicts between socio-political factions, of pressures in gender relationships or of the consequences of the Reformation process. The variety of the cases
35

S. Brigden, 'Religion and Social Obligation in Early Sixteenth Century London', Past and Present 103 (1984), p. 77. 36 Gaskill, Devil in Shape of Man, p. 150. 37 Gregory, Witchcraft and Good Neighbourhood, p. 63. 38 See note 1.

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In what ways did witchcraft prosecutions reflect social tensions?

Enrique Requero

recorded makes it hard to define a one-model explanation of all the different social tensions behind the indictments, and therefore, further research is needed. In this context, i would suggest an advanced study of the English Reformation focusing on its implications for the development of witchcraft, because at the moment it stands as the most conciliatory explanation between the variety of models provided by historians. (67%) Bibliography
PRIMARY SOURCES - C. GOODALL, The Royal College of Physicians of London (1684). - C. EWEN, Witchcraft in the Star Chamber (1938). -T. LONGUEVILLC, The Curious Case of Lady Purbeck (1909). - W. NOTESTEIN, A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718 (1911). - T. ADY, in R. SCOT, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, etc. (London, 1651). - CENTRE OF KENTISH STUDIES, New Romney and liberty records, borough quarter sessions, NR/JQ (1614-17). - EAST SUSSEX RECORD OFFICE, Lewes, Rye Corporation MSS, 13/1-10; 1/8, fos. 73-4; 47/75. -B. DARCY, St Osyth Pamphlet (1582) and The Wonderful discoverie of the witchcrafts of Margaret and Philippa Flower, pamphlet 1619, printed in B. ROSEN, Witchcraft in England 1558-1618 (Massachusetts, 1991). - T. COOPER, The Mystery of Witch-Craft (1617). SECONDARY SOURCES -K. THOMAS, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1988). -M. GASKILL, The Devil in the Shape of a Man: Witchcraft, Conflict and Belief in Jacobean England, Historical Research, vol. 71, 175 (June 1998). - A. GREGORY, Witchcraft, Politics and Good Neighbourhood in Early Seventeenth-Century Rye, Past and Present, 133 (Nov. 1991). - J. SHARPE, Instruments of Darkness, Witchcraft in England 1550-1750 (1996). - D. PURKISS, The Witch in History (London, 1996). - A.D.J. MACFARLANE, Witchcraft Prosecutions in Essex, 1560-1680 (Oxford, D. Phil. thesis, 1967). - C. LARNER, Witchcraft and Religion: the Politics of Popular Belief (Oxford, 1984). ON THE ENGLISH REFORMATION: -P. MARSHALL, Reformation in England, 1480-1642 (2003). - C. HAIGH, English Reformations (1993); The recent historiography of the English Reformation, Historical Journal XXV (1982), pp. 995-1007, repr. in his The English Reformation Revised (Cambridge, 1987). -R. REX, Did England Need a Reformation? Priests & People, (October 1993). - G. REDWORTH, 'Whatever happened to the English Reformation?', History Today 37 (October, 1987). - G. W. BERNARD, 'The Church of England, c.1529-c.1642', History, 75 (1990). - E. Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars (Yale, 1992). - S. BRIGDEN, 'Religion and Social Obligation in Early Sixteenth Century London', Past and Present 103 (1984).

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