Saturday, 8 August 2009

English Witchcraft Trials In Perspective

Monty Python surely have a lot to answer for.

It will take at least two generations for aspects of English and American culture to recover from Monty Python's distorting effect.

Take, for example, witchcraft trials.

It is impossible for any almost any English or American person not to have the following scene as their starting point.

Indeed, Cripian Jago - the leading satirist of the UK skeptic movement - uses this scene for his mockery of the preliminary hearing of the libel case brought by (the now discredited) British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh.

But just as the great Phil Plait describes in Bad Astronomy that movies misrepresent science and space, movies also often misrepresent law and the legal process.

And witchcraft trials are one example.

Witchcraft trials were incredibly rare in medieval England. Between 1066 and the Reformation there are only about six documented examples, and they seem rarer still in the preceding Anglo-Saxon period.

Instead, witchcraft trials were a feature of late Tudor and Stuart England, a good number of them actually occurring after the depiction of the witches in Macbeth (around 1603-07).

(Indeed, one must note that, as with the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream and the ghost in Hamlet, Shakespeare's use of witches matched the worldview of his early-modern audience.)

In other words, a typical English witchcraft trial is more Blackadder II than King Arthur.

And even then it was rare for witches to be prosecuted simply because they were witches.

A witch was prosecuted, not because he or she was a witch, but because it was genuinely believed that witchcraft caused damage.

In this pre-Newtonian worldview, it was believed genuinely that the invisible force of magic was the cause and effect of the witch's malicious intents and the deaths and damage suffered by the victim.

Prosecutions usually had to be paid for by the victims (not sponsored by any public body) and were expensive. Other than Matthew Hopkins, there were very few professional witch-finders.

The defendant also had to be imprisoned in a gaol at the victim's expense until an assize, where a judge of sufficient seniority could conduct a trial.

To bring a witchcraft prosecution was normally the last resort, to be used by a victim of perceived witchcraft when there seemed no other option for dealing with the damage being caused.

Even if the prosecution got off the ground, it may not be successful. Judges such as Holt and Powell became famous for their enlightened approach - Powell even supposedly dismissing some extraordinary evidence with the cheerful remark that it was actually not unlawful for a person to fly through the air.

Around 1700 there is a fall in prosecutions. There was still popular belief in witchcraft and magic, but it seems not in its causation for personal injury and property damage, and certainly not in the efficacy of the legal process to deal with it.

And by 1736 almost all the witchcraft legislation is repealed.

I will write another time on what happened next, especially in relation to fraudulent mediums (including the shameless fraudster Helen Duncan).


Sarah Ditum said...

Good post. Socially-sanctioned witchcraft beliefs did more than just express beliefs, though - as I understand it, anyway. It legitimised otherwise reprehensible acts like infanticide of the sickly or punishment of the unacceptable. The Burning Of Bridget Cleary is an excellent study of the way in which fairy beliefs was used in C19th Ireland for social control.

Alex Pryce said...

Ah, Mr. Of Kent. You forget the persecutions and tomfoolery that ensued up here in Bonny Scotland. With at least 300 executed here in Edinburgh in the space of just over a Century I can assure you that Scotland was a lot more fun when it came to witchcraft.

The North Berwick Witch Trials spring to mind, as does Major Thomas Wier and his magic staff that enticed him to incest and bestiality (And these were the things he could mention!). And lest we forget that since the time of James III many accused of plotting against the monarch in Scotland were charged with Witchcraft to boot- including both of James IIIs brothers.

England can have the Tudor renaissance, but we get the double, double toil and trouble!

And me an Englishman- I appear to have gone native! :)

Alex Pryce

rvitelli said...

It helps to have the right manual for prosecuting witches. The Witches' Hammer was a best seller across Europe and early attempts at reining in the witch hunts were quickly squashed.

Michael Kingsford Gray said...

Persecution of so-called witches should be reintroduced into Commonwealth criminal law if it assists in reducing superstitious 'nonsense'** associated with alternative to medicine.
** A Bowdlerism for 'Bovine Excreta'

BellBookCandleSupply said...

Witchcraft practice maybe misinterpreted in a negative way but what others don't know is that it gives value in all complex diversity.
Tools & Gifts For Your Spiritual Practice