Why a Witch?

As many of you might have guessed, one of my favourite historical subjects of choice is the history of witchcraft – or, to be more specific, the history of the early modern witch trial. I first found a passion for this subject at university and I wrote my dissertation on the relationship between witchcraft accusations and religion, using the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials as a case study. Needless to say, years later when the idea of writing a historical novel struck me, writing about witchcraft in Pendle just seemed like a natural leap.

The historiographical field of witchcraft study is, like many academic fields, vast, filled with a range of views and theories. At the centre of all these learned opinions, however, is one important question: why were people accused of being witches? The purpose of today’s post is to summarise some of the main theories offered by historians as to why early modern men and women were accused of being witches, accused each other of being witches, and why the authorities pursued witches through the judicial system, a process which ultimately cost so many people their lives.

The Authoritarian View

Some historians have tended to view the history of witchcraft ‘from above’, that is to say, from the perspective of those in power, in order to speculate as to what might have motivated them to pursue witches in the law courts of Europe. Historians such as Christina Larner have asserted that the witchcraft phenomenon itself was a result of the concerns of rulers, lawyers and the clergy, who found that by creating deviants in society they could more effectively enforce conformity. Other historians, whilst taking the authoritarian view, have taken a less centrist approach. Brian Levack, for example, emphasises the role of local elites in pursuing witchcraft prosecutions.

I tend to think that the true merit of these views is somewhere in the middle. When I consider the 1612 trials in Pendle, for example, and the role that the local gentleman and Justice of the Peace Roger Nowell had in driving them forward, I think of a man who was motivated by both his own authoritarian and religious zeal and by the desire to impress those above him, most notably the King who was himself an author on the subject of witches, having published his own Daemonologie in 1597.

The Sociological View

Broadly speaking, this is the category into which most historians who consider the witchcraft phenomenon ‘from below’ would fit. Historians in this school of thought have often focussed on the social status of the accused in order to consider what this might indicate about why they were accused. MacFarlane and Thomas, for example, have placed accusations of witchcraft firmly within the context of village disputes and tensions between neighbours, advancing the view that the typical English witch was of low social status and that a witchcraft accusation was a result of the person’s tendency to curse when refused charity.

Of course, other historians have readily disputed this view since, of course, not all witches were poor. Yeoman and Karlsen, for example, have advanced the view that wealthy women were often targets for witchcraft accusations if they owned property or were the sole heiresses of  property, because their possessions would be coveted by men. Some historians have looked more specifically at family dynamics when considering witchcraft accusations, notably Arthur Douglas, who has speculated that family feuds often led to the spiralling of accusations as the suspects incriminated each other.

Many of these sociological views have a deal of merit when measured against the trials in Pendle. Consider, for example, the abject poverty of many of the accused, and the accusations and counter-accusations of the Demdike/Device and the Chattox/Whittle/Redfearne clans as the war between two families spiralled out of control. Consider also the strange case of Alice Nutter, a widow, wealthier than her counterparts (although probably not wealthy, as such); it has been argued that her son Myles was indebted and colluded in her accusation to speed up receipt of his inheritance.

What the sociological arguments underline, more than anything, is that in the early modern world there was not one type of witch, nor one single reason why someone might be singled out for accusation. Instead, there was a changing, complex society in which tension boiled and sometimes bouts of hysteria broke out. For me, these views are inextricably linked with economic considerations. The decades of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were a time of economic instability and as C. Patterson has acknowledged, this undoubtedly forms a causal link with social anxieties. For example, as J.T Swain has rather neatly argued, poor women often played upon a reputation of witchcraft in order to facilitate begging. Again, this is seen in the Pendle case; indeed, the catalyst for the entire episode was Alizon Device’s curse on the pedlar after he refused to give her some pins.

The Importance of Religious Tension

In the early modern period, theologically-based theories about witchcraft were prevalent across Europe, most notably the Malleus Maleficarum (or The Hammer of Witches) written by two Dominican monks. A whole host of historians, including Dillinger, Normand, Roberts and Sharpe, have done a considerably body of work on the role of the church in witch persecutions in their fight to eradicate evil, making a strong case for a link between witchcraft and religion which was both socially and intellectually engrained. Some historians, such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, have taken this argument further, making a particular study of the relationship between witchcraft accusations and Protestant and Catholic tensions, and concluding that witch trials in the early modern period were often to be found where there was discord between rival Christian doctrines.

For me, this is undoubted, and when you consider the 1612 case in Pendle, you can see the religious tensions as they filtered through society. The north of England at this time was filled with religious rivalries, first between gentry families, who lined up opposite each other along Protestant and Catholic lines, and secondly among the plethora of impoverished villagers, some ignorant of or indifferent to religious belief, some clinging to the old ways. For Roger Nowell, the zealous Protestant gentleman, the quasi-Catholic, semi-irreligious folk practices of the likes of Demdike and Chattox must have seemed a far greater threat than the unexplained deaths of a few neighbours and a handful of cattle. I imagine he winced when he heard pre-Reformation pater-nosters being recited as healing charms. For a man filled with the assurance of the new faith, the conflation of the word ‘witch’ and the word ‘papist’ probably wasn’t ideologically too tricky.

The Importance of Gender

Without a doubt, history has shown that many victims of the witchcraft trials were women. Despite this, historians have struggled to come to a universal view about why this was the case. Nonetheless, some interesting views have been put forward: for example, Diane Purkiss’ assertions that the frequent constructions of accused women as anti-housewife and anti-mother were expressions of social concern, and Ehrenreich & English’s view that those persecuted were midwives and healers in their community who were deliberately removed by the advancing male medical elite. James Sharpe, meanwhile, has preferred to look at the tensions between women, arguing that witchcraft accusations manifested in an environment where women rivalled each other for control of female social space.

I do think there is some merit in the argument that so-called ‘cunning women’ were vulnerable to being characterised as witches, not necessarily because of their gender but because of the easy link made between their herbal remedies and the witch’s malign potions by the early modern unscientific mind. I also find Sharpe’s argument about female rivalry to be quite irresistible in the context of the 1612 case in Pendle and the visceral hatred between Demdike and Chattox.

Overall, I find the gender dynamic interesting but not wholly convincing as I don’t think it is helpful to see witchcraft phenomenon solely through the lens of female victims and male oppressors. As we have seen already, the manifestation of the witchcraft accusation was often the result of a wealth of social and religious tensions, underscored by the concerns and interests of society’s upper echelons. Gender undoubtedly plays a part in this, but the individual circumstances of each trial and its participants would probably indicate whether it was a starring role, or merely a supporting act. I tend to agree with Christina Larner when she wrote that “witchcraft was not sex-specific but it was sex-related”.

Selected Further Reading

Dillinger, Johannes, “Terrorists and Witches: Popular Ideas of Evil in the Early Modern Period”, in History of European Ideas, Vol. 30, No. 2, (2004)

Douglas, Arthur, The Fate of the Lancashire Witches, (Chorley: Countryside Publications, 1978)

Ehrenreich, B and English, D, Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers (Writers & Readers, 1976)

Karlsen, C, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman (New York: Norton, 1987)

Larner, C, Enemies of God: The Witch Hunt in Scotland, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1981)

Levack, B, “State-Building and Witch Hunting in Early Modern Europe”, in Oldridge, Darren (ed.), The Witchcraft Reader, (London: Routledge, 2002)

Macfarlane, A, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England, (London: Routledge, 1970)

Normand and Roberts, cited in Newton, J, “Witches and Fairies in Early Modern Scotland”, in Seventeenth Century, Vol. 17, No. 2, (2002)

Patterson, C, “Conflict Resolution and Patronage in Provincial Towns, 1590-1640”, in The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 37, No. 1, (1998)

Purkiss, D, reviewed in Rowlands, A, “Telling Witchcraft Stories: New Perspectives on Witchcraft and Witches in the Early Modern Period”, in Gender and History, Vol. 10, No. 2, (1998)

Sharpe, James, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550-1750, (London: Penguin, 1997

Swain, J.T, “The Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612 and the Economics ofWitchcraft”, in Northern History, Vol. 30, (1994)

Thomas, K, Religion and the Decline of Magic, (London: Weidenfield & Nicholson, 1971)

Trevor-Roper, H, The European Witch Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (London: Penguin, 1969)

Yeoman, L, “Hunting the rich Witch in Scotland: High Status Witchcraft Suspects and their Persecutors, 1590-1650”, in Goodare, J (ed.), The Scottish Witch Hunt in Context, (Manchester University Press, 2002)

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