What I (Quickly) Learned About the Witch Hunts in Seventeenth-Century England

A while back, I mentioned a project I’m working on — THE DETAILS OF WHICH THE WORLD IS NOT YET PREPARED! [UPDATE: The world is now prepared to know about Certain Nocturnal Disturbances: Ghost Hunting Before the Victorians.] The project has steered me down really interesting, unexpected pathways. That earlier excursion involved the history of haunted houses where skeletal remains — often said to have been found long after the ghostly manifestations had ended — were reported in an effort to substantiate the paranormal activity there.

More recently, I needed to give myself a crash course in witch hunting in England during the 1600s. I’m still many, many miles from being an expert, but I found a few historical works online that might provide a rough orientation to anyone else interested in wandering along this highway of human horrors. The first work on my suggested reading list is actually a German one, written long before the seventeenth century. Still, Heinrich Kramer’s Malleus Maleficarum (1487) is frequently cited as foundational work. It is a strident call to vanquish witches, built on the assumption that they are league with Satan. (How this terribly prejudiced view impacted perfectly benign “cunning folk,” those who held pre- or non-Christian beliefs, or otherwise innocent people is far too complicated a topic for me to handle here.) The Internet Archive is a great source for early editions of Kramer’s work in various languages, including the original Latin. Montague Summers’ 1928 English translation is available there, too.

Next, we jump to England and almost the 1600s. No less a personage than King James — the same man who commissioned a new version of the Bible — wrote a book that includes his advice on identifying and trying witches. It’s titled Daemonologie (1597). James writes as someone who believes in the reality of witchcraft, but he also urges restraint in dealing with accusations against them. He knew that some such claims were fraudulent. In other words, he wasn’t completely swept up in the witch-hunting craze, but given his lofty status and his clear reinforcement of the reality of witches, he very likely contributed to the torture and execution of many in the coming century. (On a curious side note, some say this book also influenced Shakespeare’s portrayal of the witches in Macbeth.) The Internet Archive offers a reprint of the first edition of Daemonologie, and the University of Michigan has an html version.

Another work I found that encourages those involved in witch trials to exercise caution is Richard Bernard’s A Guild to Jury-Men (1627). Again, Bernard believed witches were real in an era when not everyone agreed! Nonetheless, his second chapter is about natural diseases that can be misinterpreted as bewitchment. His third chapter deals with people who have deliberately faked being bewitched for various reasons. In both cases, he advises his readers to stand on guard against such situations. Here’s an element of this history of which I wasn’t fully aware, and I’m glad I was reminded to never over-generalize about people in the past. Of course, the witch hunts had very real, very terrible results, and it had its extremists. However, there was a spectrum of viewpoints regarding what was happening. Google Books has an early edition of Bernard’s guide and U of Michigan’s version is here.

One of the scarier works is written by Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed “Witch-Finder General.” Hopkins made a career out of persecuting supposed witches, coercing their confessions even if it meant going outside the law. Toward the end of his campaign, his methods and results were challenged, so he wrote a defense of what he had done. It’s called The Discovery of Witches (1647). Unfortunately, I’ve only been able to find a facsimile of the original at HathiTrust, which I believe is restricted to the U.S. for copyright reasons. The rest of the world might have better luck at the U of Michigan’s site.

Finally, there’s Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus Triumphatus; or, Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions (1681). Glanvill earned a place on my Ghost Hunter Hall of Fame for his investigative work in the Drummer of Tedworth case. But he ends his chronicle of the strange manifestations at the Mompessons’ house by strongly suggesting they stemmed from a vengeful witch (or perhaps “wizard”). In later centuries, Catherine Crowe and then Harry Price diagnosed the phenomena suffered by the Mompessons as the work of a poltergeist. You can decide for yourself by looking at the first of Glanvill’s “Relations” in the Internet Archive copy or in the version at good ol’ U. of Michigan.

If anyone has additional recommendations — or comments on/corrections to what’s above — please provide them below.

— Tim

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