witchcraft


witchcraft
   No topic in folklore has caused more argument than witchcraft. However, the work of historians over the past 30 years has disentangled various levels of meaning within the word itself, and analysed the social context for accusations. The phenomenon is seen as essentially one of belief-systems, stereotyping, rumour, and social pressures; debate now centres on the interaction of upper-class and popular attitudes, and of prejudice against women. There is no longer any scholarly support for theories that witches formed a secret society, whether political, as the French historian Michelet proposed, or pagan, as claimed by Margaret *Murray; the equally simplistic idea that witch-hunts were a cynical establishment plot has also been abandoned.
   The Old English word 'witch' meant 'one who casts a spell'. Intrinsically neutral, it could be applied to those using *magic helpfully (see *white witch); in most contexts, however, 'witchcraft' means using magic to harm humans, farm animals, or property. Fear of it permeates folklore of all periods, but it was not until the late 15th century that it was perceived in Europe as a threat grave enough to require systematic prosecution, on the assumption that it implied a pact between the witch and Satan. It was first declared a crime in English law in 1542; the number of English trials peaked in the 1580s and again in the 1640s, but fell off sharply after 1660. The last, in 1717, ended in acquittal, and in 1736 the Witchcraft Act was repealed and the crime officially ceased to exist (though people claiming magic powers could still be prosecuted for fraud). Thereafter, fear and hatred of witches, though still common, was frowned on by the elite as mere 'superstition'.
   Witch-trials in England differed from those in Scotland in highlighting charges of material harm, not devil-worship, though religious writers and preachers were naturally preoccupied with the latter issue. The first two Witchcraft Acts (1542, 1563) made hanging the penalty for murder through witchcraft, and the pillory, imprisonment, or loss of goods the punishments for lesser injuries. The Act of James I (1604) added another capital offence, to 'consult, covenant with, employ, feed or reward any evil or wicked spirit', and a handbook for judges published in 1618 stressed the importance of *familiars as evidence; yet in practice trials still centred on the harm allegedly done.
   Witchcraft accusations arose occasionally among the ruling classes, but more frequently among minor gentry and lower orders; almost 90 per cent of those charged were women, often elderly ones. The accusations were sparked off by some previous quarrel or vendetta; frequently, conflict arose when the alleged witch and her victim were neighbours, but not equals, the victim being relatively well off, the witch poor, and sometimes having a bad reputation. The latter requested some small gift or friendly service, and showed anger when this was refused. The better-off neighbour, aware of having failed in charity, would later interpret any sickness or misfortune as magical revenge; he or she often consulted a *cunning man, who identified the cause by *divination, confirming the diagnosis. The eventual court-case might involve charges brought by several families, the fruit of years of accumulating suspicions.
   Almost all English witch-trials arose in this spontaneous way. There was no pressure from central Church or State to prosecute witches, though locally some justices of the peace were more vigorous than others in rounding up suspects; Matthew *Hopkins is the only individual known to have initiated a systematic campaign. Moreover, since witches were thought to operate singly or in very small family groups (*covens and *sabbaths being rarely mentioned), interrogations were not aimed at forcing the accused to incriminate others. Hence English 'witch-hunts' were small scale, by European standards, with marked variations between one region and another. Full statistics are lacking because court records in many areas are missing or incomplete; those of the Home Assize Circuit between 1559 and 1736 show 513 persons charged, of whom 200 were convicted, 109 of them being hanged. Estimates of the total number executed have recently been revised from 'under 1,000' to 'probably less than 500' (Thomas, 1971: 450; Sharpe, 1996: 125).
   Contemporary pamphlets describing the trials occupied a borderline between reportage and fictive narrative; they sought to convince, but also to 'entertain' readers by shocking them. They drew upon traditional stereotypes and anecdotes, reinforced them, and spread them. The beliefs they reveal are more elaborate and dramatic than the actual charges. They include accounts of witches feeding their *familiars with their blood; meeting Satan in the form of a black man (or *black dog), making a covenant with him, or having sexual intercourse with him; changing themselves into *hares; changing others into horses and riding them to a sabbath, to feast there with the Devil. These beliefs seem to have grown steadily more common and more complex over the two centuries of the trials; all except the sabbath continue to appear frequently in later folklore, plus the motif of magic *flying.
   Fear of witchcraft was still widespread in the 19th century. Folklore of this period is rich in anecdotes about local witches and stresses the importance of defending oneself against them. There were charms to guard the home and farm against potential witchcraft (e.g. *hagstones, *horseshoes, *rowan), and *coun-terspells to use if it had already occurred. As law no longer offered redress to people believing themselves bewitched, the help of *cun-ning men was still in demand; mob violence, including *swimming witches, still occurred.
   As late as the 1970s, in Hertfordshire:
   Many now living, even in market towns, can remember being told by parents not to cross or trouble certain dangerous men or women and thus invite their displeasure and revenge. Nor can the name of the last witch in many villages be discovered, the truthful reply from those who will talk about this forbidden subject being that 'the time has not yet come'. (Jones-Baker, 1977: 114)
   See also *counterspells, *cunning men, *familiars, *flying, *hag-riding, *image magic, *shape-changing, *swimming witches, *white witches, *witch bottles. For 'witchcraft' in the sense of modern paganism, see *Wicca.
   ■ Macfarlane, 1970/1999; Thomas, 1971: 435-585; Sharpe, 1996; Hester, 1992; Gilbert Geis and Ivan Bunn, A Trial of Witches (1997). Parallel Scottish material will be found in Christina Larner, Enemies of God: The Witch-Hunt in Scotland (1981). Briggs, 1962, discusses witchcraft in Elizabethan and Jacobean literature. For witchcraft in later English belief, see Davies, 1998 and 1999a and b; Maple, 1960, 1962, 1965. Relevant material occurs in most regional collections and in Briggs, 1970-1: B. ii. 609-761. Introductory surveys to the European background include Jeffrey B. Russell, A History ofWitchcraft (1980); and Brian Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (1987). A brief outline of recent scholarship is Jacqueline Simpson, Folklore 107 (1996), 5-18. Two important collections of essays are Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries, ed. Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen (1990); and Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe, ed. Jonathan Barry, Marianne Hester, and Gareth Roberts (1996).

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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