Witchcraft: The Spell that Didn't Break
Owen Davies argues that a widespread belief in witchcraft persisted through 19th-century Britain, despite the scepticism engendered by the Enlightenment.
The advent of industrialisation and the rise of the so-called 'Enlightenment' during the eighteenth century has often been portrayed as a watershed in British cultural life. Advances in the field of science and medicine are presumed to have rapidly dispelled 'superstitious' beliefs, as the spread of rational knowledge gradually trickled down to the masses. The dark days of the witch-trials were left behind and the people were freed from the everyday fear of the witch. However, historians are starting to realise that the history of witchcraft does not end with the execution of the last witch or the legal denial of their existence.
The Witchcraft Act of 1736 repealed the English Statutes against witchcraft of 1563 and 1604, and also the Scottish Statute of 1563 (the Irish statute of 1587 remained fossilized in legislation until its belated repeal in 1821). From thenceforth the law dictated that
No Prosecution, Suit or Proceeding, shall be commenced or carried on against any Person or Persons for Witchcraft, Sorcery, Inchantment or Conjuration or for charging another with such an offence, in any Court whatsoever in Great Britain.
The Act further made it an offence to 'pretend' to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft or sorcery. For the legislature at least, the concept of witchcraft, which had brought hundreds of innocent people to the gallows over the previous two centuries, was now a mere pretence, a false belief consigned to the dustbin of history. But the passing of the Act did not signify the mass rejection of witchcraft. Many educated and eminent people like Dr Samuel Johnson and William Black stone, one of the foremost legal minds of the eighteenth century, continued to believe that there was such a thing as witchcraft. Not only did the irrefutable word of the Bible plainly speak of witches, but some of the most respected men of the previous century had expressed their belief in witchcraft. However, although Methodists and Scottish Presbyterians continued to fear the threat of Satan and his earthly vas sals, and condemned the Act of 1736, by the mid-eighteenth century the intellectual classes had comfortingly convinced themselves that witches no longer existed. Yet little thought was actually given to explaining why they had disappeared. As Dr Samuel Johnson: observed, nicely dodging the issue, 'Why it ceased, we cannot tell, as we cannot tell the reason of many things'. In newly 'enlightened' Britain it was thought best not to dwell too much on the dubious events of the recent past.
Although witchcraft became a matter of private debate among the middle and upper classes, it remained a reality for a large portion of the population. While for the ruling elites of early modern England and Scotland witchcraft had been seen as a satanic threat to their moral and spiritual authority, for much of the labouring population, both before and after 1736, witchcraft was essentially an economic crime. Up until the second half of the nineteenth century, the way of life for many in rural areas had not changed fundamentally for two hundred years. The majority of people were still part of an agrarian economy, and a large portion of the population was involved in some form of husbandry to supplement their income or diet. Other than the meagre relief provided by the Poor Law, there was no safety-net to fall back on when serious misfortune struck. Thus the illness of a family member or of a pig or cow could cause considerable hardship and lead to suspicions of witchcraft. Most staple foodstuffs such as butter, cheese and bread continued to be produced within the home or farmstead, and when these failed witchcraft might also be blamed. When people suspected witchcraft they often looked no further than their neighbours to find the culprit. Relations between neighbours were close-knit and intense, but far from harmonious. Borrowing, begging and trespass were continual sources of friction. There was little privacy and gossip was rife. In such an environment personal conflicts were bound to occur frequently.
From the 1680s onwards, the number of witch-trials heard in English and Welsh courts diminished to a trickle, and the last execution for witchcraft was in 1684. In Scotland, too, the number of trials began to decline around the same time, though the courts remained more willing to accept evidence against witches, and exercised little restraint in their sentencing. Thus a serious outbreak of accusations occurred in 1697, resulting in the execution of seven supposed witches, and the very last witch to be burnt was in 1722. The decline in indictments some thirty years before the repeal of the witchcraft laws was not, as has sometimes been assumed, an expression of declining belief. There is no evidence to suggest that there was a decrease in the number of complaints made to justices. Instead, as the trials became a legal embarrassment, justices increasingly dismissed complaints outright or dealt with them informally.
For the majority of the population who continued to consider witchcraft a serious threat, there must have been a good deal of frustration at the withdrawal of the justices and the courts from the arena. Yet the evidence would suggest that people were very slow to realise that there was no longer a general consensus concerning the need to suppress witches. Right up until the late nineteenth century magistrates up and down the country continued to receive requests for the arrest of suspected witches. In May 1870, for example, Mr Lushington, a magistrate at the Thames police court, was asked by a poor woman to arrest a neighbour Biddy Coghlan for being a witch. The plaintiff had a hen that had died after laying abnormally small eggs and Coghlan was held responsible. Not surprisingly, Lushington had little time for such complaints and told the complainant to go about her business.
In the absence of a legal means of trying witches, people continued to resort to the trial by water, otherwise known as witch-swimming. This had been employed throughout the seventeenth century under quasi-official sanction. It was not, in fact, a legally recognised form of proof, but it was often accepted as such by the judges and juries. The suspected witches had their thumbs tied to their toes, and a rope bound round their waists. They were then thrown into a pond or river to see whether they would sink or float. If the water rejected them and they floated, this was deemed a divine sign that they were guilty. If, however, they sank, God had embraced them, thereby proving their innocence. Swimming must have been a terrifying ordeal for those subjected to it. Both before and after the actual immersion the victims were often subjected to much violent abuse, and many of those who 'proved' their innocence by sinking nearly drowned anyway. These witch-swimmings continued to occur fairly frequently up until the early nineteenth century and could attract hundreds of people. In 1737, for instance, a woman was swum in the River Ouse, at Oakley in Bedfordshire. A large crowd gathered, including the vicar of Oakley, and there were cries of 'A witch! Drown her! Hang her!'. Quite often magistrates, or some other passing 'gentleman', would intercede and stop the proceedings, but legal action was rarely taken against those who organised such brutal events, unless someone died. One of the few prosecutions occurred in Hertfordshire in 1751 when Thomas Colley stood trial for the murder of Ruth Osborne who was swum in a pond near Tring. A crowd, which one witness estimated as being some five thousand strong, gathered to see the swimming, and a collection was even held to recompense the organisers. Tragically, Osborne died from her repeated immersions, and Colley was subsequently hanged for his role in the affair.
The Tring case was widely reported in the press at the time, and became something of a national sensation. It provided ample proof of the strong hold that witchcraft still held over the minds of the people. Yet there was an undoubted reluctance on the part of the authorities to get involved in any way in what they considered 'vulgar' affairs. As a result there was no campaign against the continued persecution of supposed witches. This led to the wholly unsatisfactory situation whereby some of those accused of witchcraft actually volunteered to undergo the ordeal by water because local justices were deaf to their pleas for succour. This is exactly what happened to an old woman of Stanningfield, Suffolk, in 1792. She pleaded with Sir Charles Davers and the Rev. John Ord to protect her against charges of witchcraft that had 'very much disordered her head'. They said they could do nothing, however, and she decided to let herself be swum before the community in order to clear her name. Her husband and brother complied with her request as they feared she would otherwise kill herself, and they held the rope at her swimming to ensure that she was not mistreated. Fortunately she sank, though she was dragged out 'almost lifeless'.
It is important to realise that throughout the early modern period recourse to the law was just one of several options that victims of witchcraft could choose. People did not go running to the courts every time they considered themselves bewitched. So after 1736 the pattern of response to witchcraft was not that different. Some went to those intriguing magical practitioners known as cunning-folk to be cured. A counter-spell such as a witch-bottle might be employed. Numerous examples of these have been found dating from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. In its simplest form a witch-bottle consisted of a bottle filled with the bewitched person's urine. Into this was put some sharp objects such as thorns, pins or nails. The bottle was then sealed and either buried in the ground, placed under the hearth-stone, or heated in a fire. The bottle represented the witch's bladder, and the thorns and pins were meant to cause him or her such excruciating pain that they would be forced to remove their spell. However, the most potent method of breaking witches' power was to scratch them in order to draw blood. Since this constituted a physical assault, some who employed it found themselves in court for their violent actions. It is these cases, arising from the act of scratching, which form the bulk of what are effectively witch-trials in reverse. These were court cases in which accused witches were no longer appearing as defendants charged with a capital crime but as prosecutors seeking legal retribution against those who assaulted them. Most of these prosecutions were heard before the summary court of petty sessions, although some were deemed serious enough to be brought before the quarter sessions or assizes.
A general trawl of secondary sources and a brief random sampling of newspapers from England and Wales has revealed over seventy witch-trials from the mid-18th century to the early 20th century, as well as numerous prosecutions involving cunning-folk. The majority of these date from the 19th rather than the 18th century, partly because there was greater concern over the continued belief in witchcraft then and also because the introduction of a professional police force facilitated the lodging of official complaints. Indeed, a systematic survey of nineteenth-century Somerset newspapers has uncovered twenty-six reverse witch-trials from that county alone, and no doubt several more went un recorded. Based on these samples I would suggest that the number of such cases from England, Wales and Scotland probably number well over 200. If we further consider that these represent only those assaults which came to court, then we get some idea of the continued level of violence against suspected witches in an age when agents of the British Empire were complaining of the 'heathen' behaviour of many of its colonial subjects. The comparison was not lost on everyone. In the mid-nineteenth century the educationalist, James Augustus St John, bemoaned how
here in England, in the midst of our
civilization, with the light of
Christianity, ready to pour into the
meanest and darkest hovels [violence
against witches was] still prevailing in
our rural districts, while the belief in
witches is all but universal.
There were numerous women with the scars to prove it. In 1935 a doctor from Poole, Dorset, wrote about an old woman of his acquaintance whose back and chest were covered with scars from being scratched. At the time of the assault she had twenty-two wounds that required stitching up.
The source of the majority of these assaults lay in the prolonged and inexplicable illness of family members. For all the advances in the understanding of human biology, the medical profession's ability to cure remained rudimentary. Until the development of aspirin and antibiotics during the twentieth century, doctors and vets could provide little comfort for a wide range of human and animal medical conditions. Some serious illnesses, such as internal cancers, remained undiagnosable, and so appeared mysterious to both doctor and patient. When people fell ill, witchcraft was not usually suspected straight away, and general practitioners were called in to apply their medicines. It was only if their treatment failed to provide any significant relief that suspicions sometimes grew that there might be some supernatural cause. A cunning-man or -woman might then be consulted to identify the witch responsible and to instruct on the best course of action. One example amongst many that could be given to illustrate this process occurred in 1854. A man from Heavitree near Exeter fell ill and went to be treated by the local Poor Law Union surgeon. Finding little relief in the medicine given to him he discontinued his attendance and went to consult a ‘wizard doctor’. This gentleman told him that the ‘Union doctor was a consummate fool and did not know what was the matter with him, for he was “bewitched” ’ and for the large sum of 30 shillings he provided him with a charm that would break the witch’s spell.
Most of the rest of the reverse witch-trials resulted form the death or illness of horses, cattle and pigs, from the failure of domestic food processing or from poor fishing catches. Admittedly, only one case involving fishing has been found but further newspaper research in counties with large fishing communities would probably reveal more. The case was heard by a court in Peterhead, Scotland, in September 1872 and concerned a man who drew blood from his wife to ensure that he would have a good catch of herring. In several instances people experienced a series of inexplicable misfortunes. Thus in 1895 a poor, elderly woman of Long Sutton, Lincolnshire, was assaulted by a farming couple for having supposedly bewitched their cows, pigs, hens, and butter. The last straw was a bewitched pudding that swelled so much in the pot that it was impossible to remove. Although people continued to interpret misfortune in terms of witchcraft, and individuals continued to be subjected to violent attack for being witches right up until the early decades of the present century, from the late nineteenth century onwards the cultural environment in which witchcraft functioned was undergoing a profound transformation. The mechanisation of agriculture, the opening up of a global market for meat and wheat, severe agricultural depression, emigration, and urbanisation led to the fracturing of communal relations across the country. The local production of foodstuffs declined. Bread, butter, milk and cheese were now being bought in and sold by burgeoning retail outlets. People became increasingly divorced from the traditional agricultural rhythm of life. Once largely self-sufficient communities became wholly dependent on goods produced outside the community. As a result, the everyday toing and froing among neighbours buying, borrowing and begging from each other, which helped foster intimate neighbourhood relations, became less frequent. While communities were losing their cohesion and becoming less introspective, life in general was also becoming more financially secure. The spread of trade unionism, the beginnings of the welfare state - particularly the advent of old age pensions in 1909 - the rise of personal insurance and the eventual setting up of wage boards, meant that the impact of those misfortunes which had often led to accusations of witchcraft was lessened. Witchcraft gradually ceased to serve a function for those who believed in it, and although stories of witches continued to be told and believed in, fewer and fewer people attracted the reputation of being witches as the social circumstances which produced accusations dwindled. However, while the long-held popular tradition of witchcraft was becoming obsolete, a new phase in the modern history of witchcraft was beginning.
During the late 19th century there occurred what has been described as the ‘Occult Revival’. This was a renewed learned interest in ceremonial magic that grew out of the Masonic movement and which was encouraged by the popularity and influence of spiritualism. There had been a small number of erudite, experimental magicians throughout the 18th and 19th centuries but what defined the Occult Revival was the shift from solitary to collective magical practice, coupled with the formulation of a new magical tradition bringing together ancient pagan beliefs and the Christian occult philosophies of early modern Europe. To legitimise the credentials of this new brand of occultism, some occultists claimed they were the inheritors of a secret pagan movement. Powerful support for this nascent tradition was provided by the work on witchcraft by the respected Egyptologist Margaret Murray. In 1921 her book, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, was published. In it she argued that those persecuted as witches in the past were not Devil worshippers but members of a pre-Christian religion who gathered together at ‘sabbaths’ to venerate and supplicate a horned god. This notion of a pagan witch0cult was further developed by the founder of the modern witchcraft movement, Gerald Gardner. This freemason and spiritualist was a great admirer of Murray’s work and in a series of books published after the Second World War, he set out to trace the history of this ancient religion that came to be called ‘Wicca’, and to formulate a ritual structure for new members.
However, the concept of witchcraft propounded by the neo-magicians of late 19th- and early 20th-century Britain was very different from the popular experience of witchcraft. There is absolutely no evidence in the modern historical record that those accused of witchcraft were pagan worshippers. In the opinion of those who accused and assaulted them, witches were guilty of malice and spite, not of subversive religions practices. A growing number of Wiccans are accepting this historical fact and are distancing themselves from the Gardnerian claims for an inherited witchcraft tradition. Those who continue to claim for their religion people labelled as witches in the past, should remember that those who carried the scars of popular persecution were often God-fearing, church-going folk who would probably have been as horrified to be embraced as a pagan as scratched for a witch.
- Dr Owen Davies is the author of Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, 1736-1951 (Manchester University Press, 1999).
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