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Speak of the Devil


At a time when many people in Europe and North America believe themselves to be under threat from a hidden enemy bent on their annihilation, it is worth reflecting on the existence of similar fears four hundred years ago. Like the United States today, seventeenth-century England was an intellectually stratified society whose inhabitants lived at very different levels of mental sophistication. It witnessed the superlative achievements of William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton, but it also saw Roman Catholics persecuted as agents of Antichrist and old women put to death as malevolent witches.

There was, of course, some justification for fearing both Catholics and witches. In 1605, Catholic plotters nearly succeeded in their attempt to blow up the King and Queen, their two sons, Henry and Charles, and the assembled Lords and Commons, including the King’s chief ministers, the heads of the judiciary, and the bishops of the established church. Modern experts on explosives estimate that the thirty-six barrels of gunpowder concealed in the vaults of the Palace of Westminster were sufficient to create devastation within a radius of five hundred yards, obliterating the Palace, the Abbey, Westminster Hall, and the surrounding streets. Had one of the conspirators not warned a friend to stay away from the opening of Parliament, thereby alerting the authorities, Guy Fawkes, who was arrested just as he was preparing the long fuses with which to ignite the gunpowder, would have created the Jacobean equivalent of Ground Zero.

Witches were never accused of causing damage on this scale. But they were suspected of killing and injuring others, as well as harming their livestock and frustrating such domestic activities as making butter and cheese. Theologians maintained that all magical operations, whether helpful or harmful, involved a compact, tacit or explicit, with the devil; and that black witches were members of an infernal conspiracy to subvert the whole of Christian society. These suspicions seem fantastic to us today, and it is true that many people, perhaps most, suspected witches were wholly innocent, in thought as well as deed. But some of them were undoubtedly alienated from their communities and from conventional religion; it is likely that they felt deep hatred for their neighbors and would have destroyed them if they could.

The position of Roman Catholics after the Reformation was not dissimilar. Many conformed outwardly to the Anglican Church, but others continued to practice their own religion and to pray for the day when Catholicism would return. Some young men went abroad to be trained in seminaries as missionary priests or to fight in the armies of Catholic rulers, while their sisters were packed off to nunneries in France or Flanders. Only a tiny, intransigent minority plotted and intrigued with foreign powers in the hope of restoring the old religion. Most English Catholics were law-abiding citizens. Yet all were oppressively persecuted. Catholic laity were fined for staying away from church and excluded from public office. Missionary priests were arrested and put to death as subversives.

The analogy between seventeenth-century attitudes toward Catholics and witches and modern Western fears of Islam is not exact. But it is close enough to be suggestive. English Protestants regarded the Pope in Rome as the spider in a web of international conspiracy, not unlike Osama bin Laden in his mountain fastness. Law-abiding Catholics were seen as a potential fifth column whose loyalty could not be relied upon, rather like peaceful Muslim communities in the West. Secrecy accompanied the supposed machinations of witches, just as it does the preparations of terrorist suicide bombers. Some zealous Protestants saw witches and Catholics as linked together in an axis of evil.

Two recent studies by British historians illuminate some of the consequences which flowed from this pervasive fear of half-invisible enemies. Malcolm Gaskill has produced an absorbing account of a critical phase in the history of witchcraft persecution, while James Sharpe has written an engaging essay on the changing meaning over the centuries of Guy Fawkes Day, the commemoration on November 5 of England’s deliverance from the Gunpowder Plot.1 Neither book is intended as a tract for the times, but few readers will miss their contemporary relevance.

No episode in the history of English witchcraft prosecution was more painful or bizarre than the witch-hunt conducted in the eastern counties between 1645 and 1647. As a result of the efforts of Matthew Hopkins, an obscure semi-gentleman in his mid-twenties, with no known qualifications, legal or otherwise, and his slightly older but equally obscure associate, John Stearne, who was probably a scrivener, some three hundred persons in Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Huntingdonshire, and the Isle of Ely were accused of having made pacts with the devil; over a hundred were hanged, and others died in jail.

Hopkins and Stearne rode from town to town, supervising the process of interrogation and preparing the evidence which would secure a conviction. In most cases, the key element in that evidence was the accused’s own confession. The suspected witches (nearly all poor and most of them women) provided vivid accounts of their meetings with the devil, their agreement to become his followers, their sexual intercourse with him, and their suckling of his “imps,” or “familiars,” the evil spirits in animal form through whom they maintained their communion with Satan.

These events have long perplexed historians, partly because they came at a time when witch trials in England seemed to be on the verge of dying out, and partly because they were so different in character from earlier prosecutions. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, accusations of witchcraft had usually arisen in the course of quarrels between villagers. Learned demonologists maintained that all witches were in league with the devil, but at the village level there was little talk about diabolical covenants. Typically, the supposed witch was accused of having done physical harm to her neighbors or to their property, “maleficium,” as the lawyers called it. Prosecutions were small-scale, sporadic, and local in their origins. Before 1645, England had no real witch-hunts or professional witch-hunters. Hopkins’s victims resembled their predecessors in that the original suspicions had often arisen in the usual way—quarrels with neighbors had been followed by their suffering illness and other misfortunes for which the alleged witches were blamed. But the crime for which the witches were executed was not primarily maleficium, as in the past; it was that of having allegedly made a pact with the devil.

Uniquely virulent in its consequences, the deadly campaign led by Hopkins and Stearne has had its fair share of scholarly attention. Nearly a hundred years ago, the Yale historian Wallace Notestein gave a good account of it in his doctoral dissertation, later a standard book, on the history of witchcraft in England. Such records of the trials as survive were combed by C. L’Estrange Ewen in two standard works published in 1929 and 1933. Alan Macfarlane’s pioneering anthropological study of witchcraft in Essex (1970) included an illuminating analysis of the background to the activities of Hopkins and Stearne in that county, while penetrating observations on the East Anglian witch-hunt have been made more recently by Robin Briggs and James Sharpe in their excellent surveys of (respectively) European and English witchcraft.2

Now Malcolm Gaskill, a Cambridge historian, has written an entire book on the subject. It is a fine achievement. He has scoured local and national archives for every scrap of surviving evidence and presented his findings in an intelligent, meticulously documented, and highly readable way. The East Anglian landscape, the hardships of rural life, and the hideous drama of trials and executions are all evoked vividly, perhaps too vividly. In his apparent eagerness to make his book beguiling to the general reader, Gaskill sometimes ascribes thoughts and feelings to the participants for which there is no real evidence. He also punctuates his narrative with imaginative descriptions of the weather and the physical environment. Travelers entering Cambridge, he tells us, were assailed by “the stench of urban life: heaps of dung and straw in the narrow streets, the fug of greasy steam from the college kitchens, and the bodies of the unwashed hawkers and beggars and the rows of cloth-wrapped corpses awaiting disposal”; and when Hopkins rode into Suffolk, “the firs hung heavy with jewels of ice and puddles cracked under hoof.”

Unfortunately, the gaps in the extant evidence make it impossible for Gaskill (or anyone else) to offer a wholly satisfying account of what actually happened during these years. Hopkins and Stearne are shadowy figures. The judicial records are seriously incomplete and historians are heavily dependent on contemporary pamphlet accounts of the trials. Gaskill does his best, but he reveals the limitations of what can be known by his repeated use of such telltale expressions as “perhaps,” “possibly,” “very likely,” “probably,” “doubtless,” “surely,” and “almost certainly.” “It is easy to imagine,” he writes, or “it is fair to assume,” or, more desperately, “it is tempting to imagine.” Worst of all, “legend has it.” The tension between the scrupulous scholar, anxious never to exceed the evidence, and the would-be popular historian seems painfully apparent. Nevertheless, this is as persuasive an account of the whole grisly episode as we are ever likely to get.3

The most obvious question to be asked about Hopkins and his victims is that of how it was possible for some people to confess to what we would today regard as wholly impossible crimes, and for others to condemn them to a shameful and agonizing death by slow strangulation (or, in one case, burning alive). It was one thing to believe, as most contemporaries did, in the existence of spirits and diabolical intervention in the world. It was another to conclude that harmless and ignorant men and women were guilty of the extraordinary feats of which Hopkins accused them. Yet in the light of modern experience of methods used in interrogation, the confessions are perhaps the easiest part of the story to understand. They were usually extracted in response to a long series of leading questions. Physical torture was not supposed to be employed, but Hopkins and his associates deprived their suspects of both sleep and food for days in conditions of extreme discomfort, trussing them up on a stool, or making them walk up and down until their feet blistered. Starved, hallucinating, and half-crazed, the “witches” would eventually confess to anything.

The interrogation of suspects was also accompanied by the physical examination (“searching”) of every crevice of the accused person’s body, particularly in the genital area, with a view to finding an extra nipple which could be identified as the “witch’s mark” to which the “familiar” spirit in animal form would attach itself in order to suckle. Usually some mole, wart, hemorrhoid, or piece of loose skin could be discovered without undue difficulty. If the suspect felt no pain when the spot was pricked, that was certain proof.

  1. 1

    See the review by Eamon Duffy, The New York Review, February 9, 2006.

  2. 2

    Wallace Notestein, A History of Witchcraft in England from 1558 to 1718 (American Historical Association, 1911; reissued by Russell and Russell, 1965), Chapter 8; C. L’Estrange Ewen, Witch Hunting and Witch Trials (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1929; reissued by Frederick Muller, 1971) and Witchcraft and Demonianism (London: Heath Cranton, 1933); Alan Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970); Robin Briggs, Witches and Neighbors: The Social and Cultural Context of European Witchcraft (HarperCollins, 1996); James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550–1750(London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996).

  3. 3

    Gaskill provides a more austere, and in some ways more valuable, account of the episode in the introduction and notes to his edition of The Matthew Hopkins Trials, Volume 3 of the six-volume English Witchcraft 1560–1736, edited by James Sharpe (Pickering and Chatto, 2003).

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