So, another Easter is upon us and it provides a chance of two weeks to switch gears, re-orient the brain, and to pick up on other pursuits (such as writing that screenplay about Father Christmas, delving into family history, and even blogging). But the Easter break can also rear the head of that other event: the Easter revision session.

I don’t complete Easter revision every year. It depends on the cohort: are they prepared? Are they motivated? Do they like me enough to tolerate an extra day with me? Do I like them enough to tolerate another day with them?!

Today, Easter revision happened. Luckily, the class are tolerable: they are able, intelligent, motivated, and very likeable. All of which made the revision itself likeable. So, several hours were devoted to revising some of the possible questions that could raise their heads in the summer exams: source based questions on the Wars of the Roses, a kahoot or two on Nazi ideology. And then, the main event: breaking down thematic questions relating to the Witchcraze module.

This Witchcraze module is a humdinger. It’s a toughie. A module that does not have an actual start year, or an end year, and doesn’t have any specific geographic boundaries (it’s in Britain, in Europe, as far as Russia, and even across the Atlantic into North America). Every single witch trial is different – in one way or another – to a witch trial happening several miles away, or in the same place but in a different generation. It short, there is no silver bullet to defeat the types of questions that could come up. And on top of all of this, we have to face the reality that witches were not real: not in the imagined way described by demonologists and other crazy theorists who believed that a witch had the power to destabilise a village’s crop, or to kill another person.

Perhaps “a toughie” is an under-statement. In many ways, I wish I had never stumped for this module when looking at the new A-level specifications a couple of years ago. But it sounded enticing and juicy; it must be admitted, that reading up on this period of history has been enlightening. But for students, who have a limited range of time to study and complete wider reading, this is a difficult module to break down.

On top of this, the exam board (OCR) want certain questions – thematic questions – broken down in a particular manner. You get given a question, and you break it down into three criteria on which to judge the debate (three “themes”). You analyse each criteria, bringing in synthesis of different examples, and then conclude by firmly providing judgement to the question debate. None of this is too difficult, and it provides the student with a better of covering a large span of time than taking the derided (and to be avoided) chronological approach, and provides a better chance of synthesis than the classic two-sided debate approach.

The difficultly, then, lies in the choice of module itself. Some of the OCR modules lend themselves brilliantly to a thematic approach. For example, the module about American Civil Rights (1865-1992) is a fantastic one: the student could break down the majority of questions (on either African Americans, Native Americans, women, or trade unionists) by employing three well-worn “themes”: social, political, and economic. Each one would work perfectly for the vast majority of questions that could appear, and provides an A-level student with a clear structure and competent base on which to begin. Furthermore, a clear date to start the module – 1865 – and a clear end date – 1992 – provide the student with more safety in knowing what types of content could appear.

But then we move back to our Witchcraze module, or to give it its proper unwieldy title: Popular Culture and the Witchcraze of the 16th and 17th Centuries. There is no real opportunity to employ familiar themes, and each question must be broken down on its own unique merits. This is great for brainwork, but not necessary for A-level study (with its time restraints). But let’s look at a couple of questions to highlight the difficulties of employing a thematic approach that attempts to bring in as much synthesis and usual examples as possible:

‘Regional variations make it impossible to generalise about reasons for the rise and fall in European witchcraft prosecutions.’ How far do you agree with this view in the period 1560 to 1660?

So, here’s a question suggested in the (inadequate) recommended textbook. Yep, a humdinger. The first thoughts are on what is the main, central debate? Study in the witch trials of the early modern period suggest to the reader that it is hard/impossible to generalise. But our task is to break this question down, in order to test the statement. Then our second thoughts come to what criteria should be utilised?

The students were able to come up with several interesting and convincing themes, which included the variations within the judiciary, political systems, socio-economic differences, and the influence of religion.

Theme #1: Judiciary

This related to how the British and continental European systems differed with regards to their judiciaries: the European approach was judge dominated and inquisitorial, whilst the English approach utilised a jury system. This difference led to wildly different rates of prosecution: 90% in Europe, whilst only 40% in England. But ultimately, these different legal systems were willing to hear cases of accusations that came before them throughout the early modern period, all of which confirms Levack’s statement that the witchcraze was a ‘judicial operation’.

Theme #2: Political systems

Decentralised states were more likely to play host to witch trials. This can be evidenced in various case-studies, including the area of South Germany in the Holy Roman Empire (notably in the 1620s-30s) that had a lack of centralised control by the emperor of the time. Furthermore, other centralised nation states also saw an issue with rural elites who utilised torture and instigated witch trials (such as in Scotland and in France). Furthermore, the example of England in the 1640s is an intriguing one: usually, England’s centralised control play a role in limiting the spread of witch trials, but in the 1640s it endured the Civil War, which led to a breakdown of law and order. This provided the perfect breeding ground for Hopkins to come to prominence in East Anglia between the years of 1645-47. Although Salem is outside of the period in question (by 3 decades), it also follows this pattern: the North American colonies were a long way away from centralised control in London, and therefore had greater freedom to enact a witch trial.

Theme #3: Socio-Economic factors

Economic issues were a clear factor: where the economy was bad, there was a greater likelihood of witch accusations. This links into the wider historiographical debate of a functionalist interpretation (that poor communities looked to a scapegoat in times of distress). This can be evidenced in the example of England during the period: the end of the Elizabethan period saw a rise of poverty and vagrancy, which in turn led to the Elizabethan Poor Laws. Poverty plays a role in the example of the Pendle Witches in 1612, and again with Hopkins (enclosure had been an on-going issue in East Anglia since the early Tudor period… and was even a factor in social distress a century before in Kett’s Rebellion of 1549). This period of economic distress corresponds with a rise in witch hunts in the country.

Furthermore, the area of Germany provides more proof. The first half of the 1600s saw the Thirty Years’ War, poor harvests and plague (related to the so-called Mini Ice Age), and a rise of poverty (and widows, relating to deaths from the war itself). All of this created a more unstable and vulnerable society that was more likely to scapegoat (if one subscribes to the functionalist argument).

Theme #4: Religion

Religion clearly played a massive role during the early modern period. Demonologists of a religious persuasion created the stereotype of the female witch in the 1400s, and were instrumental in providing advice during the period 1560-1660. However, religion alone was not the catalyst: it had to be religious branches competing against one another, and in a state of tension. Obviously this tension can be found with the Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A recent study from Exeter university discussed the idea of a “market share” battle: that the Catholic and Protestant branches were in competition for the people of Europe, and that they became more hostile to groups such as witches to demonstrate how keen they were to purify their own church. This gives the example as to why the Holy Roman Empire saw a lot of witch trials: there was an on-going battle between Catholics and Protestants throughout this period (leading to the rise of Prince Bishops in south Germany, such as Von Dornheim – the “Witch Bishop”).

However, when the tension was absent, so was the focus of persecuting witches. For example, in the most Catholic areas of Europe – Spain and Italy – there were only a handful of witch trials. A clear reason here, there was a lack of tension: they were thoroughly Catholicised and there was an absence of a Protestant threat. Furthermore, this can also explain why Protestants – mainly Puritans – were involved in witch accusations (in East Anglia in the 1640s, and in Salem in 1692): the fear of Catholic elements, or non-Puritan elements, drove them to punish believed witches in the area.

Now, all of the above come from today’s revision session with these A-level students; it didn’t exist beforehand. Yesterday, before the session, I spent an hour putting together a PowerPoint outlining various question break downs and I came across the above question. I looked at it, squinted, and then moved on. The above work shows that the questions are not impossible, but it is clear that they are not very instinctive either. But ultimately, I have a lot of faith with this current cohort and what they can achieve, and in typing up these ideas on this post it occurred to me the value of their contributions and comments (the market share theory, the functionalist interpretation, the understanding of political systems, of socio-economic factors, etc). It has made this Easter revision particularly worthwhile: despite my many, generally useless, digressions.