This week I ventured back into the college for a few hours worth of revision with an enthusiastic and vocal A-level History class. It was announced that there was just one week to go before the OCR Popular Culture & Witchcraze exam: a two-and-a-half-hour long exam that makes up 40% of their overall A-level grade. Big stakes at play, then. But my confidence in this cohort is high: they’ve turned up to class throughout the year, they’ve engaged in sessions, they’ve taken on-board feedback, and some of them appear to have undertaken deeper, wider reading. These are all the hallmarks of a high-grade History student.
It turned out that our chief focus throughout the day was re-examining the witch-hunts/trials that took place in Britain. England, in particular, is of great use in this module because it stands out in difference to continental Europe. Whilst those in the Holy Roman Empire were burning witches in a fury, the trials in England were much more low-key. For a start, witches were not burned, but hanged (which suggests that the link with heretical views was not established here). Over a two hundred year period (1500-1700) it is estimated that 500 witches were killed in England; this is a tame statistic when compared to the thousands killed in a short space of time in south Germany. Sharpe believes that the problem in England was ‘endemic’ rather than ‘an epidemic’, and there is only one example of a mass witch-hunt on the scale of continental Europe: the Hopkins’ hunts of 1645-47 (in which 100 witches were killed – counting for a fifth of all those killed in two centuries). All of which makes Britain – especially England – a special case.
There are many reasons for Britain’s seemingly unique position. Historians point to the lack of strength of the demonic/diabolic pact; on the continent this was of key importance and was regularly listed in many trials. However, in Britain the idea of the nightly sabbat and of wild sexual orgies with the Devil only reared themselves on a handful of occasions. It appears, then, that British witch-craft was more concerned with the use of evil magic that created personal misfortune (such as the destruction of a farmer’s crops, or the death of a child). Furthermore, of vital importance was the position of the elites in power: they generally did not stoke up persecution on a national scale, which meant that larger hunts did not happen. If anything, the government wanted to maintain order from the peasantry, rather than stir up emotion that could descend into a rebellion. In helping them, the governments of the period had a strong, centralised, professional judiciary that maintained a level of order throughout the land. In Europe, the judiciary were aided by demonologists and helped fan the flames of mass hysteria that resulted in snowballing confessions and accusations; this did not happen in England. The assizes were sent out regularly across the land to mete out impartial, un-biased, professional judgement. The only time when this process was not followed was during the English Civil War of the 1640s, and this breakdown of law and order is of key importance in explaining the Hopkins hunts of this period in East Anglia. Hopkins was able to stir up ill-feeling in divided communities, and the judiciary was not present to dampen this (as shown in the amateur Earl of Warwick actually presiding over key trials).
Of course, a case could be made to suggest that there are certain similarities between British hunts and those in Europe. Some historians point to the influence of demonological literature, that came from the continent to England. Furthermore, heavy focus is laid on the Hopkins hunts: were they the exception, or something that hints at a wider fear of witch-craft? For example, these hunts show that the continental ideas of a demonic pact were spreading, whilst a sub-inquisitorial process was utilised to help ease the wheels of “justice” in trying witches.
Ultimately, there is not enough evidence to support such arguments that England was similar to continental Europe in its approach to witchcraft. Hopkins is just one mass hunt, and the political stability of this time (when compared to Europe) appears to have maintained law and order quite well. Furthermore, the links between both regions does not fully take into account the high level of scepticism present in Britain (as highlighted in trials such as the Gunter trial in the early 1600s) which suggests that the demonic pact was of little importance here. Why this is so is another debate altogether – but one that is most likely found in the cultural history of this land, and its lack of connection in the Catholic Reformation of mainland Europe, beside the short reign of Mary I. I would like to speculate that it has much to do with the manners and customs of those in England: the English do not go in for spectacle or pizzazz, and therefore the notion of a pact with the Devil and mid-night sex orgies would have been off-limits to the English imagination. However, I very much fear that this speculation has no firm basis in proof! Perhaps a research project for the summer to investigate further is needed.