What would Halloween be without witches? Easiest costume to cobble together, subject of some of the best horror films (from ‘Black Sunday’ and ‘Suspiria’ right through to last year’s brilliant ‘The Witch’), and those hats are the perfect shape to cut out of chocolate or cookie dough.
However, behind the broomsticks and black cats lies a more sinister story, of thousands of people, mostly women, tortured and executed during witch-hunting mania that swept Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One aspect of that mania which it’s timely to remember is the role played by mass information. Fake news, it turns out, is not a recent phenomenon.
Nowadays we think of printing in terms of the extraordinary advances it precipitated in education, cultural life, and scientific method: advances which led to inestimable improvements in the lives and health of millions of people. And here at the Stationers’ Company, we’re lucky enough to have recorded the publication of texts which reflect these developments, allowing us to trace the circulation in England of works by seminal thinkers from Luther and Copernicus on.The Stationers’ Registers or entry books of copy, where publishers registered their rights to a work, offer a fascinating insight into the early book trade. But, as we know only too well, any technology is only as good as the use it’s put to. And for some, the power of print to elevate gossip into fact proved fatal.
The first major trial for witchcraft under Elizabeth I’s ‘Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts’ was held at Chelmsford Assizes in 1566. Three women, Elizabeth Frauncis, Agnes Waterhouse and her daughter Joan Waterhouse, all of Hatfield Peverel, stood accused. The outcome of the trial was that Frauncis was imprisoned, Agnes Waterhouse was hanged for committing murder by witchcraft, and Joan was found not guilty. However, the trial’s impact did not stop there. For, in what could be described as an early example of tabloid journalism, by the end of that year William Pekerynge had registered his licence for printing two lurid accounts of proceedings. ‘The examination of certain wyches at Chensforde before the quenes majesties Judges in the Countye of Essex’ must have been popular enough to merit a sequel, for ‘The second examination and confession of Agnes Waterhouse and Joan her Daughter’ came out soon after.
The pamphlets certainly contain some colourful descriptions of Frauncis’s magical cat, somewhat unsubtly named Satan, who procures several favours for her, including the financial ruin and untimely death of a man who wouldn’t marry her. Satan (the cat, that is) is then handed over to Agnes, who contracts with him to dispose of various items of livestock belonging to obstreperous neighbours. Agnes and Satan even subject a dairymaid to the extortions of a horned, ape-faced dog with a predilection for freshly churned butter.
Of course there’s long been an appetite for gruesome tales and sinister stories, as anyone familiar with folk music or fairy stories knows. But these pamphlets were disseminated with a speed and range far beyond the reach of oral culture – meaning that their contents could stoke fears and reinforce prejudices before the commotion of a public witch-trial died down. One effect of the Chelmsford case was the sudden rise of a new embellishment to the accusations and dubiously extracted ‘confessions’ of witchcraft: the use of an animal as a diabolic familiar.
The Stationers’ Registers contain many more entries for pamphlets reporting on witch trials, and ballads relating the heinous doings of these witches. And witches played their part in the theatre too, Shakespeare’s Macbeth containing the best known examples. But digging a little deeper in the Registers reveals the complexity of the context in which these witch-hunts were pursued: for instance, while witchcraft was frowned upon, ‘prognostication’ was not only accepted, but lucrative (via their best-selling Almanacs, not least for the Stationers themselves).
At the Stationers’ Company Archive:
Stationers’ Company Register A, TSC/1/D/02/01
Liber B, TSC/1/F/02/01
Registers of Entry of Copy, Libers C-G, TSC/1/E/06/02 – TSC/1/E/06/06
Key text discussed:
The Examination and Confession of Certain Witches at Chelmsford in the county of Essex Communicated and prefaced by H. Beigel [A reprint of “The examination and confession of certaine wytches et Chensforde … before the Quenes maiesties Judges, the xxvi daye of July Anno 1556,” and “The second examination of mother Agnes Waterhouse, and Jone her daughter … the xxvii day of July Anno 1566], consulted on the Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/b24926760
If you want to read more about ‘witches’ in this period:
Ben-Yehuda, N. (1980), ‘The European witch craze of the 14th to 17th centuries: A sociologist’s perspective’ in The American Journal of Sociology, 86 (1), 1-31
Bever, Edward, The realities of witchcraft and popular magic in early modern Europe : culture, cognition, and everyday life, 2008
Ginzburg, Carlo, ‘Deciphering the Sabbath‘ in Ankarloo Bengt and Gustav Henningsen (eds.), Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries, Clarendon Press, 1990, pp.121-37
Clark, Stuart, Thinking with demons: the idea of witchcraft in early modern Europe, Clarendon Press, 1997
https://blogs.ubc.ca/etec540sept09/2009/10/31/unintended-consequences/ – great piece that got me thinking about all this in the first place
http://theconversation.com/hag-temptress-or-feminist-icon-the-witch-in-popular-culture-77374 – nothing to do with this post, but an interesting discussion!