How to Find an Early Modern Witch, by Claire Smith

If you wanted to find a witch during the early modern period, one of the more notable people you could ask was Matthew Hopkins, self-declared Witchfinder General from 1644-1647. If, in the twenty-first century, you want to find evidence of early modern witches, there are many places to look. Extant sources from this period are increasingly being made available online in digital, facsimile, translation, or edition formats. Books, pamphlets, court records, and even contemporary plays, can tell us a great deal about the different ways in which people both perceived and responded to witches.

Matthew Hopkins, for example, developed methods by which to determine whether a person could be suspected of witchcraft — and in particular, of entering into a pact with the devil. These were explained and justified in his 1647 book, The Discovery of Witches. Some of these practises remain familiar when we think about witches today, such as that of ‘swimming’. (Not ‘ducking’, which was a punishment reserved for scolds.) Tied to a chair and thrown into the water, this act was intended to determine whether a witch had renounced their Christian baptism, in which case the water itself would reject them and cause the witch to float. The image below, from Francesco Maria Guazzo’s 1608 Compendium Maleficarum shows a male witch, having denied his baptism, receiving a ‘new mock baptism’ from the devil himself.

(Image in the Public Domain. Source: Claremont School of Theology, via The Internet Archive)

When criticised for this inhumane and unlawful practice, Hopkins stated that many witches had confessed of their own accord and asked to be swum in this manner, having been advised to do so by the devil himself. Hopkins also deferred to the authority of King James VI and I. The second book of his treatise on Daemonologie, published in 1597, was very clear about the existence of witches and the dangers they presented, including the renunciation of their Christian baptism, and the presence of a bodily mark created by the devil. A witch-finder such as Hopkins could order a suspected witch to be examined for unusual marks upon their body, particularly those which had no feeling when pricked, or which did not bleed. These were considered to be the means by which a demon would make its connection with the witch by suckling, through the body of their animal familiar.

In the English court system during this period the onus was on the accuser to carry the burden of proof that an accused person was in fact a witch, rather than on the defendant to prove that they were not. Unlike other parts of Europe, early modern England had no formal inquisition process, and trials were usually carried out through the system of regular assizes. Records from both clerical and secular court hearings are an excellent source for finding out both the more local and personal, and wider cultural concerns which formed the background to accusations of witchcraft. These, along with popular printed pamphlets about witchcraft, sometimes take the form of a long list of accusations, by a variety of people, and often over an extended period of time. They need to be taken with a pinch of salt in terms of their reliability — even those documents which are intended to be formal and official. The National Archives have put together a selection of teaching materials using extant court records, along with suggestions for questions to consider when consulting this type of material.

Matthew Hopkins’ The Discovery of Witches was published in the same year that he retired from witch-finding, having been accused of witchcraft himself on account of his success. The book is framed in the form of questions addressed to the judges of the Norfolk Assizes with regard to Hopkins, to which he replies in order to both explain and to justify his methods.,_Matthew_Hopkins.jpg
(Image in the Public Domain. Source: British Library.)

Some of his explanations are extremely thorough, in particular when he goes into great detail about his encounter with a ‘horrible sect of Witches’ in his home town of Manningtree. These are depicted in a woodcut illustration, opposite the title page. Here we can see the white kitten Holt, the black rabbit Sacke & Sugar, and Vinegar Tom — a greyhound with the head of a bull, who ‘transformed himselfe into the shape of a childe of foure yeeres old without a head’.

As well as supernatural abilities possessed by these familiars, imps or demons, witches were considered to have magical powers of their own. While control of the weather was not one of Matthew Hopkins’ particular concerns, it was however a long-standing one. The Malleus Maleficarum, published in 1486, attributed hailstorms to demonic magic used by witches. Professor Helen Parish draws together the connections between dramatic and often devastating climate events with the fear of witchcraft in this blog post.

(Image in the Public Domain. Source: Houghton Library, Harvard University)

Witches also made their way into early modern popular culture. Perhaps the most widely known are the trio of witches from Macbeth, but Shakespeare was by no means the only playwright for whom witches were a dramatic device. Written in 1621 by Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley, the play The Witch of Edmonton supposedly represents real events. Along with the usual cases of mistaken identity, uncertain paternity, and complex relationships that we might expect from dramatisations of this period, the central figure of Elizabeth Sawyer is the catalyst for the introduction of demonic activity into the community when the devil appears to her in the form of a black dog. The Royal Shakespeare Company performed this play in 2014, and have an excellent synopsis on their website.

Rather than relying on the many misconceptions, stereotypes and modern representations that abound, if you want to find an early modern witch, it is now easier than ever to go back to the materials which were available at the time.

Claire Smith is a PhD Student of History, specialising in representations of witches in early modern secular non-fiction.

Further Reading:

Matthew Hopkins, The Discovery of Witches (1647)
1931 facsimile edition:

King James VI and I, Daemonologie (1597)
1924 facsimile edition:

Francesco Maria Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum (1608)

1929 edition, translated by E. Allen Ashwin, with additional theological notes by Montague Summers:

Thomas Dekker, John Ford, and William Rowley, The Witch of Edmonton (1621)

1887 compendium edition of Thomas Dekker’s work: 

The National Archives

Online teaching materials using sources from early modern witch trials:

This entry was posted in News and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.