Witch Trials in the British Isles: a Very Brief Introduction

The early modern period was one of transition and uncertainty; Europe ‘teemed with invisible supernatural entities, which constantly influenced…the lives of men’ (Wilby 2005). Unexpected and catastrophic hardship caused by disease, political upheaval and crop failure occurred with alarming regularity. It is easy to understand why many would turn to magic – supernatural beliefs that stood outside the sphere of formal religion – to understand the natural world and protect them from this misfortune. In contrast to Priests and Bishops of Christianity the guardians of magical practices were common people, often referred to as cunning people or, in some cases, witches.

Most small towns and villages in Europe would have access to a cunning person; an individual who would carry out benevolent magic that would produce healing remedies or protective charms that were affordable for the working population (Honeybell 2010). Suggett (2008) states that, contrary to modern belief, cunning people were not just the old and poor but ‘a miscellaneous group of widows, yeoman and wives of craftsmen’. In a period when healthcare was scarce and expensive, cunning folk were an essential aspect of rural life.

However, cunning people were not the only custodians of the supernatural. Witches were also widely recognised but also viewed as the purveyors of harmful magic, driven by anger, revenge or spite… and perhaps less likely to admit to it publicly.

The line between cunning person and Witch was easy to blur. If the rest of the community deemed them capable of harming as well as healing individuals could find themselves socially isolated or relabelled as a Witch. This change tended to happen after a violation of hierarchal norms or traditional behaviour were breached with female practitioners particularly prone to accusations of Witchcraft (Rowlands 2013).

In future posts I’ll be taking a closer look at the religious and social contexts for the witch trials, as well as a number of the individuals accused and tried of witchcraft in the British Isles. Sadly, some names have disappeared to history, their stories manipulated and contorted by those who recorded them. I’ll do my best to do them justice.

Books:

Honeybell, F. (2010) Cunning Folk and Wizards in Early Modern England. Warwick University: The Early Modern and Eighteenth Century Centre.

Rowlands, A. (2013) ‘Witchcraft and Gender in Early Modern Europe’ in The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Brian Levack ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Suggett, R. (2008), A History of Magic & Witchcraft in Wales. Stroud: Tempus.

Wilby, E. (2005) Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions. Brighton: Sussex University Press

Further Reading:

Davies, O. (2003) Cunning-Folk: Popular Magic in English History. London: Hambledon Continuum.

Levack, B. (2013) The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pócs, É. (1999) Between the Living and the Dead: A Perspective on Witches and Seers in the Early Modern Age. Budapest: Central European Academic Press.