Thursday, September 13, 2012

Book Review: Witchfinders: a Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy (2005) by Malcom Gaskill

What do Joseph Stalin and the so-called War on Terror have to do with a nasty spasm of witch-hunting in England in the years 1644-47? Slightly more than you might think. In the 1640s England was in the throes of the Civil War, with the Parliamentarians (flinty, puritanical Protestants for the most part) on one side, and Royalists (supporters of the King and the Church of England) on the other. The country was impoverished, beset with outbreaks of various diseases, and suffering through a series of poor crops. In these unstable, revolutionary, frightening times it shouldn't be too surprising that a portion of the country became seized with a fear of witchcraft.

East Anglia was the epicentre for a wave of witch-hunting led by two men: Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne. They toured the east of England discovering witches and handing them over for trial. They were freelance witchhunters, but that didn't mean they did it for free. There was a good living to be made hunting witches, and they kept up their crusade for several years. The "confessions" and "evidence" they came up with ranged from the ludicrous to the nonsensical. Case after case hinged on witches (almost always old women) being accused of having familiars who took revenge on neighbours who had cheated or offended them in some way.

A typical East Anglian witch
What's eerie about the witch-hunting of Hopkins and Stearne is that they were using torture techniques that I, for one, thought had been invented in the 20th century. The pair used sleep deprivation, starvation,  and physical restraint to get their "witches" to confess to just about anything. These are exactly the same techniques used during Stalin's Great Purge. We tend to think of pre-20th century torture as consisting of racks, red-hot pincers, and all the other props from Hammer horror films. Clearly this wasn't the case. By using these techniques the witchfinders could get their victims to fabricate outrageously baroque fantasies about visits from the Devil, the ability to sink ships at sea through spells, and strange creatures feeding off their bodies. And as in the War on Terror, with its rendition flights to torture-friendly countries like Syria, the torturers were able to get exactly what they wanted to hear rather than any kind of truth.

Not a typical East Anglian witch
 One question that isn't quite answered here is why the general populace was willing to believe in these twisted tales. One answer that the author provides is that the hunting and hanging of witches was a way for the community to release pent-up fear and anxiety about England's instability and impoverishment. In short, they were scapegoats. Another possible reason for the credulity of the citizenry is that belief in witchcraft stood on a widespread and firm foundation of folk belief in fairies, brownies, will o' the wisps, boggarts, church grims, and dozens of other supernatural races and creatures. In fact, many of the accounts of witchcraft can be read as aspects of fairy lore transferred to witches. Katherine Briggs was a noted English folklorist, and in her book A Dictionary of Fairies (1976) she has a section on "Blights and illnesses attributed to the fairies." Many of the ailments blamed on fairies are the same ones "witches" confessed to. It's possible that the victims of torture simply recycled fairy tales with themselves in the role of the fairies. There is some support for this theory in Witchfinders when a case in Cornwall is mentioned in which a 19-year-old girl claimed familiarity with fairies. Ministers and magistrates took the view that what she meant were imps, the traditional ally of the witch. It's a clear example of witchcraft being grafted onto a more benign folk belief. And in Keith Thomas' book Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), he points out that Protestant leaders as early as the 16th century were insisting that fairies were simply Satanic creatures in another guise. The Catholic Church had never had any great quarrel with fairy beliefs.

Witchfinders is a nice blend of academic and popular history, and Gaskill does an excellent job of communicating the fear and misery that led communities and individuals to lash out against the weak and the defenceless. Yes, there is an aspect of class and gender hatred to this story. Old, single and widowed woman were, it seems, the underclass of the 17th century. Men could always find work as labourers or soldiers, but unemployed, single, older women had to rely on begging or charity. And no one liked beggars or giving to charity.

And on a side note; if you're a writer looking for some seriously cool names for your next steampunk or period horror novel, give Witchfinders a quick read. Harbottle Grimston, Widow Hoggard, Goodman Garnham, Valentine Walton, and, wait for it, Avis Savory, are just some of the mouthwatering names to be found here.

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