Early Modern Witchcraft

You thought we forgot about you, didn’t you? Oh no, we were waiting for spooky season to kick into high gear before we dropped our last post on the history of witchcraft in our part of the world. You can read Part I on magic and witches in some of the ancient empires of Mediterranean here, or check out our post on medieval magic in Part II here. The following, a holiday long-read that may require a cuppa, is our final installment that brings us up to the time period of our Witch’s Cottage.

Print by John Boydell depicting Act IV, Scene 1 from Macbeth, published 1803. British Library.

By the 16th century, western Europe’s relationship with religion and magic was already changing again. The witchcraft persecutions stand out in this period for several reasons, and the idea of a witchcraft “scare” or “craze” on a large scale is a solidly early modern phenomenon in the regions discussed. This period includes multiple competing assertions of orthodoxy and heresy, heralding the two simultaneous Reformations, that of the Protestants (various sects finding their footing) and that of the Catholics (consisting of both introspection and insistent counter-narratives). Perhaps unexpectedly, the Protestant and Catholic ideas about the diabolic were nearly identical. Religious affiliation did not determine the ferocity of trials, as the denominations could be equally feverish or lenient from one locale to the next. Further, communication was undergoing its own revolution with the spread of printing technologies and the associated rise in literacy. So much material was written and published in pamphlet form, originally as part of the larger religious discourse, but then later as scandalous, embellished reports of witchcraft in use. There was a disconnect between our two types of primary sources: the furious treatises in response to the sensational stories, which argued against what was most hated and feared, and the actual court records that show the more frequent, and usually more mundane, accusations.

Our main secondary resources for the following two sections are from a fascinating edited volume, the Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West, which spans over 2000 years of magic in Europe. Three chapters by contributors paint a complex but discernible picture of the evolution of the late medieval period into what we call the “Early Modern” through the lens of magic and witchcraft. For our purposes, we are talking about the 16th through 18th centuries. (Please don’t ask about the Renaissance as a chronological period, because our team has strong but conflicting feelings on That, and this is decidedly not the blog post to unpack it.)

The accusations we find during this period overlap with some of the root anxieties found during the Greek and Roman periods with respect to power, socioeconomics, and gender and sexuality. People are living in close quarters, with long-term relationships that may span generations; animosity may burn slowly in these communities, and accusations may be a release for those tensions. Malcolm Gaskill, in “Witchcraft and Evidence in Early Modern England” (2008), refers to these relationships as “micropolitics.” Hunting episodes are often highly localized, reflecting this web of intersecting angst. The very first trials seem to arise along contact zones in the Alps in Switzerland, France, and Italy, where societies, languages, and political systems abut one another.

A common theme that allowed the witch trials to become a phenomenon is how certain types of women fit (or don’t fit) into their communities. We can see this in the essays of Catherine Rider, David J. Collins, and Michael Bailey featured in the anthology named above.

Woodcut from the pamphlet “A rehearsall both straung and true, of hainous and horrible actes committed by Elizabeth Stile, alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Deuell, Mother Margaret, fower notorious witches,” 1579. British Library.

Common vs Learned

Rider’s contribution to the anthology focuses on common magic, here referring to what the peasantry, tradespeople, and merchant classes would employ to protect their families and livelihoods. Charms and amulet use for healing were not being phased out as quickly as medical and church authorities may have hope. But at first, defensive magic was considered less disruptive to the social order. The main preoccupation of those in power was with evidence of harm done by witchcraft. Across multiple primary sources and secondary scholarly sources, we can see a recurring theme in neighbourly relationships turning hostile. Rising poverty across Europe creates a massive increase in households and individuals that cannot support themselves in the evolving economies: they get left behind. They can turn only to their church and their neighbours for so long. When neighbourly hospitality runs out, those receiving charity may feel abandoned and angry; should something unfortunate befall the formerly generous, those providing aid may believe that their kindness has been repaid with witchcraft. Many of the individuals that sought support were women without affiliation to a man or household: the unmarried, the widowed, and sex workers; foreign women also bore an Otherness that made them dangerous to the local social order. Women are especially associated with harmful love magic, which makes men fear for their own influence in families and communities or that their own bad behaviour may be revealed. During the early modern period, women are disproportionately put on trial for harm done supposedly via witchcraft all over Europe; notable exceptions include Iceland, Normandy, Finland, Estonia, and Russia. There absolutely were men accused of witchcraft, such as priests whose association with ritual and religion.

Rider also addresses the difficulty jobs like ours here at the BRP! She stresses the importance of using material culture to better understand common magic, and how difficult it is to prove a connection between the artefact and its desired function. Apotropaic marks (which are meant to ward off evil) known as “witch marks” range from symbols to abbreviations, and they are found in the architectural features of homes of those who feared magical attack. Every once in a while you may come upon a news story about shoes found in early modern walls or bottles dug up under floorboards. These too were thought to have protective properties. Witch bottles were buried in the home with bits and bobs, and even hair and urine. So far 147 have been found in England, including this one just confirmed by further tests recently. These objects are signs of defensive magic; objects of active, offensive magic are even more nebulous in the archaeological record. We can only hope to add to the growing corpus of witchcraft material culture as we excavate our own Witch’s Cottage!

Alchemist at work from “THE ORDINALL of Alchymy” by Thomas Northon, 1477. British Library.

Collins’ examination of “learned magic” defines practices that required access to books and equipment to master, as well as previous education in words, maths, and technology. One required a link to a monastery, university, or royal courts to have the texts and accoutrements, and these positions to privilege were open almost entirely to men. The learned agents try to legitimise some practices by grounding them in natural philosophy. Instead of witchcraft, these men’s expertise was considered natural magic, a field of study we see developing during the high medieval period which believed the natural world had hidden forces one could discern and manipulate. Subjects covered ranged from alchemy to astrology to divination by various means, which become the basis of what we would call the natural sciences today. Alchemy experimentation gives us chemistry, astrology gives us astrology, divination practices straddle biology and physics. The early modern period sees these fields once relegated to magic being adapted and folded into university curricula.


Bailey’s chapter brings us into the realm of diabolism—the assertion of association with the Devil and his demons. Demonology as a field begins in the 14th century, and we see a massive shift from individual acts to a fear of organised cults. Witchcraft is believed to truly be communal. Initially, those in power targeted “learned magic” such as male necromancers, because it was the more pressing threat to existing order and power dynamics, but eventually they extended their persecutions to include the common traditions. Fifteenth-century authors like Johannes Nider and Heinrich Kramer were preoccupied with gender, but they were originally the outliers. From the 15th through 18th centuries, there are hundreds of thousands of accusations, tens of thousands of trials, and about 50,000 executions, not including vigilante killings or death via torture or jail. Three of every four trial targets were women, again related to the fear of the harm women could theoretically inflict with respect to their traits and roles in the household (fertility, sexuality, food preparation). The idea of the diabolical woman takes a page from the ideas in Greco-Roman antiquity, this time with stronger explicit misogyny. Women were considered weak in all aspects, from the physical to the intellectual, and thus easily susceptible. Yet even with all of this, England is painted as being …how shall I put this…relatively chill compared to the Continent, but there was little consistency on the Continent itself!

Trials in Britain

While the scale of executions was substantially smaller in the British Isles as compared to parts of the Continent, every life was an entire universe snuffed out by the confluence of numerous socioeconomic and spiritual anxieties. Our location near the Border might suggest that the region too suffered from extreme measures, because these fluid borderland spaces on the Continent saw early persecutions. We actually find a difference in the intensity and timing of witch trials on either side of the Border, even with Scottish witch-hunters having been active in Northumberland.


Legislation of witchcraft as a criminal undertaking under common law rather than purely church law begins as early as 1533 (under Henry VIII), but there is some pushback as the early acts are repealed and reworked, until 1563. The Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments, and Witchcrafts (under Elizabeth I) allows for imprisonment except in the most harmful of cases, which earned the death penalty. James I (James VI of Scotland) passed his own Act Against Conjuration, Witchcraft and Dealing with Evil and Wicked Spirits in 1604. Two remarkable trends emerge with these acts: first, the earliest applications of the original laws did not produce convictions about 75% of the time (Gaskill, 2008); second, executions actually went down with the passage of the second major act.

Witchcraft Act of 1604. Parliament Archives.

Scepticism regarding diabolism was healthy during the rise of witch trials in Europe, beginning as early as the 14th century. In England, the scepticism was less about the existence of witchcraft and more about the legal processes. Legal minds such as Reginald Scot, William Perkins, and Richard Bernard became the main drivers of jurisprudence discourse that argued for more tempered approaches; the former questioned the reality of diabolic magic got his book banned for his troubles, while the latter two believed witchcraft was indeed an actual threat (and thus should be investigated thoroughly and punished if the evidence is strong). They and their philosophical adjacents believed that some claims of witchcraft could actually be debunked by reviewing the symptoms of witchcraft as physical, mental, or emotional distress. Some other common concerns shared by these legal philosophers were in respect to the competence of those involved in the trial: instead of highly educated and experienced judicial reps (like those found in Continental courts following inquisition practices rooted in Roman law), English common law necessitated regular folks were witnesses, convincing regular folks who served as jurors. The regular folks involved in accusations didn’t have the diabolical as their “primary concern” but rather all the other anxiety and baggage of their home communities. It is mid-level courts (with educated but locally-sourced officers) that were usually harshest on applying diabolical frameworks and associations, while the highly-experienced judicial officers were concerned with evidence and proof. Eventually, more stable bureaucratic structures and the evolving opinions of those regular jurors did aid in the decline of trials over time.

Reginald Scot’s The discoverie of witchcraft, Wherein the lewde dealing of witches and witchmongers is notablie detected,1584. British Library.

Some of the most well-known trials in England include that of the Pendle and Salmesbury Witches (Lancashire, 1612), Leicester Witches (Leicestershire, 1616), and the Belvoir Witches (Lincolnshire, 1621). The trials in Leicester in 1616 resulted in nine hanged based on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy; what makes them particularly notable is that James himself investigated further and scolded the officials for their rush to convict. A few botched and frenzied trials actually led to a culture of more circumspect trials, as well as a noticeable decline in executions for witchcraft until the Civil War (1642-1651).

It was during the Civil War that the most famed of trials took place in Essex, East Anglia, from 1645-1647. In 1645, self-proclaimed “witch-finders” like Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne were summed to Tendring Hundred to handle accusations. Of 34 accused, 29 had cases pursued, and 28 were executed (Gaskill, 2008). Further cases throughout East Anglia resulted in 1 in 3 of those questioned were hanged; interrogation often included what we and 17th century folks would have considered torture which was banned but clearly Hopkins and Stearne were unbothered. All this evidence cost a pretty penny for the localities that relied on such “experts” to acquire. Both men tried to stick to regions friendly to their business model, but mercifully faced a decline in authority and paycheques.

Matthew Hopkin’s “The discovery of witches: in answer to several Queries lately delivered to the Judges of the Assize for the county of Norfolk. And now published by Matthew Hopkins Witch-finder for the benefit of the whole Kingdome,” 1647. British Library.

Newcastle Witch Trials

In our neck of the woods, the most well-documented trials are that of the 15 accused witches of Newcastle, thanks to writings by Ralph Gardiner. Gardiner’s published tract wasn’t about witchcraft or magic at all, as he was active to protest and disrupt the coal monopoly in the Puritan-held area of Newcastle; his text can we read via transcription here. In 1649 and 1650, Newcastle officials sent for a Scottish witch-finder (who before his own execution admitted to putting over 220 women to death). Aside from just looking at a women and “knowing” she was a witch, witch-finders like this unnamed fraud would literally prick people at various places on their skin with a needle to see if they could feel pain or produce blood in those spots. These pricking tests were based in the belief that witches’ marks (not to be confused with the witch marks discussed above) were an automatic indicator of a pact with the Devil. Any unusual skin blemishes were supposedly teats upon which animal familiars could suckle. Thirty individuals were subject to these tests, and at least 15 of them were put to death. They were buried at Saint Andrew’s in town, unusually in consecrated ground. Here are their names (according to Gardiner): Matthew Bulmer, Elizabeth Anderson, Jane Hunter, Mary Pots, Alice Hume, Elianor Rogerson, Margaret Muffet, Margaret Maddison, Elizabeth Brown, Margaret Brown, Jane Copeland, Ann Watson, Elianor Henderson, Elizabeth Dobson, and Katherine Coultor.

Illustration from Ralph Gardiner’s book Englands grievance discovered, in relation to the coal-trade, 1655.


Scotland passed their own Witchcraft Act in the same year as England, 1563, which was harsher than that of their southern neighbour. This brief act was authored and argued in the context of Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic, trying to preside over a mostly Protestant convention of governmental officers who themselves were trying to create a bureaucratic system to accompany their religious beliefs, and that tension cannot be minimised. Witchcraft was punishable by death on the first offence, along with just meeting with a witch for the purpose of plotting a magical act. It was reaffirmed, along with some new capital crimes in 1649.The most common recorded execution methods involved strangling and then incineration of the body, but that only accounts for a fraction of the estimated number of executions which conservatively hovers around 2500, 85% of whom were women.

Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database, University of Edinburgh.

Numerous trials took place throughout Scotland, with the largest proportion in the Lothians. We do have evidence of trials as far south as the Borders and as far north as Orkney. The memorial in Kirkwall on Mainland Orkney to those executed simply says “They wur cheust folk,” meaning they were just regular people. There’s an interesting database through the University of Edinburgh of the witch trials in Scotland accessible here.

North Berwick witch trials

The 1590-1592 trials in North Berwick are Scotland’s earliest big witch frenzy, although several other major periods of hunting are attested in the country. It all began with a Danish ship having to seek shelter from unseasonably rough storms en route to Scotland with King James VI’s new bride who he finally met taking shelter in Norway; the Danish monarchy pursued charges on several women known at court claiming they stirred up the storms with witchcraft. James was intrigued by the success of those persecutions and allowed paranoia regarding attempts real and imagined on his life to spin the people of East Lothian into absolute fury in the process. At least 70 people were accused, and nearly all were likely subjected to torture to extract confessions and implicate others. Many were burned.

James Carmichael’s “Newes from Scotland – declaring the damnable life and death of Dr. Fian, a notable sorcerer,” 1591. Co-curate database from the University of Newcastle.

The repeal of the various previous Witchcraft Acts came under the united crown in 1735, when witchcraft accusations themselves became punishable by a year in prison. The last witch in England was hanged in 1716. The last witch in Scotland was burned alive in 1727.

It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of spooky season, as witches have long played a large role in popular culture this time of year. Please don’t forget that every life extinguished in the hunt for witches was a whole universe stolen from society due to insecurity from the household to the national level. We share these stories on behalf of all of those wronged by the various witchcraft persecutions. Happy Halloween, friends!

Further Reading:

Collins, S. J., D. (Ed.). (2015). The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West: From Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gaskill, M. (2008). Witchcraft and Evidence in Early Modern England. Past & Present, 198, 33–70. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25096700

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