Witches, Witchcraft and Witch Trials

A few years ago we did a blog post about witches in Guildhall Library, this year for Halloween we’ve expanded further to look at our original primary sources on Witches, Witchcraft and Witch trials. One of the most interesting things about the books we hold on this topic is that most of the texts from the 17th and 18th centuries argued against the existence of witchcraft, even going so far as trying to prove that women who’d been tried and found guilty of witchcraft were not in fact witches.

The first few pamphlets were all published around 1711-1712 and look at one specific witchcraft trial, that of Jane Wenham of Hertfordshire. Like many women accused of witchcraft, Jane was old, poor and generally disliked by the people who knew her; which made it easy for them to suspect she was a witch.

A full and impartial account of the discovery of sorcery and witchcraft, practis’d by Jane Wenham of Walkerne in Hertfordshire, upon the bodies of Ann Thorn, Anne Street, &c. The proceedings against her from her being first apprehended, till she was committed to gaol by Sir Henry Chavncy. Also her trial at the assizes at Hertford before Mr Justice Powell, where she was found guilty of felony and witchcraft, and received’d sentence of death for the same, March 4 1711-12.

Jane Wenham was one of the last, if not the last woman, to be sentenced to death as a witch in England. But thankfully her sentence wasn’t carried out. Queen Anne gave her a royal pardon and she was able to live out the rest of her life being looked after by the gentry. This pamphlet by Bagge lists all her crimes, and the examples used to convict her of witchcraft as they were given at her trial. As can be clearly be seen on the title page there is a quote from Exodus 22 v 18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” the verse that was responsible for many deaths.

The Case of the Hertfordshire witchcraft consider’d : being an examination of a book entitle’d A full and impartial account of the discovery of sorcery and witchcraft practis’d by Jane Wenham. 1712

A companion book to Bagge, this one takes the evidence that he was used to convict Jane Wenham of witchcraft and argues that she was not in fact a witch and offers more rational explanations for the events that were used for her conviction. Examples of things she was supposed to have done that proved she was a witch included causing a young girl to run a long way, have a boy collect straw, have cats appear with her face, not having memorised the Lord’s prayer and the more traditional killing of livestock (in this case sheep).

The impossibility of witchcraft : plainly proving from scripture and reason that there never was a witch; and that it is both irrational and impious to believe that there ever was  in which the depositions against Jane Wenham, lately try’d and condemn’d for a witch at Hertford are confuted and exposed. 1712

This pamphlet argues for the improbability of witchcraft (but does not support atheism) brought on by Jane Wendham’s conviction.  It was well argued and used many examples from the Bible, as well as Latin and Greek sources using the original language, and showing how mistakes in translations had brought about these errors in belief. It also discussed the ways in which “modern” witches differed from those in Biblical times saying how in the past witches were powerful but now they are all old and poor. It comes to the conclusion that there are not and never have been witches.

We hold few records  that deal with Witchcraft in London. This 1702 pamphlet recounts a trial, not for  witchcraft but of a man who had falsely accused a woman of witchcraft.

The tryal of Richard Hathaway : upon an information for being a cheat and imposter, for endeavouring to take away the life of Sarah Morduck, for being a vvitch, at Surry assizes, begun and held in the burrough of Southwark, March the 24th, 1702 …, to which is added a short account ofthe tryal of Richard Hathaway, Thomas Wellyn and Elizabeth his wife, and Elizabeth Willoughby, wife of Walter Willoughby, upon an information for a riot and assault upon Sarah Morduck, the pretended witch, at the said assizes. 1702.

Sarah Mordcock, from Southwark had been tried and found not guilty of witchcraft. After the verdict Richard, her chief accuser, was brought to trial for false charges.  In this document there is a lot of evidence given by people who thought he had actually been bewitched. One of the witnesses was a woman who claimed she had been bewitched as a child and reportedly flown, though she could provide no evidence for this as all that had seen her do it were now dead.

The question of witchcraft debated : Or a discourse against their opinion that affirm witches, considered and enlarged by John Wagstaffe 1671

This book starts from the very reassuring standpoint that just because one does not believe in Witchcraft one is necessarily an athiest.  It goes on to point out the problems with Latin translations of the Bible which have led to the belief in witches and provides a translation of the original Hebrew.  The author argues that the witches nowadays do not compare with those described as such in the past,  and that it is ridiculous to think that these poor, old women have such powers and abilities from the Devil.  For if that power existed would the Devil not now pick more influential people as he did in the past? The book concludes with a modern sounding message concerning the tens of thousands of people murdered and tortured to death because of the belief in witchcraft and the author hopes his own work will put a stop to this practice.

An historical essay concerning witchcraft : With observations upon matters of fact; tending to clear the texts of the sacred Scriptures, and confute the vulgar errors about that point. And also two sermons: one in proof of the Christian religion; the other concerning the good and evil angels By Francis Hutchinson. 1720

This work provides a very different argument against witchcraft.  Written by a clergyman it takes the form of a discussion or dialogue with someone asking questions and the ‘expert’ providing the answers. My favourite part is the list of all the historical witches and which includes Albertus Magnus, The Pied Piper of Hamlin, and Joan of Arc all on the same page!  It looks over some of the famous cases from the past, not just in England but in the USA and Europe.

At the opposite end  of the spectrum we also  have the most notorious  Malleus maleficarum by Jacob Sprenger and Henricus Institoris both in the original Latin from 1492 or 1494  and a later 20th century English translation by Montague Summers.

Melanie Strong, Assistant Librarian

1 thought on “Witches, Witchcraft and Witch Trials

  1. Pingback: Jane Wenham – Research Blog

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