‘Thunder and lightning. Enter three witches’— Macbeth, Act 1 Scene 1
Following on from my previous post (Medicine, Melancholy and the Mystical) exploring some beliefs about the ‘mystical’ in Shakespeare’s England, I wanted to showcase an interesting slim volume housed in the Trust’s collections which is exemplary of widespread belief in the supernatural. In 1616, bishop Alexander Roberts joined the burgeoning ranks of European demonologists - writers who specialised in arguing about the existence, powers and deserving punishments of witches – with his short Treatise on Witchcraft*. This text hinges around a local witchcraft trial of one Mary Smith in King’s Lynne, Norfolk, which Roberts’ had a personal involvement in.
The trial account is framed by Roberts’ general beliefs about witchcraft, organised in the form of 9 ‘propositions’. He adds his opinion on key arguments in demonology such as why women are disproportionately accused of witchcraft; and the source of a witch’s powers (which Roberts believes to be the devil, whose own powers in turn are permitted by God). Roberts has clearly read widely, citing most of the main witchcraft writers from England and Europe, and backing his arguments with diverse sources such as the Bible and classical literature. However, his ideas are fairly typical (far from the radical writing of earlier English demonologist Reginald Scot discussed in a previous post on Finding Shakespeare) and he doesn’t introduce any major new elements to the witchcraft debate.
Roberts introduces the maligned Mary Smith as a jealous woman who resents her neighbours for being better than her at her trade (cheesemaking). The devil supposedly appeared to her in the form of a ‘man’, who tempted her into renouncing God in exchange for gaining magical power over her fellow villagers.
Mary, like most people accused of witchcraft in this period, seems to have suffered from the unlucky combination of a natural ‘distemper’ and an exceptionally shrewd eye. For instance, after her first ‘victim’, John Orkton, hit her son, Mary ‘wished in a most earnest and bitter manner that his fingers might rotte off’. This rather specific wish did indeed come true: nine months later ‘his fingers did corrupt, and were cut off; as also his toes putrified & consumed’. You wonder whether Mary might have had a talent for spotting future illness in people, or whether this was simply an exceptionally unfortunate development in John’s circumstances which happened to align to an old insult.
Others among Mary’s ‘victims’ were struck after petty neighbourly disputes. Mary believed one Elizabeth Hancock had stolen her hen, and grumbled at her, after which Elizabeth found she could not eat and began to waste away. Intriguingly, Elizabeth tried to counter the supposed curse put on her by baking a ‘witch cake’! Another woman, Cicely Bayle, quarrelled with Mary about sweeping the street. After this incident we get a fantastic story of Cicely becoming ill from a cat coming into her house which ‘sat vpon her breast [...] that she could not without great difficulty draw her breath’. It seems a bizarre image to us that a woman could become ill from being unable to get a cat off her chest, but at the time this would have corresponded with the common belief in ‘witches’ familiars’ – animals sent by a witch to do her dirty work for her.
The story ends badly for the unfortunate Mary. She confessed to the charges brought against her and was sentenced to execution. Confession to such outrageous accusations may seen inconceivable to us today, but was not uncommon – many of the accused had little chance of arguing their innocence in the face of mounting ‘evidence’, whilst a minority may have genuinely become convinced they had the powers ascribed to them.
As preacher, it was one of Roberts’ duties to visit Mary in her last days, during which time he resolved to write his treatise and prayed for her in the hopes of overcoming the influence of the devil. On a day marked by ‘distemperate’ bad weather, Mary was led to the scaffold (witches in England were not routinely burnt, but rather hanged) where she asked God for mercy. Roberts seems to look more favourably on Mary for this, telling his readers that by unburdening her soul she will be saved.
Mary’s death was sadly not the end of witch persecutions in Norfolk. After a smattering of isolated cases, the county became a hotbed of accusations in the 1640s, including in King’s Lynne, the town in which Roberts had written his treatise. Tensions were created and escalated in 1645-6 by the work of the self-titled ‘Witchfinder General’, Matthew Hopkins, who saw it as his duty to root out witchcraft in all forms. The front pages of Hopkins’ own treatise on Norfolk witchcraft in 1649 and Roberts’ treatise 30 years earlier feature the same italicised Bible quote – the infamous Exodus 22.18: ’Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’.
*Full title: A treatise of witchcraft. VVherein sundry propositions are laid downe, plainely discouering the wickednesse of that damnable art, with diuerse other speciall points annexed, not impertinent to the same, such as ought diligently of euery Christian to be considered. With a true narration of the witchcrafts which Mary Smith, wife of Henry Smith glouer, did practise: of her contract vocally made between the Deuill and her, in solemne termes, by whose meanes she hurt sundry persons whom she enuied: which is confirmed by her owne confession, and also from the publique records of the examination of diuerse vpon their oathes: and lastly, of her death and execution, for the same; which was on the twelfth day of Ianuarie last past.
By Alexander Roberts B.D. and preacher of Gods Word at Kings-Linne in
83146075, Class: SR - 90.12/
Further reading on the Treatise
Full text available here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17209/17209-h/17209-h.htm