While Shakespeare lived, the practice of witchcraft in England was a capital crime. After all, the Bible states, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18). 18th-century jurist William Blackstone noted, “To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence, of witchcraft and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict the revealed word of God.” In order to “imitate[e]” “the express law of God,” Blackstone notes, British “civil law punishe[d] with death [...] the sorcerers themselves.” It brought a like punishment on those who consulted with them.
Blackstone, who apparently did not find the evidence in witchcraft cases compelling, found his own workaround on biblical evidence by asserting that witches likely did exist once but by the mid-18th century did not anymore, for reasons he does not give. Thus he suggests England ought to stop prosecuting people for witchcraft.
Although Blackstone claimed that, like heretics, witches were “condemn[ed] to the flames,” England often hanged individuals who were found to be 'witches'. This is in addition to those who died as a result of the methods employed in so-called 'witchcraft tests', or the tortures used to extract confessions.
In 1616, Alexander Roberts published A treatise of witchcraft. Robert’s views on witchcraft are apparent not only from the title, which references “the wickednesse of that damnable art,” but from the inclusion of the quote from Exodus “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” on the title page. The text includes an account 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.”
Mary Smith was the wife of a glover, Henry Smith. Her chief offence, it seems, was bearing displeasure towards neighbours and having cursed them in public. According to Roberts, she became leagued with Satan, who fed upon her “vnruly passions” and “malice.” Roberts claims he has this information from Mary Smith, who “hath of her owne accord, and voluntarily acknowledged [it] after conference had withme, and sundry learned and reuerend Diuines,” whom he names. The 'Divines' are all men. Roberts makes no mention of whether torture, in addition to the Divine’s prayers, was used to extract this confession. Mary Smith was then executed, though Roberts grows vague about the details there and quickly moves on to an examination of the mercy of God.
Perhaps it is unsurprising Roberts found a case of witchcraft by a woman, considering his apparent opinion of the sex. Although Roberts acknowledges that men may practice witchcraft, “More women in a farre different proportion prooue Witches then men, by a hundred to one; therefore the Lawe of God noteth that Sex, as more subiect to that sinne.”
His reasons that women are more likely to league themselves with the Devil and practice magic include, but are not limited to “they are by nature credulous, wanting experience, and therfore more easily deceiued,” “they harbour in their breast a curious and inquisitiue desire to know such things as be not fitting and couenient,” “their complection is softer, and from hence more easily receiue the impressions offered by the Diuell; as when they be instructed and gouerned by good Angels, they proue exceeding religious, and extraordinarily deuout: so consenting to the suggestions of euill spirits, become notoriously wicked, so that there is no mischiefe aboue that of a woman,”
“in them is a greater facility to fall, and therefore the Diuell at the first tooke that aduantage, and set vpon Eue in Adams absence", ”the female sex when it conceiueth wrath or hatred against any, is vnplacable, possessed with vnsatiable desire of reuenge, and transported with appetite to right (as they thinke) the wrongs offered vnto them” and is thus more open to the lures of Satan, and “they are of a slippery tongue, and full of words: and therefore if they know any such wicked practises, are not able to hold them, but commnnicate the same with their husbands, children, consorts, and inward acquaintance; who not consideratly weighing what the issue and end thereof may be, entertaine the same, and so the poyson is dispersed.”
Women are, it seems, quite open to the Devil’s influence.
In 1584, Reginald Scot published The discoverie of Witchcraft, debunking popular beliefs about witches. Scot’s Discovery of Witches is considered by some to be a possible source for Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Middleton’s The Witch. The SBT’s copy, the 1665 edition, has a blunter and perhaps more descriptive title: The discoverie of witchcraft: proving, that the compacts and contracts of witches with devils and all infernal spirits or familiars, are but erroneous novelties and imaginary conceptions. This text stresses “The Unchristian Practices and Inhumane Dealings of Searchers and Witch-tryers upon Aged, Melancholly, and Superstitious people, in extorting Confessions by Terrors and Tortures, and in devising false Marks and Symptoms, are notably Detected.” Scot stresses that this information “very necessary to be known for the undeceiving of Judges, Justices, and Jurors, before they pass Sentence upon Poor, Miserable and Ignorant People; who are frequenly Arraigned, Condemned, and Executed for Witches and Wizzards.” Or, perhaps, the wives of glovers whose chief offence seems to be not getting along with her neighbours.
Scot notes that “such as are said to be Witches are women which be commonly old, lame, blear-eyed, pale, fowl, and full of wrinckles; poor, sullen, superstitious, and Papists; or such as know no Religion”. He goes on to recount how these individuals come to be accused and confess. After a person - usually an elderly woman - curses someone for whom they have found some dislike, ill luck will eventually befall the intended victim. When the victim recalls being cursed, they may have the person responsible brought before a magistrate. Faced with the evidence of what followed the cursing (though Scott notes only maybe two curses in a hundred comes true), the accused confesses; “Wherein, not only she, but the accuser and also the Justice are foully deceived and abused; as being through her confession, and other circumstances perswaded (to the injury of Gods glory) that she hath done, or can do that which is proper only to God himself.”
The accused, in these situations, are often the powerless. In the vast majority of cases, they were women. These books were written by men, discussing cases about women, and their intended audience seems to have been other men. We ought to be mindful of when such witch hunts happen in our own time. Who is hunted, and who is doing the hunting?
Blackstone, William. Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books, vol. 2
Roberts, Alexander. 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 Norffolke. (SR - 90.12)
Scot, Reginald. The discoverie of witchcraft: proving, that the compacts and contracts of witches with devils and all infernal spirits or familiars, are but erroneous novelties and imaginary conceptions. Also discovering, how far their power extendeth in killing, tormenting, consuming, o curing the bodies of men, women, children, or animals, by charms, philtres, periapts, pentacles, curses, and conjurations. Wherein likewise the unchristian practices and inhumane dealings of searchers and witch-tryers upon aged, melancholly, and superstitious people, ... are notably detected. ... In sixteen books. By Reginald Scot Esquire. Whereunto is added an excellent discourse of the nature and substance of devils and spirits, in two books: the first by the aforesaid author: the second now added in this third edition, as succedaneous to the former, and conducing to the compleating of the whole work: with nine chapters at the beginning of the fifteenth book of the discovery. (SR - OS - 90.12)
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