Ireland 1324. The bishop of Ossory, Richard Ledrede, condemns his diocese as a hotbed of devil worshippers. At the centre of this scandal is Dame Alice Kyteler, a wealthy noblewoman, accused of being a witch by her step-children.
Alice and her followers had a multitude of charges levelled against them, chiefly the malicious murder of her fourth husband by means of poison and sorcery. In other words, witchcraft. In addition, she was accused of holding secret nocturnal meetings in churches to perform black magic, including the brewing of love potions; of mutilating live animals at crossroads as offerings to demons; and, of engaging in sexual intercourse with her demonic familiar.
Alice would be tried and found guilty, becoming the first recorded person to be condemned as a witch. Although Alice herself would flee the country in time, one of her female servants was flogged and burned at the stake in the November of that year.1
In the decades that followed, fear of malevolent witches spread across Western Europe like wildfire. Believed to be agents of the devil, widespread belief regarded them as enemies of the Christian Community. 2
Witches in historical texts and intellectual discourse
The Papacy’s response to witchcraft
On 5th December 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a Papal Bull which denounced the actions of those who “give themselves over to devils male and female, and by their incantations, charms, and conjurings” commit heresy, “spreading their infection to the ruin of others who are innocent”. The decree gave inquisitors a blank cheque to persecute those believed to be witches “freely and fully”, “according to their deserts”. 3
Within just three years of the Bull’s publication, the Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer published Malleus Maleficarum, the Hammer of Witches. The text advocated the complete extermination of witches. Using legal justification, Malleus recommended the use of torture to extract confessions of sorcery if tamer methods of interrogation proved unsuccessful. The text also promoted deception as a method to obtain confessions.
“And when the implements of torture have been prepared, the judge, both in person and through other good men zealous in the faith, tries to persuade the prisoner to confess the truth freely; but, if he will not confess, he bid attendants make the prisoner fast to the strappado or some other implement of torture. The attendants obey forthwith, yet with feigned agitation. Then, at the prayer of some of those present, the prisoner is loosed again and is taken aside and once more persuaded to confess, being led to believe that he will in that case not be put to death.” 4
Despite its shocking contents, after being published in Germany, Malleus Maleficarum became an instant bestseller, and proliferated into dozens of editions throughout Europe. Astonishingly, for almost 200 years it was second only to the Bible in sales. 5
King James’ Daemonologie
By the 16th century, the threat of Satanic witches circulated freely in academic discourse. In 1597, the renowned intellect King James VI of Scotland – future James I of England – published a philosophical dissertation on necromancy and black magic. Intending to educate a misinformed public on the origins, practices and implications of dark sorcery, James’ Daemonologie outlined the necessity of practising witch-hunting in a Christian society. In his Preface he stated his conscience had moved him to warn of the dangers of the Devil’s power and those who aligned themselves with his works.
The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or enchanters, hath moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise of mine […]to resolve the doubting […] both that such assaults of Satan are most certainly practised, and that the instrument thereof merits most severely to be punished. 6
And, certainly, on the ground, people were not only believing the threat of witches, but were acting upon the recommendations of authors such as King James and Heinrich Kramer. Often referred to as “The Burning Times”, the period between 1580 and 1662 saw a peak in the number of people being burned as witches in continental Europe and Scotland. For England and its colonies in North America, death by hanging was the choice method of execution for those found guilty of witchcraft. 7
The Witchfinder General and popular methods of discovering witches
Evidence of the increasing acceptance of the threat of witches can be found in the career of Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled Witchfinder General. Although only active between 1644 and 1647, some have estimated that Hopkins and his associates were responsible for more people being hanged for witchcraft in England than in the previous 100 years. Approximations place the death toll at around 300. 8
Hopkins was also responsible for The Discovery of Witches, a handbook which took much inspiration from the Daemonologie of King James. Although torture was illegal in England at this time, Hopkins – like Kramer before him – advocated severe methods of interrogation. He was known to have used sleep deprivation to extract confessions. 9 This, however, was one of the Witchfinder’s kinder methods. Cutting into the skin with a blunt knife to see whether the accused would bleed, as well as the infamous method of tying a woman to a chair and throwing her into water, were both commonly used by Hopkins. The swimming test was based on the idea that as witches had renounced their baptism, water would reject them: those who floated were witches; those who drowned were innocent.
Such methods outlined in The Discovery of Witches would become popular in the English colonies in the decades which followed.
Were all witches women?
Although there was no ‘average’ witch, most of those found guilty would be poor and elderly. Approximately seventy-five percent were women. 10
Indeed, on 11th July 1629, on the Franco-German border, not far from the city of Strasbourg, an elderly woman was arrested, accused of “child murder and witchcraft”. It was her grandson who the old woman was accused of killing by poisoning his soup. Despite being tortured numerous times, the unfortunate woman never confessed to murderous witchcraft. Regardless, the suspicions of the court were strong. Although her eventual fate is lost to the records of history, it is highly likely that she was executed as a witch. Such was the violent destiny of many in this period. 11
Whilst men were convicted as witches, women were more likely to find themselves strapped to a burning stake or caught in the hangman’s noose.
Alongside literature on the increasing threat of sorcery, discourses of the depraved state of women were in circulation. Published posthumously in 1618, the University of Cambridge theologian William Perkins’ Discourse on the Damned Art of Witchcraft stated that “the woman being the weaker sex, is sooner entangled by the devil’s illusions with this damnable art than the man” 12 Another tract, by a different author, debated that women must “spring from the Devil”, for their “heads, hands, hearts, minds and souls are evil”. 13
Witch-fever: public participation in hunting witches
Undoubtedly, the charges levelled against those accused of being witches are almost impossible to verify. Who is to say whether or not Alice Kyteler sacrificed animals at Irish crossroads, or if an unfortunate grandmother was responsible for the malignant poisoning of a grandchild? All that is certain is that people believed in what they were doing. Indeed, many suspected witches were killed outside of the scrutiny of law, at the hands of crowds. Such lynchings were not the result of a lust for personal vengeance – quite the opposite. Mob justice sought to serve and protect the public. That is to say, in Early Modern Europe, many communities harboured genuine fears that Satanic witches would bring pain and suffering upon themselves and their families. 14
One case from Denmark, as late as 1800, saw Anna Klemens, an 82-year-old-beggar woman apprehended by angry villagers, who believed her to be a witch. The one said to have instigated the lynching was a supposed “wise woman”, who ordered the crowd to beat the blood from the helpless old woman. At the time, it was thought that magic left the body of the witch once her blood was spilled, making it the only way to break her power. So convinced of her guilt were the villagers, that Anna was beaten to death.15
Various explanations for the witch-hunt mania which gripped Western Europe have been put forward, with increasing religious hysteria and intense paranoia in the aftermath of the religious Reformation being one of the most convincing. It was not until the logic and rational thinking of the Enlightenment that witch mania began to subside. Before that time, however, this mass hysteria would expand from Western Europe to the English colonies in the New World. The most well-known of all the cases in the colonies being the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Yet, this was by no means the only case worthy of note.
Goody Glover and the Goodwin family
In 1688 in Boston there lived a family by the name of Goodwin. At its head was John, a “sober and pious man”, a Mason by trade and a father to six children. It was the eldest of these children, a daughter called Martha, who noticed that the family’s washerwoman had been stealing some of the household’s linen. She accused the woman of theft. However, little did the child know that this was no ordinary laundress: for she was the “daughter of an ignorant and scandalous old woman” called Goody Glover, a woman who was said to be a witch.
Soon after the accusation, the eldest Goodwin child fell seriously ill. Before too long, three of Martha’s siblings – a sister and two brothers – were seized by the same illness. Fits, beyond those of epilepsy, tortured the four children. Not only that, “Sometimes they would be Deaf, sometimes Dumb, and sometimes Blind, and often, all this at once. […] They would have their Mouths opened unto such a Wideness, that their Jaws went out of joint […] The same would happen to their Shoulder-Blades, and their Elbows, and Hand-wrists, and several of their joints.” Onlookers described how the children would at times lie in such bizarre positions that their bodies would be “stretched out, […] drawn Backwards, to such a degree that it was fear’d the very skin of their Bellies would have crack’d.” They would cry out, writhing in agony, screaming that they were being “cut with Knives, and struck with Blows that they could not bear.”
Naturally, John Goodwin and his wife were terrified for their children. Respected physicians were consulted for help. However, nothing could be done for their afflictions. According to the doctors, the cause of the inexplicable illnesses was the witchcraft of Goody Glover.
A religious family as they were, the Goodwins prayed for an end to the children’s sufferings. It was said that, after a day-long prayer vigil, the youngest of the children was delivered – their pain gone.
At this point, news of the calamities which had befallen the Goodwin family reached the ears of the local Magistrates. The elderly mother of the washerwoman, Goody Glover, was arrested on suspicion of witchcraft.
Glover stands trial for witchcraft
During the subsequent trial, an order was given to search the woman’s house. Suspicious items were recovered and brought into the court. These included “Several small Images, or Puppets, or Babies, made of Raggs, and stuff’t with Goat’s hair, and other such Ingredients.” When one of these objects was presented to the woman, no sooner had she taken it in her hand than one of the Goodwin children fell into a fit, before the whole assembly. By the end of the trial, the old woman confessed to being in league with the Devil. Although the court appointed five or six physicians to assess her mental state, they concluded that she was sane. She had not, through “folly and madness”, accidentally acquired herself the reputation of a witch. No – this woman was found to be the real thing – a Satanic witch. As such, a sentence of death was passed upon her.
Further accusations of witchcraft
In the days before her execution, another came forward to testify against the witch. The accuser, a woman by the name of Hughes, said that Glover, six years earlier, had caused the death of her neighbour. However, upon preparing her testimony, Hughes’ own son was taken seriously ill – much like the Goodwin children. Even from the confines of a prison cell, it seemed as though the witch’s deadly curse was spreading. Hughes’ son, “a fine” and healthy boy, said that he was visited by Glover in the night. He described how he had seen “a Black thing with a Blue Cap in the Room, Tormenting” him. The dark entity, he said, had even tried to rip his bowels from his body.
The next day the mother of the boy went to Glover in the prison and asked her why she tortured her son. The witch replied that she did it “because of wrong done to herself and her daughter”. She freely admitted that she had visited the boy the night before “As a black thing with a blue Cap” and with her hand had tried “to pull out the boyes Bowels” but failed.
During her time in prison, the old woman was visited by the Puritan minister, Cotton Mather. He stated that she never once denied the guilt of her witchcraft. Rather, she appeared to revel in it. She is said to have detailed her night-time trysts with the Devil in which she prayed to a host of spirits. For this, on November 16th 1688, Goody Glover was hanged as a witch.16
Whether or not Goody Glover was truly a witch will never be known. Was she punished for inflicting harm upon defenseless children? Or, was she targeted for a different reason? Indeed, in an account of her trial, it is stated that the woman refused to provide answers in anything but Irish – her native language – although it was said that she understood English “very well”. 17 Not only that, but Glover was a Roman Catholic in a staunchly Puritan Protestant environment. The host of spirits which Glover said she prayed to could very well have been saints. Similarly, the dolls found in her home, believed to have been used for witchcraft by the court, might actually have been crude representations of Catholic saints. So, was this woman killed because she was a witch? Or, was she killed because the evil-doings of a heretical foreigner was the only way to explain the otherwise unexplainable illnesses of the Goodwin children? These, after all, were suspicious times. Prejudice of the Puritan mass against the Catholic minority was common. Arguably, it was all too easy to explain one’s problems away as the fault of a suspicious outsider. As such, many now consider Goody Glover a Catholic martyr.
The involvement and legacy of Cotton Mather
That we know so much about the case of the Goody Glover and the Goodwin children is largely thanks to Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister who visited Glover twice during her time in prison. 18 He even took one of the Goodwin children home with him in order to observe and record their affliction. 19
Although Mather was a Fellow of the Royal Society, having studied at Harvard University, it is clear that his religious biases affected his judgement in this case. Regardless, his book on the subject was a bestseller, and was as such widely read and discussed throughout Puritan New England. In fact, the book was so widespread that it eventually made its way into the library of another Harvard educated Puritan minister.20 His name was Samuel Parris; a man who would soon enough find his hands soaked in the blood of those convicted of witchcraft in the village of Salem.
- Witch, Wicce, Mother Goose: The Rise and Fall of the Witch Hunts in Europe and North America, by Robert W. Thurston (2001)
- The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca, by Rosemary Guiley (2008)
- A History of Witchcraft In England from 1558 to 1718, by Wallace Notestein (1911)
- A History of Witchcraft, by Jeffrey B. Russell (1981)
- The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories, by Robert Poole (2002)