Thursday, November 08, 2007

The 16th century book that shows how vicars abused people's fear of witchcraft

witch

Witch-hunt: Hundreds of women were burnt at the stake

A 16th century Kent housewife narrowly missed being burnt at the stake for being a witch after rebuking a vicar's son for abusing her dog, a newly-discovered book reveals.

The remarkable story of Margaret Simons, her over-exuberant pet and a superstitious clergy is detailed in a 16th century counterblast against the witch-hunting fever which was sweeping Europe at the time.

In "The Discoverie of Witchcraft", published in 1584 and found recently in the attic of a house in Nottinghamshire, author Reginald Scott goes far beyond the radical thinkers of his age by maintaining there were no witches in contemporary England and that all those executed for the "crime" were innocent.

The rare, unlicensed first-edition tome - set to fetch up to £5,000 at Bonhams in London on Tuesday - ridicules belief in witchcraft as "absurd error", with Scott declaring that links between curses or spells and unpleasant events were purely coincidental.

He cites the case of the unfortunate Mrs Simons, of "Brenchlie" (Brenchley), Kent, who was tried for witchcraft at Rochester Assizes in 1581 on the particular testimony of parish vicar John Ferrall, with whom Scott later talked "and found he was unable to make a good account of his faith as she whom he accused".

The cleric's son - "an ungracious boie and prentise to one Robert Scotchford, clothier" - passed near Mrs Simons's house and her little dog barked at him. The boy drew a knife and chased the animal home, where, perhaps justifiably, Mrs Simons "rebuked" the young man for his over reaction.

Next day the vicar's son fell ill and his father blamed witchcraft - partly because "he thought himself so privileged that he little mistrusted that God would visit his children with sicknes (sic)" and partly, perversely, on the say-so of other witches.

The vicar, who also blamed Mrs Simons for striking him dumb in church, had her tried before a judge and jury.

"And trulie", records Scott, "if one of the Jurie had not been wiser than the others, she had been condemned to death thereupon, and on other ridiculous matters as this.

"For the name of a witch is so odious and her power so feared among the common people that [before] the honestest bodie she shall bare hardlie escape condemnation."

The unexplained death of an infant - or what would now be called a cot death - was often enough for the mother to be burned as a witch. A prominent birthmark, too, was taken as a sure sign of witchcraft.

Scott declares that most confessions were the result of torture: "for upon the racke, when they have once begunne to lie, they will saie what the tormentor list".

The writer denies the existence of witches in England - "not because I would disgrace the ministers that are Godlie, but to confirme my assertion that this absurd error is growne into the place, which should be able to expel such ridiculous follie and impretie".

Stressing the absurdity of contemporary thinking, he said that if an accused woman cried out to her captors: "I am undone, save my life; I will tell you how the matter standeth", she is thereupon most vehmentlie to be suspected and condemned to die.

"The behaviour, looks, becks and countenance of a woman are sufficient signes whereby to presume she is a witch; for always they looke downe to the ground, and dare not looke a man full in the face. If their parents were thought to be witches, then it is certeinlie to be presumed that they are to (sic)"

Others at risk of being accused included atheists ,the elderly, poor and the lame, along with those "full of wrinkles, leane, deformed and melancholic".

If a "witch" failed to confess under torture "her apparel must be changed, and everie haire on their bodie must be shaved off with a sharpe razor".

Scott declares that "witchcraft and inchantment is the cloke (sic) of ignorance" and criticises the fact that "the complaint of anie one man of credit is sufficient to bring a poore woman to the racke or pullie".

He adds: "It is natural to unnaturall people, and peculiar unto witchmongers, to pursue the poore, to accuse the simple and to kill the innocent."

As an example of the "pestilent practices" of the day, he records the lengths to which one Katherine Loe went in order to restore her husband's interest in the bedroom.

"She made an image of the likeness of hir husband's member, and offered it up to St Anthonies altar, so as, through the holinesse of the masse, it might be sanctified, to be more courageous and of better disposition and abilities."

Another cure for impotence in Elizabethan Britain was to inhale "the smoke of the tooth of a dead man". Yet another was "to anoint a mans bodie over with the gall of a crow" - and a third to fill a quill with quick silver "and to put into your owne bottome".

One final tip to secure a man's erection: "to pisse through a wedding ring."

The contemporary belief that witches were "incestuous adulterers with spirits" was a "ridiculous lie" and the thought that witches boiled infants after murdering them "until their flesh be made potable" was "untrue, incredible and impossible".

Highlighting the absurdity, he outlines one apparently foolproof method of discovering who bewitched your family: "Put a paire of breeches upon the cowes head and beate her out of the pasture with a good cudgell upon a fridaie, and she will runne right to the witches doore, and strike thereat with her hornes."

Reginald Scott, first son of Richard Scott, of Scott's Hall, Kent, was a surveyor and engineer who later became MP for New Romney. In The Discoverie of Witchcraft, his most important work, he asserted that witchcraft was an impossible crime and that those who confessed were either deluded or the victims of torture.

Matthew Haley, books and manuscripts specialist at Bonhams, said yesterday: "Scott's book is remarkably erudite as well as being out of step with much current thinking of the day. He is arguing for a much more reasoned approach to the subject of witchcraft at a time when reason was in pretty short supply. Goodness knows how it escaped James I's cull of unacceptable books."

In England alone, hundreds of women, and a very few men, were executed in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I - either burned at the stake, hanged or drowned - as witchcraft was sternly condemned by members of all Christian churches.

Witchhunts, led by witchfinder generals such as the notorious Matthew Hopkins, were particularly prevalent in Essex and Lancashire. Witches were blamed for everything from the Black Death to bad harvests.

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