Given the widespread belief in witchcraft and the existence of laws against such practices, why did witch-trials fail to gain momentum and escalate into ‘witch-crazes’ in certain parts of early modern Europe? This book answers this question by examining the rich legal records of the German city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a city that experienced a very restrained pattern of witch-trials and just one execution for witchcraft between 1561 and 1652. The book explores the factors that explain the absence of a ‘witch-craze’ in Rothenburg, placing particular emphasis on the interaction of elite and popular priorities in the pursuit (and non-pursuit) of alleged witches at law. By making the witchcraft narratives told by the peasants and townspeople of Rothenburg central to its analysis, the book also explores the social and psychological conflicts that lay behind the making of accusations and confessions of witchcraft. Furthermore, it challenges the existing explanations for the gender-bias of witch-trials, and also offers insights into other areas of early modern life, such as experiences of and beliefs about communal conflict, magic, motherhood, childhood and illness. Written in a narrative style, the study invites a wide readership to share in the drama of early modern witch trials.
English law – at the trials of the witches of Lancashire. 4 There is a conceptual affinity, therefore, between these two key manifestations of the Jacobean witch-craze, and this might be more than a sheer coincidence. For Macbeth is, of course, a tragedy darkly aware of its own prophetic status:
The weird sisters, hand in hand, Posters by the sea and land, Thus do go, about, about, Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine, And thrice again, to make up nine. Peace, the charm’s wound up. (I, iii, 32–7)
’s execution in York. Current estimates suggest that the witch persecutions in Europe between the early fifteenth and the mid eighteenth centuries resulted in about 40,000 executions, and it is probable that executions in England contributed fewer than 500 to this total. 4 There was, as far as we know, only one really mass witch-craze in England, that associated with the witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins which broke out in East Anglia in 1645 and claimed over a hundred lives. 5 But, in general, England was one of those parts of Europe where witchcraft was an endemic rather than
have seen the historical study of witchcraft transformed ‘from an
esoteric byway into a regular concern of social, religious and intellectual
historians’ who have carried out intensive, often interdisciplinary
research in the archives of continental Europe, the British Isles, and the
New World. 2
This mass of research has produced a variety of explanations
for the so-called witchcraze, including, but not limited to: the
Male Domination (London: Routledge, 1992); Deborah Willis, Malevolent Nurture: Witch-Hunting and Maternal Power in Early Modern England (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1995); F. E. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representations of Domestic Crime in England 1550–1700 (London: Cornell University Press, 1995); Diane Purkiss, The Witch in History: Early Modern and Twentieth-Century Interpretations (London: Routledge, 1996).
4 With the exception of Jonathan Lumby, The Lancashire Witch-Craze: Jennet Preston and the Lancashire
James I’s Daemonologie and The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches
Politics of Mirth (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 1986), ch. 3.
10 For connections between Darrell and Lancashire witchcraft see Jonathan Lumby, The Lancashire Witch-Craze: Jennet Preston and the Lancashire Witches (Preston: Carnegie, 1995), chs 22, 23.
11 Lumby, Lancashire Witch-Craze , ch. 2 and passim .
12 Thomas Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster (London, 1613), X4.
13 Potts, Wonderfull Discoverie , B
Silverman, in her account of judicial torture in early modern
France, analyzed the emergence and collapse of the mentalité that authorised
it: that original sin rendered voluntary statements suspect; that truth lay in
the physical body rather than the fallen will; that truth could be extracted
from the physical body through pain; and that pain had both spiritual and
physical benefits for the victim.28 Lyndal Roper’s WitchCraze: Terror and
Fantasy in Baroque Germany (2004) argued that witchcraft accusations, with
their attendant fears about motherhood, harvests, charity
as witchcraft in which mental and emotional events have physical effects, in which the individual agency of both the witch and her victims is of the essence, in which we are confronted with the gripping nature of the lurid phantasms of the witch-craze, demands explanation not only in sociological but in psychological terms. When historians are drawn to apply psychoanalysis to the study of the witch-craze, they generally use it to derive conclusions about an entire society: here, however, I intend to draw on psychoanalytic ideas in order to reconstruct the mental
In the last quarter of the twentieth
century, dozens of books and articles on witches and witchcraft were
published,amounting to a sort of second witchcraze. These publications
addressed the topic in general and in specific times and places, witchcraft,
witch-hunting, images of witches, witches in art, literature, popular
culture, new religious movements, witches in the past and the present
Roger Nowell and Thomas Lister.
1 Gisburn was transferred from Yorkshire to Lancashire in the boundary changes of 1974.
2 The Arraignement and Triall of Jennet Preston , issued with Potts, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster (London, 1613), X3–Z4 (at X4), and reprinted in Jonathan Lumby, The Lancashire Witch-Craze: Jennet Preston and the Lancashire Witches (Preston: Carnegie, 1995), pp. 169–74. Marion Gibson, Early Modern Witches