The Devil’s Mark Was A Witch’s Death Sentence

The Devil’s Mark Was A Witch’s Death Sentence
Copyright © Photograph by Aviva Siegel

After Anne Bodenham became suspected of witchcraft in 1653, a panel of women was appointed to search her body. At her trial these women testified that the eighty-year-old defendant “had […] the marks of an absolute Witch, having a teat about the length and bigness of the nipple of a woman’s breast, and hollow and soft as a nipple, with a hole on the top of it, on her left shoulder, and another likewise was found in her secret places, like the former on her shoulder.” A pamphlet describing the case commented on this evidence: “for which she was arraigned and condemned to be hanged.”

The search for such bodily marks relied on a mixture of popular and learned theological ideas and was typical in English witchcraft cases. The women who examined the body of Anne Bodenham were looking for “the devil’s marks.” These were bodily marks allegedly imprinted by the devil on the bodies of his human accomplices. The belief was that the devil branded the bodies of witches with symbolic yet concrete corporeal malformations such as marks and growths. Such a mark was tangible, ostensibly and also, according to contemporary theory, insensitive to pain. These traits made the mark subject to search and to pricking, two common proof techniques related to the mark and employed in the quest for physical evidence of witchcraft.

The devil’s marks were considered to be an example of physical evidence that could help to “discover witches,” as the contemporary expression put it. These marks, conceivably the early modern forensic equivalent to today’s fingerprints or DNA, were seemingly straightforward, non-problematic physical traces that directly proved the suspect’s guilt, and that did not depend on possibly untruthful witnesses.

Three consecutive acts of Parliament made witchcraft a secular criminal offence in the United Kingdom between the years 1542 and 1736. These laws defined various instances of behaviour as witchcraft, but did not specify how to prove what was considered one of the most serious of crimes. Due to the secretive nature of the crime of witchcraft and the scarcity of physical evidence, it was extremely hard to “discover” witches. Finding proof of witchcraft posed a legal and practical challenge which the method of the search for the devil’s mark made it easier to meet.

During her trial for witchcraft in 1566, Agnes Waterhouse denied having allowed her cat, Sathan, to suck her blood. Subsequently, her kerchief was removed, exposing visible spots on her face and nose to the judges. Unfavourable conclusions were drawn, and after the queen’s attorney had asked Agnes Waterhouse when her blood was last sucked, she incriminated herself by saying “not this fortnight.” This court demonstration is an early example of the evidentiary potential of suspicious “spots” in witchcraft cases.

The comprehensive bodily search was a later development. The earliest documentation of a bodily search for marks relates to a case from 1579. However, at that time the search was not yet used on a regular basis. Other cases from the same year also made use of evidence about suspicious marks. These, however, were not discovered through a search, but confessed to by the suspects. Towards the 1630s the search became quite routine. The search was most extensively used during the famous 1645–1647 trials in East Anglia orchestrated by Matthew Hopkins ( the “Witchfinder General”) and his associate, John Stearne. The search continued to be employed after this exceptional episode as well, although the number of documented instances decreased in tandem with the decline in witchcraft prosecution. The last known search occurred in a case in 1712, which is also the last known case of conviction for witchcraft in England.

This article is part of a wider research project examining the social embeddedness of the law of evidence. My analysis relies on a body of 157 primary sources (pamphlets and learned tracts) published between the years 1561–1756 which discuss how to prove the crime of witchcraft. The public debate that unfolded in early modern England regarding the evidentiary techniques used in witch-trials provides a rare opportunity to uncover the basic assumptions and systems of meaning underlying the contemporary mechanisms of proof. This article focuses on the devil’s mark and analyses the debate over its probative powers while paying attention to the social characteristics of its participants. My analysis places the evidentiary debate in a specific socio-historical context and examines the dynamics between legal standards, the wider social, cultural and intellectual context and the social diversity of the participants.

The English writers of the time were familiar with the work of Continental theologians, who were the first to articulate the theory of the devil’s mark and the practical guidelines for its search, including searching under the eyelids, in the armpits, on the breasts, in the roof of the mouth, and on the rectum and the genitals. And indeed primary sources attest that in order to find the devil’s marks English witchcraft suspects were subjected time and again to obtrusive bodily searches. They were stripped naked, sometimes having their bodies completely shaved, and every part of their bodies was thoroughly examined. The search superseded the norms of modesty and decency. The suspected men and women, in the words of the sceptical physician John Webster, “were so unchristianly, unwomenly, and inhumanely handled, as to be stript stark naked, and to be laid upon tables and beds to be searched for these their supposed witch-marks: so barbarous and cruel acts doth diabolical instigation, working upon ignorance and superstition, produce.”

Although it was not part of official English criminal procedure, the technique of the search became highly elaborated and institutionalized. Almost invariably the search was not an expression of a spontaneous lynching, but rather a standard element of the pre-trial investigation, ordered by men of authority (mostly justices of the peace, but sometimes the mayor or another figure of authority), and conducted according to customary practice. Around 1645, at the peak of the Matthew Hopkins witch-scare, East Anglian communities and urban corporations hired witchfinders. During that episode, the search was used extensively, and women searchers (not officially appointed) routinely accompanied Matthew Hopkins on his journeys. However, the practice of the bodily search for the devil’s mark continued in use even after the witch-scare episode of the 1640s, up to the early eighteenth-century.

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