Rereading Witchcraft Stories, and Why Do We Need to Reread?

Marion Gibson
Marion Gibson

The exploration of fact and fiction in stories of witchcraft which this article presents is based on a literary and legal-historical analysis of a variety of sources. The most important sources for early modern English witchcraft stories are Elizabethan and Jacobean witchcraft pamphlets, but the book also uses legal records, other unpublished documents, and possession pamphlets.

About forty works are the core of our primary sources for understanding witchcraft, including all nineteen surviving news pamphlets concerning cases of witchcraft (1566–1621), with four examples of such material in other works — ‘A World of Wonders’ (1595), ‘The Triall of Maist’. Dorrell (1599), ‘The Most Cruell and Bloody Murther’ (1606) and Alexander Roberts’ ‘A Treatise of Witchcraft’ (1616).

The discussion takes in all the English possession pamphlets, the pamphlets generated by the Darrell controversy, unpublished material from the case of John Walsh/Welsh in 1566, the Northamptonshire case of 1612, and the Mary Glover controversy of 1602, Edward Fairfax’s unpublished ‘Daemonologia’, and several witchcraft pamphlets from the early Commonwealth.

The book takes a fresh look at the witchcraft stories told in these works, especially the news pamphlets, and explores their sources, authorship, ideologies, styles and genres to come to a better understanding of the construction of stories of witchcraft and our interpretation of them.

No other book on witchcraft has attempted this, and therefore our understanding of what witchcraft was is hampered by reliance on stories whose origins are at best unclear, and at worst murky, confused by multiple authorship, deliberate deceit and propagandist intent.

Perhaps the most important conclusion of my study of witchcraft stories is that a change in sources, authorship, ideological position, style and genre can entirely change the form and content of pamphlet stories about witchcraft — which it does in the 1590s.

Since these stories form the basis of our understanding of what witchcraft was, the perception that the stories are flexible or unreliable has important implications for all readers of witchcraft stories, but especially for scholars using witchcraft pamphlets as records.

Re-emphasising that they are only representations of events, such a perception suggests that witchcraft pamphlets need to be studied structurally, with traditional literary inquiries into their construction, as well as considered in a more historical way as databases of “facts”.

Malcolm Gaskill’s work on stereotypes, and most recently on stories in murder pamphlets, is moving the study of representations in the same direction.

This article will begin the exploration of what makes and shapes a witchcraft story, looking at how interrogative and legal forms determined the content of some witchcraft pamphlets, while narrative forms and literary conventions shape the content of others, and how we read them.

Barbara Rosen, in ‘Witchcraft in England 1558–1618’ (originally published as ‘Witchcraft in 1969’) pointed, without ever explicitly saying so, to the important fact that the stories in most early witchcraft pamphlets were based on transcribed legal documents, whilst later ones were more traditionally literary.

The processes of the legal system, which generated the documents whose contents are reproduced in the pamphlets, are therefore examined in Chapters 1 to 3 as being formative of their representations of witchcraft.

In later pamphlets, where documents are seldom reproduced, the literary conventions, authorship and sources of the apparently transparent stories need examination before we accept their reports of witchcraft as either “factual” or straightforward representations.

Some of the pamphlets also seem to be using their stories of witchcraft as a vehicle for other concerns, as explored in Chapter 4. The prefaces of pamphlets receive consideration in Chapter 5 as the most overt attempts to shape our reading of witchcraft.

This article tries to answer the following questions — What kinds of stories about witchcraft are told in pamphlets? What is a witchcraft pamphlet? Why are they so? How do their representations of witchcraft stories affect how we perceive and study witchcraft now?

“Witchcraft” is not, as I have said, a definable quantity of truthfully reported facts, easily separable from the form in which they are reported, because it is a representation of magical activities which did not really occur in the way described — an important element in the creation of conflicting stories like those told by Alizon Device and the Law family. It is also often part of “illiterate culture” represented by the literate. Moreover, the witchcraft stories are being told for many purposes, from news to instruction to entertainment.

The method of representation of witchcraft, and the aims and conventions of the method, clearly determine what is included or omitted, how the stories are told and what effect they had on contemporaries, and have now on the modern reader. Pamphlets, manuscripts and legal records need to be recognised as texts, representing, and not merely transmitting, information about witchcraft.

This article develops a growing interest among historians in the form of accounts of witchcraft. While there is a legitimate interest in the content of accounts — the social status of victims and witches, the gendered nature of witchcraft and so on — some recent scholarly writings about witchcraft have been more concerned with the form in which witchcraft episodes are represented than with the content of the stories.

This article opens up a further investigation along the lines suggested by Bernard Rosenthal’s Salem Story, which shows that “uncovering what happened in [a] witchcraft episode becomes a textual problem — one of narration”.

Jonathan Barry adds that witch stories are “shaped by contemporary conventions about what would carry conviction as a truthful or entertaining account […] whether they be accounts of witnesses at a trial or a witch’s confession”.

We must recognise “problems of bias and selectivity”, he urges, and that “the line between fact and fiction […] will be blurred, not just for the subsequent historian but also for the contemporary participants”. And despite Thomas’s interest in the anthropological aspect of witchcraft accusations, concern with the form of stories about witchcraft is a product of his insight that “there was a stylized character about witchcraft as an explanatory theory. It could not be indefinitely extended to account for any misfortune, but was more plausible when confined to those disasters for which witches were conventionally held responsible.”

Thomas built on Evans-Pritchard’s work with the Azande tribe, which suggested that consultation of oracles and use of counter-magic were “stereotyped” and “functional […] a social mechanism” and extended this perception to cover stories about witchcraft.

This historical-anthropological idea of stylised or conventional perceptions of reality is a useful starting point for a new look at witchcraft narratives.

Literary scholars have also given attention to the stereotypical nature of witchcraft stories — some more enthusiastically than others. Sandra Clark, writing on popular literature, remarks wearily that witchcraft reports are “all essentially similar in outline, and both tedious and harrowing to read”.

In a more positive spirit, Kristin Jeanne Leuschner, Frances Dolan and Deborah Willis explored pamphlets actively seeking literary patterns of similarity in stories, while Diane Purkiss began reading them as constructed texts.

This article pushes such research further, suggesting that the patterning and constructedness noticed by these writers might be worthy of investigation in its own right. Malcolm Gaskill suggested that witchcraft stereotypes did not always reflect reality, but the issue can be more complicated, in that we have no access to the seemingly masked reality.

The issue is made even more complex by the probability that, as Jean-Noel Kapferer remarked, stories “organise our perception to validate themselves” so that the teller sees what he or she expects will make the most coherent story. Thus stories of witchcraft are not only narrations which are easily stereotyped but this stereotype feeds back to shape the teller’s and the hearer’s perception of reality.

Since it was the representation of events by victim and witch to justice and then to the judge and jury which mattered in preliminary hearings and in court, as shown in Potts’ pamphlet and explored in a previous article, this circular need for coherence and plausibility is important.

As Barry says, “the printed and legal-record evidence we have of witchcraft is stereotyped by its status as legal evidence”. Returning to Potts’ stories of Alizon Device as an example, we might suggest that each participant clearly tells the story which would be expected, even demanded, of them as a confessing witch, a victim, and a concerned witness. The literary, storytelling stereotype is more important in shaping the account and the consequences of its telling than are the inaccessibilities of whatever really happened.

But if the stories told in witchcraft pamphlets are not “true” in the conventional sense, then are they completely unreliable guides to whatever witchcraft was? The legal historian James Cockburn calls them “invariably sensational treatments, deliberately but inconsistently overdrawn in order to heighten tension or point a moral”.

“Sensational” is a common description. In fact, pamphlets about witchcraft are not invariably sensational, especially when using transcripts of functional legal documents. It is also hard to tell what is overdrawn, since one has no access to the events before they were represented, and witchcraft is, in any case, a supernatural, “fictional” phenomenon.

Cockburn is right that “it is quite clear that the reliability of the pamphlets is heavily qualified by both carelessness and fabrication”, but while his superb edition of legal records from the Home Circuit (the judges’ annual visitation of the courts in the Home Counties) suggests the Essex and Hertfordshire pamphlets are intermittently sensational, their reports of such facts as names, familial relationships, status, charges, pleas, verdicts and sentences usually tally with legal records, with some glaring exceptions.

There is no reason to suspect wholesale pamphlet fabrication. A dislike of pamphlet evidence because it often adds to “original trial documentation” privileges records as “fact” with pamphlets as mere reports, but, problematically, legal records are themselves often inaccurate, and Dolan argues that both are equally “representations that often conform to conventions, and may or may not correspond to […] actual experiences”.

However, we cannot check the absolute truth of events, especially where magic is said to be involved. Perhaps the safest “facts” are those which can be compared with existing unrelated records for an impartial or at least differently biased account.

Cockburn is right in identifying the pamphlets’ reliability as heavily qualified, but they are not totally unreliable, any more than are legal records.

My conclusions about stories of witchcraft in pamphlets thus resemble Cockburn’s about indictments: they are an “attractive” resource “of limited value as the basis for the naive sociological analysis to which [they have] most often been subjected […] this is not to suggest that assise indictments [here, pamphlets] contain no reliable material of a quantifiable nature, merely to emphasise the necessity of first giving due attention to the complex problems of interpretation with which they are clearly synonymous.”

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