On the discovery of witches…
With All Hallow’s Eve almost upon us, read an extract from The Book of Magic Brian Copenhaver’s new anthology of the history of the tradition of magic from antiquity to the enlightenment, in which seventeenth century witch hunter Matthew Hopkins describes his methods of discovering witches in his Essex village.
Matthew Hopkins, Discovery of Witches- 1647
In the middle of the English Civil War, with government badly strained, Matthew Hopkins worked as a witch-hunter – paid for his services – in the eastern counties of England. About two hundred people, roughly a fifth of the total in England since 1559, were executed because of his actions or influence. During those eighty-six years, when hatred of Catholics was savage in England, the law made martyrs of 260 papists but killed four times as many as witches. In some places the only victims were women. Describing his activities in 1647 below, Hopkins focuses on the Essex village where he lived. He describes his methods – interrogate the accused constantly, deprive them of sleep, submerge them in water – along with the evidence that most impressed him: testimony from neighbours and other accused persons; parts of the body (extra nipples, for example) deemed unnatural.
In March, 1644, he had some seven or eight of that horrible sect of witches living in the towne where he lived, a towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house, and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill, one of which this discoverer heard speaking to her imps one night, and bid them goe to another witch, who was thereupon apprehended and searched by women who had for many yeares knowne the Devill’s marks, and found to have three teats about her, which honest women have not. So upon command from the Justice, they were to keep her from sleep two or three nights, expecting in that time to see her familiars, which the fourth night she called in by their severall names and told them what shapes, a quarter of an houre before they came in, there being ten of us in the roome.
The first she called was Holt, who came in like a white kitling. Second, Jarmara, who came in like a fat spaniel without any legs at all; she said she kept him fat, for she clapt her hand on her belly and said he suckt good blood from her body. Third, Vinegar Tom, who was like a long-legg’d greyhound with an head like an oxe, with a long taile and broad eyes, who when this Discoverer spoke to and bade him goe to the place provided for him and his angels, immediately transformed himselfe into the shape of a child of foure yeeres old without a head, and gave halfe a dozen turnes about the house and vanished at the doore. Fourth, Sack and Sugar, like a black rabbet. Fifth, Newes, like a polcat.
All these vanished away in a little time. Immediately after this witch, confessed severall other witches from whom she had her imps and named to divers women where their marks were, the number of their marks and imps and imps’ names, as Elemauzer, Pyewacket, Peck in the Crown, Grizzel Greedigut and so on, which no mortall could invent.
And upon their searches the same markes were found, the same number and in the same place, and the like confessions from them of the same imps, though they knew not that we were told before. And so peached one another thereabouts that joyned together in the like damnable practise, that in our Hundred in Essex twenty-nine were condemned at once, four brought twenty-five miles to be hanged where this Discoverer lives, for sending the Devill like a beare to kill him in his garden.
So by seeing diverse of the false papps and trying wayes with hundreds of them, he gained this experience, and for ought he knowes, any man else may find them as well as he and his company, if they had the same skill and experience . . . The parties so judging can justifie their skill to any and shew good reasons why such markes are not meerly naturall . . . For never was any man tryed by search of his body but commonly a dozen of the ablest men in the parish or elsewhere were present, and most commonly as many ancient skilfull matrons and midwives present when the women are tryed, which marks not only he and his company attest to be very suspitious, but all beholders . . . The reasons in breefe are three, which for the present he judgeth to differ from naturall marks, which are, first, he judgeth by the unusualnes of the place where he findeth the teats in or on their bodies, being farre distant from any usuall place from whence such naturall markes proceed . . . second, they are most commonly insensible and feele neither pin, needle, aule and so on thrust through them; third, the often variations and mutations of these marks into severall formes confirmes the matter . . .
If a witch hear a month or two before that the witch‑finder (as they call him) is comming, they will and have put out their imps to others to suckle them, even to their owne young and tender children. These upon search are found to have dry skinnes and filmes only and be close to the flesh. Keepe her twenty-four houres with a diligent eye that none of her spirits come in any visible shape to suck her, the women have seen the next day after her teats extended out to their former filling length, full of corruption ready to burst. And leaving her alone then one quarter of an houre and let the women go up againe, and shee will have them drawn by her imps close againe: proba‑ tum est . . .
[The Devil] seekes not their bloud, as if he could not subsist without that nourishment. But he often repairs to them and gets it, the more to aggravate the witch’s damnation and to put her in mind of her covenant. And as he is a spirit and prince of the ayre, he appeares to them in any shape whatsoever, which shape is occasioned by him through joyning of condensed thickned aire together, and many times doth assume shapes of many creatures. But to create any thing he cannot do it: it is only proper to God. But in this case of drawing out of these teats, he doth really enter into the body [of a] reall, corporeall, substantiall creature and forceth that creature (he working in it) to his desired ends, and useth the organs of that body to speake withall to make his compact up with the witches, be the creature cat, rat, mouse and so on . . . In the infancy of this discovery, it was not only thought fitting [to deprive the accused of sleep] but enjoyned in Essex and Suffolke by the magistrates, with this intention only – because they being kept awake would be more the active to cal their imps in open view the sooner to their helpe, which often- times have so happened. And never or seldome did any witch ever complaine in the time of their keeping for want of rest. But after they had beat their heads together in the [jail], and after this use was not allowed of by the judges and other magistrates, it was never since used, which is a yeare and a halfe since.
Neither were any kept from sleep by any order or direction since, but per- adventure their own stubborne wills did not let them sleep, though tendered and offered to them . . . And the meaning of walking of them at the highest extent of cruelty was only they to walke about themselves the night they were watched, only to keepe them waking: and the reason was this, when . . . they be suffered so to couch, immediately comes their familiars into the room and scareth the watchers and heartneth on the witch . . .
It is not denyed but many were so served [by tying them up and throwing them into deep water] as had papps and floated, others that had none were tryed with them and sunk – but marke the reasons. For first the Divel’s policie is great in perswading many to come of their owne accord to be tryed, perswading them their marks are so close they shall not be found out. So as diverse have come ten or twelve miles to be searched of their own accord and hanged for their labour – as one Meggs, a baker, did, who lived within seven miles of Norwich and was hanged at Norwich Assizes for witchcraft. Then when they find that the Devil tells them false, they reflect on him, and he – as forty have confessed – adviseth them to be swome and tels them they shall sinke and be cleared that way. Then when they be tryed that way and floate, they see the Devill deceives them againe, and have so laid open his treacheries . . .
[Hopkins] utterly denyes that confession of a witch to be of any validity when it is drawn from her by any torture or violence whatsoever: although after watching, walking or swimming, diverse have suffered, yet peradven- ture magistrates with much care and diligence did solely and fully examine them after sleepe and consideration sufficient. Second, he utterly denyes that confession of a witch which is drawn from her by flattery: for example, ‘if you will confesse, you shall go home, you shall not go to the [ jails] nor be hanged’, and so on. Third, he utterly denyes that confession of a witch when she confesseth any improbability [or] impossibility, as flying in the ayre, riding on a broom and so on. Fourth, he utterly denyes a confession of a witch, when it is interrogated to her and words put into her mouth, to be of any force or effect . . .
In brief he will declare what confession of a witch is of validity and force in his judgement to hang a witch: when a witch is first found with teats, then sequestred from her house, which is onely to keep her old associates from her, and so by good counsell brought into a sad condition, by understanding of the horribleness of her sin, and the judgements threatned against her; and knowing the Devil’s malice and subtile circumventions, is brought to remorse and sorrow for complying with Satan so long, and disobeying God’s sacred commands, doth then desire to unfold her mind with much bitterness; and then without any of the before-mentioned hard usages or questions put to her, doth of her owne accord declare what was the occasion of the Devil’s appearing to her – whether ignorance, pride, anger, malice and so on was predominant over her – she doth then declare what speech they had, what likeness he was in, what voice he had, what familiars he sent her, what
number of spirits, what names they had, what shape they were in, what imployment she set them about to severall persons in severall places (unknowne to the hearers) – all which mischiefes being proved to be done, at the same time she confessed to the same parties for the same cause and all effected, is testimony enough against her, for all her denyall . . .
God suffers the Devill many times to doe much hurt, and the Devill doth play many times the deluder and impostor with these witches, in perswading them that they are the cause of such and such a murder wrought by him with their consents, when and indeed neither he nor they had any hand in it, as thus: we must needs argue he is of a long standing, above six thousand yeers, then he must needs be the best scholar in all knowledges of arts and tongues and so have the best skill in physicke, judgement in physiognomie and knowledge of what disease is reigning or predominant in this or that man’s body – and so for cattell too – by reason of his long experience. This subtile tempter knowing such a man lyable to some sudden disease (as by experience I have found) as plurisie, imposthume and so on, he resorts to divers witches: if they know the man and seek to make a difference between the witches and the party, it may be by telling them he hath threatned to have them very shortly searched and so hanged for witches, then they all consult with Satan to save themselves.
And Satan stands ready prepared with a ‘what will you have me doe for you, my deare and nearest children, covenanted and compacted with me in my hellish league and sealed with your blood, my delicate firebrand‑darlings.’ ‘Oh thou,’ say they, ‘that at the first didst promise to save us, thy servants, from any of our deadly enemies’ discovery and didst promise to avenge and slay all those we pleased that did offend us, murther that wretch suddenly who threatens the downfall of your loyall subjects.’ He then promiseth to effect it.
Next newes is heard the partie is dead, he [Satan] comes to the witch and gets a world of reverence, credence and respect for his power and activeness – when and indeed the disease kills the party, not the witch nor the Devill, onely the Devill knew that such a disease was predominant. And the witch aggravates her damnation by her familiarity and consent to the Devill and so comes likewise in compass of the lawes. This is Satan’s usuall impostring and deluding but not his constant course of proceeding, for he and the witch doe mischiefe too much. But I would that magistrates and jurats would a little examine witnesses when they heare witches confess such and such a murder, whether the party had not long time before, or at the time when the witch grew suspected, some disease or other predominant which might cause that issue or effect of death.
Extract taken from The Book of Magic: from Antiquity to the Enlightenment by Brian Copenhaver (Penguin Classics) which is out on the 5th November.