Discovery of Witches

Matthew Hopkins and the real Discovery of Witches

Many of you may have been watching the TV historical drama series, A Discovery of Witches. Proving that our fascination for magic and sorcery is undimmed today even though we live in more enlightened times. The title ‘Discovery of Witches’ derives from a book by the 17th century English witch hunter, Matthew Hopkins, called The Discovery of Witches.

Hopkins was a notorious figure in the southern English county of Essex where I grew up. During the rule of Oliver Cromwell, he styled himself the Witchfinder General and set about identifying witches and executing them. His methods were not universally approved but at a time of religious fervour and social instability, few were prepared at first to stand up to Hopkins.

It’s often wrongly assumed that witch hunting was a medieval phenomenon. In fact, it really took off during the 1600s. This was a century of massive change in England with the monarchy overthrown for a period and huge social upheaval. Women bore the brunt of widespread anxiety and anger.

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Hopkins and others were influenced by a book on witches written by King James VI of Scotland in 1597 called Daemonologie. It was reprinted in 1603 when he also became James I of England. The book covered the ability of witches to fly, raise storms and the keeping of animal ‘familiars’. It is thought to have influenced William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, written at this time.

But Hopkins took things much further. Women of all ages found themselves subjected to his questionable tests to ascertain whether they were consorting with the devil or not. He dunked alleged witches into ponds and streams with their right thumb tied firmly to their left toe and left thumb to their right toe. If they floated, it was said that the water was rejecting them in the same way they had scorned the water of the baptismal font. If they sank and drowned…they were innocent.

An even more barbaric ‘proof’ of witchcraft was to burn an animal alive that was said to have been bewitched by the accused. That apparently would force the witch to confess. As late as the year 1834, a case was reported in the Morning Herald newspaper of a farmer burning a young pig alive in the belief that the entire litter had been the subject of a witch’s spell.

Another method was to deprive a witch of sleep by forcing her to stand or adopt an uncomfortable position on a stool or table. Hopkins was convinced that after 24 hours, her ‘imps’ and ‘familiars’ would come to the witch’s rescue. An example of this is pictured below with the witch giving the names of her familiars.

Although Hopkins eventually ‘retired’ at what we would regard as a very young age, his methods jumped the Atlantic and were used in New England during the 1640s. They would be employed again to deadly effect during the 1690s Salem Witch Trials.

A story used to circulate that Hopkins himself was eventually accused of being a wizard and executed after floating in water. This is now thought to be incorrect. Church records suggest he died instead of tuberculosis in August, 1647.

In 1968, Hopkins became the subject of a horror movie with Vincent Price in the lead role.

Fear in History – what scared us in the past?

In 2012, the academic Steven Pinker wrote a book called The Better Angels of our Nature arguing that in historical terms, violence and murder were in decline. Whereas widespread constant states of fear had been understandable in history – our future would be a lot safer and secure.

What a difference eight years makes! Fear may not yet be banished to the dustbin of history. Crisis after crisis looms – and social media spreads rumour and lies. It seems fear is stronger than ever. History may have the last laugh.

At the moment of writing this, we’re all in Coronavirus lockdown. We tune into the daily news bulletins to hear how many unfortunates have died overnight and how many more are infected.

The Governor of New York state appears in front of TV cameras to plead for emergency assistance. Hospitals and morgues are constructed hastily to accommodate the dying and the dead. Fear is everywhere.

But, as Steven Pinker rightly pointed out, mass fear is nothing new. History is littered with episodes of huge anxiety – where thousands if not millions of people were gripped with terrifying anxiety.

FEAR IN HISTORY: The French Revolution

Yesterday, browsing through some old history books, I came across a month-long episode in French history two hundred years ago when the landed peasantry were suddenly struck by something called The Great Fear. Or La Grand Peur if you prefer the original French.

Mansions and chateaus were attacked by pitchfork wielding landless poor. There were a handful of murders of the wealthy. And all around swirled rumours that the aristocracy were hoarding food supplies and plotting to withdraw what few rights the downtrodden had.

How much of this was true? In reality, the rich were probably no worse than they had been the year, decade or century before. But with an intensified political climate and the neighbouring cities rising up, the rural masses were consumed with a sense that unless they acted, their destruction loomed.

FIND OUT MORE: The London of the Frankenstein Chronicles

FEAR IN HISTORY: The Salem witch trials

A century before the town of Salem in Massachusetts had been the scene of hysterical witch trials. The backdrop was unrest between colonialists and American native tribes – as well as a war between England and France fought on American soil. Into this toxic brew add small town rivalries and Puritan terror of the devil and it wasn’t long before innocent women were being accused of witchcraft.

The Salem episode was depicted by the 1950s American playwright Arthur Miller in his play The Crucible – as a satire of McCarthyite anti-Communist investigations. These were show trials overseen by Senator Joseph McCarthy who accused hundreds of Americans of being secret Communists – ruining their careers and driving some to suicide.

Senator McCarthy in action

At the height of this Cold War paranoia, a movie was released under the initial title: I Married A Communist. It’s a clumsily plotted piece of drivel about a guilt-ridden ex-Communist being blackmailed by his former comrades. Watch it on YouTube – I can’t be bothered to write anymore about it. Except to say, no self-respecting Hollywood director would touch the script so it was directed by British director Robert Stephenson who finally lived that career low down by directing Mary Poppins.

DISCOVER: How to talk like a Victorian Londoner

FEAR IN HISTORY: 1970s angst

As a teenager in the late 1970s, I experienced waves of popular, tabloid-fuelled fear. This was a time of economic crisis and rising unemployment. And there was plenty – allegedly – to fear.

Skinheads were taking over the streets. Old people were being routinely mugged. Racist propaganda claimed jobs were being taken by new arrivals to Britain from Africa and the Indian sub-continent. And on top of all this – young people wondered whether the United States and Soviet Union would reduce the planet to a post-nuclear dustball.

And yet – here I am. The great fear of the 1970s proved to be largely illusory…