Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Spare a Thought for Witches at Halloween

Strangled, hanged, burnt or boiled alive, and drowned: the fate of witches
Halloween in modern times has become a time to celebrate monsters of all kinds, particularly fictional ones like vampires or Frankenstein monsters. Indeed, dressing-up in any fun costume - even non-monster ones! - is now part of this wider celebration of putting on a mask and adopting another identity for a few hours. But Halloween was traditionally a time when ghosts and spirits walked abroad - All Hallows Eve - and later, an evening when witches were thought to worship the darkness. And in earlier times it was definitely not a celebration of those things, but a night when decent folk stayed in their houses and left the forces of darkness to rule the wildness outside.

Of course, English attitudes to witchcraft during the Tudor era were always less extreme than those of Europeans. Indeed, under the right circumstances, the British witch could occasionally become an acceptable – if not quite respectable – member of society. Acceptance was not universal, however, and those who attracted the attention of the witchfinder – or even the Inquisition under Mary I’s reign – often ended up on trial for their lives.

Happily, many of these ‘witches’ escaped conviction, since most English tests tended to favour the accused. One common test was ‘swimming the witch’; in a village pond test, the guilty floated and the innocent sank (and were pulled to safety, one hopes). Another test was to weigh the accused against the Bible; if the Bible was heavier, she was clearly a witch. The unfortunate few convicted by such bizarre methods were generally spared the flames. Whereas the Europeans burnt or even boiled their witches alive – occasionally strangling them beforehand as an act of mercy – the more usual sentence for a British witch was death by hanging.
Yet there was a deep ambivalence surrounding the figure of the Tudor witch, for even occult powers had their uses. A Christian-Cabalist, Dr John Dee suggested the date for Elizabeth I’s coronation and enjoyed her patronage as court astrologer most of his life, despite openly conjuring ‘spirits’ from the ‘super-celestial sphere’ using rituals found in ancient magical grimoires. Dee’s abilities as an astrologer and his potentially lucrative experiments with alchemy kept him above the law, despite Elizabeth I’s punitive statute in 1563, enforcing the death sentence for the practice of witchcraft.

All witches were equal under Tudor law, it seemed, but some were more equal than others. Particularly perhaps if they were male. Indeed, it was not until after James I came to the throne in 1603, with his treatise Daemonologie  and his fear of the supernatural, that the witch-hunting craze in England really took off.

So this Halloween, while trick-or-treating with the kids, spare a thought for those unfortunate women accused of witchcraft in earlier centuries, whose fate was often sealed by nothing more sinister than a birthmark where the Devil was thought to have suckled ...

NB. A longer version of this article appeared at History Today in August 2012. 

WARNING: Witches are variously depicted as hanged, burnt alive and 'floated' in WITCHSTRUCK.

WITCHSTRUCK is now available in the USA.

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