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What explains the different patterns of identifying and prosecuting witches in England, Scotland and
The persecution of supposed 'witches' may have claimed the lives of 50,000 people, both men and women, in Europe and colonial America between the 15th and 18th centuries1. Though each accusation and death is equally as tragic, the context, beliefs and actual methods of identifying and prosecuting witches varied widely across early modern Britain. Witch-hunts are often portrayed as hysterical, indiscriminate attacks on, particularly women, who are believed to be engaged in
'malefice': the malevolent, premeditated use of magic to inflict harm on others 2. Yet, though national panics3, in which the risk for anyone to be unreasonably accused was heightened, did occur,
the very definition of witchcraft and witches, and thus the beliefs and methods of prosecution surrounding witches, varied significantly through the nations of mainland Britain. Some of these nuances may include the gendering of the very term 'witch', such as in Wales where male witches were non-existent, at least to the records. It must also be taken into account whether 'charmers' or
'cunning folk' were firmly on the side of beneficent healing, or were believed by authorities to practice 'an euill custome'4 equivalent to, if not worse, than maleficent witchcraft. Thus, the origins of these unique beliefs in England, Scotland and Wales and the prosecutions they led to must be considered in order to fully establish the nature and extent of the witch-hunt in early modern
In identifying witches, there is little consensus 5 on what actually constitutes a 'witch'. It is clear that popular culture 6 has associated witches with old age, social marginalization and women, yet this does not account for those who did not fit such a stereotype, particularly men. Still, in Scotland 85% of accused witches were women 7, a statistic reflective of the situation in England, and taken to the extreme in Wales, where 'only women were accused as malefice practitioners and slandered as witches'8, leading many to conclude that the hunt for witches was 'relatively misogynist'9. This question of gender is at the forefront of debates on witchcraft; were women sought out as women,
1 Levack, Brian P., The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America,
Oxford University Press (2013)
2 Parkin, Sally, Witchcraft, women's honour and customary law in early modern Wales, in Social History
(pg. 295), 31:3, 295-318, Taylor & Francis Group (2006)
Goodare, Julian, Women and the witch-hunt in Scotland, in Social History (pg. 291), 01 October 1998,
Vol.23(3), p.288-308, Taylor & Francis Group 3
King James VI and I, Daemonologie, in Forme of a Dialogue, Divided into Three Bookes (book 1, chapter 6,
pg. 25), Edinburgh (1597)
4 5 6
Levack, The Oxford Handbook...
Parkin, Witchcraft... (pg. 298)
7 Goodare, Julian, Men and the Witch-Hunt in Scotland, in Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern
Europe (pg. 150), Ed. Alison Rowlands, Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan (2009)
Parkin, Witchcraft... (pg. 298)
Goodare, Men and the Witch-Hunt... (pg. 150)
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