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Daphne Ippolito

The Witch Trials of Early Modern Scotland SMC346


Daphne Ippolito 998400476 Janet Barker was a poor shopkeeper in Edinburgh in the 1640s. When the Devil appeared before her, offering her clothes as fine as those of the best servant in the city, she readily accepted the opportunity to improve her situation. In return, she agreed to be his servant, and they consummated the deal with carnal copulation. Barker confessed to these events in November of 1643 after being interrogated by both government officials and the Presbytery. She was tried at the end of December, and in early 1644, she was strangled then burned at the stake, in the traditional punishment of witches.1 Barker was one of as many as two thousand women and men who were convicted of witchcraft from 1563-1736. There are no records of Barker harming anyone; in fact, the Devil taught her the power to heal. While other witches were accused for malefice, her conviction was not the product of any evil intent. Regardless of their actions, witches represented something evil and foreign, a common enemy to all. They were sacrificed to Scotlands progress toward a stable, modern state and a godly society. The trial of a witch was initiated locally. The Church often instigated the investigation, sometimes on behalf of a witness in the community. It began collecting accusations of unnatural behavior and malevolent deeds.2 Accusations of malefice came from neighbors and often involved death or harm done to community members. For example, Margaret Merchant was ordered by her landlord to move out in preparation for the new tenant, but instead she blew in the new tenants face, causing him to take ill and die. Catharine Mactargett was accused of putting a childs bonnet on the wrong way, and the child perished. Evidence could span decades.
Goodare, Julian, Lauren Martin, Joyce Miller, and Louise Yeoman. The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft: 15632 MacDonald, The Witches of Fife: Witch-hunting in a Scottish Shire, 1560-1710. 2002. Tuckwell Press. 175. 1736. Query: Stuart. Jonet Barker
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Mactargett was tried twice, in 1679 and 1688.3 In 1643, Agnes Wallace confessed to being in the devils service for 43 years.4 Accusations came about as the results of everyday quarrels in which undesirable results were attributed to demonic connections.5 In some cases a suspected witch would implicate accomplices. These accusations contributed to the escalation of witch-hunts from single cases to periods of widespread panic.6 After a suspect was identified, other evidence of the supernatural was accumulated against them. In many cases, the court sought to prove that the suspect had a pact with the Devil. Such a pact was analogous to marriage. A witch met with the Devil, made an agreement with him to servitude in return for rewards, and consummated the pact with sex. Like a married woman to her husband, the witch was thereafter bound to the Devil.7 It was unusual for accusations of a demonic contract to be made by the community members who denounced the witch. These allegations were added by the higher authorities who took over the case and organized the trial.8 References to a pact with the Devil are most common in sources emanating from the central government, and indicate an elite concept of demons that did not trickle down to the local accusers.9 Sleep deprivation and other means of torture were used either before or after the procurement of a commission to elicit a confession to a demonic pact or other malefice.10 Confessions were rarely voluntary. Some witches confessed to attending covens where evil acts
Goodare, Julian, et al. The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft. Query: Catharin Mactargett, Margaret Merchant McDonald, Stuart. The Devil In Fife witchcraft cases. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch Hunt in Context. 40. 5 Martin, Lauren. Witchcraft, quarrels, and womens work. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt in Context. 2002. Manchester University Press. 76. 6 Goodare, Julian. The Scottish Witch-hunt in Context. 2002. Manchester University Press. Introduction. 7 Martin, Lauren. Witchcraft, quarrels, and womens work. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt. 81. 8 Martin, Lauren. Witchcraft, quarrels, and womens work. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt. 75. 9 MacDonald, Stuart. The Witches of Fife: Witch-hunting in the Scottish Shire, 1560-1710. 2002. Tuckwell Press. 195-196. 10 Martin, Lauren. Witchcraft, quarrels, and womens work. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt. 77.
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were planned and homage was paid to the Devil. Waking and other forms of torture lost favor with the central government in the latter part of the 17th century, as confessions produced under these conditions were treated with increasing skepticism. Once a witch was incarcerated, she could be pricked for the Devils Mark, a blemish the Devil placed on her body where she could not feel pain. A potential witch was pierced with a sharp point until such a spot was found. In 1678, Katherine Lidels pricking led to a great effusion of blood, welts, and swelling that put her in danger of her life. The use of the Devils Mark as a form of evidence declined after 1662, when the Privy Council prohibited the practice of pricking without its specific permission. Katherine Lidels tormentor broke this law, and was imprisoned for his abuse.11 Together, these forms of evidence demonstrate a common belief system shared by all levels of society. The administration in Edinburgh did not condone the witch-hunts only to humor and control the peasant masses. The peasants rarely had qualms in pointing out suspicious individuals in their communities to the local authorities. While the evidence produced against witches varied from class to class, the belief in witchcraft as a very real threat permeated across social boundaries. Witchcraft was part of a larger conceptual system encompassing both white and black magic. The practice of charming stood in opposition to witchcraft. Charmers used their powers to heal, recover lost objects, make love potions, predict the future, and counter the effects of black magic. Miller notes that charmers, unlike witches, were self-defined. Their skills were known and often tolerated by community.12 Charming could be described as supernatural good while


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Levack, Brian P. Decline and end of Scottish witch-hunting. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt. 175. Miller, Joyce. Folk healing aspects of witchcraft. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt. 91.

Daphne Ippolito

Larner defines witchcraft as supernatural evil.13 The line between witch and charmer was poorly defined. Both the secular and Church authorities disapproved of charming. Individuals were expected to turn to the Christian God with their problems, not to a charmer with mysterious, otherworldly powers. In 1646, the Church General Assembly proclaimed that charming was a sin equal to witchcraft.14 In practice, local church representatives tended to distinguish between charming with demonic origins and more innocuous white magic. Despite its possibly good intentions, any charming involving a pact with Satan was considered as grave as witchcraft.15 The reactions to non-demonic charming tended to vary from county to county. When charmers were punished for their magic, the punishments tended to be less severe than the death penalty invoked for witchcraft. The practice of charming was too ingrained in commoner culture to be stamped out completely. Peasants lived in a dangerous, often miserable world, with high rates of mortality and malnourishment, incomprehensible illnesses, and the constant threat of a witchs curse. In their benevolent role as healers and cleansers of ill magic, charmers helped to improve these situations at least psychologically. Miller discusses the neutralizing of the negative or destructive power of witchcraft through the use of charming.16 The church strove to eliminate the practice, but as long as life was hard, peasants looked for comfort in the traditions they had been accustomed to for generations. Witchcraft, charming, and other forms of magic have their origins in a cultural tradition predating the arrival of Christianity. In 16th and 17th century Scotland, the Christian concepts of God and Satan competed with a pagan Otherworld populated by elves and faeries. Andrew Man
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Larner, Christina. Enemies of God. 1981. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 7. Miller, Joyce. Folk healing aspects of witchcraft. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt in Context. 91 15 Larner, Christina. Witchcraft and Religion. 80. 16 Miller, Joyce. Folk healing aspects of witchcraft. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt in Context. 94

Daphne Ippolito

was accused of witchcraft in 1597. In his confession, he described having sexual relations with the Queen of the Elves. In their sixty-year relationship, they had several children, and he attended feasts and revels where he witnessed elves playing and dancing.17 The fairies in their original form were fickle. They were neither good nor bad, and they were just as likely to help you as harm you. The Church, consisting of at first the Catholics and then the more adamant Protestants, read the concepts of good and evil into the fairy tradition, and they gradually associated the fairy lords with the Christian Satan. Allison Pearson, tried as a witch in 1588, does not have the Devil mentioned in her court case, but she is said to have made a pact with the fairies. Like the Devil in later cases, the fairies gave her a mark where she felt no pain. They took her to an Otherworld filled with singing, dancing, and pipe music.18 Pearsons case is representative of a transitional period in which the fairies and the Otherworld were not yet fully demonized into a Christian context. Later cases explicitly mention the Devil in an environment reminiscent of the Otherworld. Katherine Sands, accused in 1675, recounts witchly meetings involving the devill dancing and playing and that the devill played to them on a pype and that frequentlie they had a blowe light when it was dark.8 The Devil in this situation sounds very much like a fairy lord at a revel. In other cases, the Devil is assigned fairylike characteristics, such as the inability to use an iron sword or the absence of footsteps.19 Associating fairies with the devil gave the Church a basis from which to eradicate undesirable folk customs. Before the Protestant Reformation, witchcraft was still decried by the Church, but systematic attempts to eradicate undesirable supernatural beliefs were largely absent. When the new protestant Church took power, it had the challenging task of imposing a new model of 17 Goodare, Julian, et al. The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft: 1563-1736. Query: Andrew Man
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Goodare, Julian, et al. The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft: 1563-1736. Query: Alesoun Pierson MacDonald, Stuart.The Devil in Fife withcraft cases. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt. 46.

Daphne Ippolito

Christianity upon the common people.20 It accomplished this goal by making examples out of anyone practicing the ungodliness the Church hoped to eradicate. Ungodliness included the superstitions and folk customs that were tolerated, though not condoned, under Catholic rule. Witches were a threat to the progress toward a godly society, irrespective of whether they were involved in a demonic pact or were merely practicing innocuous charming.21 Persecuted witches were used as counter-models for the expected behavior of the rest of society. Larner notes that witches were rarely punished for individual acts of malefice; it was their general state of ungodliness, irrespective of their actions, that made them culpable.22 Trying a witch for sins against God allowed authorities to transpose these sins into crimes against society. Witchcraft did not become a secular crime in Scotland until 1563 when Parliament passed the Witchcraft Act, which designated witchcraft as punishable by death. The law was part of a larger set of reforms organized by the Privy Council in response to the power vacuum left by the fall of the Catholic Church in Scotland, three years earlier.23 The Witchcraft Act was not repealed until 1736, and in these nearly two centuries, the political and religious landscape of Scotland changed significantly. Each change, and its ensuing period of instability, affected the scale of the witch-hunts, and the incentives of the witch hunters. The first large-scale witch-hunt took place in the 1590s, around thirty years after the crime of witchcraft was codified. The bout began in 1590 when King James VI charged several nobles in Scotland and Denmark with plotting against his life. The suspects were accused of sending a storm to sink his ship and attempting to poison him. Unlike later witch-hunts which much more heavily involved peasants being accused locally, the panic of 1590 was instigated by
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Goodare, Julian. The Scottish Witch-hunt in Context. 5. MacDonald, Stuart.The Devil in Fife witchcraft cases. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt. 49. 22 Larner, Christina. Enemies of God. Ch. 1. 23 Larner, Christina. Witchcraft and Religion: The Politics of Popular Belief. 1984. Basic Blackwell Inc. 24.

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King James in an attempt to oust unwanted rivals. It stimulated a more widespread witch-hunt of all classes that lasted until 1597. The hunt was encouraged by standing commissions issued by the central government to local authorities, allowing them to hunt witches indiscriminately. King James used the witch-hunt to position himself as the Devils prime enemy, a protector of the realm, who fought valiantly against the witches misdeeds.24 However, by 1597, the hunt had grown out of control, and the central authorities reined it in by revoking all previously issued commissions. From this point on, witchcraft became a crime heavily controlled by the central government.25 The pattern of the central government offering encouragement followed by disapproval after the hunt grows out of hand is repeated in later witch hunts. The next widespread panic began in 1628. Larner attributes the rise in trials at this time to the Privy Council reiterating witchcraft as a crime in a general attempt to tighten up control on law and order.26 However, Goodare asserts that the Privy Council did not deliberately plan panics. They came as a result of individual witches naming accomplices, causing an escalation that was then encouraged by the central authorities.27 It is not clear why the panic period ended in 1630. The next rise in witchcraft trials took place in the 1640s, with a peak in 1643. It coincided with a period of conflict between the religious and secular authorities in which the General Assembly of the Church sought greater power to try witches in mass. While the Privy Council refused to issue the standing commissions the Church desired, commissions for individual trials were issued freely. The 1640s was a period of instability throughout the British Isles. The witch trials served to legitimize the ecclesiastical and government authorities by providing a semblance of stability and control. The Cromwellian occupation of Scotland,
Larner, Christina. Enemies of God: The Witch-hunt in Scotland. 1981. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 69. Larner, Christina. Enemies of God. 71-72. 26 Larner, Christina. Enemies of God. 72. 27 Goodare, Julian. Witch-hunting and the Scottish state. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt. 137.
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beginning in 1650, dampened the witch-hunts. Hugh Trevor-Roper attributes this to the indifference of occupying forces to local witches. Witch-hunting was a domestic concern that outsiders had little incentive to pursue.28 By the early 1660s, the number of trials had again escalated. In the years 1661-1662, 664 named witches were implicated before the Privy Council stamped out the hunt by disallowing arrests and torture of witchcraft suspects without a government warrant.29 This ruling contrasted sharply with the position taken by the central government in the previous century, where torture as a means of extracting confessions was encouraged. The ruling represented a growing awareness of the abuse of the crime of witchcraft for personal gain, and skepticism of the validity of torture methods in producing real evidence. Witchcraft trials continued into the early 18th century, but acquittals became more common as the government sought to centralize and rationalize the criminal justice system.30 It became increasingly evident that while witchcraft was real, it was not a crime that could be convincingly proven in court. For witch-hunts to successfully operate, there needed to be a consensus among the aristocrats, the clergy, and the commoners on the necessity of the identification and punishment of witches. When this consensus broke down, witch trials were no longer viable.31 Larner notes another underlying reason for popularity of the witch-hunt in the early modern Scotland. 32 For lack of outside enemy groups to target communal hatred upon, Scotts were forced to focus this hatred upon themselves. Scotland was not involved in foreign wars during the 17th century, and the country did not house significant populations of Jews, Turks, Moors, or other groups that challenged societys homogeneity. By singling out witches from
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Trevor-Roper, Hugh. The European Witch-Craze. Cited in Christina Larners Witchcraft and Religion. 58. Levack, Brian P. Decline and end of Scottish witch hunting. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt. 169. 30 Levack, Brian P. Decline and end of Scottish witch hunting. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt. 172. 31 Macdonald, Stuart. The Witches of Fife. 126. 32 Larner, Christina. Enemies of God. 199.

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within their own numbers, the Scottish were able to find a common enemy that contributed to the stability of the nation by unifying the poor and elite, the religious and the secular, in a common set of prejudices. The decline of the witch-hunts signifies Scotland finally achieving the stability it had been seeking for a century. Most witchcraft trials closely involved both the central and local governments, and both secular and religious bodies. Macdonald notes that in Fife, the church courts initiated the majority of witchcraft cases.33 The church collected evidence against and sometimes incarcerated the potential witch. However, the clergy were barred from conducting trials or executing judgment on witch suspects. They needed layperson support to petition the central government for commissions of justiciary allowing them to try the suspects in secular courts. All decisions to try witches had to be approved by the central government. The Privy Council ultimately had the power to decide a witchs fate. The local secular accusers sent the collected evidence to the Council. The Council could choose to approve a full witchcraft trial, reduce the charges to a lesser crime, or deny the commission entirely. If a commission of justiciary was granted, the subsequent local trial was typically a mere formality, and conviction was nearly guaranteed. Another path the Council could take was to try the witch in the central Edinburgh court of justice. Judges in this court were more likely to be trained in law, and acquittal rates were much higher.34 The witch-hunts were a powerful centralizing mechanism in a nation seeking stability. Witch trials fostered a positive relationship between the local and central authorities in which both sectors needed to cooperate in order to achieve a common goal. According to Goodare, the local Church and secular authorities respected the [privy] council and trusted its judgment.35 All sectors of society genuinely believed in the threat of witchcraft. Panics started locally, but the
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Macdonald, Stuart. The Witches of Fife. 150-151 Goodare, Julian. Witch-hunting and the Scottish State. In Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt in Context. 132. 35 Goodare, Julian. Witch-hunting and the Scottish State. In Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt in Context. 139.

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Privy Council encouraged them by freely issuing commissions of justiciary. The Church had influence over peasants and nobles alike, and it inspired fear of witchcraft and other forms of magic by portraying these arts as ungodly, demonic menaces.36 It was this fear, and the quest for a more godly and more stable society, that fostered an environment in which witchcraft trials flourished in early modern Scotland.


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Miller, Joyce. Folk healing aspects of witchcraft. In Julian Goodares The Scottish Witch-hunt in Context. 95.