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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Witches of Essex

More than 200 hanged, many more tortured

Every old woman with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice or scolding tongue, having a rugged coat on her back, a skull-cap on her head, a spindle in her hand, and a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspect, but pronounced a witch

-- John Gaule, in his condemnation of Matthew Hopkins, Select Cases of Conscience, 1646
The Oxford Dictionary of Biography often has an interesting post in its Life of the Day, but today's is particularly interesting, focusing on four fifteenth century pamphlets that purport to be the confessions of Essex witches.

There are plenty of Elizabethan witch stories, but it was James VI of Scotland who started the craze for hunting down witches. After he became James I of England, following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, he published a basic hunt-down-and-kill-witch manual called Daemonologie (available on Amazon, believe it or not), and convinced parliament to pass a few anti-witch acts.  This led to mass paranoia, which lasted through the Cromwell years and the Restoration, and was carried over to the colonies in America.

In the 1640s the prime witch-hunter was a figure of fear by the name of Matthew Hopkins, who called himself the "Witchfinder General."  He began his paranoid reign in East Anglia, but in 1645 moved his operations to Chelmsford in Essex.  There, he terrorized anyone who looked a bit odd and old, and in 1647 published his own manual, Discovery of Witches (also, incredibly, available on Amazon).

The irony?  Matthew Hopkins died the same year as his magnum opus was published, on 12 August 1647, probably of pulmonary tuberculosis.  No sooner was he buried, however, than the legend sprang up that he had actually been drowned ... having been discovered to be a witch himself. 


Shayne Parkinson said...

Amazing what's still in print! These are well and truly out of copyright, of course. Hopkins sounds a terrifying figure.

By the way, a few typos have crept into this entry (sorry, compulsive proof-reader here). It's James VI, not IV, and 1603, not 1605. And I think Chelmsford's in Essex, not Sussex.

Joan Druett said...

Oops! Shows what comes of blogging after supper. All fixed -- though the site was surprisingly reluctant to accept the corrections, andI had to do it thrice. It must have been awful in those days when you simply couldn't afford to be old, eccentric, ugly, or an unpopular neighbour!