Female and Male Voices in Early Modern England: An Anthology of Renaissance Writing

By Betty S. Travitsky; Anne Lake Prescott | Go to book overview

24
Elizabeth Sawyer (d. 1621) and
Henry Goodcole (1586–1641)
Thomas Dekker (c. 1772–1632), John Ford (1586–c. 1639) and William Rowley (d. 1626)

Elizabeth Sawyer Interpreted as a “Witch”

Although the witch craze that gripped much of early modern Europe did not take as strong a hold in Britain, that country was by no means free of such persecution. Accusations and executions for this crimen exceptum (exceptional crime) increased after the accession in 1603 of James I, who in 1588 had written Demonology, a tract on witchcraft. As on the Continent, most victims were women. The reasons for the rise of the witch craze are complex, and the association of women with witchcraft is equally convoluted, but social historians point to the period's economic upheavals as one cause of this phenomenon. In England traditional forms of poor-relief (such as that tendered by church foundations) had been abolished, and the population of the indigent—particularly of indigent women—was growing as crops failed year after year. Perhaps the increase of beggars made those who were unable or unwilling to assist them feel guilty and the poor themselves feel angry. One possible result, when the relatively privileged experienced something they could interpret as retaliation by the village “witch,” was accusations of witchcraft against the offending, ignorant, and helpless poor. With time, the tenuousness of such accusations became clearer. We excerpt portions of The Wonderful Discovery (1621), an account of the interrogation of an accused (and eventually executed) “witch,” Elizabeth Sawyer (d. 1621), by Henry Goodcole (1586–1641), chaplain of Newgate.

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