Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Witchcraft, Witch-Hunting, and Politics in Early Modern England

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Witchcraft, Witch-Hunting, and Politics in Early Modern England

Article excerpt

Witchcraft, Witch-Hunting, and politics in early modern England, by Peter Elmer, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016, 384 pp., £65.00 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-1987-1772-0

The supernatural has lately emerged as a key theme in studies of early modern Europe, with witchcraft continuing to be a particularly richly researched area. While few historians would disagree that politics "shaped patterns of witch-hunting" in early modern England (1), none has as yet argued this as comprehensively or in as much detail as Peter Elmer in this important, infuriating book. Elmer's arguments are properly complex, circling back to key ideas and teasing away at apparent contradictions. The specificities of local circumstances are acknowledged, but not viewed in isolation from broader developments. There is no inherent link, it is alleged, between puritanism and witch-hunting, although the evidence cited nonetheless demonstrates that most prosecutors of witches were puritans, while sceptics, in most periods, tended to be Anglicans. Witch prosecutions had potentially contradictory significance, since they sometimes served as an "agent of political consensus", bringing communities together against a common enemy, but could equally lead to "acute polarization" (7). Elmer aspires to deal with both witchcraft theory and the practices of witch hunting, although he properly notes that there is no simple or necessary relationship between the two. Moreover, while theories and metaphors of witchcraft were remarkably consistent and long-lived, the actual prosecution of witches was not a "regular or uniform process" (1); explaining its peaks and troughs in political terms is one of the achievements of the book. Witch prosecutions, Elmer argues, happened at times when the authorities found their sense of order threatened. When a government, even a puritan government, felt its authority secure, as in Dorchester between 1629 and 1637, there were no witch trials (85), although they continued elsewhere. He concludes that witch trials ended in the early eighteenth century not so much with the coming of the new science - many of those who continued to argue for the reality of witchcraft and the propriety of its prosecution were advocates of the new science - but as a more "pluralistic polity" (298) emerged. This is not a new argument - Stuart Clark, Michael Hunter and others have voiced similar views - but Elmer's arguments are well supported and offer fresh insights into some important cases.

Elmer organises his book in chronological order, from the reign of Elizabeth to the end of the witch-hunts. Elizabethan and Jacobean accusations of witchcraft (Chapter 2) are represented as primarily expressions of tension between puritans and conformists as the Church of England sought to establish and reinvent itself. Unlike his father, Charles I (Chapter 3) was uninterested in witchcraft; he had other things to think about, and his particular brand of sacral royal absolutism represented itself as invulnerable to demonic threat, though metaphors of witchcraft were prominent in theology, literature, and theatre. In this section, Elmer follows closely in the footsteps of his mentor and model Stuart Clark's Thinking with Demons, and arrives at similar conclusions. In the 1640s (Chapter 4), however, especially in Matthew Hopkins' East Anglia, witchcraft re-emerged as a terrifying threat as local communities became ever more "politicized" and struggled against external and internal enemies to construct a godly society (115). After the Restoration (Chapters 5-7), as "political and religious allegiances grew ever more unstable" (175), witchcraft belief increasingly moved out of the mainstream and became associated with dissent. At the same time, changing views on medicine and the care of the insane also changed the ways witchcraft was conceptualised. The last witchcraft accusations - Richard Hathaway's apparently fraudulent claim that Sarah Moredike had bewitched him in 1701 and the case of Jane Wenham, the last woman to be found guilty of witchcraft in England, in 1712 - were the result of party factionalism. …

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