Witchcraft and Demonology in South-West England, 1640-1789

By Callow, John | The Seventeenth Century, October 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Witchcraft and Demonology in South-West England, 1640-1789


Callow, John, The Seventeenth Century


Witchcraft and demonology in South-West England, 1640-1789, by Jonathan Barry, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, x + 373 pp., £65.00 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-23029226-0

The voices of the poor and the dispossessed are rarely listened to in any age. They are too rough, too uncomfortable, and too discordant to sit comfortably within the confines of learned discourse, or to be accommodated alongside the cut and thrust of the market place. In the seventeenth century we come across them, more often than not, in court records, when those at the very margins of society had come to be charged with having broken a law or transgressed an established code of conduct. Even then, their words are often interpreted, filtered, and shaped by legal procedures and by the prevailing notions of what constituted suitable evidence, the rules regarding cross-examination and the extraction of a confession. They are also subject to condescension.

Thus, in the case of Bideford Witches, the judge's brother soon came to forget their number and their respective fates; the pamphleteers in London conflated their names and gave them faces that were not their own; and a Secretary of State brushed aside their case and decided that three beggar women were not even worthy of his comment, let alone his consideration.1 Once the printers and booksellers had made their profits, the last of their stocks had been sold or pulped, and new strange and exciting stories came along to grip the public imagination, there seemed to be little need to remember their tale, or to hum the ballad written about their murderous and "diabolical" careers to a second-hand tune.2

Only the hatred of their neighbours endured. Marginal in every sense of the word - in terms of their age, gender, economic status, and even their geographical location - the last English witches to hang, in 1682, seem to bear out the uncomfortable and troubling truth of Lyndal Roper's maxim that: "witchcraft trials are one context in which women [in the course of the tumultuous sixteenth and seventeenth centuries] 'speak' at greater length and receive more attention than perhaps any other".3

That they fell foul of the judiciary so late in the history of the witchcraft statutes, at a time more commonly associated with the foundation of the Royal Society, the Restoration comedies, the commercial revolution, and the first coffee shops, than with superstition, cheaply produced witch-hunting tracts, the employment of professional witch-hunters, and the law of the lynch mob is the paradox that sits at the heart of Jonathan Barry's new study.

Though court records covering the South-West of England have survived in a far less thorough and expansive form, when compared with those for Essex and the Home Circuit, the area encompassing Bristol and its hinterland, north Somerset, and north Devon, seems to have experienced the increasing identification of women with witchcraft after 1640, saw a major upturn in the number of prosecutions during the 1650s, and appears to have had a judiciary who laboured, after 1670, under the weight of far more committals for the crime than most other English regions. Indeed, as Professor Barry points out, the Western Circuit witnessed not only the last definite executions for witchcraft, but also the last possible execution, in 1685; the last guilty verdict handed down by a jury, in 1689; and a string of court cases that stretched on into the 1700s and possibly continued even as late as 1715.4

In themselves, these incidences are worthy of a far fuller scholarly examination than has, hitherto, been accorded them.5 Yet, Professor Barry enlarges upon the theme through the skilful weaving together of two recent and influential approaches to the writing of academic histories: namely, the county studies popularised in the 1970s, and the meta-narratives and linguistic turns that have dominated the history of ideas since the early 1990s. As a consequence, he presents a series of engaging and well-chosen "case studies or microhistories" taken from the period generally associated with the decline in witch belief, in an attempt to make the case for the continued importance "of witchcraft and demonology in provincial culture in the period between the English and French revolutions". …

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