I has always been extraordinarily hard to look at beliefs and attitudes in the Early Modern period of British history, this quandary is due to the fact that these views are so different from modern day ideologies. When looking into how witchcraft accusations reflect socio-economic tensions in Early Modern British communities this problem also arises. Witchcraft was around before this period and is a very misinformed topic, and the reason behind its emergence as a prosecutable offence in the 16th Century is extremely debatable and a highly written about subject that has much literary depth that must be compared and critiqued thoroughly in order to fully comprehend the ideas and beliefs of the public during this period of Historical significance.
Many written documents have given aid to historians when trying to enhance their knowledge on the motivation behind the accusations placed on people regarded to be witches. This spans from the most famous pro-witch hunting treatise called the ‘Malleus Maleficarium’, which is Latin for ‘the hammer of witches’, which was written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger and was published in Germany in 1487.
There are also writers who attribute the main reason of witch hunting to be misogynous attacks by men for example modern day feminist writer Christina Larner and renowned historian Clive Holmes whose theories which will also be considered. It is always made clear that throughout the Early Modern Britain period ‘a great majority of those prosecuted came from the lower levels of society.’
The main socio-economic tensions that reflect on witch accusations all stem from this principle that it was the lower end of the social hierarchy that were susceptible to witchcraft allegations. The reasoning behind the lower class of society being most vulnerable to witch accusations can be split into numerous parts for example the fact that they were the part of society that was weak and had little power in society and due to this they were used as scapegoats for any issues in the society of Early Modern Britain.
Also it was always believed that they would use sorcery or magic as a way of survival and also in order to enact revenge on anyone who had shunned them both socially and financially this is described perfectly by Marianne Hester as ‘failure to carry out some hitherto recognised social obligation; a poor women would ask for charity or to borrow essential supplies, but denied eventually, if misfortune happened to the one who had denied her, would be accused of using witchcraft.’2 They were also resented because the higher classes saw them as being reliant on the community in order to live.
A fear of a decline in the economy left people being less tolerant of the poor, this meant that people were relieved that witchcraft allegations were slowly easing the issue of the poor from the community3 It is clear that most historians point to socio-economic reasons for the reasoning behind witchcraft accusations; however there are other arguments that must be considered when analysing this question.
Contemporary writers such as Reginald Scot offered scepticism to the idea of witch hunting in his Treatise ‘The Discoverie of witchcraft’ which was published in 1584, this literary text is extremely important when looking at this question. The book backs up the idea that witchcraft accusations were a reflection of socio-economic tensions in early modern Britain. There are two important points to be taken into account when considering Scot’s theories firstly the ideas he offers on economic or social prejudices in Early Modern Britain and secondly the suggestion he offers that people in this period were willing to accept these reason due in most part to their ignorance.
The reasons he gave which proclaimed such a philosophy are that a majority of the accused were ‘women which be commonly old, lame, bleary-eyed, pale, foul and full of wrinkles; poor, sullen, superstitious, and papists, or such as know no religion; in whose drowsy mind the devil hath gotten a fine seat4’ by this Scot is suggesting that there was a social prejudice towards the aged and also a vendetta against the impoverished as well as backing up the misogynistic opinion of accusers.
The second reason suggested by Scot is the sceptical theory that there is no biblical background to witchcraft. Scot was a devout Calvinist, meaning he believed god ruled all, and if there is no biblical reference to witchcraft the devil is not possessing the accused. Evidence of this in the book states ‘we fly from trusting god to trusting in witches5’. This perception is intriguing because it looks at religion, rather than social or economic reasons, and how Scot blamed the Roman Church for the alleged un-Christian prosecution of those accused of witchcraft. Also this book offered a political reflection on witchcraft accusations because all accessible copies of the book were to be burned by decree of James I in 1603.
An alternative argument put forward by Reginald Scot is that the components of the offence that is committed by the accused is just a combination of crime already prohibited by the laws of Britain during the 16th Century. This is extremely interesting when considering the question at hand as it insinuates that the practice of witches is just a group of criminal offences put together and given a superstitious cover.
This would suggest that the socio-economic tensions that appear to be the back bone to witchcraft accusations were already prosecutable offences such as vagrancy and heresy, this is shown by Reginald Scot when he proclaims ‘that in times past here in England, as in other nations, this order of discipline hath been in force and use’. In Scots final dimension he offers a dispute to the idea that witchcraft is a direct result of socio-economic tensions and he achieves this by considering how plausible the idea of witchcraft is on both a scientific and philosophical front. This is valid because most witchcraft allegations were based on the very limited scientific findings of the time, but still to some level scientific findings.
Arguably the most written about and disputed theory that witchcraft is associated with is misogyny. The reason that this is a plausible philosophy is clearly linked to the fact that ninety percent of the accused were female, this would strongly imply that social factors played a strong factor in the accusation process. Popular beliefs at the time were that women were weak and had a strong capacity for evil and also cases would often be a result of feminine disputes.
This concept is backed up by the witchcraft treatise the Malleus Maleficarium which in section one suggests that women had sex with the devil, which in turn led to them assuming the powers of a witch and it states in the Malleus “all witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.”6 This leads to the presumption that sexist prejudice was clearly evident at this time and it is strongly emphasised throughout this treatise which suggests the roots of prosecuting witches had some levels of ignorance that influenced them. The treatise was extremely widespread in Germany due to the fact that it was fortunate enough to be duplicated via the newly invented printing press and this meant that it was read by the masses and could be considered to be propaganda.
The fact that it was slower for the word to spread in England offers a significant reason to why witchcraft accusations reflect economic tensions in Early Modern Britain. The reasoning behind this is the Malleus Maleficarium was ‘slow to impinge upon England. It found its way into the libraries of the learned, for English intellectuals were used to buying and reading the publications of foreign presses; but the total absence of an English edition is striking by the side of the thirteen editions on the continent by 1520’7Another aspect that must not be overlooked when considering the importance of the Malleus is that it was one of the original pieces on witchcraft, which due to a lack of literature on the subject at the time it was extremely hard to make an informed opinion.
This led to strong beliefs on the subject and evidently increased the prejudices against gender. This argument and the fact that it is the most widely believed and renowned social ideology regarding witchcraft is also backed up by Brian P. Levack when he states ‘The most well-documented characteristic of those persons who were prosecuted for witchcraft is that they were predominately, if not overwhelmingly female.’8 He does dispute witchcraft being solely gender related by exclaiming ‘witchcraft was a sex-related but not sex-specific crime.