The Witch-hunt In Early Modern England

There has been long established belief about witchcraft, which has never been disputed. The belief in maleficium, which is the practice of harmful magic, has been entrenched in popular belief since before the Middle Ages. However, the idea of diabolism didn’t really arise in English popular fear, because there was no specific torture involved in the prosecution of witches in England.

With European elements, such as diabolism and Sabbath missing, it can be assumed by the process of elimination that the English public themselves were at the heart of the witch-hunts and this was down to superstition mainly, although the witch-hunt was multi-causal.

The first piece of literature that provided information on the witchcraft on a large scale on witchcraft was the Malleus Maleficarum. It was first published in 1486 and was written by two Dominican monks, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. It defined the crimes of a witch, but it didn’t include diabolism, which was to make a pact with the devil.

However, there was no English translation of the Malleus until modern times, and therefore this shows why European ideas may have been very slow to take effect on the English people. Also literacy in England was very low and the only real way of European ideas reaching England, would have been the elite, who were not really that keen to promote witch-hunts on the basis of diabolism. Therefore the accusers of a witch could not try her solely on suspicion and in England more evidence was required for proceedings to go ahead.

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This meant that in England there wee less cases of witchcraft of witchcraft and lower conviction rates than compared to Europe. In England, there were no legal reforms like the ones in Europe. If a person was accused of a crime, the lay-jury would intiate the proceedings and the trial jury would dwell over the facts, and the judge focussed at the evidence, before making decision. It was an accusatorial system in England, where victims had to prove the crime had been committed and provide witnesses, who were themselves open to prosecution if the accuse was acquitted.

There was no legal excuse for the use of torture and therefore it was difficult to extract confessions, from the witches about their activities. This way the idea of diabolism never really penetrated the mind of the English people, and maleficium remained the main crime of performing witchcraft. In 1468, the Papacy ruled that witchcraft was a crimen exceptum, which means an exceptional crime. This legalised the use of torture and basically permitted the use of any methods to deal with the witchcraft crimes. However, King Henry VIII had broken away from the Roman Catholic Church and had formed the Church of England.

This meant that the ideas were being devised by the Papacy’s intellectuals for prosecution, were not implemented in the English legal system and witchcraft was not an exceptional crime in England. In England, witchcraft for most people was still an activity, which was doing harm to others by supernatural means and so it wasn’t heresy. The Acts of Parliaments verify this, when the first two statutes were passed. In 1542m it was made a felony to conjure spirits or to practice witchcraft, in order to find treasure along with other activities.

The Act clearly treated the crime of witchcraft as consisting in positive acts of hostility against the community, rather than forming relations with the devil. The first act was repealed and a second statute was passed in 1563. The second statute was more severe in punishment and using maleficium for any means was a serious offence. The level of the offence depended on how seriously the victim was injured. However, in the third witchcraft statute in 1604, there was some element of Continental belief. It was felony to perform maleficum that resulted in anyone’s death and it also banned evil spirits.

On of the reasons that the third statute, included diabolism was because of England’s monarch, James I, who was Scottish and had Continental view on witchcraft. The statute was repealed in 1736 and this showed how far English Law on witchcraft could go, in order to be aligned with Continental doctrines. The English witch-hunt claimed very few lives, compared to the rest of Europe, but it does have some statistics to be aware of and one of the reasons was Mathew Hopkins. He was professional witch-hunter, who assisted in the prosecution of many cases.

In 1645, under his influence, there were sixteen people convicted for entertaining evil spirits, but seven of them were accused of killing other people. The Essex Circuit had 492 indictments for maleficium and eighteen were for entertaining evil spirits, which were influenced by Hopkins. English judges, such as Sir Robert Filmer, said that the were unlikely to condemn, unless murder was involved. The only notable exception to this practice was during Hopkins’s campaign. Between 1645 and 1647, some 200 people were most likely to have been convicted, because of Hopkins’s assistance.

During the late sixteenth and seventh centuries, the courts were slowly treating cases along the Continental lines. This was due to the fact, that when an allegation of maleficium reached the courts it could easily be turned into one of devil worship and it was easier for the prosecution if there was a clear confession of a link with the devil. However, despite the increasing bias in the courts, the popular concept of witchcraft was restricted to maleficium. Therefore the judicial machinery was gradually becoming available, but there seemed to have been no desire by either the Church or people to take advantage of it.

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The Witch-hunt In Early Modern England. (2018, Jan 09). Retrieved from

The Witch-hunt In Early Modern England
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