I remember visiting Wookey Hole Caves, near Wells in Somerset, when I was a kid (more years ago now than I care to remember).
The so-called Witch of Wookey, pictured above, is a limestone stalagmite reputed to be the petrified remains of a local witch, turned to stone by a monk after she put a curse on a budding relationship when he was a young man.
It’s a nice story, and the witch in this instance becomes essentially a figure of fun, someone that jumps out of the dark and says, “Boo!”, and is denuded of any more serious portent.
But of course the witch is a serious figure, in folklore and in history, and certainly during the period of the witch hunts in Europe and North America the question of how dangerous an alleged witch might be, and how they should be dealt with by the authorities, was very much a matter of life and death for all concerned – not least for those accused.
The late Elizabethan and Jacobean era in England was a time of particularly frenzied witch-hunting, and in 1597 James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England six years later) published Daemonologie, a book about witchcraft and how to combat it. This was a period of political and religious upheaval, with paranoia running high in the veins of the body politic. Shakespeare’s play Macbeth was written in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and cases such as those of North Berwick, in Scotland, and Warboys and Pendle, in England, saw many innocent people accused, tortured, tried, and often convicted and executed for witchcraft, as they were caught up in the national and domestic battles of the day.
Interestingly, though, despite this backdrop, not all were taken in – Samuel Harsnett, later Archbishop of York, referred to the pamphlet on the Witches of Warboys, only six years after its publication (in 1593), as “a very ridiculous book”, and even James I grew increasingly sceptical about the evidence for witchcraft, perhaps because he himself had insisted that it be subjected to (for the time) such rigorous analysis.
Nevertheless, the persecutions continued, especially under Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, who took advantage of the chaos of the English Civil War to pursue a campaign that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of women between 1644 and 1647.
Hopkins’ book The Discovery of Witches was also to have a malign legacy, with the Salem witch trials in New England still employing his methods forty-five years after his death.
The Witchcraft Acts were finally repealed in 1736, but belief in witches has continued to persist right up to the present day, and fear of them also. As recently as 1957 a local man recounted how a witch from Broomfield, on the Quantock Hills in Somerset, would “send the toads after” anyone who crossed her. But in my next post on this subject I want to look at the more positive representations of witches in folklore and literature, and I’ll be looking in particular at Baba Yaga, and at Sylvia Townsend Warner’s 1926 novel, Lolly Willowes.