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A history of witchcraft in England


A History of Witchcraft in England from by Wallace Notestein
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in England to the accession of the great Queen.
For the study of the period to be covered in this monograph there exists a wealth of material. It would perhaps
not be too much to say that everything in print and manuscript in England during the last half of the sixteenth
and the entire seventeenth century should be read or at least glanced over. The writer has limited himself to
certain kinds of material from which he could reasonably expect to glean information. These sources fall into
seven principal categories. Most important of all are the pamphlets, or chapbooks, dealing with the history of
particular alarms and trials and usually concluding with the details of confession and execution. Second only
to them in importance are the local or municipal records, usually court files, but sometimes merely expense
accounts. In the memoirs and diaries can be found many mentions of trials witnessed by the diarist or
described to him. The newspapers of the time, in their eagerness to exploit the unusual, seize gloatingly upon
the stories of witchcraft. The works of local historians and antiquarians record in their lists of striking and
extraordinary events within their counties or boroughs the several trials and hangings for the crime. The
writers, mainly theologians, who discuss the theory and doctrine of witchcraft illustrate the principles they lay
down by cases that have fallen under their observation. Lastly, the state papers contain occasional references
to the activities of the Devil and of his agents in the realm.
Besides these seven types of material there should be named a few others less important. From the pamphlet
accounts of the criminal dockets at the Old Bailey and Newgate, leaflets which were published at frequent
intervals after the Restoration, are to be gleaned mentions of perhaps half a dozen trials for witchcraft. The
plays of Dekker, Heywood, and Shadwell must be used by the student, not because they add information
omitted elsewhere, but because they offer some clue to the way in which the witches at Edmonton and
Lancaster were regarded by the public. If the pamphlet narrative of the witch of Edmonton had been lost, it
might be possible to reconstruct from the play of Dekker, Ford, and Rowley some of the outlines of the story.
It would be at best a hazardous undertaking. To reconstruct the trials at Lancaster from the plays of Heywood
and Brome or from that of Shadwell would be quite impossible. The ballads present a form of evidence much
like that of the plays. Like the plays, they happen all to deal with cases about which we are already well
informed. In general, they seem to follow the narratives and depositions faithfully.
No mention has been made of manuscript sources. Those used by the author have all belonged to one or other
of the types of material described.
It has been remarked that there is current a large body of misinformation about English witchcraft. It would be
ungrateful of the author not to acknowledge that some very good work has been done on the theme. The
Reverend Francis Hutchinson, as already mentioned, wrote in 1718 an epoch-making history of the subject, a
book which is still useful and can never be wholly displaced. In 1851 Thomas Wright brought out his
Narratives of Sorcery and Magic, a work at once entertaining and learned. Wright wrote largely from original
sources and wrote with a good deal of care. Such blunders as he made were the result of haste and of the want
of those materials which we now possess. Mrs. Lynn Linton's Witch Stories, published first in 1861, is a better
book than might be supposed from a casual glance at it. It was written with no more serious purpose than to
entertain, but it is by no means to be despised. So far as it goes, it represents careful work. It would be wrong
to pass over Lecky's brilliant essay on witchcraft in his History of Rationalism, valuable of course rather as an
interpretation than as an historical account. Lecky said many things about witchcraft that needed to be said,
and said them well. It is my belief that his verdicts as to the importance of sundry factors may have to be
modified; but, however that be, the importance of his essay must always be recognized. One must not omit in
passing James Russell Lowell's charming essay on the subject. Both Lecky and Lowell of course touched
English witchcraft but lightly. Since Mrs. Lynn Linton's no careful treatment of English witchcraft proper has
appeared. In 1907, however, Professor Kittredge published his Notes on Witchcraft, the sixty-seven pages of
which with their footnotes contain a more scrupulous sifting of the evidence as to witchcraft in England than
is to be found in any other treatment. Professor Kittredge is chiefly interested in English witchcraft as it
relates itself to witchcraft in New England, but his work contains much that is fresh about the belief in
England. As to the rôle and the importance of various actors in the drama and as to sundry minor matters, the
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