To What Extent Did Superstition Or Other Factors Influence The Convictions Of Essex Witches

Victoria Hulford

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A record from the Quarter Sessions courts of 1587, shows more clearly how people's accusations resulting from their superstitions and beliefs could end in a person being taken to court for witchcraft. The records state that John Smyth;

"being a common enchanter and charmer as well of men as of beasts and other things, and exercising devilish and wicked arts, charms and enchantments, not having god before his eyes but seduced by a diabolical instigation, for devilishly and wickedly charming and enchanting of his malice aforethought one cow belonging to Francis Simon of stow"Morrys", husbandman, at the same, by reason of which charm and enchentment the aforesaid cow died."

This extract from a Quarter Sessions court cases reliably shows us that the accuser believed John Smyth to have been 'seduced by a diabolical instigation' and that he charmed a cow so that it died. Common sense would tell people today that it is not possible to cast a spell or charm an animal to die through magic, but in Tudor and Stuart times, people strongly believed that a person with magic powers could easily enchant a person or animal and therefore cause their death.

It has also often been said that people accused those they knew of being witches just because of the simple fact that they didn't like them or had recently had an argument/disagreement with them. A contemporary of the time, a man named George Clifford, who was a nonconformist minister in the Essex town of Maldon wrote two books on Essex witches and d the trials concerning them. He was no lover of witches, but was quite certain from the evidence that he saw at the time, that those who were being punished as witches were not witches at all. He describes the victims as being often "religious and godly" and he charged their accusers with bearing false witness against them. He also wrote in one of his books that: "Experience teaches how some are judging people upon surmise....and the fear of witches causes them to be credulous. Many go so far as to entice children to accuse their parents and they think it is a good work."

Another factor which could have affected the amount of people who were convicted of witchcraft is the state of the economy during the 16th and 17th centuries. There was a large wealth distinction between the upper and lower classes during this period, with growing pressure on economic resources leading to increasing tensions and hatred towards the old and the poor, who coincidentally were usually the victims of witchcraft allegations. During Tudor times there were also problem with vagrants, people who were homeless and looking for work. Because these people usually travelled around to look for their work, they came into villages as unknown faces, and people found it easy to blame them for things that went wrong in the village after they arrived. Because of this, they were often victims of witchcraft accusations.

In the majority of cases, witches seem to have been poorer than their victims. It is possible that those families seen to be declining in wealth would be feared as witches, for people of the time viewed this as motive enough to cast spells and curses on those more fortunate and prosperous. According to Alan Macfarlane in his book 'Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England', evidence at village level in Essex suggests that victims came from more prosperous and higher class families than the people accused of bewitching them. According to Macfarlane, it was not necessarily the poorest person in the village that was accused of being a witch, but usually the moderately poor. Macfarlane states that it appears to have been among the middle and upper ranks of village society that witchcraft accusations arose, not in the lowest ranks of village life as most people assume.

In his book, Macfarlane tells us that during the last five years of the 16th century there was a minor economic crisis in parts of Essex#. If economic problems are linked to the number of witchcraft accusations made, then we would expect to find that witchcraft accusations rose during this period, as it is probable that as people's harvests failed, and prices for crops rose, they would blame the local witch for casting a spell on them. Generally though, during the last part of the 16th century, witchcraft accusations in Essex appear to have been lower.

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