Mysterious America

Witchcraft in England and Colonial America

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. As a cultural history, I discuss how beliefs migrated from various parts of the world, most notably England (since the majority of Illinois pioneers were English or Scots-Irish). Order it today on or

American society incubated during a time of great social and political upheaval in England. Protestants and Catholics, Parliamentarians and Royalists, alchemists and natural philosophers all fought over the hearts and minds of their fellow Englishmen. It was dissenters seeking to purify the Church of England from Catholic influence (Puritans) who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The social rifts that chased the Pilgrims to America led to a series of civil wars in England between 1641 and 1651, which climaxed in the beheading of King Charles I on January 30, 1649.

At the beginning of those wars, most clergy and commoners embraced a fundamentally supernatural worldview. They believed invisible forces could and did influence their lives. Charms and conjurations, though against the law, were regularly used in rural England. Witches were people who, with the help of the devil, manipulated the natural world to wreak havoc on the social and natural order. They used maleficium (malevolent or harmful magic) to spread blight and disease, poison food and kill livestock, all with the aid of occult powers.

By 1640, English elites were increasingly skeptical of the existence of magic and witchcraft. The days of Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum (1487) were long gone. Keith Thomas, in Religion and the Decline of Magic, argued that a growing number of mostly Protestant elites, during the seventeenth century in particular, rejected the idea that the devil could influence people, let alone grant them occult power.

Pamphleteers and so-called “witch finders” like shipping clerk-turned-amateur prosecutor Matthew Hopkins found themselves on the defensive, and they began producing accounts of witchcraft in order to convince their contemporaries of its reality. Sensationalism and profit also drove the printing presses to churn out lurid accounts of trials and alleged liaisons with the devil. Witchcraft in seventeenth century England had become, essentially, a folk culture that both frustrated and fascinated the ruling elites, and those elites manipulated that culture for their own ends.

Hollywood and contemporary popular culture has distorted the nature of witchcraft in this period. According to historians Barry Reay and Alan Macfarlane, witchcraft accusations resulted from a breakdown in neighborly relations, not religious persecution or the deliberate suppression of an ancient nature religion. Violence and legal action usually occurred only after a long series of confrontations, and only after several other recourses had failed.

Reay suggested a lopsided power play was at work, in which the accused cultivated the witch persona to empower themselves against their neighbors, only running afoul of the law after decades of activity. Most witchcraft allegations “emerged from a context of household and neighborhood intervention, and from the inevitable frictions of community life.”[ii] Robin Briggs, in his book Witches & Neighbors, went so far as to argue that witch beliefs in England were largely tolerated among the common folk, and that courts acted with caution and restraint in the face of the fantastic evidence presented to them.

By the seventeenth century, men sold thousands of pages of ballads and stories from street corners, shops, and taverns. In London workshops, a designated reader recited the latest news to her fellow spinners and weavers while they attended their craft. In taverns across England, men drank and sang the latest ballads off broadsides. Graphic woodcuts illustrated the text, and the lyrics, though telling a different tale each time, were usually sung to familiar tunes. Witchcraft was often the subject of this popular literature, and it reveals much about English attitudes toward maleficium and its practitioners.

How did English attitudes and beliefs regarding witchcraft influence Illinois pioneers? Order Witchcraft in Illinois to learn more!

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