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9 - Witchcraft and Neighbourliness in Early Modern England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 May 2013

Malcolm Gaskill
Affiliation:
University of East Anglia
Steve Hindle
Affiliation:
Foundation Director of Research at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Alexandra Shepard
Affiliation:
Reader in History, University of Glasgow
John Walter
Affiliation:
Professor of History, University of Essex
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Summary

The history of witchcraft as a crime in England maps roughly onto the early modern period as a whole. Exactly how many suspected witches were prosecuted between 1542 and 1736 is unknown; we can only extrapolate from where records are most complete. An estimated 1,000 trials, spread over two centuries and 9,000 parishes, suggests that it would have been rare to experience one directly. Some places, notably in Essex, indicted scores of witches; many more did not. Despite the persistent notion that villagers routinely used accusations to explain misfortunes and attack enemies, the numbers speak for themselves. Perhaps, then, witchcraft has attracted more attention than it deserves. And yet it is justified as a historical subject by more than quantification alone. Case-studies have revealed fine details of social activity and change: the interplay of learned and plebeian ideas, shifting attitudes to gender, popular legal activity, and so on. Witchcraft has been profitably studied from above as ideology and policy; from below as an expression of socio-economic conflict; and from within as a spyhole on early modern subjectivity, fantasy and psychological meaning. It is a point of entry, not an end in itself.

Unanswered questions nonetheless remain. The political dimension in local society deserves more attention: how did particular personalities and affiliations permit (or inhibit) the development of suspicions into accusations? Fresh connections might also be made by historians of medicine, law and art, likewise by theologians and philologists.

Type
Chapter
Information
Remaking English Society
Social Relations and Social Change in Early Modern England
, pp. 211 - 232
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2013

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