Doubt, Decency, and the History of English Witchcraft

Legal History Miscellany

Posted by Krista J. Kesselring, 26 July 2022.

Some myths about the past float entirely free of the evidence, but some have just enough grounding in the documentary record to be particularly persistent. Witchcraft is mired with myths of both sorts. Historians repeatedly and seemingly in vain point out that the phenomenon of ‘witch hunting’ was not so much medieval as early modern – it corresponded with the age of Shakespeare and early science more so than the supposedly superstitious or saintly Middle Ages. They note that much of the energy behind the fears and trials came from educated, elite commentators not some uneducated, illiterate rabble, and from secular authorities, physicians, and lawyers at least as often as from churchmen. (King James VI/I’s witch-treatise Daemonologie, first published in 1597, is a prime example.) While patriarchy pervaded the proceedings – the majority of the condemned in England as in many…

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