Part one of a two part Halloween focus on the rise of witchcraft. Come and explore all things supernatural and put yourself in the right spirit for Halloween.
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Hi everyone and welcome back to Haunted History Chronicles with me your host Michelle. Well October is here and Halloween is fast approaching so I thought what better than to celebrate this than by having a two part special Halloween episode focusing on a topic that often comes up this time of year and that’s witchcraft. So in order to do that today’s first episode is going to dive deep into the history. We are going to explore the time, the place and the people to get a better understanding. Part two is going to focus on a particular witch trial. A witch trial in England that is regarding as England’s most famous. We are then going to also explore the paranormal activity that surrounds that location making it ones of England’s most haunted locations. From there, we are going to think about how that one trial would impact on future witch trials- not only in England but as far away as Salem. So, get comfortable and we can begin.
Social and historical context in the rise of witchcraft (1.49)
I think to understand what happened across England, Europe and America it’s really important to look a little closer at the superstitions and fears that could take hold back then and spread and lead to the accusation against someone being a witch. It’s very easy for us to think about this topic from the position that we are in today without understanding on a personal level what life was like. So that’s what we are going to do first explore the social and historical context and in order to do that we need to go back to around the mid 1400s onwards when the persecution of witches really began. We need the kinds of events that these people lived through and sadly died through. Events like sudden periods of weather weather for example which would lead to loss of crops and famines that would go on for several years. Many would die as a result and life was certainly very, very hard. We also need to think about the many illnesses that people would have to endure- the uncertainty and the unknown about these. Illnesses like the Black Death that would rage from country to country to country only to come back and rage again. An illness that spread and killed between 75 and 200 million people. We also need to wonder and think about how some of the strange events that took place- how that really made people feel that what they believed was happening. Events like an eclipse where the sun would disappear in the blink of an eye and the world would be plunged into darkness- how that would be viewed back then- the lack of understanding that people would have about it. They would think it was an act of God. These were times when the understanding of the natural world around them- the scientific and the medical understanding was just woefully different to what we know today. It’s human nature to try and make sense of things that we don’t understand. This is the birth of science to make connections between things, to hypothesise and come up with a conclusion. It is also reasonable to recognise that sometimes connections can be made where none simply exist. Natural disasters and diseases fuelled superstition and paranoia across Europe from the 1400s to about 1750. This superstition, this fear would sadly mean approximately 40,000 people accused of witchcraft and executed. These didn’t all happen at once but they would happen in clusters every few decades and usually were preceded by somE event happening that would lead to fear and uncertainty. If we put that into the context of today with what’s happening in the world with covid we can also see similarities. How, fear has meant sometimes accusations being made against others out of uncertainty and out of not knowing and wanting to find blame for something. We see that very clearly when we think of some of the things that have been said about a country like China for example. We also need to think as part of this climate back then about how religion and religious beliefs and the tensions could also play a part too. Europe for example was mostly Catholic. England by this time was moving towards Protestantism. These different religions would not only shape how someone would be found guilty and the process of finding someone guilty but then also what would happen to them at that point in terms of their execution. The Pope had decreed that witchcraft was so heinous an act against God- it was sorcery, and so therefore it was something that fell outside of the judicial system. That meant no trial. It meant routing out a witch through torture was now accepted because God wasn’t going to allow someone innocent to suffer. It meant if you were accused and you professed your innocence to prove your innocence you would have to endure torture and to endure execution because like I said God wasn’t going to find you guilty if you hadn’t done anything wrong. For someone accused in England where the religion was more favouring Protestantism finding a witch guilty was done through a trial and the act itself after that was not burning at the stake which was heavily favoured by a Catholics and Catholic countries but was instead hanging. Religion wet much further than this though. Not only did it create differences in how people were treated through the trial and the execution process but it also helped fuel deeper superstitions and doubt and fear because if you were the minority religion we know that just like in other examples of history if you’re different, if your not in the majority, that often this can lead to quite dark implications. This is something that played out heavily in England where Protestantism was now the favoured faith but that didn’t mean that Catholics had gone away. It was easy leap to go from viewing someone as being different, not following the true religion, to being immoral because they weren’t following the true religion and to them having been led astray because they weren’t following the true religion, to being superstitious about them and what they were doing. To feel that they were weak and vulnerable, vulnerable to the dark arts, vulnerable to the Devil and therefore vulnerable to witchcraft. It was a very dangerous time therefore because if you were different, if your religious choice was different, then this could mean you being accused of being a witch. There is one more key contextual event that took place and that would be King James I who became King of England and Ireland after the death of Elizabeth I. Now, England before this had seen many witchtrials but James I played a really important part in really fuelling this need to route out a witch. He was a man riddled with his own religious demons. He was fearful of Catholicism because of the things that he’d endured as a young child in Scotland. It meant he’d been raised to be incredibly fearful of a Catholics, he’d gone through many different plots to kill him including the very well known Gunpowder Plot and he’d also developed this real interest in witchcraft and all things of the dark arts. So much so that he actually wrote his own book called Daemonolgie in 1597 and in this book he would cover topics like vampires and wearwolves and Satanism but he also covered the topic of withcraft. And he did two things - he made explicit how to spot and identify a witch- and he also went into great detail how to conduct a trial on how to discover their innocence or guilt. In his book Daemonolgie he made it very clear that witches were usually women, that they would often have a familiar and they would have some kind of mark on their body usually. He spoke about the types of words they might use, phrases, incantations, curses. Now when we think of curses and witches we think of spells, we think of cauldrons and someone around a cauldron creating a potion and putting words together to form their spell- their curse. In reality though these words, these curses, could simply be swearing, profanities, or simply mumbling. Mumbling something inaudible, mumbling an ill wish against someone. All of these were incredibly dangerous and could lead to someone accused of witchcraft. Now, if we just really think and understand the types of events that might cause this type of accusation we can really see how dangerous it was. For example if you were short sighted, if you needed to squint because you couldn’t see very well and didn’t have spectacles. If you were staring at someone as a result because you had difficulty seeing and you just happened to be mumbling away under your breath talking to yourself. Maybe you were thinking about what you were going to be making for dinner that evening, maybe you were creating a list of all the jobs you needed to get done in your head out loud. If you were seen to be doing that around someone who that day, that month, that year became sick then that could be brought back to you that person squinting and mumbling and talking away to the self. That could lead to that person being accused of being a witch. It meant that it was incredibly dangerous time to fault out with your neighbour and have angry words with them. To have angry words with anyone. It meant it was incredibly dangerous to be seen in the vicinity of crops and animals that would suddenly stop producing milk or growing. James I had made it both an edict to find the witches amongst them but to also find the heretics, the Catholics, hidden amongst them to route them out. To find both these people guilty, to find all the sources of sin hiding amongst them. All it would take were accusations or superstitions or bad blood. All it could take was if you owned a cat. He had made it so much easier to execute people and that’s exactly what happened. One small incident could become something much more explosive. Fear could really take hold and spread. As soon as one accusation can be made others usually follow. These were the dark times and these were the things that would cause the rise of witchcraft.
Diving deeper (15.15)
So we’ve just finished some of the key things that really played a part in witchcraft. Superstition because of natural events, phenomena , illnesses. We’ve thought about key people like James I and how much the impact the mind of one person could have on a nation and groups of people. And we’ve also thought about religion and how those superstitions, being different, could also lead to a finger being pointed and the term witch being used. I’ve tried to anticipate some of the questions you might around some of these areas and to think about why this happened. Why these were important and I thin’ to start of with the question of why women were pointed as being more likely to be a witch is very much something that would come up. Unfortunately the answer is actually a simple one and that is that women back then we’re regarded we being weaker... weaker physically, weaker emotionally certainly and weaker intellectually. Being weak would make them more vulnerable and being more vulnerable would mean they were more likely to be tempted by Satan, to be influenced by him and to be affected by him. I think another question to come out of what we’ve discussed so far in the podcast is why familiars? Why was having a cat or a pet of any kind really something suspicious? Well, three different parts to this. Cats themselves had featured in many different mythologies. Pilgrims for example had found them to be very bad. If we think about the Celtic mythology we see faeries turning into the form of a black cat. Cats just in general were considered bad they were considered something suspicious but there was something slightly more to it than that too. And that is that back then when life was hard, when you were living day to day, often these much poorer communities where feeding yourself and feeding your families was hard enough - owning a pet of any kind was actually really very unusual. Animals were to be reared they were to be used for sustenance, to help with labour, for producing things. They weren’t pets and to therefore to have strays around you that you would be looking after or to have animals as pets where you were feeding them where they weren’t serving any purpose was very strange - it was totally illogical for the majority so therefore a little bit superstitious. Now, we might think why are these different superstitions so important? How on earth could they believe in these things the way that they did? How could they let these irrational fears make them do these incredibly weird and strange things that we can’t understand today? Well, if you’ve ever sneezed and said bless you and put your hand over your mouth. If you’ve ever avoided walking under a ladder then you too have done something fairly irrational because of superstition. When we sneeze today and cover our mouth yes our reasons are for hygiene but why say bless you. It actually stems not from trying to stop the spread of illnesses but to stop the Devil from entering your mouth. You would cover it in order to prevent the Devil from going into that opening. Saying bless you was for the same reason - it was to ‘bless you’ so you would be safe from sin and from the Devil. Avoiding a ladder to prevent you from getting back luck - no it stems from the wooden frame of the gallows- where people would be hung. These superstitions are as embedded with us today as they were back then. Irrational in many cases but we do them. These are things that become engrained in our culture, engrained in our psyche and these same superstitions would be fuelled back then and when they are believed by the majority it is to have them keep rolling out, and rolling out and rolling out and people not questioning them. So I guess an important question to ask you and for you to think about right now is who in your circle of friends or family might have been considered a witch if they were to have lived a few centuries ago. If you think about your friends, your family, your neighbours, those who are interested in healing... maybe they use aromatherapy, maybe they are healers themselves- nurses for example who go and help treat the sick. Maybe you know someone who owns a pet- a cat for example. Or someone with a birthmark. What about your neighbour when they go out to work in the morning are talking to themselves, getting ready for their workday. What about when you’re stuck in traffic and you’re getting progressively angry because of the length of time you are sat waiting and you’re in your car behind the steering wheel and mumbling away and getting angrier and shouting profanities at the cars in front of you that aren’t moving quickly enough. I wonder if that would have meant that you would have been thought of, and your neighbour and your friend, been considered a witch? To finish I just want us to think about how embedded witchcraft really has become. How populated it is across our different cultures- not just here in England but in other cultures. If we think about the Navajo people for example and their belief in skinwalkers which are just a different form of witchcraft and a witch. People who wear the skin of an animal to go out at night to conduct their magic and their sorcery. These are just a different form of a witch. Witches have interested us for centuries and if that’s something difficult for us to understand and to believe then we don’t have to go any further than thinking about how that influence, that interest really impacted on someone like King James I who as I mentioned in this podcast really helped push England to routing out these people. His interest inspired a nation to do exactly as he asked them to do. Is this no different to life today? With someone’s mind like J.K Rowling who created this world of Wizards and Muggles and spells and jumping frogs. Her mind inspired a whole globe to get dressed up, to have wands, to go out and buy the different flavoured sweets- the jelly beans. It was her mind that had people devouring every single book, seeing every single one of her films inspired by the book. Her mind enthused people around this topic just as it did centuries ago with a different mind. Witches and witchcraft capture our imagination as much today as it did back then.
We’re going to finish there and I just want to say a huge thank you for listening. I really hope you’ll join us in the next podcast where as I mentioned at the start we are going to be exploring a very famous witch trial and the paranormal activity that surrounds that location. It really is a fantastic place and a fantastic trial to examine so I think you’re going to find that one interesting and especially when you see the connection it has with other witch trials- it’s just staggering. I just want to also say that having you along this journey with me is brilliant and I’d love to hear your questions and your thoughts and your comments. You can do this in a variety of different ways. There are the different social media links that you should see attached to the website that accompanies the podcast but there is also a feature that should appear at the bottom of every episode which allows you to send directly to me a digitally recorded message- it might be a question, a comment, an observation, something you want to say about the current episode, a future episode or even just something in general that you’d like me to cover at a further date. These are things that I can use directly in episodes so I might be able to use them and drop them in and play them and answer them. I might be able to use them to help shape future content and if you’re brave enough maybe we could them to have you come on and take part in a show at a later date. Please don’t think that I don’t want to hear what you have to say - I’d love to have your thoughts, your opinions. Be part of this with me. So I hope you take advantage of those different features and get in touch. So I’m going to say goodbye until next time and I will see you in the next one. Bye everyone.