from Public Domain Review
The publishing revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed an explosion of printed material, democratising information and pushing it into the hands and sight of more people than ever before. A large single sheet of cheap paper could be printed with a proclamation, adorned with a woodcut, and sent out among the masses. These broadsides were sold for a penny on street corners, pasted on ale-house walls, and stuck up on market posts.
One of the earliest and most notorious British witchcraft pamphlets was published in 1579:
The folkloric image of the crone was established through these images and repeated in similar pamphlets over the next century. These witches were usually bitter old women, who lived on their own, and kept cats or other animals as pets. The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, Daughters of Joan Flower neere Beuer Castle (1619) and A Most Certain, Strange and True Discovery of a Witch (1643) are particularly famous examples that reinforced this archetype. Latent sexism and fear of those who lived on the fringe of society doubtless motivated much of this persecution. The latter pamphlet manages to mix sexism with scorn by doubting that women are even capable of performing the same sorcery that certain men have achieved:
In 1589, King James VI of Scotland sailed to Copenhagen to marry Princess Anne of Denmark. The return journey was troubled by bad weather and during their voyage to Scotland terrible storms forced the ship to seek shelter in Norway. The voyage was finally completed safely, but all involved were suitably rattled. In a stunning series of events, Danish courtiers subsequently accused women of sabotaging the journey using magic, prompting witchcraft trials first in Denmark and later, when James decided to follow suit, in North Berwick, Scotland. Several Scottish nobles were implicated and the seething jealousies and suspicions of two Royal houses bubbled into further accusations on both sides of the North Sea. King James grew paranoid that his life was in danger from witches, personally examined those on trial, and caused over a hundred people to be arrested. A 1591 pamphlet, Newes from Scotland, Declaring the Damnable Life of Doctor Fian, a Notable Sorcerer, who was Burned at Edenbrough in Januarie Last, 1591, chronicled the sensational trials and featured two illustrations with a number of interesting details.
In 1592, the playwright and stationer Henry Chettle described how ballads “infected London the eie of England”, then travelled through the country via ballad-mongers, who could “spred more pamphlets by the State forbidden than all the Booksellers in London”.
1 There was a hunger (then as now) for tales of sex and scandal and, for the first time, a network of illustrators, printers, and distributors were able to glut this desire. The Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton referred to ballads as “fashions, fictions, felonies, fooleries”.
2 Cheap print was the medium of the masses, and the crude woodcuts were the visual language of Early Modern England.
This revolution in publishing coincided with what has been termed “the European witch-craze”: a moral panic and collective psychosis that spread through Europe and Scandinavia during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The seed of this hysteria was planted in 1484 when two Dominican Inquisitors appealed to Pope Innocent VIII for permission to launch a witch hunt, and he responded by issuing a papal bull authorizing their efforts.
Two years later they published their treatise, the Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of the Witches”), which, for the first time, elevated witchcraft to the crime of heresy and justified its extermination with papal authority. Leaning heavily on the supposed papal endorsement, the Malleus Maleficarum painted a terrifying picture of witchcraft and preached the absolute necessity of vanquishing this largely unrecognised evil.
Apparently, witches were everywhere. Torture was recommended for extracting confessions, the death penalty was revealed as the only remedy against sorcery, and burning at the stake was proposed as a suitable method of execution. With one fell swoop, the persecution of witches was begun and an entire methodology was established. The book was a bestseller and strongly influenced the obsession with witchcraft for two hundred years, spreading slowly through continental Europe and then the Scandinavian countries, which became particularly obsessed with the subject.
In Britain, the witch-craze hit later, but was rewarded with numerous pamphlets and ballads devoted to salacious details of devilish mischief.
A Rehearsall both Straung and True, of Hainous and Horrible Actes Committed by Elizabeth Stile, alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Deuell, Mother Margaret, Fower Notorious Witches.
Stile was a 65-year-old widow and beggar accused of bewitching an innkeeper. The pamphlet describes her association with three other old women known as Mother Margaret, Mother Dutten and Mother Devell, as well as a man named Father Rosimunde, who could transform himself “into the shape and likenesse of any beaste whatsoever he will”. Woodcuts show these old women and several animal familiars, which they reportedly fed on their own blood.
Many are in a belief, that this silly sex of women by no means attaine to that so vile and damned a practice of sorcery and Witch-craft, in regard of their illiteratenesse and want of learning, which many men have by great learning done, Adam by temptation toucht and tasted the deceiving apple, so some high learnd & read by the same temptation that deceived him hath bin so insnared to contract with the Divel; as for example, in the instancing a few, as English Bacon of Oxford, Vandermast of Holland, Bungay of Germany, Fostus of the same, Franciscus the English Monke of Bury, Doctor Slackleach and divers others which were too tedious to relate of, but how weake women should attain unto it many are incredible of the same, and many too are opposite in opinion against the same, that giving a possibility to their doubtings, that the malice, and inveterate malice of a woman entirely devoted to her revengefull wrath frequenting desolate and desart places, and giving way unto their wished temptation, may have converse with that world roaring lion.
The primary woodcut condenses several episodes from the story into a single image.
The witches were accused of sending devils to stir up waves, and in the top left of the image, demons are seen swimming around James’ ship. In the top right, women are portrayed toiling around a cauldron, suggestive of sorcery, as they watch the fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Here we find witches and demons dancing together, wax poppets baptised by the devil, spirits leaping from a circle of flames, and a feast at the witches’ sabbath. This is an energetic and dynamic portrayal of witchcraft, much more tantalising than old women with a chip on their shoulder. Whether the authors intended it or not, they managed to make witchcraft seem rather exciting and attractive. The stories are easy, compelling reads and the images feature young men and women doing extraordinary things. There is also a clear undercurrent of eroticism running through both books. There are numerous mentions of carnal acts, lusty satyrs, undressings, drunken feasts, love spells and devilish, handsome men appearing to innocent, young maids.
After the initial witchcraft pamphlets in the late sixteenth century, the publications became increasingly stylized in the seventeenth. As King James grew more and more sceptical about the reality of witches, his kingdom slowly grew more and more paranoid. It took decades for the hysteria to subside. While the early pamphlets were based on relatively sober court records, later pamphlets took more time to describe the accused’s terrible tortures, or the wondrous miracles they had performed. By the time popular histories of witchcraft were published, sensationalism ruled and the woodcuts became more striking. In a period racked with plague, civil war, and poverty, there must have been a certain sympathy for the devil.