Ergotism & Witchcraft Hysteria in England During the Middle Ages
This paper looks at the witchcraft problems faced in England during the Middle Ages and the arguments used by Macfarlane in his book and also those used by Caporael on the possible reason for hallucinogenic properties of ergotism. Discussing the Salem witch-trials as an example and also the trial of England with particular reference to the region of Essex. Bibliography cites five references.
Ergotism and Witchcraft
Man has always needed an excuse for unnatural occurrences and death, one of the easiest excuses to arise was that of the accusation of witchcraft, the persecution of witches has been seen as one of the most horrific events in history, known as the "burning times."
European witchcraft emerged only at the end of the Middle Ages, the great witch craze occurred during the renaissance, reformation and ended at the end of the 18th century. During these periods at least 100,000 men, women, children and animals were tortured and burnt as witches.
However, although this period of persecution of witches was known as the burning times, there were no witches burnt in England or during the famous Salem Witch craze, all offenders found guilty during this time were either imprisoned for a period or hanged.
It has been argued that the reason for so many accusations of witchcraft arose from the failure of crops, unnatural deaths or illnesses and in the majority of cases being old or looking at someone the wrong way and talking to a pet. These instances and many more illustrate how superstitious our ancestors were.
However, there are many arguments that now show that many of the unnatural deaths and occurrences were not so much as unnatural but unexplained by medicine at the time.
Macfarlane argues that the increase in prosecutions of witches cannot be a mere happenstance, moreover he suggests that even with the sudden rise in deaths and illnesses that occurs between the years 1560 and 1650 there has to be a better explanation than a simple lack of medical knowledge rather he suggest that witchcraft was the main cause of such attacks (Macfarlane, 1991).
However he does not deny that these illnesses could have happened without the lack of medical knowledge yet he does seem rather interested in not debunking the superstitious attitudes of the old world and clergy of the past rather he does not allow the ignorance of the medical profession of the past to be seen as being inadequate (Macfarlane, 1991).
By examining the records of the Parishes in the County of Essex, England in the sixteenth century, there is a comparison that is demonstrated by the known cases of witchcraft and the illnesses of the time in certain villages (Macfarlane, 1991).
With the total number of "accidents" and natural deaths there is a sizeable gap between this number which MacFarlane happily contributes to witchcraft, although he has used the records to illustrate his examples it can only be assumed that Macfarlane is not prepared to look in to the human mind and understand the nature of how man thought during those days (Macfarlane, 1991).
For example he uses the records of Little Baddow where 175 people died between the years of 1560 and 1599, allowing that the possible average infant mortality rate would have been high in those days with a possible high rate of women dying in child birth, the death of men through accidents and the average life expectancy allowing for no illnesses and accidents then the attribution of unnatural death is not such a large one (Macfarlane, 1991).
Moreover, the sixteenth century was renowned for having few complete records and parish registers to allow for a true comparative study, yet in studying the notes of the village of Hatfield Peverel we can see that there were no sudden unexplained deaths, (Macfarlane, 1991) however there were accidents for example in the year 1562 one person fell and broke his leg due to this he died, whether or not the broken leg was the main causation of his demise is neither here nor there, for without the proper medical attention the man may have gone into shock or his leg may have damaged a vein and resulted in internal bleeding, however as the result of his death was suspicious and in this instance, as with many other suspicious death, it was recorded as "death my misfortune" (Macfarlane, 1991 and Briggs, 1996).
Of all the illnesses that have been heavily associated with witchcraft, the plague is the most common, for example with the attribution of plague to witchcraft we can see that the district of Great Clacton, Essex the mortality rate was high in the years 1561-2, 1570-1, 1587-9 and in 1602, however of all these dates there was only one case of prosecution for witchcraft which occurred in 1593, arguably this lack of prosecution can easily be explained, for during these dates the laws on witchcraft were very lacking, for example an many offenders were brought to trial but few were actually prosecuted.
It must be understood that at this time in England people were ignorant of many things except what they gained from the church and authorities, the law was against witchcraft and so to should the people be, therefore with the slightest excuse of an accusation a person more often than not a woman was accused of bringing the devil into the village, for example, by the 1542 Act that is the Act made under the rule of Henry VIII, the use of witchcraft for the intent of killing and/or harming persons, destroying and wasting goods, the provocation of unlawful love, and the discovery of treasures or stolen items were all to be punished by death (if found guilty). Morgan, 1973)
From Elizabeth to James reign the persons convicted of Invocation or Conjuration of evil spirits (this was considered by the late Tudors and early Stuarts as magic most foul) were sent to the gallows. Moreover in the Home Circuit the chance of a witch being suffering the death penalty when arraigned before a regular justice very slight. Around 81 persons out of 100 escaped death by hanging, the most dangerous period for witches was between the years 1598-1607 (the last six years of Elizabeth's reign and the fist four of James'), around 41% of those indicted were sent to the gallows (Morgan, 1973).
With such figures of those being hung for witchcraft being so high in Essex and the Home counties for such a large period of time it is understandable why the folk of the village were so intent on finding witches for the devil was everywhere and no one was safe.
Sadly witches were blamed for disease no matter what form it might appear in Macfarlane is quite happy to blame witchcraft for the diseases and yet as a learned man he is guilty of overlooking true medical and botanical evidence that the twentieth century has discovered, for example he allows for the possibility of a psychosomatic belief in witchcraft and that many illnesses may have been in the mind but he is careful to sit on the fence for fear that he may contradict his arguments against witches, Macfarlane is a man who uses facts for weapons however he does not use the weapons and ammunition to gain a victory rather he loses his arguments by not being truly objective and gives a selective and subjective view with mediocrity.
Macfarlane has give his views but his evidence does not give true explaination, for example he talks of diseases and psychosomatic traumas yet he does not look for the evidence where these may arise, however if we look at Caporael and her views that witchcraft and the problems caused by the hysteria may have had an attributive factor we can understand further how the psychosomatic and diseases may have occurred.
In Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 we see an example of yet another witch-craze, this time instead of a mass country wide hysteria it has become a localized case of children accusing adults. Before the trials in 1692 there was only five executions for the charge of witchcraft, however once the trials began many more innocent people were to suffer death by hanging or imprisonment.
The events began when the children in the parries household were experiencing strange "distempers" these included fits, odd postures and disorderly speech, physicians seemed baffled by the problems until one gave the suggestion that they might be bewitched.
From this moment the madness would reign in Salem for some time, Tituba was accused of witchcraft by the girls along with two other elderly women, the women were taken into custody but the young girls continued to be affected with the distempers, more accusations followed. The first convictions took place on the 2nd June with the condemned being hanged for witchcraft on the 10th June 1692, the trials lasted until 17th September 1692 when the Court of Oyer and Terminer adjourned the hearings until…