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Chapter 6

English witchcraft literature abounds with narratives of imps or familiars, devils or demons in animal form who assist the witch in evildoings. The evil spirits could be transformed into domestic animals such as cats1 and dogs,2 other animals such as toads,3 rats4 and ferrets,5 and even insects such as bees or flies.6 Documented instances of belief in animal-shaped demons date as early as the fourteenth century, yet the origins of the familiar folklore remain vague.7 Witches often treated their animal accomplices as pets, naming them,8 feeding them9 and padding their sleeping spot.10 Less often, the evil spirits took the shape of boys11 or men (usually described as black).12 In the likeness of a man, the devil was sometimes ugly13 and sometimes an elegant gentleman14 who appeared even ‘in the likeness of a lawyer’ or ‘in the perfect shape of a Bishop’.15 The human appearance was not always perfect, and sometimes the devilish identity was revealed by a pair of horns on the head,16 ‘whorce’17 or ‘hollow voice’,18 chilling touch19 or cloven feet.20 Pico della Mirandola observed that ‘the Devil can create a nearly perfect facsimile of the human body but never can get the feet to come out right: God makes the feet come out inversos et praeposteros so that the people will know that they are human’.21

The intimacy between the witch and the imp was sometimes manifested by suckling of blood22 or sexual contact.23 The imps attended the witches on evil errands, executing their malefic plans, harming cattle24 and even injuring and killing neighbours.25 The imps were a distinct English cultural concept. Although it was also believed that spirits could assume human shape, and there are some accounts of sexual contact between the witch and her imps, the dominant cultural image of the imps was of demonic animal companions. This was very different from the Continental perception that concentrated on incubi and succubi, devils that assumed the shape of men and women, seduced humans and copulated with them as part of their initiation into witchcraft.26

By the act of 1604, to ‘consult covenant with entertaine employ feed or rewarde any evill and wicked Spirit to or for any intent or purpose’ was prohibited. The evil spirits, the English widely believed, were transformed into concrete physical forms. Presenting the demons in court as direct physical evidence could have been conclusive,27 but there is no explanation why these hellish pets were never produced. On the Continent, during the same era of witch trials, trials against animals were conducted under both secular and ecclesiastical jurisdiction.28 Despite the affinity between the animal trials and demonism, familiars were not brought to court as evidence in witch trials. The centrality of the imps in the English belief system notwithstanding, and despite the availability of the Continental model of trials of animals, imp narratives were delivered through testimonies only. Rosen noted that their beds and feeding dishes were solemnly produced, but the animals themselves always ‘vanished away’.29

It was their elusive quality, Stephens suggested, that made the existence of imps irrefutable. Production of imps in court carried the risk of sceptical scorn and denial of any differences between them and regular animals, whereas ‘any absence could be proposed as proof that a demon had once been present’.30 Stephens’ explanation, however, disregarded the fact that the devil’s mark, evidence with similar probative difficulty, was widely used. Therefore, the question of why imps were not used as evidence remains. Perhaps the reason lay in a theological predicament. Had a real animal been brought to court, it would have implied that the devil had the power to create life, a power equal to that of God. Such a blasphemous insinuation was an intolerable contradiction of the Christian faith.31 Therefore, considering the familiars to be mere illusory displays was theologically convenient. The author of a pamphlet published in 1612 emphasized:

Deuils in their owne nature haue no bodily shape nor visible forme, it is moreouer against the Truth and against Piety to beléeue, that Deuils can create, or make bodies or change one body into another, for those things are proper to God.

It followeth therefore that whensoeuer they appeare in a visible form, it is no more but an apparition and counterfeit sh[o]w of a body, vnlesse a body be at any time lent them.32

In 1645 a pamphleteer explained that the imps were pure spirits, and, as such, ‘cannot be seen by any bodily eye, or be deprehended by any outward sense’. However, ‘as they do mix themselues with bodily substances’, they can be perceived by the senses.33

Sometimes, it was believed, the spirits never assumed bodies, but remained formless entities. Such was the case of one suspect who, fearing a capital sentence, heard the voice of her spirit encouraging her to commit suicide, until ‘at last she made good the Deuils word, and to preuent the Iustice of the Law, and to saue the hangman a labour, cut her owne throat’.34

The imps’ spiritual composition enabled them to become invisible, to penetrate walls and to pay visits to their owner witches when they were being held in jail. In 1597 Alice Goodridge confessed that her familiar dog visited her at Darby jail.35 Belief in the power of familiars to penetrate walls was also at the basis of the search method employed during the 1640s, when naked suspects were positioned on stools in a closed room in expectation of their familiars. Despite the intervals of invisibility, the familiars could generally be observed, heard and touched – not just by the witch or the victim, but by any bystander. These possibilities rendered the evidence of familiars a direct and concrete link to the crime. In this respect, evidence of familiars was distinguished from spectral evidence, visions of the witch experienced by the victims either in their fits or in their dreams. Such apparitions could not be observed by other witnesses or verified. Their evidential value was therefore problematic, and even those who approved of the use of spectral evidence did not regard it as sufficient basis for conviction, but merely grounds for suspicion.36

Because the imps could allegedly be seen by all, in a few cases, suspects were instructed to summon their spirits. Elizabeth Clarke, one of Hopkins’ examinees, was asked to call her imps, and within half an hour there appeared ‘a white thing in the likeness of a Cat’.37 When Margaret Moone was asked to call her imps, she asked for bread and beer, put these in a circle and called her imps. After none appeared, she blamed her ‘Devillish Daughters’ for taking them.38 Thus, relying on the cooperation of the suspect did not produce the desired evidence of imps. In some cases, prosecutors even offered to free the accused if they could cause the familiar to appear in court, either in corporeal form or by some supernatural sign.39 The Queen’s Attorney in the case against Agnes Waterhouse in 1566 challenged her to make her familiar appear immediately and, in return, she would be released from prison. But Agnes declined, stating that she had no power over him.40 The offer to release the suspect if she could command her imps to appear was probably a trap to cause the suspect to further incriminate herself. It can only be surmised whether the Queen’s Attorney would have made such a suggestion had he genuinely believed that an imp might have been fetched.

The imps raised the same stumbling block as the devil’s mark – even if produced as evidence, it would have been impossible to accept them as proof unless a few theoretical presuppositions were accepted as well. To regard a dog as a demon, it would have to be assumed that demons could be transformed into dogs and that they could commit maleficence in the service of witches.

The literature about the distinction between natural and devil’s marks, as the previous chapter illustrated, is vast. In comparison, there are very few references to the distinction between imps and natural animals. There are a few references to killing the imps as a diagnostic method. Flesh-and-blood animals could be killed, whereas imps could not. In the trial against Anne West, the court heard testimony about a man who passed her house around four in the morning and saw four little ‘things’ in the shape of black rabbits leaping and skipping about him. Having a good stick in his hand, he struck at them, intending to kill them but failed. He then resorted to wringing the neck of one of them, but the animal managed to escape. As he knew of a spring not far off, he tried to drown it, holding it quite a while under water to no avail, as ‘it sprung out of the water up into the aire’.41 This testimony was not delivered by the man himself, but as secondhand hearsay by Sir Thomas Bowes, who affirmed in court that he had heard the story from a ‘very honest man … whom he knew would not speake an untruth’.42 Bowes’ testimony demonstrated that belief in imps did not belong exclusively to the lower classes.

Gaule believed in witchcraft but attacked popular beliefs, including the test of trying to kill the imp, as superstitious and contradictory to the Gospel,43 but further complicated the theory behind the test of killing the imp. He agreed that it was impossible to kill imps, as they were spirits made of air. However, he maintained that real animals, which were killable, could also be possessed by the spirit of the devil. Gaule supported the argument by saying that he heard witches confess that their dog or cat committed mischief against its will.44

Gaule was critical of the practices of witch hunters and suggested that, concerning imps, they should consider the following questions:

Whether all Witches have their Imps or deale with Familiars? Whether a visible Impe be given upon an Invisible Compact? Whether the Impe workes as the Witches, or at the Devills Command or Instigation? How can a Familiar or Impe be discerned, if it never did any thing, but what (by nature, or Art) a Creature of that same kind, may stand in a Capacity to do? Who can flatly atest w[i]th a good Conscience, that this or that Dog, Rat, Mouse, &c. is the Witches Imp or Familiar?45

Gaule’s discussion was rather exceptional. Most theologians did not confront the topic of imps directly. Perkins steered away from knotty complications and discussed the validity of 18 signs for the discovery of witchcraft. As already mentioned, he regarded the devil’s mark as a presumption that warranted no more than examination. Perkins regarded only two proofs to be valid for conviction. One was the confession of the suspect, and the other was the testimony of two witnesses ‘of good and honest report’ deposing before the magistrate under oath and from their own knowledge either about known witchcraft practices of the suspect or about a league between the devil and the suspect. Perkins gave three instances of such testimony, including whether the suspect had contact with a familiar spirit in the likeness of a mouse, cat or some other visible creature,46 and considered it good enough for conviction. He did not explain how this argument was compatible with the caution he showed toward the devil’s mark, which was the imps’ sucking spot. He also did not address the difficulty of discerning between real animals and imps or the other theological problems mentioned above.

Unlike identifying the devil’s mark, distinguishing natural from diabolic animals never became accepted expertise in England or on the Continent. Hopkins himself was reputed to own a greyhound.47 Although he refined the discovery of devil’s marks to an intricate skill, he offered no method of distinguishing imps from natural pets.

Without a means of distinguishing imps from natural animals, many things could be considered proof. The ‘likeness of a rat’ passing the suspect’s jail cell in the dead of night was not a sign of bad hygiene, but rather of an imp.48 The constant muttering of another suspect to herself indicated conversations with familiars and spirits.49 The tortured postures of suspects stripped naked and positioned on stools for two or three days by Hopkins and Stearne signified that the imps had come to suck them.50 The sceptical Hutchinson described testimony in a case in 1694 in which the witnesses testified about noticing a black and a white imp when peering through the suspect’s window at night: ‘the white imp believed to have been a Lock of Wool, taken out of her Basket to spin; and its Shadow, it is supposed, was the black one.’51 Not bringing imps to court might have been the result of an additional theological misgiving – if these creatures were an embodiment of the devil, how was it possible to trust them as witnesses or evidence? In Hutchinson’s words:

Even good Spirits are no legal Evidence in our Courts. What Credit then can we give to the Devil’s Words or Actions; or to the Words or Actions of those that are acted by him?52

Beliefs in familiars were popular in England well before anti-witchcraft statutes.53 Ewen referred to a case in Yorkshire in 1510 in which familiars in the shape of bees sucked blood from John Steward, their owner.54 Akin to the development of the devil’s mark concept, the popular belief in imps was incorporated into the demonological concept, and imps were regarded as creatures given to the witch by the devil on bringing the covenant to a close.55

Joan Cunny, under examination, told about the initiation of the covenant with two spirits in the similitude of two black frogs. After she knelt in a circle she had made and said a prayer to invoke Satan, as she had been taught, the spirits (that she later named Jack and Jill) appeared and promised to render any service in return for her soul.56 Old Demdike confessed that she had given her soul to a spirit in the shape of a boy who promised that in return ‘she should have any thing that she would request’.57

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