Ritual Acts and Artefacts of Witchcraft

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Chapter 4
Ritual Acts and Artefacts of Witchcraft

Analytically, physical evidence is a sub-category of circumstantial evidence – guilt is logically inferred from the physical traces. Yet, in practice, physical evidence enjoys a preferable status, perhaps because presumably it cannot lie. Proving a crime by direct evidence is seemingly a straightforward, non-problematic issue. This concept is misleading, however, as is demonstrated by the diversity of attitudes toward direct evidence in witchcraft cases. Direct evidence can be either physical evidence or testimony about overt acts that were perceived by the witnesses. A demon captured at the suspect’s house and brought to court could have been most significant direct evidence. A reliable witness who had actually seen the suspect flying through the air or transforming her shape into that of a toad would have been valuable. Such evidence, however, was not forthcoming. The vacuum left in the absence of direct evidence was creatively filled by evidentiary techniques that had the facade of physical or direct evidence. A closer look reveals, however, that what was considered physical evidence was hardly as direct as one would expect.

The anti-witchcraft laws of 1542 and 1563 prohibited the invocation and conjuring of spirits but concentrated on maleficia. The act of 1604 extended the prohibition to any sort of communication with ‘wicked spirits’. Bewitchment could occur without any external means by the power of the mind alone. However, in some cases, malefic rituals were the instruments of bewitchment. The recital of charms, drawing of a circle1 or use of wax figures were behaviours that could be seen, heard or even smelled.2 These overt acts, ‘witches’ deeds’, as Bernard named them, constituted the crime, and no further proof was necessary.3 Artefacts such as ‘Figures, Characters, Spells, Ligatures, Circles, Numbers, Barberismes, Images of wax or clay, Crystalls, looking-glasses, Basons of waters, herbs, powders, unguents, sawes, knives, pins, needles, Candles, rings, garters, gloves, &C …’4 could be submitted as evidence.

Among those witches’ deeds, the most common practice was the destruction, cutting or piercing of images or belongings representing the victim to inflict pain or even kill. Bernard called these images ‘pictures’ and ‘hellish compositions’, and considered them proof of the crime.5 The first anti-witchcraft law specifically designated as forbidden overt acts of sorcery such as ‘dyvers Images and pictures of men women childrene Angelles or develles beastes or fowles’.6 However, the Elizabethan and Jacobean laws used more general terms.

Although the use of ritual artefacts was prominent in popular witchcraft belief, it was barely considered by the learned writers of the major legal and theological tracts on the subject of the discovery of witchcraft, Bernard excepted. Medical and theological writers such as Perkins, Gaule, Cotta and Cooper did not elaborate much on ritual artefacts when discussing and evaluating evidentiary techniques. They were evidently aware of the malefic use of figures.7 Scot, with whose writing they were all familiar, mentioned the practice as early as 1584.8 It is also unlikely that they failed to discuss the evidentiary potential of the images because of their rarity.9 They discussed far less known methods of proof such as ‘long eyes’10 or ‘sieve and shears’.11 Perhaps the reason for not including sorcery artefacts in their lists of evidential techniques was that it was obvious to them that these objects provided direct evidence.12

Yet, the notion that possession of ritual artefacts per se constituted witchcraft was not obvious at all. Filmer distinguished between malefic means that caused harm by nature (such as poison) and means that were not inherently injurious but necessitated the devil’s assistance (such as wax figures).13 Filmer further noted that ‘the Picture of Wax roasted by the Witch, hath no vertue in the Murdering, but the Devill only. It is necessary in the first place that it be duely proved that the party Murther’d be Murthered by the Devill, for it is a shame to bely the Devill, and it is not possible to be proved if it be Subtilely done as a spirit.’14 A similar insight that such objects carried no inherent harmful power led Perkins, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, to classify the use of figures as a charm.15 Thus, evidence of wax figures was not in itself sufficient, but required proof of diabolical involvement or of the causal connection between the molestation of the figure and the victim’s ensuing death or illness.

Although the writers of learned tracts mostly disregarded the evidential potential of the clay or wax figure practice, voices coming from the lower echelons of society elaborated on it in a series of cases stretching from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.16 The artefacts in question were burned, boiled, crumbled, torn apart or pricked to achieve the desired effect. In some cases the victim was not represented by an image, but by an item that belonged to him or her, like wool from a mattress, a piece of handkerchief or a pair of gloves.17 In one instance, pain was allegedly inflicted by pricking a piece of leather.18

A case in 1606 exemplifies how villagers of Royston, in the county of Hartford, considered such evidence to be conclusive. Iohane Harrison had been suspected by her fellow villagers for a long time, but other than her ill reputation, no evidence was found against her. Eventually she was apprehended and her house searched under a search warrant. In that search a chest was opened and incriminating objects found, including bones, hair and a parchment with an anatomical sketch.19 When she was confronted with this evidence, she had no choice but to confess ‘her vtmost secret’, malevolent use of figures.20 Both the accusers and the suspect perceived the objects as ultimate proof, which made denial useless.

A very detailed description of the malefic use of figures occurs in the influential pamphlet written by Thomas Potts. Potts, a court clerk, was commissioned by the trial judges to compose the account of a case in 1612 in the Lancaster assizes, in which 19 witches were arraigned.21 The tone of the pamphlet was legal and factual; however, the rich and detailed description of the use of the figures implied the authenticity of the practice.22 It is not clear whether it was legally possible to convict solely on evidence of figure witchcraft. Two of the defendants, Anne Whittle, alias Chattox, and her daughter, Anne Redferne, were charged with killing Robert Nutter. One of the other defendants in the case, Old Demdike, implicated both of them – she testified that she had seen Chattox making the clay figures and her daughter kneading the clay beside her.23 Chattox was found guilty24 and her daughter acquitted. The author attributed the acquittal of the daughter to the jury’s leniency and the weakness of evidence, which was ‘not very pregnant’ to prove the killing of Robert.25 This assertion, made by an author who belonged to the legal profession, suggests that figure evidence alone was insufficient to prove the crime. And, indeed, an examination of the depositions shows the existence of additional evidence against the mother.26 A day after she was acquitted, Anne Redferne was arraigned again, this time for the killing of Christopher Nutter, Robert’s father. The evidence was basically the same – Old Demdike’s deposition of seeing her and her mother making figures in the image of Christopher and Robert Nutter. This time, however, Anne Redferne was convicted. The additional evidence in her case did not seem to offer much more proof than was presented the day before.27 It is possible to conclude that there was no rigid rule about the evidentiary power of figure evidence and that it was just a matter of luck, depending on the jurors’ leniency. The pamphlet was an edited narrative, and it is quite possible that Potts did not include all the evidence against the defendants.28 However, while it is doubtful that figure practice alone could have served as the sole legal basis for conviction in court, it is clear that the villagers certainly believed it to be an ultimate proof. Potts added that, in this case, ‘all men that know her affirmed, shee was more dangerous then her Mother for shee made all or most of the Pictures of Clay, that were made or found at any time’.29

The popular concept of wax and clay figures as significant evidence invaded the writings of scholars once Potts’ account was taken as a precedent. Dalton, the author of the popular manual for JPs, stated the legal situation based on evidence submitted in the Lancaster case, including ‘they haue often pictures of clay, or waxe (like a man, &c.) found in their house’.30 Cotta observed that ‘[s]ome late Writers haue obserued, that diuers Witches by such pictures, haue caused the persons thereby represented secretly to languish and consume, as was lately proued against some late famous Witches of Yorke-shire and Lancaster

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