The Devil’s Mark

Chapter 5
The Devil’s Mark

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After Anne Bodenham became a witchcraft suspect in 1653, a panel of women was appointed to search her body.1 At her trial, these women testified that the 80-year-old defendant ‘had … the marks of an absolute Witch, having a Teat about the length and bignesse of the Nipple of a womans breast, and hollow and soft as a Nipple, with a hole on the top of it, on her left shoulder, and another likewise was found in her secret places, like the former on her shoulder’. A pamphlet describing the case commented on this evidence: ‘for which she was arraigned and condemned to be hang’d’.2

The search for such marks relied on a mixture of popular and learned theological ideas and was typical of English witchcraft cases. The women who examined the body of Anne Bodenham were looking for the ‘devil’s marks’, allegedly imprinted by the devil on the bodies of his human accomplices. The belief was that the devil branded the bodies of witches with symbolic yet concrete corporeal malformations such as marks and growths. The mark was tangible, ostensible and also, according to contemporary theory, insensitive to pain.3 These traits made the mark subject to search and pricking, two techniques employed in the quest for physical evidence of witchcraft. The devil’s marks were an example of physical evidence that could help ‘discover witches’, as the contemporary expression put it. Conceivably the early modern forensic equivalent of today’s fingerprints, these marks were traces that directly proved the suspect’s guilt without depending on possibly untruthful witnesses.

During her trial for witchcraft in 1566, Agnes Waterhouse denied having allowed her cat, Sathan, to suck her blood. Subsequently, her kerchief was removed, exposing visible spots on her face and nose to the judges. Unfavourable conclusions were drawn, and after the queen’s attorney had asked Agnes when her blood was last sucked, she incriminated herself by saying ‘not this fortnyght’.4 This court demonstration is an early example of the evidential potential of suspicious ‘spots’.

The comprehensive bodily search was a later development. The earliest documentation of such a search relates to a case in 1579, in which a Southampton leet jury demanded that the suspect be searched.5 At that time the search was not yet used on a regular basis. Other cases from the same year also made use of evidence of suspicious marks. These, however, were not discovered through a search, but confessed to by the suspects.6 Toward the 1630s the search became quite routine.7 It was most extensively used during the East Anglia Hopkins trials of 1645–47 and continued to be used after this exceptional episode as well, although the number of documented instances decreased correspondingly with the decline in witchcraft prosecution. The last known search occurred in Jane Wenham’s case in 1712, which was also the last known case of conviction of witchcraft.8

Learned and Popular Concepts of the Devil’s Mark

English writers of the time were familiar with the work of Continental theologians, who were the first to articulate the theory of the devil’s mark and the practical guidelines for the search, including search under the eyelids, under the armpits, on the breasts, on the roof of the mouth, in the rectum and on the genitals.9 And, indeed, primary sources attest that to find the devil’s marks, English witchcraft suspects were subjected time and again to an obtrusive bodily search. They were stripped naked and sometimes completely shaved, and every part of their bodies was thoroughly examined. The search superseded the norms of modesty and decency. The suspected men and women, in the words of the sceptical physician, John Webster, ‘were so unchristianly, unwomenly, and inhumanely handled, as to be stript stark naked, and to be laid upon Tables and Beds to be searched (nay even in their most privy parts) for these their supposed Witch-marks: so barbarous and cruel acts doth diabolical instigation, working upon ignorance and superstition, produce’.10

Although it was not part of official English criminal procedure, the technique became highly elaborated and institutionalized. Almost invariably the search was not an expression of a spontaneous attempt at lynching, but rather a standard element of the pre-trial investigation, ordered by men of authority (mostly JPs, but sometimes the mayor or other figures of authority) and conducted according to customary practice. Around 1645, at the peak of the Hopkins witch scare, East Anglian communities and urban corporations hired witch finders. The search was used extensively, and women searchers (not officially appointed) routinely accompanied Hopkins on his journey.11 However, the practice of the search continued, even after the witch-scare episode of the 1640s, up to the early eighteenth century.

The evidential significance of the devil’s mark in early modern England emerged out of two epistemologically inconsistent sources. In high, or learned, theory, which was influenced by Continental theology, the devil often sealed a covenant with the witch by branding her body. The pact with the devil was central to the definition of witchcraft in Continental theology.12 According to this theory, the mark almost always implied a meeting with Satan himself (rather than his demons), very often involving sexual activity. The mark signified the contractual-like and consensual relationship between the witch and the devil.13 Although in England the value of the devil’s mark was mocked as early as 1584 in Reginald Scot’s influential treatise,14 and English culture emphasized the element of evil-doing (maleficium) rather than the pact as the constituent element of witchcraft, significant English writers adopted the Continental theory of the devil’s mark.15

The other source for the meaning of suspicious bodily features was the popular belief in imps and familiars, which figured prominently in English witch trials up to the early eighteenth century. The English concept of the witch’s familiar had no parallel in other European countries.16 The familiars were devils transformed into animal form that aided the witches in their malevolent missions. It was widely held that witches suckled their imps with their own blood. The indicator of such demonic suckling was either the teat, a nipple-resembling growth, or the appearance of a freshly sucked spot. Marks in strange or animal shapes could also have diabolical implications. The growths were sometimes squeezed to check whether blood or other fluids could be expressed.17 Around the 1630s, teats or spots that were believed to be habitually sucked by imps were often searched for in ‘shameful’ or ‘privy’ parts and were associated with the suspect’s sexuality and carnal relationship with the devil.18

Many elements of the English popular belief in familiars challenged Christian dogma. Can the devil, just like God, create life? If the imps were made of spirit (as the theologians, who denied that the devil had the ability to create real life, claimed), why did the witches feed them? Why did they nurse them with blood? If the imps were an embodiment of supernatural spirits, why were they at the command of poor, old and often demented women? The popular English stories about friends or relatives giving familiars to neophyte witches contradicted the Continental demonology that viewed the contract with the devil as an essential step in becoming a witch.19 Another theologically unsettling element that persisted in the popular view was of enjoyable erotic or sexual contact with imps. Whereas the demonologists emphasized the icy feeling and pain caused by contact with the devil, some English texts embraced testimony of suspects who expressed sensations of pleasure at the devil’s touch.20 The dissonance between theological principles and popular beliefs left room for doubt and scepticism.21

Despite the theological difficulties, the widespread search for incriminating marks on the bodies of English witchcraft suspects was supported by a fusion of learned and popular concepts. There was clearly some overlap of the learned concept of the mark and the popular idea of the teat. Both established bodily attributes as manifestation of a diabolical connection, and both enabled their use as physical evidence. It was therefore intellectually feasible to transpose conceptual elements from one domain to the other. A typical narrative in English witchcraft pamphlets was that of the witch who made a contract with the devil, after which she was branded by the devil with a mark through which she later nursed the imp with her blood. Some even held that the first drawing of blood by the devil was for the writing of the covenant.22 Such a narrative combined the element of the pact with the devil and the suckling of the imps. The conflation of the demonological concept of the devil’s mark with the teats and familiars is reflected in the theological reading of English folklore.23 Locating the familiars in a theological framework alleviated the theological difficulties. The conflated narrative further supported feasible methods of legal proof – the search for bodily marks and testimonies about familiars.

The high and popular origins of the devil’s mark are clearly visible in the language. While authors of learned treatises used the term mark, which echoed the elite demonological theory of the pact, the searchers for the marks constantly reported to the JPs and judges about finding teats and bigs, which figured in the English lore of the animal familiar. The different terminology did not necessarily signify distinct traits. In some cases, the same features were deemed probative, although the JPs and gentlemen called them marks, and the searchers said teats. For example, the JPs ordered a group of women to search the body of Alice Goodridge and her mother ‘to see if they could finde any such marks on them, as are vsually found on witches’, but the women reported to have found teats and warts. Afterward, the searchers exposed the suspicious body parts, demonstrating the evidence to the satisfaction of the JPs.24 Although the JPs used the term ‘marks’, they were clearly satisfied with teats as physical evidence of ‘good worth’. In the case against Elizabeth Sawyer in 1621, the bench ordered a group of three women to search the defendant’s body for any ‘vnwonted marke’. When these women testified in court, they described something ‘like a Teate the bignesse of the little finger, and the length of halfe a finger, which was branched at the top like a teate, and seemed as though one had suckt it’.25 In these cases, the differences in terminology were not a cause for conflict. It seems that despite the different terms, there existed a shared meaning of the evidence of the devil’s mark, a meaning that emerged in the context of the witchcraft trials and that combined high and popular elements.

The shared meaning became prevalent in later texts, which used the terms marks and teats interchangeably. In 1634, sanctioned by the Privy Council, a group of ten London midwives, headed by William Harvey, reported finding nothing like ‘a teate or marke’ on the bodies of four women who had been convicted by the Lancaster Assizes.26 A pamphlet authored by Edmund Bower referred to what was found on the shoulder of Anne Bodenham as ‘a certain mark or Teat’.27 A cheap pamphlet based on Bower’s described the ‘marks of an absolute Witch’ found on Anne Bodenham’s body by the women searchers as teats.28 In 1702 Richard Hathaway was tried for making false witchcraft accusations, inter alia causing Sarah Murdock to be searched for ‘any Teats, or other Signs of a Witch’.29 A decade later, Sir Henry Chauncy ordered a search of the body of Jane Wenham for ‘any Teats, or other extraordinary and unusual Marks about her’.30 The fusion between the high and popular ideas was evident in the writing of Richard Bernard who saw the devil’s mark as a seal of the league with the devil. Yet, he also maintained that the mark was the devil’s ‘sucking place’, and that the mark could appear in the shape of a teat.31

Theoretically, the early modern English had a simple and direct evidential method to prove witchcraft. However, putting the theory into practice was not trouble-free. The marks were not always easy to discern. It was believed that the devil, a master of deceit and disguise, habitually branded them on hidden body parts. If a mark was found, the discoverer needed to tell the difference between natural growths and marks and diabolical ones. If no mark was found, another kind of difficulty arose. Even those well versed in theology disagreed on the question of whether all or only some witches were marked.32 The absence of a mole or growth, therefore, did not necessarily result in the exoneration of witchcraft suspects. It could also be explained by the suspect’s cutting the mark off or by some devilish intervention, as these marks, it was believed, could come and go.33

Therefore, the potential of the devil’s mark as direct physical evidence and its interpretation were not as clear-cut as they might seem. The early modern English differed in their dispositions toward this evidential method. The participants in the debate, which stretched far beyond the boundaries of the legal profession, used diverse arguments to support their positions. They also differed in the degree of their involvement in the search for the mark. In fact, the professional affiliations of the participants shaped their dispositions to a large extent. Clearly, a complex picture of intellectual and practical positions cannot be attributed to a single aspect of the social life. There is no simplistic one-dimensional formulation, but it is possible to shed some light on the affinity between professional affiliation and position on the devil’s mark. Those who took an active part in the search for the mark can be characterized, and those who maintained scholarly positions toward the practice can be described.

Participants in the Search

Neighbours and Self-appointed Searchers

Various social actors were involved in the search for the devil’s marks. The task was sometimes undertaken by self-appointed suspicious neighbours with no official authority. This attests to a popular belief in the probative power of the devil’s mark evidence. Yet, not everyone was certain of the validity of the findings of neighbourly search. And often the neighbours preferred to hire the services of expert searchers, who included professional witch hunters, searchers and prickers.

Professional Searchers

Professional witch hunters, witch searchers or witch prickers were hired to discover the devil’s mark more frequently than doctors. This nascent forensic expertise was founded on demonology and experience, and the practising experts claimed to possess special knowledge that enabled them to distinguish between the diabolical marks and normal morbid growths.34 For the professional searchers, the solid probative value of the devil’s mark was a key factor in establishing their professional identity.

The hiring of expert searchers occurred mainly in the exceptional times of 1645 to 1647, proliferating during the Hopkins–Stearne East-Anglia witch scare. During that episode, the technique of searching became much more intricate, with specially trained male and female searchers appointed. The suspects were stripped naked, positioned on a stool in a closed room without food or sleep for up to two days and continuously watched to see if their imps would come and suck them. During this dire time they could be questioned by the professional witch finders.35

On their journeys, the infamous witch hunters Hopkins and Stearne were aided by Mary Phillips and Priscilla Briggs, women with years of experience in searching for the devil’s marks and who were compensated for their services.36 Hopkins emphasized both skill and teamwork in contributing to a successful discovery.37

Experience and expert knowledge were indeed the major assets of the professional searchers. When they reported their findings to the justices, they explained why they were not natural marks, and why they believed they were devil’s marks, on the basis of previous cases where confessions ensued after similar findings.38

Even a professional witch hunter like Stearne admitted it was hard to distinguish between natural and diabolical marks.39 Though he had great confidence in his own ability to discover witches and to distinguish between the marks, Stearne recommended caution ‘lest others should unadvisedly and rashly proceed in the discovery of such persons wrongfully, and then fault me for the insight’.40 Therefore, by his long and tedious description of the marks, and by his call for prudence, Stearne did not cast doubt on the probative value of the devil’s mark, but rather established his own claim for privileged expert knowledge. The devil’s mark was one of the major tools of the professional witch hunters. Yet, to establish their position as experts, they needed to construct it as a valid evidential method on the one hand, but as one that required special skills and knowledge of detection on the other. This challenge was not always easy to meet, and a notable example is the very first trial of the Hopkins episode, at Chelmsford in July 1645, where six magistrates and a minister, being dissatisfied with the evidence, called for reprieves for nine of the condemned witches.41


Along with trained witch hunters and searchers, another kind of professional appeared – the pricker. Pricking, a technique to examine the sensitivity of the mark (supposedly rendered insensible by the devil), was carried out by inserting a pin or needle into it. Lack of pain or bleeding was a sign that the suspect was a witch. The suspects could be pricked repeatedly until they confessed.42

Pricking was one of the main techniques used to discover witches in Scotland, where, unlike in England, torture was legal.43 In Scotland, the search itself could be one of a series of tortures.44 The idea of the insensitive mark arrived in England from Continental and Scottish demonology.45 Even though the English materials focused more on the suckling of imps with blood through bodily growths, there are several references to using professional prickers, some of whom were invited from Scotland.46

Pricking was distinguished from the practice of scratching the suspect with nails to draw blood and thus relieve the symptoms of the bewitched victim. The prickers were usually men, unlike the juries of matrons that consisted of women who were not compensated for their services.47

Jury of Matrons

Bodily search was warranted by the court, which sometimes appointed a jury of matrons for that purpose. These panels, usually consisting of two or three women, were similar to those used to determine pregnancy. The first recorded appointment of a jury of matrons to search for the devil’s mark was as early as 1579.48 The matrons reported the search findings to the court under oath,49 and their testimony could be crucial.

The women selected for the panel were not necessarily midwives, but could include any respected and mature women, ‘honest matrons’ or ‘women of credit’.50 Apparently, the women searchers, the matrons, were sought more for their respectability and much less for their medical knowledge. In the Old Bailey case against Elizabeth Sawyer in 1621, one woman was chosen on the basis of her good reputation, and the other two were respectable-looking women who simply happened to walk down the street when the officer was looking for matrons.51 According to Henry Goodcole, an ordinary and visitor for the gaol of Newgate from 1620 to 1636, the testimony of these three women influenced the trial jury’s decision to convict Elizabeth Sawyer.52

Women were excluded from positions of importance or authority in most criminal trials; they could not become legislators, judges, JPs, members of the grand or petty juries or constables. In witchcraft cases, women played a more significant role. It was usually women who were awarded the indispensable yet agonizing role of the defendant. Another disadvantageous role available to women was that of the victim. Most possessed adolescents were girls. Many witchcraft accusations stemmed from tensions between women, a fact that might explain the relatively high number of women witnesses in witchcraft cases.53 The woman’s role as searcher, however, was distinctively powerful. The naked bodies of women were to be searched by other women. It was not only more modest, but women (especially midwives) were more familiar with the female body. It is possible that the unique English characterization of the teat as a grotesque female organ, an extra nipple, might have rendered women appropriate to conduct the search for the devil’s mark. The jury of matrons did not determine facts – but their testimony was significant and was hard to rebut.

The active participation of women in the prosecution of witches, it is sometimes argued, contradicts those feminist theories that explain witchcraft prosecution as an attempt of the rising male medical profession to eliminate midwives and gain exclusive control over women’s bodies. In England, midwives were not the victims, but the searchers for the devil’s mark.54 This involvement had no parallel on the Continent, where the male executioners or professional prickers carried out the search. The English courts had an established tradition of female jury panels deputized to perform intimate physical examinations to obtain proof. Most widely known are the juries of matrons appointed to ascertain whether female criminal defendants were ‘quick with a child’.55 It is questionable whether the fact that women were searched by other women could counter claims that witchcraft prosecution was a mechanism for the oppression of women. Thomas and Macfarlane discounted the war between the sexes as a plausible explanation for the prevalence of women among the accused, as complainants and witnesses were as likely to be women as men.56 Holmes remarked that, nevertheless, it was men who brought the charges and orchestrated the prosecution.57 Clearly, no other pattern would have been conceivable in early modern Europe, so it is not surprising that it was the male JPs and judges who appointed the matrons and reserved final judgment for themselves in witchcraft cases. Ultimately, it was usually the female body that was scrutinized at the search, being redefined as different and potentially diabolic. Considering the general social patriarchal context, the fact that the searchers were women does not indicate meaningful female power.58 Having women rather than men as searchers was hardly a comfort to the subjects of the procedure, as was demonstrated in the case of Elizabeth Wright in 1597, who, while they stripped her, ‘cursed the daie of her birth, making great outcries, and vsing bitter speeches against all that offered to accuse her’.59

Justices and Judges

The appointment of juries of matrons to search the suspects signified a recognition by the justice system of the value of the devil’s mark as a method of proof. The JPs, who were not usually lawyers, and the judges of the assizes, who travelled to the counties twice a year to dispense royal justice, differed in their involvement in the search. The JP conducted a pre-trial investigation that included an examination of the suspect. Theoretically, a judicial search warrant could be issued by the bench of the assizes, but the search was almost invariably ordered at the pre-trial stage by the examining JP.60 A search ordered by a JP pursuant to receiving complaints about the suspect seems to have been a standard occurrence.61

Occasionally, JPs allowed the searchers to prick.62 It was not uncommon for magistrates to order a search on the basis of intuitive suspicions or evidence that more sceptical contemporaries would have deemed flimsy.63 In some cases, JPs appointed searchers who were likely to be biased, for example, a woman who was the attendant of the alleged victim for the previous six weeks,64 the mother of the alleged victim,65 or searchers hired by the accusers (after the first searchers found no suspicious marks).66

In some cases the accusers themselves searched the body of the suspect after she was arrested. The pamphlets did not always mention whether these searches were pursuant to a judicial order. However, it seems that to search the suspect in jail, the cooperation of the authorities was necessary.67

Witchcraft cases were generally heard by the travelling assize judges, who tried practically all the serious crimes and reinforced unified standards of procedure and proof. Although the judges did not initiate the search for the devil’s mark, which was not a part of any official procedure, they repeatedly heard testimonies about the search.

Surrounding the search for the devil’s mark was a lively scholarly discourse about the validity of this proof. A variety of views was expressed by various social actors from different professions. The dominant voices in the debate belonged to members of three professional groups – clerics, lawyers and physicians. Examination of their discourse demonstrates an affinity between the professional affiliation of the speaker and the perception of the evidential value of the devil’s mark. Clearly, there were other relevant social groups. Identity is constructed from many different layers, and the voices cannot always be neatly classified into a single category. For example, a physician might rely on the interpretation of the scriptures, or a demonological tract might contain practical instructions to jurors and examples of particular cases. However, a reading of the texts demonstrates that generalizations can be made on the basis of professional affiliation and that the classification proves analytically useful.

Scholarly Discourse about the Devil’s Mark


Rarely did a doctor conduct the search for the devil’s mark. One famous example was a case in 1634, in which a group of London midwives and surgeons, supervised by William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood and was James I’s and later Charles I’s physician, examined Lancashire suspects who were found to have marks by the provincial searchers. They cleared the suspects completely.68

In the case against Joan Peterson in 1652, the JP ordered a search after the suspect had denied the allegations during examination. The search cleared Peterson, and she was subsequently released on bail.69 The accusers brought her to another examination and caused her to be searched again, this time by searchers they themselves had hired and who did not fail to find a ‘teat of flesh in her secret parts, more then other women usually had’. The JP arrested her on the basis of this finding. The author of a pamphlet who criticized the search as ‘unnatural & barbarous’ remarked that the day before Peterson’s execution, she was searched by physicians who declared the teat natural and that there were grounds for reprieve (pregnancy).70 Their opinion failed to save Peterson, who was executed. Reprieve was probably denied because Peterson had refused to confess.

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