Books: Getting familiar with the witchfinder general

Jan Morris finds there is little to choose between old-fashioned black magic and its contemporary counterpart; Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550-1750 by James Sharpe, Hamish Hamilton, pounds 25

''What is sometimes forgotten," says the author of this learned and enthralling book, is that the trial of Jane Wenham for witchcraft in 1712 "provoked an active pamphlet debate". Well, yes, I had momentarily forgotten that, and Dr Sharpe goes on to mention many another incidental of witchcraft that had unaccountably slipped my memory: the story of the flasher-JP John Goodere, for instance, who ran around exhibiting himself during the examination of a witch in 1716, or the accusations against Maude Twogoode the revolutionary enchantress, or the case of "Gregson the north tale teller ... one of them 3 that stole the Earl of Northumberlandes heade from one of the turrettes at York". Why, I had even forgotten that demoniac ferrets, toads and Satanic bumblebees were among witches' chosen familiars!

Yet for all its astonishing range of esoteric reference and example, much of Instruments of Darkness struck me as disconcertingly familiar. It concerns witchcraft in England between 1550, when the first anti-witch statute had lately been promulgated, and 1750 when the last statute had recently been repealed. Englanders 300 years ago were "neither particularly stupid nor particularly wicked". They worked, as the historians say, within the mind-set of the time, and most of them were animated by genuine fear, honest religious conviction, and a sense of duty. Nor were they always cruel. Most alleged witches were acquitted, many more got off with light sentences, and, contrary to popular legend, probably not more than 500 were executed.

Sharpe is adamant that witch-persecution in England was not, as some feminists imply, part of the cosmic male conspiracy against women - most prosecutions in fact began with women accusing women. It is true, though, that the vast majority of supposed witches were female, perhaps because the realm of the occult was one sphere in which women were able to command some degree of power. All too often witches were poor old ladies, stooped and bent not with evil but with poverty and age, cherishing their cats and dogs not as agents of the devil, but as friends in their loneliness. They were reviled and hated because they were different; the growths of old age on their bodies were supposed to be the teats by which their familiars sucked their blood; and often enough, no doubt, genuine fear of their powers led to genuine bewitchment.

But has the popular mind-set really changed? Time and again, as I read this scrupulously balanced work of scholarship, I was reminded of contemporary parallels. Anorexia and bulimia sound to me remarkably like what our forebears would have called "Possession" - inexplicable depression, vomiting and wasting away, popularly attributed to witchcraft but often, as even some 17th-century observers realized, brought on by a young woman's psychological need for love and attention. The old belief in the beneficent powers of "white witches", and for that matter in the malicious powers of black ones, was no different in kind from today's widespread trust in faith healers. For the old rumours of covens of witches in woodland sabbat, read the new whispers about internet forums of Satanists.

Then again the attitudes of different parts of society have not greatly shifted. By the nature of things much of the religious establishment is as superstitious now as it was then. It may not be so intolerant of heresy, but it is still prepared to exorcise demons with mumbo-jumbo, and to accept the existence of an Evil Being: John Wesley himself used to argue that denying the reality of witchcraft meant denying the reality of the Devil. Then as now, for the most part the English judiciary did its best to play fair. Supposed witches were often given the benefit of the doubt, intellectual honesty overcame legalism and populist clamour: "there is no law against flying", bravely pronounced Sir John Powell, when poor Jane Wenham ("a fairly typical witch", says Dr Sharpe) was accused of habitually whizzing about the night skies. Even in the 16th century defamation suits were popular - too carelessly calling somebody a witch could prove expensive in the courts.

Petty authority, by and large, seems to me just as loveless today as it was in the days of the witch-hunts. Sleep deprivation, one of the methods of making witches confess, has not gone out of fashion among modern torturers, and many a police interrogator, I do not doubt, would like to be able to throw a suspect into a pond to see if she sank or floated, or to keep her naked on a stool in the middle of the interrogation room for two or three days at a time. There is nothing anachronistic about the pounds 4. 7s charged for "diet and wine" by the indefatigable witch-investigator Matthew Hopkins, when he was on the job in Aldeburgh in 1646.

Worst and most obvious of all, nothing much has changed in the attitudes of the rabble. Mob-influence seems to have been almost as powerful three centuries ago as it is in contemporary Britain. The persecution of witches all too often began in local gossip and malicious innuendo, and prying, suspicious, envious or contemptuous neighbours were generally the first informants - the very people who would now get on to the hot line to denounce a social security infringment. They were abetted by zealot-priests or self-important local officials, just as they are now inflamed or supported by the loutish tabloid press. They howled, gaped and swore at alleged witches just as they now spit their hatred at alleged sex offenders. They demanded executions as they now call for ever heavier prison sentences. They were encouraged by just the same purveyors of the occult as now feed their appetites for fortune-telling and nonsensical astrology.

And the witches themselves? I would guess that some old ladies still stick pins in images of their la-di-da neighbours, and perhaps there are even a few - who knows? - still suckling their toads at midnight. They are no danger to us. It is still the witch-hunters we have to guard against.

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform