James Sharpe, General Editor, Richard Golden, Consulting Editor; and Marion Gibson, Malcolm Gaskill, and Peter Elmer, Volume Editors. English Witchcraft 1560-1736 London: Pickering and Chatto, 2003. 6 Volumes. 2896 pp. ISBN 1 85196 735 4.

Helen Ostovich
McMaster University

Ostovich, Helen. "Review of James Sharpe et al, eds., English Witchcraft 1560-1736". Early Modern Literary Studies 9.3 / Special Issue 12 (January, 2004): 9.1-11 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/09-3/revosto.htm>

  1. This six-volume set of facsimile texts provides the context and arguments for understanding the complexity of the witchcraft controversy in early modern England. The texts include early demonological writings and trial pamphlets, ranging from the scholarly to the sensationalist. Altogether, these works track the debate on witches and the demonic pact, the decline in belief among the educated classes, and the legal change from the harsh laws of the mid- and late-sixteenth century to the repeal of the witchcraft statute in the early eighteenth. Despite its many excellences in setting out clear and informed introductions, headnotes, and annotations, the problem with this collection is the editorial decision to use facsimile texts instead of either modern editions, or REED-style old-spelling editions. The "Note on Copy-Texts" (1.viii) points out the "extremely old and often fragile" state of the texts, and admits that the facsimiles are not in fact exact copies, since the editors and production team altered pagination and size, and inserted some reconstructive work on damaged pages. That being the case, what was the point of facsimiles at all? Certainly, the introductions and notes do not make much of these publications as worthy representatives in the history of the book, nor do they comment on choice of typefaces (especially the choice of black-letter or gothic type), spelling, or marginal notation. The type size changes from tiny to huge, without comment by the editors, other than the initial warning that original page size was normalized to fit the modern edition's uniform volumes. And although the photographers attempted to create legible pages, the variations caused by fading especially present a considerable challenge to a modern reader. Since the introductions and notes comment almost entirely on content and context, the facsimile texts seem an expensive and ineffective choice for clear communication of ideas.

  2. The other bar to clarity for readers is the placement of the annotation at the end of each volume, with no hint on the facsimiles themselves of what notes are available. The notes themselves tend to identify historical figures or references, whether biblical, classical, or contemporary, with some brief but lively explanation of the tract's or pamphlet's argument. This information is identified in the notes by page and line, although no running lineation is offered on the texts. For example, in browsing the notes of Volume 1 and finding "p. 53, l 32 , 'end'", the reader seeking the original context has to count straw by straw to locate this needle in a haystack. That makes reading notes a time-consuming process. Conversely, the reader may want a note to explain some peculiarity of the text. For example, A Collection of Impostures Detected (vol. 6, p. 203) mentions "Hanging of Blankets" as an act of sorcery, a detail I haven't come across before. Perhaps Hutchinson is being sarcastic here, but no note explains why blankets are mentioned in the same breath as "Scratching to draw Blood" or "Burning of cakes". Regardless, the reader must go to the back of the volume looking for a note that does not exist. Although the volume introductions use footnotes, and the headnotes have note numbers keyed to endnotes, the editors not only give no indication of what is annotated, but also make no comment on the variation in length of annotation. Volume 1, "Early English Demonological Works", has 373 pages of text, but only 20 pages of annotations. Volume 2, "Early English Trial Pamphlets", has 323 pages of text, and only 13 pages of notes. Volume 3, "The Matthew Hopkins Trials", at 464 pages, has 38 pages of notes. Volume 4, "The Post-Restoration Synthesis and its Opponents", has 455 text pages, with another 83 pages of notes. Volume 5, "The Later English Trial Pamphlets", with 360 pages of text, has 25 pages of notes. And Volume 6, "The Final Debate", at 498 pages of text, has only 20 pages of notes. That is, the variation is from about 4% notation to a whopping 18%, with no explanation for the discrepancy among volumes. Of course, using facsimiles makes annotation difficult. An old-spelling edition could have used footnotes and made its information more accessible to readers. And I would bet that the result would have been shorter volumes, less costly to produce than the UK £495 or US $740 (about $1000 CAD). A lot of space is wasted simply because of the facsimile format. In any case, almost all of these facsimiles are available on EEBO (Early English Books Online), and those few items in Volumes 5 and 6 that are not now on EEBO no doubt soon will be.

  3. That said, the editors of this compilation have provided useful brief guides to the materials and their contexts. In Volume 1, Sharpe's General Introduction offers a superb overview of the entire period of witchcraft prosecution, from the Witchcraft Act of 1542 (repealed) to its reinstatement in 1547, connecting witchcraft explicitly with Roman Catholicism and politics, to the Elizabethan act of 1563, rubber-stamping the work of Henry VIII, and the more political Jacobean variant of 1604. Sharpe asserts right from the beginning that history is controlled by the winners, and the trajectory of witchcraft prosecution and belief points to the sceptical winning side – represented initially in these volumes by Henry Holland's A Treatise against Witchcraft (1590), and repeated finally by Francis Hutchinson's A historical essay concerning Witchcraft (1718). Both works, and several that were printed in between, draw heavily on Reginald Scot's seminal sceptical tract The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), but others wrote with less wit and charm than that plain-spoken original. The zealous witchcraft believers, beginning in these volumes with Perkins (1608) and ending with Boulton (1722) cannot simply be shrugged off as works of superstitious fools or zealots; both Perkins and Boulton were educated professionals and experienced writers who knew how to persuade readers – even though readers were a minority of the culture at large. In Volumes 1 and 6, Sharpe reminds us through his pairing of adversarial arguments (Holland vs. Perkins, Hutchinson vs. Boulton) that thoughtful men operated on both sides of this debate; the witchcraft controversy was not simply a product of religious frenzy compounded by ignorance. It had to do with how a culture defines good and evil, and whether science, politics, and religion can ever agree on how an ethical community is to understand or compensate for the mysteries of creation, disease, human behaviour, and death.

  4. What Sharpe suggests further, amply supported by the other volumes, is that witchcraft prosecutions tend to cluster in periods of political change or civil war, religious dissent, and radical shifts in science or philosophy that challenge conservative thinking and foster fears of the destruction of all a culture holds most dear. In Volume 2, Marion Gibson focuses on the apparent demonic possession of children in a spate of cases (1579-1619) exacerbated by pamphleteers who identify witches and witchcraft on the basis of no evidence except the otherwise inexplicable conditions that seemed to proclaim demonic agency. She also gives an excellent survey of critical opinion locating causes for witchcraft accusations in fear of women, distaste for ignorant, impious, or criminal behaviour, and rejection of the poor, infirm, and aged – ideas first examined by Scot and endorsed by many modern scholars. Her ten-page bibliography is a rich source for further reading, much superior to the slight lists in the other volumes. The pamphlets in this volume deal largely with cases of demonic possession, especially those involving children who became disobedient, noisy, and nasty. Gibson justly argues that, whoever the pamphleteer, whether a lawyer endorsed by the court, a clergyman concerned for his parish, or an opportunist making a quick sale, the "evidence" is simply "persuasive authorial narration", not documentation, and supported by woodcut illustrations that seem irrefutable authentifications of wrong-doing, as though they were surveillance photographs of actual crimes.

  5. In Volume 3, the focus is squarely on Matthew Hopkins and the elderly clergyman, John Gaule, who put an end to Hopkins' reign of terror during the civil wars by accusing him of unlawfully forcing confessions out of deluded women accused of witchcraft. Malcolm Gaskill's introduction makes a strong case, not only for Gaule's unlikely heroism, but also for the fallacy of the view that the English witch-scare was substantially different from the European model. He argues that the pattern, especially during the civil wars, was identical with Europe's situation: disruption of central social control, loss of local authorities, lack of properly regulated justice, and locations remote from the already threatened system. He also points to over-literal understanding of church sermons warning parishioners to act against the devil. This is finally where Gaskill locates Hopkins' motive for action, as a man who thought he saw witchcraft and wanted to end its very real threat. In that sense, he was an exemplar of his society – a sobering thought.

  6. In Volumes 4 and 5, Peter Elmer looks at Restoration arguments about witchcraft as reactions against republican zeal, with texts identifying witchcraft as either a political conspiracy, or an intellectual controversy brought about by fears of science and the new philosophy of man's corrupt state (inferred from Bacon, Boyle, Descartes, and especially Hobbes). Volume 4 demonstrates the complexity of such arguments by pitting John Wagstaffe's anticlerical views against John Webster's enlisting of the new science in the service of scepticism. The notes in this volume are particularly useful in making sense of the bizarre range of second-hand citations that pepper both works. Volume 5, like Volume 2, is a fascinating collection of pamphlets, here demonstrating the post-Newtonian values of critical inquiry and scientific progress. The cases themselves are tired revivals of old accusations against poor, marginalized women. But Elmer argues persuasively that the great divide between the educated elite and the superstitious lower classes is what finally abolished witchcraft as a crime: the educated liberals who oversaw the legal system rejected witchcraft accusations as signs of right-wing Tory fundamentalist fanaticism, and buried such ideology under the weight of Whig rationalism. The new binary system blotted out the opposition. The choice of materials in this volume is fascinating support for Elmer's argument in showing the last witch trials and last executions in England: the Bideford Witches (1682), Richard Hathaway (1702), and Jane Wenham (1712).

  7. The value of English Witchcraft 1560-1736 is primarily in its scholarly marshalling of documents in what has been, especially prior to 1990, a little travelled intellectual by-way. This impressive six-volume set, like folio printings in the early modern period, gives weight, stature, and density to a peculiar historical moment, and connects it intellectually and by implication with modern witch-hunts of other kinds. The organization of materials is particularly satisfying in giving full attention to one phenomenon or debate in each volume. The introductions and headnotes of all 6 volumes guide readers through the maze of materials with dispatch and fascinating insights. Although I wish the editors had followed a different procedure in preparing those materials for print, libraries will – and should – purchase the set as vital for studying the English handling of this important period of legal, social, religious, and political violence.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).