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Towards a Politics of Witchcraft in Early Modern England

  • Peter Elmer

Abstract

Following the publication of Stuart Clark’s groundbreaking study of demonology in 1997,1 it is probably no exaggeration to state that historians of witchcraft are better placed than ever before to understand how early modern Europeans conceived of witchcraft, and how it informed every aspect of their thought and culture. Largely concerned with the theoretical base of witchcraft, Clark has little, however, to say about the practical consequences of witchcraft belief, particularly the relationship between thought and action which culminated in the actual prosecution of men and women for the crime of witchcraft. In this chapter, I would like to suggest a number of ways in which it might be possible to utilize aspects of his research to generate a better understanding of one element of this process, namely the problematic nature of the uneven geographical and temporal pattern of witch trials. My initial interest in this subject was prompted by a desire to explore more fully the problem of the decline of élite belief in witchcraft in seventeenth-century England. It soon became apparent that the normal explanations for this phenomenon carried little conviction.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    S. Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford, 1997).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
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  4. 4.
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    This is most evident, of course, in the debate surrounding the Puritan exorcist, John Darrell, and the case of Mary Glover in London; see D. P. Walker, Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries (London, 1981)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  11. 10.
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    The itinerary of Dowsing’s campaign of iconoclastic destruction in East Anglia in 1643–44 bears close parallel with the route taken by Hopkins a year later. For a recent study of Dowsing, which positions his iconoclasm within the context of his well-informed and highly individual analysis of contemporary events, see J. Morrill, ‘William Dowsing, the Bureaucratic Puritan’, in J. Morrill, P. Slack and D. Woolf (eds), Public Duty and Private Conscience in Seventeenth-Century England: Essays Presented to G. E. Aylmer (Oxford, 1993), pp. 173–203.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  18. 18.
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    For Newcastle, see R. Howell, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the Puritan Revolution (Oxford, 1967), pp. 232–3.Google Scholar
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    For a recent study of the Lowestoft witches which struggles to accommodate the religious moderation of Hale and Sir Thomas Browne with their advocacy of witchcraft, see G. Geis and I. Bunn, A Trial of Witches: A Seventeenth-Century Witchcraft Prosecution (London and New York, 1997).Google Scholar
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  26. 28.
    For just one example of the way in which disputes over witchcraft were inextricably bound up with religious and political tensions, both at the local and national level, see J. Westaway and R. D. Harrison, ‘“The Surey Demoniack”: Defining Protestantism in 1690s Lancashire’, in R. N. Swanson (ed.), Unity and Diversity in the Church (Oxford, 1996), pp 263–82.Google Scholar

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© Peter Elmer 2001

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  • Peter Elmer

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