Witchcraft or Madness?

The 16th and 17th centuries in England were times of massive social upheaval, and following Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, the hospitals and care for the poor and infirm were swept away. The chaos was exacerbated by the Civil War. Given that women generally outnumber men, this left a lot of old and isolated women, who in tough times often became marginalised or persecuted. Today, one of the hallmarks of mental sickness is isolation, both as a cause and a symptom. So it is no surprise to me that there were a lot of crazy old women back then, with only animals for company, and doing whatever they could to get by, who became easy targets for ignorant locals looking for scapegoats for their miserable lives.

Here’s a story that makes me wonder if women were really being picked on for being witches, or if their isolation sent them mad and made them easy targets. This is from Catharine Arnold’s book, ‘Bedlam London and its Mad’:

“Reginald Scot, who had seen many so-called witches brought before him in his capacity as a Justice of the Peace in Kent, was among the first to suggest that an element of insanity informed the diagnosis of the ‘witch’ and the ‘bewitched’. He surmised that many ‘bewitched’ people were suffering from a disordered brain, rather than enchantment. Careful observation cnvinced him that the accused and the accusers were not bewithced at all, but mad, arguing that a velief in witchcraft was ‘contrarie to reason, scripture and nature’. Weithces, argued Scot, were not possessed by the devil at all, merely delusional, and suffered from ‘not witchcraft but melancholie.’ The allegations agains the poor old women brought before hm mostly consisted of frivolous guesswork, motiviated by spite.  there wa no objective way in which it could be proven that an old lady had soured the milk, or caused crops to fail.

Scot gave as an example an account of ‘One Ade Davie, the wrife of Simon Davie’, who developed a sad, ensive mood, and eventually confessed to her husband that she had sold her soul to the devil. Simon reassured his wife, reminding her that she could never have done so, as her soul belonged to Christ, who had already redeemed it ‘and deerlie paid for it, even with his bloud, which he shed upon the crosse.’ Ade replied that she had bewitched him and his children. Simon still refused to accept this, but decided to stay up late that night, to meet the devil when he arrived to possess Ade, according to his bargain. Suddenly, about midnight, there wa a tremendous rumbling noise under the bedroom window, and they both became convinced the devil was outside, wating to come in. They prayed, loudly and fervently, and the noise eventually stopped, but Ade reained melancholy for days afterwards, refusing to leave the house. If she looked out of the window and saw somebody carrying firewood, she screamed, convinced they were coming to burn her. And all this, Scot reminds us, although she had not actually hurt anyone – except herself.  Ordered to rest, Ade eventually recovered, and acknowledged that this incident, which today we might regard as a breakdown, had developed ‘through melancholie’. what about the rumbling, feared to be the sound of the devil downstairs? On the night that the devil wsa due to take his turn with Ade, an injured sheep had taken refuge by the wall of the house, underneath the bedroom window, and a dog had come along and devoured it. ‘

This is an extraordinary account, and James I attacked Reginald Scot in Daemonologie of 1597; but this was a king whose throne was soon to be lost, so encouraging notions of witchcraft was a way of trying to retain his throne, and ultimately his head.

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