I have always worried at the bad images we have of witches, especially those who were punished for their ‘crimes’. The image of an ugly, isolated old woman just doesn’t seem to fit many of the cases, in particular the famous Pendle witches. The old hags seem more cartoon characters.
Many pamphlets and ballads were printed and are often cited as sources. But these were printed to make profit. In the absence of litigation for defamation, the stories were never challenged in print. Ballads can be useful, but they, as with poetry, have to fit into a tight format, so words chosen to rhyme may not be the most accurate.
In the current History Today is an article by Annabel Gregory which sheds some light on these stereotypes:
The pamphlets cover only a small sample, as little as 10% of around 1,000 witch trials between the mid-16th century and the beginning of the 18th., when murder by witchcraft was a capital crime, punishable by hanging. Yet it is the pamphlets that provide our image of the early modern English witch, as almost all witness testimony for the criminal (Assize) courts was thrown away when trials finished and other sources provide minimal information…Some of these witchcraft pamphlets do, nevertheless, give a greater semblance of reliability than those dealing with other crimes, such as murder, because they include some transcripts of trial documents. The authors were concerned not only with maximising sales, but also defending the legal procedure. This was partly because witchcraft was notoriously difficult to prove and partly because such trials were still seen as somewhat novel. Before the middle of the 16th century, as on most occasions since, people had less extreme means of dealing with bewitchment than capital punishment.”
The lack of extant trial records is hugely important. For many cases, we simply do not know what happened. We also cannot make judgements on the reliability of the printed sources as we cannot assess the author as we can in modern media. Is a pamphlet the equivalent of a reliable broadsheet, or scholarly journal, or is it cheap sensationalism aimed at stirring up its readers? In some cases we can guess: calling an account ‘a tragi-comedy’ does not suggest it can be trusted
When reading reports of witches, as with any other historical source, we need to be aware of the limitations of the printed word. Aristotle said you cannot write a smile. Nor can you see within the words a sneer, revenge, of simple fabrication.