‘It’s a Kind of Magic’: Teaching Witchcraft History

In this post, facilitator Gabriela Leddy discusses both the difficult and rewarding aspects of teaching about Early Modern witchcraft.

Witches are a cultural phenomenon that everyone has some exposure to, but many do not know where these stereotypes that we still use today came from. In my lesson, I taught the students about sixteenth and seventeenth century English witchcraft and the women who were caught in the crossfire of religious and political turmoil.

We started out by thinking about the stereotypes of witches. Some immediate examples came to mind such as those portrayed and illustrated by Roald Dahl and the ones we see in movies such as the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz and Bellatrix Lestrange from Harry Potter. I expected the students to stick to these stereotypes, but many branched out, giving features that had quite historical context. I had quite a lot that mentioned her old age, her black cat, and her poverty—all features that have ties to the witchcraft trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth century.

Some of the witch stereotypes the students came up with

Some of the witch stereotypes the students came up with

For some more hands on work, I had the students break into five groups, each group with its own trial. For my selection of trials, I picked trials that were spread across the period, specifically focusing on presenting samples that were before, during and after the height of the witch craze, 1645. One of the selections was not technically a trial, but was actually a record of Matthew Hopkins, a notorious witch-hunter who many claim was behind the mass witch hunt in 1645 Essex and Sussex, giving an account of how he discovered witches. In their small groups, I asked them to read through the trial, which they were given as side-by-side comparisons of the black-letter pamphlet (as it would have appeared to contemporaries) and a transcription of the trial, as black-letter is quite difficult to read if not familiar with it. They were asked to read through the trial with the expectation of trying to determine how a witch was identified, what features she must have to be a witch, and anything they were surprised with that took place in the trials. They were then to present their thoughts on this to the class.

The public hanging of the three Chelmsford witches Joan Prentice, Joan Cony and Joan Upney. From an English pamphlet, 1598.

The public hanging of the three Chelmsford witches Joan Prentice, Joan Cony and Joan Upney. From an English pamphlet, 1598.

For the presentations, I went in chronological order, as I wanted to show the overall changing of witchcraft features from malefic (bad, disruptive magic) to diabolic (magic directly associated with the Devil or demons). The students seemed to pick up on this too, highlighting that at the beginning of the period, witches seemed more like bad neighbours and by the end, they seemed more like slaves to Satan. Although we did not have much time to discuss it, I hinted that this change might have to do with the rise of Puritanism within England at the time and that outside threats, such as the Catholic Church or Spain, faded away to internal threats such as we see during the Civil War and indeed, witchcraft. I was quite surprised that after this comment one student asked bluntly, ‘Was witchcraft then a means of social control?’. This was a very astute observation as it has been argued among witchcraft historians for decades. Because of limitations on time, I merely had to respond that it could be argued that witchcraft was a means of controlling women (and some men) who were outside the patriarchal system and did not ‘follow the rules’ of early modern society.

Overall, I was quite impressed with how well the lesson went. The students seemed interested and motivated to question the sources. They also hit on a lot of the historical debates that are still be analysed. The one thing I really learned is that even the most basic lesson about witchcraft, which I tried to present here, breeds too many questions to cover in just one class. More than ever I can see that it is such a complex topic involving issues of religion, politics, gender, class systems, and societal changes that make it very hard to simplify. This being said, I think that it was great to have some of these issues come out in the class, as one of my goals was to make students think about how we label women and how women were labelled and the motivations behind it. Also I hope that it showed how a seemingly straight-forward topic such as witchcraft is more than a phenomenon that is tied to archaic and uneducated minds as most assume, but is actually rooted in some of the very values we still hold today.

Gabriela Leddy

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I am PhD student at the University of York looking into witches’ familiars in Early Modern England and how they relate to the wider scope of contemporary views on animals, the body and the devil.

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