“So superstitious was this Nation in those Days”: the Case of Jane Wenham (1712) in the Eyes of Opponents of Witchcraft and Popular Superstition

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In the British mythology and historiography Jane Wenham of Hertfordshire functions as the last person sentenced to death for witchcraft in Britain. Her case was significant since it “occasion'd many and various Speculations upon the Subject of

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    Paweł Rutkowski Uniwersytet Warszawski “So superstitious was this Nation in those Days”: the Case of Jane Wenham (1712) in the Eyes of Opponents of Witchcraft and Popular Superstition In the historiography of English witchcraft the 1712 trial of Jane Wenham of Walkern, Hertfordshire, the last person convicted of that crime in England, serves as a symbol of the contemporary transformation of attitudes towards magic and diabolism, a change that was paving the way to the final repeal of long-standing witchcraft statutes in 1735. Her trial and conviction caught the attention of public opinion and launched a fierce pamphlet war whose participants – traditionally entrenched in two hostile camps of believers and sceptics – tried to discuss all possible aspects of witchcraft and discredit their opponents. 1  The texts debated a variety of related subjects: ancient and Biblical 1  As far as we know there were nine Wenham pamphlets, all published in London in 1712, in the following order: 1)  An Account of the Tryal, Examination and Condemnation of Jane Wenham, on an Indictment of Witchcraft, for Bewitching of Matthew Gilston and Anne Thorne of Walcorne, in the County of Hertford … ; 2)   Francis Bragge.  A Full and Impartial Account of the Discovery of Sorcery and Witchcraft Practis'd by Jane Wenham of Walkern, upon the Bodies of Anne Thorne ; 3) Francis Bragge. Witchcraft Farther Display’d. Containing (I) An Account of the Witchcraft  practised by Jane Wenham of Walkerne, in Hertfordshire, since her Condemnation, upon the bodies of Anne Thorne and Anne Street. … (II) An Answer to the most general Objections against the Being and Power of Witches: With some Remarks upon the Case of Jane Wenham in  particular, and on Mr. Justice Powel procedure therein ; 4)  A Full Confutation of Witchcraft: More  particularly of the Depositions Against Jane Wenham, Lately Condemned for a WITCH; at  Hertford. In which The Modern Notions of Witches are overthrown, and the Ill Consequences of such Doctrines are exposed by Arguments; proving that, Witchcraft is Priestcraft  ; 5)  Impossibility of Witchcraft, Plainly proving, From Scripture and Reason, That there never was a Witch; and that it is both Irrational and Impious to believe there ever was. In which the Depositions against  Jane Wenham, Lately Try’d and Condemn'd for a Witch, at Hertford, are Confuted and Expos’d  ; 6)  Belief of Witchcraft Vindicated: proving from Scripture, there have been witches; and from  Reason, that there may be Some still. In Answer to a late Pamphlet, Intituled, The Impossibility of Witchcraft … ; 7) The Case of the Hertfordshire Witchcraft Consider'd. Being an Examination of a  Book, Entitl'd, A Full and Impartial Account of the Discovery of Sorcery and Witchcraft Practis'd  Paweł Rutkowski 420 magic, the Devil’s powers, possible medical and social explanations of witchcraft, the reality of the demonic pact, etc. However, the pamphleteers, especially the sceptical ones, tended to return constantly to what they called vulgar superstitions which always manifested themselves in cases like that of Jane Wenham and to which, in their opinion, too many people were still willing to give credence. In itself the story of the “last English witch” did not differ much from numerous stories of other witches narrated in England since the latter half of the 16th century. Stereotypically, she was a seventy-odd-year-old widow with a well-established ill reputation for witchcraft, accused by the community she lived in of doing harm to both people and animals. The spark that after years of suspicions finally ignited her neighbours’ anger and led to Wenham’s trial was what had allegedly happened to sixteen-year-old Anne Thorne, a servant in the household of a local clergyman, the Rev. Godfrey Gardiner. In February 1712 her master, his wife Deborah and their friend Francis Bragge, alarmed by a yell from the kitchen, rushed in to see the girl only in her underwear – a shift – her dress and apron lying bundled up next to her and containing a bunch of oak twigs and a crooked pin. Crying, the girl told a story of how she had suddenly felt compelled to leave the house and run for almost a mile, meeting on the way Jane Wenham, who told her to pick up the sticks. Anne did all this within six or seven minutes, which was an even more incredible feat since she was at the time suffering from a dislocated knee, freshly set. In the following days the girl repeated her frantic run across the country, this time with witnesses watching her and hearing her accuse Wenham on the way. In consequence of this spectacle, her supposed tormentor was detained by the justice of the peace, Sir Henry Chauncey, who started the procedure of gathering evidence against her. During public examinations Wenham’s neighbours reported various events, past and more recent, that, in their opinion, surely proved her to be a witch. In addition, Anne Thorne complemented her previous testimony with a series of spectacular demoniac fits as well as with an account of devilish cats with Wenham’s face haunting her and persuading her to commit suicide. The J. P.’s final decision was that Jane Wenham should be sent to Hertford jail to await the Assizes. During the trial on 4 March 1712, unsurprisingly, the jury declared her guilty; however the judge, Sir John Powell, sceptical about the witchcraft from the very beginning – instead of sending her to the gallows, as, according to the statute, by Jane Wenham of Walkern, upon the Bodies of Anne Thorne ; 8) Francis Bragge.  A Defense of the Proceedings against Jane Wenham, wherein the Possibility and Reality of Witchcraft are  Demonstrated from Scripture … In Answer to Two Pamphlets Entituled: (I) The Impossibility of Witchcraft, etc. (II) A Full Confutation of Witchcraft  ; 9) The Impossibility of Witchcraft Further  Demonstrated, Both from Scripture and Reason … with some Cursory Remarks on two trifling Pamphlets in Defence of the existence of Witches .  “So superstitious was this Nation in those Days”… 421 he should have done – immediately reprieved her and eventually, after a couple of months, obtained for her a royal pardon. 2  In the story of Jane Wenham’s witchcraft we find references to several popular beliefs and practices that formed an essential part of the traditional magical lore still remembered and used in the Walkern community, and in fact almost everywhere else in England. When Mrs Gardiner saw the pin and the bundle of twigs lying next to her servant, her first impulse was to grab everything and throw it into the fire. 3  She acted in accordance with the belief that magical objects must be burnt to break the spell. An act of burning was also supposed to affect the evil-doer: scorching pain would be magically transferred to the witch and help unmask her by bringing her to the scene of crime. It was later categorically claimed that as soon as the suspicious things were burnt, Jane Wenham was already at the door. The clergyman’s wife, apparently an expert in protective magic, probably associated the twigs with “charms”, magical objects in the form of a bundle containing sticks, bones, feathers, seeds, etc., frequently left in secret by practitioners of evil magic somewhere in their victims’ households in order to do harm to them. A set of “cakes of feathers” found inside Anne Thorne’s pillow, arranged in a geometrical pattern and fastened together with some mysterious viscous matter, was also such a charm. Needless to say, after a careful examination by Mr. Bragge, they were burnt too, together with the pillow, which resulted in the immediate recovery of the bewitched girl. 4  Another traditional method of easing a demoniac’s suffering was “scratching of a witch’s forehead”, which Anne Thorne readily did as soon as Jane Wenham was brought to her. The old woman was also subjected to another physical trial by Mr. Arthur Chauncey, who repeatedly pricked her skin with a long pin. Neither finger-nails, nor the pin, managed to draw blood from Wenham’s body, which was interpreted as unequivocal evidence of witchcraft, in compliance with the old belief that on the skin of Satan’s servants one can find spots that are bloodless and insensitive to pain. 5  In order to confirm Jane Wenham’s guilt the examiners 2  The most detailed account of the trial as well of the events leading to it can be found in our main source for the case – Francis Bragge’s Full and Impartial Account of the Discovery of Sorcery and Witchcraft Practis’d by Jane Wenham of Walkern, upon the Bodies of Anne Thorne (London, 1712). For modern accounts see, for instance, Wallace Notestein.  A History of Witchcraft in  England from 1558 to 1718  . Washing ton 1911, pp. 324-329 and, especially, Phyllis J. Guskin. “The Context of Witchcraft: The Case of Jane Wenham (1712).”  Eighteenth-Century Studies , 1981, No. 1, Vol. 15, pp. 48-71. 3   The Case of the Hertfordshire Witchcraft Consider’d  , pp. 13-14. 4  Ibid., pp. 34-35, 38;  A Full Confutation of Witchcraft  , p. 38. 5  In fact, those who tested Jane Wenham mixed up two distinct beliefs and practices, distorting them on the way. The idea of the insensible spot on the skin – the so-called Devil’s mark – dates back at least to the first continental witch-hunts in the late Middle Ages. As we can read, for  Paweł Rutkowski 422 resorted to two additional tests. The first one required putting a bewitched person’s urine into a sealed stone bottle and heating it before the fire in order to afflict the witch, the cause of the possession. As some witnesses testified, while Anne Thorne’s urine boiled, Jane Wenham was in great pain, but when the bottle exploded she, to her great joy, was immediately freed from suffering. 6  The second, less extravagant test consisted in asking a supposed witch to say aloud the  Lord's Prayer  : after all no witch ever had been able to recite the whole of the prayer fluently and without omissions. Unfortunately, Jane Wenham failed this “exam” as well, which helped declare her a person liable to a witchcraft trial. 7  Mr. Bragge and other authors who believed in Wenham’s guilt, or at least allowed for such a possibility, treated all the magical beliefs and practices with utmost seriousness. In contrast, their opponents dismissed them out of hand as a pack of foolish superstitions. However, even then they remained concerned that such nonsensical ideas could be still in circulation. For the sceptics it was part of a wider problem: that of the srcin and persistence of superstitions. In consequence, the beliefs that emerged in the case of Jane Wenham were viewed as just another example in the long history of human ignorance, credulity and obscurantism. As the historical perspective was adopted, they sought for connections between superstitions past and present. The author of the pamphlet  Impossibility of Witchcraft   found the source of all subsequent foolish beliefs in Antiquity whose “Heathenish Fables and Follies” later on, unfortunately, “took Root in the Minds of the Christian Vulgar”. 8  The  Impossibility of Witchcraft    instance, in the  Malleus Maleficarum , while concluding the Pact during the Sabbath, Satan touched his new servants with his claw and in this way branded them. Although the Devil’s mark was an essential element of witchcraft on the continent – where by the way the emphasis was always placed on lack of pain and not on lack of blood – it was almost non-existent in the British Isles. The very old native practice of scratching a witch’s forehead was based on the assumption that the witch’s blood, when drawn by her victim, could break the evil spell. So if the testers were so well acquainted with the traditional witchcraft lore, they should also have known that blood actually ought   to have flowed freely from Jane Wenham’s veins, the more so as Anne Thorne’s fit really had ended, which could only be an effect of breaking the spell. 6  Phyllis J. Guskin, op. cit. , p. 52. It seems that the srcinal belief had been modified in this case as well. According to the traditional system of counter-magic, the explosion of the heated bottle was to mean the violent death of the witch, and not her deliverance from pain. The so-called witch-bottles – filled with urine and, quite often, iron nails, pins, thorns and clippings of nails and hair – were either heated, as described above, or buried, in order to serve as powerful counter-measure to evil magic. Such containers secreted in the 17th, 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries continue to be found in many places in England (cf. Ralph Merrifield. “Witch Bottles and Magical Jugs.” Folklore , 1955, No. 1, Vol. 66, pp. 195-207). 7    A Full Confutation of Witchcraft  , pp. 17-18; The Case of the Hertfordshire Witchcraft Consider’d  , pp. 73-74. 8   The Impossibility of Witchcraft  , pp. 7-8, 18, 25-27. The political theory of religion, combined with what we might call elements of crowd psychology, was a weapon traditionally used by Protestants to discredit Roman Catholicism as a successor of ancient paganism. Rome was accused  “So superstitious was this Nation in those Days”… 423 used Cicero’s old complaint about a world overwhelmed by superstition to describe contemporary reality, adding only a bitter remark that as far as witchcraft was concerned, “the Folly of Mankind [had much] proceeded in Credulity” since Roman times. 9  The English were not exception to the rule, since they, for instance, sanctioned their belief in witchcraft as far back as under Henry VIII (i.e. in 1541), which only confirmed that “so superstitious was this Nation in those Days”. Those days of shame, however, were by no means past: after all in the year 1712 witchcraft was still a capital crime in England 10  and, furthermore, ordinary Englishmen still believed in “such crude, indigested Stories, as would scarce pass upon the poor ignorant Lap-landers”. 11  Our pamphleteers, however, did not necessarily refer to the English nation as a whole. Rather, they tended to associate witchcraft superstitions with country people, among whom they were supposed to thrive. All the sceptical texts and their rhetoric are actually founded on sharp oppositions between town and country, reason and irrationality, enlightened individuals and the obscure rustic multitude. This is particularly visible in  A Full Confutation of Witchcraft  , whose anonymous author introduced himself as a country physician from Hertfordshire only too well acquainted with provincial ways. His analysis of the Wenham case – in the form of a letter to a friend in London – symptomatically started with a complaint about the hardships of life in this narrow-minded environment. I am fully aware – wrote the physician – to what Hazards a Man of a Publick Character, exposes his Reputation … in talking freely, [and] much more in writing on such a Topick, especially in the Country, where to make the least Doubt, is a Badge of Infidelity; and not to be superstitious, passes for a dull Neutrality in Religion, if not a direct Atheism. And here, Sir, I cannot but envy one Privilege you enjoy in Town, which is, a Freedom of Thought and Talk, whilst we are very often reduc’d to the Necessity of swallowing the greatest Improbabilities, without the least Change of Countenance, for fear of offending any Bigot of Figure. 12   of inventing various “Popish superstitions” in order to control the ignorant masses. Cf. e.g. Samuel Harsnett.  A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, to with-draw the harts of her Majesties Subiects from their allegeance, and from the truth of Christian Religion professed in England, under the pretence of casting out devils … , London 1603. Also, one of our Wenham texts  juxtaposes witchcraft “superstitions” with “hallow’d Wax-Candles, Amulets, Charms, holy Oil, and a thousand Tinklets” offered by the Popery (  A Full Confutation of Witchcraft  , p. 45). 9    Impossibility of Witchcraft  , p. 2. 10  Ibid., p. A2-A2v. 11  That Northern people for the early modern Europeans were proverbial for their unenlightenment, primitivity and … use of magic. Compared to the Laplanders, the English could console themselves a little with the opinion that the Germans, with their zealous and cruel persecutions of witches, seemed by far more superstitious than the Islanders (  A Full Confutation of Witchcraft  , p. 40). 12  Ibid., pp. 3-4.
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