Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

Some traditional measures against witchcraft were general defences, e.g. horseshoes, hagstones, various plants hung at the door, the sign of the cross, a bent coin laid in the churn, etc. But if a particular witch's curse had already taken hold, aggressive procedures were needed to break it; there are numerous accounts of these from Tudor times to within living memory, from all parts of England (Davies, 2003: 103–18).

The simplest and best known was to ‘draw blood above the breath’, i.e. to scratch the witch's face to make it bleed; this was widely used in the 17th century, suspected women being forced to submit to scratching, on the assumption that those bewitched would then recover, and the witch lose her power. Illegal assaults still occurred in Victorian times. At Stratford-upon-Avon in 1867 a man made ‘a frightful gash’ in a woman's cheek, saying, ‘There, you old witch, I can do anything with you now’; at Long Compton (Warwickshire) in 1875 a woman of 80 was killed with a pitchfork by a man who thought she had bewitched him (Palmer, 1976: 83–4). Symbolic violence was also thought effective: to stab the witch's footprint or shadow with a nail, preferably a coffin-nail, or to burn straw from her thatch, would break her power.

By casting a spell, the witch had created a magical link with her victim, which could be used in reverse to punish her. Thus, in 1626 a woman recalled how, as a servant in Hull, she had been told by her mistress to ‘clap the churn-staff to the bottom of the churn’ and lay her hands across the top of it, because a woman thought to be a witch had come to the house to spoil the butter-making; the woman was immediately fixed to the spot, and after six hours ‘fell down on her knees and asked forgiveness, and said her hand was in the churn, and she could not stir before (the) maid lifted up the staff of the churn’. On another occasion, the girl's mistress being ill, she was told ‘to take a horseshoe and fling it in her dame's urine, and as long as the horseshoe was hot, the witch was sick at the heart’ (Sharpe, 1996: 160). These principles were remembered for generations. In Sussex in the 1930s, it was said that if a wagon was halted by witchcraft, one must flog the wheels or cut notches on them; one man who did, saw the witch come out of her cottage ‘a-yellin’ an’ sloppin’ blood, and for every notch on the spokes there wor a cut on her fingers’ (Simpson, 1973: 71).

The commonest way of exploiting this link was to apply heat to the object bewitched, so as to burn the witch. If cream could not be churned to butter, one should dip a red-hot poker or horseshoe in; a sick person's urine should be boiled in a witch bottle, or made into a cake and baked hard, or buried; his or her excrement should be thrown into a fire; if a farm animal died, its heart should be cut out, stuck with pins, and thrown in the fire or put up the chimney to dry slowly; or its carcass burnt, to save the rest of the livestock. Occasionally, an animal would be burnt alive; The Times of 3 July 1810 reported (p. 3) that:At a village about two miles distant from Burton, in Kendal, a farmer had lately several of his calves die of the distemper; some of his credulous neighbours persuaded him that they were bewitched; and a cunning woman told him, that nothing would thrive about his house till the witch was burnt, and that the most effectual mode of breaking the enchantment was to cause a calf to be burnt alive. This plan was accordingly adopted on Friday the 11th ult, and a fire was kindled for the purpose on an adjacent moss, whither the poor victim (a fine heifer calf) was taken in a cart, and placed on the burning pile. Two men and a servant-woman were the barbarous executioners, who held the animal on the fire, one by its legs, another by its tail, and the third by its head; it however escaped from them several times, and was again and again committed to the flames.


Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.