Monday, 7 March 2011

East Anglian Witch Hunt

In 'The Ash-Tree', M.R. James describes the far-from-cuddly consequences of a witch trial and mass execution in the fictional Suffolk hamlet of Castringham. A real witch hunt occurred in East Anglia somewhat earlier, in 1645, and a contemporary account written by a Puritan has just been put online. The BBC report is here.
The book notes that in 1645 "Witchfinder General" Matthew Hopkins, notorious for his brutality against women, had been appointed to check villager Elizabeth Clarke for "devil's marks" - like warts or moles. Under torture, she named other women, including her daughter Rebecca. When Rebecca was herself tortured, she implicated her own mother as a witch. A total of 19 women were eventually hanged, though Rebecca was saved thanks to her confession.
Yes, torture definitely gets at the truth. The truth the torturer wants to hear. The fact that people confessed to manifestly impossible 'crimes' should give pause for thought to the cretins who believe torture is morally justified today. But it probably won't.

In fiction, of course, witch hunts are seldom presented as a vicious, squalid affairs they clearly were. Instead, we get the post-Romantic/Gothic approach, and very enjoyable it can be.

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