James I and Witchcraft

Chapter 2 : Fear and Superstition

The early seventeenth century, when the witch hunts were at their height, was dominated by fear and superstition. In an increasingly unstable and volatile society, people clung ever more tightly to their deeply-held superstitions – even those who claimed to have embraced the reformed religion. The Kingdom of Darkness was as real to them as the Kingdom of Heaven, and ordinary people everywhere believed in devils, imps, fairies, goblins and ghosts, as well as legendary creatures such as vampires, werewolves and unicorns. Everyone feared evil portents, such as a hare crossing one's path or a picture falling from the wall. A pregnant woman must avoid gazing at the moon because it would render her baby insane.

Children were frightened into obedience by their mothers or nursemaids with tales of evil witches, spirits, elves and fantastical creatures. Women were grouped together with the sick and infirm as being particularly susceptible to 'vain dreams and continual fear' as a result of their 'weakness of mind and body.' Even grown men were afraid of the dark, for this is when it was believed spirits most often appeared. 'Some never fear the devil, but in a dark night…especially in a churchyard, where a right hardy man heretofore scant durst pass by night but his hair would stand upright.'

A 17th century woodcut showing a witch on her broomstick, closely followed by the devil. The image shows how little the popular perception of witches has changed during the 300 years since.

One of the earliest works on witchcraft, published in 1486, claimed: 'The imagination of some men is so vivid that they think they see actual figures and appearances which are but the reflection of their thoughts, and then these are believed to be the apparitions of evil spirits or even the spectres of witches.'

There was thus a fertile ground for James's witch hunting beliefs to take hold. In 1597, he published Daemonologie, a treatise on witchcraft that became so influential that it was republished several times and distributed across Europe. It inspired a witch hunting fervour of dangerous proportions, giving sanction to all manner of horrific persecutions. Those most at risk were women: as many as 95% of those convicted for witchcraft were female. Most were unmarried, poor and misfits in their community. Many had a 'familiar', such as a cat, dog or rat, which would supposedly help to carry out their evil spells.

The witch hunts also became a convenient way of getting rid of troublesome neighbours. The old saying that there was 'no smoke without fire' certainly held true here: an accusation was all that was needed to bring someone to trial, and a staggeringly high proportion of those who were hauled before the courts were found guilty.