14 February 2016


Peter Elmer. Witchcraft, Witch-hunting and Politics in Early Modern England. Oxford University Press, 2016.

Studies of witchcraft have tended to fall into two main camps. There are those that look at it in very broad-brush terms, involving cross-cultural studies or in terms of broad ideological discussions on, for example, misogyny or political persecution; and alternatively those who examine the accusations in terms of local village politics and neighbourly conflicts.
Peter Elmer, however, looks at the accusations and the general intellectual debate on witchcraft in terms of the connections between national and local politics. In particular he argues that the rise and fall of witchcraft trials and witch hunting in England mirrors the rise and fall of puritanism. It is the Puritans and the more radical Protestants that initially lead the anti-witchcraft campaigns.

He tracks these developments through seven sections, which cover respectively: witchcraft in Elizabeth and Jacobean England; the period from the accession of Charles I to his death; witchcraft under the Republic and Protectorate; witchcraft in the age of the Restoration and latitudinarianism; the later period of Charles II and James II; and finally the decline of witchcraft from 1688 to the repeal of the Witchcraft Acts.

Elmer examines for example Reginald Scot’s Discovery of Witchcraft which he argues is less a work of proto-rationalism than a manifesto of Scot’s transfer of allegiance from the Puritan promoting Earl of Leicester towards the more moderate Walshingham and Cecil, as their stock rose with the rise of Archbishop Whitgift.

It is not surprising that the theological debates and crises that led up to and culminated in the Civil War, led to a rise in witchcraft accusation, and Elmer tracks these, though his attempt to at least partially rehabilitate the notorious Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins as being engaged in a form of ‘purgative medicine or healing’ and as being ‘an exorcist and healer’, are likely to prove controversial.

Radical religious groups came under suspicion of witchcraft, both under Cromwell and the Restoration, but gradually witchcraft beliefs became associated with ‘enthusiasm’ and extreme religion and as such began to lose favour amongst the elite. Elmer argues that by the end of this period the elite of the Whig leadership was increasingly being influenced by deism and the new ‘Mechanickal Philosophy‘. These changes were enabled by England’s post 1688 change from a politically and religiously monolithic society to a pluralist one.

This is a complex and densely argued academic work, but one that never resorts to opaque jargon. It is buttressed by numerous footnotes (some almost taking up a page) and a 46 page bibliography( (including 5½ devoted to archival sources. It should be of interest to all studying the religious and social history of the period. It is not however primarily a source for those looking for the details of particular witchcraft cases. -- Peter Rogerson.

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