Due to factors such as scientific discovery, increased literature on feminism, a change in ideologies and social and economics concepts and a revolution in the criminal justice system; arguments on witchcraft are more varied meaning witchcraft literature is a lot more accessible today. This leads to a point raised by well-known feminist scholar Carol F Karlsen who backs up the theory that women were victims of male chauvinism, but does however stumble across a factor that completely disputes the ideology that women were the scapegoats of witchcraft. The notion in question is the fact that many of the witchcraft accusers in Early Modern Britain were in fact female.
Karlsen admits this in relation to misogyny is extremely perplexing, this is shown in her text when she describes women’s role as a witch accuser as ‘one of the most baffling questions about witchcraft’.10 This point is made clear to modern day historians by the documentation that women as witnesses increased significantly in serious judicial proceedings in England and Wales which were presided over by itinerant judges, which were known as The Assizes and were the modern day equivalent of the Crown Court. This point is articulated most effectively in Clive Holmes article ‘Women: witnesses and witches’ when it states ‘The phenomenon is paralleled by an increase in the involvement of female deponents in all cases before the assizes …after the restoration the proportion had more than doubled’.
The idea of a religious reflection on the reasoning behind witchcraft accusations is also integral to the argument against socio-economic tensions because there was a religious crisis in some areas that was described as having ‘almost unlimited potential for creating the type of communal anxiety that led to witchcraft accusations’12 . This is due to certain types of religion and is discussed by Levack who states ‘The prevalence of millenarian sentiment in east Anglia in 1645 might very well have made communities there receptive to the witch-hunting activities of Matthew Hopkins’.
In researching the religious aspects of the causes of witch hunting in Early Modern Britain and trying to decide whether witchcraft accusations were simply a reflection of socio-economic tensions, one character that cannot be overlooked is the ‘professional’ witch hunter known as the witch hunter general and the most prominent in this category was the aforementioned Matthew Hopkins, who was partly responsible for the outbreak in witch hunting in Eastern England in the mid-17th Century. As well as being due to religious reasons, Hopkins had a lot more freedom than most others who accused and tried witches; this was mainly due to the civil war that had led to a slackening of local authority laws due to said authorities being weakened.
There are many contributory factors that suggest that there are social and economic reasons behind witchcraft another of which is fear. This was a factor as a lot of accusations were made due to arguments between people or the refusal to other a helping hand to a poorer less fortunate member of society. It could also be argued that witch accusations were a result of people’s marital status as most figures looked into suggests that it was mainly the unmarried or widowed who were considered to be witches. This is also given light by Levack who suggests ‘Most of these unmarried women were fairly poor, and thus they represented a serious social problem. If men already harboured fears of unattached women, their fears were aggravated by a process of social and demographic change’14 this again points at the issue of Gender as well because there is no suggestion of a fear of unmarried men.
To conclude there are many interesting and opinionated views on the reasoning behind witchcraft accusations in Early Modern Britain. The label of ‘socio-economic tensions’ as name for most of these alleged reasoning’s appears to be a sufficient one. This can be said after much research because the main reasons behind witchcraft allegations appears to be the accused social status and how the higher classes feared them, the accused gender and how women were alleged to ninety per cent of the accused also issues such as the accused marital status have shown as significant in the prosecution of witches.
There are however some notions that do not fall under the class of socio-economic such as the religious beliefs of the accusers and also political views such as James I belief in witchcraft that was shown by his attempt to remove Reginald Scot’s skeptical view on witchcraft from literature by having all obtainable copies burnt. There is a suggestion that ignorance is the main reflection that can be withdrawn from witchcraft allegations but this essay shows that it is mainly down to a different period in history that had a completely dissimilar set of social, economic, political and religious views from the ones that exist in today’s society.
Holmes, Clive, ‘Women: Witnesses and Witches’, Past and Present, no. 140 (1993) Macfarlane, Alan, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England: A Regional and Comparative Study (1970) Oldridge, Darren, The Witchcraft Reader (2001) Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic,(1971)