Friday, April 12, 2013

Beneficial Witchcraft in John Trevisa's Middle English Translation of Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon (1387)

In 1387, John Trevisa finished his (Middle) English translation of the Polychronicon of Ranulf Higden, a chonicle of "universal history" written in Latin a few decades earlier. In Trevisa's translation one finds multiple examples of the Middle English "wicche".

In one place, Trevisa translates Higden's "sortligeia" and "superstitiones" as "sortilege" and "wicchecraft". This is in reference to the much sought after magical ability that certain women on the Isle of Man were reputed to have. These women sold bundles of "wind" to sailors, and these bundles could be used to raise winds when and where needed during their sea journeys. This is found at the beginning of Chapter XLV. (You can check it out here:

Amazingly, Ronald Hutton stated during a 2010 "research" trip to the Isle of Man that "in the medieval/early modern period people believed witchcraft as something nasty that human beings do to each other"! (see: Manx Witchcraft and Sorcery Probed by Academic,, dated Jan. 21, 2010)

Witches As Healers in Piers Plowman (ca. 1370)

From: A "medicyne of Wordes": Women, Prayer, and Healing in Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-century England, by Stephanie Lynn Volf:

"If bodily illness could prompt emotional disorder of the mind, the Galenic tradition makes clear that corporeal distress could affect one's woul as well. This relationship will become important in the Christian West, since many emotions fell under the heading of sin (anger, jealousy, lust, etc.). Perhaps this explains why so many medieval moral treatises so carefully emphasize patience when suffering. A real fear existed that illness may lead to sin and damnation, as in the case of the character Haukyn in Piers Plowman. Haukyn complains that when his desires are thwarted, he reacts so emotionally that he falls into an illness. This sickness proves so resistant to treatment that he eventually rejects hope in Christ's providence and turns to witchcraft to alleviate it."
[p. 169]

From Piers Plowman, by William Langland:
'Ther is no lif that I lovye lastynge any while;
For tales that I telle no man trusteth to me.
And whan I may noght have the maistrie, swich malencolie I take
That I cacche the crampe, the cardiacle som tyme,
Or an ague in swich an angre, and som tyme a fevere
That taketh me al a twelvemonthe, til that I despise
Lechecraft of Oure Lord and leve on a wicche,
And seye that no clerc ne kan - ne Crist, as I leve -
To the Soutere of Southwerk, or of Shordych Dame Emme,
And seye that [God ne] Goddes word gaf me nevere boute,
But thorugh a charme hadde I chaunce and my chief heele.'
[13.330 - 341]

"Thou art so wise, people will take thee shortly for a Witch" ("The Captain", John Fletcher, 1612)

From The Captain, by John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, first performed in 1612.


Enter Frank, and Clora.

Clo. Do not dissemble Frank, mine eyes are quicker
Than such observers, that do ground their faith
Upon one smile or tear ; y'are much alter'd.
And are as empty of those excellencies
That were companions to you ; I mean mirth
And free disposure of your blood and Spirit,
As you were born a mourner.

Fran. How I prethee ?
For I perceive no such change in my self.

Clo. Come, come, this is not wise, nor provident
To halt before a Cripple : if you love.
Be liberal to your friend, and let her know it,
I see the way you run, and know how tedious
'Twill prove without a true companion.

Fran. Sure thou wouldst have me love.

Clo. Yes marry would I,
I should not please ye else.

Fran. And who for Heavens sake ?
For I assure my self, I know not yet :
And prethee Clora, since thou'lt have it so
That I must love, and do I know not what :
Let him be held a pretty handsome fellow.
And young, and if he be a little valiant
'Twill be the better ; and a little wise,
And faith a little honest.

Ckr. Well I will sound ye yet for all your craft.

Fran. Heigh ho ! Fie love no more.

Clo. Than one ; and him
You shall love Frank.

Fran. Which him ? thou art so wise
People will take thee shortly for a Witch
But prethee tell me Clora, if I were
So mad as thou wouldst make me, what kind of man
Wouldst thou imagine him ?

Clo. Faith some pretty fellow.
With a clean strength, that cracks a cudgel well
And dances at a Wake, and plays at Nine-holes.