Thursday, April 3, 2014

Quick: How many accused Scottish Witches were primarily accused of maleficium? (Answer: not that many)

Anyone and everyone can download the entire "Scottish Witchcraft Database" from here: And, oh, in case you didn't already know, this database is an amazing resource.

Unfortunately, the database is in Access format. However, it can easily be converted to a real database using the handy tool BullZip. Of course that assumes that you have either MariaDB (aka MySQL) or Postgresql installed, and if that is not the case, then you might want to go get MariaDB here:

As always, there are many different ways of accomplishing this kind of thing. Your mileage may vary, etc, etc. The important thing is this: to properly work with any database you need it in a format where you can use some form of SQL. You could also try downloading the SQL schema and tables that are provided on the same page where you can download the Access database.

Before proceeding to the details, please note the following information, taken from the website of the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft in their "How To Cite Us" section:

If you use information from this website in something you have written, please acknowledge us as your source.
Please use your normal citation conventions for websites. We suggest:
Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin, Joyce Miller and Louise Yeoman, 'The Survey of Scottish Witchcraft', (archived January 2003, accessed '[your date]').
The information in this website may be used freely for the purposes of private reference, research or study, but please remember that it is copyright. See Authorship and Copyright.

If we read through the documentation put together by the team at the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, we find that there are three different flavors of "maleficium" used as a characterization of the cases against accused Witches:
  • Maleficium_p refers to cases where it was decided that maleficium was "the main theme".
  • Maleficium_s refers to cases where maleficium was "mentioned" in the documentation, but it was decided that this was a secondary characteristic.
  • Maleficium (without a trailing _p or _s) refers to cases in which there were allegations of "collective maleficium organized or committed" at Witches' meetings (without distinguishing between "primary" or "secondary").
These characterizations are all found in the table "wdb_case". So in order to discover how many cases during the Scottish Witch-hunts were primarily characterized by accusations of maleficium, all we need is a simple SQL query like the following:

SELECT FROM wdb_case
WHERE Maleficium_p=1

And the result is that we get a grand total of 40 rows. Ahem. That is out of over 3,000 recorded cases.

What? Only 40? Let's double check, but this time we'll jazz things up a little by getting the names of the accused Witches as well as the counties in which they resided and also the dates of their trials:

SELECT wdb_accused.FirstName, wdb_accused.LastName,
 wdb_accused.AccusedRef, wdb_case.Case_date,
FROM wdb_accused join wdb_case
ON wdb_accused.AccusedRef = wdb_case.AccusedRef
WHERE wdb_case.Maleficium_p = 1
ORDER BY wdb_case.Case_date_as_date, wdb_accused.Res_county,

| FirstName | LastName      | AccusedRef | Case_date  | Res_county |
| Johnnet   | Wischert      | A/EGD/2067 | 17/2/1597  | Aberdeen   |
| Isobel    | Cockie        | A/EGD/2066 | 19/2/1597  | Aberdeen   |
| Christen  | Michell       | A/EGD/2077 | 9/3/1597   | Aberdeen   |
| Isobell   | Strauthaquhin | A/EGD/2105 | 21/3/1597  | Aberdeen   |
| Katherine | Gerard        | A/EGD/2096 | 15/4/1597  | Aberdeen   |
| Christian | Reid          | A/EGD/2095 | 15/4/1597  | Aberdeen   |
| Margret   | Reauch        | A/JO/2954  | 17/4/1597  | Aberdeen   |
| Issobell  | Richie        | A/EGD/2110 | 24/4/1597  | Aberdeen   |
| Helene    | Rogie         | A/JO/2898  | 24/4/1597  | Aberdeen   |
| Agnes     | Wobster       | A/EGD/2107 | 24/4/1597  | Aberdeen   |
| Margrat   | Cleraucht     | A/JO/2951  | 25/4/1597  | Aberdeen   |
| Helene    | Frasser       | A/EGD/2097 | 25/4/1597  | Aberdeen   |
| Ellen     | Gray          | A/EGD/2106 | 27/4/1597  | Aberdeen   |
| Marion    | Peebles       | A/EGD/2261 | 21/3/1644  | Shetland   |
| Janat     | Cuj           | A/EGD/2294 | 16/11/1646 | Elgin      |
| Margaret  | Murray        | A/EGD/2295 | 26/11/1646 | Elgin      |
| Helen     | Small         | A/EGD/2297 | 18/1/1649  | Fife       |
| Beatrix   | Watsone       | A/EGD/2299 | 19/8/1649  | Edinburgh  |
| Marioun   | Twedy         | A/EGD/1832 | 21/11/1649 | Peebles    |
| Jonet     | Coutts        | A/EGD/1791 | 4/1/1650   | Peebles    |
| Margaret  | Merchant      | A/EGD/1821 | 19/3/1650  | Forfar     |
| Elspet    | Gray          | A/EGD/1968 | 21/3/1650  | Forfar     |
| Jonat     | Couper        | A/EGD/2318 | 11/4/1650  | Forfar     |
| Catharin  | Lyell         | A/JO/2825  | 11/4/1650  | Forfar     |
| Margaret  | NcLevin       | A/EGD/1519 | 14/2/1662  | Bute       |
| Issobell  | NcNicol       | A/EGD/1513 | 21/2/1662  | Bute       |
| Margrat   | NcWilliam     | A/JO/3084  | 7/5/1662   | Bute       |
| Marjory   | Craig         | A/EGD/1727 | 20/2/1677  | Renfrew    |
| Margret   | Jackson       | A/EGD/1729 | 20/2/1677  | Renfrew    |
| Jonet     | Mathie        | A/EGD/1732 | 20/2/1677  | Renfrew    |
| Jon       | Stewart       | A/EGD/1731 | 20/2/1677  | Renfrew    |
| Bessie    | Weir          | A/EGD/1728 | 20/2/1677  | Renfrew    |
| Annabell  | Stewart       | A/EGD/1730 | 4/4/1677   | Renfrew    |
| John      | Gray          | A/EGD/1740 | 19/7/1677  | Stirling   |
| Janet     | McNair        | A/EGD/1741 | 3/12/1677  | Stirling   |
| Thomas    | Mitchell      | A/EGD/1742 | 3/12/1677  | Stirling   |
| Mary      | Mitchell      | A/EGD/1739 | 3/12/1677  | Stirling   |
| Janet     | Wharrie       | A/JO/2888  | 7/11/1699  | Dumfries   |
| Janet     | Cornfoot      | A/EGD/2371 | 15/2/1705  | Fife       |
| Andrew    | Ratter        | A/JO/2879  | 11/6/1708  | Shetland   |
40 rows in set (0.01 sec)

MariaDB [witchdb]>

In future posts I will dig more deeply into what the data actually has to say concerning the prevalence, or lack thereof, of actual accusations of maleficium during the Scottish Witch-hunts. But for now these results obviously should give pause to anyone who wishes to continue to claim that Witchcraft must be defined primarily in terms of malefic magic.


Julian Goodare said...

You ask: 'How many accused Scottish Witches were primarily accused of maleficium?' And you have: 'Answer: not that many'.

However, I think the answer should be: 'Answer: we're not sure'.

You say that you've found 'only 40' out of 'over 3,000' cases where maleficium was the 'main theme'. Well, yes, you have, but that doesn't necessarily mean that maleficium was absent or unimportant in the others. There are two reasons for this:

1. Most of the 3,000-plus cases in the Survey don't have enough information to be given a primary categorisation. You may well have obtained your figure of 40, not from the full 3,000-plus, but from a subset of 328 detailed cases. For the other 2,700-odd, the characterisation is simply 'not known'. The single most common type of record was a commission of justiciary - an order that a trial should be held - rather than the record of the trial itself. These commissions didn't usually provide us with enough information to assign a primary categorisation to the case. Whether the 328 detailed cases form a representative sample is a difficult question that can only be answered from a careful consideration of the nature of the records that I and my colleagues used to create the Survey. For some purposes the detailed cases may be more representative than for others.

2. There are 17 options for primary characterisation in the Survey, so many of the 328 detailed cases have been assigned to some other category, such as 'Demonic'. That doesn't necessarily mean that maleficium was absent from those cases. You'd need to look at the secondary characterisations as well.

As far as one can tell from the records of the detailed cases and from other primary sources, when Scottish witches weren't accused of maleficium, they were usually accused of making a demonic pact. And quite a few were accused of both. It's not easy to generate reliable statistics on this from the Survey, because of the preponderance of 'not known' cases. My impression, for what it's worth, is that demonic cases were rather more common than maleficium cases. Moreover, in some of the cases where the witch was accused of both the demonic pact and maleficium, the case seems to have been driven more by the authorities' concern about the demonic pact - though this would be hard to prove, and even harder to analyse statistically.

I like to think that the Witchcraft Survey is useful, but it's a pity that it can so readily be used to generate misleading statistics. As well as using the Survey, please also read what scholars have written about Scottish witchcraft. For an analysis of the Witchcraft Survey's statistics, see Lauren Martin and Joyce Miller, 'Some Findings from the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft', in Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin and Joyce Miller (eds.), Witchcraft and Belief in Early Modern Scotland (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 51-70. For a discussion of the kinds of questions that the Witchcraft Survey can and can't be used to answer, see Julian Goodare, 'Introduction', in Julian Goodare (ed.), Scottish Witches and Witch-Hunters (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 1-16.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Professor Goodare, thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my blog post. Whatever criticisms I may have of some of some of your conclusions, I am very appreciative of your contributions to this important, and endlessly fascinating, area of scholarship.

It seems that we are in agreement as to one very basic fact: that the vast majority of known cases of prosecutions under the Scottish Witchcraft Act provide little or no specific evidence of the nature of the "Witchcraft" involved.

I will also concede that in about half of the cases where some characterization can be made we can conclude that some form of harmful magic was (at least allegedly) involved.

But of course that also means that in about half of the same cases, no solid evidence of a connection between Witchcraft accusations and harmful magic exists. And it also means that in the vast majority of cases we cannot say one way or the other.

And yet you claimed in your 2005 paper on the Act (a paper that is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the whole phenomenon of early modern Witch-hunts) that practitioners of harmful magic were the primary target of Witchcraft accusations in Scotland. And so I simply ask: what is the evidence for that claim?

Julian Goodare said...

Thank you for your thoughtful comments and your interest in my work.

I've been looking at the article of mine that you mention, 'The Scottish Witchcraft Act', Church History, 74 (2005), pp. 39-67, to see if I can find where I wrote that (as you put it) 'practitioners of harmful magic were the primary target of Witchcraft accusations in Scotland'. I'm afraid I can't find such a statement in the article, nor indeed do I agree with such a statement. In the article, the nearest I can get is this: 'The person who is by habit and repute a witch, or who casts secret and maleficent spells, or who makes a pact with the Devil to become a witch, became the witch familiar to the criminal courts after 1563; but such a person is not directly visible in the act' (p. 57). It's not just harmful magic that they were concerned about; they were also concerned about the demonic pact.

The authorities who prosecuted Scottish witches generally seem to have thought that witches both made a pact with the Devil and practised harmful magic. Sometimes they placed the emphasis on one of these two things, sometimes on the other. If we had fuller records, we might be able to analyse this question statistically, but it's really a question of emphasis. In European context, Scotland is fairly normal here; I don't think the missing records are obscuring anything surprising from this point of view.

It's also a question of the authorities' attitudes, not of real practices or beliefs among accused witches themselves. I don't think that any more than a tiny minority of accused witches had really made (or attempted to make) a pact with the Devil, or had really practised (or attempted to practise) harmful magic. One does find such cases occasionally; in a society that believes in magic, some people will attempt to use magic for deviant or criminal purposes. But the vast majority of witches were simply victims of labels that were forced onto them by others.

Now, you seem to be keen to find early modern witches who weren't accused of harmful magic. I'm not particularly wanting to discourage you in this quest, but I do want to point out some implications of what I've said about the authorities' attitudes and labelling practices. The main implication is: even if you could show that a given witch wasn't accused of harmful magic, that would only tell you about the attitude of the authorities who made that particular accusation. It wouldn't tell you anything about popular magical practices. To find out about popular magical practices, you have to study magical practitioners in their own right. Witchcraft trials are sometimes helpful here because they generated relevant documents. However, not all (or even most) witches were magical practitioners, and not all (or even most) magical practitioners were accused of witchcraft. Perhaps you should decide, or clarify, whether your primary interest is in magical practitioners (as identified by themselves) or in witches (as labelled by others).

Apuleius Platonicus said...

My impression was that a major theme of the article in question was the apparent contradiction between:

(a) The fact, incontestable, that the law itself nowhere mentions maleficium (or malefice).


(b) The fact, assumed by you (or so I interpreted it), that alleged perpetrators of maleficium/malefice were the primary targets of prosecutions under the law.

Your own reply lends some credence to this interpretation of mine. You say that "The authorities who prosecuted Scottish witches generally seem to have thought that witches both made a pact with the Devil and practised harmful magic." But only half of the cases in which we have some knowledge of what the "the authorities ... seem to have thought" is there any evidence of allegations of harmful magic - and in only 40 cases was this deemed (by the researchers at the SSW) to have been the "primary" characterization of the case.

Another important issue is raised when we specifically look at the motivation of "the authorities". For we know that in both England and Scotland that the Church authorities (in particular) were quite interested, and explicitly so, in the vigorous suppression of beneficial magical practices such as divination and healing.

And if we look at the very interesting suggestion made by you and others that the suppression of Catholicism was also a significant motivation for the Witch-hunts, then the picture that emerges is one of a general hatred of magic (inclusive of Papist superstition and mumbo-jumbo). This hatred, from the standpoint of the authorities, had little or nothing to do with whether or not the magic in question was harmful (in the mundane sense), but is based rather on the view that all magic is anti-Christian and diabolic in its origin. If anything, magic that appears to be beneficial is to be considered, from this perspective, even more diabolical/evil, than magic that is obviously harmful.

Julian Goodare said...

Yes, the contrast between the wording of the 1563 act and the actual aims and practices of later Scottish witch-hunters is noticeable. The act was clearly subjected to creative interpretation by the courts. The details of how this was done require further research, but I assume that later lawyers and judges thought that the act had been poorly or unhelpfully drafted. The author of the act (who may have been John Knox) seems to have run together three things that might have been better kept separate:

1. witchcraft (thought of either as harmful magic, or as the making of a demonic pact, or both, though no precise definition was provided in the act)

2. Catholic 'superstition'

3. popular magical practice (thought of by its practitioners and their clients as being largely beneficial).

In practice, the act was used only to prosecute category 1.

As I think I've pointed out, I didn't quite say that 'alleged perpetrators of maleficium/malefice were the primary targets of prosecutions under the law'. The authorities were concerned both about malefice and about the demonic pact.

I agree that the act displays a 'general hatred of magic (inclusive of Papist superstition and mumbo-jumbo)'; this is why the three categories were combined in the act. In practice, though, after 1563, those carrying out identifiably Catholic rituals (category 2) were usually prosecuted under acts passed for that purpose, not under the witchcraft act.

I agree that the authorities were also concerned to suppress beneficial magic (category 3). However, they didn't usually prosecute them for witchcraft. As I pointed out in my 2010 Guardian article (discussed elsewhere in this blog), we find hardly any 'witches' accused simply of beneficial magic and nothing else. Those who'd practised beneficial magic, usually called 'charmers' in Scotland, were usually prosecuted for 'superstition' by the church courts (not the criminal courts that tried witches), and they were made to do penance (a much milder punishment than that meted out to witches). Indeed it was only some charmers who were prosecuted - usually those who'd used verbal formulae in their charms (because these formulae tended to supplicate God or the saints in unsanctioned ways, which is what 'superstition' mainly meant). Charmers who'd just used herbs were usually let off.

It is indeed possible to find statements, usually from clergymen, saying that beneficial magic is as bad as harmful magic, or even worse, for the reasons that you mention. Sometimes they use the word 'witchcraft' in these statements. Further research might be helpful on the relationship between these statements and the discourse and practices of the criminal courts, but it's clear that there was a gap between them. Historians studying criminal prosecutions for witchcraft, whether in Scotland or England or indeed on the Continent, have never found significant numbers of people prosecuted for 'witchcraft' in the criminal courts simply because they had practised beneficial magic.

For more on magical practitioners in Scotland see Joyce Miller, 'Devices and directions: folk healing aspects of witchcraft practice in seventeenth-century Scotland', in Julian Goodare (ed.), The Scottish Witch-Hunt in Context (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002), pp. 90-105, and Owen Davies, 'A comparative perspective on Scottish cunning-folk and charmers', in Julian Goodare, Lauren Martin and Joyce Miller (eds.), Witchcraft and Belief in Early Modern Scotland (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 185-205.