Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Popular usage of "good Witch" according to ten early modern sources

This post presents ten different authors who all attribute the phrase "good Witch" (and/or something similar, such as "white Witch", "curing Witch", or "unbinding Witch") to popular usage. The works cited span a time period from around 1600 to 1715.

In his recent publication in the Pomegranate journal, Revisionism and Counter-Revisionism in Pagan History, Ronald Hutton has claimed that all of the instances in which we have written accounts of this sort, that is, contemporaneous sources that attribute the phrase "good Witch" (and the like) to common usage during the 16th to 18th centuries, can be dismissed on account of bias. Hutton's theory is that all of the authors in question are "radical evangelical Protestants" who are therefore, completely unrepresentative of popular opinion. Moreover, Hutton claims specifically that the instances in which these authors attribute phrases such as "good Witch" to popular usage are all part of a "campaign" by the "radical evangelical Protestants" to convince the common people to apply the label of "Witch" to workers of beneficial magic. There are two major problems with Hutton's thesis (or to be more precise, with the specific part of his thesis dealing with these early modern written sources, for Hutton also makes some rather strange claims about Anglo-Saxon law, which will be taken up in a future post).

The first major problem for Hutton is that none of the sources in question ever puts forward anything like the argument that he attributes to them. That is to say, we have precisely zero examples of a source that first criticizes the common people for failing to label workers of beneficial magic as "Witches," and then calls on them to do so henceforward. Rather, we have either (1) passages where the common usage of the phrase "good Witch" (and the like) is reported simply as an observation, or we have (2) passages in which the common people are criticized because they do use the phrase "good Witch" to refer to healers (etc.), and where the criticism is clearly and explicitly focused not on the noun "Witch", but rather on the adjective "good".

Moreover, Hutton baldly refuses to address the fact that if these sources are to be interpreted as attempting to impose a change in how workers of beneficial magic are to be labeled, for the express purpose of maligning these same magical workers, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever for these authors to repeatedly go out of their way to use the phrase "good Witch," unless such expressions were in fact already in common usage. There is no doubt that in many (but not necessarily, as it turns out, all) cases, the sources assembled here do wish to malign magical healers and other workers of beneficial magic. But if Hutton's notion of what is really going on had any validity, then surely the sources in question would, if they could, always and everywhere avoid any phrase such as "good Witch," for this obviously diminishes, if not negates, the perjorative sting that is intended to be attached to the label "Witch."

The second major problem is that Hutton's sloppy invocation of "radical evangelical Protestants" is itself fraught with multiple issues. What, according to Hutton, is supposed to objectively distinguishes a "radical" Protestant from a non-radical one, and can Hutton show (does he even try to show??) that these criteria (whatever they might be--we can only guess) actually do apply to all of these sources? As for the adjective "evangelical", Hutton, as a historian, should know that his use of the term in this way, during this time period in Britain, is comically anachronistic (or would be if so many people did not mistakenly take Ronald Hutton seriously as a historian). It is, in fact, true that all of the sources in question can without doubt be labeled as Protestant. In fact, most of them are clearly Puritans, but even that label covers quite a multitude of sins.

 At least three further objections should be made to Hutton's sweeping characterization of all of the sources in question as part of a coherent "campaign" engaged in by "radical evangelical Prostestants." First there is the fact that we know that one of our authors, Thomas Ady, devotes a significant portion of his famous book on Witchcraft to attacking another one of the authors on our list, Thomas Cooper, while two of the other authors, Richard Bernard and John Stearne, both cite Thomas Cooper with approval in their respective works. Moreover, Ady's critique of Cooper amounts to the accusation that Cooper takes a "Popish" view of Witchcraft! Second, one of our authors, Robert Burton, was a critic of Puritans, even suggesting that their religious movement constituted a kind of madness. Thirdly, our final author, Joseph Addison, was many things, but to my knowledge he has never been accused of any kind of religious "radicalism", although he has been credited with espousing and inspiring politically radical ideas, including ideas that led to the American Revolution.

The bottom line is that something more than mere hand-waving and table-pounding on Hutton's part is required if he wants to convincingly argue that the sources presented here either mean something other than what they plainly say, or that their combined and unanimous testimony on the subject of the common usage of phrases such as "good Witch" is to be summarily rejected. Ronald Hutton has shown no inclination for such a serious engagement with these sources, and until he does then no one can be expected to take him seriously either.

But now let us now turn to the sources themselves. One of the works cited below was published anonymously, this being The Witch of Wapping, which first appeared in 1652. Concerning two of the other authors, Thomas Ady and Thomas Cooper, little is actually known of them outside of their writings, although in the case Cooper three of our other authors explicitly reference him in their own writings (as further noted below). The other seven authors are William Perkins, Robert Burton, Richard Bernard, John Stearne, Increase Mather, Richard Baxter and Joseph Addison, all of whom can be described as fairly well documented historical persons (for example, at least we have birth and death dates for them, unlike Cooper and Ady).

And now to the list itself, in chronological order of the works cited. For the seven more well known individuals we will have little to say about their biographies, and even less to say about the one anonymous author. A little more background information, such as it is, is provided concerning the two Thomases. Scroll to the bottom of the post for links to the full texts of all works cited.  

1. William Perkins (1558-1602)
Perkins was a Puritan, but not a radical one in that he accepted the Elizabethan Settlement and opposed those who wished to break away from the Church of England.

Quote from Perkins' A Discourse on the Damned Art of Witchcraft (the text of one of his sermons, which was first published in 1618, well after Perkins' death.):
  • "And the good Witch is commonly tearmed the vnbinding Witch."
  • "Of Witches there be two sorts: The bad Witch, and the good Witch: for so they are commonly called."

2. Thomas Cooper (dates uncertain, 17th century)
This particular "Thomas Cooper" is a bit difficult to pin down. There was a famous Anglican Bishop named Thomas Cooper, who died in 1594. There was also a noteworthy colonel in the Parliamentary Army by that name. Then there was a Thomas Cooper of Boston, an acquaintance of Increase Mather and a captain of the Suffolk Guard. And a little later on there was a radical Chartist named Thomas Cooper who spent two years in Stafford gaol for sedition from 1843-1845. But the author of "The Mysteries of Witchcraft", first published in 1617 and then reissued under the title "Sathan Transformed into an Angell of Light" in 1622, is none of those men. Our Thomas Cooper appears to be the one listed in the Appendix ("The University Background of the Preachers") in R.C. Richardson's "Puritanism in North-West England: A Regional Study of the Diocese of Chester to 1642", where he we find one Thomas Cooper who received his B.A. in 1590 and his M.A. in 1593 from Christ Church College, Oxford.

Interestingly, three of the other authors on this list make direct references to Cooper's work. Even more interestingly, perhaps, is the fact that they have varying opinions concerning Thomas Cooper. On the one hand, Richard Bernard makes numerous references to "Master" Cooper as a reliable authority on the subject of Witchcraft, while in contrast, Thomas Ady devotes a significant amount of ink to attacking Cooper for his "Popish" views on Witchcraft. It is also significant to note that Bernard also cites King James' Dæmonologie approvingly, whereas Ady attacks that work even more virulently and at much greater length than his attack on Cooper. John Stearne makes a single reference to Thomas Cooper, and he appears to have no criticism of Cooper as an authority on the subject of Witchcraft.

Quotes from Thomas Cooper's The Mysteries of Witchcraft, 1617
  • "The Good Witch, as they are termed, because they doe seeme to helpe."
  • "And so contrariwise, there are others who by Divine Justice, are given up to Satans power with this limitation onely, to helpe and do good, and these are called Good Witches, Blessers, Wise, and Cunning-women."
  • "That the Blesser or good Witch (as we terme her) is farre more dangerous then the Badde or hurting Witch ..."
  • "That they are to bee punished with death, especially the Blesser and good Witch, as they terme her."

3. Robert Burton 1577-1640
Burton was a scholar mostly known today for his work "The Anatomy of Melancholy," in which he argues, among other things, that the "enthusiasm" of the Puritans was actually a variety of mental illness.

Quote from Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)

"Sorcerers are too common; cunning men, wizards, and white-witches, as they call them, in every village, which if they be sought unto, will help almost all infirmities of body and mind"

4. Richard Bernard (1568-1641)
A Puritan, but a moderate one who opposed separatism. Bernard has a reputation, possibly deserved, as a proponent of religious toleration, at least by the standards of the day.

Quotes from Richard Bernard's A Guide to Grand-Jury Men (1627)
  • "Bad Witches many prosecure with all eagernesse; but Magicians, Necromancers, (of whom his late Maiestie giueth a deadly censure in his Dæmonologie) and the Curing Witch, comonly called, The good Witch, all forts can let alone: and yet bee these in many respects worse then the other."
  • "That there are such as be called good Witches, and how they may be knowne to be Witches."
  • "That there are such as bee called good Witches, and how they may be knowne."
  • "Of good witches falsly so called."
  • "The good Witches (vn truely so called) may be sundry waies knowne."
  • "Thus may these, falsely so named good Witches, be discouered."
  • "The report of a White or good Witch, as the people call him or her." 
  •  "If thou shalt finde one that is a Witch: though such an one as thou couldest be contented to winke at, and to passe by (as people now doe such as be called with vs, good Witches) yet shalt thou not suffer him or her to liue; no more then a bad Witch ...."
  • "By all the names giuen vnto them, by which these sorts are set forth, and rather such as bee now held good Witches then such as be held cursing and bad Witches."
  • "The imagined good Witch, the Coniurer, Enchanter, Magician, Southsayer, and the rest ought to dye; for besides the former reasons; 1. As hath beene proued; the course of the Scriptures is generally against these."
  • "Those called good Witches should be put to death."

5. John Stearne (c.1610-1670)
John Stearne is arguably the most notorious name on this list. He was by all accounts a real, honest-to-gods, bonafide fanatical Witch-hunter. According to Malcolm Gaskill's Witchfinders, Stearne was a "staunch Puritan with a censorius manner and a mind steeped in Scripture."

Quotes from John Stearne's A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft, 1648
  • "That there are Witches called bad Witches and Witches untruely called good or white Witches , and what manner of people they be..."
  • "And as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do those also resist the truth. There you may see plainly that there should be such to the latter end, besides in diverse other places speaking expressly of Witchcraft. Likewise of the Pythoness which brought her mistress much gain. And so I might nominate diverse other places, for those which remain doubtful either being bewitched or of Witches themselves, but because their own confessions clear this evidently besides the forenamed places, I proceed to distinguish between those called bad Witches, and those called white or good Witches, which is easily to be discerned and known. But yet I say all Witches are bad, and ought to suffer alike, being both in league with the Devil: for so is the good, so untruly called as well as other, either open or implicit. And therefore I conclude, all that are in league with the Devil ought to die."
  • ".... but this woman desired him to undo what he had done; and he told her he could not undo what he had done, but told her he was sorry for it, and told her of another that could, as he said, and as she affirmed, that was one, as we untruly call them, White or good Witches, and one that was then suspected, who accordingly did it ...."
  • "And that all that are thus in league, (as express or open league as aforesaid) are to be found out and known by these evidences, be they of either sort, bad, or white or good Witches so called ...."

6. The anonymous author of The Witch of Wapping (published 1652)
  • "There are two sorts oi Witches, which the Vulgar people distinguish by the names of the Good Witch, (I wonder how that can be,) and the Bad."

7. Thomas Ady (dates uncertain, 17th century)
Other than his published writings, little is known of Thomas Ady. He is often described as "a physician and a humanist," but sources describing him as a humanist inevitably also claim that Ady's views on Witchcraft were "skeptical." It must be emphasized that while Ady was a harsh critic of many of the popular views about Witches current during his day, he was nevertheless adamant about the reality of Witches. Ady was of the opinion that many popular notions concerning what we now call "diabolical" Witchcraft were just so much "Popish" nonsense. Ady wished to replace the "Popish" conception of Witchcraft with one based solely on Scripture (or at least on Ady's interpretation of Scripture). Therefore, Ady not only emphatically endorses the Biblical injunction "thou shalt not suffer a Witch to live," but his stated goal is to correct public opinion concerning Witchcraft so that the real Witches can be hunted down and put to death.

Quotes from Thomas Ady's Candle in the Dark (1656):
  • "....  to shew them the vanity and ridiculousness of those delusions and lying Wonders, by which men were so easily deluded in old times by Pharaohs Magicians, by Simon Magus, and Elimas the Sorcerer, and now adays by our professed Wizzards, or Witches, commonly called Cunning Men, or good Witches , who will undertake to shew the face of the Thief in the Glass ...."
  • ".... many indeed have been led after Southsayers, but they are termed good Witches, and whereas they as Witches ought to dye, many have been put to death by their devillish false accusations, and if the Witch of Endor were now living amongst us, we should call her a good Witch, so blinde are the times."

8. Increase Mather (1639-1723)
Prominent New England Puritan who was the first president of Harvard College, and the father of Cotton Mather.

Quote from Increase Mather's Remarkable Providences (1684) 
  • "Let such practitioners think the best of themselves, they are too near a kin to those creatures who commonly pass under the name of 'white witches.' They that do hurt to others by the devils help are called 'black witches' but there are a sort of persons in the world that will never hurt any; but only by the power of the infernal spirits they will un-bewitch those that seek unto them for relief. I know that by Constantius his law, black witches were to be punished, and white ones indulged ; but M. Perkins saith, that the good witch is a more horrible and detestable monster than the bad one. Balaam was a black witch, and Simon Magus a white one."

9. Richard Baxter (1615-1691)
A moderate Puritan who continued to advocate against separatism after the Restoration and even after the Act of Uniformity. Theologically, he rejected the central Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement in favor of universal atonement.

Quote from Richard Baxter's The Certainty of the WORLDS of SPIRITS (1691)
  • "Being asked if he could do him no good, he said, he did not question but he could, but being a Minister he feared he should lose his Benefice by Peoples saying he was a White-Witch."

10. Joseph Addison (1672-1719)
Addison was a professional writer and also held a number of political offices. His writings, especially his Cato, A Tragedy (written in 1712), are often cited as important influences for later writers, activists, and revolutionaries in both England and America who were inspired by Addison's championing of republicanism, democracy and individual liberty.

Quote from Joseph Addison's play The Drummer, 1715
  • "The common people call him a wizard, a white-witch, a conjurer, a cunning-man, a necromancer."

Links to works cited:
  1. A Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft, Willliam Perkins
  2. Sathan Transformed into an Angell of Light, Thomas Cooper
  3. The Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton
  4. A Guide to Grand Iury Men, Richard Bernard
  5. A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft, John Stearne
  6. The Witch of Wapping, Anonymous
  7. A Candle in the Dark, Thomas Ady
  8. Remarkable Providences, Increase Mather
  9. The Certainty of the World of the Spirits, Richard Baxter
  10. The Drummer, Joseph Addison

Revision history:
Originally posted on 1/29/2013
Revised version, including John Stearne, posted 1/30/2013
Revised again, to include Robert Burton (bringing the count to 10) on 2/6/2013