Witchcraft in the Print Culture of Early Enlightenment England

This past fall, I took a course on Europe during the Enlightenment, and wrote a research paper on witchcraft in print culture during the latter half of the seventeenth century.  This post is based on that paper as the print culture of witchcraft in England provides context for thoughts on witchcraft in 1692 Salem.

Prior to the Enlightenment, witch hunts occurred with some regularity and more tragic outcomes.  The Enlightenment started to shift the thought behind witchcraft, with some resistance.  In the 1640s, England saw its last great witch hunt led by Matthew Hopkins.   Less than a decade after Hopkins, writers and philosophers questioned many notions behind witchcraft, including Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Ady.  Counterarguments from Henry More, Joseph Glanvill, and Increase and Cotton Mather were also sold in England.  However, by the 1690s, the debate essentially ended; witchcraft was not considered a serious threat anymore.

Matthew Hopkins and Joseph Stearn led a witch hunt during the 1640s in England that caused as many as 250 executions.  Witchcraft had been illegal since 1604 when King James I, who published his own book on witchcraft, passed An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft, and dealing with evil and wicked Spirits which stated “That if any pson or persons…shall  use practise or exercise any Invocation or Conjuration of any evil and wicked Spirit…shall suffer pains of deathe as a Felon or Felons.”  Under this law, Hopkins operated for a couple years before his death in 1647.

“The Discovery of Witches,” 1647, shows Matthew Hopkins interrogating witch suspects.  Image from Wikipedia.

Before his death, Hopkins published The Discovery of Witches, a guide for interrogating suspects based on his career as Witchfinder General.  The pamphlet reads as a conversation between Hopkins and judges in Norfolk County where Hopkins answers questions about discovering witches including the water test, witch’s marks, and familiar spirits.  The first page includes Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” and opposite of the title page is an image titled, “Matthew Hopkins Witch Finder General.”  The image shows Hopkins interviewing two suspects naming their familiar spirits.  Hopkins stands tall and commanding over these two frail woman surrounded by a pack of familiars.  Familiar spirits were believed to be gifts from the Devil to those who signed his covenant, witches.  The intended audience for the pamphlet would have been town authorities in need of an understanding of witchcraft, methods of investigation, and the importance of handling such cases.  In the environment where witchcraft existed as a reality and a perceived threat, the imagery of a successful and powerful witch-finder like Hopkins in this image gave the idea of security that witches could be caught.  Unfortunately, as Hopkins tried to create the idea of an authoritative witch-hunter for others to aspire to position, the Enlightenment reshaped ideas of witchcraft and the supernatural.

In 1651, Thomas Hobbes, a political philosopher, published Leviathan which included a chapter titled “Of Daemonology.”  Most scholarship focuses on Hobbes’ contributions to political thought rather than his references to the supernatural, but Hobbes gives a history of demonic possession in his discussion on demons and Christianity.  He writes, “In summe, all singularity if Good, they attributed to the Spirit of God; and if Evil, to some Daemon…that is, a Devill.  And therefore, they called Daemoniaques, that is, possessed by the Devill, such as we call Madmen or Lunatiques; or such as had the Falling Sicknesse.”  Although Hobbes does not specifically discuss witchcraft, he shows here the changing attitudes towards the supernatural.  Demonic possession was also often associated with witchcraft since a demon could take over a witch or a victim, which Hobbes refers to as “Madmen,” “Lunatiques,” and “Falling Sicknesse.”

Thomas Ady
The title page of Thomas Ady’s book.  Screenshot from Early English Books Online.

The harshest criticism of witchcraft beliefs came from Thomas Ady in 1655.  His book A Candle in the Dark: Shewing the Divine Cause of the distractions of the whole nation of England and of the Christian World challenged ideas of witchcraft supported by biblical scripture.  On the title page of this book, Ady includes an image of an arm reaching out of a cloud holding a lit candle.  The word “Reposcam,” appears on the cloud, “Jesus” on the arm, and “Expostulo” in the background.  “Reposcam” and “Expostulo” translate from Latin into “claim” and “expostulate” respectively.  The cloud of darkness represents the claim of witchcraft and other supernatural events.  The light represents the plea against these accusations supported through Jesus, the scriptures that Ady used to create his argument.  The image shows Ady’s method and symbolizes a compromise between skepticism and religious belief.

Much like Hopkins had a target audience, Ady wrote that his book was specifically for “all Judges of Assizes, before they passe sentence of condemnation against poor People, who are accused for Witchcraft.”  Ady also included Proverbs 29:14, “The King that faithfully judgeth the poor, his Throne shall be established.”  Ady’s point is clear, judges must understand scripture to discount accusations of witchcraft.  Those judges who “faithfully judgeth” understand Christianity and establish a place in Heaven for themselves.  If judges interpreted witchcraft in this way, the outcomes of witchcraft case would change from the witch hunts led by Hopkins.  In order to send this message to judges reading the book, Ady explained the title by writing, “the Lord doth Avenge the blood of the Innocent upon the Inhabitants of the Earth,” meaning God will punish the judges who convict and execute witches.


In 1682, a witchcraft trial against Joan Buts demonstrated the changes on witchcraft beliefs that required a higher burden of proof in a secularizing world.  Buts was accused of afflicting a girl named Elizabeth Burrige and plead innocent at trial.  Witnesses described Burrige removing pins from her back, and the same for another girl.  Burrige claimed Buts’ specter caused the attacks.  In total, about twenty people testified against Buts.  The jury deliberated for three hours before determining “she was not Guilty, to the great amazement of some who thought the Evidence sufficient to have found her Guilty, yet others who consider the great difficulty in proving a Witch, thought the Jury could do no less than acquit her.”   This was not too far after Hopkins led witch hunts in the 1640s, but the “great difficulty” in proving witchcraft demonstrates the change in how witch trials occurred during the Enlightenment.  The burden of proof for witchcraft in England exceeded the witness testimony of twenty people.  However, even though the standard of proof changed, the debate over witchcraft continued through the remainder of the seventeenth century.

On of the arguments in support of witchcraft thought came out in 1653 when Henry More published An Antidote against Atheism which discussed several cases of witchcraft.  In one case, More writes that a confessed witch said, “her compact with the Devil was no fable, but a sure truth (and if that be true, there is no reason to doubt of the rest) was abundantly evidenced by the reall effects of it.”  More shows here that he believed if one aspect of a case proved true, the case was true, and a true case was evidence of the reality of witchcraft.  In the sense that More wanted to combat atheism at the time, he needed to prove the existence of a divine presence, and evidence of the Devil influencing events was crucial to disprove atheism and prove witchcraft.  However, by only targeting skepticism, arguments based on scripture like Thomas Ady’s book, would be able to argue against More.  There was a tension between these two lines of thought, and More considered this tension as threat to the church.  Ideally, More hoped to explain the world through a lens of divine influence, a mindset that felt increasingly threatened by Enlightenment thought.  More represented the start of Christian defenses against skepticism.

Joseph Glanvill, a follower of More, provided some of the most powerful works for the counterarguments against skepticism.  Protestant authors like Glanvill encouraged ministers to document and publish accounts of God’s power.  His book Saducisimus Triumphatus or Full and Plain Evidence Concerning Witches and Apparitions was post-humorously published in 1681.  Henry More edited the book and wrote a letter on witchcraft included in Glanvill’s book.  For the most part, belief in the witchcraft and supernatural did not end during the Enlightenment; people still held onto some type of belief but with growing skepticism.  To conservative Protestants like Glanvill, the threat of doubt was still a threat to faith.  The Protestant faith taught that the Devil and the Devil’s ability to tempt people was a reality, so witchcraft was not a debate topic, it was a threat to God and God’s kingdom.  In order to save oneself, those predestined to receive salvation from God needed to prove their worthiness by defending their faith.  An attack on faith meant an attack on Protestantism.  Glanvill’s writing was partially a call to action to ministers to prove their faith.  It certainly inspired Cotton Mather’s Memorable Providences and Wonders of the Invisible World.

As England debated the ideas of witchcraft, the colonial world lagged behind in changing ideas, but was aware of the ongoing debate.  Rev. Increase and Rev. Cotton Mather in the Massachusetts Bay Colony sent books to be published in London during this debate. In 1684, Illustrious Providences by Rev. Increase Mather claimed that “Such Divine Judgements, Tempests, Floods, Earth-quakes, Thunders, as are unusual, strange Apparitions or what ever shall happen that is Prodigious Witchcrafts, Diabolical Possessions, Remarkable Judgements…are to be reckoned among Illustrious Providences.”  This follows Glanvill’s idea to document and discuss supernatural events as divine influences.

A few years later, Increase’s son Rev. Cotton Mather published Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions in 1689 to document the 1688 trial and execution of Goody Glover, a Boston witch.  Mather introduces his book by defining his mission to record supernatural occurrences and cites his predecessors for this mission, “I see what pains Mr. Baxter, Mr. Glanvill, Dr. More, and several other Great Names have taken to publish Histories of Witchcrafts & Possessions unto the world.  I said Let me also run after them.”  By citing Glanvill and More, Mather demonstrated the reach of this religious movement.  Religious leaders in the colonies felt the concern of religious leaders in England.  The Mathers represented the religious convictions of their contemporaries in England, and that influence would guide the Mathers as Massachusetts entered the Salem Witch Trials.

Wonders of the Invisible World
The title page from Cotton Mather’s book.  Screenshot from Early English Books Online.

After the Salem Witch Trials, the Mathers published book on the events of 1692.  John Dunton who previously printed works for Cotton Mather received Wonders of the Invisible World and rushed the printing.  Dunton’s past printings for Mather brought a profit, so the printing of this new book was not an issue of religious debate witchcraft for Dunton, it was a commercial subject that sold books.  The rush to print and details of the title page demonstrate Dunton’s motivation.  The printer even emphasized the secondary title Being an Account of the Tryals of Several Witches Lately Executed in New-England with the words “Tryals,” “New-England,” and “Several Witches” in larger, bolder text.  After the quick sales of the December 1692 edition, Dunton changed the February 1693 edition.  Dunton cut sections to decrease the printing time and focuses on including sections that grabbed readers’ attention.  Sermons that provided the theological reasoning for Mather’s position where removed in favor of the accounts describing witchcraft.  By removing the theological arguments that defended the actions of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, it damaged the reputation of Cotton Mather as an intellectual.  This shows how the change in debate on witchcraft impacted the sale of witchcraft books.  In England, the debate was mostly settled by 1692, but the commercialization of the subject mattered in London.  The argument of witchcraft did not sell, but the excitement and the story brought printers a profit.  As a result, Mather’s reputations suffered, but it shows how the Enlightenment changed witchcraft thought.  The edition of the book without the theological argument ruined Mather’s reputation because readers and philosophers needed more than the glamour and excitement of these witchcraft stories.  People needed a serious publication to accept an argument, but printers needed a thrilling tale to make a profit.  This was the impact of Enlightenment thought.

Caulfied- Matthew Hopkins
“Matthew Hopkins” by James Caulfield.  Image from National Portrait Gallery http://www.npg.org.uk

As the Enlightenment ended, James Caulfield created a portrait of Matthew Hopkins in the late eighteenth century.  The image is based on Hopkin’s 1647 The Discovery of Witches but instead, Hopkins appears in a landscape scene.  As romanticism influenced art, it allowed for new considerations of historic figures like Hopkins.  Historian Malcolm Gaskill says that Hopkins turned into a “boogeyman” by the time of Caulfield’s portrait.  The legends and stories of pre-Enlightenment witch hunts changed from anxiety and fear of these supernatural threats to these stories and tales.  Witchcraft no longer played a role in religious debate or judicial actions.  The time of witch hunts in England ended with the rise of Enlightenment thought.

-Gaskill, Malcolm. Witchfinders: A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 2005.

-Gibson, Marion ed., “An Act against Conjuration, Witchcraft and dealing with evil and wicked Spirtis, 1604.” Witchcraft and Society in England and America, 1550-1750. (Continuum: London) 2003. 5-8.

-Hopkins, Matthew.  The Discovery of Witches. (Angell in Ivie Lane: London.) 1647.

-Hobbes, Thomas, “Of Daemonology.” Leviathan.  (Andrew Crooke: London) 1651.

-Ady, Thomas.  A Candle in the Dark. (Robert Ibbison: London) 1655.

-Anon. An Account of the Tryal and Examination of Joan Buts. (S. Gardener: London) 1682.

-More, Henry.  An Antidote against Atheism. (J. Flesher: Cambridge) 1655.

-Hunter, Michael. “The Decline of Magic: Challenge and Response in Early Enlightenment England.” The Historical Journal 55.2 (2012): 399-425.

-Werking, Richard. “Reformation is our Only Preservation”: Cotton Mather and Salem Witchcraft.” The William and Mary Quarterly 29.2 (1972): 281-290.

-Mather, Increase.  Remarkable Providences. (Boston) 1684.

-Mather, Cotton. Memorable Providences.  (R.P.,: Boston) 1689.

-Cook, Albert. “Damaging the Mathers: London Receives the News from Salem.” The New England Quarterly 65.2 (June 1992), 302-308.

-Caulfield, James. Matthew Hopkins. late 18th-early 19th century. National Portrait Gallery London. 4 1/4in x 2 7/8in. etching and line engraving.

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