Tag: Print culture

Witchcraft in the Early Modern Popular Press

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, pamphlets became an important vehicle for disseminating information and reporting on contemporary issues, especially during periods of crisis and instability. Unsurprisingly, tales of witchcraft and demonic possession turned up in these pamphlets. I spent some time today surveying witchcraft and possession pamphlets published in England.[1] Here are a few tidbits from what I found.

A little background. I restricted my search to short pamphlets, ca. 48 pages or shorter. I made some on-the-fly decisions about whether or not a pamphlet was primarily about witchcraft with possession added or primarily about possession with witchcraft added. While not exhaustive, I think this is a reasonably complete survey.

Between 1566 and 1704 there were 81 different pamphlets on witchcraft and another 39 on possession.[2] Of those pamphlets, a few treated the same event and one or two were reprinted. Joan Butts appeared in a couple pamphlets and Joan Peterson figured in three. The Witch of the Woodlands tells the story Robin, a womanizing the cobbler who is sexually abused by various female witches before ending up in what seems to have been a homosexual relationship with a beggar in London. Robin’s unfortunate tale must have been a good seller for it was reprinted four times between 1655 and 1680. Most pamphlets, however, treat a discrete set of events.

Although there are a couple bumps, the 120 pamphlets were distributed fairly consistently across the 140 years. The numbers seem pretty modest, usually one or two a year.

Witchcraft and possession pamphlets printed between 1566-1704 in England. [Click on the image for full-sized image.]
Witchcraft and possession pamphlets printed between 1566-1704 in England (click on the image for full-sized and therefore legible image).

It is hard to correlate pamphlets with either legal or political events. The first pamphlet appears in 1566, three years after the Elizabethan Witchcraft Act. The ascension of King James I and the passage of yet another and stricter Witchcraft Act, in 1603 and 1604, seemed to have little impact on the publication of pamphlets.[3] Peaks in 1682, and 1698 don’t seem to map onto significant political or social events (or at least none that spring immediately to mind). It’s tempting to see the uptick in witchcraft pamphlets in 1645 as part of Matthew Hopkins’s crusade to cleanse England of witches—Hopkins embarked on his witch-finding spree in 1644. Whatever the cause, the increase in pamphlets lasted only a year.[4]

Just for giggles, I created a word cloud for the titles of these pamphlets. For what it’s worth, the most common word was “true” followed closely by “relations,” “witches,” and “strange.” Many of these words are unsurprising—“executed,” “witch,” and “witchcraft,” and “devil”—however, the proper names Thomas, John, and Mary seem less obvious. Another way to look at these titles would be to analyze them by decade, perhaps seeing changing patterns and practices.

The 30 most common words in the titles of witchcraft and possession pamphlets (the original can be found here).
The 30 most common words in the titles of witchcraft and possession pamphlets (the original can be found here).

Other questions that come to mind:

  • What was the geographic distribution?
  • Were there local issues, perhaps agrarian crises, that correlate to the peaks in publication?
  • What is the distribution between men and women victims and witches?
  • Does the popular press simply not reflect the standard assumption about witchcraft and societal crises?

With some luck a future post will look at some of these and related issues.


  1. I chose England because I have recently compiled a resource for my students on pamphlets in early modern England, students who for the most part can read only English.  ↩

  2. These numbers do not reflect the numbers of each pamphlet printed but do reflect multiple editions if a pamphlet was reprinted either in the same year or at a later date.  ↩

  3. The Witchcraft Act of 1604 both defined witchcraft more broadly and made the penalty more severe. Witchcraft must have remained a real threat.  ↩

  4. The number of different titles is suggestive, but needs to be paired with other information. In particular, the number of different titles does not give us immediate access to the number of pamphlets circulating. To be sure, the uptick in titles in 1645 could have been accompanied by an increase in the numbers of each title printed. Likewise, the two titles in 1647 and 1650 could have been printed in large numbers. Nonetheless, the brief increase in the variety of titles seems to have been short-lived.  ↩

Plagiarism in 17th-Century Pamphlets?

Wholesale plagiarism is was common in early printed books. Printers, book sellers, and readers even had a word for it: piracy.[1] When dealing with short, cheap pamphlets, this piracy often took the form of wholesale plagiarism. A printer would acquire a copy of one pamphlet, reset the type, find a handy woodblock lying around the shop to use as a title-page illustration, and print up a bunch to sell locally. This is precisely what happened in the case of Georg Tannstetter’s judicia for 1512.

Astrologers produced judicia or practica each winter for the following year. These short pamphlets contained general predictions for the coming year based on the relevant astronomical phenomena—the planetary ruler of the year and any eclipses or conjunctions. In addition, judicia contained predictions related to crops, war, famine, disease, success or failure of the different groups of people, e.g., merchants, farmers, princes, priests, academics, and finally weather. They were frequently produced by a local astrologer associated with the court or the university, for a specific city, and appeared in both Latin and the vernacular.

By 1512 Tannstetter had been at the University of Vienna for a number of year, had worked his way into imperial court ciricles in Vienna, and had produced judicia for at least five or six years. In the winter of 1511 he produced his Judicium Viennense for 1512, which was printed by the Nuremberg printer Wolfgang Huber.

Title-page wood-cut from the Wolffgang Huber edition of Tannstetter’s Judicium Viennense (This is a screen shot from the copy is in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Sig. 4° Astr.P 510.22).

Huber also printed Tannstetter’s wall calendar that accompanied his judicium. The two were linked visually by a shared woodcut illustrating the title page of the judicium and the bottom of the wall calendar. This woodcut depicted the planetary ruler and co-ruler for the year: Jupiter and Mercury. Almost immediately, Henricus Nussia in Cologne produced a quick knockoff of Tannstetter’s Judicium Viennense.

Title-page wood-cut from the Nussia edition of Tannstetter’s 1512 Judicium Viennense ((This is a screen shot from the copy is in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Sig. 4° Astr.P 510.21).

Nussia dug around his shop for a reasonable woodcut—a crowd of astrologers and onlookers pointing up to the stars—for his title page. The text of the judicium is largely unchanged, except for various errors introduced in the typesetting process. He does not appear to have pirated the wall calendar, which would have been much more labor intensive and expensive to reproduce. In this case, Nussia’s motivation seems pretty clear: profit. Judicia were inexpensive to produce and sold well.

It seems a different goal motivated the plagiarism in a pair of pamphlets from the late 1650s. In 1658 an anonymous pamphlet was published offering interpretations and predictions of a recent comet along with other celestial phenomena: The Most True and Wonderfull Relation of a Starre of a Great Magnitude, and casting for a flame as big as any Bushell.

The anonymous pamphlet, The Most True and Wonderfull Relation of a Starre of a Great Magnitude, and casting for a flame as big as any Bushell (1658), printed for F. Coles in London, offered an interpretation of a recent comet.

The pamphlet opens by establishing its authority and thereby the authenticity of the observations and interpretations it contains:

Before I proceed to give you an account of the many admirable formes in which this Prodigious Comet, for many nights together, hath been seene from Thursday December the second, untill Munday [sic] December the sixth, and which may yet continue its dreadfull Apparition (for on that day the Letter sent from thence by a good Hand doth beare its date) it will not bee amisse to represent unto you that at the same Towne of Halling a little before the Warres began their Rained showers of Blood from the Clouds as it is not onely witnessed by some Books at that time published by Authority, but is still to bee attested by many hundred Witnesses that were spectators of it, …

The details—dates, locations, events—in this passage encourage the reader to imagine the events as if he (or in a few cases, she) had witnessed them directly.[2]
The next paragraph seems to anticipate a skeptical audience, one that no longer readily accepts prodigious events and that, consequently, was not persuaded simply by a detailed description. To persuade this audience, the pamphlet reminds the reader that not all towns and places equally fit to experience prodigious events:

It is the observation of a Learned man, that some places by the divine Providence are more appropriate for Miracles then [sic] others, not that the hand of GOD is confined to any place, but that hee is pleased there more particularly to exercise his Power, and to manifest eyther his [sic] Indignation or his good pleasure to the Sons of men; of this the Histories both Sacred and prophane can furnish us with abundant examples, had wee the leasure to prosecute so large a Theame.

As is common, the pamphlet then discusses comets in general, citing no less an authority that Tycho Brahe amongst the “many great Schollers [who] have written large Treatises” on them. It then detours into historical examples of comets. It recounts a story of when King James and his court were hawking and hunting. The king was startled by the appearance of a “Blazing-Starre” and sought the advice of learned mathematicians at Cambridge. In the end, however, the king rejected their ambiguous interpretation and offered his own: “it [the comet] fore-telleth, that the greatest Smart of it, and the sharpest Execution of all shall befall on Me, or my Children.” In 1658 every reader would have appreciated how true King James’s prediction turned out to be. Finally, the pamphlet returns to the particular comet that occasioned its printing. The predictions are, well, ambiguous. Often, the pamphlet claims, comets presage wide-scale death and dying and the deaths of princes. But other times they have presaged wonderful events, like the “Starre in the East” that guided the three wise men to Jesus.

While the whole pamphlet is fascinating, I want to look now at a pamphlet printed the following year. The Dreadful and most Prodigious Tempest at Markfield in Leicestershire promises to interpret a series of prodigious hailstones, claps of thunder that sounded like two armies clashing in the heavens, lightning, and a storm that uprooted trees, walls, and houses.

The anonymous pamphlet, The Dreadful and most Prodigious Tempest at Markfield in Leicestershire (1659), printed for W. Gilbertson, interpreted hailstones, claps of thunder, and a prodigious tempest.

Again, what evidence is taken as prodigious and how the predictions are grounded in that evidence are both interesting, as is the poem at the end describing George Booth as a hermaphrodite. But what caught my eye here was a similarity in particular passages with the previous pamphlet. As before, The Dreadful and most Prodigious Tempest opens with an identical effort to establish its authority:

Before I proceed to give you an accompt of the many admirable and prodigious formes of haile-stones, which in a great storm of thunder and lightning, were taken up and shewed to many at Markfield in Leicestershire, on Thursday the 7th of this present moneth of September, it will not be amiss to represent unto you, that it is the observation of some learned men, that some places by the Divine Providence, are more appropriate for miracles then [sic] others; not that the hand of God is confined to any peculiar place, but that he is pleased there more particularly to exercise his power, and to manifest either his Indignation, or his good pleasure to the Sons of men: Of this the Histories both sacred and profane, can furnish us with abundant examples, had we the leisure to prosecute so large a Theam.

We might explain this similarity away as merely a trope, though to do so undervalues the power and function of tropes, but there is another passage that these two pamphlets share that seems to point to something more. Both invoke a particular historical example to justify the power of prodigious celestial events:

…but in the shapes of Men and Coaches drawn by horses. In Germany about twelve years since, there was seen the shape of a Man in the Air, sitting in the clowds, and cloathed all in white, on his brows were to be seen the rays of Divinity. Those that behled it, did entertain in their hearts the preparations for Repentance, and amendment of Life, believing they had seen some sign whereby they might justly suggest unto themselves that the Resurrection was at hand.

In The Most True and Wonderfull Relation of a Starre of a Great Magnitude the text is identical, except the author noted that it had been “eleven years since.” In neither pamphlet do we learn what consequences resulted, if any. All we learn is that the people who witnessed this man crowned with “the rays of Divinity” encouraged people to amend their ways. We don’t even learn any more about this prodigious apparition, such as where in Germany he was seen. What event in Germany occurred in 1647 that was so significant to an English audience? Diplomats were working to bring the 30 Years War to a conclusion, but the Peace of Westphalia was still a year or more away. Was there a significant, more local event that attracted English and perhaps international attention? And did this example get reused in other English pamphlets during the 1650s?

These passages seem too similar to be explained away as mere coincidence. Perhaps both The Most True and Wonderfull Relation of a Starre of a Great Magnitude and the later The Dreadful and most Prodigious Tempest borrowed from an earlier pamphlet, or perhaps the later pamphlet borrowed from the former. Or perhaps they both borrowed from and in turn propagated a broader set of meaningful practices, tropes, and structures that readers expected when they turned to this pamphlet literature. These two pamphlets alert us to those practices, tropes, structures, and expectations and encourage us to think about how they functioned and what sort of authority authors, printers, and readers attributed to them.


  1. For how printers and readers dealt with piracy, see A. Johns’s recent Piracy (Chicago, 2009). For early versions of his work, see Johns The Nature of the Book (Chicago, 1998), esp. chaps 3 and 7.  ↩

  2. This is related to the virtual witnessing that Shapin and Schaffer detailed in Boyle’s air pump experiments. See Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump (Princeton, 1985), esp. chapters 2 and 6.  ↩