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 firs