This analysis will argue that that very few of the accused witches in Tudor and Stuart England were in fact insane but that the accusers, whether possessed or otherwise "bewitched" were far more likely to be suffering from some form of mental disorder. Witchcraft beliefs in Tudor and Stuart England were seldom employed to attack the mentally ill, instead they were used to explain mental illness in many cases1. Contrary to many psychological textbooks, such as the works of Gregory Zilboorg,2 very few accused witches were insane by contemporary standards nor by our own standards.
Zilboorg, along with other nineteenth and twentieth century psychologist/writers3, confused the witch with the demoniac (possessed) and proclaims that both were suffering from a variety of mental disorders. Alexander and Selesnick in their History of Psychiatry also fail to make a distinction between the witch and the possessed when they stated "Psychotic women with little control of their sexual fantasies and sacrilegious feelings were the clearest examples of demoniacal possession and in turning against them the church increased an already mounting fear of the mentally deranged"4. The church never turned against the possessed., it turned against the witch - who it saw as a person committing the utmost treason against mankind - trafficking with the Prince of Evil. These psychiatric historians are not simply reiterating the facts of psychiatry's past. They are fashioning only one of many possible views of the past based on their own biased assumptions concerning human nature. At least one modern historian of the witchcraft phenomenon, however, sees the works of Zilboorg et al as an over-simplification to see necessary connections between witchcraft and antisocial behaviour5. The psychologists were making a profession out of propagating the medical model of abnormal behaviour but their interpretation proves inadequate when studying the complex history of witchcraft.
Definitions of madness, of course, were and are extremely abstract as well as being culture-based, and differ over time and place. For example, only a century ago the homosexual was defined as being mentally ill! The physician of Tudor and Stuart England distinguished carefully between the witch and the demoniac - evil criminal and the innocent victim - but nineteenth century psychologists such as Gregory Zilboorg did not6. Contemporary physicians were familiar with the writings of Bartholomaeus who dealt with mental disorders as non-demonic and Paracelsus who wrote in the early sixteenth century listing five kinds of permanently insane people: among whom the fifth is the Obsessi "who are obsessed by the devil". The other five mental disorders mentioned by Paracelsus had "natural" causes such as the Lunatici who were disturbed by the moon and the Vesani who were poisoned or contaminated by food or drink7. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, demonic possession had come to be seen as an increasingly important factor in insanity although it was never considered to be the sole cause of mental disturbances. Demonologists of the fifteenth century considered witchcraft to be a cause of insanity (not the result) but still admitted that insanity did have other natural causes. Demonic possession was defined by canon law as being a species of insanity and was usually treated by means of exorcism and/or prayer and fasting8. Kramer and Sprenger, authors of the infamous Malleus Malificarum claimed that witches "have six ways of injuring humanity ... The sixth [is] to deprive them of reason"9, though even they conceded that mental illness had other "natural" causes. Thus both possession and insanity remained viable explanations for abnormal behaviours and the latter tended to disappear only during the most intense witch scares10.
The most popularly employed psychiatric label in the witchcraft writings of the nineteenth century is the term "hysteria" which is a highly ambiguous term used to describe a variety of unusual and dramatic behaviour including spontaneous amnesia, fugue states, convulsions, motor deficits hallucinations, certain sexual disturbances and language dysfunctions to name but a few. Labelling witches as "hysterics" therefore cannot provide any reliable information concerning their behaviour nor the factors which influenced it11. Accused or suspected witches were not, however, seen as "hysterics" by their contemporaries. They were seen as willing and voluntary servants of the Devil - agents to the ultimate power of evil and thus criminals deserving of the harshest possible treatment and the most painful death.
On the other hand, the victim of demonic possession, also described by the same nineteenth century psychologists as "hysteria", has since the beginnings of mankind been seen as a sickness which requires a cure12 and that cure has been culture specific over the same timeframe. In Tudor and Stuart England the demoniac was frequently seen as being the victim of a witch and was encouraged to name the person whom they believed had caused them to become possessed. That person would then be accused of being a witch and many were tortured and executed on the evidence of the possessed victim. Popular belief held that the possessed could see his or her "tormentors" when others, unaffected, could not (spectral evidence).
The English witch of the 16th and 17th centuries was typically an old, poor, unmarried female who was often described by her neighbours as being sharp-tongued, or having a "devilish tongue", being aggressive, bad tempered and quarrelsome, a refusal to be subservient along with a habit of cursing.
The witch was "semi-dependent" on her neighbours or family yet there often existed an ambiguity in her situation especially when she was a widow or spinster who as such was an "independent" lone female. Charity was fine while charity was appreciated. The accused witch was so often the ingrate, demanding her share, showing no subservience and cursing when denied. When provoked the witch was discontent and desired revenge and this anger at being denied neighbourly help was a dominant emotion which led to cursing14. Witches did not act without a degree of provocation and the common emotion which comes from the trials is the desire for revenge. The accused witch had typically failed in the two kinds of subordination which were demanded of women: deference to men of their own social rank and to men and women of a higher status.
Belief in the power of a curse was so strong among communities in Tudor and Stuart England that correlations between the curse and the occurrence of misfortune were seen as no mere coincidence. Indeed, number of factors operated to increase the probability that such a curse would be correlated with misfortune. A wide variety of events therefore could be construed by victims of a curse as being misfortunes caused by witchcraft. These misfortunes could include illness or death to the cursed him/herself, their spouse or child, their cattle or swine or more trivial misfortune such as the souring of beer or failure in the chore of butter-making. However the chance of a more serious misfortune such as illness of the person cursed could be greatly enhanced when the recipient strongly believed in its efficacy. Anxiety led the cursed to attribute physiological signs of distress to sickness produced by the curse15. Even justices of the peace and grand jurymen were instructed that one of the signs of bewitchment was the sudden onset of a disease in a previously healthy person16 Belief in the community regarding a correlation between cursing and the occurrence of misfortune being determined causally (cursing -> misfortune -> accusation -> torture and/or popular belief system -> confession). When the accused were brought to acknowledge this correlation between a curse they had made and someone else's misfortune, they often drew the same inference as did the rest of the community and defined themselves as witches, not because they were 'hysterics' or otherwise mentally ill, but because they were applying the same logic as their accusers17.
It is important to note , also, that the witch was a frightening figure, sometimes using that quality to obtain considerable power in her community18 and thus, if the "possessed" were not suffering from some form of mental illness, he or she may have been the victim of an overwhelming and justifiable fear - a fear which in itself may have lead to other physical or mental disorders. Such was the case of the servant of Robert Turner of St. Osyth in May 1645. The servant was taken ill "shaking and shrieking and crying out of Rose Hallybread that she had bewitched him"19 and sometimes he crowed as a cock or barked like a dog - at times singing perfect tunes without opening his mouth or moving his lips. This same servant had refused to give some chips to Rose Hallybread and his fear following this refusal undoubtedly lead to his real or imagined afflictions.
An analysis of the casebooks of Anglican priest and astrological physician, Richard Napier, who practiced medicine in the late 16th/early 17th century, reveals approximately 2,000 cases of believed bewitchment among the entire patient population covered in Napier's volumes20. Strange or 'inexplicable' disorders were often put down to bewitchment even by degreed English physicians in the seventeenth century. For example, Thomas Willlis suspected witchcraft in certain convulsive disorders. Among those of Napier's patients who thought themselves bewitched, the most common among adults were disturbances of the mind which affected the mood, perception and behaviour of the "victims" 29/109 (30%) displayed symptoms which would today be classified as psychological in nature. After this the next most common class of afflictions attributed to bewitchment was fits and swoonings, tremblings and shaking - particularly in children. 50% of the bewitched patients under 14 years of age were subject to convulsions, turning of the head and extreme coughing fits. Adults also were thought to be victims of witchcraft when afflicted with violent spasms of the body. These symptoms were interpreted as signs of witchcraft in printed tracts and judicial instructions so it is not surprising that a sufferer would assume he or she was bewitched and look for a culprit21. As Sawyer says:
The key to understanding witchcraft accusations ... in the past is to realise that they were issued at the conjuncture of the biological, existential and social worlds of the infirm. They never arose from mere abstract speculation but were always fixed in concrete situations in which the interpersonal relations, interpretive needs, and the therapeutic expectations of the sick person and his or her healing network were paramount.22
The sick or "possessed" sought to understand their affliction and to achieve healing and truly believed that in naming the person they perceived as responsible for that affliction, then healing could begin. Many bewitched people actually gained relief after their tormentors were dealt with by the legal processes23..
Among Napier's clients were a few "stereotypical" demoniacs - adolescent girls rebelling against the restrictive norms of a patriarchal and gerontocratic society - a generational conflict. In this way, admittedly in a minority of recorded cases, blaming witchcraft may have provided a way of rebelling against authority without punishment. Faith in witches and demons was a fundamental axiom of popular culture, conceived within the marriage of popular culture and the writings of demonologists, nurtured by the pulpit and later fed by popular pamphlets which did much to educate people into ascribing certain forms of behaviour to being bewitched.
In conclusion, the accused witches were not mad, not by today's standards nor by contemporary standards. Society in Tudor and Stuart England addressed mental illness very differently to the way it addressed suspected witches. Undoubtedly, there would have occasionally been some accused persons who were either demented, senile or suffering from some kind of personality disorders. There is evidence that most of those individuals who had been defined as insane were less likely than others to be accused of witchcraft24. However, among the classic accusers - the demonically possessed - there is a far higher chance of finding persons suffering from some form of mental illness. Disorders of the mind, for example, were the single largest category of maladies which were blamed on witches among Napier's casebooks25. Medical psychology in the Tudor and Stuart centuries, however, was more closely integrated into the fabric of daily life that it was in later centuries, such as when Zilboorg wrote, and combined with the strength of belief in demons and witchcraft, it was easy for the ill or sufferers of other misfortune to find a cause for what they could understand than to struggle with something that they could not understand. Ill people made accusations fully accepting that there were supernatural etiological explanations and explored these in order to explore various dimensions of their own maladies and equally various possibilities of cure.
L'Estrange Ewen, C. Witchcraft and Demonianism: A Concise Account Derived from Sworn Depositions and Confessions Obtained in the Courts of England and Wales, Heath Cranton Limited, London, 1933
Macdonald, Michael, "Women and Madness in Tudor and Stuart England", Social Research vol. 53 1986 pp 261 - 281
Macfarlane, Alan., Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England - A regional and comparative study, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1970
Quaife, G. R., "Godly Zeal and Furious Rage: The Witch in Early Modern Europe", Croom Helm, London & Sydney, 1987
Schoeneman, Thomas J. "The Role of Mental Illness in the European Witch Hunts of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: An Assessment", Journal of the History of Behavioural Sciences, 13 (1977)
Sawyer, Ronald C. "'Strangely Handled in all her Lyms' Witchcraft and Healing in Jacobean England", Journal of Social History, xxii (1988-9)
Sharpe, J.A. Witchcraft inSeventeenth-Century Yorkshire: Accusations and Counter Measures Borthwick Papers, 1992
Spanos, Nicholas P. "Witchcraft in Histories of Psychiatry: A critical Analysis and an Alternative Conceptualization", Psychological Bulletin, 85 (1978)
Zilboorg, Gregory, "The Medical Man and the Witch During the Renaissance", The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1935