A Guide for Magistrates Dealing with Witches

A Victorian depiction of the Pendle witches

A Victorian depiction of the Pendle witches

In Michael Dalton’s 1618 handbook for Justices of the Peace, The Country Justice, he included a section on witchcraft, noting that although various types of witchcraft were classified as felonies, it could be hard to convict a woman charged with witchcraft, simply because these “cruel, revengeful and bloody” creatures carried out “works of darkness”.

This meant that there was not always direct evidence of their crimes, with no witnesses present when they invocated, entertained, or fed evil spirits; or when they used “charm or sorcery” to harm any other person.

This meant, effectively, that anyone could – and did – accuse women of committing acts of witchcraft despite a lack of evidence. This was a serious issue, as the punishment for witchcraft, under common law, was to be burned.

So what should the humble magistrate do in such cases?

Dalton had made observations from the Pendle witch trials six years earlier, together with advice from another guide written to aid those serving on grand juries. On the basis of these, he noted that witches had ‘familiars’ – such as cats, rats, toads and so on – who they named and met with. They also might have teats. These two facts might be enough to convict women as having made a ‘league with the devil’.

Witches might also have clay figures of those they wanted to bewitch. So far, so stereotypical.

But Dalton also noted that one might suspect a neighbour of being a witch if she was heard cursing – and then, later, something untoward occurred. In such a way, pretty much any woman in a bad temper could be accused – and in this way, ‘unfeminine’ behaviour could be punished.

This echoed the fact that witchcraft could be charged against a woman purely if a neighbour suspected her of being a witch, and so reported her. Witchcraft was related not only to theories of how a female should behave, but to concepts of neighbourliness and community. This clearly suggested a society that looked out for ‘different’ behaviour on the part of neighbours.

And it was not just neighbours who were advised to watch out for signs of witchcraft. The suspected witch’s children, Dalton suggested, should be called as witnesses to state whether their parent had shown evidence of having a ‘familiar’, cursing, having teats, or of threatening harm on anyone. Dalton implied that the Pendle witch trials had provided a legal precedent for children to provide proof of a parent’s witchcraft.

An extract from The Country Justice

An extract from The Country Justice

Writing in the early seventeenth century, Dalton clearly echoed the beliefs of many in his society. This was a practical man, dealing with the law and its application; yet he still clearly believed in the concept of witchcraft. He desired the ‘riddance’ of witches, and did not express incredulity over the ‘proofs’ of witchcraft that were allowed to be heard before the magistrate.

In fact, his main concern was to record a conviction of witchcraft, noting that ‘there must good care be had, as well in their examinations taken by the Justices, as also in the drawing of their Indictments’.

In this spirit, he suggested that any indictment must record that the witch had invocated, consulted, employed, fed, or rewarded a spirit; or that they had harmed or killed a person. It was not enough simply to indict them for ‘being a witch’.

This warning did not represent a concern about women being convicted as witches; magistrates were warned to be very specific with all the indictments they produced, as otherwise they could be challenged or dismissed at a later date – even for minor, some would say trivial, details.

It was not witchcraft that Dalton disagreed with, but with how that witchcraft was described – little comfort to those charged with the crime.

Taken from Michael Dalton, The Country Justice (1618, rpt 1746, edited by William Nelson), pp.513-516

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