Charming and Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland
July 25, 2011
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In her Devices and directions: folk healing aspects of witchcraft practice in seventeeth-century Scotland (scroll down for full citation at the bottom of this post), Joyce Miller poses the question: “Why were charmers sometimes prosecuted for witchcraft? On the other hand, why were there so few?”
Miller is in something of a quandary. She wishes to insist (in fact, she does insist) that there were “intrinsic differences between witches and charmers,” but she finds that it is utterly impossible to keep the two separated. If two phenomena have large areas of overlap, as Miller concedes is the case with Witches and Charmers, then they can hardly be said to be “intrinsically different”.
In a future post I will try to disentangle all the zigs and zags that Miller is forced into as she attempts to to toe the party line while also trying to accurately describe Witches and Charmers in early modern Scotland. But for now I will just let her speak for herself:
The first question to address is: what was charming? Charming was one feature of witchcraft practice and belief, but not all charmers practiced witchcraft nor did all witches practice charming. In some cases one person’s charmer may have been another person’s witch. However, under what circumstances the questionable practice of charming could become the crime of witchcraft is difficult to establish categorically.
Witchcraft, sorcery and charming were all features of magic or preternatural power. Although magic had developed a negative meaning, this hostility increased as a result of witchcraft prosecution and theological developments, which stressed its irrationality and downplayed its cultural significance and relationship with religious belief. Since all three were aspects of magic, charming was therefore related to, and in some cases part of, witchcraft practice and belief, yet it was not entirely the same. It shared many of the same physical and verbal actions — the words and deeds — of witchcraft, but it was usually equal to, and opposite from, witchcraft. Unlike witches, who were labeled by others, charmers knew who they were and would label themselves as such. There was also a difference between the perceived source of power of the two groups and, very importantly, their intent. Witchcraft was demonic and malicious: charming was neither.
The authorities, and particularly the church, did attempt to include charming with the prosecution of witchcraft. In 1646 the General Assembly of the church attempted to extend the scope of the witchcraft act to include the charmers:
“Because our addresses to the oridinar judge for punishment of charming, it is informed to us that the Acts of Parliament ar not expresslie against that sinne, which the rude and ignorant ar much addicted unto; may it therfor please your lordships that the Act of the 9 Parliament of Queen Marie made against witches and consulters be enlarged and extended to charmers, or that such other course be taken as that offence may be restrained and punished.”
Throughout the period of witchcraft prosecutions in Scotland, individuals were investigated and interrogated for practising charming. However, at the local level, attitudes were varied. The two presbyteries that were examined closely demonstrate the variation in investigation and prosecution of witches and charmers that was seen in Scotland. The Haddington presbytery had a higher percentage of accusations of both witchcraft and charming — 83 per cent — compared to Stirling, which had only 17 per cent. Given that the estimated population of Haddington was approximately 1.75 times greater than Stirling this difference was quite remarkable. Eighty-seven per cent of those who were accused of demonic witchcraft were from the Haddington presbytery, and only 13 per cent from the Stirling presbytery. The figures for accusations of charming, however, demonstrate the complete opposite: 56 per cent of those who were accused of charming came from the Stirling area, and 44 per cent from Haddington. This illustrates that local conditions and habits appear to have influenced both the rate, and type, of accusation that was processed through the church rather than any national pattern.
The church punished the majority of charmers, but some were prosecuted for witchcraft if their charming actions were categorised as indicating demonic intervention. Local kirk sessions and presbyteries examined evidence of both accused charmers and their clients in order to ascertain whether or not the practice was demonic. But the church appeared to have great difficulty in deciding what to do with them. In October 1630 the Dalketh presbytery asked the sunod of Lothian and Tweeddale for advice about charmers, those who consulted them and also those who had been slandered with no evidence of practice. The synod replied, ‘those that are simple charmers and consulters suld be refered to their [own] repentance’. As for those who had been slandered they thought nothing of them. It would appear then that if the practiced was believed to be demonic, then civil intervention would be required, if not it could be dealt with at local level by the church and the individual’s own conscience. The whole area was clearly confusing. On some occasions the question of whether the practice was demonic or not, was decided by whether rituals had been used, and whether these involved the use of words and actions, either alone or in combination.
The issue of “whether rituals had been used, and whether these involved the use of words and actions, either alone or in combination” is taken up again by Miller a few pages on. The bottom line, according to Miller, is that if both ritual and words were used, then this could be taken as evidence of Witchcraft, as opposed to mere Charming:
The recurrent motifs or features in the charming treatments that were analysed in this may be categorised according to time, place and manner. The ritual could be carried out as a particular time of the day, week or year; at a particular place such as a boundary, crossroads, bridge or river; in a particular manner, perhaps in silence; or particular direction, moving sunwise, anti-sunwise or backwards. Further categorising motifs which were recorded included the use of words or spoken charms; the use of a particular type of water, or at a specific
place; numbers; fire; the use of an object such as a shoe, mail, thread or belt; cutting of nails or hair; use of an animal; meally oats but occasionally wheat. Although charmers did not use the polypharmacy of orthodox medicine they still employed a wide variety of motifs.
Detailed research in local sources from the presbyteries of Haddington and Stirling between 1603 and 1688 has revealed almost 100 references to some form of charming. They have been examined for the use of ritual and words, either alone or in combination, or for the inclusion of other motifs. The use of a physical ritual was by far the most common feature, as nine out of ten treatments (92 per cent) included a reference to soem form of ritual or routine. Words were mentioned in 42 per cent of the charms. A third (38 per cent) used words and ritual together but in this sample, perhaps surprisingly, only 3 per cent used words by themselves.
Andrew Youl, who tied a live toad around neck of his sheep in 1646, told the church officials that he had not used any words along with this ritual. Nevertheless he was reprimanded by the Haddington kirk session and told that unless he stopped using the ritual he would be censured as a charmer. The Haddington presbytery decided that Adam Gillies and his wife were not witches because, although they had tied wheat and salt tot heir cows’ ears, they had not used any words and had merely been carrying out, in the words of the church authorities, an ‘ignorant superstition’. To a large extent these physical rituals appear to have been excused as having carried out through simple ignorance rather than deliberate transgressions. The use of ritual alone appears to have been regarded by the church and judicial authorities as charming not witchcraft. In this case the rituals or charming might be seen to have been superstitious practice continued through ignorance rather than outright deliberate, demonic practice.
There was some concern, however, that rituals could be used to conjure supernatural spirits or powers and were therefore still very much antithetical to Christian practice. As [Stuart] Clark [Thinking With Demons
, Chapter 32] points out, the term superstition had a number of applications or definitions that were used by the church. Firstly, superstition was used to define that which was opposite to accepted religious practice. Secondly, it was used to denounce certain practices and habits as valueless, either because they were carried out excessively or in the wrong manner. In its third version, superstitions, or inappropriate worship, was associated with demonic worship. In general, its use was perceived as due to ignorance and lack of understanding rather than active rejection of the authority of the church. In 1581, parliament passed an act making it illegal to visit wells and participate in pilgrimages. In 1629 the privy council issued a similar proclamation. In the 1648 the Dunblane synod passed an ordinance which again urged the abandoning of ‘superstitious wells and chapels whereunto people resort’. It would appear, however, that the ordinary population did not respond immediately, or at all, to these proclamation. Despite the desire of the authorities to force the general populace to abandon these practices they continued to be important to many and so continued to be observed despite the threat of punishment. For those involved, an accusation of charming or ‘ignorant superstition’ was in many ways a better option than an accusation of witchcraft which might result in execution.
And, finally, here is how Joyce Miller wraps up her essay:
The remedies offered by charmers in the seventeenth century were as varied as the treatments prescribed by orthodox medicine, but both were founded on logical principles and experience. The treatments displayed a consistency of technique, belief and participation, which show that charmers and society had a solid cultural foundation for understanding the causes of disease and the efficacy of their healing practices.Knowledge and skill in charming was both passed on through
generations and gained through empiricism, but the knowledge was neither arbitrary nor chaotic. The charms were founded on both cultural and religious or spiritual traditions; their similarity with pre-Reformation practice was certainly marked although their principles and origins are likely to have been even older. This does not imply that charming was simply an alternative religious belief system recognised by a small section of the population. On the contrary most of society practised and understood an amalgamation of beliefs. It was the organised church itself, not society, which incorporated certain beliefs and rituals for its own purposes and rejected others. The pre-Reformation church accepted pleas to saints or pilgrimages to holy sites to help relieve suffering, but the Protestant church removed these elements of worship or ritual as being too Catholic in meaning. It has been suggested that the Protestant church in Scotland caused a change in attitude towards the causes and cures of disease. The church wanted sufferers to turn to the comfort of prayer and personal contemplation and responsibility, rather than using charms or magic.
The goal was to achieve an ideal godly state, but it is clear from the records that many of the ordinary members of the population were slower in abandoning a system which they had followed for generations and which provided comfort, hope and control. In the absence of access to professional healers and in the wider context of witchcraft belief, the practice of charming was mainstream, rather than alternative, medicine.
Witchcraft practice in seventeenth-century Scotland was complex and mystifying, both for the ecclesiastical and secular authorities and the population at large. Charming — or folk healing — was only one aspect of witchcraft, but was an extremely important one as it provided both spiritual and practical comfort. It provided society with a means to counter the threat of malicious witchcraft. Charming also demonstrates that contemporary definitions of witchcraft practice, in its broadest sense, were not fixed solely in demonic terms, but were at times fluid and dynamic. Indeed charming continued to be practiced long after the church and the law decided that witchcraft was no longer a threat.
Joyce Miller’s Devices and directions: folk healing aspects of witchcraft practice in seventeeth-century Scotland is chapter 6 in the anthology The Scottish Witch Hunt in Context edited by Julian Goodare, published by Manchester University Press, 2002.