A Comparative Study

© Stephanie du Barry 1994

What characteristics predisposed individuals to accusations of witchcraft? In looking at both the accused themselves and at the accusations, one is struck with many notable similarities between witches in Scotland and witches in East Anglia. This paper will examine those similarities as well as highlighting the differences in treatment of the accused.

The sex of the accused was similar in both areas although a greater proportion of males were accused in Scotland1. Larner found that, while the number of male witches fluctuated, dropping during the witch "panics" of the 1640s and 1660s, the overall number of males amounted to about 20% of the accused2. In East Anglia, however, Macfarlane found that only 23 of the 291 accused witches were male. Here Larner claims that the Scottish numbers are similar in proportion to those found in Europe and that those found in England seem rather low3 . Analysis has shown that all male witches whose identity has been pursued have had ties of either blood or marriage to a female suspect, have been suspected of other crimes or been a solitary cunning man4. In East Anglia, too, 11 of the 23 male accused were either married to an accused witch or appeared in a joint indictment with a woman5.

The age of the accused witch also shows definite similarities in both Scotland and East Anglia. Macfarlane claims that the most likely age for an accused witch in East Anglia was between 50 and 706 whilst Larner simply states that, where age is known, the witches were "middle-aged or elderly"7. She was almost always a wife or widow rather than an unmarried woman, although Macfarlane found that some East Anglian women known to be married or widowed were often referred to as being spinsters8. According to Larner, about half of those witches whose status is recorded were in fact married at the time of their arrest9.

Social status of the accused appears to have differed slightly from East Anglia to Scotland showing that the Scottish witch was slightly better off than her East Anglian cousin. Macfarlane's study of available material shows that the East Anglian witch was most likely to be the wife of a labourer/husbandman than a tradesman whilst the Scottish witch was slightly higher in status, being most probably the wife/widow of a tenant farmer or sub-tenant, ie. they had a position in society (albeit a low one) and were settled in a community, not vagrant10 Many also were downward socially mobile such as the bakers widow, Jean Hadron, seeking alms tried in Glasgow in May 170011.

In East Anglia, according to Macfarlane, witches seem to have been poorer than their victims, with the victims of suspected witches falling into the Yeoman class or tradesman class more often than into the class of labourer or husbandman12. In Scotland Larner describes most of the accusers as being "more substantial" than the accused13. For a witchcraft accusation to be made plausible the suspected witch had to be socially or economically inferior position to the accuser or victim because only then would she be presumed to be likely to have used magical methods of retaliation. Had she been the stronger party more direct (and legal) methods of retaliation would have been available to her14. In East Anglia, the witch is most often accused by her neighbours whereas in Scotland a witch is accused by her extended family or inlaws. In the two case studies presented by Larner, over half of the accusations against the women were made by their direct families.

It was rare in both Scotland and East Anglia for a witch to have been known as a deviant in the true sense of the word. Very few witches had previous records for criminal behaviour although Scottish villagers were more inclined to suspect the sexually deviant female than East Anglian villagers. Macfarlane, however, found no link between those accused of witchcraft and those accused of other deviances such as theft, murder, Sabbath breaking and non attendance at Church, despite the fact that seven of the women mentioned in the Essex pamphlets had committed sexual offences15 such as fornication, adultery or had a bastard child. The reason for this is probably that if the witch was a thief or murderer, the she would have been treated as such by the law. In a certain sense though witches did act the part of rebels, registering protests against her social superiors in a determination to survive in a hostile environment. Sometimes this behaviour took the form of curses or acts of sorcery - her only weapons against those who she saw as victimising her16.

Religious or racial differences were not a part of the witch stereotype of Scotland or East Anglia. Neither the motives of the accusers nor the motives of the witch were linked with religious fervour by Macfarlane yet as a method of explaining misfortune and evil, belief in witchcraft did, to a certain extent, overlap with religious explanations. In this way changes in religious thought during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are linked with the rise and decline of witchcraft prosecutions17.

The personality of the witch, as opposed to the social and economic considerations, seems to show consistent similarities in both Scotland and East Anglia. Witches were often described 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 witchcraft acts18. This also links back to the downward socially mobile witch who had been denied that which she used to have by rights. Witches did not act without a degree of provocation and the common emotion which comes from the trials is the desire for revenge. The Scottish witch is also described as having a particular characteristic called "smeddum"19. described specifically as being the habit of always having the last word - a refusal to back down. Those who had interest in the occult, who were healers, diviners, or cunning folk, regularly fell under suspicion in Scotland whereas the English cunning folk normally escaped being accused of witchcraft20.

Reputation seems to have been a key factor in the making of a witch in both Scotland and East Anglia and was also linked with age. It often took years for a reputation to be built and could be why, except during epidemics of multiple accusations, there were so few accused witches who were very young21 In both Scotland and East Anglia a woman noted as having a "devilish" tongue could easily be linked to misfortune by those who had quarrelled with her. The witch was usually not a foreigner or stranger in her community, but nevertheless lived on the fringes of that community. She might or might not have a reputation as a healer or cunning person. Being older and poorer than average, often unmarried she did not fit into the traditional behavioural standards seen by community as fitting for her sex. One case study mentioned by Larner, Janet Macmurdoch, even appears to have displayed behaviour linking her to the practice of fertility rites22. The witch's reputation in East Anglia is confined to her own community, sometimes to her own neighbourhood, rarely extending beyond five miles, whereas in Scotland we see accusations being made against a suspect from as far as ten miles in different directions (a 20 mile span). This reflects the more diffused settlements of population in Scotland compared with that of Essex. The nucleated village of East Anglia was rare in Scotland, except on the coast. Most peasants lived in scattered farm towns with the estate and the parish as separate but overlapping focuses of communication. Scottish peasants expected to travel long distances to church or to work so the communication network was wider than Essex allowing a person's reputation to travel farther23. Many accused witches in both Scotland and East Anglia had also been known associates of (or related to) other accused or known witches24, however Larner claims that actually being a daughter of a known or accused witch was often the first step in the building of a reputation. Evil powers were believed to be inherited and the label was passed on, a daughter either living with the title for ever or being accused herself at a later date25.

As far as physical characteristics, emphasis on the witch's mark or Devil's mark was made in both Scotland and East Anglia. However, there appears to be far less mention in Scotland of the supernumerary teat than in England. The extra nipple was specifically for nourishing the imp which was her personal devil given her by Satan.

According to Larner, those accused of being witches can be roughly described under four headings:

Those that accepted their reputation and were proud of it, basking in the power that this reputation gave them in the community: Whether Scottish or East Anglian, the accused falling under this category were people who felt themselves to be totally impotent and unable to better their conditions. The fear of witchcraft gave power to those believed to be witches by their fellow villagers, relieving them in some way of their impotence.

Those that had fantasies of the Devil [this category includes those suffering from madness, melancholy, drunkards and those who may have used hallucinogenic plants or substances to create "visions" or dreams: This also includes those witches who committed the "mental crime" of the demonic pact. The confessions of some of the witches of East Anglia suggest that not only poverty but also religious despair might have provided a reason for being tempted by the Devil. Satan, according to Mary Becket, appeared to her and told her that her sins were so great that there was no place for her in heaven, asking why she bothered to sing hymns when she was already damned. From then on Mary became one the Satan's numbers. Others, according to confessions, were actually offered the salvation which they must have felt could never be theirs through the Church26. This could well have been a reaction to the pessimism of the doctrine of predestination which formed a part of the Puritan church's teachings. The East Anglian witch was sometimes offered small sums of money by the Devil but the money invariably turned out to be worthless pebbles. The Devil promised witches simply that "they should never want" and this was enough for the sixteenth or seventeenth century woman on the margins of society. She expected and desired no more than to exist in a not uncomfortable manner. The Devil's promises were much the same in Scotland as in East Anglia - that his witch would be free from want.

Those who became convinced of their guilt during their inquisition or trial: Confusion often arose from repeated [leading] questioning of the accused, possibly combined with a befuddled mind, sleep deprivation and/or threats of torture.

Those who repeatedly maintained their innocence to the end or only confessed after torture27.

The nature of the crimes allegedly committed by the witch in Scotland and East Anglia were also similar. In East Anglia, from the indictments, the most common accusation by far was the witch had caused the death of another human being by magical means. Other accusations included causing sickness to humans or death to animals. Even in the contemporary pamphlets death and sickness of humans were the most common accusations made followed by death to animals. In Larner's study of Scottish witches, death of a human being seems to have been the catalyst for the accusation to be made against a known witch. In two of Larner's case studies, following the death of a person attributed to malefice, accusations were then gathered against the suspect28. However, no one accused of causing death by witchcraft was prosecuted for murder - she was charged with the much more serious crime of being a witch, ie. of having made a pact with the devil and become an enemy of God and mankind29. This varies distinctly from our East Anglian witch who was normally tried for the offences for which she had first been accused.

Witchcraft in England appears to have been taken less seriously by the authorities than in Scotland. A cunning man could live for many years in a community without ever coming under the suspicion of malefice. In East Anglia, English law provided many lesser penalties for acts of witchcraft so the proportion of those executed was comparatively much lower than in Scotland where greater emphasis was placed on the witch being an enemy of God - the ultimate traitor to mankind and thus the execution rate was far more severe than in England30. This attitude towards the pact reflects the European "educated" beliefs in the demonic pact and the discovery of a devil's mark on the accused was proof that she had indeed made a pact with Satan. This gave rise to a profession of travelling witch jabbers. When confessing, the Scottish witch described the pact in the terms laid down in the indictment and described what the devil had given her in return for her soul. As previously stated, the price was cheap - simply that she should be free from want - no Faustian treasures!

The principal difference, therefore, between the East Anglian witch and the Scottish witch was not in the witch herself but in the significance of diabolism in the two countries and in the relative ferocity of the punishments for convicted witches. Another significant factor was the greater intensity of indoctrination in Scotland and the network of kirk sessions which could monitor the success of parishes in eliminating suspect witches.


  1. Larner, C. "Witch Beliefs and Witch-hunting in England and Scotland, Past & Present, February 1981 pp 32 - 36
  2. Larner, C. Enemies of God - the Witch-hunt in Scotland, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1981 p. 91
  3. ibid. p. 92
  4. ibid. p. 94
  5. Macfarlane, A., Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England - A regional and comparative study, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1970, p. 160
  6. Macfarlane, op. cit. p. 161
  7. Larner, Enemies of God, op. cit. p. 89
  8. Macfarlane, op. cit. p. 164
  9. Larner, Enemies of God, op. cit. p. 96
  10. ibid. p. 90
  11. ibid.
  12. Macfarlane, op. cit. p. 150
  13. Larner, Enemies of God, op. cit. p. 124
  14. Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic, Penguin, Hammondsworth, 1971, p. 669
  15. Quaife, Godly Zeal and Furious Rage, St. Martins Press, New York, 1987 p.167
  16. Levack, Brian P., The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, Longman, London, 1987 p. 138
  17. Macfarlane, op. cit. p. 188-189
  18. ibid. p. 173-4
  19. Larner, Enemies of God, op. cit. p. 97
  20. ibid. p. 94
  21. ibid. p. 125
  22. ibid. p. 123
  23. ibid. p. 131
  24. Larner, Witch Beliefs and Witch-Hunting in England and Scotland, op. cit. p. 34
  25. Larner, Enemies of God, op. cit. p. 99
  26. Thomas, op. cit. p. 622
  27. Larner, Enemies of God, op. cit. p. 94
  28. ibid. p. 129
  29. Larner, Witch Beliefs and Witch-Hunting in England and Scotland, op. cit. p. 34
  30. ibid.


Larner, C. Enemies of God - the Witch-hunt in Scotland, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1981

Larner, C. "Witch Beliefs andWitch-hunting in England and Scotland, Past & Present, February 1981

Larner, C. "The Crime of Witchcraft in Scotland" in Larner, Witchcraft and Religion, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1984

Levack, Brian P., The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe, Longman, London, 1987

Macfarlane, A., Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England - A regional and comparative study, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1970

Quaife G.R., Godly Zeal and Furious Rage, St. Martins Press, New York, 1987

Rosen, Barbara, (ed.) Witchcraft in England 1558 - 1618, University of Massachusetts Press, Amhurst, 1991

Thomas, Keith, Religion and the Decline of Magic, Penguin, Hammondsworth, 1971