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Religious tensions in England were high during the life of William Shakespeare, and throughout the 16th and 17thn centuries, England introduced several penalties for witchcraft, which then, as today, was seen as strongly sacrilegious by both Protestants and Christians. The first act to define witchcraft as a felony came under Henry VIII, with his Act of 1542 (33 Hen. VIII c. 8) his punishment called for death and subsequent forfeiture of property. Queen Elizabeth I would elaborate on this law during her reign when she established An Act Against Conjurations, Enchantments and Witchcrafts (5 Eliz. I c. 16), which was among her first official acts as Queen. Her Act actually allowed some mercy on the death penalty for accussed witches, enacting capital punishment only when the accused had caused harm, but still the Act called for imprisonment. Significantly under Elizabeth, anyone accused and found guilty of witchcraft would not only face punishment, but were denied the benefit of a clergy, which meant, under Elizabethan thinking, that the accused was irrevocably doomed to hell. 

When Shakespeare was 39 years old, in 1603, King James of Scotland succeeded Queen Elizabeth after her death, and he brought with him a famous repugnancy, and some call it outright fear, of witches during his reign. In Scotland, where James was dually King at this time, witchcraft had been considered a capital offense since 1563. The King brought this perspective to his management of witchcraft in England, as well. In 1604, just one year after his accession as King, James removed the mercy from Elizabeth’s Act by making it a certain death penalty without clergy for anyone who invoked evil spirits or communed with what were known then as “familiars” (a general term for supernatural spirits). Jacobean England saw the creation of an official position in the English government called the Witch-Finder General, whose job as you might expect from the title was to find witches and enforce the required punishment. 

One of the first trials in England to test the new and broadened laws on witchcraft under James I was the mysterious case of Anne Gunter. In 1604, Anne Gunter became sick with an illness that confounded physicians. They concluded her illness must be the result of supernatural influence, and a trial ensued to try and find the suspected witchcraft. During the trial, Anne experienced a theatrical fit of vomiting and other convulsions during which she accused 3 local women of being witches. This caused a flurry of debate over whether Anne was suffering from real witchcraft, or if she was putting on a show to try and deceive the court. Our guest this week tested this theory himself in a college classroom when he, along with his students, decided to re-create the trial of Anne Gunter and the early modern experience of witch trials in a legal courtroom. We are delighted to welcome Todd Butler to the show this week to tell us about the trial of Anne Gunter and the results of his experiment. 

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Todd Butler holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Todd first taught at the University of Tennessee-Martin before picking up and heading west to Washington State University in Pullman, WA. He’s studied and taught there for the last 17 years, including two terms as head of the Department of English and now positions as both Associate Dean for Faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences and the founding director of WSU’s Center for Arts and Humanities. Along with studying Shakespeare and 17th English literature, he’s also an expert on political theory and law during the period, as well as law and literature more generally. He’s a past president of both the Modern Language Associations Law and Literature group and its Association of Departments of English.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Todd Butler about :

  • Who were the three women she accused during her convulsions?
  • In his paper, Bedeviling Spectacle: Law, Literature, and Early Modern Witchcraft, Todd describes Anne’s fits and convulsions by saying “Anne indeed appeared possessed, often vomiting pins…” (Source) Todd, what other actions did Anne take during her trial to try and present herself as a woman possessed?

  • We are often told that King James had a fear of witches, and many sources I’ve read give the impression that, out of this fear, witchcraft trials were often swift, even unreasonable in their methods of establishing guilt as well as their enactment of punishment. And yet as the story goes, the accused witches in this case were found not guilty, and the whole affair became subject to skepticism and inquiries from the King and other London authorities.Todd, What prompted this initial result of not guilty, and what brought on the additional investigation of Anne’s claims?


… and more!

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There's none but witches do inhabit here;
Antipholus of Syracuse

Comedy of Errors (III.2)

witch feeding familiars 1604

An image of a witch and her familiar spirits taken from a publication that dealt with the witch trials of Elizabeth Stile, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell and Mother Margaret in Windsor, 1579. Unknown author, public domain. Source

Anne Gunter and the Three Women Accused of Witchcraft

In their small town, Anne Gunter became something of a spectacle. She came down with an illness that could not be explained by modern medicine of the time period. Confounded doctors came to suspect witchcraft. Todd explains,

Anne becomes a source of generalized gossip. Brian Gunter, her father, seeks experts to assess [the situation]. There were two trials.Anne was tried and she also testified against the women who were tried.

These experts were unable to produce a reason for her symptoms which included convulsions, vomiting, and talking incoherently. During one of Anne's convulsions, she accuses three women by name of having placed a hex on her. Those women were

Agnes Pepwell, her daughter, Mary Pepwell, (she was illegitimate, so she was already stained socially), and the main witch accusation was against Elizabeth Gregory, villager, well established family, and known as a “scold” (quarrelsome,highly unpopular) kept from coming to communion with everyone else. Low class women,and had a reputation for being a witch already. [There was] Bad blood. [a] fued, years long in the village between Brian Gunter and members of Elizabeth Gregory’s extended family (can be dated to 6 years before the trial). [The fued is traced back to a] 1598 village soccer match, [where a ] fist fight breaks out, near riot, between villages and team members. Brian Gunter [is] involved, trying to break it up, hits two members of the Gregory family with the pommel of his dagger.They died. Gregory family seeks murder indictment, no charges against Gunter.

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I am bewitched with the
rogue's company.
Falstaff

Henry IV Part 1 (II.2)

Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey

In 1604, there was an update made to Elizabeth's Witch Act under the newly crowned King James I. The man in this portrait, Edward Coke, broadened the Witch Act to include the penalty of death without the benefit of clergy (effectively damning to hell) anyone who invoked evil spirits or communed with familiar spirits. This portrait has an unknown author, but is thought to be a copy of work attributed to Thomas Athow, after Unknown artist, after Cornelius Johnson. The date shown on the portrait indicates it was done in 1593 (top right). The portrait also shows the date 1804 at the bottom, leading some scholars to speculate this portrait may be a 19th century copy of the 16th century original. Public Domain. Image Source

Physical Evidence of Being Possessed by an Evil Spirit

Witchcraft was considered both real, and very serious, an offense in Protestant England of Shakespeare's lifetime and well before. Elizabeth I had instituted several laws against witchcraft, but where her laws stopped short of actually sending to Hell anyone practicing witchcraft, the Witchcraft Act of 1604 (The same year as Anne Gunter's trial), was expanded by a Edward Coke, a member of Pariliament, barrister, and jurist under James I. Coke added an addendum to the act to say that anyone accused of invoking evil spirits, or communing with what was then known as familiar spirits, would be sentenced to death without the benefit of clergy, an action which effectively damned to Hell anyone convicted of this crime, as the Last Rights given by a clergyman before death were considered neccessary for passage into Heaven by many in the country at the time. (This is a conflation of Protestant and Catholic beliefs happening during Shakespeare's lifetime, and if you would like to learn more about Protestant/Catholicism in Shakespeare's lifetime, you can check out this Episode with David Bevington where we discuss what that mixed reality was like.)

Considering the climate at the time, Anne Gunter and her father Brian, were playing a very dangerous game. To accuse someone of witchcraft brought serious consequences in Shakespeare's England. It wouldn't be until the mid 18th-century, a full two hundred years later, that society began to consider witchcraft an “impossible crime.” For this time period, it was very real, and came at a high cost. 

Being very serious meant that there were also very specific methods developed for determining whether someone was really a witch or not. Many of these apsects appear to have been studied by the Gunters ahead of the trial because Anne Gunter specifically behaves in ways that were considered specific attributes of one under the influences of a supernatural curse. 

In his paper, Bedeviling Spectacle: Law, Literature, and Early Modern Witchcraft, Todd describes Anne’s fits and convulsions by saying “Anne indeed appeared possessed, often vomiting pins…” (Source) Todd explains that she also exhibited other attributes and that they specifically tested Anne for the influence of witchcraft:

Vomited pins, bodice unlaced itself, and when the case goes to trial, local justices of the peace examine Anne, and seek to have her replicate these symptoms, and the records we have and taken out of the spectacular situation, her performance is less than convincing. People start to suspect she’s faking the issues…They conducted tests for witches. If you burn fat from the roof of someone impacted by witchcraft, it provided relief. They did that without telling Anne, and she didn’t react.

When she did not react to the hidden test, is when authorities began to suspect a farse. 

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Devil or devil's dam, I'll conjure thee:
Blood will I draw on thee, thou art a witch,
And straightway give thy soul to him thou servest.
Lord Talbot

Henry VI Part 1 (I.5)

Southampton portrait wriothesley

This 19th century painting is based on the late 17th century Salem Witch Trials. The woman in the center is being examined physically by those in attendance to determine whether she is a witch. The portrait is by T. H. Matteson and titled “Examination of a Witch” Public Domain. Source

Testing for Witchcraft

One of the tests performed on Anne Gunter to discover whether she was really a witch included burning fat from the roof of someone impacted by witchcraft. The theory was, that if they were impacted by witchcraft, the symptoms would be allieviated by burning the fat. Without telling Anne, the team of scholars and doctors brought in to examine Anne (and I do not have records of whom, precisely, these men were), they burned fat over the roof of Anne's house while she was in it and they saw no change in her behavior. At this point, the team began to suspect Anne was only pretending to be a victi of witchcraft.

Todd explains that Anne and her father would have had ample resources available to be able to fake demon possession.

Popular culture vs print culture. Knowledge of possession of witchcraft affliction was widely defined. Impact or harm on an inflicted individual (fits, convulsions, and vomiting pins) at the same time, the growth of print culture at this time in history. At least at one point Anne reports after she confesses that she got at least some of her guide for how to act like she was afflicted by witchcraft from published accounts of witchcraft trials.

One possible source of information could have been James I's book, Daemonologywhich was essentially a dictionary/encyclopedia of witchcraft and the dark spritiual world.

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…he swears she's a witch…
Mistress Ford

Merry Wives of Windsor (IV.2)

Comedy of Errors Lithograph

“Illustration of witches, perhaps being tortured before James VI, from his Daemonologie (1597)” Public Domain. Source

King James Gets Suspicious

We are often told that King James had a fear of witches, and many sources I have read give the impression that, out of this fear, witchcraft trials were often swift, even unreasonable in their methods of establishing guilt, as well as potentially rash in their enactment of punishment (Throughout the 17th century tens of thousands and potentially hundreds of thousands of people were killed for witchcraft). And yet as the story goes, the accused witches in this case were found not guilty, and the whole affair was not only meticulously handled, but became subject to skepticism and inquiries from the King himself as well as other London authorities. When I asked Todd about what prompted the authorities to investigate at this technical level, he shared that some of our assumptions about how witchcraft was handled may be skewed towards a harsher perspective than was always applied: 

It was an incredibly serious charge that could have resulted in execution. England tended to have a substantially high acquittal rate in the early 1600s in cases of witchcraft. James Sharp, when he went to trial had less than a 50% chance of getting a conviction. There was a clear skepticism from the professional justices from the outset. 

[King] James was deeply invested in witchcraft. Visits Oxford, and Gunter gets an audience with the King (We don’t know how or why) but it seems reasonable he was seeking recognition of what they had endured and the King was curious, but that means he was also skeptical. James cultivated a reputation of wisdom (like Solomon) an dhe was interested in disproving false claims of witchcraft as much as he was interested in prosecuting real witchcraft. James and his court increasingly investigated Anne Gunter (who had been put into the royal household for observation) and some people think that she ultimately confessed to the deception.The records indicate she fell in love with a servant in Richard Bancroft’s household, who along with two other women convinced her to confess. She seeks permission to marry the servant, and by Oct 1605 (two months later) has made a full confession her father coached her to act like she had been afflicted with witchcraft, and taught her how to perform.

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