Book Review – Crimen Exceptum: The English Witch Prosecution in Context by Gregory J Durston

Despite years of cool-headed scholarship over several decades, the idea still persists in the popular imagination that during the period known as the ‘witch craze’ millions of women were rounded up and burned at the stake often for nothing more than their skill with herbal remedies. While thousands of women, and men, believed to be witches suffered and died during this period, there were great differences in the treatment of accused witches both across Europe and throughout the period. In Europe, principalities located side by side could have markedly different levels of witchcraft accusation and execution. There were far fewer trials in countries such as Italy and Spain compared to France and central and southern Germany. Within the British Isles, England had around 500 executions over the period covered by the Witchcraft Acts compared to Scotland where from 1563 to 1727 between 4,000 and 6,000 people, 75% of whom were women, were tried for witchcraft. More than 1,500 of those accused in Scotland were executed, usually by strangling followed by burning. Wales and Ireland had few cases of witchcraft as personal setbacks were more often ascribed to fairies or the little people rather than to witches.(1)

In Crimen exceptum Gregory J Durston examines the legal process used in England to prosecute cases of witchcraft from 1542 to 1736, the period that it was a secular felony. Not only in England but across Europe during the Early Modern period, witchcraft was seen as a crimen exceptum, ‘a crime that differed from other offences so that normal evidential rules and requirements could be relaxed’. Even so, in England witches were rarely subjected to mob lynchings, their prosecutions followed a defined legal process, the same process that those who were accused of other crimes were subject to.

Durston begins by discussing the historical development of beliefs about witchcraft both in Europe overall and England in particular. The discussion ranges from the type of people most likely to be suspected of witchcraft to the practices people resorted to when they suspected there was a witch in their midst or that they had been bewitched. One of the most prevalent was scratching – the supposed victim scratched the witch and drew blood to gain relief from the spell placed on them.

The three acts used to prosecute witchcraft in England (1542, 1563 and 1604) and the background to their development are examined in detail, highlighting the fact that in England the stress was on the malificium directed towards an individual rather than a pact with the devil. The bulk of the book deals with the legal procedure beginning with the accusation and examination by a Justice of the Peace and the various tests used to determine whether the accused was, indeed, a witch. The tests discussed include recitation of scripture, scratching, examination for the witch’s teat to the use of pricking and swimming, the last two being rare in England until the 17th century. The trial itself is examined as well as conviction and execution rates and the likelihood of those found guilty being able to obtain a pardon. The majority of those accused were acquitted at trial in similar rates as those accused of other crimes. Where an accused witch was found guilty of murder, the rates of execution were no higher than for other capital crimes with the same punishment, death by hanging. Burning was the punishment for heresy and, in the case of women, High and Petty Treason (the murder of a husband, or a master or mistress).

Durston also details the changes following James I’s 1604 Act and cases of fraudulent accusations that James I intervened in such as that of Ann Gunter in 1604 and the witches of Husbands Bosworth in 1616. The latter case was later seen as a turning point towards increasing scepticism. The catastrophic aberration in this trend were the witchcraft trials of the late 1640s in East Anglia due to the activities of Matthew Hopkins (c1620-1647), the self-styled Witchfinder General, and John Stearne (1610-1670). That they had such free rein was due in part to the breakdown in central oversight during the English Civil War. Hopkins and Stearne were responsible for around 300 of the 500 executions for witchcraft from 1542 to 1736 when the 1604 Act was repealed. Durston also draws attention to the role of judges in the increasing climate of scepticism where, by the late 17th century, some even sneered at prosecution witnesses’ evidence as well as actively seeking reprieves and pardons for those convicted.

Despite the repeal of the 1604 Act witchcraft beliefs lingered into the 19th century. Durston details incidents such as the beating and scratching of a suspected witch in Huntingdonshire in 1808, the swimming of a suspected ‘wizard’ in Suffolk in 1825 and the appeal to a magistrate in in 1857 for a warrant to swim a witch. Durston finishes with the thought that the establishment of compulsory elementary schooling dealt a blow to such beliefs; however, even here in secular Australia one only needs to wander down any suburban shopping strip to find people advertising their ‘skills’ in reading crystal balls, foretelling the future and removing the evil eye. Still, no matter what one believes, people are no longer imprisoned or executed for these things alone.

Crimen exceptum is an excellent overall history of English witch trials replete with fascinating examples drawn from pamphlets and trial records. The book is written in fluid prose, understandable to the legal layperson. I cannot recommend Crimen exceptum highly enough to anyone interested in the factual background to witchcraft prosecutions in England. The book includes a detailed bibliography for anyone wanting to read further on the topic.

1-Chapter 4 of Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in Early Modern England by James Sharpe, 1996

9 thoughts on “Book Review – Crimen Exceptum: The English Witch Prosecution in Context by Gregory J Durston

    • I am sure there were some but it is hard to know. Some people were clearly using practices that they thought could affect others such as curses and using wax images etc. Many, by the end of the examination process, did confess to witchcraft but that might have been just to make the thoroughgoing interrogation stop. I have wondered if part of it was powerless people believing that they could somehow have an affect on the world around them. Then there were also others casting about for reasons for the ill that befell them. Accusations very often arose from ‘misfortune following anger’. Interestingly, the 1604 included the taking up the dead from graves for use in witchcraft as a new crime. I imagine there must have been some cases of this for the authorities to consider including it.

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        • It is fascinating. My interest began about forty years ago when I was studying Reformation history and there were a couple of lectures on the witch craze. There is a wealth of recent scholarship out there, some of the most fascinating information is in academic journals and we are fortunate, here, as the Victorian State Library provides access to JSTOR and a couple of other digital libraries.
          The differences between countries (or even counties in England) is interesting. There were a couple of places (Finland and an area of France, from memory) where more men than women were accused.

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    • I think science and education have allowed most of us to see that witchcraft is impossible and the development of the legal system has helped too. The human impulse to blame others for misfortune on others is still alive, though we look for people other than witches.
      I have been thinking recently about the reasons some cases received prominence and others didn’t – it would be due mainly to the pamphlets that were produced which were so popular; people do love a bit a of scandalous reading. The clerk of courts at the 1612 Lancashire Assizes, Thomas Potts, produced The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster detailing the trials but it wasn’t only the Pendle witches who were tried but also the Salmesbury witches who were acquitted. The Salmesbury witches were accused even of cannibalism. I suppose the fact that the Pendle witches were executed makes them more memorable but it’s interesting that one group has been remembered and the other is almost unknown.


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