Once upon a time, people really believed that there were witches round every corner.
All over Europe, those thought to have practised witchcraft and magic were caught, tried and put to death. Some accounts allege up to 100,000 executions were carried out in this way.
In England we had a series of Witchcraft Acts. Any act that puzzled a village could be put down to witchcraft and a woman disposed of accordingly.
My daughter has met a real witch’s tree.
She said it was huge: its branches reached up way into the sky, and then hunched over. In the wind it swayed unnervingly. Almost, one might think, as if it had a soul.
One upon a time, a long time ago, children used to walk that way to Sunday School. As they went they would pass Alice’s house.
Alice was not the most sociable woman in the world, Maddie relates, but she was very clever. She knew which plants were poisonous and which were antiseptic. She had a pragmatic practicality, and a gift for knowing how nature might be used to heal.
It seemed the children would knock on the door and run away, and she would get cross. One day a group of three was tearing away from her cottage door, giggling hysterically, when the youngest slipped and sprained his ankle.
Alice came out. She was full of indignation, but who could ignore a little boy in pain and distress? She put a poultice on his ankle and made him fit to get home.
The following week, the little boy’s father had a nasty accident whilst chopping wood. The doctor was pricey: the little boy told him about Alice. She supervised his healing with quiet competence. The villagers were impressed and traffic began to turn away from the Doctor’s door towards the little cottage in the middle of the forest.
The Doctor was unimpressed, and he was noticeably poorer. He must take action to recover the patients who had defected: and Alice was an easy target.
He accused the old woman of witchcraft.
People are easy to stir if you know how, and the Doctor did. He worked them up into a riot, and they stormed down to the cottage and chopped the trees down around the cottage. They conducted one of those sink-or-swim trials, and Alice swam, which, under the old lore, proved her guilty.
They threw her on the fire: and immediately a storm broke. The rain it rained and put out the flames, and somewhere in the middle of it all, Alice was gone.
Villagers were terrified: they deserted the clearing and did not return for years.
When at last they did, they found a huge tree which seemed to bear the features of an old woman. To this day, in that Sussex forest, the tree is called the Witch’s Tree.
Into the heart of the panic about witches and their supernatural powers came a voice of reason.
There is little to mark Reginald Scot out from his fellow men.
We think we was born about 1538 in Smeeth, Kent, to a noble family. But he was the son of a second son, and helped manage the business affairs of his titled relatives, and supervise his own inherited property. There is evidence he was justice of the peace: but by far the most significant thing he ever did in his life was a book he wrote.
It was called The Discouerie of Witchcraft, wherein the Lewde dealing of Witches and Witchmongers is notablie detected, in sixteen books.
It sought to debunk the witching myth. To free the old women of his time from insufferable fear and persecution. And he did it by arguing against it from every angle. He used religion, reason and the work of more than 200 authors who had written in Latin and English to create a robust case.
If I could reach back through time, I would hug the man.
He writes about why a woman, once accused and tortured, may well confess to being a witch : “These old women being daunted with authority, circumvented with guile, constrained by force, compelled by feare, induced by error, and deceived by ignorance, doo fall into such rash credulitie, and so are brought unto these absurd confessions….they, being destitute of reason, can have no consent.”
It is a seminal work which started a fierce debate. Writer Gabriel Harvey wrote that Scot’s book “hitteth the nayle on the head with a witnesse”. But it still took until the beginning of the 18th century for the matter to be settled with the Witchcraft Act of 1735, with which it ceased to be punishable by law.
The story of Scot’s ‘Discoverie’ does not end there.
For one section seeks to debunk the witchcraft myth by unveiling the secrets of what he calls ‘jugglers’; those who do magic tricks which deceive the eye.
He talks of showing great cunning; for “the endeavour and drift of jugglers is onelie to abuse mens eyes and judgements.” It cannot be taught, he adds, by description or instruction: but only by great exercise and expense of time.
He deals with tricks with balls, and tricks with coins; and of course, card tricks.
And in so doing, he writes the first manual for the performing magician.
Other magic books followed on Scot’s heels: The Art of Juggling in 1612; Hocus Pocus Junior in 1634; and the majority of books for the next two hundred years owe much to Scot’s opus.
What an unassuming, extraordinary contribution to mankind. Scott chose to burst a bubble of illusion and superstition, and set a ball rolling which would change one of history’s great illusions: from a dangerous set of myths, to a form of entertainment which would shape entertainment for centuries to come.
Now that’s what I call sleight of hand.
Inspired by Side View’s Weekend Theme: Illusion.
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