Witches, Gin, and the 18th Century

Research is an interesting hole to jump into, as long as you’re prepared to really jump in. For example, my novel plotting is coming together very nicely, but it led me to a place where I needed to know more about the persecution of witches in England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Sadly, I must rely on internet sources for a lot of my look-abouts, since I don’t really have access to a proper library with English resources, but I still seem able to uncover some interesting things.

For example, did you know that in the 18th century–in the Witchcraft Act of 1735, specifically–the legislation about witches underwent a complete about-face?

Laws in England (and Scotland) in the early-to-mid-1600s (mentioned here) focused on punishing those communing with familiar spirits or the devil. But by 1735, it seems the English authorities were convinced by that point there was no such thing as magic, and that supposed “witches” and “warlocks” were basically just con artists gulling the ignorant, or ignorant people making ridiculous accusations of the innocent. Therefore, the new Witchcraft law was focused instead on charlatanry: on people pretending to have supernatural powers, or the ability to practice witchcraft, or accusing others of this sort of thing? The penalty under the 1735 law was much less drastic than the penalties of earlier witchcraft laws, too: the 17th century laws invoked the death penalty for any magic-user, while the 1735 law got you a year in prison for accusations (or claims) of magical abilities.

That’s an interesting contextual shift, given that my story takes place around the time of the failed, flawed Gin Act of 1736–just a year after this legal change. That leaves plenty of time in history for anti-witch sentiment to come into play in the backstories of characters., which is handy for me. It also seems of a piece with other legislative moves; it’s an attempt at a kind of prohibition not unlike that Gin Act: an attempt to prevent the proliferation of a toxic idea, or a toxic product, by banning it outright.  It didn’t really work, of course: accusations of magical powers, or–more importantly–claims of ability to perform magic, or supernatural feats–never really got wiped out. Just a little more than a century later, England was awash with the mediums and channelers of the occultist Spiritualist movement, the first wave of what we now call the New Age movement.


Secondly, have you heard of “cunning folk”?

“Folk healer” (or “New Age charlatan”) is probably the term we’d use today, but just like with “proper medicine” in the pre-Enlightenment era, folk healing involved a lot of weird stuff, including magical thinking and practice (divination and folk magic of various kinds, specifically, along with various home remedies). We have a stereotype–almost surely tracing back to Victorian notions of rural benightedness–that these cunning folk mostly practiced out in the countryside, but even in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were cunning folk in cities as well.


Among the many interesting things about cunning folk is the fact that, once the printing press became widely used, there developed an industry in printed magic books–the archetypal magical “grimoires” so popular in genre fiction–and these, like any text, went from being hand-written to machine printed… but didn’t lose their allure or status signification until literacy became more widespread. This passage from Wikipedia grabbed my attention for a few reasons:

Whilst grimoires had been around in Europe since the ancient period, and many new grimoires had been produced during the Medieval, they had remained highly expensive and hand written items that the average person would not have had access to. In the Early Modern period, this began to change as the invention of printing allowed grimoires to be produced in greater quantities; initially this had primarily been in languages other than English, particularly Latin, but in the mid-sixteenth century, English translations of Albertus Magnus’ Book of Secrets were produced, whilst the printing of English-language grimoires increased in the seventeenth century. Another significant grimoire to be published in English was James Freake’s translation of Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, which “must have generated a good deal of interest among [the cunning folk] and other less well-educated magical practitioners at the time.” Equally popular was the English astrologer Robert Turner’s translation of the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy (1655), which was erroneously attributed to having been written by Agrippa.

Not the least, because “Freake” has got to be the most wonderful surname–for a character; in real life, it’d be a curse–but also because of all the references to Cornelius Agrippa, a figure whom the physician-alchemist Paracelsus derided at every opportunity. Paracelsus has a nebulous presence in my own novel, as one of the figures most influential on the alchemical practice of my brewer protagonist, so he surely would have read the Freake translations, as well probably as Turner’s “Fourth Book.” But, apparently, a lot of the books cunning folk displayed, they displayed to show off, rather than to use; most people who procured their services could not read, and were impressed just to see books on the shelf. (Indeed, even books that were scribed to debunk the cunning folk’s practices sometimes were displayed for these purposes.)

A witch and her familiars.
A “witch” and her impish, daemonic “familiars.”

Also, the idea of “familiar spirits” seems to have been associated with cunning folk, as much as with witches, which is good news for me: a certain urban animal has taken on a degree of importance in the novel, increasingly so as I plot it out. This is also tantalizing because the more I look at and read about animal familiars, the more they seem to resemble animal totemic spirits, which are more familiar to me from Native American/First Nations traditions as well as shamanic traditions in Northeast Asia (especially Korea).

Sadly, the Pendle Witch trials in 1612–England’s most famous witch trials–are too remote in time to have any direct relevance to my own story (tangential in the sense of their relevance to the lives of my characters, not in the sense of their relevance to the way accusations of witchcraft were handled for the rest of that century and beyond), but it was surprising to discover that there’s now a cycling trail for tourists interested in retracing the route of those poor folk who traveled to Lancaster Castle to stand trial.

Those people were hanged, as we all know. Which is to say, this was essentially the state-mandated, state-implemented lynching of women on the basis of superstition. The phrase “witch hunt” has rather lost some of that brutal connotation in recent years, because we use it in all kinds of contexts, but in those original witch hunts, even being accused meant you were likely to die a nasty death.

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But that’s all just the administrative, systematic response to accusations of witchcraft: what about lynching in the sense we use the word now? That is, vigilante violence towards a hated and oppressed group? You can be sure that there was at least a lot of low-level hostility; along with it, I’d wager, there were probably occasional outbursts of unregulated and unrestrained mob violence towards people seen as witches, what we now refer to when we talk about “pitchforks and torches”… and it probably didn’t help that clergy seemed to care little about the (already slightly blurry) distinction between witches and “cunning folk,” given that both claimed to perform magic and consort with familiar animals. It seems likely that cunning folk were sometimes ostracized, blamed for disasters or deaths, and subjected to violence or murdered, when local sentiment turned on them.

That low-level violence is important, on a character level, in a way that the systematic, administrative stuff has clouded in most of what I’ve read about witches. Given the treatment that people today get when accused of witchcraft in places where such beliefs are still widespread, I suspect there was a lot of that unregulated and unrestrained violence, even in the 18th century: it was just easier to forget all about it in the 19th century, like so much else of history. Which opens up the less side of historical research… sometimes you run across things that break your heart, like this documentary on the children accused of witchcraft in Nigeria. Which brings me to the painful, un-fun part of research. I warn you now: this video is not fun, though what’s more disturbing than its content is the fact it’s so little-known in the rest of the world.

Which brings me to the less-fun stuff. Did you know that thousands of children in Nigeria have undergone torture because some preacher–yes, mostly the evangelical variety, but mostly practicing a syncretic form of Christianity mixed with traditional beliefs–has accused those kids of witchcraft?

Brace yourself. This video is both horrifying and heartbreaking:

Watch Saving Africa’s Witch Children in Activism & Non-Profit  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

There’s similar horrors against children going on in Congo, too:

Helen Ukpabio, the wealthy sociopathic Nigerian evangelical nut interviewed in the first video, plays the same defensive cards as charlatans everywhere: flailing, non-sequiturs, and self-righteous outrage. (Plus accusations of racism, of course.) It’s pretty difficult to wrap your head around the kind of torture some of the kids have endured from their own parents, including the girl whose father drove a nail through her skull into her brain, leaving her brain-damaged. 

But the reason people are so susceptible to this kind of insanity (like Ukpabio’s claim, as symptoms of infection by witchcraft, common symptoms of malnutrition or malaria) is also, clearly, ignorance. It’s of course shocking that people would torture their kids in these ways, but it’s not shocking they’d believe the insane things that prompt them to do it: they’re driven to it by the goadings of religious leaders, by the pressures and stresses of poverty, and by the anxieties linked with the environmental collapse of their country, and the collapse of everything familiar, really.

That’s far from unique to the Congo and Nigeria: cultures, like ecosystems, are delicate things: when they get out of whack, scary stuff happens, and even today it happens all over the world. Witchcraft accusations occur all over the new world disorder: Saudi Arabia had 40 Indonesians up on charges of witchcraft back at the end of March–five of them already sentenced to death, in fact; in India, there’s rampant witch-hunting; and my experiences in Indonesia have convinced me that the claims in this article on witchcraft in Indonesia are likely pretty accurate. This Twitter feed collects stories on this idiocy from all over the world. And let’s not forget that there was a panic among North Americans over laughable and ridiculous allegations of Satanic Ritual Abuse back in the 1970s-80s, and, infamously, the whole moronic campaign against D&D as a supposedly Satanic hobby.

(Gamers won that war, of course, but not before parents all over–including my mom–who fell for it and tried to confiscate game books to ward off Satan. Taking a kid’s books away isn’t even on the same scale as torturing kids with nails and fire, but if we focus just on the irrational beliefs for a moment, it’s really hard to label any Satanism/witchcraft panic more or less irrational or ridiculous than any another.)

The lurid, over-the-top cover of the most widely-disseminated bit of written anti-D&D propaganda… one part of the D&D-Satanism panic of the 1980s.

Besides, even the brutal measures taken against witches in above videos was pretty widespread, historically speaking. Western Europeans were very much susceptible to that sort of collective insanity, and by the 1700s, accusations against children of witchcraft were in full swing, and continued much more recently than we tend to admit: fear of witches and claims of penis theft absolutely were a part of the European culture just a few centuries ago: the Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches,” a sort of Witchypedia reference book of the Middle Ages) had lots of material on penis theft, and what to do about it; it was, really, a sort of a nutball sexual horror-fantasy of witches produced by men, of men’s imaginations, for other men.

D&D’s remix of one bit of the Malleus Maleficarum… and probably one of the bits that made the evangelical nutbags lose their marbles in the first place.

To me, it’s also interesting that the official, administrated witch-hunting in England seemed to get more fervent and more determined, not less, in the long, messy lead-up to the Industrial Revolution (from the early 1600s to 1735), when capitalism had begun to encroach on the old power systems but was still very wild; where massive tides of urbanization, human displacement, and cultural upheaval were all already beginning to spiral out of control; where disease and poverty were rampant; when new technologies were suddenly showing up here and there; when there were not really organized systems stabilizing these changes; when there was no form of public education at all for most people; and when science hadn’t fundamentally transformed the way most people saw the world yet.

In other words, the world seemed to its inhabitants to be entering a period of massive flux, and when you’re in the thick of it, flux and collapse can look pretty identical, or at least identically scary. The automatic response was hysteria, and hysteria was more pronounced among those who had the most to lose by those upheavals–men. When the hysteria hit, then, men started blaming women (and “outsiders”), just as they do today, whether it’s hysterical panic over the supposed feminizing effects of soy–or even hysterical speculations of a feminist soy conspiracy against manhood, as Rush Limbaugh has ranted about–or the outrage against immigrants in many Western countries today, not only in the US but also in the EU, Canada, and most of the rest of what we used to call “the developed world.” (And, lo and behold, despite the stunningly poor progress towards women’s equality in Korea, Korean men’s groups–like Man of Korea–are nonetheless launching their own hysterical anti-feminist panic. So far, fortunately, they’ve failed to harm anyone besides their own members…)

There’s also an important link here between the commodification of religion–the business side of it–and the collision between that mode of religion and the traditional belief systems of the common people. People whose bodies were also commodified within the moral system that ruled the day–specifically women–were heavily targeted, but so were children: the examples in Congo and Nigeria may represent a new extreme in the accusation of witchcraft practiced by children, but Europeans did it, too, and were no less brutal to kids found guilty than to adults. But the intersection between the growth in Protestant radicalism (without a system, like a Church hierarchy, to govern and direct it) leads too all kinds of anxieties about how to interpret things.

A dreadfully familiar example for most of the people who are likely to read this is Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which was written sometime within the decade before the 1602 English Witchcraft Act, after all. Pretty convincing arguments have been made that Hamlet’s uncertainty isn’t some Greek-tragedy styled “fatal flaw” but rather the expression of a theological conundrum of serious concern to his original audience: who’s ultimately right about the cosmos: the Catholics? Or the Protestants? Hamlet cannot know whether the visions he sees the ghost of his father–trapped in the purgatory of Earth, as was commonly imagined in the Catholic tradition–or are they beguiling illusions implemented by Satan to tempt Hamlet into the mortal sin of murder using outdated cosmogony and morality? When Hamlet returns home, it’s not from just anywhere: he comes home from Wittenberg–the hotbed from which Luther launched the Protestant Reformation, and his return him is to a place torn between Catholic and Protestant sensibilities.  Here’s the summary from Wikipedia:

Written at a time of religious upheaval, and in the wake of the English Reformation, the play is alternately Catholic (or piously medieval) and Protestant (or consciously modern). The Ghost describes himself as being in purgatory, and as dying without last rites. This and Ophelia’s burial ceremony, which is characteristically Catholic, make up most of the play’s Catholic connections. Some scholars have observed that revenge tragedies come from traditionally Catholic countries, such as Spain and Italy; and they present a contradiction, since according to Catholic doctrine the strongest duty is to God and family. Hamlet’s conundrum, then, is whether to avenge his father and kill Claudius, or to leave the vengeance to God, as his religion requires.


Going back out into the streets where Shakespeare’s audiences walked after the end of such plays, I don’t know whether we have good or reliable records regarding the informal violence suffered by people accused of witchcraft for most of European history–the ostracisms, beatings, dispossessions, rapes, and murders that surely happened–but you’re kidding yourself if you think there was none. I suspect it was probably no less prevalent than those described in the world today in the documentaries embedded above, and the articles linked below them. Such violence would have been very quickly and very loudly justified (with very little open opposition or challenge, given the degree of hysteria in the air) on the grounds that it was necessary to fend off witchcraft and save the penises of the village, township, or land. (Which, as Wicasta Lovelace notes, seems to be Rush Limbaugh’s big concern too, though in his case Feminism is the New Witchcraft.)

A hundred years later, those same streets would be awash with folk drunk on gin… or so the reformers claimed, calling for extensive legislation controlling and banning gin. Much of the moral panic over gin was a moral panic over the danger to women’s virtue. Though the picture below is from sixty years after that attempted prohibition, it presents the comedic version of that same anxiety: oh, what of women’s purity? What of their chaste virtue?

Why Drunk Women Don't Make Good Sweethearts! a cartoon from
Richard Newton’s 1795 cartoon, “Why Drunk Women Don’t Make Good Sweethearts!” Click the link for the source and some pertinent commentary.

Plenty of grist for the mill with all of that above, and it’s especially fascinating stuff since the alchemical experiments in my story blur the line between witchcraft and science–sometimes looking more like one or the other, but more often (and increasingly, as the stakes and the discoveries mesh into something bigger) resembling and recombining both at once.

Which is to echo a line from an interview with Bruce Sterling and William Gibson from years ago:

DF: Do you see Victorian science as a sort of failed science?

BS: No, their science is triumphant. It’s our science that’s failed science.

DF: But if we’re them—or are we them?

BS: We’re not them, we’re their great-grandchildren. I have a lot of sympathy with someone like T.H. Huxley, who once wrote to Darwin that he was going to follow the truth wherever it might lead; that was an act of great moral courage, to say “I’m going up against the establishment, the Church, the House of Lords, the truth will shield me,” but he didn’t exist in the milieu of genetic engineering or the Manhattan Project, you know.

Huxley himself: mad, bad, and fearless as hell.

I haven’t read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle (yet) but I’d wager this was territory he explored there: the risks and the mad-badness of doing science in a world where doing so might lead you to a place where government, church, and the general populace might end up ready to tear you limb from limb. Likewise, I can’t help but suspect some of this territory got covered by James Morrow in The Last Witchfinder.

But it’s fine grist for my mill too, especially considering that the distilling and brewing trades–which are as central to my book as alchemy and politics–were undergoing pretty extreme, society-shaking technological and technical advances at the time, amid all the social, scientific, cultural, and class dislocations that were shaking England and especially London.

A “Geneva Apparatus” from 1767, by Schweppes, the name suggests a link with Gin, but actually it was just for carbonating water. Still, it conveys a sense of the technical developments of the age, and I couldn’t find a comparably nice illustration of the technical specifications for a 1730s gin still.

Though its rise to prominence in England in the late 1600s had much more to do with local geopolitics, economics, and technology, distilling had long been associated with alchemy and magic, but it was also associated with women, since selling gin (like working as a “cunning folk” practitioner) was one of the few ways a woman could escape the station she was born to, and work independently. But gin also was associated with excess, with lewdness, and with the uncontrollability of the poor–traits which obviously  must have elided with the perceived excess, lewdness, and ucontrollability of women, deepening the sense that Gin–“Madam Geneva”–was a creature of the Dark Arts, feminine, and needing to be stopped at all costs.

(And as I’ve commented several times before, the parallels between the gin craze in 18th century London and the status of soju in Korea today remains strong: the ideological link between women and soju–Korea’s equivalent of gin, in many ways–is just as powerful. Soju, like, gin, is a gateway to all kinds of liberties, excesses, wildness, and freedoms that most people couldn’t normally enjoy, both in early Georgian England, and in contemporary, urban Korea.)

Hyori & Soju
A somewhat old, but pertinent, ad where Korean popstar Hyori Lee makes us an offer we can’t refuse… with soju, of course.
“The Death of Madam Geneva,” a metaphorical depiction of the legislation enacted against Gin in 1736.

On the subject of my own novel-in-progress, it’s back on track. Partly fueled by this flurry of research…

Note (11 May 2008): I meant to also note that there was a positive step forward for Akwa Ibom, in Nigeria, regarding the criminalization of witch accusations leveled against children in 2012 –that is, the passage of a law that is, in spirit, rather like England’s 1735 law. Of course, one report linked by the above link reports, the kids were still at risk in 2013, the government was then said to be doing too little to enforce the law or improve the conditions that give rise to the children, including allowing the evangelical churches that spread this superstition to continue to operate freely. I don’t know the current situation overall, but the vigilantism clearly hasn’t stopped, as a steady stream of reported cases is easy to find, if you Google for them. Which, again, is not to castigate Nigeria or Nigerians: Europe had the same kind of people a few centuries ago. I just thought I’d mention this, for anyone who might mistake me for saying the situation in the videos above is current, when obviously both reports are a few years old.

6 thoughts on “Witches, Gin, and the 18th Century

  1. “Cunning folk” medicine was behind many themes in Robertson Davies’ THE CUNNING MAN, one of my favorite books.

    1. Huh! Never even heard of it, but it sounds funny:

      The Cunning Man is the memoir of the life of a doctor, Dr. Jonathan Hullah, living in Toronto. Hullah is a holistic physician — a cunning diagnostician who can often get to the root of problems that have baffled others. A young journalist’s query about the circumstances surrounding an Anglican priest’s death at the high altar on Good Friday leads Hullah to reflect on his own life and career.

      As is typical in Davies’ work, the novel’s themes are wide-ranging: miraculous cures, halitosis, cannibalism, medical solutions to literary mysteries, and more.

      I’ll have to check that book out sometime. I take it the “cunning man” in this novel doesn’t actually practice straight-up folk magic out of grimoires, right?

      Since I’m going to have a late-1600s “cunning woman” in my book, I feel like it’s important to be careful with my bias against folk magic as charlatanry; necessarily, that must soften as I’m looking at a time when mainstream “scientific” (ahem) medicine still was in its infancy… that is, where the scientific method hadn’t been all that deeply applied to medicine, and where folk magic ideas (and fantasy) were still a part of conventional medical practice too. It starts to be more about whether a particular individual, in a particular case, is convinced that his or her “cure” will work, or is consciously hoodwinking a client, or isn’t sure, but rather hopes it might work. Happily, the main “cunning woman” in my story’s long gone by the time of the tale, so I don’t have to wrestle too hard, but… still something to think about, and certainly it links up with alchemy, since alchemy was also sort of proto-science, yet full of fantastical nonsense that we can’t quite blame people for not rejecting, because how could they really have known?

      I mean, take Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, for example (I reviewed it here); that tells of how during the Broad Street cholera outbreak, mainstream medicine was convinced that it was miasma (the stink of the Thames specifically) that was killing people, and John Snow (!), the physician who figured it out, was attacked, mocked, and condemned for the ridiculous idea that cholera spread through contaminated water. And that’s in 1854… my story’s back in the 1730s.

  2. Fair enough. As for folk medicine and charlatans … remember that Sir Isaac Newton (who died in 1727) spent 90% of his time working on alchemy and trying to turn lead into gold — the Principia Mathematica was mostly a side project.

    1. Yeah, I know… somewhere near the start of my book (in the current draft) Newton (only nine years in the ground by the time of my story) gets mentioned in some conversation between alchemists; they hold him in poor esteem as an alchemist, because of his “ridiculous ideas,” and all that time wasted on “playing with numbers”; I think someone slams him over an allegedly poor translation of one or another alchemical text, too. It’s just a riff to remind readers that Newton was very much into alchemy and regarded it as science, and that plenty of “normal” people didn’t really recognize it at the time.

      And odd though it seems now, he was right to do so: alchemy wasn’t all about turning lead into gold, after all: it was also proto-chemistry, and alchemists did achieve a lot, from inventing gunpowder (in China) and refining it (in the Arab world and Europe) to developing alloys and pigments and acids, to developing our understanding of how chemicals interact, to contributing to the scientific method (in terms of the emphasis on repeatability). The transmutation of metals looks bananas if you grew up in a world with late-20th-century science at your fingertips (or at any rate in your daily school life), but like a lot crazy ideas from the past, it actually kinda makes sense if you’re working from the state of the art knowledge of the time, and with the same limits on knowledge as they had. (Which is why Paracelsus, nominally a physician, was so into alchemy, and so important to its development.)

      That’s probably the main thing in common between alchemists and “cunning folk”: how magical thinking seemed so sensible to both, and how hard it is for us not to see it through a 21st-century lens. Hm…

  3. Very comprehensive article, thank you! The legal notes are particularly interesting. We recently discovered a miserable tale of ‘witchcraft’ and trials in Normandy… Back in 17th century France a lot of idle gossip had some dire consequences that said more about the casual evil of good village folk than any witchery! Or was it covering up something darker? The full, true, tale here:

    1. Thanks for the comments, and also thanks for your link–I was wondering about witch-trials in France, actually.

      (As far as I’m concerned the darkest thing involved in witch-trials is human nature, though!)

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