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  • Writer's pictureAmelia

The Discovery Of Which?

When The Wolf-Finder General went up on pre-sale I wrote a little micro-advert - less a blurb, more of a blur - social media for the use of. It begins: "Dora's read the books: the Malleus Maleficarum, the Discoverie..." but it doesn't actually say which "Discoverie" I mean. As it happens there are two books on witch-finding with "discovery" in their names; The Discoverie Of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot, and The Discovery of Witches by Matthew Hopkins. Given that they have similar names and, one would assume, similar subject matter, it would be easy to confuse the two. Indeed, if I were the suspicious sort* I would even say that Hopkins did it on purpose.

Because he was a git.

Hopkins' book is pretty much what you might expect from Ye** Olde Book On Witch-Finding: it claims that witches exist, that they are bad, oh so very bad, and here are the ways to find them and what to do about them when found.

Alternatively: simply pay your hard working Witch-Finder to do it for you.

Scot's book is the complete opposite. Frankly, The Discoverie Of Witchcraft could not be more utterly antithetical to The Discovery Of Witches if Scot had gone out, bought a copy of Hopkins' book, and gone through it, line by line, refuting everything within.

The only problem with that as a theory is that Scot wrote his first. In fact, he wrote it over sixty years*** before Hopkins' racy best-seller hit the shelves.

Some alternative titles for Scot's book might be: How The Con Is Done. Simple Coin Tricks A Boy Can Do! Why You Shouldn't Throw Old Women Into Ponds Even If That Man In The Big Hat Says They're A Witch, No Even If They Did Say That Thing About Your Abigail Last Tuesday. In Fact, Especially Then. Although that last might have been a bit hard to fit on the cover. The Discoverie of Witchcraft argued that, generally speaking, bad things just sort of happen, and that even if someone you don't particularly like did happen to say something on the lines of "And I hope your cow drops dead!"**** right before Bessy chewed her last wad of cud it didn't automatically mean that they were a witch. Scot went to some pains to point out that in such cases the supposed witch was almost always someone the accuser disliked, or had some other reason - sometimes monetary - to want out of the way. If the choice was between plain, human greed and bad temper, or evil pacts with the devil performed under cover of darkness, Scot would pick greed every time.

Things haven't changed much nowadays.

There were, of course, people who outright claimed to perform magic. Scot had a few things to say about: "The knaverie of conjurors, the impiety of enchanters, the folly of soothsayers, the impudent falsehood of cozeners, the infidelity of atheists*****, the pestilent practices of pythonists, the curiosity of figure-crafters, the vanity of dreamers" and a whole more besides. What he mostly had to say was that, in the words of The Real Hustle -a show he clearly would have loved: "If something seems too good to be true, it probably is." And that went for the witch-finders too. He even, and this really is the best bit, took the time to explain exactly how his various charlatans and knaves performed their miracles and revelations, broken down into stages so that the reader could recreate the stunts at home. His Discoverie could arguably be called the world's first how-to book of magic tricks.

"Here," Scot told the world; "is how it's really done. So, now that you know, perhaps you'll think twice before filling someone full of pins or hanging them." It worked, too, to an extent.

Thanks to Scot and people like him, the powers of Witch-finders were somewhat curtailed, a thing that cannot have pleased Matthew Hopkins when he took his turn on the stage. Hopkins was, and I cannot stress this enough, a massive git.

I'm sorry, if you were expecting a balanced, nuanced, even handed dealing here, you were sadly mistaken: Hopkins was an ass of the worst kind and I'm just sorry he isn't here so I can say it to his stupid, and presumably by now very mouldy face.

He, along with John Stearne - also a complete tosser who preyed on the vulnerable then wrote a book about it****** - went about the country, trying people as witches and charging massive sums for doing so.

The tests they and people like them used were varied, but almost invariably unpleasant. For example:

Watching And Waking In short, sleep deprivation. Legally, Hopkins wasn't allowed to torture people. In reality, preventing people from sleeping is a horrible form of psychological torture and it's not surprising people buckled under the strain.

Pricking or Cutting Exactly what it said on the tin. Hopkins would cut the arm, or jab it with a pin. If the person cut didn't bleed, it meant they were a witch. Of course, this test depended on the pricker actually attempting to break the skin. If they used a blunt pin, or simply turned it in their hand, so the pointy end didn't go in, it was easy to give the impression that someone had been jabbed but had not bled. Pins with knobs on were introduced, in an attempt to prevent witch-finders from turning their pins, but some witch-finders then obtained retractible pins. Sort of like those plastic knives that go in and out of the handle when you stab someone, only a lot less funny and more murderous. Swimming

Throw them in the duck pond and see if they float. The rule wasn't actually to leave them there if they drowned: you were supposed to pull them out again before that happened. Hopkins himself abandoned swimming as a test for witches after being informed that he had to obtain the victim's permission first.

When asked: "May I chuck you in the lake to see if you're a witch?" ten out of ten helpless old biddies answered "No." Finding The Devil's Mark

Witches, so the theory went, had familiar spirits which they fed from hidden nipples given to them by the Devil and secreted about their body. Witch-finders would strip their suspects naked, shaving them if necessary, then search the body for these secret nipples. This might sound marginally better than being thrown into the pond and allowed to sink or swim, but frankly, the idea of some random tosspot running his hands all over my naked body in search of secret marks gives me chills. And not the fun kind. Besides which they would count almost anything as a "Devil's mark" once found, and everyone has a wart, a beauty spot, or a pimple somewhere. Trial By Toasted Cheese

Not used by Hopkins and Stearne, presumably because it was too nice. A piece of cheese on toast was blessed and offered to the suspect. If they choked on it, they were a witch. If they didn't, then presumably they had just enjoyed a pleasant snack and were now free to go. It is worth noting that one of the so-called Witches of Belvoir did die of self-administered trial by bread, albeit sadly without the cheese. Joan Flowers apparently requested a piece of the Eucharist, wishing that, if guilty, she might choke on it. She got her wish. As Reginald Scot would no doubt point out: coincidences do happen. That's why we have the word "coincidence". Trial By Cake

This, like trial by toasted cheese, has its roots in corsned, an old, Anglo-Saxon Trial By Ordeal. All I can say about that is that the toasted cheese went one way, and trial by cake went another.

The "cake" of its name was a mixture of flour and the supposed witch's own urine, made into a cake and then fed to a dog. If the dog died, the "witch" was guilty. One might assume that they tested this theory by feeding certified witch-free pee-cakes to various dogs who did not then keel over, but I suspect that's giving the witch-finders too much credit. The penalty for failing these tests was, of course, death: generally by hanging, and not, in England by burning, although they did go in for that in Scotland for a while. Even then they mostly strangled the "witch" first and burned them afterwards. Sadly, it seems that Hopkins did not himself fall prey to his own horrible trials. Even though it makes an absolutely splendid legend, and I'd much rather it were true, there is no evidence that he ended his days by being swum and hanged as a witch.

He didn't even get battered with an axe and then shot, as in the Trigon film The Witch-Finder General. Facts can be so disappointing.

In reality Hopkins seems to have got tired of witch-finding, decided that The Only Way was Essex, retired there, lived - presumably comfortably - for a while, and then died, possibly of tuberculosis. Where he contracted the illness I cannot tell. I'd like to say a witch did it, but Scot would certainly not approve.

As to what becomes of the Wolf-Finder General, and his dastardly deeds, you'll have to wait till the fourth of June to find out.

*I am, I absolutely am. Professional historians need to be more cautious, but luckily for me I'm just a writer. And a pretty silly sort of writer at that. **Nobody ever said "Ye" in this context. It's just the way that typesetters used to write "the". They did this because the Caxton printing press did not include the now disused "thorn" which scribes would use when writing...hold on, this is a blog about witch-finders: go and look up printing some other time. ***The Discoverie came out in 1584, and the Discovery in 1647, in case you feel the need to be precise.

****Or "What a pretty cow." Witch-finders, of course, could get you coming or going. *****Scot himself was a devout Christian, he just didn't think this precluded one's also being a rational human being, or that it required one to go round picking on people for being a bit different. His tolerance had its limits, however: his opinions of Atheism and Catholicism were less than flattering, as might have been expected of an English man of his day. ******Yet another "Discovery": A Confirmation And Discovery Of Witchcraft, published in 1648, a year after Hopkins'.

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