Using the North Berwick witch trials of the 1590s as a case study, do you agree with the proposition that witch hunting was rarely an uncontrollable or hysterical phenomenon?


‘Our Scottish witch is a far more frightful being than her coadjutor on the south side of the Tweed’.[1] It is possible that the nature of the act of witch hunting, stems not from the reactive nature of human behaviour, but instead is a reflection of the witch herself. If witch hunting is to be considered an uncontrollable or hysterical phenomenon, this may be a result of the interactions and relationships of the witches present at the place and time of the hunt; this means that the hunt would commonly be a kneejerk reaction to a particular situation and, therefore, was most definitely a hysterical and rarely controllable phenomenon. This would certainly be in keeping with the modern perception of the phrase ‘witch hunt’, this being that the phrase is commonly a metaphor for an unfair persecution of a person. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, uses the term ‘campaign’ to define the witch hunt; the implications of the term ‘campaign’ are those of an organised and premeditated series of actions intended to achieve a specific goal.[2] This largely contradicts any suggestions of an uncontrollable or hysterical phenomenon. Perhaps, the modern implications of the ‘witch hunt’ have lost sight of the controlled and thoughtful legal process that witch trials could historically represent, due to a few high profile hysterical cases. This essay will discuss the proposition that witch hunting was rarely an uncontrollable or hysterical phenomenon, using examples from both 16th and 17th Century Europe and Peru, with a specific focus on the North Berwick Witch Trials of the 1590s.

The Thoughtful Legal Process and the Witches of the Spanish Inquisition

It was often the case, and there is evidence in the documentation to suggest, that witch hunting was a carefully controlled and often thoughtful procedure. The construction of propaganda, the employment of professional witch hunters and the careful collection of confessions, statements and evidence all suggest that the process of witch hunting was indeed rarely an uncontrollable phenomenon. Firstly, the careful construction of lengthy propagandist sermons, treatises and texts, such as the Malleus Maleficarum, suggests that witch hunting was a phenomenon that was sensibly and cautiously considered by the authoritative parties before being addressed. The text itself spans hundreds of pages, detailing the correct identification and prosecution procedures that should be followed in the incidence of witches. It is, in part, a cautionary tales, warning its readers that ‘whoever believes that any creature can be changed for the better or the worse…is worse than a pagan and a heretic.’[3] Clive Holmes argues that due to the extent of the propaganda that the Church bombarded the popular imagination with, witchcraft and diabolism easily became a part of popular culture; fear of the phenomena brought it to reality in this case.[4] Holmes reinforces this idea by stating that as the ‘clerical and magisterial elite abandoned belief in witchcraft their theological addendum faded from popular consciousness.’[5] Here we begin to gain an understanding of the impact and influence that the Church held over the 16th and 17th Century popular culture, and as such it may be correct to suggest that there could be no hysterical or uncontrollable reaction that gave way to the phenomena of witch hunting when it is clear that popular reactions are indeed controlled by the propaganda and influence of the Church.

Secondly, the employment of professional witch hunters, such as Matthew Hopkins, suggested that witch hunting was a measured and organised process. Below is an image of Hopkins’ 1647 book in which he describes his profession.[6] The imagery and language used in the cover of the text, demonstrates that Hopkins believed that he held a dominant and important position in the community. From the image, labelling Hopkins ‘Witch Finder Generall’, it is clear that Hopkins is taking a position above the criminals and above the community in a heroic battle for the greater good. This is reinforced in the text of the opposite page, where it states that he acts as a ‘Witch-finder, for the Benefit of the whole Kingdom’. Hopkins was active in the late 1640s.[7] Hopkins was the first to achieve sworn evidence of an oral contract with the devil, and considered himself a professional witch hunter.[8] As Keith Thomas details, a great number of the prosecutions initiated against witches in England were performed by such professional witch hunters; ‘between 1645 and 1647 some 200 persons may have been convicted in the eastern counties under [Hopkins’] influence’, this marked a ‘notable exception’ to the usual local practice of only trying those criminals who had caused death, and then trying these criminals as murderers, as opposed to witches.[9] Therefore, it is evident that the act of witch hunting was not a hysterical or uncontrollable act, since it would have frequently been performed by professionals, who had at their hands a wealth of knowledge about the community and the prosecution process.

Furthermore, there were several structured and thoughtful legal processes that the hunters, be them professional or not, were required to adhere to in order to correctly and legally apprehend and try a person accused of witchcraft. The witch trials and persecution of magic practices during the Spanish Inquisition demonstrate strict adherence to rules and guidelines outlined by senior figures. Philip Limborch’s The History of the Inquisiton carefully details the secret prisons, processes for various modes of acceptable and appropriate torture, and the ways in which it was appropriate to accuse somebody of being a witch across Europe. This text clearly demonstrates that the phenomenon of witch hunting was not solely hysterical. By great contradiction to the term hysterical, witch hunting within the Inquisition was both organised and just. Limborch makes clear that ‘no one can be taken up without half full proof’, explaining that ‘imprisonment by the Inquisition renders the prisoner infamous’.[10] Throughout the lengthy text, Limborch further elaborates on how to conduct a fair and measured trial against somebody who had been accused of witchcraft. In a shocking contradiction, the use of torture was permitted, though any confession compelled by violent action was not considered valid until it was repeated voluntarily whilst the accused was no longer under duress.[11] Additionally, criminals who appeared penitent and cooperative would be treated less harshly in their punishment in an act of appropriate justice on the part of the prosecutors.[12] It is clear, therefore, that witch hunting has historically demonstrated itself to be a controlled, rather than hysterical phenomenon across Europe.

An example of a case outside of the European continent that demonstrated justice, control and leniency where appropriate is the case of Luisa Ramos in Peru. Ramos was accused of witchcraft and devil worship in 1629 and was subsequently apprehended by the Inquisition. Details of the case are outlined in trial documents recorded by the Inquisition with great care. The case opens, ‘Luisa Ramos, mulatta, born in the Port of Callao next to this City of Lima was testified against in this Inquisition by some witnesses, among whom was Maria de Castro, her sister, aged 25 years who voluntarily made her statement on the 7th of February, 1629, and ratified it…’[13] The transcript continues in the same meticulous fashion, carefully collecting every detail from the trial in order to maintain a fair and detailed record of the case. Later on the case reads, ‘she ratified her confessions in the presence of her representative and having been given the transcript of the aforementioned publication with the consent of her representative and lawyer and because she did not have any more defence to make other than that which she had voluntarily offered, the case was concluded definitively’.[14] The manner in which the proceedings of this trial was carried out is clear; the Inquisition aimed to maintain a high standard of justice and were careful to perform their investigations in a reasonable and controlled fashion, that mimicked a secular court of law. These are evidently not the actions of a hysterical group of people, determined to persecute the accused.

Historical Context and the Salem Witch Trials

On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that witch hunting has established itself as an uncontrollable and hysterical phenomenon that can be explained as a series of kneejerk reactions to particular events or manifestations of the witch. Many high profile witch hunting cases may be particularly well known because they are examples of violent, hysterical fits of witch hunting throughout history. The dramatic and controversial nature of these cases is what keeps them at the forefront of popular imagination, and therefore, stains the vision of the witch in popular imagination. During the Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th Century, for example, groups of victims were executed together, suggesting a violent lack of consideration or thought put into each individual’s case. Despite the fact that the witches were indeed put on trial in an attempt at justice, the verdict of some cases was actually overturned in order to achieve a death sentence; on June 29th 1692, Rebecca Nurse was originally found innocent, but the verdict was ‘reversed’ leading to her execution the following month.[15] This clearly demonstrates a hysterical level of violence, and therefore would deem the act of witch hunting largely uncontrollable by usual judicial means. Though it must be considered that the events in Salem were those of one specific case, whereas the aforementioned texts of Limborch, by contrast, detail the process followed by hundreds of missionaries of the Inquisition in many different countries in Europe and into the Americas.

The focus, therefore, falls upon the question of the nature of the witch and the events surrounding her apprehension. It is possible that the determining factor for the level of hysteria and popular control surrounding a witch hunt is fear. Madeleine Harwood discusses the sensationalisation of witchcraft in medieval drama pieces, arguing that public knowledge of these somewhat unfamiliar topics came largely from the works of dramatists; this is because dramatic plays, songs and poems simply proved more popular than religious pamphlets or academic texts.[16] As such, it is not unsurprising that popular reaction to these beings reflected in everyday life would be panicked, due to a barrage of scenes of helpless victims, dark magic and powerful spells in popular culture. Therefore, if your neighbour were to replicate these actions and images in her home by healing with herbs, or if a new member of the community was followed by a season of drought, poor crops or sickness in the village it would only be natural to assume that they were a witch. Therefore, perhaps the reaction and behaviour in a witch hunt is a result of the actions and perceived threat of the witch. For instance, the aforementioned discussion of witchcraft during the Inquisition period primarily dealt with love magic. The witches of love magic, such as Luisa Ramos, had a specific goal in mind – to consume their lover with a sense of desire, therefore, they were rarely perceived as a threat to the community. Due to the lack of threat, the Inquisition was able to slowly and carefully consider each case in a controlled manner. By contrast, the first accused witch of the trials, Tituba, was known to perform spells and other such satanic rituals.[17] The witches of Salem were certainly viewed as a threat to the community because of the physical ramifications of interacting with them; the young girls that spent time with Tituba experienced convulsions, seizures and nightmares.[18] This led to Tituba being recognised as a threat and a witch, and was whipped even before being interrogated.[19] It must be noted, however, that following Tituba’s interrogation ‘most of the questioning and testimony…was carefully written down by a court-appointed scribe’, suggesting that the following witch hunts were actually performed with a level of judicial control.[20]

The historical context surrounding a period of witch hunting is too significant, as this would further enable a true judgement concerning whether an event is to be considered rare or unusual and, therefore, hysterical. K. Goss argues that, as a result of the trials in Salem, ‘popular confidence in religious leaders such as Reverend Cotton Mather waned, while prosperous merchants…emerge vindicated’.[21] He goes on to state that the ‘trials thus represent a major shift in the power base’, which corresponded with a global age of secularisation.[22] Perhaps, this representation of the influence of the Age of Reason is itself what has created such an interest in this specific case.[23] Furthermore, this would mark the events of the hunt not particularly hysterical at all since the events follow an expected path for the time – that path being, to secularise and rid one’s community of such foolish practices of magic. Surely, the definition of hysteria, which is in line with terms such as panic and frenzy, is contradictory to the inevitable slow build of ‘enlightened’ ideas and thinking that the scholarly world was building to at this point in time.

Case Study – The Hysteria of James VI and the North Berwick Witch Trials

The witches of North Berwick struck fear into the name of the town near Edinburgh, with it shortly becoming what William Roguehead terms a ‘synagogue of Satan’.[24] Roguehead states that it is difficult to judge whether James VI of Scotland was simply a ‘buffoon and bore’ or a ‘subtle scoundrel’ as claimed by different fields of history, but that whichever the case, he was most certainly terrified of witches and was determined to abolish them within his kingdom.[25] This is possibly heightened by the attempts of the North Berwick witches on his life and on the life of the queen, which is arguably where the hysteria of these events began.[26] The trials took place between 1590 and 1592, keeping James ‘keenly interested’ for the duration.[27] As a once physically weak man, James gained strength and confidence in punishing the witches and watching his enemies be tortured after their capture; it is possible that James’ passion for witch hunting stemmed from fear, but was driven by a greed for glory.[28]

Corresponding with the aforementioned theories, the historical context, popular culture and the actions of the accused played a large part in the nature of the hunt. James was a ‘strong believer’ in supernatural, religious and magic practices as was ordinary for a late 16th Century gentleman, therefore, would have been fully understanding of the implications of witchcraft in his kingdom. This was also a period engrossed in the creation and performance of Shakespearean plays and ballads that were rife with diabolic magic and witchcraft. Furthermore, the actions of these witches clearly replicated the image of the witch in popular culture. Donald Tyson states that the North Berwick witches gathered in a church ‘in the dead of night to meet with the Devil and concoct their plots’; this is unmistakably similar to Shakespeare’s 1623 Macbeth, which undoubtedly describes the image of the witch in the popular imagination of the time.[29] The three witches gather asking ‘when shall we three meet again?’ only to be followed by ‘the set of the sun’; Macbeth himself refers to the witches as ‘secret, black, and midnight hags!’[30] When images such as these are reflected in reality, it is expected that the response would exhibit elements of hysteria.

Despite the seemingly controlled and slow development of the two year witch hunt and the compiling of James’ text Daemonologie, it is clear that underneath the surface of the trials there is a level of terror and panic in James VI that was not apparent in the Spanish Inquisitors. Tyson argues that James’ research was a result of his terror because he became obsessed with understanding ‘his spiritual enemies as well as he knew his temporal foes’.[31] An alarmed and terrified James VI gathered a huge breadth of information about the witches, demonstrating that whilst a witch hunt may prove controllable, there will undoubtedly remain some level of hysteria within the affected community. James states in his text, ‘my intention in this labour, is only to proue two things, as I have alreadie said: the one, that such diuelish artes haue bene and are. The other, what exact trial and seuere punishment they merite’.[32] Whilst Elizabethan law stated that any person found guilty of witchcraft was subject to imprisonment and Inquisitorial procedure subjected the criminal to religious punishment such as a period of prayer, James punished bewitching spells by hanging.[33] Additionally, James’ violence in capital punishment far exceeded that of Elizabeth I. In England, witchcraft might be punished by hanging, however, the capital punishment for witchcraft in Scotland was strangulation and then burning at the stake.[34] Whilst the custom of strangulation was a merciful one to prevent suffering, it was often withdrawn from those who did not appear repentant, and this may seem a more frenetic method of punishment due to the torture that it would inflict on the accused criminal.[35]

The case clearly terrified James VI, and his actions in the following years demonstrated this. Shortly after his ascension of the English throne, James passed the 1604 Witchcraft Act which treated witches more harshly than previous acts under Elizabeth. The case of the North Berwick witches, and King James VI’s reaction to them, demonstrates that it is not possible to label the history of witch hunting as hysterical and uncontrollable or the opposite, because each event can have elements of both depending on which perspective it is analysed from. From the perspective of the courts, the North Berwick witches were tried, tortured and punished as they were due to be, however, James frantically compiled research, prepared punitive acts and eagerly awaited their apprehension, following the case for the whole two years.


To conclude, to an extent witch hunting was rarely an uncontrollable or hysterical phenomenon. The apprehension and trial of witches in the 16th and 17th centuries was a fairly measured and controlled affair that often followed a strict moral and legal code. Examples of witchcraft in Peru, as well as across Europe, demonstrate that the witch was regularly treated justly and with a sense of leniency, assuming she demonstrated penitence. However, there are cases throughout this period that demonstrate mass hysteria and a violent reaction to the actions and nature of the witch, such as the case of the Salem witch trials. In these events, it is often a hysterical reaction to the circumstances that the witch manifested in, often exacerbated by examples in popular culture. In the case of the North Berwick witch trials it is clear that whilst elements of the witch hunt may remain controlled and just, a few hysterical individuals may reflect badly on the trials. Individuals, such as James VI, may have the authority to cause a sense of hysteria amongst the community by inciting harsher punishments and publishing anti-witch manifestoes that may panic the common man.

[1] J. Hill Burton, Narratives from Criminal Trials in Scotland, Volume 1 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1852), p.240.

[2] A. Stevenson (ed.), Little Oxford English Dictionary, 8th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.812.

[3] H. Kramer and J. Sprenger, ‘Malleus Maleficarum’, in M. Summers (ed.), The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, (New York: Dover Publications, 2012), p.1.

[4] C. Holmes, ‘Popular Culture?: Witches, Magistrates and Divines in Early Modern England’, in S. Kaplan (ed.), Understanding Popular Culture: Europe from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century, (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1984), pp.100-102.

[5] Ibid., p.101.

[6] ‘Witch hunting’, British Library, <; [accessed 21st May 2015]

[7] K. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England, (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p.528.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., pp.531-532.

[10] P. Limborch, The History of the Inquisition: With a Particular Description of its Secret Prisons, Modes of Torture, Style of Accusation, Trial, Abr. ed. (London: W. Simpkin and R. Marshall, 1816), p.375.

[11] Ibid., pp.439-440.

[12] Ibid.

[13] A. Redden (trans and ed)., ‘Luisa Ramos’, Archivo Histórico Nacional (AHN), Sección Inquisición, Libro 1030, fols.437v-470v.

[14] Ibid.

[15] K. Goss, The Salem Witch Trials: A Reference Guide, (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008), p.xvi.

[16] M. Harwood, ‘”Witches, live witches! The house is full of witches!” The Concept of Fear in Early Modern Witchcraft Drama’, At the Interface / Probing the Boundaries, 61 (2010), pp.3-22.

[17] Goss, Salem Witch Trials, pp.15-19.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p.17.

[20] Ibid.

[21]Ibid., p.ix.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] W. Roguehead, ‘Scottish Witch Trials: I the Witches of North Berwick’, Juridicial Review, 161 (1913), pp.161-184.

[25] Ibid., p.161.

[26] D. Tyson, The Demonology of King James I, (Woodbury: Llewellyn Worldwide, 2012), p.3.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., pp.3-5.

[29] Ibid.

[30] W. Shakespeare, Macbeth (1623), (Minneapolis: First Avenue Editions, 2014), p.1. Ibid., p.71.

[31] Tyson, Demonology, p.5.

[32] James I, Daemonologie (1597), (, 2014), pp.xi-xii.

[33] Ibid., p.7. Limborch, History of the Inquisition, pp.439-440.

[34] Tyson, Demonology, pp.7-8.

[35] Ibid.

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