Short Sharp Shakespeare & The Art of Witch-pricking

A century of warfare, religious conflict, change, plague and fire – but also of fresh beginnings, whether to seek gold in Eldorado, on expeditions to new lands or in struggling colonies.

Both oral and written entertainments assumed enormous importance for those removed to distant country estates – whether to avoid pestilence or conflict – and the art of storytelling revived.

A set of stories was first assembled for the Anglo American Bury St Edmunds 400 Celebration in 2007.

My themes now address credibility, dislocation and a fear of the unknown even more closely: Anything might be lurking ‘out there’ in an unfamiliar, strange or foreign place – and who would be confident in unraveling true travelers’ tales from fevered dreams and imaginings?

The weird and wonderful may also lurk at home: Country villages may conceal all manner of horrors; the dark corners of the expanding Capital offer opportunities for surprises, skulduggery and the gulling of innocents – or unexpected and perplexing inhabitants.

Below a pair of presentations are offered to span the Stuart century:

Shakespeare Day

Short Sharp Shakespeare

Although this project was first designed for Bexley Library Service at the official opening of their new Erith Library on 23 April 2009, this could equally be done as conventional storytelling in a period setting.

At Erith we took an historical look at libraries and books, then modern media, followed by a celebration of the life, times and work of William Shakespeare on his birthday – and this 393rd anniversary of his death.

A brief exploration of language and vocabulary – including the many words and phrases first used by Shakespeare and still familiar to us – followed by the story of Macbeth told in modern voice. (Spells, witches, murder, blood, ghosts and betrayal being particularly familiar to young people…)

Storytelling, activities and follow-up projects are suitable for visitors of all ages though focused here particularly for visiting Year 6 (Key Stage 2) pupils.

Visitors also have the opportunity to handle and explore replica writing materials and tools.

Erith library


The Art of Witch-pricking (& other Tested Methods)

Religious and civil upheaval brought all sorts of opportunities for self advancement and moral certainty: In 1645 one Matthew Hopkins, probable son of a clergyman, possible former law clerk – and entirely self appointed – went to work across East Anglia as witchfinder.

Too easy to see a patriarchal conspiracy as many of the informants against witchcraft were female, as were local searchers and watchers.

The more permanent team that Hopkins assembled also included women: From the very first ‘discoveries’ the previous year at his home village of Mistley until his demise, one Mary Phillips, widow, operated as his preferred searching woman and investigator of the accused. She also supervised others in conducting the trials of stripping, trussing, watching, starving and walking. Her expenses were considerable, her fee substantial – at Aldeburgh certainly almost twice that of the hangman. Even after Hopkins’ departure, along with his associate Stearne, Goody Phillips was willing to continue the work.

The methods that Hopkins, Stearne, Phillips and co used were established and developed to become best practice and have alarming resonance even now. The nature of the accusations resurfaced little changed almost twenty years later for the trial of two old women at Lowestoft. Presided over by the revered Sir Matthew Hale, future Lord Chief Justice of England, the post conviction pamphlet ‘The Tryal of Witches’ remained in print for several decades more – and helpfully offered specific legal precedent for Salem in the New World…

I look at fears and accusations of witchcraft and cover all the established ways to confirm a reported witch (fortunately for me they tend to be scrawny, with their moles, wens and Devil’s marks not so obviously visible…) I explore the proper manner in which the accused should be investigated, with due weight and description given to the important question of swimming. I look at the nature of their inevitable confessions, consider their practices, imps and familiars. While pins will sometimes do I have a proper pricker commissioned for me in order to demonstrate the infallible usefulness of this tool.

Swimmings of supposed witches – and wizards – continued sporadically in the following century and beyond, even after the repeal of witchcraft laws, with the last official occurrence in 1825. The very last recorded, though done impromtu by a mob, was in 1864 – it ultimately proved fatal – over a decade after the opening of the first London underground line.

In the case of the brutal battering of one poor woman, suspected witchcraft was attempted as a defence as late as 1916. In 1945 a Midlands farmer was found murdered with his body ‘pinned’ against resurrection; though known locally, the killers were never charged…

MatthewHopkinswitchestested (1)


Stuart eating