Margaret Alcock’s Evil Eye: Witchcraft Defamations in Early Modern England

Woodcut from the frontispiece of A Rehearsall Both Straung and True of Hainous and Horrible Actes Committed by… Foure Notorious Witches (London, 1579). EEBO.

I’ve been working as Senior Research Associate on the early modern strand of Inner Lives for nearly a month now, fresh from the Intoxicants Project at the University of Sheffield. It’s been a fairly hectic period (tasks have included refreshing the website and Twitter [do Follow Us!], organising a workshop and conference, and coming to grips with an international database of witch memorials we’re creating for the Historypin platform), but first and foremost has been the primary and secondary research I’m undertaking for Malcolm’s forthcoming books and articles, and my own piece on the project’s overall methodology. Most of this will get its first outing in our formal publications, but as a supernatural outfit it would be rude not to acknowledge Halloween with a blog post, so here’s a quick update on one of the spooky source types I’ve been mining.

Getting Sued By A Witch

The consistory court at Chester Cathedral; established in 1636, it’s the oldest surviving church court in England. Photo: Author.

One of my first jobs was to transcribe a small set of church court depositions. While no longer in use, there was a thriving diocesan network of church courts sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century England, which heard a wide range of cases understood to have a spiritual dimension, from breached contracts, marital discord, and the making of wills to the slandering and gossip-mongering that threatened Christian expectations of harmony and amity (for general introductions to these ‘bawdy’ or ‘bum’ courts, see recent posts from Mark Hailwood, Jonathan Healey, and my own earlier discussion on the Intoxicants Project blog). They contain riches for the historian of witchcraft. While the secular courts of quarter sessions and especially assizes prosecuted the crime itself, allegations of witchcraft – if refuted– came under the rubric of defamation and were thus heard by these ecclesiastical tribunals (usually at the behest of the person on the receiving end of the complaint as a so-called instance case, or private litigation). As Laura Gowing, Sharon Howard, Peter Rushton, and Jim Sharpe have observed, alleged witchcraft actions comprised the basis of a recurring if not exactly common subset of defamation suits, usually (although not exclusively) brought by women against women; for example, they made up 4% of all slanders against women heard by the London church courts in the period 1572–94. Denouncing someone as a witch in early modern England, it seems, could be a dangerous business for the accuser as well as the accused.

The York Cause Papers database.

Our own trawl through the excellent Cause Papers Database – an online catalogue of libels, responsions, and depositions (or witness statements) from 14,000 suits heard in York diocese between 1300 and 1858 – yielded twenty-nine causes where alleged witches sued their accusers for defamation in an attempt to restore their reputations at law. As elsewhere, they range from crude name-calling where witch was one of a variety of sexual insults (as in 1664, when Jane Featherston called Jane Tireman ‘whore, arrant whore, damned whore, queen, dissembling queen, liar, witch, and bitch’), to rather more weighty and elaborate claims of harmful magic and pacts with the devil (as in 1586 when Elizabeth Gamble accused Jane Fawcett of having ‘bewitched our horse and our cow’, or in 1682 when Richard Blackborn reported that Grace Rayner ‘was a whore and a witch and had a witch papp [nipple] and that he had seen it within an hour that the devil had sucked it’). With a view to our core project themes and questions we’re reading these cases in particular for their emotional resonances, those expressions of anger, fear, sadness, wonder, hope, and more besides that so often characterised interactions with the supernatural realm, and can be used to access interior states; this is the subject of a forthcoming article, so we can’t say too much here on the blog. However, the cases also shed much general light on the context and meaning of witchcraft accusations in the period – a privileged peek into the spine-chilling goings on across the towns and villages of the early modern north – so let’s mark this eeriest of all days by looking at one in detail.

The Bewitching of Richard Malham; or, Margaret Alcock’s Evil Eye

Darkness approaches Elslack. Flickr/Dr Hobo (CC BY-ND 2.0).

In 1632, Margaret Alcock sued Mary Atkinson in York consistory court after the latter accused the former of witchcraft. They were neighbours in Elslack, a rural hamlet in the far West Riding of Yorkshire just fifteen miles from Pendle Hill, the Lancashire village where ten women had been executed as witches twenty years previously. The libel, or formal charge, described the circumstances and substance of the accusation, which was at the more serious end of the spectrum sketched above. Mary’s husband William was financially indebted to Margaret’s husband Francis, so Margaret went to the Atkinson’s house to ‘demaunde the said money’. Mary was evidently practicing as a wet nurse, as at the same time as Margaret’s visit Francis Malham (a local gentleman) had ‘then a child at nurseinge with the said Mary Atkinson at her husband’s house’. Whether or not Margaret recovered the debt from her neighbour is unclear, but what is clear are Mary’s actions immediately following the attempted settlement. She ‘went to the house of the said Mr Malham and said and reported… that the said Margaret Awcocke was a witch and had an ill eye and that the said Mr Malham’s child did never lyke [i.e. thrive] after she the said Margaret Awcocke did see it and further affirmed… that the said Margaret Awcocke was a witch and that she had an ill eye and had bewitched or forespoken the said Mr Malham’s childe’.

Although Mary Atkinson denied the defamation charge (claiming she ‘never spoke anie of the words’), the version of events described in the libel was corroborated by a witness produced by the plaintiff, a 21 year-old singlewoman called Anne Kippax who was a household servant to Francis Malham. On 8 June, Anne made the fifty mile journey across the Dales from Elslack to York and told the following story:

That she this ex[amina]te being servant to Mr Francis Malham of Elslack the art[iculat]e Marie Atkinson betwixte hay time and harvest in the year art[iculat]e came to the house of the said Mr Malham (she having at that time a childe to nurse, of the said Mr Malham’s) and coming into the chamber where this ex[amina]te and her m[ist]ris wife to the said Mr Malham were seemed to be disirous to speake some what to this ex[amina]te’s m[ist]ris w[hi]ch this ex[amina]te p[er]ceiving, went her way forth of the chamber, and saith that upon this ex[amina]te’s coming againe to her said m[ist]ris, her m[ist]ris told her that the childe w[hi]ch she had at nurseing with the said Atkinson’s wife was not well, and that… the said Marie Atkinson had told her that the art[iculat]e Margaret Awcocke was the cause of it, and that she was a witch and had an evill ey. And saith that shortly after that the said Marie Atkinson comeing again to the house of this ex[amina]te’s said master… she this ex[amina]te asked her howe her said master’s childe did w[hi]ch she then had at nurseing, calling it by the name of Richard, to w[hi]ch she answered, that it was not well, but that she hoped that it mended, whereupon this ex[amina]te asked what she thought might be the cause of its not being well, to w[hi]ch the said Marie Atkinson answered that Awcock’s wife… was the cause thereof, saying further that she the said Margarett Awcocke was a naughty bad woman and had an ill ey.

As is now well established, we must handle these testimonies with care. They’re not dispassionate accounts of events as they actually happened, but conscious, imaginative creations shaped and negotiated by everything from the memories and agendas of witnesses (especially in witchcraft cases, likely to be the product of deep-seated and wide-ranging neighbourhood disputes), to the cultural meanings attached to particular activities, to the legal procedures of courts and clerks. However, they’re no less valuable for that – indeed, it’s precisely because they’re so culturally mediated that they shed such important light on early modern mentalities and practices – and there’s much to glean from even the brief statements described above.

Detail from Anne Kippax’s deposition. York Cause Papers, CP.H. 1961.

As is so often the case, the witchcraft accusation – whether made in good faith or otherwise – developed out of an all too worldly dispute over resources, in this case the monetary debt owed to Mary’s husband by William Atkinson. The case also exhibits an interesting and potentially incendiary class dimension; the allegation of bewitching a child, young Richard Malham, would have been all the more serious as his father, Mr Francis Malham, was a social superior and a pillar of the Elslack community. Finally, the repeated mention by Mary of Margaret’s ‘evil eye’ or ‘ill eye’ is intriguing, and contrasts with the styles of maleficial intervention described elsewhere in the York sample (invocations, or attacks-by-proxy by imps and familiars). Indeed, in light of the occult power imputed to eyes and ‘mischievous looking’ in this period (see this recent blog post for an excellent overview), it’s all too easy to see how an angry glance at a crying baby during a fractious debt recovery (a ‘glare, or squint, or peep… with an envious and evil eye’), followed by the sickening of the infant, could have given rise to a genuine accusation, especially with the terrifying case of the Pendle witches still fresh in local memory…

Further Reading

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