Alan Macfarlane, ‘A Tudor Anthropologist: George Gifford’s Discourse and Dialogue’

In Sidney Anglo (ed.), The Damned Art: Essays in the Literature of Witchcraft (Routledge, 1977).


In the county of Essex between 1560 and 1680 there are 496 surviving Assize Court prosecutions against supposed 'black' witches.(1) A further 230 men and women from Essex are known to have been presented at ecclesiastical courts for offences related to witchcraft. Some 229 out of 426 Essex villages are connected in some way with witchcraft prosecutions. This is merely the surface, visible to us through court records. Behind it lie the thousands of suspicions and half formulated accusations which never reached the courts. The majority of the prosecutions occurred in the period 15 70-1600, and one of the first areas to be troubled was a belt of central Essex at the level of

Chelmsford and spreading eastwards to Maldon. It is therefore a great stroke of good fortune that there should have lived at the very centre of this witchcraft conscious area, during the crucial period 1580-1600, a man who in his sensitive ability to understand and portray popular mentality anticipates the work of modern anthropologists. George Gifford in A Discourse of the Subtill Practises of Devilles by Witcbes and Sorcerers (1587) and A Dialogue Concerning Witcbes and Witcbcraftes (1593 ) provides us with the best account we now have of many aspects of witchcraft beliefs.

     We may wonder how Gifford's upbringing and career fitted him to write the second work in English on witchcraft, and the first in that language based mainly on English evidence.(2) Gifford was probably born in about 1548, at Dry Drayton in Cambridgeshire. (3) According to Wood he was a student of Hart Hall, Oxford 'several years before 1568', the college which Reginald Scot, author of the Discoverie of Witchcraft, had attended. Yet it is strange that Gifford should then have graduated BA and MA from Christ's College, Cambridge (1569-73). As the DNB puts it, 'It is probable that


he is the George Gifford who, aged 30, was ordained by the Bishop of London both deacon and priest in December 15781.(4) The publication of his first work (5) may have helped him to the living of All Saints with St Peter's at Maldon, Essex, to which he was presented in 1582.(6) In the next few years he published several books and won a reputation as a great preacher. Strype says of him that:

‘This man was a great and diligent preacher, and much esteemed by many, and of good rank in the town, and had brought that place to some sobriety and knowledge of true religion ... he was valued much ... for the good reformation he had made in that market-town by his preaching, where very notorious sins reigned before his coming, and others had been, by his diligence, nourished and strengthened in grace and virtue, as the inhabitants in a petition to the bishop on his behalf had set forth at large; and that in his life he was modest, discreet, and unproveable; that he never used conventicles, but ever preached and catechised in the church.’(7)

But in 1584 he was suspended from his ministry because he refused to subscribe to the articles of the established church, and was tried before the High Commission. Despite a petition on his behalf by fifty-two of his parishioners, and an intercession by Burghley and Sir Francis Knowles, he was deprived of his living, being considered 'a ringleader of the nonconformists'. He was allowed to hold the office of lecturer and continued to preach in his old church and the market place. Two years later his successor, Mark Wyersdale, desired to resign in his favour, but the request was refused. Meanwhile he had attended several synods of ministers, and was active in the local classis. Yet he was not an extreme Puritan and attacked those further to the left, the ‘Brownists', in a series of pamphlets which defended read prayer, and to which Barrow and Greenwood replied.(8)

     The ecclesiastical and doctrinal struggles in which he was involved were intricately intertwined with political issues, both at the national and local level. Within Maldon there appears to have been a power struggle in which various factions in the town contended for supremacy. Gifford, possibly unwillingly, became identified with 'The Company', the stronger element in the town's local government. The members of this group tended to be younger and more recently settled Maldon inhabitants who were opposed by a group of older inhabitants both within and outside the town corporation. This second group supported Robert Palmer, who was placed in Gifford's old living in i589. Much abuse was hurled back and forth: for instance,


"The Company' were called 'schismaticks, young men, greenheads, intemperate and factitious'. Palmer several times attempted to prevent Gifford from preaching in Maldon, despite the latter's licence to do so. The details of the controversy are too complicated to describe here, and are recounted elsewhere.(9) One point about Gifford's character emerges from this faction, fighting: 'one man alone comes out well of all that was said and done. . . Mr George Gifford held his peace'.(10)

      Maldon was a small port and market-town with approximately 1,000 inhabitants during the later sixteenth century." It was less noted for its witchcraft accusations than other nearby villages such as Hatfield Peverel and St Osyth, yet it shared in the series of trials that swept the county at the time. Some of these trials indicate the widespread magical activities forming a background to witchcraft accusations. Thus in 1580, about the same time as Gifford's arrival in the town, Humfrey Poles of Maldon was ordered by the Privy Council to be apprehended for conjuring. (12) A few years earlier some Maldon inhabitants had been involved in the escape of a conjuror and treasure-seeker, Robert Mantell. (13) In 1591 Edmund Hunt of Maldon was examined concerning his attempt to search for lost treasure at Beiligh Abbey. It emerged that he had used a magical parchment during the proceedings and had thought of approaching Doctor Dee, the famous magician, to enlist his help. (14 One of the earliest witchcraft presentments in the county also occurred at Maldon, when the 'wife of Nethersall' was summoned to the archdeacon's court in 1566, where she denied the charge that she was  ‘suspected to be a witche'. She was ordered to bring forward eight people who would swear to her innocence, and was noted as a pauper. But we learn nothing more of the case. (15) There were three major trials for witchcraft concerning inhabitants of Maldon, and a description of these will give some idea of the beliefs circulating when Gifford wrote.

     The first two cases occurred in the 1570s before Gifford arrived, but they indicate the tensions then present. In 1572 Alice Chaundler of Maldon was accused in the Maldon borough court, and two years later exactly the same charge was brought against them at the Assizes, as well as two further indictments. She was accused of bewitching Mary Cowper of Maldon, aged eight years, and he father Francis, a fletcher, to death; of bewitching to death Robert Briscoe (aged 30 years), his son aged two years, and daughter aged five years. All were found true bills, and the defendant found guilty and hanged. (16) Five years later her daughter Ellen Smythe of Maldon was accused at the Assizes of bewitching Susan Webbe, aged four years, who languished and then died. Again the accused was, found guilty, and presumably executed.(17) Fortunately for us, an eye-witness account of the trial was written and survives in a pamphlet. It gives a rare glimpse of the hostilities which lay behind formal accusations, which makes a full quotation necessary.

‘There was one Jhon Chaundeler dwellyng in Maldon, whose wife named Alice Chaundeler, was mother unto this Elleine Smithe, and for Witchcrafte was executed long before, after whose execution he went unto his daughter in lawe Ellein Smithe, and demaunded certaine money of her, whiche she had received of her mother his wife, by meanes of whiche money thei fell out, and in fallyng out the saied Elleine in greate rage saied unto hym, that it had been better for hym, he had never fallen out with her, and so it came to passe, for the same Jhon Chaundeler confessed before his death, that after the same hower that she had saied so unto hym, he never eate any meate that digested in hym, but ever it came up againe as soone as it was donet by which meanes he consumed, and wasted awaie to his death.

2    The sonne of the foresaide Ellen Smithe, of the age of thirteene yeres, or thereaboutes, came to the house of one Jhon Estwood of Malden, for to begge an almose, who chid the boye awaie from his doore, whereuppon he wente home and tolde his mother, and within a while after the said Estwood was taken with very greate paine in his bodie, and the same night followying, as he satte by the fire with one of his neighbours, to their thinkyng thei did see a Ratte runne by the Chimney, and presently it did fall doune again in the likeness of a Tode, and takying it up with the tonges, thei thruste it into the fire, and so helde it in forcesibly, it made the fire burne as blewe as Azure, and the fire was almoste out, and at the burnying thereof the saied Ellen Smithe was in greate paine and out of quiete, whereuppon dissemblyngly she came to the house of the foresaied Jhon Estwood, and asked how all that were there did, and he saied well I thanke God, and she said, I thought you had not been well, and therefore I came to see how you did, and so went her waie.

3. Also it was avouched, and by this prisoner confessed, that where as her daughter, and the daughter of one Widdowe Webbe of Maldon aforesaid, did fall out and fight, the same Ellein Smithe offended thereat, meetyng good wife Webbes daughter the next daie, gave her a blowe on the face, whereupon so soone as the childe came home she sickened, and languishying two daies, cried continually, awaie with the Witche, awaie with the Witch, and so died. And in the mornyng immediately afier the death of the same childe, the saied good wife Webbe espied (as she thought) a thyng like to a black Dogge goe out at


her doore, and presently at the sight thereof, she fell distraught of her wittes.

4. Besides the sonne of this Mother Smith, confessed that his mother did keepe three Spirites, whereof the one called by her great Dicke, was enclosed in a wicker Bottle: The seconde named Little Dicke, was putte into a Leather Bottle; And the third termed Willet, she kepte in a Wolle Packe. And thereupon the house was commaunded to be searched. The Bottles and packe were found but the Spirites were vanished awaie.(18)

There are no recorded trials of Maldon inhabitants in the 1580s, but this is the decade when many prosecutions occurred in nearby villages, particularly in 1582 and 1584 when some 53 indictments from villages in Essex have survived. Gifford's first written reference to witchcraft occurred in 1583, when he wrote: 'Some seeke helpe of Witches & Conjurours, when theyr bodyes, their Children, and cattel are hurt: which is to seek at the devil.'(19) The first of his major works on the subject in 1587 was probably a delayed reaction to the 1582 and 1584 holocausts.(20)  On the other hand the Dialogue of 1593 was possibly, at least partly, inspired by local events in Maldon

     In April 159 Elizabeth Maun and her daughter Margaret Wiseman of West Mersea were presented at the ecclesiastical court for witchcraft. The latter was also stated to be of Bradwell-juxta-mare near Maldon and is almost certainly the same person as the Margaret Wiseman who the following May was cleared on the oath of six Maldon inhabitants of 'all occation of suspicion of Witchcrafte’ (21) Again accused in July and ordered to bring further witnesses. The second of these accusations occurred at a court held at Maldon and it seems very possible that Gifford would be present. He would also have been aware that in the same year Margaret Wiseman was being tried in the borough court of Maldon. On 10 January 1592 fourteen people, and two others whose names are crossed out, were put on a recognisance to witness against Margaret Wiseman, and five days later John Wiseman, brewer (Margaret's husband), and three others of Maldon were bound over for the sum of ten pounds for Margaret's good behaviour. On 17 April a note was made that 'where there  hadd bene heretofore divers speches geven foorthe of the suspicioun that Margaret Wyseman was a wytche' and that John, her husband, 'reported that he had seene a broome in his house to swype the house without any hands', John was brought before the bailiffs and denied that he had ever said such. a thing or believed it to be true.

     Unfortunately do not know the outcome of either borough or ecclesiastical prosecution, and there is no record that the case went to the Assizes.


Nor is there any reference in Gifford's Dialogue to the type of witchcraft described above. Yet it is likely to be more than a coincidence that the following year he published his powerful attack on the credulity of those who believed in witches. It was from direct experience in Maldon and neighbouring villages that he was able to write of a situation so serious that, as one of the characters in the Dialogue put it, ‘here is scarce any towne or village in all this shire, but there is one or two witches at the least in it’ (22)

     f the most important aspects of contemporary beliefs shown us by Gifford's work is the way in which suspicions of witchcraft built up and finally exploded in country villages. He lays bare the interweaving of gossip, fear and tension which lay behind the formal court presentments for witchcraft. The Dialogue is full of material on this, but the best single sustained description occurs in a brilliant passage in the Discourse beginning 'Some woman doth fal out bitterly with her neighbour . . . .’ (23) The type of evidence brought to the courts and upon which suspects were convicted is also well illustrated.(24) The description of the popularity, faithhealing basis, and magical methods of 'cunning folk' who were believed to cure people of the effects of witchcraft is excellent. It is of considerable interest that in all but one of the nine cases in which Gifford described counteraction against suspected witches in his Dialogue the victims or near friend went to a cunning man or woman. (25) Indeed, Gifford was very concerned with the need to destroy the power of such magical practitioners, men and women who were not only pivots of the witcbcraft mentality, but were also  threat to the clergy. Finally, Gifford's works show clearly that the oft-repeated generalisation which links witch-hunting with Puritan fanaticism is too simple. Gifford was a 'Puritan' by most definitions, yet his work is one of the most humane and rational attacks on current beliefs about the evil power of witches. (26)

     Yet even Gifford had to admit the reality of witchcraft. In his two witchcraft works we are watching a mind trying to rise above the limitations and assumptions of its time, to argue its way out of a closed and circular system. The fascination and importance of watching this process is given a tragic greatness when we remember the huge background of suffering against which it occurred. As Gifford wrote, hundreds of people, mostly old women, were being executed or imprisoned throughout England for an offence which we now know they could not have committed. The theme was a great one, and it is not too much to say that the treatment also entitles Gifford to the position of one of the great minor writers in English history.

     The inhabitants of sixteenth, century Essex suffered the endless misfortunes and irritations endemic in all societies, but particularly painful in


those lacking modern medical facilities and insurance agencies: animals died, uninsured houses burned down, children died of painful and lingering diseases, butter and beer would not process properly. There are a number of ways in which human societies have explained such misfortunes: some, like the Nupe, accept that events may happen by random accident; others, among whom the Azande are the classic case, seek for an explanation in terms of a living agent.(27) Gifford's works and contemporary literature show that in everyday life people made a choice between the following explanations: God (trying his servants), oneself (angering God or breaking a taboo), another person (a witch), the stars (astrology), 'natural causation', or chance. The problem for us is why people tended to select certain causes of misfortune in certain situations and why, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, witchcraft became a favoured explanation, only to die away towards the end of this period. In discussing this problem it is of crucial importance to realise that England, even in the sixteenth century, had developed from the Azande-type situation where it is believed that 'Death has always a cause, and no man dies without a reason' (28) to a more complex set of beliefs where illness and death were a accepted. In other words, not every death needed an explanation in personal terms: some people, for instance the very old or infants, might die or be ill from causes unrelated to divine or human will. This acceptance is indicated by Gifford, who argued that 'we must consider that there bee naturall causes in the bodies of men and beastes of grievous tormentes and diseases, yea even causes of death', and later, that though God sometimes allows the Devil 'to strike some in their bodies for their haynous sinnes, yet the most which the witches thinke their spirits doe kill at their request, doe die of naturall diseases'.(29) That astrological beliefs were widespread, and misfortune and success ascribed to the stars, was also obvious to Gifford: 'If men did prosper, it was ascribed unto that lucky Planet under which they were borne. In adversity they blamed the Starres.'(30)

     Yet the central issue in Gifford's discussion is whether, as many of his congregation and neighbours believed, witches were to blame for a large proportion of the pain and misfortune in the environment, or whether the suffering individual himself was to blame. His position was made more difficult by the fact that, like the vast majority of his contemporaries, both intellectuals and villagers, he was aware that the Bible said 'thou shalt not suffer a witch to live', and he accepted that the world was alive with warring spiritual forces of good and evil. At first sight, therefore, he seems to share the basic belief in witchcraft of those for whom he wrote. Thus he stated that 'For my part, I go not about to defend witches. I denie not but that the devill worketh by them. And that they ought to be put to death . . .' and 'A


witch by the word of God ought to die the death not because she killeth men, for that she cannot ... but because she dealeth with devils.'(31) Yet here, in the phrase 'not because she killeth men, for that she cannot' we see the gulf between Gifford and his opponents. The popular view was that the witch could kill men; their malice was the cause of evil. Eliminate witches and much of the suffering in the world would disappear, it was argued. People seized old women 'as if they were the very plagues of the world, and as if all would be well, and safe from such harmes, if they were rooted ... for it is thought that the witch which has her spirits, is even lyke a man which hath curst dogges, which he may sett upon other mens cattell'. (32) To hang witches would decrease suffering; ‘the country being rid of the witches and their spirits, mens bodies and their cattell should be safe'. (33) The law of the land, in making it a felony to injure or kill people or animals by witchcraft was likewise based on the assumption that such acts were possible. This view may be illustrated as follsws:

            Witch  ->         Familiar(34)  ->            victim

            (motive: anger) (power, from Devil)

Thus the witch provided the original evil intention; the familiar, pretending to act as her servant, provided the power. The reason for the anger was almost always an unneighbourly action on the part of her future victim. The sequence of events is excellently illustrated in many of Gifford's accounts of the type of evidence upon which people were convicted. For instance, ‘One woman came in and testified ... that her husband upon his death bed, tooke it upon his death, that he was bewitched, for he pined a long time. And he sayde further, he was sure that woman had bewitched him. He tooke her to be naught, and thought she was angry with him, because she would have borrowed five shillinges of him, and he denyed to lend it her.’ (35) This set of connections had many functions and supports and some of these will be discussed later. How did Gifford, who still shared many premises with his audience, attempt to break out of the system?

    The first thing he did was to change. the definition of 'witchcraft. Instead of concentrating on the physical effects, and distinguishing between 'black' witches, who harmed people, and 'white' witches or cunning folk, who countered witchcraft and helped people find lost goods, a distinction made by his audience, he concentrated on means. Was the mystical power sought through the conventional Christian channels of prayer and humility, or were the sources elsewhere in the dark realms of magic and the Devil? Thus he defined a witch as 'one that woorketh by the Devill, or by some devilish or curious art, either hurting or heating, revealing thinges secrete, or foretelling


thinges to come ... the Conjurer, the enchaunter, the sorcerer, the deviner . . . are indeed compased within this circle'.(36)  His motives for this broad definition were probably mixed. He realised that the whole witchcraft belief-system was given coherence and support by the many hundreds of witch-doctors then flourishing in England. If they could be prosecuted as ‘witches' the whole system might collapse. At the same time, a profession which threatened the spiritual monopoly of the Church would be eliminated; he knew that 'there be thousands in the land deceived. The woman at R.H. by report hath some weeke fourtie come unto her, and many of them not of the meaner sort', and that many of these would agree with the character in his Dialogue who said of this woman 'she doeth more good in one yeare than all these scripture men will doe so long as they live'.(37)

     The cunning folk were, in fact a symptom of what Gifford really feared - a form of Manichaean heresy in which evil powers had somehow become autonomous. For the common conception of witches had revived the ideal probably always present throughout the Middle Ages, that pain and suffering are the result of forces outside the Christian God. This dualism was all the more worrying for Gifford since his brand of Christianity was especially unable to compete with magical and effective alternative remedies to the cunning folk. He was asking people simultaneously to abandon their magical counter-actions against misfortune and not to feel threatened. His constant argument was that 'men do so little consider the high soveraignety and providence of God over all things; they ascribe so much to the power of the devils and to the anger of witches, and are in such feare of them' that they entirely neglect Christian remedies. (38) What was the Christian attitude which he proposed?

     His basic tenet was that God was all-powerful; nothing could occur without His permission. Although people fear the Devil, he can, in fact, "doe no violence to the bodie of a poore swine, naie he can not at his pleasure kill so much as a seelie flie', (39) for as one character argued when told that a hen had been bewitched by the devil's power, 'Christ saith, a Sparrow cannot fall without the Will of your heavenly Father: and is not a henne as good as a Sparrow?' (40) Instead of the witch being the origin of pain, and controlling the devils (familiars), Gifford pointed out that all power and decision flowed from God. It was He who permitted the Devil to act; and the Devil, while pretending to be the witch's slave, was really her master. "The witch is the vassall of the devill, and not he her servant.(41) Why did people refuse to see this, Gifford asked? Because the consequence of such an explanation of suffiering was to take the blame off the witch, and place it either on the victim's own shoulders, or on those of God. The common people 'can by no means


see, that God is provoked by their sinnes to give the devill such instruments to work withall, but rages against the witch, even as if she could do all'.(42) Pain then, was mainly the result of people's sins against the Lord: ‘I say that God in justice giveth power unto Satan to delude, because men refuse to love his trueth: but that maketh not that the devill obtaineth any power to hurt, because the witch sendeth, but the fault is in men, the sinnes of the people give power to the devill: for God is offended.’ (43) The chain of causal links which Gifford hoped to substitute for the popular one described above is as follows:

God -> Devil    ->Witcb  ->     Victim

(motive and power)

Thus responsibility was transferred to God, and hence back to the victim who had angered God, rather than on to another human being (the witch).

     Basically God had two motives for sending misfortunes, according to Gifford. He might, on the one hand, be toughening his followers, trying their faith as He did with Job. 'For touching the godly, the Lord doth use Satan to afflict them in their bodies and in their goodes, for to trie their faith and patience.’ (44) Or, as a loving but just father, He might be punishing His  erring children with 'the roddes & scourges of his wrath' .(45) Although this allowed suffering Christians to feel that at least some of their misfortunes were not the direct result of their own offences, in practice the response to suffering advocated by Gifford was always the same. ‘If thou feare God, and Satan afflict thee, stand fast in faith and patience, and waite upon God for thy deliverance. If thou endure temptation, thou art blessed, and shalt be crowned Jam.1. ver. 12. If thy sinnes have provoked God ... fall downe and humble thy selfe with fasting and prayer ... looke not upon the witch, lay not the cause where it is not.’ (46) If only people would accept this argument, both intellectually and emotionally, then the hunt for witches would disappear.

    The problem, as Gifford realised, was that people did not just want a theologically sound explanation; they wanted something that really held out some chance of healing present pain and minimising the recurrence of misfortune in the future. This the anti-magical Puritan version of Christianity advocated by Gifford could not promise to do. He only had to look round him to see that many godly folk were as wracked by pain as were the ungodly. His audience also noted this. 'For many nowe doe even quake and tremble, and their faith doth stagger. Hath hee [i.e. the Devil] power (thinke they) over such as be cunning in the scriptures, then what are they the better for their profession? the witch is on their bones as well as upon others. By this it might seeme, and so they take it, that other helpes and remedies are to be


sought than by the scriptures.’ (47) Although a fund of spiritual power was available to the staunch Christian, this was provided against generalised evil forces, the Devil who might be overcome 'by faith in the Gospell of Jesus Christ', combined with 'sincere integritie of heart, and with a godly life, with zeale, with patience, and with all other heavenly vertues'. (48) But as for specific evil people, thought to be witches, 'it were a straunge thing for the holy scriptures to appoynt a medicine for such a disease as it never mentioneth. The word of the Lord doth never mention that Witches can hurt at all: & therefore it doth no where prescribe any remedie for that which is not.’ (49) This was a logical, theologically sound position, but it was hardly likely to satisfy a man whose child was dying a lingering death; such a man would want to be shown a specific course of action against a specific evil agent.

     Both Gifford and his opponents shared the assumption that social and physical worlds were interlinked, bad thoughts and bad actions would set off a chain of mystical power which would lead to suffering. They differed, however, in their view of whom it would harm. Gifford was arguing that a man's sins would bounce back onto him from the Great Reflector above. This was an argument for responsibility: a man himself is to blame for his misfortunes, he stands alone with God and cannot, childlike, plead that it was someone else's fault. His opponents argued that the witch's malice was bounced off the satellite-like familiar and struck elsewhere. In the latter theory the enormous weight of explaining pain in a pre-industrial society need not be borne either by God, or by the suffering individual. The great division is between accepting pain as justified, to be suffered with patience, or to see it as a hostile attack by outside agents, to be repulsed and fought. In the former case there will be soul-searching; what did I do wrong that I should suffer so, why was God angry? This will result in a considerable measure of guilt and bewilderment. It will probably appeal to a person already feeling worthless and guilt-ridden. It will lead to an increased attempt to prune away all personal behaviour that might offend the All Seeing One. The witchcraft explanation, on the contrary, will fit a mood of righteous indignation and feelings of aggression. It will also offer relief to a person who has a generalised feeling of anxiety, and who is relieved to be able to ascribe this to a specific factor which may justifiably be assumed to have caused such anxiety. Gifford's theory appears to be much more demanding, involving a much greater degree of responsibility. It entails what might be thought to be an almost intolerable load of guilt when it forces people to believe that their own faults are causing great suffering to those they love. We might therefore cxpect that in the years after the publication of his works the majority of the


population would continue to choose a witchcraft explanation. This would also be encouraged by the fact that, as we have seen, such an explanation busied the person concerned in a whole set of consultations and rituals which made him feel that he bad control of the situation. Christian faith alone left a man an importunate pleader, to be rewarded at the end perhaps, but liable to suffer every time he relaxed his godly standards or whenever God decided to test his faith.

      Another reason why we might have predicted, had we visited Maldon in 1593, that the witchcraft explanation would, in the next century, destroy Gifford’s appeal, lies in the contrasted effects the two patterns of explanation have on social relationships and individual norms. A brief analysis of the expanding population, new industrial, enterprises, increasing gap between prosperous villagers and their less fortunate neighbours who were beginning to show signs of becoming a landless labouring force, would have indicated to an anthropologist that what was needed was a philosophy which would justify an increasing flexibility in social relations. People needed to find some rationalisation as to why they felt uneasy when they refused traditional obligations and Christian precepts which stressed that charity to those slightly worse off than oneself was a cardinal virtue. To find that the shunned neighbour, instead of righteously invoking the power of God through a widow's curse, was an evil old witch was a considerable relief. Anthropologists have tended to stress the way in which witchcraft accusations have a conservative effect, forcing people to adhere to their traditional ideas. But, depending on the flow of accusations, the effects of witchcraft prosecutions may also be disruptive. The two approaches are illustrated by the respective punishments in the ecclesiastical and secular courts in England at this period. The church courts were based on the assumption that the purpose of justice was to purge the community and then to re-integrate the ritually cleansed offender into the village again. If this had been successful in Essex we might have had the Azande-type situation where 'some of one's best friends' might be witches. But in Essex the major recourse was to the secular courts where the guilty were imprisoned or executed; the aim was to eliminate witches, not to restore social harmony.

      Witchcraft accusations were a method of splitting apart, of distancing people. On the personal level they justified disruptive feelings of anger and hostility which ran contrary to the traditional pressures towards harmony and charity instilled by Christianity. Furthermore, witchcraft beliefs did not force people to examine their own conduct to see in what way they had deviated from traditional ideals of behaviour. If suffering had been accepted as the consequence of personal sin, then people would have had to admit that


they had failed in charity, that the old woman was justified in laying a curse. The whole organic, distributive rather than acquisitive, communal rather than individual, 'thou art thy brother's keeper’,  traditional Christian ethic would have had to be adhered to. As it was, the enormity of the witch's reciprocal retaliation, and her association with foul behaviour and hidden power, so overshadowed the situation that the victim's original offence was forgotten. In a subtle way the whole traditional morality could be altered without appearing to change. Charity and love were fine, but could not, of course, be expected to include those beast-like witches; just as today we are to love all our brethren, except for those foul and scarcely human protagonists of 'enemy' states we fear.

     The approach advocated by Gifford and his fellows, if strictly adhered to, would have meant that in the context of sixteenth-century villages traditional values were re-affirmed. The gap between communal ideals and individual practices would either have had to be eliminated by modifying powerful economic forces, or else the anxiety which arises from this acute clash would have grown even greater. Given the presence of a great deal of suffering, to explain it in terms of a communal God meant that the community must constantly come together and join in sacrifice and prayer to eliminate such suffering. Such ritual would tend to strengthen the traditional morality and

draw villagers closer together. Furthermore the individual would try not to deviate from traditional norms, for, as Hallowell has shown for the Saulteaux who connect sin, sex, and sickness, such deviation is foolhardy, for it leads to disease. (50) God the Schoolmaster was ready with his rod and a vigilant eye; the outward conformity which this enforced under Catholicism was made even more strict when Puritans developed the sense of God being ‘nearer than the skin'. Yet it is one of the most puzzling historical problems why such Puritans, appealing to traditional morality and ever-vigilant in their attempt to cut away any sinful, deviant, behaviour which might bring

down God's wrath, should have been, in literature, politics and science, among the most important architects of the modern secularised world. The way in which their ultra-sensitivity to the connection between sin and suffering led finally to a complete rejection of any connection (in the case of the Quakers and several extremist sects); the process by which their insistence on

traditional charity led to the emergence of the phenomenon which has been termed the ‘theory of possessive individualism': these and other extraordinary developments could hardly have been predicted by an observer standing in Gifford's shoes. Nor could such an observer have predicted. the vogue for Gifford's type of explanation of suffering, shown in so many seventeenth,

century diaries.(51) For within a century Gifford's opponents were in disarray.


It would be pleasant to think that Gifford's books helped in this process, but there is no evidence that this is so. His Discourse is not known to have been republished, and the Dialogue was only republished once, in 1603. He is scarcely referred to by later writers on the subject. Yet these two works, largely ignored in the century after their publication, and frequently misunderstood in our own, are among the most important sources in any language for the study of witchcraft beliefs.


1.  The sources for these statistics, and discussion of the various definitions of witchcraft, may be found in Alan Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stuart England (London, 1970). Basically a 'black' witch was a person believed to do physical harm, a 'white’ witch, someone who did physical good.

2 Reginald Scot, Discoverie of Witchcraft (London, 1584), based his work mainly Continental demonologists.

3 Dry Drayton is given as his birthplace in the Maldon Borough records. Unfortunately, the Dry Drayton parish register does not go back far enough to confirm this, though Mr A. H. Lloyd Dunn of Fenstanton, Hunts, kindly informs me that there were many Gifford/Giffards in the parish.

4 This brief biographical account is based on the much fuller details in the DNB, s.n.; T. W. Davids, Annals o Evangelical Nonconformity in the County of Essex (London, 1863) pp. 117-18; and Jay P. Anglin, 'The Court of the Arch,, deacon of Essex, 1571-1609: An Institutional and Social Study' (University of California PhD thesis, 1965), pp. 362, 436. James Hitchcock, 'George Gifford and Puritan Witch Beliefs', Archiv fur Reformationsceschichte, 58 (1967), no. 1, pp. 90-91 is a very useful discussion of Gifford's views on witchcraft.

5 A briefe discourse of certaine points of the religion which is among the commo(n) sort of christians (London, 1581).

6 For other biographical details concerning Gifford, and especially his relations with other Maldon inhabitants, I am indebted to Dr W. Petchey's Leicester University PhD thesis entitled 'The Borough of Maldon, 1500-1688' (1972).

7 Strype, Annals of the Reformation, quoted in Davids, Annals, P. I 17.

8 The polemical works in this controversy may be found under the names of Barrow, Gifford and Greenwood in A. W. Pollard and G. R. Redgrave, A Short-Catalogue of Books ... 1475-1640 (reprinted, 1963), which also lists all Gifford's other works.

9 The thesis by Dr Petchey, referred to above, contains, in chapter 5, a full account of the controversy.

10 The judgment of Dr Petchey in the above-mentioned thesis.

11 Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (London, 1967), p. 376,


describes religious fife in the town and the whole of Collinson's book provides a useful background account of the ecclesiastical situation in Essex at this time.

12 Acts of the Privy Council, n.s. xii, p. 34

13 Ibid., pp. .29, 353-4; State Papers, 12/186, fols.221-5. Other details concerning Mantell, are given by K. V. Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London, 1971), p. 420. The whole background to witchcraft and magical beliefs is excellently portrayed in Mr Thomas's book, and the interpretation of Gifford's work in the following pages, though written before his work was published, overlaps in many ways with his central arguments.

14 ERO (Essex Record Office, County Hall, Chelmsford), D/B 3/1/8, fols. 23, .23v, 87v. I am grateful to the County Archivist for permission to quote from the documents, and to all at the Record Office for their assistance.

15 ERO D/AEA/3, fol. 85v.

16 ERO D/B 3/1/6, fol. 149v and cases 67-9 in C. L'Estrange Ewen, Witch Hunting and Witch, Trials (London, 1929).

17 Case 119 in Ewen, op. cit.

18 A Detection of damnable driftes, practized by three Witches arraigned at Cbelmisforde in Essex, at the late Assises there holden, which were executed in Aprill 1579 (1579; a copy in the British Museum, and extracts reprinted in C. L'Estrange Ewen Witchcraft and Demonianism (London, 1933), pp.149-5 0, sigs Avv-Aviv.

19. A Catechisme (London, 1583), sig. E6v.

20 Gifford's A Discourse of the Subtill Practises of Devilles by Witches and Sorcers (1587), does not tell us the immediate cause which prompted him to write. He said in the preface that he wrote it to counter two contrary beliefs: that witches were all-poweful, or that they did not exist at all.

21 ERO D/ACA/19, fol. 157v and D/AEA16, fols 64, 94. Dr Petchey has provided some indirect evidence of Gifford's involvement in the Wiseman case, and of the way in which witchcraft accusations and local faction-struggles have been connected. Of the compurgators who appeared on behalf of Margaret Wiseman, at least three (Agnes Fludd, Elizabeth Pratt, Susan Ionions) are known to have been supporters and friends of Gifford, whereas none of those who gave evidence against her are known to have had any connection with Gifford.

22.  Dialogue, sig. A4v

23 Discourse, sigs G4-G4:v.

24 For example, Dialogue, sig. L3.

25 The cases are in Dialogue, sigs B, B, Bv, B2v, C, D4v, E3v,, E3v, Iv.

26 There is further discussion of the supposed link between Puritanism and witchcraft in Macfarlane, Witchcraft, ch. 14

27 S. F. Nadel, Nupe Religion (London, 1954), P. 37; E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (Oxford, 1937), passim. The latter book is a classic account of witchcraft beliefs; a basic text for under.standing seventeenthcentury witchcraft.

 28. Evans,,Pritchard, op. cit., p. 111.


29 Dialogue, sigs D3, E3v

30 Discourse, sig. B4v. An excellent description of the widespread belief in the             power of stars is given in Thomas, op. cit., chs 10-12.

31 Dialogue, sigs B2v, K3.

32 Dialogue, sig. D.

33 Dialogue, sig. Hzv.

34 A 'familiar' is a small demon, often in the shape of a toad or cat, which carried           out the witch's orders.

35 Dialogue, sig. L 3.

36 Discourse, sig. Bz.

37. Dialogue, sigs H, M3v

38 Dialogue, sig. Mzv.

39 Discourse, sig. D2V.

40 Dialogue, sig. Mv.

41 Dialogue, sig. C4.

4.2 Dialogue, sig. D3v

43 Dialogue, sig. Kv.

44 Dialogue, sig. D-2v

45 Discourse, sig. B4v

46 Dialogue, sig. H3v

47 Dialogue, sig. D4.

48 Discourse, sig. W.

49 Discourse, sig. 13.

50 A. I. Hallowell, 'Sin, sex and sickness in Saulteaux belief', British Medical Psychology, XVIII (1939), pp. 191-8.

51 A classic case, which makes an interesting comparison with Gifford, is          described in Alan Macfarlane, The Family Life of Ralph Josselin (Cambridge, 1970), part 4