Thursday, March 22, 2012

Browne and the witches of Suffolk (and Denmark)

A comment on yesterday's quotation from Sir Thomas Browne, the English antiquarian and doctor, tipped me off on something I hadn't known about: Browne's participation in a notorious witch trial in 1662.
two elderly widows, Rose Cullender and Amy Denny (Deny / Duny), living in Lowestoft, were accused of witchcraft by their neighbours and faced 13 charges of the bewitching of several young children between the ages of a few months to 18 years old, resulting in one death. * * *

Thomas Browne, the philosopher, physician and author, attended the trial. The reporting of similar events that had occurred in Denmark by someone as eminent as Browne seemed to confirm the guilt of the accused. He also testified that "the young girls accusing Denny and Cullander were afflicted with organic problems, but that they undoubtedly also had been bewitched". He had expressed his belief in the existence of witches twenty years earlier, and that only: "they that doubt of these, do not only deny them, but spirits; and are obliquely, and upon consequence a sort not of infidels, but atheists" in his work Religio Medici, published in 1643:

... how so many learned heads should so farre forget their Metaphysicks, and destroy the ladder and scale of creatures, as to question the existence of Spirits: for my part, I have ever beleeved,and doe now know, that there are Witches ....
The two women were convicted and hanged, and the trial became an important precedent for the Salem witch trials 30 years later. Unfortunately Browne's skepticism failed him in this important instance.

The pamphlet describing the trial gives a bit more detail:
There was also Dr. Brown of Norwich, a Person of great knowledge; who after this Evidence given, and upon view of the three persons in Court, was desired to give his Opinion, what he did conceive of them: and he was clearly of Opinion, that the persons were Bewitched; and said, That in Denmark there had been lately a great Discovery of Witches, who used the very same way of Afflicting Persons, by conveying Pins into them, and crooked as these Pins were, with Needles and Nails. And his Opinion was, That the Devil in such cases did work upon the Bodies of Men and Women, upon a Natural Foundation, (that is) to stir up, and excite such humours super-abounding in their Bodies to a great excess, whereby he did in an extraordinary manner Afflict them with such Distempers as their Bodies were most subject to, as particularly appeared in these Children; for he conceived, that these swounding Fits were Natural, and nothing else but that they call the Mother, but only heightned to a great excess by the subtilty of the Devil, co-operating with the Malice of these which we term Witches, at whose Instance he doth these Villanies.
Taken from a website devoted to the Lowestoft trial, well worth perusing.


  1. If you believe in blessings, you have to believe in curses. If you believe in invisible powers, or spirits, or souls or whatever, how can you say there aren't ghosts or witches or haints? Browne's logic makes sense to me.

  2. Yah, it's difficult at best to believe in God and angels, but not in Satan and demons, and from there it's no great stretch to believe in witches.

    Now, believing that these two particular women are witches ... that's where it falls down, as a rule.

    I've never quite understood the logic where such defendants are (1) servants of the mighty Satan and yet (2) so puny as to be tried, condemned, and executed. Hell, it's like Monty Python: if you succeed in hanging the witch, well, she was probably innocent.

    ... It would be a good novel to write about someone accused Back Then of being a witch, who turns out not to be a witch, but to've been sexually molesting the "bewitched" children.