“History is full of darkness.”
It’s a pompous line in a fairly pompous (if enjoyable) film, yet outside of the confines of Gore Verbinski’s beautiful and grotesque flop, A Cure for Wellness (2017) the line certainly holds true, and the history of witches and witch hunters shows us the devastating effects of human hysteria and persecution, the most famous of which are the events in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.
For this short essay, I’m going to look at the origins of witches and witchcraft, how it develops from pagan alternative to Christianity to demonstrable demonic power. How the political upheavals of the Reformation caused Puritans to set up colonies in North America and how the insular, often imperilled existence of such colonies become breeding grounds for suspicion and mistrust. Finally I’ll look at Steve Lyon’s 1998 Doctor Who novel The Witch Hunters, an early First Doctor historical that weaves a story within tragically real circumstances.
The Reader Digest Great Encyclopaedic Dictionary (1975 edition) defines a witch as thus:
- A person who practises sorcery; one having supernatural powers, especially to work evil, and usually by association with evil spirits or the devil: formerly applied to men, woman and children, now generally restricted to women.
- An ugly, malignant old woman; a hag.
- A bewitching or fascinating woman or girl.
So the die is now cast, a witch is an evil woman with access to unnatural powers, but this is nevertheless a relatively modern construction. The stereotypical image of popular culture comes largely from the 16th and 17th centuries.
The word witch is Anglo-Saxon, deriving from wicca or witta, meaning knowledge or cunning, but one problem with trying to determine the origins of witchcraft is that pretty much any written text from the British Isles mentions witchcraft only from the point of view of its eradication as a criminal activity.
Christianity was largely reintroduced into England around 600, and as the Romans had done before them, the Church incorporated numerous Pagan rituals and indeed sites. Glastonbury Abbey was chosen for this very reason. The Easter Bunny is widely accepted as a Christian adoption of a hare, supposedly representing Ēostre, the Saxon Goddess of Spring and Dawn, although The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore questions this as there is no written evidence of any connection between Ēostre and hares. Nevertheless, although Christianity sought to both spread itself and eradicate paganism, it was a long-term plan and it focussed on conversion rather than persecution.
For the majority of human history magic exists as a fact in people’s minds and at all levels of society, yet the place of the witch has always seemed to exist outside of the orthodox social structures. In antiquity Shaman and Magi formed part of established society within a nomadic tribe or the court of a ruler but witches and witchcraft were something outside the supposed natural or indeed supernatural order. So in seeking to destroy the old pagan superstitions of the past, the Church was always going to find it harder with witchcraft, something that existed outside these structures anyway.
As Christianity became the accepted religion in England and Europe, its stance became harsher on all things it deemed ‘ungodly’ and all things pagan became all things Satanic and witches become subjects of persecution. In his recent book Maleficium, Gordon Napier describes how on the one hand witches were loath to discourage belief in their powers as this was the basis of how they made their living, with basic remedies and enchantments but on the other such belief made them a useful scapegoat for a rural society’s ill. If crops failed or a child died, the old woman, already on the margins and slightly feared, could be blamed, and such maledictions were not rare.
So if persecution of witches is ancient. What then creates the witch-hunting craze of the sixteenth century and what role does the Reformation play?
The Protestant Reformation was a division of Christian doctrine from the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther is widely acknowledged to have started this with his 1517 work The Ninety-Five Theses. Central to this doctrine is the belief in the Bible as the absolute word of God and the reading of Scripture in vernacular languages. The Protestant Reformation caused huge upheaval to European society and a direct challenge to Papal supremacy, however as many who supported it did so for reasons other than theology. The Catholic Church held huge land assets throughout the continent and the loyalty of the Clergy to the Pope could often prove problematic to Kings and rulers. The Reformation offered them an attractive alternative. Such upheaval led to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and caused widespread devastation and religious factionalisation throughout Europe.
In addition to this chaos, Europe experienced the so-called mini ice age, leading to large-scale crop failure. At the same time, the influx of precious metals from the New World caused devaluations of European currency and hyperinflation. Poverty, starvation, war and disease led to a perfect storm and the superstitious peasantry were only too keen to blame the supernatural and thus witches.
Against such a backdrop major cultural works could not fail to be influenced. The first performance of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (c1605) popularised the idea of witches as a community (and therefore conspiracy) while the publication of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) gave the Biblical forces of evil a human touch and made them a direct threat in people’s lives rather than an abstract terror.
While the religious wars were waged the killing of witches went hand in hand with the killing of everyone else in the name of ‘Godliness’ there was no one direct cause. They did however bring about large-scale social unrest and with it anger, fear and persecution.
In England such persecution was most notable for the witch trials in Pendle in 1612 and Matthew Hopkins, The Witch-Finder General’s reign of terror in East Anglia between 1645 and 1646.
But by the late seventeenth century the witch craze had largely died out, except in the more…..remote areas of Christendom. Which brings us on to the North American Colonies.
The so-called Pilgrim Fathers established a colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. A bunch of separatist Protestants, they wanted to flee the religious conflict in Europe while maintaining their English cultural identity.
Over the next few decades a combination of political upheaval back home (including the deposition of the King James II in 1688) and local conflict with both native Americans and the French colonies mean that effectively governing such a fledgling and growing community with central government so far away would always be an uphill struggle, especially one populated by religious extremists. By the beginning of 1692 we have Salem Village, full of both bitter infighting between villagers and collectively in conflict with the local seat of government in Salem Town.
It’s well documented that in February two girls of the village, Betty Parris (9), daughter of the local minister Samuel Parris and her cousin Abigail Williams (11) began to have violent fits which were said to be beyond the range of natural disease. A doctor pronounced there was no physical evidence of injury or illness and witchcraft began to be suspected.
These are people who live with the supernatural as part of the natural world, founded in religious fanaticism and deeply insular, the people they blamed for this supposed outbreak bore all the hallmarks of the prejudices that underscore witchcraft accusation.
Sarah Good, a homeless beggar.
Sarah Osborne, rarely attended church and was deemed to have ideas above her station.
Tituba, a native American slave.
An outcast, and an embarrassment to the village; a potential threat to the status quo; and a Godless savage. None of these women were given any help from the village and were all sent to prison to await trial.
It didn’t end there of course, family feuds and long-standing resentments exploited the crisis to try to settle old scores. One villager, Martha Corey (72) was open in her disbelief in the accusation and in the very existence of witches. This lead to her own accusation. Most famously, Rebecca Nurse (71) was accused by the Putnam family, of afflicting their daughter, Ann. These accusation shocked many in the village, it was one thing to accuse beggars and savages but now elderly, pious churchgoers were being sent to trial, and if Martha and Rebecca could be witches then so could anyone.
Accusations now began to pour in and over 40 more men and women were arrested and in May Governor of Massachusetts, Sir William Phips ordered the formation of a Special Court to prosecute those in prison. Phips’s deputy, William Stroughton would be the Chief Magistrate. Via this court and its successor, twenty people would be executed, fourteen women and six men. Most of the evidence used would be spectral evidence, whereby the accusers stated that they could perceive the spectre of the accused as they were tormented. Stroughton would use the legal precedent of a witch trial in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk in 1662 as a basis to admit spectral evidence at the witch trial.
No one has a conclusive theory as to what really did afflict the girls. Ergotism and psychological stress have been cited, but many now think it was all simply an act, and one motivated by spite and a need for attention, and once it was out of control, one the girls had to keep going.
And when it was all over, the land was devastated as so many people were arrested or driven away that crops rotted in the field and animals were neglected. Hundreds were made destitute and local economies destroyed. “The witchcraft hysteria,” wrote Frances Hill in A Delusion of Satan (1995) “which had begun in Salem Village a year before, had wreaked eastern Massachusetts as would a civil war.”
Such a story of madness and danger is a perfect backdrop for Doctor Who and although writer Steve Lyons first submitted this story with the Seventh Doctor, as that incarnation was, at the time the only one with a novel range, it’s now impossible to imagine this as anything other than a Season One tale.
The First Doctor: resolute in the unchanging flow of history (or at least the bits we know).
Ian and Barbara: capable, determined, kind. These are our window onto the events, reacting with the same horror as we do to the unfolding chaos.
Susan: innocent, young, unearthly, Other. None more dangerous to put into the Salem of 1692.
Yet while traditional in that it’s a ‘pure’ historical for the First Doctor era it’s not told in a traditional way, the non-linear narrative making the story feel disjointed and the reader uncomfortable. There’s also several trips in the TARDIS and bit too much shoe-horning in of the Fast Return Switch as a method of getting back to Salem to feel truly authentic of Doctor Who in 1964. Yet these are devises of narrative convenience and should not be overstated.
At the heart of this novel is the message that people will commit atrocities rather than change their world view. The Doctor’s own view of the girls’ hysteria, that such is the repression of the community that the thrill of creating chaos brings them to near ecstasy is a tidy way of sympathising with the girls without ever justifying their actions.
Samuel Parris himself is portrayed as the central villain. Like Tlotoxl in TV serial The Aztecs (1964) he’s a character whose religious convictions and way of life are one and the same, and anyone who questions them must have an interest in stopping God’s work and is therefore a witch or at least in league with Satan. The fear in such a character lies in their total conviction.
The challenge that Lyons faces in writing a fiction about such a well documented historical period is never trivialising the events and the tragedies of the people caught up in them when placing something as inherently trivial as Doctor Who into the heart of it. Yet there’s an additional challenge here, the shadow of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) looms large and the characterisation of individuals such as Mary Warren and Abigail Williams owe as much to that as they do historical record.
Lyons captures the Doctor Who regulars well and delves deeper into psychological cost to the Doctor of not being able to change history and thus actively ensuring that Rebecca Nurse is hanged. Arguably the best scene in the novel describes the Doctor alone in the TARDIS, despairing at having arranged Nurse’s death and his fear of the Time Lords. The later scene where he takes her to see a production of The Crucible to explain why her death is necessary could have been overly sentimental. It’s not but it still feels a little too contrived and Nurse is very quick to understand and thus expunge the Doctor’s guilt.
Susan gets a far meatier role than her television counterpart. Her latent telepathy, so rarely addressed on screen is crucial here, an alien child, determined to right such horrific wrongs yet doomed to fail and causing everyone she cares about to suffer in the process.
Ian doesn’t get too much to do although becomes the focus of Susan’s hope as he’s tortured in prison while Barbara gets to vocalise the readers’ frustrations with the Doctor.
A gripping character piece, the novel is littered with tension and brutality, Susan being punched and nearly drowned, Barbara’s horror at realising the Doctor has to dematerialise the TARDIS and leave Ian and Susan being, as if it survives burning the villagers will ‘know’ it’s demonic and Ian’s degradation at being stripped and searched for witches teats. It’s uncomfortable but you can’t deny that it’s powerful stuff.
Ultimately you know how the story will end and it’s to Steve Lyons’ credit that it never becomes a distraction.
A Delusion of Satan, Frances Hill (1995)
Witchfinders – A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy, Malcolm Gaskill (2005)
Maleficium – Witchcraft and Witch Hunting in the West, Gordon Napier (2017)
And of course:
Doctor Who – The Witch Hunters, Steve Lyons (1998)
This piece was originally written for Joshua Stevens’ Doctor Who blog, Pure Historical, which combines two of my favourite things, Doctor Who and history.
When Joshua asked me to write a piece I’d thought I’d try for a non-TV story and had recently finished re-reading Steve Lyons’ 1998 novel The Witch Hunters, which effectively invokes the early William Hartnell era while combining it with a story that Studio D at Lime Grove probably wouldn’t have been able to cope with.
You can read the original piece here and you can also follow Pure Historical on Twitter at @PureHistorical.