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Are You Descended From Witches? New Digital Document Could Help You Find Out

The Wellcome Library manuscript lists people accused of witchcraft during the Scottish witch panic of 1658-1662

(Wellcome Library)
smithsonian.com

Genealogy has gotten pretty sophisticated in recent years. There are now massive online archives that make it easier than ever to hunt down obscure ancestors, not to mention mail-in DNA tests that can reach back centuries. But an approximately 350-year-old manuscript published online for the first time can reveal another fascinating detail about one's family history: whether any ancestors were accused of practicing witchcraft.

Just in time for Witch's Night (Halloween that is, not Walpurgisnacht), London’s Wellcome Library, which specializes in medical text and history, has digitized Manuscript 3658, Names of Witches in Scotland, 1658. The ledger records all the men and women accused of witchcraft in Scotland in between 1658 and 1662, during the apex of a century-long witch scare. According to a press release, the bound book contains the names of the accused, their town and notes about their “confessions,” which likely took place under some sort of torture.

According to The Scotsman, about 3,000 to 5,000 people in Scotland were publicly accused of witchcraft in 16th and 17th centuries, spurred on by the Scottish Witchcraft Act of 1563, which made witchcraft a crime punishable by death. That Act was vague, both in its definition of witchcraft and in how to identify witchcraft. At least 2,000 people were killed for being witches before the Act was repealed in 1736.

“This manuscript offers us a glimpse into a world that often went undocumented,” says Christopher Hilton, Senior Archivist at the Wellcome Library says in a press release on Ancestry.com, which hosts the list, though the manuscript is also available for free from the library. “How ordinary people, outside the mainstream of science and medicine, tried to bring order and control to the world around them. This might mean charms and spells, or the use of healing herbs and other types of folk medicine, or both. We’ll probably never know the combinations of events that saw each of these individuals accused of witchcraft.”

According to the extensive Survey in Scottish Witchcraft, there are records for 3,837 people accused of witchcraft, and 84 percent of the accused are women. About 65 percent of the accused were over the age of 40. Contrary to popular legend, the Survey found that folk healers and widows only made up a fraction of the accused witches. Nor were they necessarily poor; while nobles only made up about 6 percent of accused witches, about 64 percent of the accused came from what would now be considered the middle class.

Torture was often used to elicit confession, with sleep deprivation being a favorite tactic. In Scotland, at least, the swimming test, known as indicium aquae, was rare. The test judged whether those believed to be witches (or criminals) were guilty by tying them up and then tossing them into water. If the water rejected them as a “servant of the devil,” they floated and were deemed guilty. If they sank, and often subsequently drowned, they were found not guilty. Most witches were tortured into a confession. If they were found guilty they were typically strangled at the stake then burned.

Over time and especially during the panic covered by the Wellcome manuscript, lawyers in Scotland began to distrust some of the tactics used to identify witches, such as searching for "witches marks" or "witches teats" on their bodies which were often just scars, moles, warts, skin tags or birth marks. As the state became more secular and the Enlightenment began to take hold, belief in witchcraft decreased. In 1736, when the Scottish Witchcraft Act was repealed, it was replaced with the crime of “pretended witchcraft” which carried a 1-year prison sentence instead of death.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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