Are You Descended From (Alleged) Witches?

Mar 26, 2017
Originally published on March 26, 2017 1:17 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

And now for some 350-year-old gossip. London's Wellcome Library has digitized a manuscript called "Names Of Witches In Scotland 1658." It records everyone accused of witchcraft in the country between 1658 and 1662. The list has also been posted on a genealogy website for those who may want to find out if their own family members got caught up in Scotland's witch-hunting fever. Christopher Hilton is the senior archivist at the Wellcome Library. He joins us now from London.

Thanks so much for being with us.

CHRISTOPHER HILTON: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us about this manuscript, number 3,658, I believe. Who wrote it? Where does it come from?

HILTON: Right. OK. Well, it's essentially a list of names produced in Scotland in 1658, summarizing people accused of witchcraft. It didn't actually start out as a book. It began as a set of loose papers in five separate handwritings, presumably sent in from people dotted around Scotland in various locations. It's been collated, brought together, in Edinburgh and then folded up very small at some stage, presumably so that it could be carried around by a court messenger who was then convening trials in various locations.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, let's step back a minute. Can you give us a bit of a history lesson? You know, I'm sure a lot of our listeners have heard of the Salem witch trials in the late 1600s or, you know, read "The Crucible" in high school. But what was it like in Scotland during this time period?

HILTON: The prosecutions that were being talked about in this particular document were launched under the Witchcraft Act of Scotland, which was passed in 1563. Now, at the time that it was passed, Scotland was a completely independent kingdom. And nothing like this Witchcraft Act existed in England and Wales, south of the border. So there is a distinctly Scottish flavor to witchcraft trials. And it seems to have gone on for 150 years or so. It was a fairly steady element in Scottish life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what was the criteria back then to accuse someone of being a witch?

HILTON: The Witchcraft Act is notoriously baggy actually, notoriously vague. You were a witch if somebody thought you were a witch. I think we can hazard a guess as to some of the things that went on. I'm sure that in some cases people were genuinely casting spells and attempting to influence the world around them through what we would understand as magic now. In other cases, they doubtless were attempting folk medicine, carrying out things that we would see as more scientific.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And just to remind people, what happened to these people after they were accused and possibly found guilty?

HILTON: You would be almost certainly interrogated in ways that breach any legal protocol now. As far as we're aware, about 4,000 people that we know of were accused of witchcraft during the currency of the act. And about 2,000 people were executed. So you had about a 50/50 chance of coming out of the process alive. But equally well, it would - you know, it was clearly not good news to be accused.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think it's important to make these records public?

HILTON: I think there are a whole range of uses to which one could put them. One of the things that this document does is make people aware that what we now think of scientific medicine is something that has evolved over time. It basically gets people thinking about - what do we think of as being proper science? What do we think of as being magic? What do we think of as alternative medicine? And have the boundaries changed? We may come to think of quantum chromodynamics or something like that as - in the same way that we now think of witchcraft.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Christopher Hilton, senior archivist at the Wellcome Library, thank you so much for being with us.

HILTON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.