Cathy Dobbs: Witchfinders generally powered by superstitious nonsense

If you’ve been watching BBC’s latest historical comedy The Witchfinder you may have started wondering if you, or someone close to you, would have been convicted of witchcraft.

The Witchfinder. Photo: BBC.
The Witchfinder. Photo: BBC.

Back in the 17th century, witches were blamed for anything that went wrong. So if your cow was ill, or your beans didn’t grow then there was a good chance it was because of a witch that lived in your village. Possibly that suspiciously happy woman down the road who drinks dandelion tea, or maybe it’s that single lady who is obsessed with her cat.

It was easy to point the finger at innocent people – but what were the signs that people looked out for to identify a witch?

Well firstly if you are an old, poor, single woman then you would be top of the list. Around 400 years ago, it was assumed you were on good terms with the Devil if you had grey hair, uneven teeth and sunken cheeks. Sadly this was how most people looked when they were in their 40s – imagine how many lives could have been saved if hair dye, cosmetic dentistry and Botox was available.

Also, shame on you if you happen to have a birthmark or mole – which would have been known as the Devil’s mark. It’s thought that the mark was a way that the witch fed her familiar, which would have been her pet dog or cat. On the plus side, imagine how much money you would save if you could feed your dog via that mole you’ve got on your back – Kerching!

Have you got a cat? Well, you are just asking for trouble then as that’s a clear sign that you are a witch. This belief can be traced back to before the arrival of Christianity. The Celtic people believed that cats were actually badly behaved humans who, after dying, were forced to return to earth in a feline form. So, cats were seen as malevolent spirits - their independent and slightly aloof nature didn’t do anything to affect their cause.

Don’t forget the power of herbs – if you are someone that can rustle up a natural remedy then chances are, in the 17th Century, you would have been executed for witchcraft. So, if the weather turned bad, the harvest didn’t go well or a couple in the village were having trouble conceiving then there’s a good chance the finger would have been pointed in your direction.

We know that there were various ways to test for a witch, such as a ducking stool to see if the accused would float. If she did then she was clearly a witch and would be burned at the stake, if she drowned then she was innocent.

And it was all legal thanks to the Witchcraft Act passed in 1563. So, just remember if you happen to have grey hair, a mole and a pet cat then try to stay on good terms with everyone around you – we don’t want anyone getting suspicious now, do we?

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