A Game of Two Halves

James Sharpe. The Bewitching of Anne Gunter: A Horrible and True Story of Football, Witchcraft, Murder and the King of England. Profilebooks, 1999.

As James Sharpe says, it is probably only in England that a witchcraft case could start with a football match, but it was just such a match, held in the village of North Moreton in Oxfordshire in May 1598 that started the chain of events which led to these accusations. There, Brian Gunter, a local gentleman, intervened in a brawl and was accused of dealing fatal blows to two of the sons of another local family the Gregorys. This led to bad blood between the families, so when in 1604 his daughter Anne fell ill, Brian decided it might provide the opportunity to get back at the Gregory’s who had been badmouthing him. He accused an unpopular foul tongued daughter-in-law of the Gregory family, and a couple of local beggar women (the elder with the reputation already of being a witch) of bewitching his daughter.
 
To keep things going Brian coached Anne in tricks to play, and gave her an unpleasant green liquid which made her feel ill. She learned additional tricks from various tracts on witchcraft that visitors and friends had given to the family to help them cope with the situation. Many were taken in, but others were sceptical, including the judges at the trial and King James I/VI. Anne eventually confessing to her trickery.
 
That is the bare bones of this story, but what strikes me is the number of modem resonances. We are clearly dealing here with something on the borderline between Munchausen's syndrome and Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, a fraud born out of complex family dynamics. In the accounts of Anne vomiting pins and her stockings and bodice which would unaccountably loosen themselves, and the willingness of many of the witnesses to want to see the supernatural, are there not echoes of more modem poltergeist stories, usually with young people at the centre? And are not the tracts about famous witchcraft trials not the forerunner of today's confessional TV programmes and witness support groups? The fact that the mass media are already a major factor as early as the start of the 17th century is a very important point, with ramifications across a whole variety of traditions. Also important is Sharpe's instance that in Britain at least witchcraft accusations were not imposed from above but were born out of the dynamics of village life and quarrels. – Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 71, June 2000.


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