English Witches

Darren Oldridge. The Devil in Early Modern England. Sutton, 2000.

A dark and disturbing book, giving an insight of the semi-gnostic mental world of the Puritans of 16th and 17th century England, for whom the whole natural world and 'ordinary human affections' were snares of the devil and his terrestrial agents the witches and Papists who were besieging them. Not for nothing was this period the one in which the conspiracy theory was born. While in previous centuries the devil had been portraiyed as a largely comic trickster figure, a very physical entity who could be given a bloody nose or a good kick up the backside and sent on his way, for the Puritans he become an all pervasive intellectual presence, prompting 'evil' (ie normal human) thoughts and desires.

Oldridge shows who the puritan 'Godly folk' were forced the make compromises with the folk image in order to preach to wider society, and in the process elite and folk beliefs merged. Unsual personal experiences might be interpreted either as evidence of Satanic temptation, as possession, or as assault by witches. The Hag experience seems to have been at the core of many of these, becoming the paradigmic 'encounter with evil.'  Of course today we cannot help but see the reflections of current concerns in the past, and note in their condemnation of just about everything, that these puritans resemble the Taliban, and the forces of puritanical fanatisism in several cultures which assail us.  -- Peter Rogerson

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