The Last Witch Craze
John Aubrey, the Royal Society and the Witches
- Tony McAleavy
15th August 2022
The 17th-century man of letters, John Aubrey, was obsessed with witchcraft and magic. Aubrey’s intense interest in witchcraft represents a wider intellectual movement in Restoration England dedicated to the ‘scientific’ justification of belief in black magic. Although some educated people were beginning to have doubts about the spirit world and the power of witches, Aubrey argued strongly that the ‘paranormal’ - he called it the ‘praeternatural’ - was a reality. He was supported in his beliefs by many other prominent members of the Royal Society, particularly the great scientist, Robert Boyle but his conviction in the truth of witchcraft was also shaped by his experience growing up and living in rural Wiltshire, a place where traditional beliefs about the activities of the Devil and the reality of the spirit world long persisted. Wiltshire was one of the last places in England where women were routinely executed for witchcraft and this book will provide a detailed account of how Wiltshire was the setting for a spectacular outbreak of witchcraft hysteria. The three cases which became national causes celebres – Anne Bodenham, the witch of Salisbury in 1653, the demonic poltergeist in Tidworth in 1661 and the witches of Malmesbury 1643-72 - were studied by Aubrey and reinforced his belief in the reality of the ‘paranormal’.
The notoriety of these cases spread as far as North America.These ideas had a direct influence on the continuing persecution of ‘witches’ in Massachusetts and the story of the Tidworth Poltergeist became popular in America and influenced those playing a central in the persecution of the Salem witches in 1692.
This fascinating exploration of the beliefs in witchcraft in 16th century England will be of interest to historians and those wishing to know more about the witch-craze of this period.