Witches and witchcraft
Behind the witch stories collected by folklorists lay a widely held set of beliefs about the malevolent power of the witch and her ability to ill-wish people and cattle, to blast crops and cause sickness and misery to those that displeased her. The period from 1550 to 1736 was the great age of the witch-trials in England when many thousands found themselves before judges accused of witchcraft. The trial records and pamphlets describe the fear of witchcraft and point to the anxieties felt in local communities that led to witch accusations. Most fears about witchcraft centered on the hearth and home, of child-rearing and domesticated animals, and the written records show that most accusations of witchcraft were made by women against other women, usually by young women against their seniors. The older woman, past child-bearing years, could find herself at the centre of a younger person’s anxieties about motherhood and illness. A readiness to resort to folk magic to help in cases of sickness could easily be construed as something altogether darker. In all cases, the witch was known to her accusers.