Ep 143: 1604 Witch Trial with Todd Butler

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When Shakespeare was 39 years old, in 1603, King James of Scotland succeeded Queen Elizabeth after her death, and he brought with him a famous repugnancy, and some call it outright fear, of witches during his reign. In Scotland, where James was dually King at this time, witchcraft had been considered a capital offense since 1563. The King brought this perspective to his management of witchcraft in England, as well. In 1604, just one year after his accession as King, James removed the mercy from Elizabeth’s Act by making it a certain death penalty without clergy for anyone who invoked evil spirits or communed with what were known then as “familiars” (a general term for supernatural spirits). Jacobean England saw the creation of an official position in the English government called the Witch-Finder General, whose job as you might expect from the title was to find witches and enforce the required punishment.

One of the first trials in England to test the new and broadened laws on witchcraft under James I was the mysterious case of Anne Gunter. In 1604, Anne Gunter became sick with an illness that confounded physicians. They concluded her illness must be the result of supernatural influence, and a trial ensued to try and find the suspected witchcraft. During the trial, Anne experienced a theatrical fit of vomiting and other convulsions during which she accused 3 local women of being witches. This caused a flurry of debate over whether Anne was suffering from real witchcraft, or if she was putting on a show to try and deceive the court. Our guest this week tested this theory himself in a college classroom when he, along with his students, decided to re-create the trial of Anne Gunter and the early modern experience of witch trials in a legal courtroom. We are delighted to welcome Todd Butler to the show this week to tell us about the trial of Anne Gunter and the results of his experiment.

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