“I am more afraid of those who are terrified of the devil than I am of the devil himself” – Saint Teresa of Avila
I don’t know about you, but if decided to align myself with the powers of darkness and get my witchiness on, it would behoove me to work towards some significant goal. If you’re going to sell your soul, it really should have some big hairy, audacious goal or instrumental purpose like total domination of the universe, worldly riches in obscene amounts, a supernatural level of violin virtuosity, or deep insight into the meaning of existence. What strikes me about most accounts of witchcraft during the classical European witch craze, between roughly the 15th-18th centuries A.D., is that those unfortunates accused of consorting with the Devil are generally credited with some kind of pointless mischief. Let’s face it, the Devil has a war to fight against goodness, and he puts a lot of thought and effort into his recruitment drives, thus one would hope that he would be loathe to squander his precious resources on merely randomly tormenting mortals and wreaking civil havoc on a microcosmic scale. That would make him nothing more than an annoying twit, as opposed to an author of grand evil. An example of just such random and pointless activity can be found in the 1657 case of the reputed Shepton Mallet witch Jane Brooks, who if we are to give credence to the testimony, was busy harassing a nice young twelve year old named Richard Jones for no clear purpose whatsoever.
On Sunday 15 of November, 1657, about Three of the Clock in the Afternoon, Richard Jones then a sprightly youth about twelve years old, Son of Henry Jones of Shepton Mallet, in the County of Somerset, being in his Father’s house alone, and perceiving one looking in at the Windows, went to the Door, where one Jane Brooks of the same Town (but then by name unknown to this Boy) came to him. She desired him to give her a piece or close Bread, and gave him an Apple. After which she also stroked him down on the right side, shook him by the hand, and so bid him good night. The youth returned into the house, where he had been left well, when his Father and one Gibson went from him, but at their return, which was within an hour or thereabout, they found him ill, and complaining of his right side, in which the pain continued in most part of that night. And on Monday following in the Evening, the Boy roasted the Apple he had of Jane Brooks, and having eat about half of it, was extremely ill, and sometimes speechless, but being recovered, he told his Father that a Woman of the Town on Sunday before, had given him that Apple, and that she stroked him on the side. He said he knew not her name, but should her person is he saw her. Upon this Jones was advised to invite the Women of Shepton to come to his House, upon the occasion of his Son’s illness, and the Child told him, that in case the Woman should come in when he was in his Fit, if he were not able to speak, he would give him an intimation by a Jogg, and desired that his Father Would lead him through the Room, for he said he would put his hand upon her, if she were there. After this he continuing very ill, many Women came daily to see him. And Jane Brooks the Sunday after, came in with two of her Sisters, and several other Women of the Neighbourhood were there. Upon her coming in, the Boy was taken so ill, that for some time he could not see nor speak, but having recovered his sight, he gave his Father the Item, and he led him about the Room. The Boy drew towards Jane Brooks, who was behind her two Sisters among the other Women, and put his hand upon her, which his Father perceiving, immediately scratched her Face and drew Blood from her. The Youth then presently crying out that he was well, and so he continued seven or eight days. But then meeting with Alice Coward, Sister to Jane Brooks, who passing by said to him, “How do you do my Honey” he presently fell ill again. And after that, the said Coward and Brooks often appeared to him. The Boy would describe the Cloths and Habit they were in at the time exactly, as the Constable and others have found upon repairing to them, though Brooks’s House was at a good distance from the Jones’s. This they often tried, and always found the Boy right in his Descriptions (Glanvill, 1726, p285-286).
Now, revenge and spite are often excellent motivators, but neither young Richard Jones or his family were personally acquainted with Jane Brooks, and in fact, when faced with a strange old lady pleading for bread on his doorstep, this well-mannered young man did not hesitate to provide it. While such a demonstration of good upbringing and a general good disposition towards the plight of those less fortunate might rub the Devil the wrong way, it seems unlikely that the Prince of Darkness would want to waste his time, or that of his hard won minions on such trivialities. After young Robert fell ill, he was subsequently seen to suffer various other meaningless torments. “At one time he was found in a room with his hands flat against a beam at the top of the room, and his body two or three feet from the ground; nine people saw him in this position” (Cutten, 1908, p92). And furthermore, strange reports were made that part of his bewitchment involved simply being forcibly moved about Shepton Mallet for no particular good reason. “It was pretended that the boy was often lifted about in an extraordinary manner; and one woman declared that on the 25th of February, 1658, being seized with one of her fits while in her house, he went out of the house into the garden, and she followed him. There she saw him gradually lifted up into the air, and pass away over a wall, and she saw no more of him till he was found lying at the door of a house at some distance, when he declared that he had been carried there by Jane Brooks” (Wright, 1851, p179). Additionally, although purported to be working with the Father of Lies, Jane Brooks didn’t seem to be too savvy about covering her tracks, and a simple test devised by Robert’s cousin sealed her fate.
One case of witchcraft recorded by Glanvill seems to involve a phenomenon of the latter type and to demand something more than mere hysteria for its explanation. According to this account, Richard Jones, a bewitched child, called out, whilst in a fit, that he saw his tormentor, a woman named Jane Brooks, at a certain spot, at which spot a man who was present immediately struck with a knife. To continue in Glanvill’s own words: “Upon which the Boy cried out, “O Father, Cousin Gibson hath cut Jane Brook’s hand, and ’tis Bloody.” The Father and Gibson immediately repaired to the Constable a discreet Person, and acquainting him with what had passed, desired him to go with him to Jane Brook’s House, which he did. They found her sitting in her Room on a Stool with one hand over the other. The Constable asked her how she did? She answered, not well. He asked again why she sat with one hand over the other. She replied she was wont to do so. He enquired if anything was amiss with her Hand? Her answer was, it was well enough. The Constable desired he might see the hand that was under, which she being unwilling to shew him, he drew it out and found it bloody according to what the Boy had said. Being asked how it come so, she said ’twas scratched with a great Pin”. Unless this is to be explained away as pure coincidence, which the woman’s hesitancy to admit her hurt seems to prohibit, it must be regarded as constituting a case of an objectively real apparition of the living (Redgrove, 1921, p90-91).
While there is obvious practical value to toddling about on a broomstick, a certain appreciation for orgiastic entertainments at the occasional Sabbat, or the ability to curse one’s enemies and lure innocents to their doom, harassing local tweens doesn’t seem like an especially diabolical activity. Humans tend to like to use stuff to our greater advantage. One assumes this would hold true of strange occult powers. Sadly, the upshot of this seemingly meaningless irritation of little Robert Jones was a nasty little witchcraft trial and subsequent execution by hanging of Jane Brooks.
This was sufficient matter for carrying the woman to prison…She was tried at Chard assizes, on the 26th of March, 1658, and, as might be expected from such conclusive evidence, condemned (Wright, 1851, p179-180).
I would like to think that should the Devil exist, he probably has better ways to spend his time and resources. Armageddon has got to be a logistical nightmare. You’ve got good and you’ve got evil, and it’s hard to imagine that infernal project management is so substandard that it requires endless hours of useless, bureaucratic messing with humans to no clear purpose, for as Samuel Butler pointed out, “God and the Devil are an effort after specialization and the division of labor”.
Cutten, George Barton, 1874-1962. The Psychological Phenomena of Christianity. New York: C. Scribner’s sons, 1908.
Glanvill, Joseph, 1636-1680. Sadducismus Triumphatus: Or, A Full And Plain Evidence, Concerning Witches And Apparitions. In Two Parts. The First Treating of Their Possiblity. The Second of Their Real Existence. The 4th ed., London: Printed for A. Bettesworth and J. Batley [etc.], 1726.
Notestein, Wallace, 1878-1969. A History of Witchcraft In England From 1558 to 1718. Washington, D.C.: The American historical association, 1911.
Redgrove, H. Stanley 1887-1943. Joseph Glanvill And Psychical Research In the Seventeenth Century. London: W. Rider & son, ltd., 1921.
Wright, Thomas, 1810-1877. Narratives of Sorcery And Magic; From the Most Authentic Sources. London: R. Bentley, 1851.