The Witch-Trials – A History Masterclass with Suzannah Lipscomb

The Witch-Trials – A History Masterclass with Suzannah Lipscomb

11 February 2017, New College of the Humanities, 19 Bedford Square, London.


This, the third History Masterclass, was held in a Grade I Listed mansion in London’s Bedford Square, one of the most architecturally important squares in the world and a masterpiece of Georgian city planning.

After a brief introduction by Dr Sam Willis placing no. 19 Bedford Square in its historical context and suggesting surprising thought paths that might link the beautiful eighteenth-century building with the cultural history of early modern magic, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb began the seminar with a fascinating Q and A session about the myths of the history of witchcraft and witch trials. Were all those condemned as witches executed by burning? Was the English craze of witch trials the worst in Northern Europe? Did witch trials include ducking on stools? Were 1 in 5 witches male? Was the Roman Catholic Church responsible? Were five million women burned at the stake by the church?

The Masterclass then continued with a group discussion of six historical primary sources that recorded known spells. ‘Take the sick person to a certain fig tree and have him kneel facing the east with his hat off….’. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

The purpose of the spells was discussed, which then opened up into a broader discussion of the historical themes behind the rise of the persecution of witches.

Why did this begin? Why did this end? Why did this happen, and in such extremes, in curiously isolated locations?

After a break, the Masterclassers took speaking parts in a documented witch-trial, where the concepts of accusations and legal proof in the early modern era were discussed. The presentation then moved on to questions of patriarchy, misogyny, and a broader discussion of the motivation behind persecution. Such was the explosion of thought and discussion that Sam was moved to photograph and post online the chaotic notes he had taken, while other Masterclassers proudly held up their jottings of inspiration and tweeted their own mental maps.

The session concluded with a discussion between Sam and Suzannah, which began with the premise that history is a creative discipline in which more questions remain unanswered than many suspect. The question of ‘witch lynchings’ in particular was raised, in which local communities acted outside of the law to impose punishments on those suspected of witchcraft but who had escaped the legal noose.

Thank you everyone who came along and to those who engaged on Social Media and, in particular, shared your notes!

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