- Welsh Witches: Narratives of Witchcraft and Magic from 16th and 17th Century Wales by Richard Suggett
Wales, Welsh witchcraft, witchcraft, witchcraft prosecutions, witchcraft trials, primary source, witchcraft accusations, soothsaying, charms, 1500-1700
Welsh witchcraft might seem a bit of a paradox to some. Wales's experience of witchcraft, in terms of trials at least, was negligible. The so-called "witch craze"—not necessarily a useful term in any context—was non-existent in Wales, it simply did not happen. And yet, witchcraft was intrinsic to Welsh life in the early modern period, raising the ultimate question so perceptively posed by Geraint H. Jenkins back in 1977: why was the "belief in witchcraft woven into the normal fabric of life whereas witchcraft trials and accusations were not"?1 There's possibly no fuller answer than Richard Suggett's most recent publication on the topic: Welsh Witches: Narratives of Witchcraft and Magic from 16th and 17th Century Wales, published by Atramentous Press.
Suggett has already done much to highlight the dynamics of witchcraft and the history of magic in Wales, a neglected region in witchcraft historiography, and it is to the author's credit that he has again produced a highly readable and comprehensive study of Wales's unique witchcraft prosecutions. These were unique in the sense that, as in other non-English speaking parts of Britain, there were so few in comparison with England or lowland Scotland; these trials were "exceptional events" (14) both in the history of the courts and in the history of Welsh witchcraft generally.
For the first time, the pre-trial documents relating to formal accusations of witchcraft in Wales between 1570–1699 are published in full, making this a crucial sourcebook for any scholar, or anyone interested in the history of witchcraft trials. For someone who is a little woolly on the intricacies of the early modern legal system, Suggett does an excellent job of contextualizing these trials and their significance to witchcraft studies in his introduction, paving the way for a smooth engagement with these depositions. And engaging they certainly are!
The book is organised into four parts, each dealing with a key feature of the narratives included. The first provides a thorough account of "Witchcraft in Wales" throughout the period in question. The accusations at the Court of Great Sessions are set in their legal context with a table clearly highlighting the number of persons indicted for witchcraft in the four circuits—
Chester, Carmarthen, North Wales, and Brecknock. The figures are visibly low, and the Welsh trials are compared in the wider context of prosecutions in [End Page 301] England, where similarities such as the prominence of women as witnesses are also revealed. One of the interesting things our attention is drawn to is how accusations of witchcraft also shed light on other aspects of Welsh social life at this time, namely the spread of news and information, or "gossip," and the giving and lending culture that was central to women's economy at this time. Witchcraft cases are a window onto much more than just witchcraft.
Slander cases are also utilized in a shrewd move to bolster the small number of indictments in order to gain a fuller profile of accused witches. As Suggett demonstrates, actions for slander between the 1550s and 1730s rely upon some of the attributes of the witch-figure, highlighting the historiographic potential of these sources (which are fully documented in Chapter 6) especially in areas where prosecutions were low. This section also considers the relationship between witches and their accusers, the significance of "words and deeds" or ritualized cursing and blessing, which has been shown to be a fundamental characteristic of witchcraft in Wales. We also encounter other key figures in the diverse expanse of Welsh witchcraft—charmers, soothsayers, and the fairies, or "y Tylwyth Teg" (the Fair Family) as they were commonly termed. Such figures were integral to witchcraft and magical beliefs, and their significance to our understanding of such beliefs is aptly demonstrated.
Part II concentrates on the case of...