Toads, dogs, cats, ferrets, rats, and occasionally even butterflies were depicted in the 16th and 17th centuries as “witch’s familiars” throughout Europe. A servant of the witches, whose purpose was to help them stir up trouble and cause harm in their enemies, familiars were particularly important in English witch lore. Some were conjured by witches, some sent by the Devil to tempt a woman into maleficence, some were supposed to be the Devil himself in the form of a common black dog. Whatever their origin and intent, familiars were not just background characters in English witch trials. They were presented as evidence and used to sentence hundreds, probably thousands, of people to death for witchcraft – in England. Not so in France or Denmark or Italy. It was only in England that the familiar’s significance was codified in law. Why, you ask? Great question. Let’s find out.

Transcript for: Remember Rutterkin? Witch’s Familiars, Religious Reformation, and Sexy Beasts in Early Modern Europe

Written by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded by Averill Earls and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Averill: In what was likely the last moments of his warty little life, Paddock the Toad went bravely into the Weird Sister’s cauldron. Said the First Witch, “Thrice the brinded cat hath mew’d.” Said the Second Witch, “Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.” Said the Third Witch, “Harpier cries “‘Tis time, ’tis time.”” Heeding her sister’s call, the First Witch chanted as she stirred their pot and added ingredients to its bubbling contents.

“Round about the cauldron go;

In the poison’d entrails throw.

Toad, that under cold stone

Days and nights has thirty-one

Swelter’d venom sleeping got,

Boil thou first i’ the charmed pot.”

Together they sang: “Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.” So opens Shakepeare’s Macbeth, believed to have been penned in 1606, amidst the witch panics that seized England and sent thousands of women and men to their deaths. Lots of gnarly ingredients were thrown into the witch’s brew, but it is poor Paddock we care about today. Toads, like dogs and cats, were depicted in the 16th and 17th centuries as the most common companions for witches. Paddock apparently was made to sit under a cold stone for 31 days, so that he would produce enough poison in his skin to make the Weird Sister’s potion uber potent. A servant of the witches, whose purpose was to help them stir up trouble and cause harm in their enemies, Paddock is representative of the many “familiars” of English witch lore. Some were conjured by witches, some sent by the Devil to tempt a woman into maleficence, some were supposed to be the Devil himself in the form of a common black dog. Whatever their origin and intent, familiars were not just background characters in English witch trials. They were presented as evidence and used to sentence hundreds, probably thousands, of people to death for witchcraft – in England. Not so in France or Denmark or Italy. It was only in England that the familiar’s significance was codified in law. Why, you ask? Great question. Let’s find out.

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig

Sarah: Welcome back, listeners! We want to thank you all for subscribing and supporting us over the last 5 years. Our Patreon supporters keep this history excavation team digging, and we owe the most to our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Lauren, Edward, Iris, Denise, Susan, Agnes, Peggy, Colin, Maddie, Maria, Jessy and Hannah! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more

Averill: Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that each of our episodes relies on the research and writing of historians and other scholars. You can find a full bibliography, plus footnotes and links, for every episode in our show notes on our website, digpodcast.org.  And don’t forget, if you’re interested in something you heard today, please check out these excellent books and articles!

Averill: Remember Rutterkin? A couple years ago I wrote an episode on the Beresford witch trials, in which three women – Joan Flowers and her daughters – were charged with witchcraft. Joan died on her way to the prison to await trial, and her daughters Margaret and Phillipa were subjected to the usual torture until they confessed to all kinds of misdeeds, including feeding their pet cat Rutterkin. At the time, Sarah and I joked about how just being a normal person, having a pet or going for walks in the woods or owning a cooking pot, could be used as evidence of witchcraft. We had a lot to cover at the time, so we didn’t spend much time on Rutterkin (other than what a great cat name that is) or the concept of animal familiars, their role in witch trials, and their origins in the cosmology of the early modern world. So when someone requested a series on animals, I knew it was finally time.

The Love Potion by Evelyn De Morgan, 1903

Sarah: Admittedly, familiars were not always described as taking the form of ordinary animals. Sometimes they were weird mythical beasts, like dogs with the faces of men and cloven hooves; sometimes they were straight up people, men or cute boys or little women. But ordinary animals – dogs, cats, various rodents and weasels, toads, and occasionally larger animals – were the most common creatures identified as “familiars.” And that’s most likely because when a witch was on trial, a witness was more likely to see a woman with her goats or pet cat than a winged beast with baby hands and a ruffled shirt that screamed obscenities and suckled from her neck. So in that way this episode is and isn’t strictly about animals, but it’s good enough for government work.

Averill: To those of us who grew up on Harry Potter, witches’ familiars are loyal, brave, perhaps magical creatures that throw themselves in front of Voldemort’s curses or chase evil rat-shaped minions. In His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman, the witches’s familiars are their daemons–basically their souls that take animal form, which is true of all humans in that world–but are special because unlike most daemons, they can fly long distances from their humans without pain. These creatures both are and are not like the familiars of early modern England. Their companionship signals belonging to the magical world. In JK Rowling’s Wizarding World, the animals have some preternatural abilities – like owls that magically deliver letters without homing pigeon training – but are also built into the Hogwarts boarding school culture, as students are encouraged to bring a pet. Cruickshanks the cat, Hedwig the owl, and Neville’s toad Trevor are all the kinds of animals that would have appeared in 17th century English witch trials. In Lyra’s Oxford, where daemons grow and change with their human counterparts, the witches’ daemons’ abilities set them apart from most people – which makes sense, because the witches themselves live apart from most humans, flying on cloud-pine brooms and only consort with other people on occasion. That apartness would undoubtedly have been familiar in the European witch trials as well.[1]

Sarah: But witches familiars, and particularly English witches’ familiars from the 14th through the 18th century, were not extensions of witches or loyal companions meant to ease one into life at boarding school. In early modern England, a witch’s familiar was an intermediary with Satan. It was usually a shape-shifting creature that might present as the cat Rutterkin in the morning, but walk into the woods at night a handsome strapping man dressed in black.

Averill: According to Helen Parish, the phenomenon of the “familiar” being deployed as evidence of maleficarum is one unique to English witch trials in the early modern world.[2] (Though certainly animal companions themselves are not unique to the English witches; indeed as Isak Neuhaus demonstrates, the witches of Transvaal Lowveld in 1930s South Africa were associated with a number of animal familiars, ranging from polecats and skunks to owls and elephants.)[3] Though occasionally animal companions and familiars popped up on the continent at the same time, it was only in England that cavorting with familiars was a consistent element in witch trials. So there are a few things we want to explore today: first, why just England?; second, how England developed this system for identifying witches by their familiars; and finally, how familiars functioned in English witch trials.

Sarah: So why England? As noted by historian Helen Parish, our understanding of witchcraft in early modern Europe comes from several sources: court records (though these are often sparse), laws, and pamphlets. The pamphlets in particular, written and distributed during and after witch trials, are our most robust and colorful sources for the period. Some even had wood-cut illustrations, which helped shape our modern view of the archetypal witch. While these publications were often embellished or exaggerated for effect, they remain useful for examining what commoners believed to be the character, practice, and ideas about witchcraft in this period.

Averill: According to the many historians of early modern European witchcraft, including Emma Wilby and Charlotte Rose Millar, the familiar was a particular feature of English witch trials, as described in pamphlets and later in English law.[4] Of course familiars were reported occasionally in early modern Germany, Iceland, France, Ireland, etcetera. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, familiars became more widespread as characters in tales of witches across Europe and North America. But during the first waves of witch panics, familiars were specific to English witch beliefs.

Sarah: Historian Charlotte Rose Millar notes that familiars were demonic spirits raised through circle magic to aid witches in their deeds on earth.[5] When the notion of a familiar came into the English public imagination is impossible to pinpoint, but one theory is that familiars are simply the recycling of fairy folk in a Christian world.[6] Emma Wilby suggests that the similarities between familiars and fairies is unmistakable. In both lines of folk lore, both fairies and familiars were shapeshifters, and could take the form of common animals, mythical beasts, or humans; could be bad, good, or ambivalent; and could work for a human, or seek to enslave a human. More obviously, Wilby notes, the naming conventions of fairies and familiars were just a little too on the nose: familiars with names like Tom Twit, Vinegar Tom, and Thomas a Fearie were just a little to close to fairies like Thom Reid, Tom Tumbler, Tomb Thombe, and Tom Tit Tot; same for familiars named Willet when there were Wil o the Wisp fairies, or familiars names Great or Little Browning, and fairies known as Browny.[7]

Averill: A second (and not necessarily mutually exclusive) theory that Millar points to is the broader tradition of demonic magic that was popular in the Middle Ages.[8] According to James Sharpe, the familiar might be “a folklorised version of the demons and other denizens of the spiritual world, which the learned magicians of the Middle Ages were meant to be able to raise.”[9] Of course, this explanation does little to explain the commonness of familiars in England and not elsewhere, but is useful for understanding what kinds of ideas were circulating about how such creatures could be summoned, used, and banished.

Sarah: In the English public discourse, familiars often served as a mediator between a witch and the Devil. Boria Sax suggests that this is because the continental witches alleged to entreat directly with Satan, at Sabbaths in the mountains or deep in the forests.[10] Already by the middle of the 16th century, England was running out of wood, with much of the island deforested to build towns, villages, and then cities, and to keep homes warm in the little ice age. There were no mountains to retreat to. By that logic English witches had no plausible mode of communicating discreetly with the Devil. (Nevermind that Carlo Ginzburg’s study of the benandanti of Italy suggests that witches did most of their fighting and flying/traveling via their dreams.) But with an animal that really wouldn’t seem too out of place in or around a regular person’s home, a witch could communicate directly or indirectly with Lucifer, make deals and procure services.

Averill: It’s hard to make generalizations about familiars in English witchcraft because of the ambiguousness and conflicting accounts of familiars. In 16th and 17th century England, people accused of witchcraft (and those cunning men and women who practiced the magical healing arts) used a range of words interchangeably to describe The Devil (ie Lucifer) and devils (his demons or representatives in hell and on earth), and the various spirits, sprites, imps, and the like that were then presumed to be devils. For example, Hellen Clark, tried in 1645, “confesseth that about six weeks since, the Devill appeared to her in her house in the likeness of a white dog, and that she calleth that familiar Elimanzer… Rebecca Weste told this informant that the Devill appeared to them in the shape of a dogge; afterward in the shape of two kitlyns; then in the shape of two dogges; and that the said familiars did doe homage in the first place to the said Elizabeth Clarke, and skipped up into her lap, and kissed her.”[11] In this case, Lucifer himself seems to have taken on the form of animals to appear before Hellen Clark; but it could just as well be that she is using “the Devill” generally, as in “that Devill that you refer to appeared before me,” rather than “Satan himself appeared before me.” But in either interpretation of the source, the deployment of animal form – discreet, or perhaps because to see a devil or Lucifer himself in their true form would damage the witch – reinforces the centrality of the familiar in English witch lore.

Sarah: Why? We don’t have a grimoire to point to the moment when familiars entered the lexicon of English witch practices. But historians offer several plausible and intersecting reasons for the English to assign familiars as go-betweens in the diabolical witch lore. One contributing factor that needs more academic investigation is the brewster story we discussed a million years ago. You may recall that many of the markers of the witches we know today – brooms, cauldrons, ugliness, cats, rats, and brews – were actually features of the brewster women who got pushed out of the industry when it became profitable enough for men to want to do that work. Those features of women’s work were lambasted in print culture in the 15th and 16th centuries to drive women out of brewing, and associating those necessary tools of brewing with witchcraft was an effective tool for keeping women out of that work. Have another listen to that episode, or better yet, pick up a copy of Judith Bennett’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England, and use that as a starting point to write your own thesis or dissertation about witches and beer in early modern England.

Averill: Boria Sax suggests that there is a religious element to the familiar’s place in English witchcraft. Animal companions were common features in both pagan and Christian mythology. As we already mentioned, the fair folk of Celtic mythology included a number of shape-shifting fae. Some were mischievous, some helpful, some sought to trick or trap humans. Leaving offerings or feeding a browny or other imp was common in Celtic lore. They might serve a greater master, like a Fairy King or Queen, and serve as intermediaries between the human world and the fairy world. In the ancient world, many gods had animal avatars and/or mascots. According to Sax, “Zeus…was accompanied by an eagle, Athena by an owl, Artemis by a deer or stag…Odin was accompanied by two wolves and two ravens, while Thor was accompanied by two goats.”[12] In Greek mythology, Zeus appeared as an animal frequently, usually for sexual congress with human women: a bull, satyr, swan, eagle. According to Sax, the French Jurist Jean Bodin “believed that pagan deities such as Jupiter, Bacchus, or Ceres had often been disguises for the Devil.”[13] These parallels and broader themes of European engagement with deities and devils, and the centrality of animals in those narratives, points to the deeper roots of familiars in English understandings of magic, but again does little to differentiate the English from the rest of the continent. If ancient Greek and Celtic traditions incorporated animal avatars and companions into their mythologies, why weren’t those ideas passed through the ages to Italian, German, or French witch beliefs?

Sarah: Sax offers one possible hypothesis that makes a lot of sense: anti-Catholic sentiment in England. Tensions between Catholics and Protestants were at an all-time high at the same time as the witch panic in England–and not coincidentally. Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church in 1534, and made the English monarch the spiritual and political head of state. When Queen Mary, a Catholic, took the throne in 1553, she reverted the state back to Roman Catholicism and burned Protestants at the stake for heresy, earning her the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Mary’s reign only lasted five years. When Elizabeth I took over, she created the Church of England, a moderate solution to her father’s original break with Rome, wresting control of English foreign relations from Rome. As a Protestant state, she ensured that England would not be obligated to ally with the other Catholic states under papal influence, and secured better trading partnerships with the Dutch, who were also Protestant. But the majority of the House of Lords were Catholic, so it was with great difficulty that she established this independent Church. But for some, abandoning Rome was not an option.

Averill: According to Alan Dures and Francis Young, the English monarchy’s rejection of Roman Catholicism largely drove English Catholics underground, lest they be punished with fines, or more severely, convicted of treason for training priests or practicing Catholicism.[14] The Penal Laws, passed throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, punished Catholics for practicing their religion, and denied Catholics certain political, social, and economic rights – voting, land inheritance or ownership, holding public office, teaching, and more. If you’re familiar with the Penal Laws, you’ve probably heard about them in the Irish context, since the majority of the Irish population remained Catholic after England’s reformation, and those laws disproportionately impacted the Irish. But obviously those laws also applied to the Catholics in England – those who dared to remain openly Catholic – and the crown fostered a good deal of state-sponsored antagonism of English Catholics. Under Elizabeth I, over 100 Catholic priests were executed for treason simply because they were Catholic priests administering Catholicism to the people.

Sarah: Protestants like the Lutherans promoted the idea that one’s relationship to God is direct, and not reliant on the intervention of an intermediary like a priest or pope. While Lutheranism wasn’t as influential in Britain as Calvinism, and neither were at the root of Henry’s reformation, the rejection of the papacy is essential in all three reformatory religions. With the persistent anti-Catholic sentiment permeating English society – from the top-down – the popularization and commonness of the familiar in English witch trials might be interpreted as a shot at the Catholics. Sax suggests that the familiar might’ve been more likely to show up in Protestant states more generally, but particularly in England, where the state-sponsored violence against Catholics cemented the anti-Catholic sentiments. So the witch-familiar-Satan model, in which a familiar was required for a witch to communicate with Lucifer, replicated the Catholic papacy, as god’s intermediary on earth. Other Protestant-dominated states like the German states or the Netherlands weren’t invested in anti-Catholic policies in the same way the English were, with the state being the generator of the reformatory church, as opposed to a more grass-roots movement. This condition would also explain why familiars weren’t even popularized in Scottish or Irish witch trials; in both states, Catholicism was still the religion of the majority.

Averill: This isn’t the most airtight of theories, but it’s interesting, and it’s the best one I’ve encountered in my research! And even if you buy into it, it’s not like this explains everything; England’s rejection of Catholicism and relationship to God would have been just one factor in what developed into a language and template for understanding and accusing witchcraft in England.

Sarah: While the “why England” question is hard to answer, the how familiars entered the English system of witch belief is more clear. As Helen Parish notes, “Witch belief in the English context is indicative of the existence of a syncretic relationship between oral tradition, judicial processes, pamphlet literature, and legislative process.”[15] This means that how witchcraft was understood in early modern England was an ever-evolving process, with ideas germinating in popular culture, the law, and academia simultaneously, converging and mixing and redefining magic and witchcraft throughout the period. Skeptics who didn’t believe in witches, religious authorities who rejected traditional beliefs and practices, the oral traditions of folklore and storytelling, judges who established practices for identifying witches, and all manner of other people contributed to the lexicon for understanding the supernatural. Together these forces shaped, challenged, and reshaped witch belief in England, including the centrality of familiars for identifying and prosecuting suspected witches.

Sarah: The first witch trial to mention a familiar was that of the Irish witch, Alice Kytler, in 1324. Kytler was somewhat anomalous. For one, she was Irish, and according to the records, the majority of Irish witches communed directly with Satan at a Sabbath, just like their continental sisters (and Kytler did too – though her trial records discuss a familiar, it also discusses her attendance of a Sabbath.)[16] For another, Kytler’s familiar was the first mentioned in a witch trial, and would remain the first until nearly 200 years later, as familiars weren’t really part of any European witch lore until the 16th century. But ultimately her case was among the first to try witchcraft as heresy, which, according to Maeve Brigid Callan, shifted the way that heresy was dealt with in early modern Britain and Ireland. From the 15th century on, the majority of people in England convicted of heresy were lay women – and they were specifically tried for the heresy of witchcraft.[17] That kind of legal precedent would be important as the English jurists, clergy, kings, and lay people developed a common blueprint for seeing and dealing with unruly women, heretics, and witches (and the people who were all three at once).

Averill: In English witch trials, prosecution presented an individual’s relationship with an animal as evidence of maleficence. An animal familiar could take all kinds of forms. The most popular were dogs, cats, rats, and toads. We’ll talk later about how interactions with familiars were discussed, but I’m sure you’re already thinking, duh, dogs and cats were pets, of course people would have seen the accused with those animals all the time. But the catch is that keeping pets wasn’t normalized yet among commoners.

Sarah: Medieval and early modern Europeans had very different relationships with animals than post-industrial peoples do today. Today people can spend most of their lives with little to no contact with animals, unless they choose to adopt a pet or visit someone who has pets. Maybe they’ll see a squirrel frolick across a park path, or encounter a rat sniffing around their garbage cans, but our interactions with animals are limited and curated today. In 16th century English villages, animals were part of everyday life. Horses, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, and all manner of livestock would be hanging out in towns and cities, on the streets, not relegated to farms in the countryside the way they are today. Industrialization shifted the visibility of those animals into the peripheries of society, from the raising of them through the slaughter of them. We are very removed from the animals that feed us, and few animals work for us the way they did in the past. In the 16th and 17th centuries, pre-industrialization, animals were part of everyday life – but not necessarily as companions.

Averill: According to Boria Sax, keeping animals as pets – as domesticated creatures fed and cared for purely for companionship, and not for work – was pretty limited to the nobility in the early modern era.[18] Of course people had dogs and cats who lived with or near them, but dogs were for hunting or ratting, cats were for mousing, pigs and chickens and cows were for eating (or producing consumables). This is not to say that some people didn’t develop deep and loving bonds with the animals in their lives. Historian Erica Fudge demonstrates that sometimes the utilitarian and ubiquitous animals of the early modern era were just as dear to their people as those animals might be to us today. It happened, but it was not common. (For example, Goldelocks the cow, named in the will of Robert Jacobb; for context, some men didn’t even have their wives’ names written down in their will – just called her “my wife” before not bequeathing her nothing of value – and here Robert Jacobb named his beloved companion Goldelocks for all the world to remember.)[19]

Sarah: So anthropomorphising animals would have seemed out of place for most Europeans in this period. But just as having a pet would not have been enough alone to call someone up on crimes of witchcraft, the conditions that made familiars an integral part of English witch belief were multifaceted. As Helen Parish argues, the familiar was adopted into the English witch belief system by virtue of their position “as a point of intersection between learned demonologies, popular belief, social need and religious context.”[20]

Averill: Academic and religious literature on witchcraft, demons and the way they behaved were constantly changing and reacting to the various cases of alleged witchcraft all over Europe. As Boria Sax notes, a number of continental and English experts in witchcraft and demonology waxed on about familiars in the 16th century. French jurist Jean Bodin remarked that “witches often have a mark of the devil on their bodies, rather like a paw print,” though he cautioned against using them to identify witches. By the 17th century, English witch-hunters like Matthew Hopkins and John Sterne did just that.[21]

Sarah: Charlotte Millar argues that in the 16th century, English courts made explicit links between familiars and the devil/demonic elements. This may have reflected the influence of continental writings like that of Jean Bodin. Bodin wrote that “Satan, in order to deceive men has always sought euphemisms such as familiar spirit and white demon and little master, because the words Satan and Devil are odious.”[22] Why a French jurists’ writings would have greater influence on the English courts than the French courts is anyone’s guess, but at any rate, that kind of language was reflected in the pamphlets that served as the most detailed accounts of the 16th and 17th century witch trials. According to those records, some witches invited the demons to serve them, as in the cases of John Walsh, Margaret Staunton, and Joan Cony. For others, the creatures appeared before them, and asked them to renounce God, and feed them of their own blood. As recorded in the 1579 pamphlet A rehearsall both straung and true, Elizabeth Stiles and three other women were accused of acts of witchcraft, including keeping “spirits or fiends” that acted like servants. The animals were said to feed on the witches’ blood. There are several illustrations in that pamphlet, including one depicting an old woman with a hooked nose feeding a menagerie of small creatures from a bowl and spoon. There appears to be a rat or cat, and two giant toads, which she keeps in a box. And while these accounts may be as true as possible to the testimonies delivered in a courtroom, they may also serve to reinforce the broader message of the 16th and 17th century witch pamphlets, which regularly warned readers of the ever-increasing presence of Satan on earth, and his intentions to tempt the weak.

woodcut of a witch feeding animals
A late-16th-century English illustration of a witch feeding her familiars

Averill: As we’ve already mentioned, there were longer traditions of fairies and gods that took animal form already in the public imagination, which put animal familiars into the public imagination. And England’s religion problem, which already invited heretical and treasonous scrutiny, made space for the familiar as a Catholic-like intermediary between a witch and Satan.

Sarah: All of these things amalgamated into a public discourse that cemented familiars into the witch lore of England. And as we know, the English (like most Europeans) found plenty of reasons to hit the witch panics hard. The 16th and 17th centuries were plagued by crop failures, famines, and weird weather caused by the Little Ice Age. In the strict religious context of this period, there were regular efforts by communities and authorities to punish women for existing outside the strict gender regime of the period. As Charlotte Millar notes, “Unmarried, widowed, or promiscuous women were viewed as objects of suspicion.”[23] And as Marissa discussed in her episode on floppy wieners, women who self-identified as wise or cunning women, or who were accused of being witches, were both consulted for and accused of causing sexual maladies, especially impotence. So by 1604, the demonization of the witch’s familiar was codified in English law.

Averill: The law against witchcraft issued in 1604 identified as felons “any person or persons [who] shall . . . use, practice, or exercise any invocation or conjuration of any evil or wicked spirit, or shall consult, covenant with, employ, feed, or reward any evil and wicked spirit to or for any intent or purpose.”[24] As both Charlotte Millar and Helen Parish note, the language of “spirit” here refers explicitly to familiars, which were believed to be conjured or encountered demonic entities. We can see in this law the 70+ years of witch trial & error in the English legal system. In addition to the invocation of a familiar – ie, invitation or conjuring of a familiar – if one was seen “consulting” with an animal familiar, feeding, or “rewarding” (with pets?!) an animal, that could be presented in a court of law as evidence of witchcraft. Punishable by death. Again, things that anyone with a pet today is definitely guilty of, and which would not have been a household occurrence in the 16th century, but certainly wasn’t unknown. (It’s actually most shocking to me that they’d codify this, when the nobility were more likely to keep pets as a norm, exclusively for companionship. But maybe this was also intentional – a measure of social control for those secret Catholics who might take it as an implied threat?)

Sarah: Of course, the so-called “confessions” tortured out of those accused of witchcraft weren’t about giving Rover a treat for bringing in the paper. It is clear from the records of witch trials that magistrates and other authorities expected the accused to have a familiar, and led questioning toward that end. One of the most common modes of extracting confession was sleep deprivation. After three days of no sleep, an individual like Margaret Flower could confess convincingly to having seen any manner of creatures in her cell, as when she claimed that “about the 30. of January, four Devils appeared to her in Lincolne Jail, at eleven or twelve a clocke at midnight: The one stood at her beds feete, with a blacke head like an Ape, and spoke to her; but what, shee cannot well remember, at which shee was very angry because hee would speake no plainer, or let her understand his meaning: the other three were Rutterkin, Little Robin, and Spirit; but shee never mistrusted them, nor suspected her selfe, till then.” Margaret Flower was on trial, and had undoubtedly been pushed to confess by her imprisoners.

Averill: If you already listened to our episode about cunning folk and the Flowers trial, you may recall that two other cunning women involved in the Flowers trial revealed their relationships with familiars readily, probably because they weren’t at risk of trial – it was just Joan and her daughters who were suspected of malfeasance. Joan Wilimot claimed that she had a familiar which she called Pretty, “which was given vnto her by William Berry of Lang∣holme in Rutlandshire, whom she served three yeares; and that her Master when hee gaue it vnto her, willed her to open her mouth, and hee would blow into her a Fairy which should doe her good; and that shee opened her mouth, and he did blow into her mouth; and that presently after his blowing, there came out of her mouth a Spirit, which stood vpon the ground in the the shape and forme of a Woman, which Spirit did aske of her her Soule, which shee then promised vnto it, being willed thereunto by her Master. Shee further confesseth, that shee never hurt any body, but did helpe divers that sent for her.”

Sarah: Many of the people who were made to confess to cavorting with “spirits” – or who believed that they did indeed cavort with creatures that represented fairies or devils or other entities – attempted to cast their relationships with familiars in a positive light. Joan Willimot was not on trial, she was a witness who was supposed to prove her knowledge of witchcraft to then provide evidence that Joan Flowers and her daughters were bad witches. Since she had no one accusing her of using her relationship with a familiar for evil, she did as she was bade while asserting that she only used her familiar for good works.

Averill: Cunning folk who commanded enough power in their communities were often not the ones put on trial; those on the periphery with little social capital bore the brunt of violent examination. In some ways Joan Willimot is particularly unique – because she confessed to consulting a familiar in a court of law, but faced no consequences herself. For those who confessed to such activities, the consequences were dire. And the narratives that the English courts constructed to convict women and men of witchcraft – and that the recording pamphlets elaborated on – told grotesque stories of evil intentions, sexually explicit bestial interactions, and willful interaction with the Devil.

Sarah: Much like the inversion of the Catholic papal intermediary, the descriptions of witch’s relationships with their familiars preyed on the sexual and gender anxieties of the early modern English world. The familiar-witch relationship was an inversion of motherhood. A familiar was said to need the blood of a witch to form the bond and seal the deal with the demon or Devil that it represented. Sometimes this required that a witch prick her finger and feed the creature a drop of blood whenever it demanded. Sometimes, as in Phillipa Flower’s descriptions of Rutterkin, there was a more erotic character of the familiar’s suckling. In the pamphlet that recorded the Flowers trial in Lincolnshire, England, Phillippa claimed that “shee often saw the cat Rutterkin leape on her [mother’s] shoulder, and sucke her necke.” Phillipa and Margaret testified that their mother would rub the items of their enemies on Rutterkin’s belly or back in order to curse the intended victim. The suckling familiar, which nourishes itself from the witch’s body, is clearly a gross version of the mother-child relationship.

Averill: The witch-familiar relationship was also highly eroticized. Charlotte Millar argues that the demonic familiar, “as a trickster, tempter, and betrayer, was … intimately involved in attempting to … reinvent [women] as lustful witches in league with the Devil.”[25] In a 16th century pamphlet chronicling the trial of Joan Prentice and her familiar, Bidd, there’s an illustration that shows Bidd sucking blood from Joan’s cheek while she cups her breast and reaches her hand toward her crotch. We don’t see any nudity in this woodcut, but Joan’s legs are bared, as her dress is hitched up. Millar also notes that in the 16th and 17th centuries, witches were also referred to as “lewde” women, “harlots,” “whores,” and “strumpets,” which suggests that the English saw these women – and their bestial relatiosnhips with familiars – in sexualized terms. In a period when animals were being moved out of dwellings shared with humans because of anxieties about bestiality, the witch’s characterization as having these sexual relationships with their familiars fit with a narrative of wrongness and problematicness.[26]

Sarah: So two years ago we made a joke about how we’d be brought up on witchcraft charges, because we have pots for cooking and talk to men we aren’t married to and consult with our pets regularly. And in some ways, it wasn’t really a joke. At least in England, consulting with a pet could be presented as evidence of witchcraft. But of course it’s much more complicated than that. Daily interactions with animals were different in the 16th and 17th centuries; belief in fairies and devils as entities and not figurative morality tales was more ubiquitous in the early modern period; and while women are still bearing the brunt of social and sexual anxieties (ie, incels, abortion, etc), it is much less likely you’ll be arrested just because you live alone, talk to your cat, and swear in public. And while the laws governing our nations are still shaped by the intersections of popular culture, judicial precedents, the media, and legislative process, at least in England they don’t have to worry about being arrested for consulting with and rewarding their pets…anymore.

The end.

Bibliography

Human Animals by Frank Hamel–A Project Gutenberg eBook.

Topsell’s History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents (1658) 

Witchcraft pamphlet: A Rehearsal both Strange and True, 1579 – The British Library

Woodcuts and Witches – The Public Domain Review

Title page of The Lancashire witches | This chapbook, divide… | Flickr

Maeve Brigid Callan, The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish (Cornell University Press, 2017)

Alan Dures and Francis Young, English Catholicism, 1558-1642 (Taylor and Francis, 2021)

Averill Earls, “Witches Brew: How the Patriarchy Ruins Everything for Women, Even Beer,” Dig: A History Podcast (October 21, 2018)

Averill Earls, ““Wicked Practises and Sorcerye”: Cunning Folk, Witch Trials, and the Tragedy of Joan Flower and Her Daughters,”   Dig: A History Podcast (September 20, 2020)

Elizabeth Ezra, “Becoming Familiar: Witches and Companion Animals in Harry Potter and His Dark Materials,” Children’s Literature, 47 (2019) 175-196

Erica Fudge, Quick Cattle and Dying Wishes: People and Their Animals in Early Modern England (Cornell University Press, 2018).

Charlotte Rose Millar, “The Witch’s Familiar in Sixteenth-Century England,” Melbourne Historical Journal 38 (2010) 113-130.

M.A. Murray, “Witches’ Familiars in England,” Man, 18 (Jul 1918) 101-104.

Isak Niehaus, “Witches of the Transvaal Lowvelds and their Familiars: Conceptions of Duality, Power and Desire,” Cahiers d’btudes africaines, 138-139, XXXV-2-3 (1995) 513-540.

Helen Parish, “‘Paltrie Vermin, Cats, Mise, Toads, and Weasils’: Witches, Familiars, and Human-Animal Interactions in the English Witch Trials,” Religions 10:134 (2019)

Marissa Rhodes, “Both Man and Witch: Uncovering the Invisible History of Male Witches,” Dig: A History Podcast (September 13, 2020)

Boria Sax, “The Magic of Animals: English Witch Trials in the Perspective of Folklore,” Anthrozoos, 22:4 (2009) 317-332

Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic (Sussex Academic Press, 2005)


[1] For more on these themes, see Elizabeth Ezra, “Becoming Familiar: Witches and Companion Animals in Harry Potter and His Dark Materials,” Children’s Literature, 47 (2019) 175-196.

[2] Helen Parish, “‘Paltrie Vermin, Cats, Mise, Toads, and Weasils’: Witches, Familiars, and Human-Animal Interactions in the English Witch Trials,” Religions 10:134 (2019) 1.

[3] Isak Niehaus, “Witches of the Transvaal Lowvelds and their Familiars: Conceptions of Duality, Power and Desire,” Cahiers d’btudes africaines, 138-139, XXXV-2-3 (1995) 513-540; 513.

[4] Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic (Sussex Academic Press, 2005), and Charlotte Rose Millar, “The Witch’s Familiar in Sixteenth-Century England,” Melbourne Historical Journal 38 (2010) 113-130.

[5] Millar, “The Witch’s Familiar in Sixteenth-Century England,” 117.

[6] Emma Wilby, “The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland,” Folklore, 111:2 (Oct 2000) 283-305.

[7] Wilby, “The Witch’s Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England and Scotland,” 288.

[8] Millar, “The Witch’s Familiar in Sixteenth-Century England,” 117.

[9] James Sharpe, “The Witch’s Familiar in Early Modern England,” 227, qtd. in Millar, 117.

[10] Boria Sax, “The Magic of Animals: English Witch Trials in the Perspective of Folklore,” Anthrozoos, 22:4 (2009) 317-332.

[11] Howell, State Trials, IV, 839-41, qtd. in M.A. Murray, “Witches’ Familiars in England,” Man, 18 (Jul 1918) 101-104.

[12] Sax, “The Magic of Animals,” 322.

[13] Sax, “The Magic of Animals,” 322.

[14] Alan Dures and Francis Young, English Catholicism, 1558-1642 (Taylor and Francis, 2021) 1.

[15] Parish, “‘Paltrie Vermin, Cats, Mise, Toads, and Weasils’,” 4.

[16] Maeve Brigid Callan, The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish, (Cornell University Press, 2017) 80.

[17] Callan, 83

[18] Sax, “The Magic of Animals,” 317-332.

[19] Erica Fudge, Quick Cattle and Dying Wishes: People and Their Animals in Early Modern England (Cornell University Press, 2018).

[20] Parish, “‘Paltrie Vermin, Cats, Mise, Toads, and Weasils’,” 6.

[21] Sax, “The Magic of Animals,” 319-20.

[22] Sax, “The Magic of Animals,” 319.

[23] Millar, “The Witch’s Familiar in Sixteenth-Century England,” 123.

[24] Qtd in Parish, “‘Paltrie Vermin, Cats, Mise, Toads, and Weasils’,” 2.

[25] Millar, “The Witch’s Familiar in Sixteenth-Century England,” 123.

[26] Sax, “The Magic of Animals,” 326.


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