John Stearne’s Confirmation and discovery of witchcraft

New Book Interview: Scott Eaton, John Stearne’s Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft: Text, Context and Afterlife (Routledge, 2020).

History: How did this project develop? Where did your interest in the subject originate?

Scott: My interest in the history of witchcraft started during my BA at Ulster University when I took a module on European witchcraft and completed a dissertation on witchcraft and magic in nineteenth-century Ireland. I then went to Queen’s University Belfast where I researched early modern English witchcraft pamphlets for my MA dissertation. At this point I think I became hooked on investigating witchcraft beliefs – it’s a bizarre and intriguing world to step into! I encountered the witchcraft pamphlets of the 1640s and found the East Anglian witch-hunt strange yet fascinating. Gradually, I came to focus on John Stearne’s A confirmation and discovery of witchcraft (1648) because of its detail and inclusion of witches’ confessions. My supervisors Crawford Gribben and Stephen Kelly encouraged me to do my doctoral thesis on Stearne and his work since it was a unique text that had not yet received sustained study. Stearne was an important but relatively unknown witch-finder who had been greatly overshadowed by his colleague Matthew Hopkins – my research sought to try and redress this imbalance. Post-PhD, I continued the project, made some revisions and turned the thesis into a monograph. 

Figure 1. Woodcut from A History of Witches (c.1739), The Wellcome Collection

History: What are the major themes covered by your book, and what intervention does it make? How could these interventions be used in teaching?

Scott: Because the book focuses on Stearne and the history of his text, it is quite broad thematically and chronologically: it attempts to situate A confirmation within wider seventeenth-century cultures and traces its ‘afterlife’ in the succeeding centuries.

Figure 2. John Stearne,
A Confirmation and
Discovery of Witchcraft (1648)

The book begins with an overview of the East Anglian witch-hunt and provides a brief introduction into relevant historiography for students or non-specialists. It explores the topics of witchcraft, puritanism, print cultures, gender, human-animal relations, science, antiquarianism, book history, and the transmission of texts. As for its intervention, the book provides a new angle on Stearne and the East Anglian witch-hunt, stressing his crucial role. Its key findings highlight Stearne’s ideas on salvation and eschatology, the link between witch-finding and early modern science, the complicated history of A confirmation as a piece of material history and its place in witchcraft historiography. By highlighting that Stearne was supported by local communities and was acting out of a sense of religious duty – rather than for more personal reasons – the monograph sheds a new light on his motives for witch-finding, and indeed why the witch-hunt spread so rapidly in the eastern counties. In this regard, the mechanics of the witch-hunt in East Anglia could be relevant to understanding, and perhaps preventing, modern witch-hunts that occur in the likes of Sub-Saharan Africa, India and Papua New Guinea. 

I think the book could be used in a variety of modules centring around early modern print cultures, puritanism, gender, science or book history as it has chapters that function as case-studies of each topic. Most obviously, it would benefit modules that directly deal with the history of witchcraft or witch-hunting in Europe and America, or, more narrowly, the East Anglian witch-hunt. For the former the book could be recommended reading, offering contextual information, while for the latter it could operate as key reading on undergraduate or postgraduate courses. 

Could you explain why you decided to approach the project with the text itself as a focal point?

Scott: There are few extant documents on Stearne but we can piece together a rough biography of his life. While archival materials are useful, they provide only very basic information on Stearne or his actions as a witch-finder in the 1640s. Critically analysing his only publication, A confirmation, and contextualising his work, offered a means to examine Stearne’s various beliefs and motives in-depth. After Stearne published his work in 1648, both he and A confirmation seemed to fade into historical obscurity. Focusing on the text and tracing the history of A confirmation to modern day also presented a way to explain why the witch-hunter was (and still is) unknown to most people. 

Figure 3. Matthew Hopkins, The Discovery of Witches (1647)

Was there anything particularly surprising that you learnt, in the course of researching and writing?

Scott: Yes, definitely. Initially I was surprised that there was a paucity of primary and secondary source material on Stearne. Aside from that, A confirmation was full of surprises, offering detailed confessions or, rather frustratingly, only hinting at important elements of Stearne’s religious beliefs. His discussions on how to discern witch-marks were comprehensive and were quite innovative, availing of seventeenth-century empiricism and legal practices. I didn’t anticipate that Stearne’s witch-finding utilised up-to-date science and Law to search men for witch-marks, so this probably goes against commonly held views of an atavistic witch-finder. 

Did the course of researching and writing the book take you in any unexpected directions?

Scott: When tracing the ‘afterlife’ of Stearne’s Confirmation I didn’t foresee that some of the few remaining copies would be in American repositories. I really enjoyed researching the libraries’ curators and founders, and then consulting each version of Stearne’s work and tracing its provenance. It was unexpected but welcome. 

Has writing this monograph suggested any new directions for your research? Are there any questions left over, or fresh questions presented by your findings?

Figure 4. Scott Eaton, John Stearne’s Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft (1648)

Scott: There are a few left over questions about early modern science and book history. I think we need more work on the relationship between English witchcraft beliefs/theories and early modern science. While Stearne’s witch-hunting did use seventeenth-century science, the latter helped undermine witchcraft beliefs and expunge these ideas from elite culture. It would be interesting to examine these changes in more detail. Additionally, tracing the history of popular demonological and witchcraft publications in a wider context would be revealing; showing how these publications were being read, circulated, and transmitted – and by whom. 

Generally, research for my book has made me want to explore the different strands of early modern British witchcraft belief. I’m interested in witchcraft and its depiction, and the history of demonological texts, but I have no plans to research these themes at the moment. Gender and religious studies formed a large part of my monograph, so I have started to deviate from witchcraft studies slightly to research seventeenth-century women writers and their responses to affliction, and early modern beliefs of salvation and damnation.  

Scott Eaton teaches history at Queen’s University Belfast. He is a religious and cultural historian with interest in early modern witchcraft, art, puritanism and print cultures.

Banner image. Woodcut detail from A History of Witches (1739). The Wellcome Collection. Public Domain. This image can be found online here.

Figure 1. Woodcut detail from A History of Witches (1739). The Wellcome Collection. Public Domain. This image was suggested by the author and can be found online here.

Figure 2. Frontispiece. John Stearne, A Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft (1648). This image is believed to be in the public domain and was provided by the author.

Figure 3. Frontispiece detail. Matthew Hopkins, The Discovery of Witches (1647). Public Domain. This image was suggested by the author and can be found online here.

Figure 4. Front cover to Scott Eaton, John Stearne’s Confirmation and Discovery of Witchcraft: Text, Context, and Afterlife (London: Routledge, 2020).

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