Swimming a Witch

‘Swimming’ a suspected witch was a common practise throughout many European countries, and can be traced back to ancient Babylonia.  It was most popular and widespread in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Usually performed by a large crowd of zealous people, if could often turn violent and in some cases was nothing more than a common lynching.  A pamphlet published in 1613, entitled Witches Apprehended, Examined and Executed, for notable villainies by them committed both by land and water.  With a strange and most true triall how to know whether a woman be a witch or not, provides details of the swimming of Mary Sutton and her mother, who were accused by a Master Enger of causing deaths among his horses and pigs.

Master Enger was advised to take Mary and her mother ‘to his mill dam (having first shut up the mill gates that the water might be at highest), and then, binding their arms cross, stripping them into their smocks and leaving their legs at liberty, throw them into the water. Yet lest they not be witches, and that their lives might not be in danger of drowning, let there be a rope tied about their middles, so long that it may reach from one side of your dam to the other, where on each side let one of your men stand, that if she chance to sink they may draw her up and preserve her.  If she swim, take her up and cause some women to search her, upon which, if they find any extraordinary marks about her [witches were believed to have marks of the Devil and extra nipples on their bodies so they could suckle demons and animals], let her the second time be bound, and have her right thumb bound to her left toe and her left thumb bound to her right toe, and be thrown into the water when, if she swim, you may build upon it that she is a witch.’

Following this advice, Master Enger subsequently tied Mary to his horse and dragged her to his mill pond: ‘When being thrown in the first time, she sunk some two foot into the water with a fall, but rose again and floated upon the water like a plank.  Then he commanded her to be taken out, and had women ready that searched her and found under her left thigh a kind of teat which her spirits in several shapes – as cats, moles etc – used to suck her. Then she was the second time bound cross her thumbs and toes, and then she sunk not at all but sat upon the water, turned about like a wheel, notwithstanding Master Enger’s men standing on each side of the dam with a rope tossing her up and down to make her sink.’

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7 Comments

  • December 9, 2009 - 10:40 pm | Permalink

    Only the Mother Red Cap synchronised swimming gala – very few drownings, broomstick parking available.

  • December 9, 2009 - 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Northampton was clearly a hot bed of transgression and black magic. Are there many Swiming Witch events there these days?

  • December 9, 2009 - 10:04 pm | Permalink

    I can tell you they were indeed hanged if the were proved to be witches by surviving. Ordeal by water was only used when there was no direct proof… they were fair like that.

    I’ll also add the first ‘swimming’ of witches in England took place in Northampton. At least five were on trial, but only three (a man and his parents) had their toes tied to their thumbs and were thrown in a pond. All three floated and so were obviously guilty – the father had in fact drowned, the son was hanged, and the mother cut her own throat before she was strung up.

  • November 26, 2009 - 2:57 pm | Permalink

    The award for surviving was probably execution. So, as Sheila says, the accused woman was damned either way.

    As for the moles – there is no accounting for the devious nature of forms adopted by the devil…

  • November 26, 2009 - 11:10 am | Permalink

    moles? Why would her spirit manifest as a mole? Thats not very glamorous. I was convinced by his case until that point.

  • November 26, 2009 - 10:01 am | Permalink

    So, basically the ‘witch’ was damned if she sank and damned if she didn’t – a win/win, lose/lose situation depending on your standpoint

  • November 26, 2009 - 9:48 am | Permalink

    What was the award for passing part 2 of the swimming test?

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