These curious woodcuts derive from and expand on the familiar woodcut frontispiece to Matthew Hopkins’ The Discovery of Witches. I found them - among many others - in The informer’s doom, or, An unseasonable letter from Utopia directed to the man in the moon giving a full and pleasant account of the arraignment, tryal, and condemnation of all those grand and bitter enemies that disturb and molest all kingdoms and states throughout the Christian world (1683),which John Dunton probably both wrote and published, or maybe just put into print as bookseller (the former seems more likely). As publisher, Dunton is keen to let his potential purchasers know what a good deal they are getting: “I have comprized this Treatise in an Eighteen Penny Book, (though considering the Cuts, it cannot be well afforded so) that as it is of real use and publick concern, so it might be the better disperst throughout this English Nation.” The sixty plus woodcuts – as they are small, derivative, and crude - in a book priced at eighteen pence might not have been all that much of a bargain.
Whoever wrote The informer’s doom, he was a keen reader of John Bunyan, whose Pilgrim’s Progress had appeared five years before. The work closely copies Bunyan’s very direct allegory, even down to that reluctance some of Bunyan’s allegorical characters understandably show about disclosing their all too revelatory names. It is a fantasy of a Utopian England, where “all those grand and bitter Enemies, that disturb all Kingdoms and States, throughout the Christian World” (‘the Christian world’ actually means England) can be brought to trial, found guilty, and (surprise, surprise!) executed. Pope Innocent XI, supreme pontiff when Dunton was writing, is depicted being burned at the stake, Justice Implacable (part of Dunton’s long campaign against Judge Jeffreys) gets hanged himself, Mrs Bad Wife ends up “Carted to the Great Ducking-stool that is in this Town, and there shall you sit (in the presence of all the women in Utopia for a warning to them) till you expire out your poysonous and infectious breath.” A long denunciation of Sir John Fraud, as he appears in all professions, rounds out the work.
In each allegorical trial, suitable witnesses appear to testify to the guilt of the accused: “there came into the Court Mr. Witch-finder General, Mr. Hate-device, and Mr. Spy-Imp, and said, They could prove all the Prisoners at the Bar guilty of hainous Crimes and Offences, and that they were real Witches.”
This witchcraft material is part of the final resistance to the middle to late 17th century movement to deny the existence of witches and their pacts. I have already shown Dunton retailing a witch yarn in his most successful venture, The Athenian Mercury:
Dunton is lining up beside the recently dead Joseph Glanvill, whose Saducismus triumphatus had appeared in 1681, with a flurry of reprints. But to turn back to Matthew Hopkins as late as 1683 suggests that Dunton was either a witchcraft die-hard, shrilly insisting that it all had to be believed, at whatever cost in hangings, or (perhaps just as likely) that a page-covering motive impelled this part of the text. No specific witchcraft case is in view, witches in general are the subject. There are some signs of confusion between the demonic familiar and the witch. When, finally, a witch named ‘Holt’ is singled out, it seems confusingly derived from ‘Holt’, a familiar spirit in the form of a ‘white kitling’ in Hopkins’ Discovery of Witches. There’s a similar suggestion of confusion in this extract from the allegorical trial: “Mr. Witch-finder General, ‘My Lord, then first as to Vinegar-Tom, He is a Witch in grain …’
Dunton has his presiding man of law ask an intelligent question about why spirits should want to suck blood from a witch:
Mr. Attorney General,
Pray Mr Witch-finder, How comes it to pass, that the Devil being a Spirit (and so consequentially wanting no Nutriment or Sustentation, should desire to suck any blood; and indeed as he is a Spirit he cannot draw any excresences, having neither flesh nor bone, and cannot be felt.
He seeks not their blood, as if he could not subsist without that Nourishment, but he often repairs to them and gets it, the more to aggravate the Witches Damnation, and to put her in mind of her Covenant
As so often happened in the ruthless speed of a real 17th century court, a weak-minded accused person is harried into confession: “The old Hag stands up and answers for her self, confessing her Imps Names to the Judge, and the reason how she come to turn Witch.”
Hag. My Lord, I must confess I am a Witch, and have several Imps, whose Names are Illemauzer, Pye-wacket, Peck in the Crown, Griezel Greedigut; but I hope your Lordship will spare my life.
But Dunton goes on in a more considered fashion, with his ‘Hag’ explaining why she made her pact with the devil:The reason why some become Witches.
“Because I had never been a Witch had not Poverty come upon me like an armed man, and that continuing, filled my mind with discontent; and in that discontented humuor, the Devil striking in, told me, if I would give up my self to him, I should not want as long as I lived. Oh, pray my Lord, therefore spare me, spare me, for I had never been a Witch had it not been for Poverty! Poverty! Poverty! and a discontented mind.”
And likewise beg’d of the Judge that her Life might be spar’d, adding withal, that if the Judge would forgive her, she would confess to his Lordship, The Cheats and Delusions the Devil imposeth upon Witches, and many other remarkable things. When she had done speaking, the Judge told her, He could not save her life, but if she would make any Confession, he would not put her to so severe Death as she deserv’d both by the Law of God and Man.”
Using the invented ‘Holt’ as his mouthpiece, Dunton addresses the much-discussed issue of the limits of a devil’s power. His version isn’t unprecedented, but he does at least go into the detail of the devil’s deceptive pretence to power, he has thought through the whole process. The devil has no power to kill; rather, thousands of years of observation have made him an excellent physician. When he infers that a person is about to die, the devil actually promotes an enmity between the person who will soon die, and the witch he wishes to delude. Once a quarrel, or fear, has been provoked, the purely natural death of the newly created opponent is represented to the witch as the devil carrying out her malefice. By this means the devil simultaneously convinces the witch, and damns her through a metaphysical version of the legal mens rea.
Here is the whole bizarre edifice of argument, in Dunton’s own invented exchange:
Holt makes large Confessions of the Wiles of the Devil.
Holt, “My Lord, (to begin then) The Devil doth (as I now can tell by dreadful experience) often play the Deluder and Impostor with Witches, in perswading them that they are the cause of such and such a Murther, and that he hope them in the effecting of it, when indeed neither he nor they had any hand in it: And he being of long standing, above six thousand years, must needs be a great Scholar in all knowledges of Arts and Tongues, and so have the best skill in Physick, judgment in Physiognomy, and knowledge of what Disease is reigning or predominant in this or that mans body, (and so for Cattel too) by reason of his long experience. This subtile Tempter knowing such a man liable to some sudden disease, (as by experience I have found) As Plurisie, Imposthume, &c. he resorts to divers Witches; If they know the man, he seeks to make a difference between the Witches and the party, it may be by telling them he hath threatned to have them very shortly searched, and so hanged for Witches; then they all consult with Satan to save themselves, and Satan stands ready prepared.”
The Devil’s Speech to the Witches. “What will you have me to do for you, my dear and nearest children, covenanted and compacted with me in my hellish league, and sealed with your blood, my delicate firebrand-darlings.”“Oh thou (say they) that at the first didst promise to save us thy Servants from any of our deadly Enemies discovery, and didst promise to avenge and slay all those, we pleased, that did offend us; Murther that Wretch suddenly who threatens the downfall of your loyal Subjects. He then promiseth to effect it: Next news is heard, the party is dead; he comes to the Witch, and gets a world of reverence, credence, and respect for his power and activeness, when and indeed the Disease kills the party, not the Witch, nor the Devil, (only the Devil knew that such a Disease was predominant) and the Witch aggravates her damnation by her familiarity and consent to the Devil, and so comes likewise in compass of the Laws. This is Satans usual impostring and deluding, but not his constant course of proceeding, for He and the Witch do mischief too much.”
Dunton’s judge has no hesitation in passing sentence; and Dunton (who earlier in the same work denounced 'Judge Implacable' so resoundingly, seems to invent a new mode of appropriate execution for convicted witches
“The Judge passes Sentence upon the Witches.
And so the Judge past Sentence upon them all, which Sentence was this: Viz. You Vinegar-Tom, Holt, old Hag, with your four Imps, &c. shall return from the place whence you came, and from thence he dragged upon an Hurlde to the chiefest Street in Utopia, there to be buried alive in the mid-day, that all may see your sin and folly, and fly for ever, the first thought that ever shall dare to enter into their minds of making Contracts with a deceitful Devil.”