Bookcover for The Bewitching of Anne Gunter

A horrible and true tale of football, witchcraft, murder and the King of England

In recounting the events surrounding the alleged bewitchment of a young girl, living in a quiet, rural village in Berkshire in 1604, Sharpe provides a fascinating depiction of medieval life from an unusual perspective. The Bewitching of Anne Gunter is, in some ways, a very personal account of a small incident in the vastness of history. Sharpe however succeeds in demonstrating its connections with contemporary life and its consequences in the spheres of high politics, theology and cultural development that an incident which many have glossed over as an aside becomes a pivotal in both typifying and determining the early years of the 17th century.

Sharpe has a great story to tell as well. A young, seemingly attractive, girl, who suffers at the hands of her murderous and oppressive father, eventually finds release and, it is suggested love. Along the way, the reader finds football and murder, malefic witchcraft, satanic connections and an audience with the King at his glamorous Court in London. So far, it sounds a little bit like popular fiction. But this is, in fact, just what a history book should be: well-researched, well-written, enlightening and material.

Sharpe touches on so many aspects of medieval culture and society that it is difficult to encompass them all briefly. Those which stood out for me were his treatment of the distinctiveness of the phenomena of widespread belief English witchcraft in contrast to contemporary experiences in Europe and North America. He discusses in some details the psyche of medieval society, placing witchcraft firmly in a cultural context which, for the uneducated and half-educated at least include a belief in fairies and phantoms, demons and devils, and sympathetic and image magic sitting quite comfortably alongside a devote if irrational adherence to Christianity. The discussion of the emergence of printed material as an influence upon popular culture dates the phenomena to an earlier period than many histories, but Sharpe provides good evidence to support his case and convincing evidence of the impact of printed material in the case at hand. His treatment of the widespread perception that accusation of witchcraft was predominantly a manifestation of misogyny amounts to a debunking of conventional interpretations, making the book all the more refreshing and challenging. Perhaps of most interest to me however is the argument running through the books that the witchcraft phenomena of the middle ages was as much a response to religion as it was step away from it. Sharpe links closely the rise in belief in witches in England, and especially the emergence of a seeming connection between bewitchment and satanic possession, to the Reformation and its impact on the contemporary psyche.

So much was knowledge of witchcraft and possession inculcated in the folklore of the times, Sharpe argue, that those moved to feign bewitchment knew how they were expected to act and those that witnessed such bewitchment knew how to respond. Sharpe, of course, rejects outright any suggestion that witches actually existed. Yet Anne’s particular case provokes a reassessment of that conviction. There can be little doubt that she was a victim and suffered horribly. Her violent and painful fits, the swelling in her stomach which drove her to suicidal thoughts, her passing and vomiting of pins and other objects, amounts to an horrific account of cruelty and abuse. Her sufferings were not brought about by the three women she accuses of bewitching her but, according to Sharpe, by her father who was seeking to further a bitter village feud by having his enemies convicted of witchcraft. If a parent were guilty of inflicting such pain and suffering on their offspring they would be guilty of child abuse of the most horrific and unforgivable kind: is there a case for arguing that Anne father, Brian Gunter, was, after all, the ‘witch’ who plagued her?

Read and reviewed in 2006
© Jessica Mulley 2006