‘A Pinching and Pricking at her Breast’: Bewitched Hearts in Early Modern England

Engraving of a heart from 1704. Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0).

When seventeenth-century people were bewitched they often took it to heart. In Jacobean Cornwall, after crossing Agnes Saunders, a Cornish gentleman is ‘extreemely distempered w[i]th so greate a heavines of his harte as he had not at any tyme in his life before that tyme felte the like’. In 1614 there appears on a Buckinghamshire man ‘a Circle pricked w[i]th great holes… right against his hart’, while in 1650 a girl in Bolling experiences ‘a Rising att her hart as if it wold have come out [of] her’. In 1651, just before she dies, a bewitched Yorkshire servant observes that ‘knives & daggers was never soe sharpe as they have [been] at my hart’. In 1653, a man from Gargrave falls ‘sicke att his heart & his left Side’; the same year, a Reedness man claims that Elizabeth Lambe ‘drew his hearts blood from him’ (his original formulation, that he was ‘cruelly handled at his heart’, is struck out). In 1654, a Beverley man reports that a witch ‘had gott his heart’, while in 1659 a soldier’s daughter from Northumberland complains that Elizabeth Simpson ‘did pinch her heart’. In early Restoration Newcastle an enchanted labourer is ‘sore pained at his Heart’, while in the same city in 1664 a yeoman’s daughter cries that Katherine Curry ‘pulls her heart she pricks her heart’. In 1673, a Morpeth woman sees Margaret Milbourne ‘standing on an Oate Scepp att her bed Feet… pulling her heart w[i]th some think like a threed’; two years later, the spellbound son of a Norfolk mariner is ‘tormented with a pricking of pyns… on his heart’. [1]

How might we account for this proliferation of hearts – heavy, leaping, sick, pricked, pinched, tethered, and hitherto largely overlooked – in these early modern narratives of bewitchment? In many respects it reflects the importance of the organ within medical and popular understandings of physiognomy. Whereas we now regard the heart primarily as a pump and see the brain as the locus of emotions, thought, and selfhood, early modern bodies were (in Fay Bound Alberti’s phrase) ‘cardio-centric’ ones in which the heart, not the brain, was the main driver of mind, body, and soul. [2] It was ‘the most noble member’ or ‘principal member in man’, responsible for originating the so-called ‘vital spirits’ and conveying them to the extremities, and – via its role in heating or cooling the blood in response to prevailing moods – the main instrument of emotional and humoral regulation. [3] It therefore seems (un)natural that witches would aim their malice, quite literally, at the hearts of their victims, and that it is in this cherished organ that their designs should be most acutely felt. Indeed, a common trope of witchcraft described its perpetrators fashioning effigies or ‘images’ of their victims from wax or parchment and inserting pins or thorns ‘against the left side of the breast of the images, directly where they thought the hartes of the persones to bee sette’ (it is probably with reference to this practice that some sufferers specifically characterised their symptoms as ‘pricking’). [4]

A woman holds a red wax effigy in this eighteenth-century etching. Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0).

The prevalence of hearts in witness testimonies also suggests the embodied and intensely physical character of early modern emotional experience, especially in response to supernatural phenomena. The leaping hearts and racing pulses described by casualties of witchcraft were surely not just rhetorical devices but physical manifestations of anxiety, fear, even terror, and of a piece with more graphic bodily symptoms. A veritable gamut of these was run by Robin the Cobbler, whose forest ordeal at the hands of witches was described in a 1655 pamphlet. Seeing a she-devil, he fell into such a ‘trembling condition’ that ‘his hands shooke, his pulses beat, his heart panted, his head aked, his nose dropt, his belly rumbled, and a certain parcell of melting teares dropt out of the lower ends of his breeches’ (i.e. he wet himself). [5]

‘[K]nives & daggers was never soe sharpe as they have [been] at my hart’: Dorothy Taylor reports the dying words of bewitched servant Isabel Anderson before the Northern Circuit assizes on 25 October 1651. TNA, ASSI 45/4/1/111.

The negative emotions wrought by witchcraft could also work upon the body in general and the heart especially in more subtle and insidious ways. Early modern medical commentators were acutely aware of the ways in which ‘perturbations of mynde’ could make ‘great alteratio[n] in the body’, and sadness and fear in particular were seen as particularly injurious to the heart; these feelings (or, in early modern parlance, ‘passions’) ‘constraineth and closeth the heart’, ‘straitens the heart, and hinders the Dilation thereof’, and rendered it heavy. In a kind of gloomy feedback loop, these closed, straitened, heavy hearts were less capable of heating the blood and more likely in turn to induce melancholy humoral and emotional states in their owners (‘[j]oye or gladness of the harte’, by contrast, brought ‘the humours to an equall temperance’). [6] As if to bear this out, Thomas French, the Cornish gentleman whose dolorous experience opens this post, experienced ‘a heaviness of his harte’ after his brush with erstwhile purveyor of love magic Agnes Saunders; conversely, patients afflicted by melancholy, like victims of witchcraft, sometimes described being ‘pricked’ at their hearts. [7]

Indeed, the heart of the witch him or herself had been irrevocably transformed by their cold, dry, melancholy, and vengeful dispositions; their abnormal hearts were ‘hardened’ and ‘malicious’, although were sometimes ‘swolne with rancour’ (the latter reflecting the medical view that, in the words of one treatise, ‘anger hurteth by the heate and inflamation of mans harte’). [8] In their confessions, most of which survive in printed pamphlets, some accused witches described being tormented in their own hearts by Satan himself. Wiltshire witch Anne Bodenham complained that the devil entered her and ‘lies swelling in my body, gnawing at my heart, tearing my bowels within me’; likewise, in her confession, Alice Huson of Burton Agnes in Yorkshire reportedly said that ‘[h]e twitches me at the Heart, as if it were drawn together with Pincers’. [9] Witch lore abounds with aberrant hearts. When she was burned for witchcraft in the market square at King’s Lynn in 1590, Margaret Read’s heart reportedly burst from her chest and hit a neighbouring building (leaving a diamond shape visible to this day) before, with spritely independence, making its way down to the River Ouse.

Three witches ride a pig on the frontispiece of the 1612 pamphlet The witches of Northampton-shire. According to the author, their hearts had been ‘hardened’.

Nor can we ignore the possibility that heart-struck individuals who believed themselves to have been cursed might have been experiencing genuine cardiac distress (from indigestion, heartburn, and arrhythmia to full-blown heart attacks). While retrospective diagnoses are notoriously problematic, it’s striking how many symptoms of enchantment accord with what we would now recognise as sudden onset diseases – see the fascinating interview with a stroke specialist in this documentary on the Pendle witches – and it’s probably not coincidental that many victims reported undertaking strenuous activity at the time when their hearts were impaired. In 1653, for example, Thomas Shutt of Gargrave in Yorkshire described how while ‘sandinge his strickle’ (hopefully not a euphemism) he was ‘strucke w[i]th a prickinge paine att his heart & soe continued worse & worse to this pr[e]sent’. [10] The ‘lingering’ or ‘languishing’ period between the initial affliction and ultimate death frequently reported by witnesses also suggests that genuine heart disorders might have been at issue.

A seventeenth-century apotropaic cloth heart, pierced with pins, found under the threshold of the Plough Inn in King’s Lynn. Norwich Castle Museum, NWHCM : 1932.19 : D. Photo: Author.

Whatever the cause, alongside the hearts found within Christian religious and iconographical discourses (sacred, immaculate, and within seventeenth-century Puritan devotion), I think the strongly cardiacal orientation of early modern witchcraft helps contextualise the central role of hearts – or, more often, heart symbols – within apotropaic or counter magic, a fascinating topic explored here by Ceri. In particular, it might explain the custom of manufacturing cloth hearts and piercing them with pins before placing them in protective ‘witch bottles’ (Bellarmine or Bartmann jugs that were filled with pins, nails, and urine before being buried, concealed, or boiled). Two such hearts from the seventeenth century survive among the holdings of Norwich Castle Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum. We’ve also found written descriptions of the practice; in 1670, for example, after being plagued by widow Margaret Ward, Margaret Kempe of Great Yarmouth described how she ‘was advised to make a hart with a peece of Redd cloath and to putt the same w[i]th old nayles pinns and Needles into a bottle and closs stopp up the same and to boyle it on the fyre for aboute twoe howers’. As well as being a pointed attack on the witch’s own black heart, these counter spells were surely also designed to pre-empt the witch’s inevitable assault on the hearts of their makers and thereby inoculate against it (tellingly, five years previously, a child of Kempe’s neighbour had been ‘tormented with a pricking of pyns on his shoulder and at last on his heart’). [11]


  1. Examples, all The National Archives (TNA), from STAC 8/144/16, m. 8r; STAC 8/270/1, m. 3r; ASSI 45/3/2/131; ASSI 45/4/1/111; ASSI 45/5/1/34; ASSI 45/16/3/54; ASSI 45/5/1/31; ASSI 45/5/7/95; ASSI 45/6/1/88; ASSI 45/7/1/59; ASSI 45/10/3/127; ASSI 16/21/3.
  2. F. B. Alberti, Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine, and Emotion (Oxford, 2010), p. 17; for a more literary and religious perspective, see W. Slights, The Heart in the Age of Shakespeare (Cambridge, 2008).
  3. Quotes from T. Elyot, The castel of helth gathered (London, 1539), sig. B4; and A. Boorde, The breuiarie of health (London, 1587), sig. E3.
  4. Quote from Anon., A rehearsall both straung and true, of hainous and horrible actes committed by Elizabeth Stile alias Rockingham, Mother Dutten, Mother Devell, Mother Margaret, fower notorious Witches (London, 1579), sig. A7v.; see also Anon., The examination of John Walsh before Maister Thomas Williams (London, 1566), sig. A7v.; Anon., The most cruell and bloody murther committed by an Inkeepers Wife (London, 1606), sig. C3; and J. Blagrave, Blagraves astrological practice of physick (London, 1671), p. 135.
  5. L. P., The witch of the wood-lands: or, The coblers new translation (London, 1655), p. 8.
  6. C. Langton, A very brefe treatise, ordrely declaring the pri[n]cipal partes of phisick (London, 1547), sig. J1.; S. Batman, Batman vppon Bartholome his booke De proprietatibus rerum, newly corrected, enlarged and amended (London, 1582), sig. G3; L. Lessius, The temperate man, or, The right way of preserving life and health (London, 1678), p. 100; Elyot, The castel of helth, sig. S2v.
  7. See, for example, J. Hall, Select observations on English bodies of eminent persons in desperate diseases (London, 1679), pp. 29, 147, 176.
  8. Anon., The witches of Northampton-shire: Agnes Browne: Joane Vaughan: Arthur Bill: Hellen Jenkenson: Mary Barber (London, 1612), sig. C2v; H. Goodcole, The wonderfull discoverie of Elizabeth Sawyer a Witch, late of Edmonton (London, 1621), sig. B1v; J. Stearne, A confirmation and discovery of witchcraft (London, 1648), sig. D1v; J. de Mediolano, Regimen sanitatis Salerni This boke techyng al people to gouerne them in helthe (London, 1528), sig. B1v.
  9. J. Bower, Doctor Lambs darling: Or, Strange and terrible News from Salisbury (London, 1653), sig. A3v; M. Hale, A Collection of Modern Relations of Matter of Fact, concerning Witches and Witchcraft Upon the Persons of People (London, 1693), p. 58.
  10. TNA, ASSI 45/5/1/31. A strickle was a straight piece of wood used to strike off surplus grain from the rim of a measure.
  11. TNA, ASSI 16/21/3.

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